Let’s Talk About Ligatures: The Complete Guide

For such a simple piece of clarinet equipment, there certainly are quite a few options!

Let’s talk about ligatures for a bit. Sometimes, they’re overshadowed by the almighty mouthpiece (for good reason – we’ll discuss mouthpieces in another blog post). While the humble clarinet ligature may be tiny, it’s absolutely essential for clarinetists, even beyond its primary function of holding the reed on the mouthpiece.

Before we get into the specifics, it’s time to dispel a common myth – ligatures absolutely make a difference in your sound and response. Many clarinetists believe that ligatures won’t make a discernible difference in sound, but this isn’t the case. Although ligatures will not yield quite as obvious of a difference as mouthpieces or clarinets, they do offer subtle differences in sound and response. Even if there is only a subtle difference in sound, many clarinetists can agree that ligatures do wonders to help improve response and focus of sound.

Read on (or more aptly put, reed on) to find out more about the ligature.


Although ligatures have been around since the development of the clarinet at the end of the 17th century, it wasn’t until the 20th century that ligatures became manufactured on a large scale, thanks in part to the industrial revolution. Before this, clarinetists would use string, twine, or other materials to hold the reed in place on the mouthpiece. Now, ligatures are readily available and come in a variety of designs, materials, and specifications.

When comparing ligatures, there are two principal differences among brands, models, and designs:

  1. Point(s) of contact with the reed and mouthpiece. More simply put, how much of the ligature comes into contact with the reed and mouthpiece, and where these contact points occur. Some ligatures are shaped uniformly and come into equal contact around the entire mouthpiece/reed combo, while others have more material on the reed and are sparsely cut to limit contact with the mouthpiece. Different points of contact create different responses, and clarinetists can notice how these contact points result in different sounds and responses. Something that will affect the points of contact is how many screws a ligature has – ligatures can have 0-2 screws (and they can have even more, but this is usually counterproductive).
  2. Material. Typically, ligatures are made from metal, leather, plastic, string, and other materials. The material from which a ligature is made does make a difference in the ligature sound and response. For example, the various Vandoren M/O ligatures are the same design, but they come in a variety of different finishes, such as gold, pink gold, pewter, silver, and others, all of which have a different sound and feel. Think of it like this: if you were to drop a coin on different surfaces (linoleum, brick, carpet, etc), it would sound different due to the material it came into contact with. The material and finishing do make a difference in ligatures, so be sure to consider this when you are testing ligatures.

Once you’ve got the basics, there is another factor to consider – traditional or inverted models:

The basic rule for ligatures is that the screw(s) are always on your right. There are two main types of ligatures:

  • Traditional. Traditional ligatures are those whose screw(s) are on the reed (bottom) side of the mouthpiece, closer to your lower teeth and lip.
  • Inverted. Inverted ligatures are those whose screw(s) are on the mouthpiece emblem (upper) side of the mouthpiece, closer to your top teeth and lip.

How do you choose the best ligature? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure it stays in place. One of the most common ligature complaints I hear from clarinetists is that their ligature slides around, especially when they switch clarinets in orchestral settings. Besides potentially scratching the mouthpiece (depending on the material of the ligature), this also means that you would have to readjust your reed every time your ligature is out of place. When purchasing a new ligature, make sure it stays in place and does not scratch the mouthpiece. (You can test this by carefully removing the mouthpiece, reed, and ligature all at once to see if it moves.)
  • Consider versatile ligatures. Some ligatures, such as the Vandoren Optimum, come with removable plates so you can switch up your sound. Each plate has a different design and contact points (and other ligature models even have plates made from different materials), and using different plates will make a difference in sound and response. Using these can offer more customization and are like getting multiple ligatures in one.
  • Break in your new ligature. When purchasing a new ligature, make sure to follow any recommended break in processes. Some ligatures, such as those with more pliable material, might have break in processes which help the ligature form to your mouthpiece, allowing for a better sound and response over time. When purchasing a new ligature, be sure to ask the ligature’s manufacturer if they have any recommended break-in processes.
  • Don’t be afraid to switch things up. You might decide that one ligature works better in jazz settings, whereas you prefer another in chamber music. It’s always a good idea to have options so you can freely express yourself in a variety of musical styles.

Ligature tips

  • If you use a metal ligature, be extra cautious not to chip the reed or mouthpiece tip. (Spoiler alert: the ligature usually wins that battle). Always put the ligature on before the reed to avoid chipped reeds.
  • Never try to force a ligature to fit on a mouthpiece. Using excess pressure can scratch the mouthpiece, strip the ligature screws, and possibly bend or damage the ligature itself. Once the ligature is in place, make sure you tighten the screw(s) so the ligature stays in place but isn’t like a vice grip. (Keep in mind that different mouthpieces have different circumferences, so you might need to adjust the ligature if you are using it on a different mouthpiece.)
  • When loosening the screws, be sure not to remove them entirely, as many can be difficult to reinsert.
  • If you strip a screw, lose a plate, or have another faulty ligature component, many companies will allow you to order a replacement part.

I hope these ligature tips help you along your musical journey. As always, happy practicing!

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Ligatures: The Complete Guide

  1. Since I started using Legere European Cut reeds slipping has been a problem. The synthetic reeds themselves tend to slip and combined with the ligatures I had been using, the inexpensive plastic Luyben and the premium priced Silverstein, turned the simple task of securing the reed on the mouthpiece like chasing a greased pig in the rain. BG Duo has feet that stay put on the mouthpiece. A serrated plate locks on to the reed. Single screw adjustment. Also, the Legere European Cut reed needs to be tightly secured. Metal delivers more force than plastic, fabric, or leather. Gold finish gives the sound a nice ring. Delivers more value than the price.

    1. Thanks for your comment Tom! Isn’t it interesting how different reed and lig combos can act so differently? I’m glad to hear that you found a combo that keeps your reed in place!

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