All Things Saxophone

Equipment Fundamentals

Saxophone Reeds

Last modified 09/12/08


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Reeds!  Reeds!  Reeds!  There are so many makers of reeds (VanDoren, LaVoz, Rico, Zonda, Hemke, etc.) and they come in so many different strengths (2, 2 1/2, 3, 3 1/2, etc. and soft, medium, hard).  How does a saxophonist know how to select and work with reeds?  Well, that’s exactly what will be addressed in this article  :>

To be "in the know" in the reed department, the aspiring saxophonist should be aware of the basics of reed manufacture, understand what the strength markings mean, know how to spot good (and bad) reeds, and know how to care for reeds.

· Basics of reed manufacture

Reeds are made mostly from cane, the same stuff that's used to make wicker furniture. Historically they were cut by hand — often saxophonists would cut their own reeds.  Today a small amount of reeds are still cut by hand (even by players) but in this age of precision computer control most reeds are cut by machine, and then finished by hand (for the premium reeds).

· Synthetic reeds

In the early days of synthetic reeds manufacturers tried to make them from solid plastic.  These reeds ended up producing a brackish sound that was difficult to control.  In the '70s manufacturers like Fibercane and Bari began making reeds from plastic fibers or porous resin to simulate the moisture wicking properties of natural cane.  This is the kind of technology used to manufacture synthetic reeds on the market today.  A lot of saxophonists say that cane reeds "breathe" and synthetic reeds don't.  However, synthetic reeds last nearly forever and are more consistent from reed to reed.  I don't like them, but some players (including my good friend and mentor                      )  prefer synthetic reeds to cane reeds.

· Strength markings on reeds

OK, first I will mention that it's necessary to get a reed that is made for the saxophone in question (i.e. Alto reed for Alto sax, Tenor reed for Tenor sax, etc.).  This seems obvious, but you would be surprised what I have seen in 30 years on the bandstand, in the classroom, and in the studio.  Also, in rare cases reeds can be substituted between instruments.  For example, tenor sax reeds can be used on bass clarinet, but it's not a good idea to substitute the other way.  Also, clarinet reeds are used on sopranino saxophone (I have never even seen a sopranino sax reed).  In addition, I have experimented with E flat contrabass clarinet reeds on the bari sax and they work well, even arguably better than Bari reeds because they are a bit wider.

Now on to the strength markings.  The back side of the reed is marked with the manufacturer's name and the strength.  The numbers represent the stiffness of the reed, 1 being the softest and 5 being the hardest.  Some manufacturers use words like soft, medium-soft, medium, medium-hard, and hard.  There are also manufacturers that describe their reeds as #3 soft, #3 hard, etc.

In general, a inexperienced player will start on a softer reed and move to a harder reed as his/her playing matures.  This however does not necessarily mean that a pro always uses a very hard reed.  Reed strength is also dependent on the tip opening of the mouthpiece being used.  A softer reed is used for a wide mouthpiece and a harder reed is used for a narrow mouthpiece.

· Spotting a good (and bad) reed

One could argue that there's no need to know how to spot a good or bad reed because you can try playing it and know right away.  Yes, that's true.  However, if you're looking to save a little money (reeds are expensive) you can apply these techniques to a box of plain Ricos and pick out the ones that are as good as the premium reeds.  You see, premium reeds really aren't any better, they're just CONSISTENT.  When you buy the plain reeds you get the good with the bad, unless you pick through them first, which you can only do if you buy them from a trusted salesperson at the local music store.  Forget about online — you get what you get.  Even with the premium reeds you can still get a bad reed.  In my experience a good looking reed will likely play well but might be bad, and a bad looking reed almost NEVER plays well.

So, here's what you need to know about spotting a good reed -- cane, cut, and cracks/chips.  Sounds a bit like the points for picking out a good diamond, doesn't it?

· Cane

The reed's cane should be:

1. free of blemishes on the face (blemishes on the shaft are OK)

2. Well seasoned (no green color)

Some saxophonists will buy reeds and keep them for years to "age" the cane.  I have found that this improves the consistency of the reeds (the bad ones get better), but doesn't really make the good reeds in a box any better.

· Cut

The reed should have a uniform cut, with the arc of the face (the part roughly shaped like the letter "U") balanced on both sides.  The depth of the cut should also be balanced from side to side and top to bottom of the face of the reed, such that when you hold it to the light you see a gradual transition from darker to lighter on the face of the reed, with no irregular dark or light spots.

· cracks/chips

There should be NO cracks or chips in the reed.  A REED WITH ANY CRACK OR CHIP, NO MATTER HOW SMALL, IS GARBAGE.  I like to golf but I'm not a good golfer.  I have a friend that is an excellent golfer, and he told me once that the game of golf is hard enough as it is — you don't need to handicap yourself with broken or substandard equipment.  The same thing applies to playing saxophone.

Now you know how to spot a good reed.  This takes time, but in this life if you want to save money you usually sacrifice time to do it.  If you don't want to take the time to go through this process then just spend more money on the premium reeds or synthetic reeds.

· Caring for your reeds

All reeds need TLC (Tender Lovin' Care), even the synthetic ones, which take a licking better than cane reeds.  Here are some tips to care for your reeds.

Store your reeds in the case when not in use.  A cardboard case or plastic case is acceptable.  NEVER STORE THE REED ON THE MOUTHPIECE.  This will cause the reed to warp.  On the saxophone, a warped reed is a problem -- on the clarinet, it's a disaster.

Keep your reed moist while playing.  If it dries out it won't vibrate well and may warp when it makes contact with moisture again.  See above comment about warped reeds.  There is a standing argument amongst saxophonists about storing reeds in a container of water or salt solution so they never get dry -- I will address this controversy in a later article.  If your reed does warp, get it good and moist and it should straighten out.  If it doesn't, then throw it out.

Two rules about reeds:

1.           If your reed is chipped or cracked, THROW IT OUT.

2.           If you want to keep a chipped or cracked reed, see rule 1.

Some saxophonists will clip chipped/cracked reeds or otherwise "work on" or "refurbish" a used reed with sandpaper, clippers, etc.  This technique takes a lot of work to perfect and my experience is that it involves more time than it's worth.  However, if you're one of those folks that is passionate about this technique, all the power to you.  I will write a "how to" on the technique later.

Reeds are a big part of the saxophone experience.  Know your reed -- never pull a new reed out for a performance.  You should always have one or two handy that are already "broken in".  Keep a good supply of reeds in your case, and take one of the "broken in" ones with you to the bandstand.  You never know when a reed will go bad or get damaged, and you need to be ready.


Enjoy -- see you on the bandstand  :>

Typical strength markings on the back of a reed

A reed with good cane and a reed with bad cane

A reed with a good cut and a reed with a bad cut

A chipped reed and a cracked reed.  These are pieces of s__t!  THROW THEM OUT!

Ernie Watts