The production of sound on the saxophone starts with the reed, making it an integral part of a saxophone set up. There are many types and brands of reeds out there, and finding the best for you can be tricky. Reeds are an organic product and therefore are subject to wide variation and unpredictability.
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There are very many brands and types of reeds out there. Vandoren and Rico are among the most popular and most widely used amongst saxophonists. Popular reed brands inlcude:
Vandoren offers a comparison card you can purchase with 1 reed from all 4 different cuts they make to allow you to compare the different cuts of reed without having to buy a box of each. Check it out!
Vandoren intentionally staggers the strength of their reed cuts to allow for ‘in between’ sizes. For example a Red Java 3 is harder than a Green Java 3, but not as hard as a Green Java 3 1/2. So if you want something harder than a Green 3 but softer than a Green 3 1/2 the Red 3 might be perfect for you.
Strengths and Sizes.
It is important to note that reed strengths are NOT equal between brands. For example, a Rico strength 3 reed is not the same hardness as a Vandoren strength 3 reed. Vandorens generally run much harder and a Vandoren 3 is much closer to a Rico 4. The ideal method for trying a new brand of reeds is to try multiple reeds in several strengths to make sure an incorrect strength is not causing inexact assessment of the reed, or that a single bad reed in the box does not affect one’s judgement of the brand. Most people find that individual reed strengths are not exact within the same box. The way a reed plays may dramatically change after it is played a few times and “broken in”. Many players also find that not all of the reeds in a box will be playable, although the amount used and how long they last varies dramatically person to person.
Don’t get hung up on the number. Young students are often taught that stronger reeds/higher numbers are better. This may help to encourage students to develop strong embouchures, but it is not relevant after learning the basics. A reed must match your set-up and needs (embouchure, mouthpiece, style etc). Do not worry about the number, just find what fits you. Larger tip openings, or shorter facing lengths on a mouthpiece will require softer reeds. And vice-versa.
Don’t always blame the reed. Not all reed’s are perfect. No one will claim they are. It is an organic product and even though the reeds are machined to a precision of thousandths of a millimeter they are subject to natural variation. However if you notice a sudden change in ALL of your reeds, logic dictates it may not be the reed. Make sure your mouthpiece isn’t damaged or worn out, and that your saxophone is not leaking. Different sized rooms, weather or climate can drastically effect reeds as well.
Don’t be afraid to change – try harder and softer. You may use a certain brand of reeds for several years at the same strength. You may then notice that all of the reed’s suddenly don’t work. Consider that there are hundreds, if not thousands of constantly changing variables that affect your set up. If your selection of reed’s in a box is diminishing try a half strength softer or harder. Your strength preference may simply have changed! It happens more often than you would think.
Ligatures can affect resistance. Ligatures are the least important part of a saxophone setup, and the difference is almost impossible to hear from the listener’s perspective. But from a player’s view the ligature can make small differences in response and resistance. A ligature change can bump you right into the sweet spot of a box of reeds resistance wise.
Change with the weather. When you play the saxophone you are vibrating the air in the room. So when the air changes – humidity, pressure, temperature etc it will change how it feels to vibrate it. As such you may need to change something between seasons depending on where you live and play. For instance, in New York City the winters are very cold and dry, whereas the summers are very hot and humid. I tend to use lighter reeds in the summer when its humid and harder reeds in the winter. This could mean a half strength harder or switching to a different cut. Changing altitude while travelling can drastically effect how the reed feels too! Higher altitudes tend to add resistance. If possible bring softer reeds with you and don’t break them in or open until you arrive at the high altitude.
Rotate and break in your reeds. Playing the same reed every day will cause the reed to have fewer total playing hours than rotating between several or more reeds. Breaking in your reeds will also extend their life – see below for some break in advice. Don’t judge a reed right when you open it, let it acclimate for a few days first, chances are it will change.
If you only find 1-2 reed’s per box, you may be on the wrong strength. A box of reeds has a range of reed’s in it. If you are only finding one reed tat works for you in each box, then its not that the other reeds are all bad, but you happen to like the outlier. The one reed you like is probably the strongest or softest in that box, meaning that you should bump up or down a half strength. Its also possible that your set-up falls right between sizes. If this is the case you can try softer reeds and clipping them, or harder reeds and shaving them.
Vintage mouthpieces can be much less reed-friendly. Sound and feel aside, a brand new mouthpiece is going to be physically much more even, symmetrical and consistent throughout. Older mouthpieces can have worn and un-even rails that will make it very hard to find a working reed.
When dealing with reeds it is important to know a bit about what exactly they are and where they come from. Reeds are made from a very specific plant (cane) that grows very tall. They are generally cut and dried for long periods (usually at least 2 years) before they are crafted and machined into the proper shape and cut necessary for playing. Most reed cane is grown in a particular area of France, although there are brands using cane from South America and other locations as well. Each reed brand and variety has its own particular “cut”. Variations in cut can mean different thicknesses at different parts of the reed, a different curve at the tip of the reed, different lengths of the filing on the reed, and other variations that all effect the way a reed vibrates and sounds. Each reed has different anatomical parts and make up, each can be designed and altered to modify the sound and vibration of a reed.
Storage and cases
How reeds are stored and dried after use greatly affects their performance. Reeds are made from plants that have water and other nutrients traveling through them organically. When reeds are moistened the saliva travels through the grain in a similar fashion as when the reed is living cane. After the reeds are played and allowed to dry, the uneven removal of moisture can cause the wood in the cane to warp. Changes in weather and humidity can also wreak havoc and cause warpage as well. Once a reed warps it can greatly reduce the playing quality and richness of the reed’s sound. A warped reed can also crack, and otherwise be kept from playing optimally.
There are two approaches to preventing warping, the first is to allow it to dry slowly and evenly regardless of environment and condition. The second is to try to control the humidity. In both cases having a case or flat surface as opposed to using the plastic reed protectors the reeds come in is recommended.
Approach 1: Let the reed dry evenly, and slowly!
The first approach takes into consideration why reeds drying out causes warping. It is not simply the drying process, but the fact that the reed does not dry evenly from top to bottom! A lot of saxophonists use reed cases with glass – assuming placing the reed on a completely flat surface like glass will allow them to dry flat and not warp. This may infact be encouraging warping, as the bottom of the reed on the glass surface will retain moisture, while the top of the reed will begin to dry. This creates a water differential that causes warping as different cells in the organic cane are forced to stretch or contract depending on their water contents. Cases that utilize this approach will have ridges under the bottom/table of the reed to allow airflow all around the reed and promote even drying. The cases will also have carefully placed ventilation holes to allow for even and gradual changes in humidity.
If a reed does warp despite your best efforts, generally allowing the reed to soak for 5-10 minutes will un-warp the reed. You can also place the tip of the reed on the table of your mouth piece and apply pressure on it with your thumb. Then rapidly flick the back of the reed while still applying pressure to the tip of the reed for several seconds.
Approach 2: Don’t let the reed dry. (Danger!)
The other approach to controlling a reed and preventing damage and warping is to control the humidity of the reeds. Recently, several companies have released special plastic “pouches” that control the humidity inside – using pouches originally designed to control humidity for tobacco. Vandoren ensures the consistency of their reeds sealing their reeds individually at the factory to have greater control over the humidity before the reeds reach the players. Music store or warehouse humidity and storage conditions vary greatly.
Some saxophonists turn to keeping their reeds constantly wet, never allowing them to dry out at all, and thereby never allowing them to warp. This is achieved by having a bottle or some sort of container filled with water/liquid that the reeds are stored in. There are several potential problems with this approach! First of all there is a health risk. Keeping organic reeds submerged in water for long periods is basically encouraging mold and bacteria to grow. There have been several cases of saxophonists developing infected tonsils from reeds that were unclean. If you do choose to keep your reeds always moist you can prevent anything from growing on your reeds by adding a small amount of alcohol based mouthwash (Listerine) to the water you store your reeds in. The alcohol in the mouthwash will keep the reeds sterile, and the minty-ness will probably improve the reed’s taste. On a side note, Do not indulge in flavored reeds! These are really susceptible to having unpleasant things grow on them.
Some popular reed storage and case options:
No matter how you store your reeds, they will eventually get dirty and grimey looking. Simply rinsing the reeds in room-temperature water to remove the dirt and grime that has built up can greatly revitalize a reed. If necessary use warm/hot water. DO NOT use soap. If you need to take a further action you can also use a diluted Hydrogen Peroxide solution, that can be purchased at most pharmacies over the counter. Simply pour a small amount of hydrogen peroxide solution into a dish and allow the reeds to soak for 1-2 minutes. You will see the reeds fizz. I recommend soaking your reed case as well, make sure to rinse all of your reeds and case well with water after soaking them in hydrogen peroxide. This process can greatly clean the reed and revitalize it – although the effects are often temporary. Another option is to wipe the reed or briefly soak the reed in rubbing alcohol. Be sure not to do this for too long and rinse the reed well before playing it.
If a reed has visible mold on it – throw it away – there are health risks. If you find your reeds are getting moldy often it means there is too much moisture. Make sure you are wiping off excess moisture/saliva before putting your reeds away. Also if you’re reed case has a removable top try leaving the cap off to allow the reeds to dry. Maybe leave the cap off in the summer but use in in the dry winter. Sunlight naturally reduces mold so allowing your reeds to see the light of day instead of the closed, dark, environment of an instrument case can help as well.
A common distinction between reed brands and types is filed and unfiled. The file is also referred to as a “French file” cut. This generally refers to whether the slope of the cut from the base of the reed to the tip is gradual or if it is begun at an exact line (see pictures to the right).
Some brands of reeds offer both options (Rico Jazz Select, for example). The difference is very subjective, perhaps aesthetic only depending on the cut of the reed. The most important aspects of the reed are contained within the vamp, well before the filing mark.
Sanding, shaving, flattening and trimming
With shaving and sanding reeds the overall idea is to identify problematic portions of the reed and to shave them down or trim them to improve the resonance of the reed. This is usually done with very fine sandpaper, or special “reed knives”. Much time can be devoted to this with mixed results, and it takes a long time before these techniques can be utilized reliably. It is up to the player to decide if he or she would like to invest the time into learning these techniques or simply acknowledge that not all of the reeds in any given box will play well. Certain brands have better consistency than others.
After playing a reed for some time, it can begin to naturally soften which can lead to missed notes, poor intonation and other undesirable traits. It is possible to temporarily increase the hardness of the reed by trimming off a very small amount of the very tip of the reed, effectively making the tip thicker and therefor harder or more resistant. This can be done with a reed trimmer , and should only be done when the reed is no longer optimally playing, as it can ruin a good reed. The trick to trimming reeds is to trim the smallest amount possible, ideally about the width of a few human hairs. The piece that is trimmed should almost dissolve when removed from the trimmer because it is so insignificant. Trimming larger chunks can ruin a good reed very quickly. You can always trim again but you obviously can not undo an overly large trim. Many people claim that this technique ruins the sound of the reed and leads to a very shallow tone. Trimming will certainly affect the sound quality of the reed, as you are not only hardening it and making it more resistant to vibration, but you are changing all of the width proportions on the reed as well. The reed trimmer will also reshape the curve of the tip of the reed. This may not match the original shape of the reed and may also affect how it plays.
One of the easiest adjustments you can make, with little chance of harming or ruining a reed is flattening the table of the reed. Sometimes the reed warps not at the tip but on the bottom closer to the middle or even bottom of the reed. Using a “Reed Geek’ or something like Vandoren’s reed resurfacer can re-flatten the bottom of the table, vastly improving response if it was indeed warped. And because you aren’t touching the complex cut portion of the reed you are much less likely to render the reed unplayable.
There is a lot of frustration in the saxophone world regarding reeds, and as such, some people have turned to alternatives that remove the frustration and inherent unpredictability of reeds. This is done by playing reeds made from plastic, or plasticover reeds which are wooden reeds with a plastic coating. Plastic is not an organic substance and does not absorb water in the same manner as cane. Plastic is far, far less prone to warping and will not wear down from regular use nearly as quickly. Below are some of the pros and cons of using plastic reeds:
- Less prone to warping and cracking
- Not affected by humidity
- Very consistent day to day
- Lasts for extended periods
- Ideal for outdoor situations (aka Marching / Pep band)
- Less likely to change over the course of a practice session/performance (i.e. get waterlogged)
- The sound is generally very shallow and abrasive
- Each reed is very expensive
- Reeds often need to be broken in for very long periods
- Fewer options, brands and types of plastic reeds to choose from
- Cannot easily be altered, shaved or trimmed to fit one’s specific needs (do not sand plastic and put it back in your mouth!)
- Prolonged use can more quickly wear out mouthpieces, especially those made of softer materials (ebonite, hard rubber)
- While individual reeds are very consistent day to day, there is still variation between reeds of the same brand/cut/strength/size
- Not easily recyclable. Do we need more plastic in the world?
Almost all professional saxophonists use cane reeds, however it should be noted that there are professional saxophonists who use plastic. Claire Daly, and Nick Brignola are two examples of fine baritone saxophonists who have used plastic reeds. Also, plastic reeds continue to improve with new technologies and manufacturing processes.
Breaking In and sealing reeds
Most people have their own breaking in process and reed selection routine. Once break in routine consists of taking the read for the first time, and playing it for no more than 5 minutes. The next time the reed is played it is played for slightly longer, then put away. After that the reed should be sufficiently broken in for use. Some players soak their reeds in a cup of water anywhere between 1 minute and 2 hours before playing a reed. Others take it out of the box, wet it and put it on. If enough moisture is applied for long enough a reed will become waterlogged. Reeds are especially prone to this when they are new. A waterlogged reed has darkened “wet” spots that do not go away until the reed is completely dried out. Some players prefer waterlogged reeds, some find that it makes them worse. The additional moisture in the reed certainly has an effect on the sound of the reed.
Some people also choose to seal their reeds. There are several methods for this. One involves rubbing the reed surfaces, both top and bottom, on a flat surface for a few minutes until the pores in the reed are sealed. Other methods include applying substances to the reed, especially the flat table of the reed to seal the pores. (One substance that is used, for better or for worse is “nose grease”). Either way, the idea of polishing or sealing reeds is to minimize the movement of water and moisture through the reed so that the reed stays consistent and will not change the next time it is played as much.