Reeds are one of the most important factors in developing and achieving a fine tone on any single or double reed woodwind instrument. I sometimes tell my students to think of them as if they were tires on your car. It’s the only contact you have with the road, so it’s important that they work well. It’s also important that they be of good quality and that they are maintained well and taken care of properly. It doesn’t pay to skimp on the cost, because as with most things you buy, you get what you pay for. High quality reeds, and tires, for that matter, will last longer and give you better results over time. O.K., enough for my lecture on buying high quality reeds. The first thing you should know about reeds is that they are terribly inconsistent. If you buy a box of ten, you will be lucky if three or four of them work without adjusting them. If you are having problems with your sound, the first thing you should do is try a different reed. Follow my instructions below when you buy a new box of reeds. You will be amazed at the difference from one reed to the next.
Reeds come in different strengths, graded by thickness from a 1 (thin) to a 5 (thick). Start with a one and a half or a two. This strength of reed is fine for beginners. Some brands also come in filed and unfiled. The difference between the two is subtle, so experiment to find the cut that works best for you. Do not buy into the common misconception that the harder strength of reed that you play on, the better you are. Most players use a medium strength reed and a medium size mouthpiece. Michael Brecker uses a #2 or #2 1/2! If you’ve heard Michael’s playing, you know that a medium reed works just fine for him. Using a reed that is too hard will lead to the very bad habit of biting and your sound will be harsh and out of control and out of tune. Using a reed that is too soft will give you a weak tone, poor intonation and no projection of your sound.
There is a procedure that you should follow whether you are dealing with one reed or a box of five, ten or twenty (which I would recommend). First, soak the reeds for about ten minutes in tepid water, making sure to soak the entire reed. Push them underwater to soak them thoroughly. An interesting thing to observe at this point is to pull a reed out of the water and blow very hard on the butt end of the reed. You should see tiny bubbles appearing on the vamp section of the reed. This proves that the channels run all the way through the reed. So, if you notice that your reed “warps” at the tip, this is just the water being absorbed through these channels at different rates as it soaks in to the reed. It will flatten out when the reed is properly soaked. After soaking the reeds for ten minutes or so, pull them out and shake off the excess water and place them flat side down on a non-porous, flat piece of glass or plastic. Next, wet your thumb and rub the vamp (cut) portion of the reed towards the tip about ten times. What you are doing is sealing the pores in the reed so that it will be slower to absorb the water. So, if perchance you do get a good reed (a rare occurrence), it will last longer and maybe even play better. The same thing that makes the reed work is the same thing that kills them, …water. Let these reeds dry overnight and repeat the soaking procedure, only this time when you are through rubbing them, try play testing each one. You will find that they all play different, some good, some bad. I actually grade mine, “A” for great, “B”, “C”, “D” down to “F” for really bad. A pencil works fine for marking them. Break your reeds in gradually if possible. Don’t over blow them or practice your altissimo register! I have found that this helps to prolong their life if you don’t beat them up right away. I would also recommend that you rotate three or four reeds at a time, so that you always have two or three good ones to choose from. When reeds go bad, it’s time to replace them. For me, if I feel the reed just doesn’t respond like it should or the altissimo register just won’t pop out like it usually does, or I get the general sound of a kazoo over the whole range, then I switch reeds. Reeds should last at least 15 to 20 hours of blowing, hopefully more. Anytime you’re having some problem with sound, squeaking etc. switch reeds, it’s the easiest thing to try first.
Some basic tools that you should have are as follows:
A piece of glass or plastic on which to rub the reeds and to let them dry.A sharp knife for trimming and balancing the reeds.Dutch Rush or some 400 grit sandpaper for fine adjustments.A reed holder to store the reeds that you are using.A reed clipper for trimming the end off when it gets soft. The basic idea behind adjusting reeds is to take off material where the reed is too thick and to balance the reed if one side is thicker than the other. It gets a lot more involved than that, but as a beginner, this is a good place to start in your understanding of reed trimming. You should try taking a reed that doesn’t work well in the first place, and experiment on it. Start by thinning the tip a little. Hold the reed up to the light and see if you can tell if one side looks thicker or darker than the other. Try taking material off that side. Play the reed after every small adjustment, sometimes a very slight adjustment can make a big difference. You don’t want to take off too much. Don’t adjust the very center of the vamp part of the reed. This is called the “heart” of the reed, and should be left alone. See the reed adjustment chart here.
This is a very brief summary of how to manage your reeds. Again, I would refer you to ” The Art of Saxophone Playing ” by Larry Teal. Definitely, the one book you should own as a Saxophone player. As far as recommending reeds, the only reeds that I personally would recommend are the Alexander Superials, either regular cut or “DC” (double cut). After thirty years of searching for the perfect reed, these come the closest. However, there are hundreds of brands to choose from. I would stick with the better known brands like Rico, Rico Royals, La Voz, Van Doren, Hempke. Try as many brands as you can. You will soon find a brand that works for you , your mouthpiece, horn, and your tonal concept.
Click here for reed adjustment chart.