Saxophone reeds are quite expensive, and to add insult to injury they are often not consistent unless you go for a synthetic reed. They are made from natural products and most manufacturers seem to fall short when it comes to quality control. To be fair to them, it is not always possible to pick out a bad reed visually, and of course you can’t expect them to be play tested before boxing them up. However it is possible to spot some obvious flaws in a reed, but many shops won’t let you cherry pick the best ones out of a box. Many players have just got used to the sad fact of life that you buy a box of reeds and throw some of them away. If the shop does let you sift though a box, there are several things to watch out for:
Can you tell the synthetic?
Reed 2 is a Rico Jazz Select
Problem reeds, how to tell
- Coarser than average grain which you can see on the exposed shaved or cut part of the reed. This takes a little experience to spot but after a few weeks of selecting reeds you should get a feel for what is right.
- Inconsistent widths of grain.
- Discolouration of the grain. (NB Discolouration on the shiny bark is not a problem).
- Lack of symmetry, i.e. if one side is thicker than the other. Easiest to spot when looking directly at the blunt end, not the tip.
- Any imperfections in the flatness of the table (this can be cured to a certain extent – see below).
- Heart of the reed not central: To spot this you need to hold the reed up to a gently light source.
Having said this, none of the above is foolproof, there is a slim chance that a reed which fits any of those criteria is still a good blowing reed, but I think those points give you a good rough guide to visual reed selection.
Which brand you use can be subjective, all of the main brands have their devotees and it’s a good idea to try as many different reeds as you can once you feel confident enough to test them. I use Leger Synthetic reeds as I find they play well straight out of the box and last for over a year. With cane reeds I find the difference between the main brands is minimal, and I am also happy playing Rico, La Voz, Hemke, Vandoren. I am hoping to do a comparison test and will post the results here soon.
Many people believe that as you progress on the saxophone, you “work up” to harder reeds. I think this is a fallacy, possibly born out by a desire to appear macho. Reed strengths are usually measured from grade 1 (very soft) to grade 5 (very hard) in half steps. Very soon after I started, I believed that “real” players used very hard reeds so I used grade 4, but I soon realised that although this made me play very loud and could get altissimo notes quite easily, it was difficult to get a good sound on low notes, and hard to play quietly or achieve a good vibrato or some of the note bending effects I wanted. Since then I have been gradually “working up” to softer reeds. I say working up to softer reeds because, paradoxically, softer reeds can be harder to play loud or high, so a lot of work on diaphragm and saxophone embouchure is needed to achieve the same loudness and high range as with a hard reed. The plus side though is that once you have managed this, your overall dynamic range and flexibility of tone will be greater. Vibrato and note bending will probably be much more flexible and low notes, especially subtone, may be better and easier.
Which strength you end up using can depend a lot on the mouthpiece. As a general rule, mouthpieces with wide tip openings and/or shorter lays (facing curve) often are best with softer reeds, while narrower tip openings or longer facings can have harder reeds. Much will depend on the style of music you play, usually classical players will prefer a narrower tip and a harder reed. My preference is for a wide tip (125 on tenor) and medium soft reeds (2½). Beginners (especially children) should probably start on a soft reed, e.g. 1½. Most professional players end up using between 2½ and 3½.
Conditioning a reed (aka Preparing or “prepping” a reed)
I find that reeds play best when wet, you can moisten them in your mouth for a while or soak them in a glass of water (some people recommend alcohol such as vodka). If you have the time and patience, it is a good idea to “run in” a new reed by wetting for a few minutes every day for three or four days before playing. If a reed has become warped due to drying out too quickly after playing it may need several minutes soaking, otherwise I prefer to just moisten with saliva.
It’s unlikely that all the reeds in a box will play well. You can improve the immediate playability of a reed sometimes. If the underside of the reed is not flat, traditionally you can flatten it by (a) taking a piece of fine emery paper, lay it flat on a piece of glass and gently sand the bottom of the reed by moving the reed across the emery paper lengthwise or (b) scraping gently with a razor blade holding the blade almost at right angles across the whole width of the reed and use steady smooth strokes.
I prefer to use a dedicated reed tool such as the Reedgeek, which not only flattens the underside of the reed, but also makes it smooth without clogging up the grain which can happen with sandpaper. Even if the reed is not warped at all it can help greatly to use the Reedgeek to “polish” the table.
Checking again after you have played on it for a while
After a reed has been played on, the wetness can sometimes cause further slight distortion. Often this can be cured by simply tightening the ligature slightly, but it can also be worth reflattening the bottom of the reed.
Altering a reed’s strength
You can make a reed harder or softer yourself. To make it harder you can clip the end off with a reed trimmer. At a pinch you can try the old fashioned method which is to find a coin with the same curve, hold it against the end of the reed and burn off a little at a time. Trimming a reed may not be ideal as it changes the basic geometry of the reed – the heart becomes closer to the tip so you should not trim off more than about 1/32 of an inch (1.5 mm).
Imagine taking a bit off the tip, the heart therefore becomes closer to the tip so upsetting the possibly ideal contour as in this picture of a reed that has had too much trimmed, you can see there is very little shaved reed between the heart and tip:
There are other problems involved with using a reed clipper to rejuvenate an old reed:
- The reed gets a built-in bend following the curve of the mouthpiece lay (possibly worse for those of us who leave the reed on the mouthpiece)
- The composition of the reed deteriorates: the fibres break down due to saliva saturation and constant flexing and vibration of the reed, so even if you have cured the reed of being too soft, it will still not vibrate as well as a younger reed.
A reed clipper in this case is likely to have only a short-term beneficial effect, but with the side effect of compromising the make up of the reed (ie the heart becoming closer to the tip as I said earlier). If this side effect is not as pronounced as the beneficial effect of “hardening” the reed, then you may have a few more minutes or even hours of use from the reed.
Softening a Reed
First make sure you have given the reed a chance to “settle in” by blowing it for a while.
The traditional method is to use reed rush, fine sand paper or a very sharp blade to gradually remove material from the top of the reed.
You can also use the wonderful all-purpose reed tool, the Reedgeek, (see above) which I highly recommend (watch this space for a review). This comes with some instructions on where and how to remove material.
Check first whether the reed appears symmetrical. If not then first remove material from the side which seems heaviest when you look through it at a light source, otherwise you can remove material from both sides equally. Shave the sides (of the top) towards the tip, don’t sand or scrape the middle or
heart of the reed unless you are really experienced or if it is very obviously asymmetrical. The heart should be bullet shaped as in the pictures above when you hold it to the light. Do not remove any material from the tip or near the tip.