Reed maintenance & care

Reed care and maintenanceCare & Storage

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 is best to store cane reeds on a flat surface, which obviously helps to keep the reed from warping, but it can also be a good idea to actually stop it drying out at all when you are not playing it, as the constant wetting and drying process can shorten the life of the reed. Plus, if it is kept even very slightly moist, then it will always be ready to play when you put it on the mouthpiece – reeds that have totally dried out often crinkle at the tip when remoistened.

ReedJuvinate
The ReedJuvinate

The perfect storage method is the ReedJuvinate . This system involves a watertight storage container with three reedholders and a sponge which can be kept moist, and so ensuring the reeds never actually dry out.

If you use Listerine (recommended) or low sugar content alcohol such as vodka, then this will also prevent mould or microbes growing on the reed – something that you find often happens if you keep reeds in a glass of water.

The reedholders work perfectly for any reed from sopranino to bass and are ideal for rotating three reeds, and a really neat feature is the magnetic metal strip (see image) so you can easily attach it to a music or microphone stand.

Conditioning a cane reed (aka Preparing or “prepping” a reed)


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 saxophone players 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.

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.

Swollen or warped saxophone cane reed
You can see how this reed has become concave due to swelling. However, this could be symptom of an uneven mouthpiece table causing water or spit to get under the reed.

Enter the Reedgeek

I have always used a blade (as in the video below, however recently I have discovered and  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.

As well as flattening the back of the reed, this tool has various different edges that can be used to profile the reed to alter the way it responds.

Altering the strength of cane reeds

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).

 Trimming cane reeds
The slightly shaded area represents the thicker bit of reed you would see if you hold it up to the light. The heart is very important.

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:

Cane Reed Trimming
See how the heart is closer to the tip with the clipped reed

There are other problems involved with using a reed clipper to rejuvenate an old reed:

  1. 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)
  2. The composition of cane reeds can deteriorate: 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 Cane Reeds

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.

Making a cane reed softer
Remove material from the top, at the sides.

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.

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