Cane Reeds for Saxophone

Cane Reeds  Synthetic Reeds

The 5 Best Cane Reed Tips:

  • Don’t be afraid of using soft reeds:  It is a myth that you need to play a hard reed to be a good player. While a hard reed can make it seem easier to play loud and high with a better tone, it is far more useful to develop your embouchure and breath support to achieve the same result, while still having the versatility to play quiet low notes and flexibility to bend notes. (More below)
  • You don’t have to rotate reeds for them last:  This is a myth, however it can still be useful to rotate reeds so that if your reed suddenly dies, you have one or more broken in and ready to use.
  • Myth: Synthetic reeds sound worse than cane reeds:  Some do, some don’t. There is no reason why a reed shouldn’t be made of synthetic material – and if you do find one you like then it will last longer and it will probably be easier to replace with another that sounds exactly the same. They are also less prone to splitting or warping and need no breaking in or wetting
  • Learn to choose a good reed:  Look for a reed that is symmetrical, i.e. it is not thicker on one side than the other. watch out for a knotty looking grain or inconsistent thicknesses of individual fibres.
  • Avoid drying out too quickly:  Reeds usually need to be moistened for a while before playing. If they dry out to quickly after playing, the end often goes crinkly and so each time you re-wet the reed it weakens the structure. You can keep reeds slightly moist using a container such as ReedJuvinate (see below)
Saxophone Reeds
Arundo Donax

Saxophone reeds are quite expensive, and to add insult to injury they are often not consistent (unless you go for a synthetic reed). Cane reeds are made from natural products (incidentally they are not wood, the stuff they are made from is actually a grass) 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 1a

Reed 1b

Reed 1c

Reed 2a

Reed 2b

Reed 2c

Click here for answers

Reed 1 is a Legere Signature

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.


Heart of the reed
The shaded portion of the image shows the heart of the reed.


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?

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.

Which Strength?

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.

“Breaking In” a New Reed

Whether this is absolutely necessary is open to debate. Many people like to break in a new read, others just put them on and play. We know that a new car should be run in, i.e. you drive it gently for the first thousand miles, but is this really necessary with a reed?

My own experience is that it doesn’t seem necessary, but will not do any harm. The following points have all been recommended at various times by various experts:

  • Rub/polish the reed with your thumb
  • Rub with very fine sandpaper (e.g. 1000+ grit)
  • Wet the reed for about 5 minutes. Some people say saliva is best, but other liquids such as water or clean spirits such as vodka may be fine. (Vodka or Listerine should also be quite good at killing any bugs)
  • Play for short periods then let the reed rest
  • Do not play loudly or growl during the running in period (maybe approx 20 – 30 minutes playing time but there is no real consensus)

Cane Reed Rotation

No cane reed is immortal: they can last for less than a day or more than a few weeks, depending on various factors including your playing habits, the quality of the reed and how you look after it (see below).

Instead of using one reed until it finally dies on you, many people like to rotate reeds. This involves choosing two good reads, playing one for a while and then moving on to the second one while the first one still has plenty of life. Play that for a while then move back to the first one. You can rotate any number of reeds – the advantage of the system is that you always have a backup that is played in and ready to go if you break one.

Care & Storage – introducing ReedJuvinate ™ 

The ReedJuvinate

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.

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 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.

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.

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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