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Cane Reeds for Saxophone

The 5 Best Cane Reed Tips:

  • Don’t be afraid of using soft saxophone 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

Consistency (or lack of…)

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 (you can fix this 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. However 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 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.

Mouthpiece facing and strength

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. 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

Cane Reed Rotation

No cane reed is immortal: they can last for less than a day or more than a few weeks. This depends on  your playing habits, the quality of the reed and how you look after it.

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 this is that you always have a backup which you have played in and is ready to go if you break one.

Care, maintenance & Storage >>>

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