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6 Crucial Facts About Saxophone Reeds

1. The differences between the brands is not as big as you might think.

One of the first things to consider when purchasing a saxophone reed is which brand to buy. Every saxophone player has their personal favorite, but in terms of sound quality, the differences between the brands are minimal. Personally, I started with Vandoren reeds and have always come back to them as a personal choice. However, I have had success with Alexander Superial reeds. Alexander Superial reeds are a little bit more expensive but they do have quite a good percentage of excellent reeds per box.

2. There are ways of predicting which reeds will play best.

Saxophone reeds have become quite pricy so it’s important to know what to buy before you make a purchase. Some music stores will not let you pore over reed boxes to find the best reeds, but if they let you, there are a few signs of a bad reed which you should be aware of:

  • Discoloration of the grain
  • One side is thicker or thinner than the other (look at the blunt end, not the tip)
  • Fluctuating widths of grain
  • Rougher than normal grain on the cut side of the reed

3. Playing on hard reeds does not make you a more advanced player.

A common misconception about saxophone reeds is that the softer reed you play on, the less experienced you are playing the saxophone. The truth about saxophone reed thickness is that the higher you ascend in thickness, the easier it becomes to play altissimo notes and play loudly. However, harder reeds can make playing with vibrato and note bending remarkably difficult.

Working with softer reeds has helped many professional saxophone players with developing a better embouchure plus overall range and dynamic adaptability.

4. A good reed cannot play to its full potential if it’s not properly matched to the mouthpiece.

The best saxophone instructor I have had (who I found through AngiesList.com) taught me an important, and commonly overlooked, fact: a good reed cannot play as well to its full potential if it is not a good fit with the mouthpiece. Mouthpieces with narrow tip openings usually work better with harder reeds and mouthpieces with wider tip opening work better with softer reeds.

5. Saxophone reeds play better when wet.

There are several different methods in which to wet a reed. Some players will just soak them in their mouth before playing. Others carry around a small container of water and let their reeds soak in the container before they play. A reed may become warped from drying out too quickly. A simple remedy to this ailment is to soak the reed in water. If this does fully solve the problem of the reed being warped, soaking the saxophone reed in alcohol has been known to do what water cannot.

6. If all else fails, a synthetic reed may be the best solution.

Another alternative to purchasing natural saxophone reeds is the synthetic saxophone reed. However, there is a general consensus among professional saxophone players that synthetic reeds sound different (ie: worse) than natural reeds. One plus of purchasing synthetic saxophone reeds is they will not warp, crack, or wear over time. It is up to you to decide whether you want a better sounding or a longer-lasting reed.

One synthetic saxophone reed that sounds close to the cane reed is that Hahn Fibre Reed. With the Hahn Fibre Reed, some players have experienced difficulty playing altissimo and higher notes are flat consistently.

No matter which saxophone reed you choose, be sure to, above all- have fun playing saxophone!

Category: Best of the Blog, Best Saxophone Tips and Techniques

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Danielle, who blogs on behalf of Sears and other prestigious brands, enjoys live music, playing the saxophone, spicy food and crafting with seashells. Read her work at ArtRoomMelody.com..

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Comments (46)

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  1. mrG says:

    another fact in favour of the plastic reed is that it does not need to be wet; this is important if you play in dry conditions (outside, summer, in the sun, or winter parades) and especially if you double on more than one horn. My son swears by synthetic reeds for his silver clarinet; I myself only use a synthetic tenor on my xaphoon since the nature of the instrument is to be spontaneously ready to play at the least provocation :)

    • Hello mrG,

      Just saw this comment now, so my apologies for not responding sooner!

      Any how, I’ve never tried the plastic reed, but if you can get one to work, all the better. Sounds so much more convenient and enjoyable not to have to worry about finding and maintaining those good reeds.

      And keep on jammin’ on the old xaphoon!

      Doron

  2. Brad Carman says:

    Another thing that helps keep reeds healthy and ready-to-go is an air-tight, moisture-controlled reed case. Rico has a new reed case like this that holds all sizes of reeds, (a great bonus for reed doublers). It comes with a little gel packet that keeps the reeds from drying out completely, but dry enough that they don’t mold. In the last 6 months my reeds have felt better, lasted longer, and played right out of the case without having to wet them first. I’ve never really “believed” in fancy reed cases before, but I noticed a huge difference in the performance of all of my reeds right away and I’m having all of my students buy one. It’s called the Reed Vitalizer and it’s ~$20-25.

  3. jd says:

    I gave up on cane years ago. Tired of sanding /wetting/etc. I found a combination of fibracells and a good beechler bellite do it for me on alto and tenor.also sometimes use dukoffs for tenor too but I only play on fibracells .cant and wont deal with cane ever again after getting 9/10 duds in a box with ricos and vandorens.I guess the fibracells just work for me and not against me….everyone is different though.

    • You know, I keep hearing great things about the fibracells, and I think that they might work for the bright-ish sound I’ve been going for these days. Thanks for reminding me about that option!

      • jd says:

        oh yea fibracells play a little bright and I do like that sound. A good one will last for a 6 months to a year. lets see cane beat that.yea try out some of different strengths and then when you find what you like they might work for you.

  4. keef says:

    Great website.
    One question, how do you know when to bin a reed and start with a fresh one?

    • Hmm, good question, Keef! For me, if a reed seems to close up when I put a lot of air into it, then that usually means it’s gone too soft and it’s dead. Generally speaking, I can tell within the first few seconds if a reed is going to be a good one or not since reeds have such a radical impact on the way we *feel* like we’re sounding (much more so than the way we *actually* sound, since we really sound pretty darn similar regardless of which reed we play on).

      On thing that’s helped me quite a bit is a tool called the “Reed Geek.” It’s not a reed knife, but a reed tool that makes a really big difference even if you’re like me and don’t really know how to use a reed knife. You can see a demo of it here: http://www.bestsaxophonewebsiteever.com/review-of-the-reed-geek-reed-adjusting-tool/

      I hope all of that helps!

  5. Clayton says:

    #3 is almost completely wrong. First off, harder reeds aren’t thicker. All reeds of a particular model are cut identically, or at least as close to identical as they can get (we know they’re not all cut perfectly). Once the reeds are cut, they then use a guage to determine what strength the reed is. The harder it is to move the tip, the harder the reed is. My college teacher used to believe this myth. He wanted us to buy 4’s and work them down, falsely believing that 4’s had thicker hearts than 3’s. They don’t. Little did he know, his shaved down 4’s were thinner than my unaltered 3’s.

    Second, I dispute the insinuation that harder reeds result in more difficult vibrato, pitch flexibility, and dynamic range. I believe that that there’s an ideal reed strength for every player based on how developed their air support and embouchure muscles are. If someone really has the chops to play harder reeds, it shouldn’t feel more difficult to play softly than it did when playing softer reeds. Using myself as an example, I prefer Rico Select Jazz for tenor. I currently play on 4 Softs. When I began studying jazz, I used 2 Mediums. 4S’s play as easily for me now as 2M’s did for me back then. Those just happened to be the strengths that matched my air at the time. I’ve never felt like my flexibility in terms of pitch or dynamics has been sacrificed when moving up reed strengths out of necessity. Now, if somebody tries to play a harder reed than they’re really capable of playing then yes, they’ll encounter problems. But hard reeds in the hands (mouth) of somebody capable of wielding them should pose no limitations. In fact, I feel like I have greater flexibility now. Because while I can play as softly as ever, I find that harder reeds allow me to play louder that I could on softer reeds.

    Third, I don’t find hard reeds to be inherently better for altissimo. That’s somewhat true within the range of strengths you’re able to play, but not true on the whole. Meaning that you can play altissimo just fine on a #2 or #2 1/2 if that’s your ideal reed strength. Those are pretty much the strengths Michael Brecker played on and he was a great altissimo player. But within your own personal range of reed strengths, harder tends to be better. Let’s say that your ideal strength is kind of in between a #3 and #3 1/2 and that you can really play on either. You’ll probably find that on the #3, the low end is easy to play while the upper register might tend to thin out. And on the #3 1/2 the high end and altissimo might be stronger while the low notes are more difficult. Which one is better is a choice the player has to make. What matters for altissimo is not necessarily hard reeds, meaning 4’s and 5’s, but rather just the harder end of what you’re capable of playing. If that’s 3’s or 2 1/2’s, it doesn’t really matter.

    Though I play on harder reeds in general, this is not meant to promote harder reeds. If you need to match reeds to mouthpieces, you also needed to match reed strength to whatever suits your air support, control, and embouchure best. Properly matched, a reed should be able to do what is asked of it regardless of what strength it is. There are more subtle differences to be sure, but flexibility shouldn’t be among them.

    • Hello Clayton,

      Those are valid points, and I thank you for taking the time to share your detailed insights on the tips here. It looks like you’re not 100% in disagreement with the article on some of the points you bring up, especially when you add the caveat “if someone really has the chops to play harder reeds…”

      Doron

  6. Larry Weintraub says:

    The fibracells do work but overall I prefer a good ole Rico reed # 2.5. I also like the Rico Jazz Select Unfiled #2H. I find that vandoren reeds just do not cut it for jazz or for my setup, a 60’s vintage metal FL Otto Link 8*. Plus I have found that Rico reeds are consistent than vandoren reeds box to box.

    Remember all the great Jazz players played Rico reeds. Dexter said it best in the movie “Round Midnight”, “there’s nothing like a nice wet Rico reed.”

    • Yeah, reeds are *so* subjective, just like any other saxophone gear. There is, and never will be a “best.” Personally, the Rico’s don’t cut it (no pun intended) for me, but I know that some of the best players out there love them.

  7. GabsGarcia says:

    Hi, Just came to your site via Google checking on reeds.

    I’m quite surprise to read that saxophone reeds do well if wet. The reason that I couldn’t play long, mostly due to out of practice, is that when my reeds are soaking wet due to saliva I couldn’t play regular tones as easy as when I first use the saxophone in that day. I end up using three reeds within an hour. Apart from I need more practice can you give me some advice on playing better especially when the reeds start to get softer because of being too wet. When I use a plastic reed with my alto I could play for an hour quite well without affecting the normal notes.

    thanks

    • Hello Gabs,

      Perhaps you need a harder reed ? You definitely shouldn’t be going through 3 reeds in an hour.

      Also, if you’re going to soak the reeds for an extended period of time, it’s recommended that you do so in an alcohol-based liquid such as mouthwash, otherwise they will indeed get waterlogged.

      I hope that helps!

      Doron

      • GabsGarcia says:

        Hi, and thanks for the reply

        I use a size 3 reeds for my soprano sax and for me to play normally at times I have to change reed and yes at times I change three times in an hour. Would you recommend plastic reeds for a soprano sax I have one a bari medium and it’s rather too long for my mouthpiece and I’m able to play only a few notes and at times I tend to breathe more to play in it..which isn’t suppose to be necessary since it’s not as long as my alto.

        thanks

        • In general, people seem to prefer the sound of cane reeds, so what you lose in tone quality with the plastic, you should be gaining in reliability. But I’m not sure what you mean by “I’m able to play only a few notes” – whether you mean that the reed is too hard and tires you out, or too soft and simply wears down on you. I would go for a middle of the road reed strength (2 if you’re a newbie, 2.5-3 if you’re more intermediate/advanced) and a middle of the road tip opening on your mouthpiece. You can get a sense of medium-sized mouthpiece tip openings here: http://theowanne.com/knowledge/tip-opening-charts

  8. MattSax says:

    I play the tenor,for about 2 months now.I used to play the trumpet and switched,i love it,however i do not want to BLAST the notes rather play some what softly and when the song requires it to play a little bit louder,also i do not want to have to blow like crazy to get the notes out.I need to purchase some reeds and are not sure what to get,seems like i had better luck with a Rico 2.5,I bought a Vandoren 2.5 and it makes me blow much harder Any advise will be appreciated.

  9. MattSax says:

    Also I was wondering ,by playing more softly rather than blasting notes,what type of music would this be considered,Classical? Jazz? Im not sure.

    • How loud you play has nothing to do with the style of music. Both jazz and classical call for loud and soft playing as appropriate. Classical saxophone is generally a darker and mellower tone than the typical jazz saxophone sound, so maybe that’s what you’re hearing.

      • MattSax says:

        Thanks for the advise.I will look for another mouthpiece any suggestion.Right now i am using a selmer ,but not sure what the size is ,it came with the Horn.

        • I stay away from recommending mouthpieces since it’s such an individual thing, there are no rules. I would go to a music store with a big selection and try as many as you possibly can.

  10. MattSax says:

    Thanks,I will check it out. Have a good one man.

  11. Brian says:

    Synthetic reeds sometimes get a bad rap. I started playing saxophone two years ago and purchased a Fibracell reed when I bought my soprano. I wanted to focus on learning the fingerings and not so much on technique at that time. Once I was comfortable playing, I started using cane reeds more often. I still carry a Fibracell with my soprano and alto in case I have to play without notice or prep time. I prefer Rico Royal for both of my horns.

  12. Larry Weintraub says:

    Anyone have any feelings Pro or Con about Rigotti Gold tenor sax reeds as a jazz/commercial reed? I was thinking about giving them a try. The Woodwind/Brasswind has them for $26 and change for a box of 10.

  13. chase shrffield says:

    I have found a reed that gives the good sound as cane but stronger and more reliable. I play on rico plasticoat reeds on my tenor saxophone. they sometime tend to make u play sharp but with a slight change of the mouth you will be playing better louder and with a crisper sound but also consider the mouthpiece. with a tenor sax I say the best mouthpiece is a wooden mouthpiece they are expensive and harder to find but are worth it

    • That’s cool that you’ve found something that works well for you! Of course, there’s no one type of reed or mouthpiece that will work ideally for everyone, but that’s interesting that you bring up wooden pieces. I tried one from Macsax that I really liked, it was very bright, which was very odd considering that it was made of wood.

  14. Joshua says:

    hello, could someone please tell me different techniques to identify whether a reed cane is good or bad

  15. steve says:

    I play alto with a Vandoren 1 1/2 on a Rico Metalite. Everyone else here plays way harder. Am I missing something?

    On the point of duds, I used to get 7 or 8 decent hits back in the 90’s but these days I’m lucky with 4.

    Any comments most welcome. Cheers and thanks for a nice thread.

    • Yeah, 4 good reeds in a box is pretty nice! As for the strength of the reed, if it sounds good and is letting the air flow naturally, then I don’t see a problem.

      Maybe the 1.5 Vandoren is working for you since you have a very big tip opening on your Rico Metalite?

      • steve says:

        Hi, yeah. It seems to be mouthpiece dependent. I tried the same 1 1/2 from the Metalite with an old chinese mp and it’s awful (weak/watery/flat) on the higher notes. You need a 2 1/2 to bring it back under control, but then you lose control on quieter passages. Actually I’m not happy above top C# with the metalite and a 1 1/2 either.

        Should have taken up the flute. No reeds!

  16. James Chow says:

    I play in School band, my Tenor sax is Jupiter entry level, 4c MP, Rico Reeds (jazz or royal).

    My sax sound so dull, flat and not bright and crips like those I’ve heard online. May I know why? Is it the Sax or my skill.

  17. steve says:

    Hi
    Lots of sax parts are miked to hell. I know the few times I’ve been recorded in a pro studio, they spent ages with the sound of the sax. They can make you sound however they want; reverb, echo, grit, make you sound as if you’re in a big hall. . .whatever. When you hear it played back, it’s amazing. When you play acoustic, it can be disappointing because you don’t have those effects.

    I too have a chino sax and the one thing I did which changed the sound for the better, was to change mp. I can’t afford the high end custom models but I can recommend Rico Metalite. It gives a hard edge if you want it. The advantage in playing in a band is that you can arrange to try out other mp’s for free because of your fellow tenor players. It’s surprising how different mp/reed combinations sound. Maybe after a rehearsal you could have a get together with the other players and have a go with other mp’s?

    • James Chow says:

      Ya, I’ve heard many experts said that MP+reed can make a big difference. The challenge is I have to invest in something to ‘try’ and can’t quarantee it will sound good :). Maybe I should try invest in something more expensive…

      • phife says:

        what i did was going into a bigger music store in my city and asked for their mouthpieces. they had a small room that was completley isolated you couldn’t hear anything outside after the door was closed). I tried out different mouthpieces and reeds and their combinations (the reeds where purchased 1 by 1). The room also had microphones which monitored the sound to headphones. THe sound added some reverb so you could hear how it sounded in a bigger room.

        You should check out your store. Good stores offer this without any problem.

  18. AnnaP says:

    I’ve been playing about 6 months. Have a Yamaha 4c mouthpiece and using 1.5 Vandoran reeds. Just put a new reed in and am finding it really hard to blow with aching jaw. Is this because my old reeds got softer or could the new reed be really higher than 1.5?

    • steve says:

      It makes soooo much difference. Out of a box of 10 reeds, I find they are ALL different. Maybe you’ll get one or two you are happy with. 10 years ago, I used to get loadsa reeds that were OK but these days, I’m lucky to get 2 players in a box. Answer: I’m almost certain it’s not your imagination. The reeds vary loads. You just have to be patient. Remember: 20% success is all you can expect these days. Just my €0.02

  19. Dxa Mizune says:

    I have a question, I would not say i am an intermediate Saxophone player, since I recently started, I used to be a brass player, so I am pretty much a beginner with reeds. I bought this Cecilio Saxophone which came with a box filled with reeds. At first, I did not really notice my reed did not work since I was a beginner and thought it was pretty much me for not knowing how to play. Once my mother accidently broke my reed, and so I got out a new one from the box. After wetting it and trying it I noticed my sound quality went right up right away, I did not force air into my instrument anymore, nor did I had trouble with any note. Now that reed broke, and I tried the rest of them, I only found 3 that actually do the same work as that one, but they are now broke. Now I need to go buy new reeds. What would you recommend me?
    I play the Tenor Saxophone, and the reeds that came with it are brand cecilio 2 1/2. Please answer as soon as possible I need them by tomorrow or Sunday.

  20. steve says:

    Hi
    4 in a box is actually pretty good. Don’t expect any more and you won’t be disappointed. I think that the reeds that come with the Cecilio are Rico. If you’re OK with the 2 1/2 then go for the same. They used to be rubbish but over the last couple of years have got much more reliable. So, to answer your question, if you can’t find Cecilio brand or want something similar, go for Rico. They’re around €15 on Amazon. Another good brand is Vandoren. Try 2. If you can, especially easy if you play in a band, the ask the other players to swap reeds with you. It’s a great way to check out the other grades and makes without wasting a load of cash. HTH and good luck with your Tenor.

    • Brian says:

      My alto and soprano saxophones are from Cecilio / Mendini and they are awesome! I got two boxes of Cecilio reeds for my soprano on eBay for about $11 and they are very good reeds considering the fact that they are what most people consider an “off brand”. I have used Rico in the past but will continue to buy Cecilio as long as I can find them on eBay! Happy playing!!

  21. John says:

    Hi one and all. Been playing an alto for a while on Rico V2 reeds & decided to experiment with other strengths. Bought some Rico 3 reeds and tried a couple out. Needless to say, found them hard work – sound was less crisp (which I didn’t mind), but ran out of energy/ puff quite quickly! Assume that they’ll get a little easier once they’re ‘played in’, but was wondering if it’s better to persevere for a while or go back to what I’m used to?

  22. Person says:

    Actually, the higher reed level, the better the sound, and you are good if you can play at level five, such as a level two reed plays less smooth than a level three.

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