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David Sanborn’s Reed Preparation Ritual

David SanbornReed preparation rituals – everyone’s got one. We may find ourselves doing things like soaking our reeds in Listerine, or shaving them down with a nail file, or burying them in the ground for 6 months, or just slapping them on the mouthpiece and playing. The goal is to end up with a reed that sounds, and in my opinion, feels as good as possible given the cane as it comes straight out of the box.

One modern saxophone master who has a process which is complex, yet something he swears by, is none other than the great David Sanborn (and yes to my bebop die-hards, Sanborn can indeed burn through changes with the best of ‘em but that’s neither here nor there).

This step-by-step process comes to us via a cell-phone video of incredibly poor quality, but offers an alternative to experiment with, since who among us couldn’t do with a few extra kick-arse reeds, right?

The Process

This entire process takes place over the course of approximately 3 weeks.

  1. Take the reeds out of the individual plastic covers that come with the reeds.
  2. Fill a plastic jar with warm water and soak the reeds in the jar for 2 hours.
  3. Put the reeds back in their plastic covers.
  4. Dump the water out of the jar, but leave just a little bit at the bottom to keep in some moisture.
  5. Put the reed covers (with the reeds inside them) in the of the plastic jar and seal the jar.
  6. Every day during this 3 week process, take the reeds out of their covers, and push the pulp off of the back each the reed using your finger.
  7. Once the pulp has been pushed off of the reed, play the reed and compare it to all of the others. Scratch the number corresponding to the rank of the reed on the plastic reed cover (the best reed would have a “1” scratched into the cover, of course).
  8. Every few days during this process, remove the reeds from their covers again, and transfer them into a glass cup with just a little bit of water in it to soak the tip area of the reed, but leave the rest of the reed dry in the open air. Let the reeds dry off this way for 45 minutes. Make sure you don’t lose track of which reed is your number 1, 2, 3, etc. Marking the reed with a marker should do the trick. Sanborn actually uses a product known as a “reed well” for this part of the process, which is nice, since the reed well has slots for the individual reeds in them, and also allows you to number those slots. However, reed wells don’t seem to be available for sale anywhere these days, so we a basic glass cup will have to do for most of us. After the 45 minute tip soaking, play your reeds and see if your reed ranking has changed at all.
  9. Once you find your best reed, assuming that, like Sanborn, you play every day, leave the reed on the mouthpiece when you’re done playing, and seal the mouthpiece cap on the mouthpiece using tape so that no moisture escapes.
  10. Once the process is complete, you can have many weeks worth of reeds waiting for you in their damp plastic jar. This is ideal for someone like Sanborn, who spends longs stretches of time on the road. Naturally, during those stretches, while travelling from gig to gig, he doesn’t have time to go through the process of picking out the best reeds.

Making this Process Yours

I went over the video as closely as possible and I believe that this is an accurate a representation of Sanborn’s steps, but I can’t guarantee that I have described every single detail of the process with 100% accuracy, since Sanborn himself doesn’t blatantly spell out 100% of the details.

That said, this process is likely to serve as a great starting point for anyone who’s sick of having to throw away reeds when they could possibly be transforming substandard reeds into great playing reeds.  Perhaps this process can be modified to work better for your particular needs, so give it a try and feel free to let me know (either via email or in the comments) whether or not it worked out for you.

The Video

Category: Best Saxophone Tips and Techniques

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About the Author

I've been playing the sax since the late 80's, but my musical journey has run quite the gamut. The musical rap sheet includes tours with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and reggae master Half Pint, center stage at the L.A. Music Center, cozy cafes, raucous night clubs, gear-drenched studios, and the pinnacle of any musician's career - playing weddings in New Jersey! (duh). There's a lot of other stuff too, but you should be reading these blog posts and leaving comments instead. Now off you go!

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Comments (17)

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  1. TJ says:

    When I look at the video, it seems as if he’s trying to tell that he believes reeds (in this case from Vandoren) need to mature in moisture. So, according to the steps above, it’s all about making them wet and keeping them wet enough (hence the small amount of water left inside the jar) but not soaking wet to give them time to mature (and the taking out part is to test them and rank them and clean them).
    And then leaving them tip down in water to be able to take them out and play without having to make them moist before use (in case of breaking the current reed on his mouthpiece).
    That’s what I made of it.

    Another tip I can give you, is to check during this process wether the reed stays completely flat while very moist. Some reeds tend to curve a little, which makes it seal less on the mouthpiece. (not the tip, but the bottom half of the reed right up to below the heart of the reed at the back side) Try flattening that part of the reed, without sanding off the vibrating part of the reed, with something like the glass reed resurfacer from Vandoren (just an example).

    • I agree TJ. I know that many people swear by keeping your reeds completely submerged in water or mouth wash, but this is a slightly different approach.

      What you’re suggesting sounds intriguing as well. I guess it’s up to us to be “mad scientists” and experiment with what works best for us.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Kenneth says:

    Is this method of reed preperation for a more edgy jazzy tone? Or does this method work well for a round, rich, dark classical, plus, edgy bright jazzy tone?

    • I don’t see this as having anything to do with tonal color. I think it’s more about developing a responsive reed, and a responsive reed is going to be a great plus for anyone, regardless of the style of music they’re playing. :)

  3. Jim Kroll says:

    After having the reed on my mouthpiece for about two weeks(wich I really enjoyed having it set up all the time because it played the same al the time) I started getting a little blue streak mold I’m sure on the reed. Whats the best way to deal with this? Jim

    • Hmm, well, leaving a wet reed out in the relative open like that is pretty much guaranteed to result in a moldy reed. That’s why Sanborn and a lot of other guys leave the reeds submerged in water, and in fact, some players keep the reeds submerged in mouthwash or liquor of some sort. Otherwise, I don’t think that there’s any way around the mold as long as you’re leaving the reed on the mouthpiece.

    • Matt Doran says:

      During the initial soaking try a sprinkle of baking soda. It is a mold killer and may prevent mold from forming as quickly…

  4. Jim says:

    I thought Sanborn said once he put a reed on he didnt take it off until it quit playing and that he covered it and wraped it to keep it moist and playing every day helped to keed it moist

    • Duh, of course, I got mixed up with another reed preparation/storage procedure! Anyhow, I’m not quite sure how to avoid the mold, but if it is building up, you could always scratch it off every few days (?).

  5. Javi says:

    That´s really good information, thanks a lot.. But I got a doubt.. If you leave the reed inside the mouthpiece, with water, it means that the metal/rubber mouthpiece is with water too ALL the time while you are not playing? I´m not sure if I understood it right :/ I saw Sanborn taking the neck (with MP and reed) out of his case with a bag.. I guess it has water in it?
    Thanks a lot! (English is not my languaje, as you can see, ja)

    • Hello Javi, I don’t think he was saying that you leave the reed attached to the mouthpiece and then leave the mouthpiece and reed in the water. What I got is that once you have soaked your reeds and have picked one you want to play on, you simply leave that reed on your mouthpiece and pack it away in your case like you normally would. The only time you’re leaving anything in water is when you’re preparing the reeds, but once you’re actually playing on a reed, it doesn’t get put in water again. I hope that helps!

      • Javi says:

        Thanks, bro! But the reed wouldn´t get like twisted in the top? I dont know if I´m explaining correctly. Like when you get a used reed you have to smash it..

        • I suppose you’d need to find a pretty big mouthpiece cap with plenty of room in the front.

          • javi says:

            Hi! I´ve doing what Sanborn says, but at the third day all my reeds start smelling weird, like if they are about to get fungus, and i found them a little bit dark :/ Now I put all of them to dry, but their tips are veery twisted.. What do you recommend? Help! I did it with 15 reeds :/
            Thanks a lot!

  6. Javi, did you leave the reeds you weren’t currently playing inside the damp jar (with just a little bit of water in it)? There should only be one reed that stays outside of that jar.

    Admittedly, this is a pretty unusual method. I personally just keep my reeds in a Rico Reedgard. You might also want to experiment with keeping your reeds completely submerged in a water proof container filled with mouth wash – a lot of great players swear by this method.

    • Javi says:

      Yes, i put the reeds that I were not using in the jar, but submerged in water.. I red that mixing 50% wate 50% vodka is better, so I tried it and apparently is working :)
      Now I left the mouthpiece with the reed and the cap, in a ziploc bag, and it keeps the humidity, and the vodka taste, ja.
      I´ll tell you later what happened. Thanks a lot for helping us. Cheers!

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