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