7 Tips for Curing “Stinky Reed Syndrome”

How to Clean Saxophone ReedsNormally I like to include your names and links to your sites when I use your questions in my articles, but in this particular case, anonymity was requested.

You see, what we’re talking about could be a bit embarrassing to discuss, but since we deal with saliva and cane working together, it’s not at all unusual that there might be some reed hygiene issues at play.

The question:

“I’ve had this problem for several months now and I’ve tried everything to fix it and I was wondering if you might have a solution to this problem. I’ve recently been noticing that after playing a long gig or practice session that my breath has a odor to it. It’s kind of like a metal taste with saliva mixed in. I don’t leave the reed on the mouthpiece when I’m done playing, I swab out my horn after playing it, and I also brush my teeth before playing, but nothing works. It’s getting to the point when I know a reed is about to go bad based on how it smells. Anyway I was wondering if you had a solution to this problem, so I’m not eating through reeds like crazy.”

– Anonymous Reader

Ouch, that does sound like a nasty dilemma! Here are a few tips that are likely to help you cure this problem once and for all so that you can avoid learning to play while wearing a gas mask (just being goofy here, but I think you catch my drift).

1. Make sure that your breath isn’t the problem.

Nobody likes to think that they might have bad breath, and unless we test ourselves for it, it’s likely that our unwelcome oral odor could be leaving a trail of stinkiness in its war path. Fortunately, testing for bad breath is quite easy. According to TheraBreath.com, the following test should give you a pretty definite answer as to your breath’s current state of affailrs:

The Cotton Test: Wipe the top surface of your tongue with a piece of cotton gauze and smell it. This is probably the most honest way. Also, if you notice a yellowish stain on the cotton, it’s likely that you have an elevated sulfide production level.

There are several more helpful tests you can do as well, so to check some of those out pop on over to TheraBreath.com.

2. Dry your reeds as much as possible.

Wipe them as dry as possible before putting them in a carrier. Ideally, they should only go in the reed case once they’re completely dry. At the very least, take them out and air dry them when you return home.

3. Find a reed case with dehumidifying capabilities

Reed cases such as the Rico Multi-Instrument Reed Vitalizer Case (about $17) or the more expensive and sophisticated Vandoren Hygrocase (about $72) contain a desiccant, which is the substance that induces or sustains a state of dryness. With the Rico Multi-Instrument Reed Vitalizer Case, there is a slot in the case where you insert a packet full of  desiccant, wheras the  Vandoren Hygrocase is “a state-of-the-art digital reed case that allows you to control the specific humidity within the case, ensuring your reeds will play no matter what your location.” Ahh, the wonders of moder technology…

4. Keep food and drink out of your horn

Although our Anonymous Reader already brushes his teeth before playing, I would be remiss if I left this tip off the list. My advice is, don’t play right after eating. If you must play immediately after eating, brush your teeth before putting the horn in your mouth.

5. Soak your reeds in mouthwash

Many saxophonists have had luck soaking their reeds in Listerine. Before you play, just leave your reed in a cup of mouthwash for a minute or so. It will be hard for your reed to stink after that, and the added bonus is that you’ll keep the entire sax session smelling minty fresh!

6. Clean your reeds at least once a week.

At the very least, run your reeds under water and wipe them off. If you want to get a bit more complicated, you may want to try a more thorough cleaning as outlined here (haven’t tried this myself, but it seems as though it would work being that this method involves vinegar which makes for a very powerful cleaning agent).

7. If all else fails, consider plastic or semi-plastic reeds

If none of the suggestions listed here give you the results you’re looking for, you may want to consider at least trying reeds that are 100% plastic, or at least plastic-coated. These reeds should be much easier to clean and won’t absorb water and mold like a cane reed does. Although they get a bad rap, there are some great players out there who swear by plastic and plastic-coated reeds. Some popular brands of fully plastic reeds include Bari, Fibrecell, and Legere, while Rico’s Plasticover reed is probably the most popular semi-plastic reed.

So There You Have It

Have you ever ran into Stinky Reed Syndrome – and if so, were you able to find a cure?