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Understanding Sax and Clarinet Reeds: An Overview for New Players & Parents

This article is for anyone who needs help anyone navigating the world of woodwinds. Specifically, I’m talking about how to buy new reeds for clarinet and saxophone.

If you are the parent of a student who is playing the clarinet, or if this is your first time buying reeds, don’t worry! I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know.

Things to Consider Before Buying Reeds

Before just buying any random box of reeds, there are a couple of things to consider.

The first thing to ask is “What strength and brand are you playing on right now?” If you know the answer to that question, your best bet is to stick with the same reeds you’ve been playing.

But if you aren’t sure or can’t remember, here are some guidelines for choosing reeds.

Understanding Reed Strength

Reeds are measured by how “soft” or “hard” they are. Soft reeds are typically easier for beginners to play, while harder reeds require more air to play. Neither is better or worse than the other, and both are regularly used by professionals.

There is a somewhat general rating system for how hard/soft a reed is, with 1 being the softest and 5 being the hardest. If you’ve been playing for less than six months, you’ll want to stick with a softer reed (usually 2 or 2.5).

Annoyingly, different brands have unique numbering systems. Typically you’ll see them numbered in half increments, like 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, and 4.

Sometimes there are reeds with in-between strengths, like 2.25 or 2.75. A few brands use even more vague numbering systems like “3 Soft”, “2 Hard”, or “Medium-Soft”.

To help make reed strengths easier to understand, here are some comparison charts for most major brands.

How Reed Strength Relates to the Mouthpiece

Different reed strengths will affect practically everything about playing sax or clarinet — especially when it comes to the mouthpiece.

Between the tip of the mouthpiece and the reed there is a small opening, called the tip opening (pretty straightforward). This opening allows you to blow air through the instrument and vibrate the reed at the same time. In other words, the reed will try to fill up the empty space between it and the mouthpiece.

A softer reed will bend more easily to fill the space, while a harder reed will require more air and mouth strength to bend. We won’t get into any more details right now, but just know that harder or softer isn’t good or bad. But beginners typically haven’t developed the strength to use harder reeds.

Beginner Reeds vs. Other Reeds

So let's talk about the kind of reeds you can buy, because there’s a huge selection!

There are dozens of different reed brands, and all of them design and manufacture their reeds differently. There’s no “best” brand or strength — each one will suit players differently.

I like to think there are two major categories of reeds:

Reeds for students and beginners

These reeds are ideal for someone who’s still learning their instrument and hasn’t fully developed good embouchure (the way a player grips their mouth on the mouthpiece). They won’t give the most brilliant or rich sound, but that’s not really what they’re made for. They’re made to be very forgiving and help beginners learn the correct playing technique. It’s like a bike with training wheels: You don’t need to balance perfectly to ride, but it will be much more forgiving if you happen to lose your balance!

The two biggest suppliers of student reeds are D’Addario and Vandoren. Here’s what they have to say about them:

“Rico by D'Addario Alto Saxophone reeds are crafted with beginners and educators in mind, thanks to their traditional blank and profile for ease of response, plus unfiled cut for added support. These reeds are available for a full range of clarinets and saxophones to best suit your playing needs.”

“Juno reeds [by Vandoren] are specially made for student performance from select cane grown on the Mediterranean coast. When we turn that cane into reeds, we give them a special cut that’s extra responsive for students, so you can improve faster.”

Juno reeds by Vandoren are among the most popular student reeds.

Every other kind of reed

These reeds are usually a bit harder and are cut differently from student reeds. The unique cuts give them distinct characteristics that fit certain players’ needs.

There’s a lot more that goes into buying reeds. But for now, just know that there is not really one kind of reed that’s much better than the other. It’s all about “What mouthpiece you use” and “What do you prefer?”.

As a professional woodwind player, I’ll buy the reeds that I typically use and will always work for me and each instrument I play. But I also find myself buying different boxes alongside my preferred reeds and experimenting relatively often. There are just so many options and they all affect the way things sound so much!

The Difference Between “Good” and “Bad” Reeds

I think it’s important to remember that all reeds have their place in a woodwind player’s arsenal. Which leads me to my next point: There is… another way to categorize your reeds: Good and Bad.

Or as I like to say: performance reeds and practice reeds.

Woodwind players need to understand that reeds are a natural product — it’s made out of cane.

Cane is essentially a hard woody grass, like bamboo, so since cane reeds are made of plant materials, each reed is unique. A box of reeds might provide a few great ones and a few not-so-great ones.

In other words, reeds to use in a performance, and reeds to use while you’re practicing.

Now you may be thinking, “It’s not fair that I have to spend money on reeds to play my instrument.” And I empathize with that.

I used to feel that way a lot before I became more acquainted with my brass player friends.

Brass players’ embouchures can be so strenuous that if you play for too long you can get serious injuries to your facial muscles. And if you’re not being careful about how you play, tons of other complications can happen as a result.

Whereas woodwind players, after a certain level of ability, can almost play indefinitely because the reed is doing the majority of the work by vibrating.

So in my opinion, it's well worth spending some money every few months to not have to deal with other complications like that.

Reed Durability

Now to finish up this article I’ll answer the question: Do reeds wear out? And the answer is yes.

Sadly. There are a couple of things that can happen to a reed that will end its life cycle and cause you to throw it away.

The first thing to look for that will indicate a reed has died is just physically breaking or chipping the reed. This usually happens more often to beginners but also to professionals from time to time.

The best way to protect against this is to keep the reeds in their plastic holders anytime they’re not being used. But accidents will inevitably happen and you can’t always protect the reeds like you would like.

In the beginning, when you’re first learning how to use a reed you’ll probably break them more often. But the more practice you get using them you’ll become accustomed to how to keep them as safe as possible.

Now if your reed hasn’t been chipped but you’ve been noticing that it just doesn’t sound or feel as good, or it feels flat, there’s a good chance you’ve reached the end of that reed's life.

Unique Reed Properties

Reeds have an interesting property that makes them uniquely suited for vibrating: they’re porous (Like SpongeBob!!)

There is a very cool way to see that this is true; by wetting the reed, getting a firm grip on it, and blowing hard on the base end. You’ll see air bubbles on the face of the reed! Make sure you have a good grip on it!

You’ll see that these reeds have a bunch of little holes in them, and this structure makes them really great for vibrating. Over time they get crushed together little by little. Eventually, when they are fully squashed, they just won’t sound as good.

At this time, you are allowed to smash your reeds or just throw them away. (Don’t worry, we won’t tell anybody!)

Final Thoughts

Reeds can last a pretty long time if you take care of them, but it greatly varies on how much you are playing.

I hope this has been helpful, I know that it may seem pretty overwhelming to be getting into this stuff but I promise it becomes fun very quickly. Until next time!

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