Woodwind buyers guide: Which reeds should I pick?

When it comes to woodwind instruments, it can be easy to overlook how important it is to find the right reed for you. Many saxophone players, clarinet students and woodwind enthusiasts often just pick up their reeds without ever looking into what they mean or how they impact your playing style. Today we hope our guide helps clarify what your reeds mean so you’re more informed on selecting the right sound for you!

Why do we use reeds?

Many woodwind instruments use reeds as their method of producing sound. By vibrating a stiff piece of cane (think like a thin piece of bamboo), a sound is created that is then amplified by the chamber of a mouthpiece. This is why for many first time woodwind players, getting comfortable with the reed is often the first lesson you’ll learn as without it, you won’t be making any sound at all!

What are reeds made from?

Traditionally, reeds are made from cane. The Ancient Greeks used cane to make flutes, known as kalamavlos. Due to it being easily grown by river banks, easy harvesting and amazing musical properties, it still remains the source material of reed makers for clarinets, saxophones, oboes, bassoons, bagpipes to name just a few!

The south of France is notorious for growing reeds and  many companies such as D’addario (aka RICO), Vandoren and Rigotti still source original reed cane from this area. The video below shows some of the incredible reed farms around this area!

As reed cane is an organic material, it is easy to break and has to be replaced frequently. As such, synthetic reeds are becoming increasingly common from companies like Legere, and are rapidly increasing in quality. They are much more durable and last a lot longer than cane reeds, but many find their feel to be an acquired taste. 

Generally speaking, reeds for any given size of instrument (alto, tenor etc) are a standard fit and should happily work with any specific model of mouthpiece and instrument. What is more important however is the STRENGTH of your reed. This essentially means how hard and stiff the cane the reed is made from is – a harder reed gives a nicer response in the upper range, but is harder to play.

What to look for when buying reeds:

Of course, everyone is different and when it comes to reeds it is a matter of personal preference. For a beginner, we would generally recommend starting with a 1.5 reed. Players typically progress to higher strengths as their embouchure (mouth muscles) build up. 

As we mentioned, reeds do break and it’s not uncommon for newer players to go through 3-6 reeds before they settle on a strength that works for them. Generally this would be around the 2-3.5 strength mark.

Those who do a lot of altissimo (super high playing) might favour 4s and even higher but that’s certainly not the standard. People spend years finding the right strength for the sound, ease and style of play they want, and some never do stick with one thing which is perfectly fine!

As a general rule, players of higher pitched instruments (i.e soprano) might find it easier to play on stiffer reeds and baritone and tenor players may prefer to start with softer reeds due to softer reeds having a greater flexibility to enhance lower notes. Think about when you hold a ruler on the edge of a desk and twang it, and move it in and out for different pitches, it’s the same principle!

As your playing continues to develop you will begin to discover different “cuts” of reed, where the cane is cut in subtly different shapes to change the sound and feel to blow (i.e Java Red vs Java Green), hence the variety in types and colour of boxes. As a beginner though, this isn’t something you need to worry about really; the go-tos are generally Vandoren “Classic” (Blue Box) or Rico (Orange box).

As they are made of a natural material, you do inevitably get variation in your reeds – some are really good out of the pack, some might need soaking in warm water a little while to soften them up, and every now and then you get one that’s just a dud. For this reason it’s advisable to get a few at once and play them all so you can see which are the best ones, and then you also have backups to hand for when the first few succumb to wear and tear.

Maintaining your reeds:

For cane reeds really the key is just making sure to moisten them before playing, being careful not to catch the end of the read on anything because it gets super thin and brittle once the reed has been played a while and can break in the mouth if you’re not careful. How long a reed lasts really comes down to a combination of how much it’s played and how well it’s looked after. For the average player playing a few hours a week a couple of months is quite reasonable to keeping the same reeds before changing to a new set.

We hope that helps clarify your reeds and the things you need to keep an eye out for! If you would like any further information, our woodwind specialists are on hand to help answer your questions! Get in touch today!

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