October 05, 2015
Choosing a Saxophone Reed
As you’ve been browsing the web for a new saxophone for your child, you’ve likely seen a lot of talk about finding the right saxophone reed- that’s because the reed is one of the most important parts of a saxophone. Not only can experimenting with different saxophone reeds drastically change the sound of the instrument, but it’s also one of the least expensive parts of the instrument. From strength to brand, here are a few things you should know before purchasing a saxophone reed for your child.
As with virtually every other consumer good, which brand you choose is subjective and usually based purely on preference. All of the major brands, including Vandoren and D’Addario Woodwinds, have their loyal fans, and it’s a good idea to have your child try out a few different brands before settling on only one. Although some reeds are classified as jazz or classical reeds, in most cases any type of reed can be used regardless of genre, as playing style and the mouthpiece used also have an impact on the overall tone. With that in mind, classical saxophone tone requires a reed and mouthpiece combo that produces a darker tone, while jazz saxophone tone requires a combination that produces a brighter, edgier sound.
Reed strength, or the hardness or softness of the reed, usually correlates with the density of the reed. Most saxophone reeds are labeled with the numbers 1 through 5, and as the number increases so does the reed hardness. Many people falsely believe that saxophone players will “work up” to harder reeds as they become more familiar with the instrument, but at the end of the day preferred reed strength varies from player to player and depends a lot on the saxophone mouthpiece. As a general rule, saxophone mouthpieces with wide tip openings are best when paired with softer reeds, and those with narrow tip openings are best when paired with harder reeds. For more clarification on reed strength, speak with your child’s music instructor.
Synthetic vs. Cane
While most saxophone players use basic cane reeds, synthetic reeds are also used every so often. Synthetic reeds aren’t affected by temperature or changes in moisture, and also last a lot longer than their cane counterparts. Although synthetic reeds are much more expensive than traditional reeds, they don’t need to be replaced nearly as often, don’t need to be wet to be played, and don’t need to be broken in. Since they’re more durable than conventional reeds, synthetic reeds are often preferred by marching bands or for use in other outdoor events. If your child doesn’t already have a preference, speak with their marching band or music instructor about whether synthetic reeds are the right choice for your child.
Should I Rotate Reeds?
No reed is immortal: some last for a day, while others can last for a month or two, depending on your child’s playing habits, the quality of the reed, and how the reed is maintained and cared for. To extend the life of the reed, many saxophone players rotate their reeds. Reed rotation requires the saxophonist to choose two good reeds- playing one for awhile and then moving onto the second one while the first one has plenty of use left in it. The saxophonist then plays that one for awhile before reverting back to the first and vice versa. The best things about this method are a) your child can rotate any number of reeds, and b) they’ll always have a reed on hand that is broken in and ready to be played in case one is ever broken.
Filed vs. Unfiled Reeds
Another aspect to consider when purchasing a reed for your child is the cut- filed or unfiled. A filed reed, sometimes referred to as a double cut, has a thin layer of bark removed just below the vamp area allowing the bark to form a straight line. This extra cut enables the reed to vibrate more freely, producing a brighter sound with a better response. Since unfiled reeds, or single cut reeds, don’t have the additional cut they form a “U” shape in the area below the vamp. This cut produces a darker tone with more resistance, as the reed is not as free to vibrate. Ultimately, your child should play both filed and unfiled reeds until they find the cut that works best with their mouthpiece and playing style.
Buy in Bulk
When it comes to purchasing saxophone reeds, it’s always best to buy in bulk- that way you won’t have to make emergency trips to the local music store whenever your child needs a new reed. A complete box of ten saxophone reeds should last a few weeks, but you can always buy extra boxes for your child just in case. Once your child opens the box, inspect each reed individually and throw out any that have visible cracks or damage. In most cases, 3-4 reeds will be discarded from each box of ten. In addition to visible splits or cracks, pay attention for uneven grain, knots, or discoloration. Throw the duds out and encourage your child to keep at least three reeds to play with at all times.
If you’re purchasing a reed, you might need a mouthpiece too. Check out our Saxophone Mouthpiece Buying Guide.