Selecting the right reed can be confusing, especially for beginners. To a certain extent it is a personal choice and will take experimentation and experience to figure out what’s right for you and your playing style. Even for experienced musicians, it is often a difficult and frustrating aspect of playing a reed instrument. The following information from A Guide to the Art of Adjusting Saxophone Reeds, by James Rötter, gives some tips.
Every reed from a particular maker, model, and instrument designation has almost identical profile dimensions, regardless of strength, or at least that is the goal of makers. The relative strength of a reed is determined at the end of the manufacturing process by measuring each reed’s resistance to bending, and thus the cane’s density, on a machine.
It is our job, as performers, to find a reed make, model, and strength that provides us with the basic sonic and other musical characteristics we are seeking in a reed.
- Find a reed model (profile) and strength that approaches as closely as possible your sonic and musical needs and goals.
- Pick a reed strength that is harder than you want your finished product to be, as they tend to get softer during the conditioning and adjusting process. Start at least with a reed that is one strength level higher than your goal. I start with a reed that is considerably harder than I want myfinished product to be. They tend to take more adjustment to “perfect,” but they also tend to last longer and give me more flexibility in the adjustment process than a softer (less dense) reed does.
- I also prefer a cane in which the vascular bundles are smaller in diameter, regularly spaced, and spaced closer together. Generally, the larger the reed, the larger the diameter of the cane tube from which it is made, and thus, the larger the diameter of the vascular bundles, relative to a smaller reed. Also, I have found that the only sure way to select a reed is to play test it; visual impressions can be deceiving.
- Remember that each indicated reed strength represents a range of measurements that the maker determined to represent that particular strength. Thus, you may find some reeds of a particular strength designation that are slightly harder or softer than others.
- Buy commercial reeds only by the box, never as individual reeds.
- I prefer a reed with a well-developed heart area that is shaped like an inverted U, rather than the narrower V shape, and extends to within three to five millimeters of the tip (for an alto saxophone reed). Your ideal basic profile, of course, may differ.
- Look for reeds that have bark (cuticle) of a rich, golden color. Any hint of green means that the cane was not properly cured prior to manufacture. It is sometimes possible to correct this by placing the reed in direct sunlight, such as on a window sill, for a week or more.
- Play test every reed in a box; don’t make decisions solely based on appearance. You may be surprised.
After you have selected a reed make, model, and strength, it can be considered a point of departure for conditioning and further adjustment and customization, detailed in A Guide to the Art of Adjusting Saxophone Reeds from Eastman Music, which can be downloaded here.