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What are Saxophone Reeds?

Saxophone reeds are the lifeblood of a saxophonist's sound, crafted from cane or synthetic materials. They vibrate to create the instrument's rich, resonant tones. The right reed affects playability and expression, making its selection a personal journey for each musician. Curious about how reeds can shape your saxophone's voice? Discover the art of finding your perfect match in our detailed guide.
A Kaminsky
A Kaminsky

Without the shaved bit of cane on the mouthpiece, a saxophone would be merely a collection of valves and brass tubing. With the reed, it becomes a soulful, vital member of any marching band or orchestra.

A reed is usually made from natural cane, thick at the bottom, thinning gradually to the slightly curved top. It fits against the instrument's mouthpiece and is secured by a metal band called a ligature. Saxophone reeds (or the reed of any woodwind instrument) compress the air column from the player's mouth and force it through the instrument in a regulated flow. The reed also makes the air column vibrate, which helps produce the instrument's sound.

Saxophone reeds help produce a saxophone's sound.
Saxophone reeds help produce a saxophone's sound.

Choosing reeds is an individual decision, made by the musician. Most players have their preferences for thinness, quality of tone and durability. A thinner reed generally vibrates more easily. Being made of natural materials, reeds naturally decay with use, and many players keep several reeds in their cases, and rotate which reeds they use, to maximize their durability. Natural reeds are prone to cracking, splitting and chipping, so players may be faced with choosing a reed that is thicker, and thus more durable, or using a thinner reed that sounds better, but breaks down faster. Another issue with saxophone reeds is consistent quality. A player may find that there are only two or three good reeds in an entire box. Again, since cane is a natural material, the quality and thickness are variable, unlike the machines cutting them.

Saxophone reeds must be wet in order to vibrate properly, so it is not unusual, before a practice or performance, to see the sax players, along with the other woodwind players, walking around with a reed in their mouths, wetting it before playing.

A reed is the shaved piece of cane on the instrument's mouthpiece.
A reed is the shaved piece of cane on the instrument's mouthpiece.

Like the other woodwind reeds, saxophone reeds are cut especially to fit the mouthpiece opening of the instrument. The reeds are slightly curved at the top, to match the curvature of the mouthpiece, and the player fits the reed edge evenly with the mouthpiece, or a fraction below it, depending on preference. The ligature must be tightened enough to keep the reed from slipping, but loose enough to allow full vibration. This is an adjustment that a player learns through practice.

Some manufacturers have developed reeds made of a synthetic polymer that do not require pre-conditioning (i.e. wetting it in the mouth); synthetic reeds can also be sanitized and are more durable than their natural counterparts. Musicians are divided in their opinions on how good the synthetic reed really is, and if it provides the same quality of sound as natural reeds.

Saxophone reeds may be purchased as a single unit, or more commonly, in a box of 10, 12 or more reeds. Reeds vary in price, from about $10 a box, to as much as $50 per box, for the top quality reeds. A reed makes the instrument sound like the player wants it to, and as the audience expects it to.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are saxophone reeds made of?

Saxophone reeds are traditionally made from a type of cane called Arundo donax, which is known for its flexibility and resilience. The cane undergoes a meticulous process of selection, cutting, and drying before being fashioned into reeds. Some modern reeds are also made from synthetic materials, offering greater consistency and durability. These materials can include various composites and plastics designed to mimic the properties of natural cane.

How do you choose the right saxophone reed strength?

Choosing the right saxophone reed strength depends on the player's embouchure (mouth and facial muscles), playing style, and the type of music being played. Beginners often start with softer reeds (1.5 to 2.5 strength) as they require less air pressure and are easier to play. More experienced players may prefer harder reeds (3 to 5 strength) for a richer tone and increased control. It's advisable to experiment with different strengths and brands to find the best fit for your playing needs.

How often should saxophone reeds be replaced?

The lifespan of a saxophone reed varies depending on usage and care. On average, a reed can last anywhere from one to four weeks for daily players. Signs that it's time to replace a reed include difficulty in playing, a noticeable change in sound quality, or visible wear and tear. Rotating between several reeds and using proper maintenance techniques can extend their life. It's important to listen to your instrument and replace reeds when they no longer perform optimally.

Can you adjust or modify saxophone reeds?

Yes, saxophone reeds can be adjusted or modified to suit personal preferences or to correct minor issues. Players can use tools like reed knives, sandpaper, or reed rush to adjust the thickness, shape, or profile of the reed. This fine-tuning can enhance the reed's response, tone, and overall playability. However, such adjustments require a careful and knowledgeable approach to avoid damaging the reed.

Are there environmental concerns associated with saxophone reeds?

Environmental concerns related to saxophone reeds primarily involve the sustainability of the Arundo donax cane and the impact of synthetic materials. Harvesting practices for cane must be managed responsibly to prevent overexploitation. Synthetic reeds, while not depleting natural resources, raise questions about plastic use and disposal. Companies like D'Addario have implemented more eco-friendly practices, such as using less packaging and recycling old reeds (https://www.daddario.com/woodwinds-reed-recycling/).

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Discussion Comments

anon62214

I play the saxophone and in my opinion the thinner reed sounds worse (though this is when I play!) But this is really helpful for my drama exam!

anon24321

This is very helpful for a report I am doing!!!

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    • Saxophone reeds help produce a saxophone's sound.
      By: Daniele Pietrobelli
      Saxophone reeds help produce a saxophone's sound.
    • A reed is the shaved piece of cane on the instrument's mouthpiece.
      By: Dangubic
      A reed is the shaved piece of cane on the instrument's mouthpiece.