Saxophone Reeds are made of a sliver of wood or plastic that vibrates in a controlled way while attached to a small resonance chamber, the mouthpiece, via a specialized clamp, the ligature.
The reed is placed on the mouthpiece so that it is contact with both the side rails and flat of the mouthpiece. It is attached by a ligature, which is a small clamp made of metal, leather, plastic, or glass. For many decades, wooden Saxophone reeds have been cut from cane in the Var region of France, but synthetic and combination plastic-wood reeds have come commonplace in the past few decades. Synthetic reeds have the benefit of having no need for moisture before playing while providing an overall consistency for the life of the reed, but lack the evolving timbre qualities that a wooden reed has over time.
Reeds are made in varying stiffness to suit different playing styles and players of varying experience. They are numbered so that one may differentiate softness.
For example, a #2 strength reed of a particular brand is softer than a #3. #1 is softest while #4 is hardest. A harder read can last longer, but will require more breath control to play comfortably. Most beginners begin on a #2 reed and move upwards as they gain more embouchure control. Some brands use H (as in 3H) to designated a hardness that is slightly harder than the number shown, but not hard enough to equate to the next size up. Also, hardness varies across brands, so be sure to purchase a single reed or two of a new brand before buying a whole box.
Looking after your reeds
Reed care is essentially to getting the best sound and longevity out of a box of reeds. Be sure to store reeds in a dry place, such as reed sleeves or a plastic holder, to keep the reed from warping or accidentally breaking inside your case. Many reed cases are available, including cases with replaceable carbon cartridges to assist in drying reeds. Reeds can be modified to overcome deficiencies in a reed. If a reed that was once excellent causes squeaks or difficulty in a specific range, or is wholly unresponsive in another, there are ways of getting around this. A reed trimmer, reed rush, sand paper, reed knife, and a flat piece of glass are helpful for modifying reeds. A trimmer will evenly trim the tip of a reed to harden a soft reed. Reed rush is used to smooth and shape the heart and vamp of the reed. Sand paper can be used to even out the underside of a warping or imperfect reed. Glass is a great material for laying a wet reed on to help flatten it out if it begins to warp. Quick tips to keep in mind:
- Always work with a moist reed. A dry reed rarely performs well. Use your own saliva or water.
- When making adjustments to a reed, be sure to work precisely in small, tiny steps. It is easy to over-adjust or ruin a reed entirely by shaving or cutting too much at once.
- Some reeds are terrible! No amount of adjusting on your part will make them workable.