I was asked the other day by one of my students about tips on improving his saxophone’s sound, and as an obliging instructor, I casually reminded him of the importance of having the right reed for his saxophone. I also told him that he needs to choose the right strength of reed carefully. But what is this reed strength and what is its significance?
The reed strength refers to the reed stiffness as measured by manufacturers. Some manufacturers label their reeds using categories like soft, medium, and hard, while others use numbers from 1 to 5. Yet, more often, you will see the reed strength on the reed packaging with a printed number from 1 to 5, the 5 being the hardest reed while 1 being the softest reed.
Understanding Reed Ratings
As mentioned above, the reed strength on the chart indicates the reed stiffness, and the following categories may show this measurement: soft, medium, or hard or by numbers from 1 to 5. As a newbie in saxophone playing, it will be best to begin with the softer reeds with a strength of around 2. As you improve your skills, you can transition to harder reeds.
The reason behind this advice is simple: you will need to use advanced breath control when you use harder reeds, which you would surely not know yet as a beginner. Hence, you will find it hard to produce sound with harder reeds if you are just a newbie.
However, at the onset, you should not fall victim to the misconception that the use of softer reeds indicates your being a less experienced saxophonist. Far from that idea! While beginners should use reasonably soft reeds, it does not mean that only beginners should use softer reeds.
Of course, heavier reeds may facilitate the playing of altissimo notes and let you achieve a higher volume. Yet, the harder reed can make note blending and vibrato much challenging. Thus, you would find experienced saxophonists still using softer reeds because they want to facilitate vibrato and note blending. Nevertheless, it will be best to opt for a reed strength that best suits your experience level and playing style.
What is Reed Comparison Chart?
Once you’ve understood the value of reed strength, it will be useful for you to understand the reed comparison chart, especially if you are trying out various reeds. To understand the importance of consulting the reed chart, you can take a look at this example. Say, for example, you are using a 3 Reserve reed, and you want to replace it with D’Addario’s Plasticover synthetic reed.
Well, you may misconstrue that since you are using a 3 Reserve reed, you can quickly transition to 3 Plasticover. Yet, if you would take a cursory look at the reed comparison chart of D’Addario, you will find that the best choice would be the Plasticover 3.5. In this example, by consulting the Reed Comparison Chart, you will be guided appropriately on your reed selection.
The number system you often see on the reed’s back doesn’t only pertain to the reed gauge or thickness. It refers to the reed’s approximate resistance to breath pressure. The stiffer the reed or, the higher its number, the more resistance the reed has to the breath pressure.
Having clarified the significance of the reed strength, you will now understand that the higher the reed rating, the more resistant it will be to air pressure and the longer it would vibrate.
Tips on Choosing the Right Reed
The reed vibrates to produce the necessary sound of your saxophone. Reeds are mostly wrought in a thick grass type that is hardy in southern France and other places with similar climates. They can also be made of synthetic materials. However, synthetic materials produce inferior tone quality as compared to natural reeds. As such, most professional saxophonists prefer reeds made from natural reeds.
Reeds are also instrument-specific, meaning you cannot use alto saxophone reeds in place of clarinet reeds or vice versa. The reason for this is that mouthpieces differ from each other in size. Hence, you need to bear this in mind and consider the following factors when searching for a suitable reed:
Consider Your Skills and Experience
When choosing reeds, you need to figure out which reed strength you would need. The reed strength does not refer to the reed size but its density and flexibility measurement. As mentioned above, you will see any of the numbers 1 to 5 on the reed’s back. However, double reeds for bassoon, oboe, and English horn are rated as hard, medium-hard, medium, medium-soft, and soft. It will be helpful to note that different manufacturers also provide different reed strength rating.
As a music instructor, I would advise the beginner to choose 2 or 2.5 reed strength to help you avoid the difficulty of producing a sound. Likewise, I would recommend against lower ratings than 2 for more flexible reeds may produce weak sounds.
Nevertheless, as you improve the muscles around your mouth through constant practice, you can transition to the use of stiffer reeds to improve the intonation and tone quality, especially when you go for high notes. If I were your instructor, I would also let you know when you are ready to transition to stronger reed. Another thing is that the mouthpiece brand may affect your reed strength. Moreover, the music style you play also has a bearing on your reed performance.
Filed and Unfiled
As you search for the right reed, you will discover that some reeds are unfiled while others are filed. As you scrutinize the reed structure, you will discover the French File behind the vamp or a cut portion, wherein the bark has been sanded off.
Filed reeds are often preferred by those who use moderately resistant traditional and dark-sounding mouthpieces. With filed reeds, mouthpieces can blow more freely. Moreover, the filed ones make a brighter tone for resistant mouthpieces. This implies that filed ones are perfect for pop and jazz sax mouthpieces that come with a high baffle.
On the other hand, those who play moderate bright and easy-blowing mouthpieces prefer the unfiled ones. The unfiled reeds, however, offer more resistance and darker tones.
Consider the Brand
Reeds come in different brands. As you work yourself toward mastering the saxophone, you can try various reeds brands to figure out which reeds make better sounds for you. It will be useful to note that there is no right reed. Thus, you need to figure out what is best for you.
Reed choice is always a personal choice. With your instructor’s help, you can figure out the right reed’s strength and brand for your saxophone.
Robustness is another factor that you should consider when buying a reed. Plastic reeds, for example, last longer than their counterpart cane reeds. However, when they begin to fail to work, they become totally unusable. Hence, it will be useful to have a spare reed at hand.
Nevertheless, synthetic reeds can be played even if they are not damp. Thus, musicians who swap saxes more often tend to favor the synthetic ones. Of course, the better reeds are the cane reeds because they offer an authentic sound that you would love to hear.
Try Various Reeds as Possible
One thing you should do to zero in on the most suited reed for your saxophone is to try several reeds. If you try only a single reed, you will never figure out the best reed for your needs. So, it would be great to try three reeds to compare which is best for you.
Saxophones and mouthpieces, of course, were designed with utmost precision using ebonite and metal. However, reeds vary from one reed to another because they are cut from different canes. So, some of them may be perfect for your use, while some are not.
Today, there are many reed brands in the market, and some popular brands include the D’Addario and Vandoren, which have many loyal fans. You can also find reeds classified as classical and jazz reeds. Nevertheless, you can use any reed for whatever genre you want to play.
For example, classical saxophone may require a combo of mouthpiece and reed that creates a darker tone. Jazz saxophone, on the other hand, requires a combo that produces an edgier and brighter sound.
The reed life also varies depending on what type of reed you are using and your strategies to make it last longer. Yet, every reed will progressively soften as you give it extended use. You can only slow down the degradation of the reed’s quality.
Additionally, like when using a new car, you also need to break in reeds by playing them a little each day and not overwhelm or shock the reeds and avoid waterlogging. You can also rotate reeds by several reeds alternately at a time so as not to overplay a particular reed.