Besides the mouthpiece, the reed may be the most important determining factor of the tone produced on a saxophone. With a proper mouthpiece/reed combination, a good tone can be produced even on a cheap student model saxophone. On the other hand, with an improper mouthpiece/reed combination, a satisfactory tone is not possible even on the best professional saxophone model.
Like saxophone mouthpieces, there are many different brands and hardness of reeds. Different reed brands and hardness will produce different tones. As a student progress through his learning and his embouchure strengthens over time, he may need to adjust the type and hardness of reeds that he uses. For beginners, it is not necessary to be too picky about the brand, more important is to choose an appropriate hardness. The reed brand may affect the tone, but the reed hardness determines whether the musician can properly control the reed. Therefore the saxophone student must first find out the hardness appropriate for him before experimenting with different brands.
Typically one has to buy reeds by the box, although some music stores do sell them by pieces. Because reeds are cut from bamboo, no two reeds can be identical, and consequently not all reeds from the same box may be usable. It is usually necessary to buy a box and try out a few reeds at a time to determine which ones are usable. For this reason, beginning students should choose more economical brands of reeds. Because beginning students will be less able to cope with the varying playability of different reeds, they can go through more reeds by simply throwing away the ones that they cannot control without wasting too much money.
When trying out need reeds, try the following procedures:
- Soak 3-4 reeds in warm water for about 10 minutes
- Take out a reed and lightly soak up excess water with a piece of paper towel. By this time the reed fiber should already be moisturized. Be careful not to soak the reeds for too long.
- Try the need reed playing on the mid range of the saxophone (between low E and high D）at medium volume. Don’t overblow because it may damage the playability.
- When trying a reed for the first time, it is recommended to keep the playing time below 5 minutes to avoid over working the reed with too much vibrations. After testing one should have a good idea whether the reed feels too soft or too hard. One can use a pen to lightly make markings on the bottom of the reed to indicate the initial playability./li>
- Soak the reeds in warm water again the next day and try them again to see if they play any differently. This time the playing time could be longer. If the reed feels good then it can be kept for regular use. If not, simply throw it away or put it back and try it again in a few days.
- With the usable reeds, one can gradually increase the playing time and the playing range and see if they are still playable in the low range (down to low B flat) or in the altisimmo.
Some people like to rework the reeds that are initially non-playable, for example by filing down the thickness to make it softer. Personally I think it is too time consuming and it is much easier to try a different reed. Some people also like to massage the reed surface, in order to close the fiber openings. Personally I think it is unnecessary and one may damage the reed is improper force is applied during massaging.
After picking out good reeds, soak them in warm water each time before use. Many people like to soak them in the mouth with saliva, but personally I think that is non-systematic and not hygienic. The act of soaking reeds in the mouth also doesn’t look good especially if done in front of the audience in a small gig. Each time after playing, the reed should be rinsed down with warm water, then excess moisture soaked away with paper towel. Most reeds nowadays come with a reed guard, and one should place the reed back into the reed guard after removing excess moisture to prevent warping. The reed should not be put away if it is still moist, otherwise mold will develop and can be damaging to the saxophonist’s health by infecting the throat. If one follows the above procedures, he should have very little troubles dealing with reeds and be able to focus more on playing music instead of battling unplayable reeds.