San Diego Saxophone Lessons

San Diego Saxophone Lessons
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Sunday, December 7, 2014

The best reed for saxophone students, amateurs, and pros

The best reed that will work for any saxophonist is... a fresh reed that isn't broken! 


I can't tell you how many students, amateurs, and yes, even 'PROFESSIONAL' saxophone players I've seen playing on old, dead, chipped, cracked, and even broken reeds.  A colleague of mine was filling in as a ringer for a musical, and noticed that the clarinetist's reed looked as if it had been through a wood-chipper. He admonished the student and she rebutted, "I like this one; it's broken-in". At a show people were paying money to see! This isn't only an issue with younger players - I've known pros who play on crap reeds until they might have a gig and then they run out and buy two or three new ones.

Reeds to a saxophone is like gas to your car. You don't want to be running low, and certainly not out. It's advisable to have a variety of different brands and strengths of reeds on-hand, so if you are in a pinch you can find something that will immediately work for your situation. You never see electric guitar players going out to a gig without spare strings...

There's also the fact that reeds are made of organic material. Out of 10 reeds you are likely to use only five or seven, simply because the variances in the cane and cut won't always yield a playable reed. Once you use a reed, it will start to calcify (harden) and simultaneously break down from exposure to your saliva. Ever notice a white haze or white deposits on your mouthpiece? That is calcium; it's quite hard and it will inhibit the reeds vibration. If you find the BEST reed on earth, don't play on it for more than one or two weeks (depending on the number of hours you play). An old reed is like an old running shoe... it simply starts wearing down, and when you eventually get new shoes, you wonder how you could've been using the old ones at all! The problem with old reeds is that they soften over time. Say you are playing a Vandoren #3... after about two or three weeks of using it in band every day it plays like a #2, maybe a #2.5 if you are lucky. Unfortunately, your embouchure has adjusted to the softer reed, and when you slap on a brand-new #3 it feels like a board, leaving you to wonder what the heck happened.

I recommend that all my students buy one box of reeds per month (read: professionals, college students, and serious amateurs need to buy two boxes per month). You probably won't go through the whole box... in fact, that's the whole point. If you buy a box (or two) of reeds per month, pretty soon you will back-log a few reeds. Please factor this monthly purchase into the cost of playing the saxophone (a.k.a. the cost of doing business, if you aspire to play professionally). Eventually, you will backlog entire boxes of reeds. This has many advantages. Your reeds will age a bit longer which typically makes for better, more playable reeds. I usually label boxes with a sharpie by date, and always open the oldest box first. This method will also allow you to try different reeds and experiment with other brands and cuts.

A reed's perceived strength depends mostly on two very simple factors: how your chops feel that day and the weather. Yes, the weather! I recently visited the D'Addario/RICO factory, and they actually have to adjust the way they measure reed-strength when the humidity spikes or when it becomes very dry. So just because you thought you liked "Roberto's #3 Strong" yesterday doesn't mean it will play great today.


Some brands I like to experiment with for jazz playing are Rico Jazz Select, Rigotti, Vandoren V16 and ZZ, Rico Royal, and La Voz. For classical, I've tried Vandoren Traditional, Vandoren V12 (clarinet only, I think), Rico Grand Concert, and D'Addario Reserve.

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