Your saxophone reed may seem like a small part of the horn - and, physically, that's true. But from a tonal perspective, it may be the single most important piece in your instrument. Choosing the right reeds for your saxophone and skill level is the first step to achieving its richest, warmest notes. In fact, it's even a good idea to buy a few different brands (popular brands include Rico, Vandoren, Legere and D'Addario) and varieties of reed so that you can try them all and find out first-hand which ones are perfect for you.
Naturally, the correct type of reed also depends on the kind of sax that you play. Alto saxophone reeds, soprano sax reeds and tenor sax reeds are all different. Even when those differences are small, the impact they have on your sound can't be overstated. When your reed matches your saxophone, the harmony between them will help you bring out the true soul and sound of the instrument.
The functional part of a reed is called the vamp. It's the part without bark, extending from the "shoulder" near the center of the reed and narrowing down to the tip. The length of the vamp has a strong impact on the reed's character, with longer vamps delivering the flexibility and responsiveness prized by jazz musicians. For concert performances, that crown is held by shorter vamps instead, because they offer better focus for precise playing and complex passages.
The vamp of a reed can be divided into the heart, which is the center section of the vamp, and the tip, which is the very end of the reed. Both are characterized by their thickness: the thinner the heart, the reedier the sound, and the thinner the tip, the quicker it responds. Tip thickness is a careful balancing act, however, because a heavier one can handle higher airflow, which means it's possible for a tip to be too light for a powerful playing style.
Traditionally, reeds have been made of a special type of grass called Arundo Donax. These are called cane reeds, and they became the preferred material because of their rich tone. Cane reeds have typically traced their origins to the Var region of France, although reeds from other countries, such as Argentina and Spain, have been gaining a bigger following in more recent years. Although the warmer, deeper sound of cane reeds is widely considered to be the gold standard, it is worth noting that natural variation between any two cane reeds can make them sound quite different, even if they're of identical size and strength.
An alternative to natural cane reeds is the synthetic reed. Made from composite materials that vary by manufacturer, these reeds have a few unique advantages. First, they're extremely consistent since there's no natural variation from one to the next. Second, they don't require any of the advanced care that cane may demand, such as conditioning or softening. Third, and most importantly, synthetic reeds are unaffected by humidity, and won't crack or warp over time. This makes them a good choice for saxophonists in marching bands and others that may need to play outdoors in wet conditions.
In the end, the choice between natural cane and synthetic reeds is going to depend on a few factors. If you're looking for the best-sounding reed for your recitals and performances, cane is probably the way to go. But if you'd like a reed that will last longer with zero maintenance and is impervious to the elements, you'll want synthetic. The best solution may simply be to keep a few of each, so you can choose the best option each time you play on a case-by-case basis.
Strength is a measurement of a reed's stiffness, and is usually indicated by a number printed on the reed and its packaging. Some manufacturers label strength with words instead, rating it "soft," "medium" or "hard." The standard scale for saxophone reed strength runs from 1 through 5, with 1 being the softest and 5 being the hardest reed. If you're a beginner, it's best to start with a softer reed, usually about a 2. Then, as your skills improve, you can work your way up to harder reeds. This is important because a stronger reed requires advanced breath control and embouchure to use.
There is no right or wrong reed strength - it depends on your skills, playing style and instrument, as well as personal preference. It may even take some experimentation to figure out the best reed strength for you, and that's completely normal. When you're shopping for your first reeds and still feeling out your optimum fit, a good rule of thumb is to lean on the soft side if you use a wide saxophone mouthpiece, and aim a little harder for narrower mouthpieces.
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