Reeds, Resistance, and the Three Little Bears
Finding the right reed is like aiming for a moving target. Depending on your experience level, type of saxophone, size and style of mouthpiece, embouchure and diaphragm strength, and the sound you’re aiming for (Stan Getz and Clarence Clemmons played the same instrument with opposite results), these variables mean it takes experimentation to find the right reed. What we’re really searching for is the appropriate amount of resistance from the reed. Meaning how much effort does it require to play? Like the children’s story about the three bears, it’s a case of too hard, too soft, and finally, just right.
“Just right” is a zone, not a number. It’s about the amount of resistance and the type of buzz a reed does (or does not) provide. I find it helpful to think of it in zones: too soft (bright and buzzy); just right; too hard (super dark, squeaky, hard to play).
I like to be on the hard side of just right. This translates to me working harder in the bottom end of the horn in return for a strong, supported sound in the top.
In general, you want a reed/mouthpiece combination that gives you the most playability from low D to high C. For beginners, a softer reed and smaller mouthpiece opening will make playing easier and more consistent. But it’s important to test harder reeds from time to time. Like lifting weights, if you never move up you’ll stop seeing gains.
Often overlooked, this can make all the difference. If your reed is not properly aligned with the mouthpiece, it doesn’t matter what brand and size it is. I like a sliver of mouthpiece tip visible behind the reed when I press it down.
If you don’t take great care to align the reed, your sound will suffer and it will be more difficult to play.
I have a simple routine involving smoothing, sanding, and soaking, that gives all my reeds a fair chance. I also have a simple suction test that tells me if my reed is good and properly aligned. If it passes this test I know I’m in good shape. If not, I may need to re-align or try another reed.
If a reed is too hard, but you need to play it, try pushing hard on the heart (thick meaty middle part) while it’s on the mouthpiece. This can soften it up a bit. You can also try sliding it back a pinch on the mouthpiece. If it’s too soft, you can push it up (so the reed tip extends slightly beyond the mouthpiece tip). This will temporarily make the reed stronger.
I’ve tried everything from plastic cases to soaking reeds in water round the clock, to leaving it on the mouthpiece. My best results come from using a Rico Case with humidity pouches. For me, constant soaking leaves reeds waterlogged and storing it on the mouthpiece leads to warping. The Rico case + pouch keeps them in great shape for as long as they’re playable. (When a reed gets too thin for me I get rid of it.)
TL;DR (Too long; didn’t read)
You want a reed that requires some effort—but not too much—to play. It should result in a fairly even sound from bottom to top. Try a couple brands to feel the difference in buzz (Vandoren Java vs Rico Reserve, for example). Then find a size that is easy to play in the low register. Increase the strength a half size at a time until it becomes too difficult to play from low Bb to F. Go down one half size from that and there’s your “just right” reed.
Reed Prep Tips from Bob Reynolds:
Press the reed against the mouthpiece tip to check its position. A tiny sliver of mouthpiece is all you want visible behind the reed.
too far back
too far forward