Monday, February 22, 2016

Quick Tip #3: What Reed Strength Should You Use?

When a saxophonist came to reddit to seek some advice on the confusing subject of reed strength, I was more than happy to help out. I thought it would be a good idea to share this information on here, while adding to it.


So what reed strength should you be using? Well, there's no right and wrong when it comes to reed strength.

Hard Reeds

First let's get something out of the way: stronger isn't necessarily better. Although beginners may want to use a softer reed until they have the basics down, musicianship isn't measured through reed strength. This fascination with hard reeds comes from many mis-reported setups from great musicians of the past, and the macho myth that somehow abilities are linked to how big your mouthpiece is and how strong a reed you're using. 

There is also this wrongly perpetuated idea that you need to play a hard reed for altissimo, but that couldn't be more incorrect. This comes from the fact that many folks rely on slightly biting, instead of having a firm embouchure to navigate this register (admittedly, it's a tough tendency to combat); a harder reed will allow you to do that, while a softer reed will close up on you.

How To Choose

As a rule of thumb, you should use a reed strength that allows you to play the bell notes at low volume, with a full tone (as opposed to sub-tone). Whether this is possible with a soft or hard reed is irrelevant. instead, when picking reed strength, a few things have to be taken into consideration:

1) Mouthpiece Geometry

Tip opening, baffle profile, chamber shape & size, facing curve and facing length will all affect how soft or hard a reed feels. If you're unfamiliar with these terms I would highly recommend reading these few articles on Theo Wanne's website:

As a general guide line, here is how each of the main mouthpiece parts will influence reed choice:

Hard ReedSoft Reed
Tip Openingsmalllarge
Facing Lengthlongshort
Baffle Heighthighlow
Chamber Sizesmalllarge

Comparing two extremes, a hard reed on a very small mouthpiece with an extremely long facing length, will feel the same as a soft reed on an extremely open mouthpiece with a very short facing length. Of course, with more subtle mouthpiece geometries, the choice of reed strength will become slightly more complicated, but you can still use the above chart as a guideline.

If you're switching to a new mouthpiece, the chart will also allow you to anticipate whether a change in reed strength may be needed. In other words if, for example, your new mouthpiece is the same tip opening but features a shorter baffle and larger chamber, you may need to come down a 1/2 strength down in order to get the same feel and resistance on the new mouthpiece.

2) Reed Profile

Saxophone reeds come in number of different profiles, and cuts, which is why a #3 reed from a certain brand will feel softer or harder than a #3 reed from another. Even within the same brand, different reed cuts will translate in a softer or harder feel.

For example, a thicker heart will tend to make the reed harder, while a thinner tip, or a filed cut will tend to make them feel softer, all else being equal. A great way to get an idea of how different brands and cuts compare is to use a reed strength comparison chart, many being easily found through a Google search.

Check out this great chart from Vandoren to get an idea of the variety found in reed profiles these days:

3) Playing style, physiology and personal preference

Reed strength guidelines are merely suggestions based on the most popular combinations, but we're all physically built differently. Play what you're comfortable with, not what someone thinks you should be using.

Some saxophonists like to blow a lot of air, others prefer to blow less. Some blow slow, some blow fast air and everything in between. You may prefer how softer reeds articulate, others prefer how hard reeds do. Some people like resistance, having something to push against, some people like a free-blowing setup.

Soft reeds may tend to sound more buzzy, while hard reeds sound more focused, but it's not as straight-forward as that as it depends a lot on the profile of the reeds you're using - whether it has a lot or little material in the heart, tip, rails, whether it's filed, unfiled and so on - and, again, the mouthpiece you're pairing them with.

If you look at (accurate) setups from great jazz saxophonists, it will be a great demonstration of the fact that there is no "best setup": Cannonball Adderley used a Meyer 5 and Lavoz Mediums for example, which is very reasonable, while Joe Lovano uses a Francois Louis 10* Superial "DC" 3.5 which is insane. Steve Lacy uses a ridiculous setup like a #12 mouthpiece and extremely soft, #1.5 reed.

To add to my point that you should use whatever works, Lee Konitz uses a Vandoren Jumbo Java mouthpiece, which wouldn't be anyone's first choice to get this "cool jazz" type of sound as it is a high baffle mouthpiece. It's hard to believe Lee gets his kind of tone out of this mouthpiece, yet he must be using it for a reason; this reason is that it's the best fit for his playing style, physiology, preferred reed cuts and habits.

What Should You Start With?

Although any setup could be the one that feels right to you, if you're just starting out, it would be best to remain within the median of possibilities. For jazz, a #2 to #3 reed strength, paired with a .070" or .075" tip opening (modern Meyer 5 or 6) on alto, and .95" or .100" on tenor (Otto Link 6* or 7) would be a great starting point.

As you progress, and acquire a better understanding of how reed, mouthpiece, horn and yourself interact, you may want to try to change one parameter at a time, in increments, and decide whether it makes your playing experience more comfortable, and can help you get closer to what you hear inside your head.

This wraps up this third installment in the Quick Tip series. Any question, don't hesitate to take it to the comment section below!

Categories: ,


  1. In your personal reed-choosing, do you go thicker/harder up front to leave room for the "break-in" process and fine-tuning through removing material/shaping?

    I guess maybe a better question is:

    When you chose a cut of reed and begin to break it in, do you prefer it to sound and feel immediately as you would like it to in performance, or are you looking for a reed to be acceptably playable only after significant break-in and extra shaping?

    I tend to favor a firmer Vandoren traditional 3 or a very soft Van traditional 3.5 on both the Selmer S90 190 or Concept pieces, and Rico/D'Ardario Reserve 3.25 feel very good but don't do what I want. Franciose Louis Classique and Vandoren V21 strength 3 are too light but they both are gorgeous and almost right. V21 3.5's are SLIGHTLY too heavy.

    Though I break a whole box in the same way, I always favor reeds that are responsive and beautiful right out of the box. Yet, I wonder if I'm missing out on potentially better long-term reeds, and suspect that if I "sharpen" my knife and sanding skills and start with heavier reeds, I may ultimately find more mastery over the very frustrating reed situation.


    1. That's a great question that would warrant another article altogether I think. Thanks for the idea. ;)

      Still, real quick, I DO start from reeds that are a little too hard and break them in over a week or longer if necessary. I find that after this break-in period, reeds are the perfect strength for me, and they remain at this strength for a while, as well as remain stable for a longer period of time.

      Before I started doing this, I was buying a couple boxes of reeds every month, now I'm not even sure when the last time I bought a box of reeds was.

      Reeds that start perfect out of the box tend to get too soft after a few days, and because they sound so good, I probably play them too hard too soon for too long to allow them to probably break in. This means they'll die out quickly.

      However, even if a reed is slightly more resistant than I would like, I can tell it will be a good performer after the break-in period from the first few notes I play on it. This translate in NOT having to do any work on it then. No cutting or sanding.

      Some reeds are too hard but balanced and will play great after a break-in period, while others have more material on one side or the other (which in my experience is the #1 reason reeds sound and respond poorly) and will need work. I'm no expert in reed adjustment, but I can usually salvage these to be good enough to practice on.

  2. Thanks for publishing this informative post. I've been reading
    for a while however I've never been compelled
    to leave a comment. I've bookmarked your blog and shared this on Facebook.
    Many thanks again for a really good article!

  3. Really bright, well written presentation. Thanks! I've had success with Fibracell and Legere synthetics, with the former being a bit bright to me. I always seem to want to be in the middle of two nonoptimal strengths- hard to believe since Legere offers 1/4 increments! My kingdom for a 2.625 Signature! :-)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Copyright © The Diligent Musician

Design by Anders Noren