Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Quick Tip #4: The Easy Way to Break-In, Adjust and Maintain Saxophone Reeds

As saxophonists, reeds are one of our most critical pieces of equipment, yet they are the least consistent of them. This is why every woodwind player needs to come up with a serious routine to get the best out of their reeds.

There are many different methods, and countless guides of various complexity found online, so it is an individual responsibility to find what works best.

What will be presented today is a method that requires very little effort and skill, while being proven to be working for me, and many students and fellow musicians who have adopted it, over the course of several years.

Breaking In Reeds

1. Soak new reeds in luke warm water, and give them time to soak through. A good indicator is to watch the heel darken as it gets saturated with water.

2. Play each new reed for no more than a few minutes. Avoid playing too loud, too high or too low, and refrain from using hard articulation. We don't want to stress the cane but rather slowly reveal its elasticity.

3. When you're done, place reeds on a flat surface and seal the pores by gently rubbing your thumb on the vamp, heart and tip, in one direction, from the shoulders to the tip. You only need to do this once.

4. Over the course of a few days, gradually increase range and dynamic.


Reeds can radically change in nature over the first week. After that you'll start having a good idea of which ones play and sound best, and which ones are less enticing.

It would be a good idea to use a numbering system to keep track of good and bad reeds, or use a case with numbered slots. There are many different products with this feature.

A cheap relatively flat piece of glass to use for step number 3 can be found in most hardware stores in the form of welding lenses.

Adjusting Reeds

For the purpose of this article, we'll focus on correcting only one deficiency, which is unbalanced vamp and shoulders. This is one of the most common problems with reeds, and one that can radically change how a reed plays and sounds when addressed. It's also one of the easiest and foolproof reed modifications.

There is also a myriad of tools, like knifes, expensive reed profilers, reed clippers and so on, but I would recommend using a tool that's one of the most versatile and easy to use: the ReedGeek.

In order to identify a balancing issue, we will use a simple trick: put your mouthpiece inside your mouth as usual, but rotate it slightly so that one side of the reed is pushed against your bottom lip while the other is allowed to vibrate freely. You don't have to tilt the mouthpiece much in order for this trick to work and you'll find the sweet spot through experimenting. Pay attention to how the reed responds and sounds, and repeat the procedure to evaluate the other side of the reed. The side that we're listening to with this trick is the side that is freed up.

Once you've determined whether one side plays and sounds differently than the other (in which case your reed is unbalanced) identify the one that's the darkest and most resistant. We will be removing material from this side.

It would be recommended to place your reed on a solid, flat surface in order to start removing material, but with enough experience, you should be able to perform these modifications while holding a reed in your hand.

Please take a look at the image below to get an idea of where to remove material. This represents a safe area, but particularly bad reeds may require touching up the shoulders as well (which is the area below the shaded indicator in the image below):

Gently, scrape material off the stuffy, dead side of the reed. We're talking about very fine sawdust here. If this is your first time adjusting reeds, put the reed back on the mouthpiece and play-test every time you remove material. Your goal should be to remove as little material as possible between each play-test. It's easy to scrape too much cane off the reed and you can't put it back once it is gone.

With enough experience, you'll start getting a good idea of how much material you need to remove, and fine tuning reeds will generally require 2 or 3 passes total. If you remove too much material and ruin a few reeds, don't give up. I surely had my share of "accidents" due to impatience but adjusting reeds takes me a minute nowadays.

What can you expect from using this single adjustment process? Well, at the very least you can make every reed in a box good enough to practice on. The bad reeds will become usable and you won't have to discard them (like throwing money out of the window), and good reeds will become great.

There is way more you can do to adjust reeds, and fine tune their response and sound of course, but I'd rather play than deal with reeds. With this said, if you're interested in reading more about the subject, Ray Reeds "The Saxophone Reed: The Advanced Art of Adjusting Single Reeds" is probably the most complete and thorough book detailing the fine nuances and advanced techniques of reed adjustment.

Storing and Maintaining Reeds

After breaking-in and adjusting your reeds, the last thing you want is for them to rapidly deteriorate or change in nature, which is why you need a proper reed storage solution. The goal here is environmental stability, which is achieved through keeping reeds humid, without being saturated with moisture.

This subject has already been discussed at length on the Diligent Musician, so please refer to the first few sections of the (Alto) Saxophone Reed Case Roundup Review.


This wraps up the 4th installment of our Quick Tip series. Any questions or comments, don't hesitate to take it to the comment section!

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