Demystifying Reeds

Updated: Jan 21

That darned reed! If you're a clarinet or saxophone player (sorry double reeds, I won't even attempt to go there!) you will know about this little piece of timber that is so, so important to creating a good sound. However, some days, it just doesn't sound good!

Below, I'm going to go through some things I think you should know about reeds!

What is a reed?

So a reed is a piece of cane (a plant similar to bamboo) that is attached to a mouthpiece using a ligature (the gold or silver thing). This piece of cane is carefully shaped to have a thick straight end, a thin rounded end and gradually moves from thick to thin. This reed is what vibrates and creates the sound in a woodwind instrument.


When we talk about a reed's size we're referring to its thickness or strength. Basically how thick the reed is and therefore how hard it is to blow and make a sound. A size 1 reed is going to be very soft and easy to blow. They then go up in half steps (1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5 etc). There are also different cuts and shapes but to the novice, you probably won't be able to tell so don't stress about that!

So how do you know what size is right for you? Well, the general rule is to start on a 1 or a 1.5 for a beginner (I'm a mean teacher, I start my students on a 1.5 or a 2 unless they're having issues). This is because it's an easy reed to blow and create a sound. Downside of a soft reed - it generally sounds horrible and intonation is extremely unstable!

Once you've got the hang of blowing through the instrument, can make a consistent sound, and the old reed wears out, it's time to move up .5 of a strength! So if you were on a 1.5, it would now be time to purchase a size 2. You can keep moving up however I like to stick around a size 2.5 to 3 for my various reed instruments. Sometimes I'll even have a few different strength reeds in my case depending on what genre of music I am playing.

Lifespan of a Reed

How long a reed will lasts really depends on how much use it gets, how careful you are with it (it's easy to chip or break a reed) and also temperature and moisture to some extent. In sunny Queensland, Australia, mould is a very popular reed accompaniment due to the warm, humid environment! So be careful with your reeds, make sure they are dry or in a plastic reed holder once you're done and DON'T leave your reed on the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is a magnet for brightly coloured mould - as a school teacher, I can tell you that mould under reeds comes in all shapes, sizes and colours!

Cleaning Your Reeds

If you would like to clean your reeds there are a couple of things that you can do. You can place them in hot water to soak, you can soak them in mouthwash or you can purchase hydrogen peroxide from a chemist. It's also a good idea to wash out your mouthpiece with warm soapy water from time to time as well. If you don't remove your reed, or clean your mouthpiece, you could very well end up with something like this....


There are so many brands of reeds out there and the only way you are going to find one that works for you is to try, try, try. In Australia, schools often give students a Rico Royal. For the slightly more discerning player you could try a Vandoren and then after that, it's personal preference and experimentation. I like a Java (green) Vandoren size 2.5 or 3 reed for my alto sax but play a silver Vandoren size 2.5 on my clarinet. My tenor gets a red or green size 3 Vandoren as does my baritone sax! This is personal preference and just what I've ended up preferring over the years. Don't be afraid to buy one or two of each colour, size and brand and experiment!

My Reed Sounds Fuzzy!

This is a common problem and can often be fixed in one of two ways. This 'fuzzy' sound is created either by moisture in the mouthpiece which can be fixed by simply cleaning out the moisture. Otherwise, it can be caused by the fibres on the reed expanding as the reed gets wet, creating a bumpy surface. To fix this, simply place the reed flat side down on a blank piece of paper and rub it. You are basically sanding the reed so that all the fibres are flat again and the air can move across the reed easily.

Synthetic Reeds?

Reeds don't always have to be cane, there are cane reeds covered in plastic and even completely synthetic (plastic) reeds out there. There are pros and cons for all types of reeds but basically the cane reeds are the cheapest and last the least amount of time while the synthetic reeds are more expensive however, should last longer.

The idea of synthetic reeds is that you can make them 'perfect' and 'identical'. Also, weather and other factors shouldn't affect a synthetic reed the same way they do a cane reed. You also don't need to wet a synthetic reed, so have the ability to put one on an instrument and start playing immediately. Personally, this was a huge benefit when I was playing musicals with multiple instruments. The reeds would dry out between songs and the oboe reed (double reed) actually got stuck together and wouldn't blow! However, the downside to synthetic reeds is the cost and sound quality. So if this is something you're thinking about, go in and ask to play the reeds before purchasing (yes you can do this with synthetic reeds because they can be sanitised)!

If you have any questions about reeds, online music lessons or would like to do your first trial lesson, get in contact with me today!

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