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Every saxophone player knows the feeling of getting a box of five reeds and maybe only two of them play well, while the rest are a bit crappy or completely suck.
There’s a reason why those reeds suck.
Today we’re going to talk about saxophone reed preparation, specifically, how to break in new saxophone reeds so they stop sucking.
If all of your reeds suck right now, it’s probably because you need to break them in.
When you get a good reed, if you’re so lucky, you don’t get to just play it over and over again straight out of the box assuming you’ve found a reed that works, if you do that what will happen to that reed is that it will die a very quick death.
And you don’t want your reed to die on you, especially if it’s a good reed.
You have to break it in. You have to have some patience and discipline to not play on it over and over again even if it’s the only reed you have.
So here’s how to break in your new saxophone reeds.
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How to Break in New Saxophone Reeds: How to Fix Bad Reeds Step-by-step
If you’ve just bought new reeds, it’s not easy to hear that you have to play on your old crappy reeds for a while, as you break your new reeds in.
But that’s exactly what you need to do.
The process I will show you is not foolproof, so it will not work on every single saxophone reed, but I guarantee you that if you practice and experiment with it, you will end up saving, at least, a few bad reeds.
So let’s go over this step-by-step.
Step #1 — Label Your Reeds
The first thing you want to start with when you take new reeds out of the box is to label them on the reed case. I basically use a unique number to identify each of the reeds but you can label them however you want.
I normally start from zero and work my way up to see how many reeds I go through in a year.
What I also do, because the reeds will come out of the cases is label the butt of the reed with the same number as the case, so I know which reed goes into which reed case.
Step #2 — Soak Your Reeds
The next thing you need to do is soak your reeds in a glass of fresh, clean water. Most people just wet the reeds with saliva but I do not recommend that approach for various reasons.
I went over why I prefer water over saliva in this step in one of the tips in how to clean, sanitize, disinfect your saxophone reeds properly. You might want to have a look at that article if you’re looking to clean your old reeds from things such as reticent mold and mildew.
The key takeaway there is that you want to make sure your whole reed is wet.
Instead of simply wetting your reeds with saliva, soak them in clean, fresh water, fully-submerged for a few minutes, and then take them out and let them sit for a good 5-15 minutes to soak up water before proceeding.
Your reeds should be completely wet, but not waterlogged, both on the back and front and the outside and inside. So you’re not just wetting the surface, you’re soaking the reed through and through.
You know they are waterlogged if they start to see a little bit of translucency.
Step #3 — Test the Reeds Out, Take Notes
After you’ve soaked your reeds (and you don’t want to soak them until they are really, really, soggy), try them out one after the other noting how they play.
This is where the labels we made earlier come in handy.
Obviously, you need to dab the water away before placing them under your saxophone mouthpiece and trying them out—you don’t put them on your instrument still dripping water.
What you want to note down here is how hard or soft the articulation feels for each of the reeds. You need to put a little bit of pressure on your embouchure, with your lower lip, to see where it starts to close the reed off.
When testing your saxophone reeds, you’re looking for five basic things:
- Response: When you articulate a note, you want it to voice instantaneously without a thud or a squeak or a delay in the sound. This is the response of the reed.
- Pitch Level: Test the pitch with the mouthpiece only.
- Pitch Stability: If the reed isn’t balanced well, the pitch might be hard to control.
- The Range of Expression: Test the range of expression by getting louder and softer on low medium and high notes on your saxophone.
- Tone: In most cases, if you get these other factors right, the reed will have a nice tone. But do not make the mistake of testing your reed only on tone.
You might also need to note other things that affect reed articulation such as temperature and humidity to give them the benefit of doubt. Some days, places and times will be more humid than others, for instance, affecting how a specific reed plays.
I find that humid days are not really the best for reed testing, but that varies, so whatever…
You don’t need to play the reeds much more than is necessary for testing, so once you’re done testing a reed, put that aside and play through the rest of them.
This is a very crucial step. This is where you identify which reeds suck and which don’t—which ones have crappy articulation and which ones are okay.
Other things you might need to put down are things such as whether the reeds feel waterlogged, and which reeds feel more waterlogged than others, and so on and so forth.
The best ones will sound reedy and will have a decent articulation to them.
Once you’ve tried all of your reeds, and taken down some notes, you need to create a log of each of those reeds.
You then need to maintain the log of notes as you repeat the process of testing each of your reeds over, say, a week. You do nothing else to the reeds in this week, except test them, takes notes, put them away, and then take them out the next day and test them all over again.
You don’t play them, you don’t sand them—nothing.
Don’t be surprised if you find that you no longer like the reeds that you loved when it was hot and humid, now that the weather has changed.
That’s the way it is.
But the great thing about this is that when you know, for instance, that reed #4 works great when it’s hot and humid, and that reed number #2 works excellent when it’s not hot and humid, then you don’t sit and start filing down or sanding away your reeds for specific days—or even worse, haphazardly, because eventually, they’re not going to work on any day.
In fact, the longer you test them before any sort of adjustment—especially if you are a beginner and you can hardly discern the nuances of sound—the better.
Keeping your reeds separated according to what the temperature and humidity they work best might be all you need especially if the humidity and temperature changes a lot where you play.
Step #4 — Adjust Your Reeds
I want to prefix this letting you know that I almost never need to sand or adjust my reeds at all,
What I do after a few days is start playing them a little bit more, about 5-10 minutes a day, and then after about another week or so I take a very fine piece of 1200-1600 grit sandpaper (stuff that doesn’t feel like sandpaper at all) and just sand the grooved part of face of the reeds so that they aren’t so rough (the face will be the part that sits on the tongue).
But again, this is just a personal preference, I don’t like rough feeling reeds—maybe my tongue is delicate.
We all know that reeds are made of cane, what you might not know is that there’s really just a bunch of little tubes that run along inside the cane (those were for water for the plant, of course).
A reed is almost like straw, that’s why you can actually suck in (or blow) air through it.
Sometimes, if you close those straws or those openings of the tubes, you can actually improve the sound of the reed.
I don’t know exactly why, but, this method of reed adjustment works reliable enough for most saxophonists.
To adjust your reed by closing off these tubes, place it on a flat surface (face up), and rub outwards and away with your thumb on the face of the reed.
You probably want to do this with sufficient force a couple of time on all your reeds.
Once you are done with that, just like with the 1200-1600 grit sandpaper, the face should be smoother and easier to play.
An additional step, after this, is flattening the butt of the reed, where you have your reed case label.
You only need to flatten the butt of the reed, which is the part that contacts the mouthpiece, if it isn’t completely flat. Sometimes it’s concave or convex.
You need a reed knife to do this.
You probably can’t tell with your eyes how flat the butt of the reed but, get the bottom side up and use the knife to gently scrape outwards to make it flatter.
Step #5 — Playtest your Reeds
The last step after you’ve adjusted your reed is, of course, to playtest them. You want to try the reeds to see if they play better than before adjusting.
If they do, there you go, you’re done—no need soften a soft reed. If they don’t, they’re probably still hard and need more softening.
How to Soften Saxophone Reeds for a Better Sound (with the quick Reed Flick Technique)
I’m not one to spend a lot of time working on reeds, my schedule is pretty hectic. So when I get to chance to play the saxophone, I want to play the saxophone, rather than adjusting reeds.
I am going to show you a technique that I use when I’ve got a reed that’s just a little bit too hard.
So when I get a box of reeds and some of them don’t respond like I want them to respond, this is the technique I use. Sometimes it will make a reed that not playable, one that you would just chuck in the garbage, to respond.
Some people are probably not going to like the technique, and they’ll say it’ll break down the fibers in the reed. And that’s true. So consider this somewhat of a dirty trick to turn your bad reeds around.
Here’s what you do, take the reed out and hold across with the tip on the table of the mouthpiece, so that you are holding the tip of the reed with your thumb. And then give it a few flicks with your finger.
Be careful with this technique, if you go too far, then your reed will end up too soft, and you’re back to having a not so good reed.
The reed should play a little bit better than it did before.
And that’s how to break in saxophone reeds.
I hope this was helpful.