The science of choosing a reed is a bit like the science of choosing guitar strings - there isn't one! Every player will have their own favourite brand, strength and even position, so it will take a bit of trial and error before you find what's best for you.
We've put some helpful hints and tips below to help you make a choice -
What is a reed?
The reed is the thin strip of normally yellowish material which vibrates to produce a sound. The reeds of most woodwind instruments are made from Arundo donax ("Giant cane")
An Alto and Tenor Saxophone reed side by side
Attaching the Reed
The back of the reed is flat and is placed against the mouthpiece, the rounded top side tapers to a thin tip. These reeds are roughly rectangular in shape except for the thin vibrating tip, which is curved to match the curve of the mouthpiece tip. All single reeds are shaped similarly but vary in size to fit each instrument's mouthpiece. They're held in place with a Ligature.Hardness is generally measured on a scale of 1 through 5 from softest to hardest. This is not a standardized scale and reed strengths vary by manufacturer. The thickness of the tip and heel and the profile in between affect the sound and playability. Cane of different grades (density, stiffness), even if cut with the same profile, will also respond differently.
Strength is generally measured on a scale of 1 through 5 from softest to hardest and goes up in halves (or 0.5 in decimals!) This is not a standardized scale and reed strengths vary by manufacturer (Rico reeds are generally thinner than Vandoren, for example) The thickness of the tip and heel and the profile in between affect the sound and playability.
A thicker reed is more difficult to play but thicker reeds do offer a much better tone production and thus improve the sound of an instrument. Beginners or young students almost always start on a 1 & 1/2 or a 2 strength reed and progress through the thicknesses as they progress and become more advanced players.
We currently stock Rico, Rico Royal and Vandoren reeds. Is there really much difference? Rico are the cheapest and most popular with schools and young children. Their boxes of 10 reeds are great value for money. Rico Royal reeds are better quality and often suit the more advanced beginner or intermediate player. Vandoren reeds are the most expensive but do offer the best tone production and quality. These are used by advanced and professional players.
There's no reason you can't mix and match what reeds you use. Some beginners find the quality of the Vandoren reeds make the instruments easier to play and learning becomes easier as a result. Others find that because of the number of reeds they go through, the Rico reeds are best value for money.
Longevity - How long should my reed last?
Like so many things with reeds, there's no exact science. If a reed is cared for, handled delicately and dried gently after playing it will last longer, but there's no definite timescale to measure it against. Some reeds will last for weeks, others will last a few days. It's all down to the organic nature of the cane!
It's for this reason that some schools have started to use plastic reeds for their youngest beginners. While the tonal quality is far inferior to the cane examples, they are long lasting and can make a good start on an instrument much easier.
Ok, I understand all that - so which is best for me?
Reeds, like mouthpieces on brass or strings on guitars, are very individual. It's best to try a couple and find a brand and strength you're comfortable with through trial and error.
Helpfully, the reeds are all organised by the instrument and key they're designed for - so if you're playing an alto saxophone or an Eb Clarinet, it will say so in the title.
For C clarinets there is no 'C' reed, so the the Eb reeds are the subsitute.
Our full range of instrument reeds can be viewed here.