14 Reed Tricks You Need To Know

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Today is the big day, you can now order BetterSax Jazz Cut Reeds, and to celebrate I made this video with my best reed tips that I have learned over decades of playing, studying with masters, and lots of trial and error.

If you have any additional tips that don’t get covered here, please share them in the comments section.

Tip #1: Soft reeds are okay

When we start out playing the saxophone we are given a very soft reed, like a 2 (hopefully), which makes getting your first sounds quite easy. As we develop, we gradually move up in reed strength. First to a 2.5, and then perhaps to a 3 or even 3.5.

It’s logical to get the impression that advanced players play on harder reeds, and soft reeds are only for beginners, but that is not true. Michael Brecker once told me that he played 2 strength reeds. Many of the most advanced saxophone players in the world play soft reeds.

I find that a lot of people can really benefit from going to a softer reed strength. I myself used to play much harder reeds, but by going softer, you end up needing less pressure from the jaw which reduces the tendency to bite and pinch off the sound. You don’t need to break reeds in, I just throw a 2.5 on and it works right away and most importantly, everything becomes a bit easier.

So, don’t be afraid to try softer reeds, if it was okay for Michael Brecker, it’s fine for us.

Tip #2: Soak your reeds in water

Our reeds need to be wet to work properly. While you can just put it in your mouth for while, it is much more effective (and hydrating) to put reeds in a cup of water for a couple minutes. You can also wet a few reeds at the same time this way.

At a certain point, your reeds will get a bit waterlogged if you leave them soaking for hours. I find this to have a negative effect on how they play, so avoid soaking them for too long.

Tip #3: Wet the back of your reeds

This brings us to tip #3, which is to wet the back of your reeds as well. We want the entire reed to get wet. Eventually, since reeds are full of holes like tiny straws, the water will make its way up there, but it’s a lot faster to just flip the reed over in the water or your mouth.

The bonus to doing this is that you now have a moist surface to help make a better seal with the mouthpiece table.

Tip #4: Getting a good seal

Get your reed to seal well with the mouthpiece. With your well hydrated reed you can spread a bit of that moisture onto the mouthpiece table which creates a sort of adhesive which will help hold your reed in place as well as provide a more airtight seal.

BetterSax Jazz Cut Reeds

Real quick, I want to tell you a bit more about the new BetterSax Jazz Cut Reeds. This is a project that I’ve actually been working on for years. There are lots of great cane reeds out there so it’s not easy to improve on those and offer something really new and different. So it took a long time, but we finally got what I wanted and the final result has really surpassed my expectations.

First and foremost, they play amazingly, and just like with mouthpieces, I like one design that feels at home in a variety of styles.

We call these jazz cut reeds but that’s a very broad term meaning these reeds are great for all popular styles of music where you want a nice balance between low medium and high frequencies coming out across the full range of the instrument.

This is a proprietary cut, meaning that you can’t get this same reed profile in any other box of reeds, it is truly a unique and new design, not just new packaging.

Speaking of packaging, the main reason I wanted to develop my ideal reed was so that I could play great reeds everyday, and never again have to waste these stupid single use plastic holders. It is actually crazy that people are still in 2023 packaging reeds in these things. We are literally throwing 10s of millions of these into the garbage every year.

Some companies are even wrapping their reeds with more single use plastic claiming that it is somehow beneficial to the player because it keeps the reed at the desired humidity. What happens to the humidity once you remove that plastic though? Your reeds are at the same humidity level as the air in the place you are playing them until you wet them and then they are wet. BetterSax reeds come in paper sleeves, the boxes are paper and we don’t wrap them in cellophane, because it’s entirely unnecessary and wasteful.

Yes, I am calling out every reed manufacturer, and saying publicly please stop using these things. I think it’s time that the saxophone community insists that we end the single use plastic reed sleeve now. If your favorite reed brand is using plastic in their packaging and that bothers you, you can send them a message, and buy reeds that don’t until they change.

Our reeds come from French cane growing in the south of France near where I happen to live, and we developed them with Marca, a family owned business that has been making reeds for multiple generations here. They have some really high tech and innovative methods which allowed us to get the precision and consistency we want from our reeds.

Extra added bonus, these reeds are certified organically sourced cane. It’s another win for the planet and hopefully that’s the direction more reed manufacturers will go in.

I put a link in the description to where you can order these reeds which are currently available for alto and tenor saxophone. I hope you’ll try them out and let me know how they play for you. I’ve been loving them.

Let’s get back to reed tips shall we?

Tip #5: Take your time lining up the reed

Make sure you have good light and take however much time is necessary to get your reed perfectly lined up and centered. I use the rails as my visual reference point. You want an equal amount of rail showing on each side underneath the reed.

You also want to line the reed up with the tip of the mouthpiece as exactly as possible. A crooked reed will not vibrate optimally and will be prone to squeaks.

Tip #6: Take time putting your ligature on

Don’t just throw the reed and ligature on in a rush. It take time to get these things perfectly lined up and that time is worth it. Your ligature is designed to be centered on the reed and the mouthpiece. If it is too far forward or back it can have an adverse effect on reed performance.

Tip #7: Learn to adjust your reeds

This tool right here is the Geeklet, it literally changed everything for me when it comes to reeds. It is so easy to use and make every reed play significantly better that learning a few simple adjustments makes playing the saxophone so much easier and more enjoyable.

I have other videos on how to use this, but real quick, just flattening and smoothing out the table of each reed before each playing session takes seconds, is oddly satisfying and once you try it, you’ll never go back.

It’s also very easy to balance each reed wing so that they vibrate more evenly giving you an instant boost in resonance, control and ease of play. If you buy one accessory it should be the Geeklet. You won’t regret it I promise.

Tip #8: Clip the tip of your reeds

Another adjustment you can do on reeds is to clip the tip when they get too soft. This is a reed clipping tool made by my friends at Marca. It’s considered by many to be the best reed clipping tool available and they make them today on the same exact machinery that they used several decades ago. This machine dates back to 1901.

Clipping the tip of a reed can extend its life a bit, but you can also use it to make a reed that is too soft a bit harder. I know a great saxophone player who buys the hardest strength reed he can find and then uses one of these to clip them to make them even harder. That kinda goes against tip #1, but always do what works for you.

Tip #9: Adjust the reed tip placement

Adjust the reed tip placement on the mouthpiece. It is best to keep your reed lined up with the tip of the mouthpiece and put it in the same position every time you play, however you can influence how a reed performs by moving it up or down very slightly in relation to the tip of the mouthpiece.

To get a reed to play as though it were a bit harder, move it up ever so slightly. Moving the reed down on the tip will make it play as though it were a bit softer.

Tip #10: Seal the surface of your reed

If you look at the heel of a reed, you can see that it is made up of lots of tine tubes. It is after all, it is a big piece of grass and those tubes were bringing the water up from the roots to the leaves when it was growing.

Flattening the table of your reed with a tool like the Geeklet takes care of that part. And you will feel how smooth and even it becomes.

The vamp of the reed can benefit from sealing these pores as well. So here’s another use of the Geeklet, take the handle and gently rub it back and forth here. It will smooth that part of the reed out, and seal up those pores protecting the inside of the reed from our saliva somewhat and extending its life.

Tip #11: Straighten out a warped reed

If you don’t wet an already used reed enough, you will often get something that is warped and plays really bad. Usually soaking a reed long enough will get it to return to it’s normal shape, but if you don’t have time to wait for it to soak properly, a quick hack is to place the warped reed on the table of your mouthpiece and flex it back and forth a bit. Larger reeds like tenor and baritone take longer to hydrate so you may need to use this trick on occasions where you just have to get the horn out quick and start playing right away.

Since reeds are made of wood, there is always going to be some level of warpage happening and that’s why flattening the table with the Geeklet before every playing session is so helpful.

Tip #12: Use a reed case

This is another absolutely essential accessory every saxophone player needs. When you’re done playing, you want to take the reed off the mouthpiece and put it away in a good reed case. This protects it from damage, keeps it flat reducing warpage and will hold some of the humidity in the reed for a time.

You want a reed case to have some holes in it so that air flows.

Tip #13: Rotate your reeds

A good reed case will have slots for several reeds.  We have these really nice magnetic, wooden cases for sale over at bettersax.com if you want one like this.

It’s good practice to soak each one in water daily and play on them a bit. This way you will have a variety of reeds to choose from for different situations. Like your best reed you may want to save for that upcoming performance, but you don’t want it to dry out completely so just play it a short time each day.

You might have another reed that is on the hard side and needs to be broken in. Playing it for a little while each day will help it break in very nicely until it may become a real winner that can last a long time.

Other reeds may be a bit on the softer side but still play well, these can be perfect for long practices sessions as they won’t tire out your embouchure.

Tip #14: Mark your reeds with a pencil

If you have multiple reeds going you really should keep track of which is which. The easiest way is with a simple pencil. I find that it’s easier to write against the grain than with the grain.

Tip #15: Avoid moldy reeds

For years reeds were always moldy and I didn’t know why. Then I realized by accident that when I left my reed case out in the air and not sealed up in my saxophone case, the reeds didn’t develop mold, or at least not as much.

Reed cases have these holes in them for air flow, but if you have an airtight case, it becomes a perfect environment for mold. So if don’t like moldy reeds, try storing your reeds in an outer pocket of your case if you have one. This did the trick for me.

Use the link in the description to order the new BetterSax Jazz Cut Reeds or visit BetterSax.com. I’m so happy with how these came out after all the development work. Watch this video next to learn more about how to get the best results from your saxophone gear.

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2 Comments

Ertell Whigham says:

Jay, as a serious professional saxophone hobbyist, I truly appreciate your instruction techniques and guidance. I currently use Lavoz Med on a Hite hard rubber mouthpiece, playing on a 1925 Selmer Mark V11 Alto. I get excellent response in all ranges with really great intonation. However, I’m looking to get a softer more open sound, similar to Bud Shank. I’m gonna give your Better Sax 2.5 Alto reed a try and let you know how it works out. Again, even after 30 years of serious playing, I still continue to learn. I’d also be open to trying your Alto hard rubber all around mouthpiece as well. I’ve tried various Meyer and Selmer HR but always returned to my Hite. As s note of interest, J.D Hite custom made this mouthpiece for me in his Fla shop before he passed away. In any case, appreciate your contribution to the sax community.
BTW, The south of France near Cerbere’ is one of my favorite places in the world! Have a great holiday. Ewhigham

Jay Metcalf says:

Ertell, great to hear this from you. I do very much appreciate you trying the reeds and the mouthpiece. Hope they are a good fit for you.

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