I meet a lot of good saxophone players who are still struggling with reeds after many years of playing.
After experimenting with dozens of varieties of reeds, I have come to the conclusion that you really can FIX your reed problems forever and just move past this whole area of struggle by doing only a few simple things. Follow these basic troubleshooting steps and let me know if your problems are solved.
- Find the correct strength of reed. You would be surprised how many players are fighting against their reeds. If your reed is slightly too hard, your tone will be airy, and your embouchure will have to be too tight to play comfortably in order to get a good sound. If you can find a way to buy single reeds or at least by packs of three of each strength, you will more quickly zero in on the correct strength. Reed strengths are complicated. Be sure to google reed strength chart saxophone to see how your reeds compare to other brands. For example, according to some charts, an Alexander 2 is the same as a Java 3, or a Vandoren blue box 2.5.
- Consider Rigotti Gold reeds. The advantage of Rigotti is that they ‘micro-sort’ their reeds into finer gradations of strength. If you find your ideal microstrength, then you get a box of reeds that is MUCH more uniform in strength, and GUESS WHAT? They ALL play well!! This ‘micro-strength’ idea can be confusing to folks at first, but it’s actually pretty simple. Reeds get sorted into different strengths at the factory simply by weight. The machine cuts all the cane, and then sorts it by weight. Reeds in a certain range of weights go into a box and get labeled strength 3. So your box of ‘3’ Vandoren reeds is actually a range of strengths of reed that fell within certain tolerances of weight after they were cut. What Rigotti does that is unique is to sort that box of ‘3’ reeds again into light, medium and strong. This gives you a much narrower range of variation in strength from reed to reed. They still have half sizes also, so the next strength after 3 Strong is 3.5 light, then 3.5 medium, then 3.5 strong, 4 light and so on. Rigotti also has the best cane in the world. All the premium reed brands that I know of are actually rebranded Rigotti reeds, but WITHOUT the micro-sorting. Why would you want that? As a special benefit for folks with this struggle, I sometimes sell Rigotti reeds as single reeds, so email me at [email protected] if you want to buy a range of strengths of Rigotti reeds to try out. I don’t list them on the website because it is a pain selling single reeds and shipping them. By the way to tell what microstrengths Rigotti reeds are, look at the printing of the world ‘GOLD’ on the reed. Dark O in GOLD is light strength, no fill is medium, dark D is strong. Strange but true!
- Flatten your reed: Once you have your correct strength of reed figured out, you need to make sure your reed stays flat on your mouthpiece once it gets wet. The way to do this is simple. Lightly soak your new reeds, and then SCRAPE the reed on the back opposite the cut until it is flat. Below, please checkout a great video from Matt Stohrer showing you how and why to do this.
- Check your ligature: Make sure that your ligature holds the reed flat on your mouthpiece. Having a good ligature can really improve your experience of playing, because it keeps your reed from swelling (see step three above). It also frees the reed to vibrate, so it should be made of a material that does not dampen vibration (I’m not a fan of vinyl or fabric ligatures except for classical sax.) I sell these ligatures, and they get extremely good reviews from customers, but really any sturdy ligature that fits well should be ok. If you have a metal tenor mouthpiece, you might really consider the ligatures that I sell, as they are the best I have found for getting a really good, firm seal on those pieces.
- Check your mouthpiece: The mouthpiece is the most important piece of saxophone gear there is. If you are still having problems, then your mouthpiece might not have a flat table or might have a bad facing. This is very common. Most mass-produced modern mouthpieces are very uneven in quality. A minority of them come with a flat table and good facing, and unfortunately most of them don’t. In order to check your facing, you need a set of automotive or other feeler gauges and a flat surface. Drop the feeler gauges of different thicknesses into the gap between the flat surface and your mouthpiece’s facing, and see if it is even on both rails. If it is even, then your facing is more likely to be ok. Doesn’t mean it’s good, but it’s at least the same on both sides. Checking for a flat table is not so easy, but if your reed won’t seal on the mouthpiece doing the ‘pop test’ then you probably want to try some other mouthpieces.
- If you have no idea what mouthpiece to try, send me an email at [email protected] or read around in the mouthpiece section of this website. Simple answer: Ted Klum’s mouthpieces are just about the best facings available on the market today. Many of them are surprisingly affordable for how good the mouthpieces are. I can get any of Ted’s mouthpieces for you, or you can buy directly from his website. There are some other good options as well, but as far as I’m concerned, on new pieces it’s Ted Klum’s facings, and then everything else out there.
OK that’s it for this article. Did this guide help you to get your equipment problems out of the way and get back to playing? Am I wrong about something? Did I forget something important? Let me know in the comments!