Reed Measuring Systems
Reeds are measured using numbers, words, or a combination of both. Each brand has its own reed measuring system. Reeds measured in numbers are usually done so starting with the number 2 (indicating a softer reed) and ending with number 5 (harder reed). Manufacturers may also measure their reeds by indicating Soft, Medium Soft, Medium, Medium Hard, Hard, or S, MS, M, MH, H for short. And others combine the two systems into a numbering system such as 2S, 2M, 2H, 3S, 3M, 3H, etc. Refer to our Reed Strenght Chart for details.
The main difference from one reed to another is how soft or hard they feel. Reeds are often classified with numbers, e.g., from 2 to 4 in half strengths. The higher the number, the harder or more resistant the reed plays.
Harder reeds allow for a louder, heavier, darker, or fuller sound, but they require support and a developed embouchure (mouth muscles). These reeds allow the performer to project more in upper registers of the instrument without sacrificing tone and texture. While these reeds perform well at louder dynamic levels, they often produce a stuffy, less desirable tone when used by students who have not developed a strong supportive embouchure.
With a softer reed, playing softly is easier. A soft reed speaks more easily and gives a bright, transparent sound. If it’s too soft, the sound may get very thin or buzzy. Soft reeds may be more difficult to play in tune. Playing on soft reeds may also lead to “biting” and other improper practices. This is the result of the performer overcompensating to bring the pitch up because of the softer reed. A softer reed will also tend to speak too easily. This can be a problem when trying to execute soft entrances in the upper register.
Thickness Does Not Equal Strength
Contrary to common belief, a 2-strength reed is not thinner than a 4-strength of the same brand or model. It is simply made of a softer, less resistant piece of cane. Softer reeds have a shorter play life. Eventually, most saxophonists choose a 3, 3.5, or an even harder reed.
Hardness Is Not Created Equal
Because cane is a natural product, each piece of cane will vary slightly in resistance despite being cut identically. As a result, ten reeds of the same strength from inside the same box will not be equally hard.
Choosing Reed Strengths
For beginners the best choice often is a medium-soft reed, such as a 2 or a 2.5 on a mouthpiece with a small to medium tip opening.
Reeds and Mouthpieces
Which reeds strength and model to choose depends on various factors, your mouthpiece being one of them. For example, a mouthpiece with a smaller tip opening requires a heavier reed. A reed that is too soft will close up and not respond at all. Conversely, a mouthpiece with a large tip opening will play easier with a lighter reed.
Tip openings are usually stated in thousandth of an inch. Most popular alto sax mouthpieces have a tip opening between 70 and 100. Popular tenor sax mouthpieces typically have a tip opening between 90 and 120.
Reeds and the Environment
Pick harder-playing reeds when humidity is very high, or when you play in resonant or large venues. A lighter-playing reed works better in dry air, dry acoustics, and small rooms. The reed that sounds great in a small, insulated practice studio may not be the best reed for your next concert.
There are two styles of reeds: French cut and American cut. French cut reeds, mainly used by classical woodwind players, have a thinner tip and are a bit thicker in the heart area. Reeds with an American cut usually feature a slightly thicker tip and less heart, producing a fuller, focused sound.
French Filed Cut
Reeds with a file cut or “double cut” have an extra strip or the bark removed in a straight line, just below the vamp area. This allows for extra flexibility and a fast response.
American Un-filed Cut
A “regular” or unfilled cut, sometimes referred to as “single cut,” helps produce a powerful tone.
The quality of cane is important for a reed’s longevity and a consistent response and playability. Premium reeds offer a higher yield of playable reeds because the cane is more carefully selected.
Several Models to Choose From
Most reed manufacturers offer several models of reeds. The best way to find the right reed for your sound, playing style, and mouthpiece is by trying each. Reed makers provide useful information on the characteristics of their reeds.