How to break in a new reed on saxophone. Guide to preparing sax reeds for beginners

How to break in a saxophone reed

ūüé∑Written by Greger Hillman, your friendly saxophone teacher online

When you buy a new pack of saxophone reeds you will find that the reeds need some preparation in order to play well with your sax. This is especially common with cane reeds as they are made of cane, a living material that change in relation to it's environment.

It can be especially challenging to break in a saxophone reed during winter time, when the air is dry.

The good news is that there is an easy 5 step process to prepare your saxophone reeds, no matter the weather outside, and that's what you'll learn about here.

In the video I'm showcasing the reed method with an alto sax reed, but the process is exactly the same if you play soprano sax, tenor sax or baritone sax.

5 step process to Break-in your reeds

  • Take out your reeds from the reed box
  • Prepare multiple reeds at the same time
  • Label your reeds to keep track of the good ones
  • Soak the reed in water to seal the pores in the cane
  • Play the read for only a few minutes to begin with

Prepare multiple reeds

I like to have 4 reeds ready to play at all times. The benefit of that is that if one reed breaks or fails I can quickly change to a good reed and keep playing. 

The basic idea here is to prepare multiple reeds and prepare them in rotation. I'll explain what I mean in more detail below, but the first step is to take out the reeds from the pack.

Use the right kind of reeds

This may seem obvious but I've actually had several saxophone students come to their first lesson with clarinet reeds instead of saxophone reeds. And I can see why because the reeds look similar. However, you cannot use a clarinet reed on a saxophone mouthpiece. It doesn't fit.

Most experienced sax players have their reed selection criteria dialed in, but if you are a beginner you should definitely make sure to use a good beginner saxophone reed.

Label the reeds

I label my reeds from 1 to 4 simply by drawing lines with a pen on the thickest part of the reed. Not on the flat surface but the back of the reed, facing opposite the reed tip.

  • Reed #1 has one line
  • Reed #2 has two lines
  • Reed #3 has three lines
  • Reed #4 has four lines

This makes it super easy to keep track of which reed I'm using and which I need to replace by breaking in a new reed. I like to keep them in a reed guard that also makes it easy to protect the reed tips from damage.

Soak the saxophone reed

Once you've got your reeds labeled you need to make them wet by soaking them in a glass of clean water or simply by putting them into your mouth one at the time for about a minute.

This process takes a few minutes and that's also why it's good to prepare your reeds in advance, so that you do not come to a practice session or gig unprepared.

By soaking the reeds in warm water you close up the pores and reed fibers in the cane which helps with the overall seal between the reed and mouthpiece once mounted with the ligature.

Make sure to soak the entire reed. You do not want a dry reed as it's much harder to play. Simply use fresh water you can make a harder reed soft which is useful when you have reeds with a higher strength.

The moist on the reed will help with the tight seal that's needed between the sax reed and the mouthpiece. Further more, playing a wet reed is much easier as it vibrates more freely compared to a dry reed.

Guide: How to put on a saxophone reed the right way 

NEVER use any chemicals, Hydrogen Peroxide or soap on your actual reeds. 

Play the reed for only a few minutes

Start off easy by playing the reed for a few minutes to get a feel for it. If your feel any resistance playing your new saxophone reed you can massage it gently by pressing on the core of the reed with your thumb. That way the reed can loosen up slightly and get primed for playing.

I've found that playing with a large vibrato you get a similar effect as you press the lower lip up against the reed.

Once you feel the reed responding to your efforts you repeat the same procedure with the next reed you are preparing. I will normally do at least two reeds at a time. Or, if I'm setting up a new sax reed pack, I also do 4 new to fill up the reed guard with good reeds to play.

Get rid of the bad reeds

I've played thousands of saxophone reeds over the past 35 years and can honestly say that they are not all great.

In my experience you often get a mix of good and bad reeds in a 10-pack.The overall quality of the reeds have become better over the years but you still need to be prepared to throw a few of them away.

I've had faulty reeds and great reeds in the same carton from brands like Rico, Vandoren, Hemke and other reed makers. In recent years there's been great improvements in how these companies produce the reeds and that helps with the quality.

But still, no two reed are the same and that goes for both cane reeds and synthetic or plastic reeds for that matter.

All reeds have different characteristics

I found that even though you have two identical reeds side by side, they can sound and play very differently. The performance and difference is another possibility to shape your saxophone sound.

I personally keep my reeds labeled with “S” for sharp (more direct tone) and “M” for a more mellow tone. Then I pick the reed that fits the music that I'm playing the best. Depending on the sound you want there

When you start to get more into the weeds of saxophone reeds you start to notice those nuances regarding performance, how they affect intonation, if they are easy to articulate and so on.

Rotate your good reeds

You can make your saxophone reeds last longer by rotating them. In my case, I have four reeds that I alternate between. That way they are all in good playing condition and I know for a fact that when one fails I have three more as a backup. 

Pro tip: This is especially useful when you are doing concerts or playing gigs as there's no time to try out another reed. You simply switch to one of your alternate reeds and keep playing. 

Maintain your good saxophone reeds

Using a reed guard to store your reeds is an easy way to keep your reeds in good shape. They are safely stored in their own slot and the flat surface helps keeping it moist when it's not played.

My routine is to take out each read one by one from the reed guard and soak it in water every other day, even if I'm not planning to play the saxophone that specific day.

I also make sure to wipe of any excess moist before putting them back in the reed guard. That way there's just enough moist on the reed to keep it primed without dampening the cane which can give the opposite result.

This can be a bit tricky if you are a saxophone beginner, but by getting into the habit of going through the process of breaking in and maintaining your reeds, it will all become easier with time. 

This will useful to keep your reeds playing for extended periods of time. It's not uncommon to be able to use the same reed for days of playing the saxophone

Replace the reed before it fails

There are several signs that your saxophone reed is about to fail. Learning how to recognize them will help you get ahead of the problem and change the reed before it start giving you issues.

Cane reeds can only last so long and there are tells that your reed needs to be replaced with a new one.

The most common tells are that:

  1. The sound in the upper register gets thinner: If you listen to your own saxophone sound you will notice that a worn out reed will give you a thinner sound in the upper register
  2. Certain notes are almost impossible to play without getting a squeaky noise or scratched sound
  3. Playing in the altissimo register becomes increasingly harder as the worn out reed becomes harder and harder to control

How to make a hard saxophone reed soft

When you have to hard saxophone reeds you'll notice a resistance when you try to blow air into the mouthpiece of your saxophone. 

If you are using a cane reed there are three main methods to soften the hard reed to make it easier to play.

Method 1

The first method is to gently press down on the core of the reed when you have it attached to the mouthpiece with the ligature. This will make the Cane Fibre more limber.

You should avoid pressing on the tip or thin part of your reed as it will most certain break it. I'm referring to the core, which is the thicker part of the reed. I usually press down gently 3-5 times to see how the cane reed responds to the treatment.

There's always the risk of breaking the reed if you press down to hard. That's why you should do it in phases, both to avoid the reed from breaking but also so that the reed doesn't become too soft.

The reed strength will dictate how much you can adjust the reed by using this method.

You need to keep in mind that there's no way to make a soft reed harder so you need to be careful not to go too far when using this method.

Method 2

The second method can either be done separately or in conjunction with the first method. You need a piece of fine grit sandpaper that you place on a table. Remove the reed from your mouthpiece and place it on top of the sandpaper. 

Gently pull the reed in the direction of the thickest part of the reed. Make sure not to go the opposite way as it can damage the tip of the reed. 

Repeat the same motion 5-10 times and make sure the reed is wet when you put it back on the mouthpiece again. If the reed still feels hard to play you need to repeat the process and brush of a bit more of the flat side of the reed.

Always keep the flat side of the reed down on the sandpaper. Failing to do so will make the surface uneven. That will result in leakage in the seal between the reed and the mouthpiece, resulting in a worse saxophone sound.

To be totally honest, you will probably not even be able to play that reed anymore if that happens.

Method 3

The third method include using a reed knife to change the core of the reed. This is a more advanced method and I've not really found it to be that useful myself.

However, I know of other saxophonists that use a reed knife and a reed clipper to adjust both the shape and rails of the reed.

Personally, I'm not that type of reed geek and wouldn't recommend that you spend too much time with a reed knife (unless you are a reed geek yourself) or really into the customization of your own reeds. For most players (including me) it's a lot easier to toss the reed out and get another instead.

These methods works to fix all saxophone reeds as well as on a Clarinet Reed.

How to make a hard synthetic sax reed soft

If you play a plastic reed or a synthetic reed there is no risk free way to make the reed softer. I've broken several reeds trying different methods and the only way I've managed to make them more soft is by pressing down the core of the reed.

However, this method is not fool proof. I've managed to do this successfully once while breaking two other reeds. So, with a hit rate of 33% it's not ideal to do it this way.

For me, the easy fix was to simply buy a couple more synthetic reeds that where soft in comparison to the previous reed.

How do you break in a reed without playing?

You soak the reed in fresh water for a couple of minutes. Wipe of the water by putting the reed in your mouth. Store the reed in the reed guard until you are ready to play it. It may take a few minutes playing the reed before you get it to pop. However, with the soaked reed all the pores and cane fibers are sealed which makes a huge difference.

How do you break in a reed fast?

The fastest way to break in a reed is by holding it under warm tap water for about 30 seconds. This will make the cane reed warm and the fibers and pores start to seal up. Wipe off the excess water by putting the reed in your mouth for about 10-15 seconds before putting it on the mouthpiece with the ligature to hold it in place.

How long do you soak a saxophone reed?

You can soak a saxophone reed for 10-15 minutes without any problems. Beyond that the reed can become softer and hard to play. Leaving the reed in water for days can cause mold to form on the reeds if they have been used before. If they are brand new it's not as big of a deal. However, you will need to leave them to dry a bit before playing the reed if you've had them in water for days.

Conclusion

You can break in new saxophone reeds in a few different ways, but following the simple 5 step process is the easiest way to make sure you have good saxophone reeds ready to play. 

Soaking the reed in warm tap water to make it damp and moist will help you break-in the reed.

The benefit of preparing your reeds in advance is that you know there's a good reed waiting for you when the one you are playing begin to fail.

Having issues with intonation, thin sound in the upper register, diminished tonal quality, trouble hitting and controlling overtones are all warning signs that your saxophone reed are starting to fail.

Using a Saxophone Reed guard will help protect your saxophone reeds and keep the flat surface moist while it's in contact with the reed guard.

You can maintain your good reeds by keeping them moist, even during the days when you are not practicing or playing your saxophone. The key is to never let your reed dry!

Having a good reed will help you with all aspects of saxophone playing. That's why it's elementary for all saxophone players to learn how to handle the saxophone reeds.

Saxophone teacher online Greger Hillman

Written by Greger Hillman

Greger Hillman is a saxophone teacher with over 35 years of experience playing and teaching saxophone.¬†Founder of LearnSaxophone.com –¬† where you come to learn how to play saxophone.

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