the jazz authority; random dubiously zappy rants about 'the musicians music'.: Saxophone Reed Work

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Saxophone Reed Work

Well, I have a lot to say on this subject. At this point I'm going to post a little article on how to balance a reed. We all know the woes of sax reeds. This may help you salvage some of your throwaways or practice reeds.

I find that only 1/4 of the reeds I buy are free blowing right out of the box. Of the others, maybe half can be adjusted to a proper responding point. The rest I use for altissimo practice (as theose high tones will frap your reeds fast) and for kindling.

It has taken me many years of trial and error to learn how to do it right, and in most cases less is more. There is a great book that covers the subject, 'the art of saxophone playing by Larry Teal'.

Hope this helps - post your comment if you want more info on specifics.

Adjusting Saxophone Reeds
More unpredicatable than the weather, reeds remain a constant problem for most saxophone players. How many times have you gone to the local music store, purchased a new box of reeds, gone home, tried them out, and to your amazement and frustration found that the whole box was unplayable.The tips below are based on personal trial and error and as a result of studying with the great master teacher, Joe Allard, who could magically transform the worst reed ever into a good playable reed.

Balancing The Reed
The problem with many reeds is that they are not balanced. In other words, one side of the reed may be thicker than the other causing an imbalance, and making the reed respond poorly in various registers. The first thing to do is test the sides of the reed.Placing the instrument into your mouth as normal, tilt or rotate the mouthpiece to the left closing off the left side and exposing the right side which will vibrate. Blow a note (middle C Sharp for example), tilt the mouthpiece to the right closing off the right side and exposing the left side to vibrate. Blow a note---compare the two sounds, if one side sounds dull, airy, or is just harder to blow, that will be the side we want to adjust. After testing the reed by playing both sides, you can do a further test, by feeling underneath either side of the the reed, going towards the tip area and bending the reed up SLIGHTLY with one finger, one side at a time. The side that bends the least is the side that has more wood on it, and is the side that you will adjust. Using either, medium sand paper, a one sided razer blade, or a reed knife, scrape the side to be adjusted. Start in about 1/16" of an inch, and at the vamp, where the slope of the reed ends. Start at the vamp and work slowly towards the tip. Stop about 1/16" from the tip. Take very little wood as you get towards the tip, take more from the vamp to about 1/2 way down the reed. Test the reed, blowing both sides as before, and adjust until both sides of the reed are equal in sound and response. Avoid touching the heart of the reed, as this may result in the reed sounding unfocused and difficult to play in tune.

Reed Too Soft
If a reed is too soft, you can either:

1. Place the reed further over the tip of the mouthpiece.
2. Clip the reed using a reed clipper.
3. Burn the tip of the reed.
Clipping the reed usually makes the reed sound a little dull - burning the reed however seems to retain and in some cases brighten the sound of the reed. As in clipping, take the smallest amount possible, test and repeat, until the desired strength is achieved.

Polishing The Back Of The Reed
Using a flat surface, (table, bench top etc.) place a white piece of A4 paper on the table---holding the paper so it will not move, place the reed in the center of the page, using your strong hand, press the 1st two fingers ( index and 2nd ) of your hand onto the reed. Going clockwise or anticlockwise, rotate the reed in a circular motion, fast, and about 100 turns, this will polish, the flat side of the reed and make sure it forms a perfect "seal" to the mouthpiece.

This is especially helpeful when the reed has been played for a few days, as with moisture on it the fibres of the back of the reed may swell. Buying another box of reeds may help you find the 'magic reed', but you may end up spending more that day on reeds than your gig is worth. Feeling comfortable with the strength and sound quality of the reed, is a must if you wish to play well and to be creative. We can not be creative, if we are struggling to play poor equipment or a bad reed. I hope these tips on reed adjusting may help you as they have me. Happy reed adjusting.


Kevin said...

Wow, i didn't know you could burn reeds to modify the strength. How exactly do you do that?

Cameron W said...

With Alto and Tenor reeds you'll need either two 50 cent pieces, or two $1 coins (depending on the curve of your mouthpiece tip). If you have an older reed and wish to prolong it's life (or a new reed that's too soft), avoid clipping, as this will crush the fibres at the tip. Instead, burn the last 1/8th of an inch - or less - off using a candle and the two coins. Carefully place the two coins above and below the reed so the tip is just poking out (let a little extra show because the burning wont reach the very edge that's against the coin). Hold (with gloves, if you want) about two inches above the candle flame and try not to let the flame touch the coins too much! You'll see that the tip will blacken very quickly. Wave the reed into and out of the flame slowly, side to side to achieve an even burn, and put the coins and reed down carefully. As the tip is now charred, you'll need to have a fine sandpaper(400-600 grit) to smooth the tip. CREFULLY Slide the tip on it's side - with little pressure- from one side of the tip to the other (purpendicular to the sandpaper/counter). If you press too hard, you'll crack or chip the tip! Do this to give the tip an even curve and to sand off the charred bits. Do the whole operation with a dry reed.
Any questions?