What are Saxophone Reeds?

A saxophone would be nothing more than a collection of valves and brass tubing without the shaved bit of cane on the mouthpiece. It transforms into a soulful, vital member of any marching band or orchestra with the addition of the reed.

Natural cane is used to make reeds, which are thick at the bottom and gradually thin to the slightly curved top. It is held in place a metal band called a ligature that fits over the mouthpiece of the instrument. The air column from the player’s mouth is compressed and forced through the instrument in a regulated flow the reeds of the saxophone (or any other woodwind instrument’s reed). The reed also vibrates the air column, which aids in the production of the instrument’s sound.

The choice of reeds is a personal one made the musician. The majority of players have preferences for thinness, tone quality, and durability. A thinner reed is more likely to vibrate. Reeds naturally decay with use because they are made of natural materials, so many players keep several in their cases and rotate which reeds they use to maximize their durability. Because natural reeds are prone to cracking, splitting, and chipping, players may be forced to choose between a thicker, more durable reed and a thinner, better-sounding reed that breaks down faster. Another issue with saxophone reeds is their lack of consistency. In some cases, a player may only find two or three good reeds in an entire box. Because cane is a natural material, its quality and thickness vary, as opposed to the machines that cut it.

Saxophone reeds must be wet in order to vibrate properly, so it’s not uncommon to see saxophone players, as well as other woodwind players, walking around with a reed in their mouths, wetting it before playing.

Saxophone reeds, like other woodwind reeds, are cut to fit the mouthpiece opening of the instrument. The reeds are slightly curved at the top to match the mouthpiece’s curvature, and the player aligns the reed edge with the mouthpiece’s curvature, or a fraction below it, depending on personal preference. The ligature should be snug enough to prevent the reed from slipping but loose enough to allow full vibration. This is a skill that a player develops through repetition.

Some manufacturers have created synthetic polymer reeds that do not require pre-conditioning (wetting it in the mouth); synthetic reeds can also be sanitized and are more durable than natural reeds. Musicians are divided on whether synthetic reeds are as good as natural reeds and if they produce the same quality of sound.

Reeds for the saxophone can be purchased individually or in boxes of 10, 12, or more reeds. Reeds range in price from around $10 per box to up to $50 per box for high-end reeds. A reed makes an instrument sound the way the player wants it to sound and the way the audience expects it to sound.