A Simple Guide to Saxophone Reeds

Saxophone Reeds - Beginner Guide

Every saxophone needs a reed. There is no way around it. A saxophone reed is essential for making a sound of any kind, and every saxophonist, at one point or another, will have a favorite brand, size, and style.

Whether you play the tenor sax, the soprano, the alto, or a baritone saxophone, this simple info guide can be used as a go-to resource, especially for beginners but also important for more advanced players.

I’ll be discussing:

  • how reeds produce sound
  • the difference in reed sizes
  • how long reeds typically last
  • the difference between each brand
  • how to go about selecting your own reed
  • and as a bonus, I’d like to delve into the heated debate of wooden versus plastic reeds!

How Reeds Produce Sound

As you may be aware, a saxophone is essentially a handheld resonation chamber. 

To sum it up very briefly for those unaware, it amplifies the sound passing through it at a specific pitch, and pressing buttons changes the length of the chamber the air travels, thus changing the pitch.

The noise getting amplified, in this case, is the vibration of the reed, which will produce a resonant sound.

For us to get the typical “saxophone” sound, a player must use a precise amount of air while blowing into the mouthpiece to create a continuous column of airflow. Too much or, more likely, too little will not be conducive to continuous airflow.

Saxophones belong to the reed instrument family, together with oboes and clarinets.


What Type, or Reed Strength Should I Be Using

Now you may be asking yourself “Why do I need to know about reed strength?”.

Well, to choose the right strength for you, it helps to know that the reed, in combination with your airflow ability, is the main producer of sound. Choosing a reed will, in turn, affect how you sound. In particular, you’ll want to note that the main factor at play is its stiffness.

Most lay on a gradient somewhere between 1 and 5 in half increments, meaning 1, 1 ½, 2, 2 ½, 3, 3 ½, etc.

It’s not a standardized scale amongst the different brands (Rico ones tend to be thinner and softer than Vandoren for example). But this scale will give you a rough estimate of the thickness and strength of your reed.

Generally speaking, you want to pick a size you are comfortable blowing into.

The thinner the reed, the easier it will be to produce a sound, but the worse the quality of that sound will be. Inversely, the thicker the read, the better it will sound, but it will be much harder to blow into.

Below I will include a strength chart comparing popular brands and models.

Strength chart comparing popular reed brands
Strength chart comparing popular reed brands

What Are the Best Reed Brands?

When it comes to selecting a reed brand, it really comes down to personal preference, but there are some distinct differences between each brand. There are some brands that are also very good on clarinet reeds.

When it comes to my own personal experience, there are two major players in the reed business.

While other companies make quality reeds as well, some are much more expensive and exotic than what we are discussing today. Money and quality-wise (and also for the sake of simplicity) I would go with either Rico or Vandoren Reeds.

Rico Reeds – Best for Beginners and Value Wise

Rico Reeds are the best for beginners, and also the best ones value-wise.

Rico Reeds - Tenor Sax
Rico Reeds for Tenor Sax

There are some higher-end Rico products, like the Rico Royal series, but unless you’re specifically looking for thinner reeds with more flex or “play” in the wood for high notes or other more niche applications, Rico Reeds typically aren’t the “best in the business”.

Don’t get me wrong, however, there have been many master Rico players, and they are fine reeds indeed.

Vandoren Reeds – Higher Quality, Ideal for More Advanced Players 

Vandoren Reeds are the counter to Rico. They are typically thicker, making them harder to use for beginning players, and typically more expensive.

Vandoren Reeds - 5 Reeds Taster Pack
Vandoren Reeds – 5 Reeds Taster Pack

They are very high quality, however, and produce very clear and rich sound in comparison to most other reeds on the market.

I’m a little biased, but I believe they are the best widely available reeds on the market (provided of course you’re willing to pay a little more and can play a harder reed). I’ve been playing Vandoren’s for years, and they are by far my favorite.


What Reed Model is Right for Me?

The reed that’s right for you is the one you like to play. There shouldn’t be any real pressure to play any particular brand or size, just whatever you have access to and are willing to learn on!

For most people, they begin on a 1 or 1 ½ Rico as they are pretty good and pretty cheap, and they work their way up. For reference, in case anyone was curious, I most often use Vandoren Java 3 ½ reeds. However, you should use whatever feels comfortable to you. 

Also, just in case it wasn’t obvious, you’ll wanna make sure it’s for the right instrument… for instance, an alto sax reed would be too small for a tenor saxophone and vice versa.

An Alto and Tenor Sax reed side by side
An Alto and Tenor Sax reed side by side

How Long Do Reeds Typically Last?

The life span of a reed varies wildly. Some people can go through 2 reeds a week, some can make 1 last almost a year, it all depends on the player really. I’d say it depends on what you would consider as “acceptable” to play on.

Personally, I take pretty good care of my reeds, but If I’m playing quite frequently, I could go through 1-2 reed(s) a month.

My reeds are almost always intact (emphasis on almost), but I choose to discard them when I start to notice that the reed’s “tone” has given up, and it doesn’t produce the sound I’m looking for.

When I was first starting as a kid, I would chip and mangle my reeds constantly and would go through lots of them (although sometimes I’d play on chipped reads anyways if it was all I had). A really important accessory is a case where you can safely store your reeds or specific space on your saxophone case where they are safely kept. A reed case is actually among one of the best and most useful gifts or products that can be offered to a sax player, whether beginner or professional.

If you play for long enough you get a pretty good sense of how long reeds will last for you, and that’s all that really matters.


Plastic vs Wooden Reeds

Now, take this as you will, but I am about to say something “controversial”. If you are a fan of synthetic reeds, I’m sorry. I don’t begrudge your right to play them, I hope they work wonders for you, but in my opinion, most commercial synthetic reeds are simply not worth it.

Most are gimmicky, sound terrible, and the only thing going for them is that they last an incredibly long time.

However, some synthetic ones are actually very good, and some players swear by them. There is a renowned classical clarinet player by the name of Ricardo Morales that almost exclusively uses synthetic reeds by a brand known as Légère.

Good synthetic reeds are very hard to come by though, and unless you know what you’re looking for I would advise you to stay away from them and instead keep with wooden reeds.

The industry seems to very slowly be shifting towards synthetics, and the vast majority of sax players continue to prefer wooden reeds. At the moment, we still aren’t in a place where they are a viable mainstream option.

However, new options are becoming available year after year, and at some point, if for no other reason than to be environmentally conscious and trying to save forests, Rico and Vandoren will start making big pushes into the sector.


Can You Use Alto Sax Reeds on a Tenor Sax?

No, due to its dimensions. An alto sax reed would be too small for a tenor saxophone and vice versa.

Are Vandoren Reeds Better than Rico Reeds?

Vandoren Reeds are of higher quality than Rico Reeds, but also more difficult to be played by beginners. Vandoren Reeds are best for intermediate or professional players, while Rico Reeds are the best reeds for beginners, and also the best reeds value-wise.

What Reed Strength Should I Use for My Sax?

The best option you want to pick in terms of reed size and strength is the one you are more comfortable blowing into. Check our strength chart comparing the popular reed brands. The thinner the reed, the easier it will be to produce a sound, but the worse the quality of that sound will be. Inversely, the thicker the read, the better it will sound, but it will be much harder to blow into.

What Are the Best Brand of Saxophone Reeds?

The best brands of saxophone reeds are Rico Reeds and Vandoren Reeds. They are the best in terms of price and quality-wise. Rico is better for beginner players, while Vandoren offers more quality, targeting more advanced players.

How Long Do Sax Reeds Last?

The time sax reeds might last varies wildly, depending on the instrument player. Some sax players could use 2 reeds a week, others can make 1 last for months or almost a year. It all depends on the player really and also on what would be considered as “acceptable” to play on.


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Granger Talley

Granger Talley, has been a musician for over ten years! He started playing saxophone in middle/high school sometime around 2007 and continued his musical pursuits through college! He specialized in all things saxophone, but can also play piano, guitar, he can sing and has been dabbling in learning how to beatbox. He now spends most of the time learning the ins and outs of digital music production, creating content, and working as a musician freelance.