How to Choose Alto Sax Reeds

Written by andrew jones
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How to Choose Alto Sax Reeds
(Hemera Technologies/ Images)

The basic starting point to getting the sound you want out of your alto sax is finding a suitable reed. Some companies produce reeds for genre specific use, like jazz or classical. Some brands are known for quality, others are known for cheap and easy use. There’s more than brand name when it comes to choosing reeds. Whether you want a sweet, honeyed tone or an aggressive holler, here’s a list of what to look for when picking a reed.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    It is commonly assumed that players use stronger reeds as they improve in skill. This is not totally true. Many seasoned jazz professionals use a #3 reed. Again it all depends on style. A reed’s strength determines how full notes sound, but very stiff reeds sometimes impede note production. The harder a reed is, the harder you have to blow to produce a note. Sometimes the intonation of low-end notes is adversely affected by stronger reeds. Most beginners use a softer #2 reed and work up to #3, which produces robust notes, but isn’t too difficult to play and manipulate. Techniques like vibrato and note bending are still easy on #3 reeds. Stiffer reeds allow for a deeper, edgier sound. Rock and roll saxophonists tend to use stiffer reeds as they’re louder and more aggressive sounding.

  2. 2

    Choose a brand. Charlie Parker used Rico brand reeds for most of his life. Rico reeds tend to be less strong than other brands, except their especially hard Rico Select Jazz brand #4. Rico is one of the most popular brands for jazz musicians. La Voz and Vandoren are popular brands, too. Most of those brands sell packages of 10 reeds for a mid-range price. Buying many reeds at a single time is a good habit to get into. Otherwise the temptation to play a reed well past its expiration date is too strong. Playing on strong, quality reeds is important for developing a consistent tone.

  3. 3

    The type of mouthpiece you use is an important factor in deciding what kind of reed to purchase. A mouthpiece with a wide tip opening should be paired with a slightly softer reed. The wider a tip means you must apply more pressure to the reed to produce a full note.

  4. 4

    When buying any brand, it is good to remember that in every packet there are defective reeds. Spot a defective reed by studying the texture and colour gradations on the reed. Throw the reed away if there is any unevenness. Reeds are expensive, but playing on a faulty reed isn’t easy, doesn’t sound very good and may actually impede your technical progress.

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