A reed can be thought of as the heart of any woodwind instrument. When musicians blow on a clarinet, oboe, or saxophone, the reed’s vibrations create the instrument’s sound waves, which are then shaped by the instrument and musician.
Your ability to choose the right reed for your instrument can make your playing sound great, and if you are a highly versatile musician, you may even change your reeds depending on the type of music you are playing. Too often, though, musicians treat reeds as interchangeable, and do not give much thought to which ones they select.
We decided it was time to call attention to the small, but mighty, reed, and searched for which woodwind reed sounded great, would hold up under frequent and long-term playing, and would still be affordable.
We looked at tenor saxophone, B flat (Bb) clarinet, and oboe reeds in particular, and nominated our picks for the best reeds that you can use for each of these instruments.
Why You Should Trust Us
We know making the choice of which reed to buy can be challenging, and even for seasoned musicians this choice can require time, effort, and research. We want to provide you with a reliable guide to the right reeds for you.
I have played the clarinet for a few years, alongside saxophone and oboe players, and have even taken trips to music stores to buy reeds with fellow musicians. I drew on my own preferences and experiences shopping for reeds.
We also made sure to talk to friends and fellow musicians who play clarinets, saxophones, and oboes, so that we would also have other primary sources of information on reeds too. We asked them about which reeds they like to use and which qualities they search for when buying reeds.
To develop the article after consulting our other sources, we started with a list of saxophone, clarinet, and oboe reeds that were on the market right now, and examined 10-15 reeds per instrument. We took into account which reeds people preferred, the flexibility and sound they offered, their durability and capacity for holding up under different climates and intense play, and how well they met the needs of the musicians using them.
We went back and talked to a few expert musicians and long-time music store staff members. Some got pretty impassioned while asking them aboutwhich reeds sell the best, which ones they like the most, and which reeds they recommend for beginners versus expert musicians.
What Reeds Do
Woodwind reeds are small, thin components that vibrate when air passes by them, which in turn generates sound waves. Not all woodwind instruments use reeds, but many do. The reed article in Wikipedia states that single reeds and double reeds work along similar principles.
Reeds control the flow of air into the instruments that use them, and their vibrations. Single reeds vibrate directly next to a mouthpiece, while double reeds vibrate against one another. Both types of reeds are generally made from a plant called the giant cane, or Arundo donax, although you can also find synthetic reeds.
The article written by Dr. Joe Wolfe, a University of New South Wales professor of acoustics, offers a highly detailed description of how blowing on a woodwind instrument creates music. When you blow into a reeded instrument, you change the air pressure, which lifts single reeds, and parts double reeds.
In both cases, you create vibrations in the reed as you play. The reed’s vibrations permit you to blow bursts of air into the instrument every time the single reed lifts up from the mouthpiece, or every time the double reed parts.
The vibrating air bursts move through the instrument, and the vibrations are what you hear as sound. While the air bursts travel through the length of the instrument, they also experience changes in their frequency, because the vibrations are reflecting off of the end of the instrument as well.
Repeated reflections from both ends of the instrument cause the air bursts to emerge with vibrations that contain both a main note and harmonic tones caused by the reflections.
Harmonic tones are sounds vibrating at frequencies that are whole-number multiples of the note you are playing, for example, they can have a frequency three times the frequency of the main note.
The harmonics have a higher-pitched compared with the main note, and because you hear harmonics as being in the same key as the main note, they sound pleasant when you experience them together.
The presence of overtones means that, when you blow into a woodwind instrument, you hear not just a single note, but a given note plus one or more harmonics. This combination of main notes and their harmonics gives reeded woodwinds a full, robust sound.
Breaking In Your Reeds
You also have to know how to break in, or work on, single reeds for saxophones and clarinets, which means to put some initial wear on them to make them play better. This idea might seem counterintuitive at first.
In fact, when I was a child learning to play the clarinet, I asked, “Why would you want to wear down a new, perfectly good reed?” The answer is that breaking in a reed makes them flexible and easier to play.
These reeds will tend to snap or crack if you do not break them in, because they usually do not have the initial flexibility required to handle the combination of the ligature tension and the rapid vibrations you will cause on the reed when you play music on it.
Musicians also may balance the reeds by sanding or flattening single reeds to make sure they fit the mouthpiece and ligature perfectly. Double reed instrument players may cut the reeds to ensure they work properly. People moisten, sand, and file reeds, to name just a few methods of breaking them in. Check out this
People moisten, sand, and file reeds, to name just a few methods of breaking them in. Check out this Youtube video by Earspasm Music to get an in-depth look at breaking in your reeds, because the tips it offers will ensure that you never snap a new reed again.
Attributes that Differentiate Reeds
Reeds have numerous distinguishing characteristics. You can tell by looking that single and double reeds have visible distinctions in size and shape, and, as we talked about earlier, they also function differently when you blow on the instrument. Some of the other key differences to be aware of include:
Type of Instrument
You want to buy a reed that is intended for the instrument you play. Anyone can see that they cannot shove a clarinet reed into an oboe, but what is sometimes less obvious is that single reeds and double reeds generally cannot be interchanged between instruments.
I remember wondering, as a child in band class, why I couldn’t grab a reed from my saxophone playing friend after I broke mine. Usually, the reeds for various clarinets and saxes cannot be exchanged either, so if you are a baritone sax player, you will not want to try using tenor sax reeds just because you found a great deal on them.
Your instrument will only sound its best when you have a reed that is the right dimensions and has the right properties for its play style.
Size of the Reeds
Double reeds can vary in length, and some manufacturers sell reeds that are deliberately long so that musicians can trim them to a desired length. The length can affect the flexibility, ease of use, and tone.
Single reeds have different sizes so that they can fit the various kinds of saxophones and clarinets, and different sizes of mouthpieces within a single category of instruments.
The right single reed covers the mouthpiece closely, without leaving any cracks where air can pass through, and without sticking out over the edge of the mouthpiece. You may file or sand down a single reed to ensure it does not stick out and that its edge has a precise, desired shape.
Strength of the Reeds
You can buy several strengths of reed for each type of instrument. The strength of a reed relates to its thickness. Thicker reeds are more difficult to snap or crack, but they are also more rigid.
Depending on your play style, a thicker, stronger reed can be desirable, and it will make your tone sound differently. However, you may find rigid reeds are difficult to play with, especially as a beginner.
You may need to make sure you break them in extensively before you can use them. You may also wish to try higher-strength reeds in winter and rainy or humid climates to reduce weather-related changes in the reed, if you do not do so already.
Brands provide buyers with information about each reed’s specific strength, which pertains to their thickness, as we said above. Manufacturers sometimes describe reeds as soft, medium-soft, medium, medium-strong, or strong.
More often, they express the reed strength as a number between 1 and 5, which gives you an idea of their thickness. The softest reeds are rated 1, and the strongest reeds are 5. Keep in mind, though, that this rating system is not standardized, so manufacturers sometimes rate the same thickness of reed using different numbers.
If you usually use a reed with a strength of 3 from Rico, a D’Addario reed rated 3 will not necessarily be the same thickness. You might find you need a reed rated 2.5 or 3.5 from a different manufacturer to get an equivalent sound.
Natural vs Synthetic Reeds
Cane reeds remain the most common type of reed that are produced and used in both single- and double-reed instruments. However, manufacturers have also developed synthetic reeds.
Synthetic reeds can be particularly helpful for new musicians, especially if they are playing a single-reed instrument. They do not need to be broken in because they are already flexible, and you do not have to worry about snapping them nearly as much. They are weather-resistant as well.
On the other hand, natural reeds tend to sound better and have greater flexibility, despite the risks of snapping them, their shorter lifespan, and the need to break them in.
Natural reeds can also change their durability in humid or cold weather, making breakage occur more easily, although musicians can use higher-strength reeds to help avoid this outcome.
Manufacturers have also created a novel approach to combine the best features of both synthetic and cane reeds, with plastic-coated cane reeds, intended to be flexible but also weather-resistant and able to hold up to extended, intense play.
After hours of testing and research, here's the final competition.
|high amount of durability for cane products||$20.49|
|robust tone, brings out the harmonics of the instrument||$39.99|
|strength is graded in thirds instead of halves, more specific thickness||$25.80|
|Great for blues saxophone||$28.99|
|good flexibility that they can retain over time, even at higher strengths|
|Extremely clear sound without having to file them in front to fit the mouthpiece||$37.76|
|Durable even under frequent playing||$10.40|
Our Top Picks:
Because woodwind instruments require radically different reeds from one another, we focused on reeds from three of the most common woodwind instruments: the tenor sax, Bb clarinet, and the oboe.
However, we also realize that not every saxophone player plays a tenor sax, and there are plenty of clarinetists who do not play Bb instruments. So we’ll also mention when the manufacturers of our favorite reeds also make similar products for other woodwind instruments in this section.
The tenor saxophone reeds that impressed us the most were the SR223 Tenor Sax Traditional Reeds, by Vandoren. These natural cane reeds cost between $20-$25 for a box of 5, so they are around the same price point as most competitors’ reeds.
The strength 3 reeds produced a clear and bright tone when we had a saxophone player try one, while the strength 5 reed was still clear, but more mellow. We liked that the different kinds of reeds could produce a varying degree of sounds and remain clear.
However, you might still need to experiment to see which tone you like best, because we met people who played blues and jazz that focused on richer, lower sounds, but still preferred softer SR223 reeds for the control they offer.
These reeds provide a high amount of durability for cane products. Other musicians have told us the medium to high strength reeds hold up well in humidity and if you are playing outdoors. One musician even informed us that he only used the SR223 reeds when he played in the marching band at his high school because of their strength.
The SR223 reeds can last you for a long with without developing chips. Music store employees told us they recommended these reeds to tenor saxophone players with a couple years of experience.
Saxophonists have told us, though, that for beginners these reeds may not be the best choice, because chipping them is still possible at that point. A couple of advanced players said that that SR223 reeds required a large amount of breaking in after purchase, too to avoid chipping, so the lifespan you get out of them might depend on your play style.
Vandoren reeds in the same series are also available for other saxophones, including the alto sax, and saxophone players have told us that they liked them for similar reasons. For other saxophones you may pay $30-$40 for a box of 5 reeds.
The Rico Bb Clarinet Reeds are far and away our favorite type of reed for the Bb clarinet. The price for these reeds runs between $30 and $40 for a pack of 25, and clarinetists who have played for a year or more should try them out if you have not already.
All of the strengths we have played sound great. Rico reeds provide a tone that is robust and bring out the harmonics of the instrument. I have always liked this quality about the Bb reeds Rico makes, because I could always rely on them to deliver that sound during performances.
Other clarinet players we have talked to said that they liked the Rico reeds for still permitting a dynamic range even with stronger reeds, and that the stronger reeds did not sacrifice a bright sound for thickness.
These reeds fit most mouthpieces very well, a must if you are going to get the right sound out of your clarinet. They are unfiled, so you can make sure when you break in the reed that you get the precise shape and dimensions you like.
Of course, we also spoke to one or two clarinet players who preferred other reeds that fit their instruments with even less filing. Also, if you are a beginner at the clarinet, and have not learned to break reeds in and file them down, you may have trouble with these, so they are not necessarily as useful for beginners.
Rico makes similar reeds for other clarinets, such as bass clarinet, and we heard good things about thee bass clarinet as well. You can expect to pay a similar price for other types of clarinet reeds as well, between $30-$40.
The Martin Lesher Medium Oboe Reeds earned our vote for the best double reeds you could get for this woodwind instrument. They cost $13 to $18, so while the Martin Lesher reeds are not the least expensive reeds you can buy, they are still priced competitively to many oboe reeds, and are certainly worth their price.
The sound was the largest factor to win us over with the Martin Lesher Reeds. We had an oboe player try them out, and the reed allowed the oboe to sound smooth and melodic without the oboist spending a large amount of time shaping the double reed beforehand.
Another oboe player told us that, when they were initially learning how to play the instrument, Martin Lesher reeds allowed them to get the correct sound from their oboe from the first time, without a thin sound or squeaking that occurred with other reeds.
These reeds offer substantial strength. Some musicians have described the medium strength Martin Lesher reeds as somewhat stiff, but also extremely reliable, and even preferable, for this very reason. People who were playing in cold weather have told us the stronger reeds are optimal for winter seasons, too.
The stiffness does mean, though, that if you do not like the way these reeds are shaped, you may have to pinch them frequently to re-shape them before you play, and sometimes even while playing. You cannot reshape them easily.
The consensus among musicians and music store staff that we found was that these reeds are harder to chip than many competitors’ reeds. Advanced players liked them for this reason, and suggested that, despite the cost of the reeds, they make an excellent option for newcomers to the oboe.
Often, costlier reeds are not advised for beginners, but the resistance to chipping means that beginners can get their money’s worth from the Martin Lesher reeds on the grounds that they will not be breaking reeds as often.
One musician did warn us though that a few oboe players, depending on the way they play, may still chip these reeds frequently, so there is some compatibility between play style and the reed that can determine how well they work.
Other Products to Consider:
Skilled Jazz musicians may prefer the Rico Select Jazz Tenor Sax Reeds to our main pick for the best saxophone reeds. These cane reeds are priced between $18-$28 for a pack of five.
These reeds provide a more mellow tone, and unlike many tenor sax reeds, their strengths are graded in thirds instead of halves. Jazz saxophonists have told us that the strengths of these reeds let individual players decide on a more specific thickness that works well for them.
Musicians can also get filed or unfiled versions of the same reed based on preference. We thought having both filed and unfiled reeds could be very helpful in performance situations.
For example, if you unexpectedly chip a reed and find you do not have another unfiled one you have already broken in, you could switch to a filed reed that is the same type as the reed you had just chipped, so that you would not have to account for a different thickness or dimensions when finishing your performance.
Alexander Reeds’ S5T3 Tenor Saxophone reeds were the next woodwind reeds we took a look at. These reeds can be found for $20-$30 for five reeds, and the tone that we heard from them was full-bodied, even a bit mellow, which we thought could be great for people that wanted to play blues saxophone.
However, individuals who were used to marching band playing and even some jazz combos said that they felt the sound was flat and not bright enough for them. Although some musicians may not feel the sound of this reed works well with what they play, these reeds do at least tend to work well.
The CR103 Bb Clarinet Traditional Reeds, made by Vandoren, have some features that we liked. These cane reeds are $20-$25 for a pack of ten, making them more expensive than the Rico brand reeds we liked them most.
The CR103 reeds have good flexibility that they can retain over time, even at higher strengths, so they can provide a bright sound, and also will sound notes slightly faster than less flexible reeds.
On the other hand, these reeds can also be more prone to chipping than reeds made by other manufacturers, even at the same strengths. They are also less able to handle inclement weather and humidity, so they are usually better for indoor playing in our experience.
They have a soft tip that is intended for greater flexibility, but because the tip is cut away at a different angle than many other reeds, the soft tip does not come at the expense of the overall stiffness and durability of the reed. Those who have used the S5T3 reeds have stated they last longer than many of the reeds they have owned.
Next up, we have the Gonzalez F.O.F. Bb Clarinet Reeds. These reeds are natural cane, and cost around $30 to $35 for a ten-pack. Some seasoned clarinetists have stated that these reeds are among the more reliable in terms of tone, and that you can get an extremely clear sound from them without having to file them in front to fit the mouthpiece.
We thought that quality would make the F.O.F. Bb Clarinet Reeds great to have on hand for band practice, marching band, or other situations where you would not want to, or be able to, file and shape another reed.
However, unlike some of the other clarinet reeds we considered, two clarinet players and a music store employee have told us that when breaking these reeds in, balance is also important to consider.
The F.O.F. Bb Clarinet Reeds are slightly prone to imbalance, meaning that they have to be sanded or filed on the bottom to sit flat upon the mouthpiece, but that they do not require further attention after that.
The Stradella Oboe Reed Medium Soft is a handmade reed that some oboe players prefer to other brands. These reeds can be purchased for $10-$15 per reed.
The reed we tested offered a clear sound that was in tune even before it was placed in the oboe, and did not have to be cut or shaped to deliver a deeper, more velvety tone than many oboe reeds do.
A few musicians informed us that this tone is the norm for Stradella reeds, but that some reeds might have to be cut or pinched for them to sound great, because occasionally there are slight differences in the way they are adjusted.
Provided that one knows how to use reed tools, though, a music store employee told us that even beginners can enjoy them for quite a while, because Stradella reeds are durable even under frequent playing.
• Alexander Reeds S5T3 Tenor Saxophone. (2016). Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Alexander-Reeds-S5T3-Tenor-Saxophone/dp/B003LDBZ7K/
• Earspasm Music. (2016). How to work on clarinet/sax reeds like a pro! Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQt6xJom0XI
• Gonzalez F.O.F. Bb Clarinet Reeds. (2016). Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Gonzalez-F-O-F-Clarinet-Reeds-Strength/dp/B001KTZB5E/
• Martin Lesher Medium Oboe Reeds. (2016). Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Marlin-Lesher-Oboe-Reed-Medium/dp/B001NFGNBG/
• Reed (mouthpiece). (2016). Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed_(mouthpiece)
• Rico Bass Clarinet Reeds. (2016). Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Rico-Clarinet-Reeds-Strength-10-pack/dp/B0002F59TA/
• Rico Bb Clarinet Reeds. (2016). Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Rico-Clarinet-Reeds-Strength-25-pack/dp/B0002F59WC/
• Rico Select Jazz Tenor Sax Reeds. (2016). Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Select-Tenor-Strength-Medium-5-pack/dp/B000BAUL8K/
• Stradella Oboe Reed Medium Soft. (2016). Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Stradella-Oboe-Reed-Medium-Soft/dp/B003CT9BQ0/
• Vandoren CR103 Bb Clarinet Traditional Reeds. (2016). Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Vandoren-CR103-Clarinet-Traditional-Strength/dp/B0002E1P08/
• Vandoren SR213 Alto Sax Traditional Reeds. (2016). Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Vandoren-SR213-Traditional-Reeds-Strength/dp/B00T8L27ZI/
• Vandoren SR223 Tenor Sax Traditional Reeds. (2016). Amazon. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Vandoren-SR223-Tenor-Traditional-Strength/dp/B0002D0A82/
• Wolfe, J. (2005). How do woodwind instruments work? University of New South Wales. Retrieved from http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/woodwind.html