Reed adjustment checklist

Problems with your clarinet or saxophone reeds?

  1. If you buy into the myth that there are only two or three “good” reeds in a box of ten, you are buying the wrong reeds. There are many, many options available to you. When I’ve got the right brand, cut, and size of reed for my mouthpiece and embouchure, easily eight play respectably well right out of the box. Within 15-20 minutes, I can adjust nine or ten to play quite well, and maybe three or four of those at recital quality. I use the steps below and nothing else.
  2. Um, no.
    Um, no.
    Don’t waste time and cane messing with the topography of the reed’s cut. With all the variation in reeds, the cut is the one thing that is really quite consistent. If you don’t like the cut, shop around some more. If you own a diagram like the one shown here, with elaborate instructions on which tiny sectors of reed you should sand, I recommend that you throw it away.

  3. Make sure the reed is flat. Many aren’t, and one that was flat yesterday may not be flat today. A piece of 600-grit wet-dry sandpaper held against a piece of glass is the perfect tool for this. Concentrate on the part of the reed that contacts the mouthpiece’s table. For $2, I had a local glass shop cut me a 3″×4″ piece of ¼” glass, with the edges ground smooth. You can also use a mirror or window pane. A flattened reed will respond better and squeak less.
  4. Balance the corners. This is the one exception I make for changing the reed’s cut. Well-balanced reeds have a nice clear tone and respond reliably throughout the instrument’s range and at any dynamic level. I find that balancing the corners can correct for much of the asymmetry of a typical reed. Even a reed that already seems pretty good can often be improved. Tom Ridenour’s method is dead simple and strikingly effective—required reading.
  5. If absolutely necessary, clip the tip using a high-quality reed trimmer. I do this to maybe one in twenty reeds. I do it to make a reed feel a little stronger. Clip off the tiniest possible amount at first—a little clip goes a long way. It’s very rare that I clip off more than a tiny bit, and if I do, it rarely works out well.

That’s it!


4 responses to “Reed adjustment checklist”

  1. I personally use, and have had great success, with the Perfecta-Reed micrometer. I’m able to balance not just the tip, but the entire reed. It takes me a little more time, but I am able to get most of the reeds in my box to play substantially better using it.

    I completely agree with everything else you’ve mentioned other than the ‘topography doesn’t matter’ comment.


  2. Hi Michael – thanks for stopping by and sharing what works for you. (Note: the PerfectaReed can be found here—scroll down).

    To clarify: my point is not at all that topography “doesn’t matter;” my point is that what comes out of the box is essentially what the manufacturer intended, topography-wise. And if the design of the reed doesn’t suit me, then I should probably just buy different reeds.

  3. I was recently looking through The Instrumentalist for pedagogical articles to give out to my Woodwind Methods course and came across a wonderful one called “Selecting Clarinet Reeds” by Robert Miller. It was published in the August 1991 edition.

    Very concise, insightful, and thorough, and it goes along with everything you’ve mentioned here. E-mail me if you’d like a copy of it. I scanned it for my course’s Blackboard site.

  4. For what it is worth, balancing my clarinet reeds (and to a lesser extent saxophone) has made my ensemble playing so much better! I used to struggle in orchestra with having a comfortable reed for a passage, resting for 40 measures, and then really struggling through a solo/soli and feeling quite embarassed! (and dont even mention something like Bolero where its such a long waiting game before you even play!). Learning to properly balance a reed has really helped with the necessity to re-position and hydrate my reeds 10 times in one concert. I typically use a combination of a bevel edge reed knife and 600grit sandpaper when i work on the backs of a reed. I do notice for alto saxophone reeds I almost always take some cane out of the “F” section in your little reed diagram. I don’t know that I really follow those charts word for word, but taking some cane out of that gives me a less resistant reed in the lower register. I tend to like thinner reeds than most so it could just be a personal thing (or maybe i just need to learn to play with more air to support a thicker reed but at 26 i think i have all the air i’m going to get).

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