All About Clarinet Reeds

All about reeds: how they're made, popular brands, strengths, how to select the right one, how to care for them, and more.

As most advanced or professional players know, the type of reed a clarinet player plays on can make a huge difference in sound, response, and many other things. Most beginners and even advancing students don't know what makes reeds different, or what brands to use or avoid.

First of all, the most basic beginning reeds are Rico. There are also Mitchell Lurie, Vandoren, and a few other brands (those are the major ones). All of these brands make several different varieties of reeds, in different strengths.

Reeds are numbered from 1.5 to 5, using every half-number (1.5, 2, 2.5, etc.). The higher the number is, the harder the reed will be. Hardness means how strong and thick the cane is that was used to make the reed. Students should start out on no softer than 2 reed, and should try playing on 2.5 as soon as possible. The idea is to play on the hardest reed the student can appropriately handle.

Students shouldn't try a reed that is too hard (harder than a 2.5) too quickly. A harder reed means that sound is harder to produce. If the sound is harder to produce, a student must blow harder and "bite" the reed. This will produce a small, pinched sound. Students should wait until their embouchures have developed (1 - 3 years of consistent practice) before trying harder reeds.

Reeds may all look the same, but they aren't. They're cut from different parts of the cane, different qualities of cane, and they're cut slightly differently. The differences are fractions of millimeters in the cut, but the differences in the sounds are amazing.

German reeds (Vandoren's Blackmaster reeds, and other non-major brands) tend to be cut thicker, particularly at the heart (center) of the reed. This is because a German mouthpiece is much smaller and narrower than an American or French mouthpiece. German reeds won't necessarily work well on a non-German mouthpiece, or for all players. Some players will squeak constantly on German-style reeds and/or mouthpieces. This type of reed, played properly, produces a dark, rich, but not incredibly versatile tone.

French reeds (Vandoren's V-12's and others) are cut thinner, but slightly thicker than American reeds at the heel (bottom) of the reed. This makes them slightly harder to play on (than an American reed), and produces a rich, more versatile sound than a German reed. The tone is also somewhat brighter.

American reeds try to combine the French and German sounds, to get a dark tone with plenty of flexibility. The mouthpieces have much wider tip openings and are larger. The reeds are cut with a thinner heel and heart. This is the type of reed almost all students will play on.

Students should avoid all brands except Vandoren, unless a CLARINET teacher recommends otherwise. A student should never listen to a band director, who may not play the clarinet at all, or have any clue what reed to use.

Reeds must be stored carefully, in a case that allows them to dry and doesn't expose them to excessive heat or cold (ideally). You can store them in the cases they came in, or in a case specially made for reeds. Beginners simply need to make sure they can dry and that they don't break. More advanced players will take much more care with their reeds. Weather changes, particularly in spring or fall, can cause the reeds to "warp." Your reed is warped if you look at the tip of it and it seems wavy. Throw it away; it's difficult to play on and doesn't sound very good.

Reeds should also be thrown out if they are chipped or cracked at all. Yes, they often can still be played on, but they'll be more difficult and won't sound very good. Keep at least two back up reeds in your case at all times.

Advanced players know that reeds must be "broken in." Never play on a new reed for more than 10 minutes a day. If you look at a reed and the wood looks very wet and streaky (as though you could almost see through the tip), it is water-logged and needs to be put away. After a couple weeks, a reed will be broken in enough to play on for an entire rehearsal or practice session. A reed shouldn't be overworked -- switch them off and don't play on the same reed two days in a row.

Reeds are very important. They are how a clarinet player produces a tone. Always choose the appropriate reed for your mouthpiece, and keep your reeds in good condition.

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