I will attempt to let you in on the secret of clarinet reeds. I need to clarify the different factors that go into choosing the best clarinet reed for you. You will quickly find that there are as many different opinions as there are clarinetists in the world.
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Clarinetists depend on their reeds. They are often somewhat neurotic about the condition of their reed. Most are always adjusting and sanding them down to their own specifications. Many even have a reed humidor so they don’t dry out. Few clarinetists are consistently happy with their reed. Reeds are delicate and sensitive and shift from reliable to unreliable with every use and temperature change. When a clarinetist squeaks a note it is always blamed (often correctly so) on the reed.
You need a reed to make sound. Your breath is focused in the clarinet through the reed and the mouthpiece. The reed will vibrate when you blow into it creating acoustic waves, and out comes your beautiful clarinet music.
What are clarinet reeds made of?
Nearly all reeds are made of (drumroll please) reed. A reed (Arundo Donax) is a fast growing plant found around the Mediterranean and now all over the world. It is a fast growing plant that looks similar to bamboo but is much softer.
Plastic and synthetic clarinet reeds
When synthetic reeds first were introduced in the 1970s they were not very good. Many people started thinking that plastic could never equal natural reeds. Many felt like plastic reeds are slightly out of tune. That opinion lingers on and it has made it difficult to even get honest opinions about the synthetic reeds available today. However, good synthetic reeds are available.
Why would you use a synthetic reed? For one thing, they last longer. Even though they cost more to buy than a cane reed, because they last longer, the cost is comparable.
I am a fan of synthetic reeds because they save me the energy of sanding, testing, and prepping. You take them out of the box and they are ready to go. Because they are machine produced they are identical and consistent. The truth is synthetic reeds work great.
Whereas a wooden reed will absorb moisture and swell slightly, which will have a negative impact on higher frequencies and harmonics, synthetic reeds remain consistent.
There is a good argument that plastic reeds don’t sound the same as cane reeds do. This may be legitimate, however, it is a concern only for intermediate to advanced players. I would recommend beginners all start with synthetic reeds and focus on their skills. There will be plenty of time to haggle over the right genuine reed later.
Flavored clarinet reeds
Seems like the best idea in the world. With so many sweet reeds to choose from, how do we decide between watermelon flavored clarinet reeds or pina colada ? Let me insert a word of caution. Not every good idea has come of age and this is one to avoid.
- They are expensive
- They have a nasty habit of turning your pads colors
- They are in general terrible in quality
- They smell better than they taste
Clarinet reeds sizes
Reed sizes are all the same. There are differing reed strengths (see below). A reed is cut into a flat rectangular piece of cane. It is then planed and polished. The tip is leveled off. Though all reeds measure nearly identically, no two natural reeds are exactly the same.
Clarinet reeds strength
There are hard and soft reeds. Every manufacturer seems to enjoy inventing their own way to classify their reeds. Just like pencils have a number (your teacher prefers 2b), so also clarinet reeds have a number system. 1 is normally the softest and 5 the hardest. The lower the number the thinner the tip, enabling you to not work as hard to make it vibrate.
Beginner clarinet reeds
When you are starting out choosing a reed is a bit overwhelming. Most just start with whatever their band teacher or the store clerk recommends.
Many instructors recommend that a beginner use a 1.5 – 2.5 (soft to medium soft) reed. The higher the number the stiffer the reed and that makes it tough for a beginner to produce a quality sound. Eventually the mouth and lip muscles will strengthen and graduating to a stiffer reed will be possible. With the switch will come better intonation and tone quality, especially in the high notes.
I recommend buying several different brands in their beginner strengths. Don’t go crazy and buy whole boxes. Test several individual types to see which is the best fit for you.
How long do clarinet reeds last?
Clarinet reeds are fragile. They wear out after a few weeks of use and have a habit of breaking easily. Have 5 to 10 reeds around so you can rotate use and have backups at the ready.
Reeds need to be treated carefully, so I would buy a reed holder, reed case, or container. There are piles of options available. Whatever you decide on make sure that you store them in such a way that the moist tip is protected and doesn’t get warped.
Where to buy clarinet reeds
If you have a music shop nearby, go on in and buy your reeds! You can test out several different options by buying single reeds. If you find you are in a community far from a music store or have a lazy streak in you, or are too young to drive, then shopping online is a great way to have stuff delivered to you.
How to break in clarinet reeds
Your new reed has been dry for a very long time. Many have been drying for close to two years before they are even sent to the stores. When you first get your new reeds you will want to baptize them in a glass of water for 3-5 minutes. When you first play your new clarinet reed you will want to break them in gently. This means playing them for about fifteen minutes and then letting them recover. This could be weird musician superstition, but I like the idea of letting your clarinet reeds get used to you and their new life.
For a reed to vibrate correctly, it must be wet. Just before you want to play your clarinet, put some water in a glass, place the reed face down and soak your reed for about a minute. Or just go old fashioned and stick it in your mouth. Remember that the tip of the reed is fragile and you don’t want to work it with your tongue or teeth. There may be a good argument against this old fashioned route due to the fact your mouth saliva has enzymes which will slowly destroy your natural reeds. This will happen over time with your playing but if you fill up the sponge-like material of the reed with water then it will last a bit longer. (For more on this click here) After your reed is wet, place it on your mouthpiece and play that funky music.
What are the best clarinet reeds?
My conclusion is that there is no best reed for every clarinetist. You are the captain of your own vessel and need to embark on the journey of discovery and experimentation. Some brands work better with different mouthpieces. Some work better in the cold or in humidity. For a beginner to advanced clarinetist, this is a great source of frustration and continuous battle to find the right reed for the moment. Below are my top three recommendations.