Kenny Brooks reflects on reeds

Kenny Books is the only guy I know that goes through more reeds than I do. Here 's what he has to say about them-

Some thoughts on reeds...

How can I tell if a reed will be good just by looking at it? How long should a reed last? What are the best brands of reeds to buy? These are just some of the questions that you may have about reeds. What strength reed should I be using is another one.

Disclaimer : The comments that follow are my OPINIONS about reeds. There are as many different ideas regarding reeds as there are saxophonists. Take my comments as such.

Can you tell if a reed will be good just by looking at it? Heavens no, but there are things to look out for. The color of the reed can be revealing about it's age and how long it has been cured. Avoid the reeds with the greenish tinge to them, as they are likely too young or haven't been cured long enough. A white, bleached out looking reed might also be avoided for the same reasons. Usually I look for a reed with a yellow or brown color with tight fibers. If you look on the back of the reed it's easier to see the fibers and how tightly packed they are. Earl Turbinton of New Orleans told me that if you see brown spots or blotches on the blank part of the reed(the uncut part), that it will have character. Look closely at the way the reed is cut. Look at the end of the reed. Is it it even on both sides? Inconsistencies in the cut of the reed is another factor.

What strength reed should I be using? The dimensions of your mouthpiece is the most important determining element when trying to figure out what strength reeds to use. Other, lesser determinants include how long you have been playing, the strength and development of your embouchure and physical makeup. The basic equation in terms of mouthpiece/reed ratio is : softer reed/open mouthpiece and conversely hard reed/closed mouthpiece. Many players do not follow this equation, however it is useful to keep in mind while experimenting with different combinations. I use a hard reed on an open mouthpiece : a Rico Jazz #4 on a metal Otto Link 7*. Some might consider that an extreme setup. George Garzone uses a #5 on an Otto Link 10. That's extreme. Garzone also runs 5 miles every morning ...Students of mine have copied my setup exactly hoping to recreate my tone. They ask "Why don't I sound like you with the exact same setup?" One reason is that everyone's mouth is shaped differently. Another has to do with the direction of the flow of air. Everyone is different. The only way to find what works for you is to experiment!

How long should a reed last? I play on a reed for about 6 days or so before it dies. I like to soak a reed in warm water for 5-10 minutes and then keep it wet for the remainder of its life. That means when I know I'm not going to play on it for more than 2 hours I place it inside a LaVoz single reed holder, which keeps the reed from drying out for up to 20 hours. I'm talking about the cheap, plastic reed holder. You don't need any other newfangled equipment to keep your reed wet. If your reed does dry out you may see it warp and curl. Soaking will usually straighten it out, but the damage has already been done. I don't even bother trying to revive them. If you are on a budget you may be forced to. Bottom line : Keep your reed wet.

Calder Spanier and I went to the Rico factory in dusty Sun Valley in the summer of 1996 on a fact-finding mission and learned a few things about the process of manufacturing reeds. Our guide was the friendly and knowledgeable Terry Landry, who, in part, designed the Rico Jazz and Jazz Select reeds. When we asked about where the cane was coming from he explained that the good Var region(France) cane was going to the Jazz and Jazz Selects while regular Ricos and LaVoz were primarily Argentine cane. Argentine, and just about every other cane is thought to be inferior to the cane that comes from The Var region of France. Interestingly, he told us that Vandoren, which purports to have French cane, is actually 80% Argentine. I cannot confirm that. Another revelation came while we were touring the rooms with the reed cutting machines. Terry told us that all the reeds are cut exactly the same. They don't cut 2's thinner than 4's. The strength of the reed is determined by the strength of the wood itself, which is measured by a gauge that bends the reed. Each row of machines had a computer terminal at the end of it which showed a bar graph of how many reeds of each strength were produced by each machine. It showed a bell curve which described very few 1.5's, 2's, 4's, 4.5's & 5's and a lot of 2.5's-3.5's. There is just not as much hard or soft wood out there to choose from.

What brand of reeds should you buy? Again, you must experiment for yourself. Keep in mind that many brands come in different styles or cuts. For example, Vandoren has 3 styles for you to choose from : regular, Java and V16.The Java is their "jazz" reed and the cut is sort of an even slope. The V16 on the other hand is a thicker reed, especially in the heart(the center). Regular is somewhere in between.

Should you play plastic reeds? If you can deal with the sound and the feel in your mouth, you'll certainly love the consistency. Most people, including me, can't deal. Dave Liebman is noted for his use of plastic reeds.

A fact of life is that there will be bad reeds in every box. It is miserable and costly. It can make you wish you had never picked up the saxophone. Until you find that next good one..


Gandalfe said...

When my son was in high school he said he never met a reed he didn't like. So I let him try one that I'd play tested and marked as a real player. He wouldn't give it back. ;o)

Adam said...

I think baritone saxophone reeds should be publicly subsidized.