The reed is one of the most critical parts of any woodwind instrument, and one of the most difficult to pick out – especially for a beginner. If you’re lost or overwhelmed in the search for a good reed, here are some of the most important things to keep in mind when shopping around. We’ve also got a list of some of the most commonly used and highly rated reeds available today.
|Name||Royal by D’Addario Alto Saxophone Reeds||Rico by D’Addario Alto Saxophone Reeds||Vandoren Traditional Alto Sax Reeds||Cecilio Alto Saxophone Reeds (20)||Legere Standard Cut Eb Alto Saxophone Reed|
|Hardness Levels||Available in 8 hardness levels (1-5)||Available in 6 hardness levels (1.5-4)||8 (1.5-5)||3 (2-3)||12 (1.75-4.5)|
|Reeds per box||3 or 10||3, 10, 25, or 50||10||20||Sold individually|
|Where to buy|
About the Reed
Although small, the reed is vital to the saxophone! Without the reed, the sax (or clarinet) would literally make no sound!
This page will help you to find the best reed to get the sound you want without spending months searching or spending a fortune trying different reeds!
There are quite a few different brands of reeds, but you’re generally better off keeping within a single (well-respected) brand and style than bouncing around. Each brand does things slightly differently (different cut, different thickness ratings) and so once you find a brand that feels good and works well with your mouthpiece, it’s a good idea to stick with them!
The strength (or thickness) of a reed is one of its most important characteristics, and this really requires trial and error to find the best match for each player, saxophone, and mouthpiece combination.
Most reed makers use a scale that is numbered 1 through 5. Reeds with a strength of 1 are soft, while those rated 5 are much harder. Most makers also allow half values, so you will also find reeds with a strength rating of 1.5 or 2.5. However, some makers use words to describe the reed strength (“Soft,” “Medium,” “Hard,” etc.).
The reed strength that you pick depends quite a bit on your specific playing ability, your instrument, and your sound/music style. In general, softer reeds (numbered 1, 1.5, or 2) are easier to make a sound on (especially for younger players that may not have developed lots of embouchure strength). Harder reeds allow for a louder, more projecting sound, although they can also be more tiring to play and make quieter dynamics more difficult. Additionally, softer reeds often have a warmer, smoother sound that can be desirable for certain musical styles. Harder reeds are generally brighter in tone (which makes it easier to be heard over a loud brass section), but that isn’t always appropriate for every musical situation.
When picking a reed strength to try, also make sure to keep in mind your particular mouthpiece. A saxophone mouthpiece with a smaller tip opening will generally work better with a harder reed, while a wider tip opening will work better with softer reeds.
Finally, remember that the reed strength ratings are not universal between reed brands or styles. A strength 2 or 3 reed may or may not be the same between Rico and Vandoren (or even between Rico and Royal, even though those are both made by D’addario). This is why it’s not recommended to swap between brands/styles unless you have good reasons (or your teacher recommends it).
In general, most reeds today are made of cane. While it looks like wood, the cane is actually a particular type of grass (arundo donax, if you’re a trivia buff). Since it’s a natural, organic material, though, this means that not all reeds will respond or sound the same. Additionally, cane reeds will wear out over time and will need to be replaced regularly (just how often depends on the reed hardness and cut, your playing style, and even the specific reed). Reeds aren’t expensive individually, but the cost of replacing a reed or few every couple of weeks can add up.
In the past few years, some very interesting synthetic reeds have come to market. While these aren’t the best choice for every player, they do offer some advantages. Synthetic reeds last much longer than cane, they aren’t affected by humidity, they won’t crack, and they are much more consistent than cane reeds. Not surprisingly, synthetic reeds are also more expensive, but for certain players (and certain musical situations) they may be a preferred option.
There are basically two different “cuts” for alto saxophone reeds – filed and unfiled.
Unfiled reeds, also called a “single cut reed,” have a U-shaped area between the reed’s vamp area and the uncut reed. The vamp of a reed is the entire cut section of the reed, including the tip (where the tongue is placed), and the heart where the embouchure contacts the reed. Unfiled reeds generally produce a slightly darker tone with a bit more resistance, since the U-shape prevents the reed from vibrating quite as freely.
Filed reeds, sometimes called “double cut” reeds, have a thin layer of material removed just below the reed’s vamp area. This makes the border between the vamp and the uncut section of the reed a straight line. Filed reeds are a bit brighter in tone-color and volume, and respond a bit quicker and easier since the extra cut allows for more reed to vibrate.
Like lots of reed variables, though, which you prefer comes down mainly to personal preference and whatever works best for your embouchure, mouthpiece, and instrument. There is no “right” kind of reed.
When buying your reeds (and even when trying them out) do yourself a favor, and buy your reeds in bulk.
Cane reeds are made of organic material, and tiny, almost imperceptible differences in the reed’s cut and grain can have considerable differences in how the reeds play and sound. It’s not uncommon to find somewhere between 2-4 dud reeds in a box of 10. These duds can sometimes be identified by inspecting for cracks, knots, or uneven grain, but some reeds look fine and just play very poorly. Don’t be afraid to toss these duds out.
Higher quality reeds will generally have fewer duds in each box, but no reed maker is perfect. This is one potential advantage to synthetic reeds, although those sometimes have minor differences from one reed to the next (these differences are much less noticeable, though).
Also, make sure that you don’t equate reed hardness with your skill as a player! Lots of well-meaning band directors look on softer reeds as only being for beginners, and if you try to play a 1.5 or 2 as a high schooler, you’re looked down on. The best reed for you is the one that you make the best sound on. If you can play your music on a 2 or a 1.5 – then go for it! That being said, harder reeds do have some advantages, so don’t be afraid to try a slightly harder reed once you develop a bit more as a player.
Our Picks for the Top 5 Alto Sax Reeds – Reviewed
Reeds are a highly personal choice, as we’ve mentioned. These following recommendations are trying to cover the needs of most alto sax players. If your teacher recommends another brand, you should definitely listen to their suggestions, but if you’re looking to try something new, all of these brands are good places to start.
Specific reed hardness numbers are not advocated in any of these recommendations, since it’s assumed (and encouraged) for you to stick with the hardness you’re currently using (or whatever your teacher suggests).
1. Royal by D’Addario Alto Saxophone Reeds
- Hardness Levels: Available in 8 hardness levels (1-5)
- Cut: Filed
- Reeds per box: 3 or 10
Rico has been a mainstay in the world of woodwind reeds for decades. They were recently bought by D’Addario (maker of strings for guitar, bass, and lots of other instruments) and D’Addario Woodwinds has now taken over the manufacture of many of Rico’s world-famous brands.
The Royal reed line is an excellent choice for intermediate players, although lots of pros use these reeds as well. These reeds are filed (or double cut), and they are suitable for lots of different styles of music.
D’Addario Royals come in 8 different strengths, and while they are offered as a 3-pack, the 10-pack costs much less per reed.
- A wide range of hardness levels.
- A highly-respected brand with a great, characteristic sound.
- Widely available.
- Occasional quality control issues in some boxes
- The 3-pack, although convenient, is much more expensive per reed.
- Only available as a double-cut reed
2. Rico by D’Addario Alto Saxophone Reeds
- Hardness Levels: Available in 6 hardness levels (1.5-4)
- Cut: Unfiled
- Reeds per box: 3, 10, 25, or 50
Also formerly made by Rico (now D’Addario), these are the “standard” reed for basically everyone who has ever played saxophone (or clarinet).
While they are commonly considered beginner reeds, they are actually quite good and preferred by lots of players to the Royal by D’Addario reeds mentioned above.
Some prefer the Rico reeds as they are single cut, which provides a slightly darker tone and a bit more resistance. Jazz saxophonists often prefer the standard Rico reeds to the Royal reeds. Additionally, Ricos are available in much larger 25- or 50-packs, which makes the reeds slightly less expensive, but it’s excellent for band directors or saxophone teachers who need some extra reeds in case a student “forgets” theirs!
- Available just about anywhere you’ll find a saxophone.
- A darker sound is preferred to some of the more expensive reeds on this list.
- The larger boxes make them great for educators.
- Since these are considered a “beginner” reed, the boxes are likely to have a greater proportion of duds.
- Limited hardness levels (only 1.5-4) may not fit some player’s needs.
- Only available as a single-cut reed.
3. Vandoren Traditional Alto Sax Reeds
- Hardness Levels: 8 (1.5-5)
- Cut: Unfiled
- Reeds per box: 10
In business since 1905, Vandoren has long been known as a top-of-the-line reed, ligature, and mouthpiece maker for saxophone and clarinet.
The Vandoren Traditional Alto Sax reed is a great place to start if you’re not familiar with this brand. The Traditional features a very thin tip, promoting maximum vibrations (and a very dark, pure sound) with a thicker heel, providing strength and pitch stability.
- Vandoren is well-known for remarkable consistency in their reeds.
- The sound, while not for everyone, is very flexible and stable with these reeds.
- An excellent reed choice for a good high school or college player.
- Not cheap.
- Since these are made from cane, duds do happen from time-to-time, even with excellent QC.
- Only available in boxes of 10.
4. Cecilio Alto Saxophone Reeds (20)
- Hardness Levels: 3 (2-3)
- Cut: Unfiled
- Reeds per box: 20
Cecilio is a brand that makes a little bit of everything musical (string instruments, percussion, brass mouthpieces, etc.) and as such it’s not really a well-known brand.
What does make these reeds worth investigating, though, is that they are quite inexpensive, with a decent overall reputation.
These are great if you’re in need of reeds for yourself (or for your students) and you don’t want to spend a lot of money. These reeds are typically a few dollars less expensive than the Rico reeds by D’Addario, and instead of getting 10 reeds, you get 20!
There are a few downsides, though. Only three strength levels are available (2, 2.5, and 3) and because of the inexpensive price, you can probably expect to toss around 15-25% of the reeds out. Even then, though, you’ll likely come out ahead, and with the money you save you can get some better quality reeds when the students improve!
- Inexpensive – great for beginners.
- Each reed has its own case – great for students without a reed case.
- Consistency is very good for the price.
- A very limited range of hardnesses available
- You can expect to have a few more duds than average in a pack.
- Probably not available locally – can’t try them out ahead of time.
5. Legere Standard Cut Eb Alto Saxophone Reed
- Hardness Levels: 12 (1.75-4.5)
- Cut: Unfiled
- Reeds per box: Sold individually
Legere makes a wide range of synthetic reeds for saxophone, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon.
These reeds are manufactured to respond like moist cane, but offer some significant advantages, mainly: consistency, stability, durability, and ease of playing.
While not all players have found synthetic reeds as a 100% substitute for cane, they are wonderful for demanding playing environments like outdoors (parades and marching band), pit orchestras (where you may sit for a long time before playing), and small clubs (where temperature may change from cold to warm quickly).
These reeds are sold individually, and while they may cost as much as a box of higher-quality cane reeds, they generally last for months (sometimes over a year), making them much less expensive (and less wasteful) than cane reeds.
- Consistency from reed to reed is much greater with synthetic reeds.
- Longer lasting reeds means you can use one reed for 6+ months.
- A wide range of hardness levels (and great consistency) makes it easier to find the right reed for you.
- Not cheap.
- Not everyone likes the sound or feel of synthetic reeds.
- More difficult to find a replacement when needed.
While there are lots of reeds on the market, one of these brands should work well for you. Remember that no two reeds are exactly alike, and so don’t feel bad about needing to try a couple of reeds from a specific brand and a specific hardness before you feel good (or bad) about them.
Once you’ve tried out several different reeds, you’ll get a lot better picking out the best ones quickly!