photo credit: jazzbarisax.com

(photo credit: jazzbarisax.com)

We all commiserate over our bad saxophone reeds.

Sometimes, it feels like every reed we pull out is a bust; it's either too hard to blow through or squeals like a pig.

And then, when we finally find one, we cherish it like gold and hold onto it for dear life, playing it well beyond its life span…

We think: Why don't all saxophone reeds in the box work?

Some of us don't like to, or don't know how to adjust reeds, so we either suffer through some bad reeds or we throw away the bad reed and hope the next one will work.

Others have learned how to adjust reeds, and use really great tools like the Reed Geek to quickly adjust our reeds so they get close to a great working condition. (How to adjust reeds will be a future post.)

Is there a way to tell right away if the reed will work or not once we pull it out of the box?

Testing Saxophone Reeds: The Light test

This first test is simple.

  1. Hold your reed up to the light (or use your phone flashlight.)
  2. You want to see the center (heart of the reed) to be darker, following the outline of a mountain, where the sides of the reed are lighter than the center.
  3. If one side is darker than the other, it needs to be adjusted.

See the pictures below…

Reed in need of a little adjustment

Reed in need of adjustment

Fairly even reed

Fairly even reed – not much in the heart, though

Testing Saxophone Reeds: The Heel test

This simple test will let you know if your reed bark and end (Heel or Butt) are equal or even.

If not, one side of the reed may not seal properly and needs to be adjusted.

In the pictures below you can see that the first reed is almost perfectly even.

In the second picture, the right side is higher than the left.

Almost perfectly even end

Almost perfectly even end


Right side is higher

Right side is higher

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Testing Saxophone Reeds: The Suction test

  1. After you've done the light test, wet your reed. (You don't want to do this test on a dry reed.)
  2. Put your mouthpiece on the saxophone neck.
  3. Place the open end of the neck in either your right or left palm to seal off the air.
  4. Place your index or middle finger over the octave key hole to seal off the air from that route.
  5. Suck out all the remaining air in the neck by inhaling the air through the mouthpiece. (This creates a vacuum.)
  6. When all the air is out, take the mouthpiece out of your mouth. You will notice that the reed stays stuck on the mouthpiece.
  7. Count how many seconds the reed sticks to the mouthpiece.
  8. The longer the better, which means that there is a very good seal.
  9. If it's very short – only up to 2 seconds – there may be areas of the reed that need adjusting to make a better seal.
Suction test

Suction test


Testing Saxophone Reeds: The Angle Test

This process is to test each side of the reed to see which needs adjusting.

This too is not a “right out of the box” test; it's best to wet the reed and play on it a little to get more accurate results.

Ideally, this would be your last Reed Test, so that you know exactly which side needs more adjusting.


  1. Angle the mouthpiece 30 degrees to the left so that you are damping that side. (You are testing the vibrancy of the right side when you do this.)
  2. Using a breath attack, blow at a forte level, and let the sound decay quickly.
  3. Listen for the quickness of response, feel the ease of blowing, check the amount of resistance.
  4. The sides should sound even.

*** NOTE – I made a mistake in the video – I meant to say that I should be adjusting the left, not right side of the first reed. I was damping the right to listen to the left side. I apologize for the confusion.***

With all these problems, why not use synthetic reeds?

Synthetic reeds provide a solution for many saxophone and clarinet players.

They don't need wetting; they play right out of the box. And, they are fairly consistent; you know what you are getting each time.

That's huge, especially for those of us that double or don't have the time  go through testing each reed.

Today, there are so many great choices of synthetic reeds. You have:

  • Fiberreed
  • Legere
  • Forestone
  • Rico Plasticover
  • Bari
  • and many more…

Each synthetic reed also has it's own pros and cons too. Be very sure about the reed strength you are getting before purchasing. Check out the manufacturer websites for more info.


There will never be a box of cane reeds where every single one will work. To save time and grief, it's best to learn how to test each one so that you can make the necessary adjustments before you hit the bandstand.

The four tests mentioned above should give you a good idea about the working condition of your reed.

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