The Clarinet is a complex piece of musical machinery. One look at it will tell you; you just don’t blow it and get a sound. There is much more to it than that. And while all the different parts play an important part in the sound, one part can make a huge difference. You need to know how to choose a clarinet reed.
No Matter How Good the Instrument
You can have a great clarinet made by an esteemed manufacturer. But if the reed is of poor quality, most probably, your sound will also be poor.
Many seasoned players will tell you that the insignificant-looking piece of cane we call the reed is going to make a difference between a great sound and a bad one. And they would be right. One of the biggest reasons why a good clarinet reed is important is to get a good tone and, therefore, sound. Knowing what to look for in clarinet reeds is, therefore, very important.
What is Reed Strength?
The first thing to decide is what strength you need. If you are a starter on the instrument, it will also be useful to know about the systems of identifying strengths. So, let’s take a look at the strength system…
A Numbered System
Clarinet reeds are given numbers to describe their relative strengths. The number starts at 1 and goes up to 5. It increases by half increments. That is 1, then 1.5, then 2, then 2.5, etc. The higher the number then, the harder the reed. Therefore a reed given the lower number is not as hard as the reed with a higher number. But what does that really mean?
A Softer Reed
The first thing you should know when learning how to choose a clarinet reed is that a softer reed makes it easier to play the clarinet. It will also offer a brighter sound. But the higher notes will be more difficult to achieve. One of the downsides is that as you play, there is a greater risk of unwanted variations in pitch.
This can be corrected using the correct techniques when playing. This is called “Embouchure” and is a French word you will come across. It refers to how you should hold the clarinet in your mouth. It is worth reading about it as it may help to correct any problems or squeaks as you play.
A Harder Reed
This produces a different sound to a soft reed. It has a much thicker and fuller sound. But, it is more difficult to amend the pitch when playing with a harder reed. However, pitch variations will not occur so often, even when there is a change in dynamics. The lower notes can sometimes be a challenge with a harder reed. But the higher notes are easier to accomplish.
Which Strength Should You Choose?
That will to a certain extent, be decided by your experience as a player. Starters really should choose the lower numbered reeds. They are softer and easier to play with. Grades 1, 1.5, or 2 are best for those at an early stage of their playing career. More experienced players will choose higher numbers. Giving them a harder reed.
Should you have a target strength?
Players should be striving to get to the higher numbers as their ultimate goal with the Clarinet. But don’t try to get there too quickly. Using a reed that is too hard for the level you play will cause problems with the sound you can produce.
Reeds Come in Cuts
This is an area where you might need a little help and advice as a starter on the instrument. Reeds are made with two different cuts. You can buy what is known as the “regular” cut. They are usually used on clarinets that have mouthpieces that sound naturally brighter.
You can also buy “French File” cuts which are slightly different. If your instrument has a mouthpiece with a darker sound and is not very bright, the French might be for you. They are preferred by some players because of their faster response time.
While a fast response time is good for experienced players, your decision should be made based on how your instrument sounds. This is where you may need to get some help deciding what bracket the sound of your clarinet fits into. Once you know, you can make your own mind up.
Be Ready When You Buy
“Ready for what?” you may ask. It is best to buy your reeds in a reasonable quantity. They don’t last in the best condition for a great deal of time. You will therefore be changing them quite regularly.
Don’t be disappointed
You can buy boxes of ten reeds, but you must expect to throw away about two in every ten. This is just the nature of the beast, I am afraid. Some may have slight cracks; some may even be split. They are delicate objects made of vulnerable material. It can’t be helped.
Some might have other imperfections like knots or an uneven surface. They should be discarded as well. Identify the prime condition reeds and keep them. And, of course, protect them.
But, how Do You Protect Them?
Remember, the reed is vital to the sound. We talked about that at the beginning. You have to take care of them if you want them to give you the sound you want. Here are a few tips for how to protect clarinet reeds.
- Store them somewhere where they will not suffer any extremes of heat or moisture.
- Don’t overplay them; they need to be broken in. New reeds should be used for about 15 minutes at first. Then change them and store them away and use them again later.
- Be careful not to use a reed that looks damp.
- Once they are broken in, don’t use the same reed for more than two days at a time.
- Use some form of recognition system to ensure you don’t use the same reed too often. Marking the date you last used it is one way.
- When not in use, store them away in the paper or plastic sleeves they came in.
- Remove the reed from the mouthpiece after you have finished playing and store it flat.
You will see plenty of options, and there will be a variety of prices. But always remember that this is a vital piece of equipment for the creation of the sound, so don’t go cheap on it. They are not particularly expensive, so get the best you can.
There are makers like French company Vandoren that have a very good reputation. They produce reeds for clarinets at all levels of proficiency and are known for their craftsmanship. A good example is the Vandoren CR1035 Bb Clarinet Traditional Reeds Strength 3.5; Box of 10.
Rico is a name associated with reeds for beginners. A good option from them is these Rico Bb Clarinet Reeds, Strength 3.0, 10-pack. D’Addario is another who makes reeds. They are better known for guitar strings, but they still produce a decent quality product, like these D’Addario Bb Clarinet Reeds.
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How to Choose a Clarinet Reed – Final Thoughts
If I had to make a recommendation, I would go for Vandoren. Their reputation speaks for itself. I do hope this guide gave you a better idea about the different clarinet reeds out there. The reed that works best for you will depend on several things, and in the end, it is a personal choice more than anything else. So, keep trying different strengths and brands until you find the sound you are looking for.
Until next time, let your music play.