Can Alto Sax Reeds Be Used With Tenor & Other Saxophones?


The reed on a saxophone is, according to some sources, the main element that gives it the woodwind sound. Some people may dispute this, but it's certain that reeds are as essential to a saxophone as strings are to guitars. Since saxophones come in various types (and sizes, for that matter), there may be questions regarding what reed to use or whether the reed designed for a specific type may fit into another.

Can alto sax reeds be used with tenor and other saxophones? Alto sax reeds could theoretically work with the closest sax types, such as tenor. Nonetheless, they are not as efficient in delivering sound as matching reeds because reeds are optimized to work with specific sizes of saxophones and sax mouthpieces.

In this article, we'll discuss what reeds are and whether sax reeds are interchangeable, especially alto reeds with other saxophone types.


Saxophone Reeds

Earlier, we stated that reeds are not normally interchangeable. While some reed types may work in saxophones of different types, you would expect playability and sound quality to suffer as a result.

To understand this, we need to know what reeds are and how they operate in the context of woodwinds and, more specifically, the saxophone.

Saxophones differ from brass instruments in that they use different resonator designs. The mouthpiece is sharp-edged and has a slot where the reed pieces are inserted and fastened.

There are various types of mouthpieces, each devised for specific styles and genres and with distinct builds and materials. In that same trend, there are multiple types of reeds. These types are concerned with the build material and correspond with specific woodwind instruments and their size.

Traditional reeds are basically pieces of stem cut from bamboo or other canes. Many manufacturers also build reeds from synthetic materials that emulate the texture, fabric, and feel of natural reeds.

The reed is cut and shaven, with one side thinner than the other. The thin side (or tip) is joined together with the edge of the mouthpiece, where the player places the mouth. The broader side (typically called the “heart” or “heel”) is attached to the tail end of the mouthpiece by a ligature.

Like many other woodwinds, the saxophone generates sound by the interaction of the air molecules with the reed and the upper lip side of the mouthpiece. The reed's vibration aids in projecting an enclosed air column through the saxophone's bore to the bell and other open orifices across the tube.

They come in various sizes, fitting for different saxophone types and even different mouthpieces. Mouthpieces are normally interchangeable and can be installed in any saxophone, but they're usually built with different tip openings adapted to the instrument's capacity.


Are Saxophone Reeds Interchangeable?

The reed attached to the saxophone can alter its sound delivery and feel. Even reeds with the same size and tier (and even the same brand) can provide a totally different experience, let alone those with different traits. In summary, no two reeds sound the same since, in nature, no two canes are the same.

Going back to the article's initial question, reeds advertised for alto and tenor saxes naturally have different sizes. Tenor reeds are larger since they need to work on a larger body.

The size difference, albeit small, can have a huge impact on the playability and overall tonal quality of the saxophone. This is because reeds are made in proportion to specific parameters of each sax type and the dimensions of the mouthpiece.

Initially, tenor reeds are reported to work a bit better on alto saxes than vice versa, just as soprano saxes are easier to play with alto reeds than alto saxes with soprano reeds.

Notwithstanding, they still should be proportionate to avoid deficiencies in tone. This means that whenever possible, alto saxes should carry alto reeds. Besides, when a larger reed is allotted to a mouthpiece designed for a smaller saxophone, the overlapping reed will affect playing comfort.

In this scenario, some players opt for shaving and trimming their reeds, which is a very accessible alternative. However, it's not very appealing financially speaking because tenor reeds are usually more expensive than alto reeds of the same brand and quality.


Using “Mismatched” Reeds

Nevertheless, as was explained above, it's entirely possible to use an alto reed on a tenor saxophone, provided the player has enough skill to overcome the difficulties that ensue and that the mouthpiece is compatible with the reed.

It should be restated that, with small alto reeds fitted to a tenor's mouthpiece, it will be harder to deliver any audible sounds due to insufficient reed vibration (the difficulty increases exponentially with baritone saxes and above).

Despite all of these issues, making do with the reed you have is the only recommended course of action when no matching reed is available. Reeds are known to be prone to breaking and going awry quite quickly, needing frequent replacement.

They are almost as consumable to the saxophone as the strings are to a guitar or other similar string instruments. While they're prone to breaking after repeated use, they're also not overly difficult to find and aren't expensive.

Related articles:
How Often Should Guitar & Bass Strings Be Changed?
Top 10 Tips To Prevent Guitar Strings From Breaking


Additional Reed Factors Worth Considering

Other factors influence the functionality of a reed, which are not the focus of this article. We shall only add that the sound produced by a saxophone depends not only on the reed's size but also on its stiffness and thickness. Even a matching reed could still perform underwhelmingly if it's too mushy or too hard or if the reed is of a faulty quality and finish.

As a sidenote, saxophone reeds can also be interchanged with clarinet reeds of the same class. For example, alto clarinet reeds can be fitted into an alto sax's mouthpiece and vice-versa. This is possible because the design and form factors are roughly the same in both cases. This can especially benefit clarinet players since their accessories are often more difficult to find and normally more expensive.


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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