How To Break In A New Saxophone Reed Step-By-Step

We would expect brand new saxophone reeds to be at their prime when first used. However, it may take several days to reach peak performance since they need to be broken in first.

How do you break in a new saxophone reed step-by-step? First, soak the reed in warm water for roughly 2-4 minutes. Then, place the wet reed on a glossy flat surface (such as glass) and rub your finger from the back of the vamp slope to the tip to compact the cane fibre. Lastly, play on it a few times until the tone sounds optimal for everyday use.

In this article, we'll go over a more in-depth explanation of how to break in a saxophone reed and the other measures we should take regarding the care of our reeds.

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How Should I Break In A New Saxophone Reed?

We've just laid out the general process for breaking in a new reed. It involves soaking for a few minutes in lukewarm to warm water and massaging it to avoid destabilizing the cane. However, this is just the core process.

Part of the struggle of breaking in new reeds is that it may take a while for them to “find their place” in the mouthpiece, so to speak. You possibly won't be able to use them for stage or studio performances, but you'll still need to play on them for at least five minutes per day to attain a playable status.

The best way to go about it is by buying a batch of reeds and breaking them in before the one currently in use goes awry. This will guarantee that you'll deliver continually good performance when on the road.

With that out of the way, let's go into greater detail regarding the best course of action for breaking in your reeds:

Step 1. Label The New Reeds

If you want to buy a provisional batch of reeds to have them ready, it's important that you label them for proper storage and tracking. This can be done by using numbers or any other naming conventions or symbols you'd prefer.

This label should be applied to both the case and the reef's stock for a better methodic approach.

Step 2. Soak The Reed

This was explained earlier, but it bears repeating and expanding. We should use warm (or at least lukewarm) water. But not just any water. I strongly suggest relying on clean, fresh water for this purpose.

Some people have posited that saliva works just as well. However, there are various drawbacks associated with this approach:

  1. Being thicker than water, saliva will only stick to the reed's surface. It will not penetrate to the inside, causing it to have an inconsistent texture and, hence, an uneven vibration.
  2. Since saliva only wets the reed partially, the tip will become more open and resistant.

On the other hand, we should be careful not to waterlog the reed, for that will cause it to deliver poor vibration afterwards, and it will further get compromised.

Waterlogging induces the reed's fibrous tissue to disintegrate due to water saturation. You will know whether a reed is waterlogged by its dark and somewhat transparent appearance.

To dodge this problem, we need to ensure that the reed stays immersed in water for no longer than 5.15 minutes (depending on the air's relative humidity). The sweet spot is four minutes if you live in an area with average environmental moisture.

For more information on soaking saxophone reeds, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
How Long Should Saxophone Reeds Soak Before & Between Use?
How To Keep A Saxophone Reed Wet

Step 3. Massage The Reed

Massaging the reed is highly recommended to help the cane maintain a consistent shape. One of the dangers of wetting a reed is that, with time, the water starts to mess with the fibre, and the reed turns out warped when dried.

To avoid this and guarantee that the fibres are tightly bound together, place the flat side of the reed on a flat glass or similar smooth surface and softly (albeit firmly) rub your finger from the tail end of the vamp's slope all the way to the edge of the tip. Repeat this a few times until the reed stops dripping water.

Step 3. Play Test The Reed

You shouldn't expect top-notch performance the first time you place a new reed that has been recently soaked and massaged. The safest way to use a new reed is by playtesting it every day for at least five minutes.

By doing this, the reed will find its proper shape within the framework of the mouthpiece and the player's embouchure.

Keep in mind that, especially in the case of reeds made from natural cane, no two reeds are the same and will not react in a similar manner and with the same rhythm during the break-in process.

Other reeds will turn out to be faulty, which will be apparent once a week passes and no improvement in tone is attained. I'd probably give them a two-week trial, after which it's best to discard them outright.

If you have a large batch of reeds, this is the phase in which labels come handy. Jot down their performance history in a log, rating their intonation, articulation, response, pitch stability, and expression range.

Suppose they're not able to hold a tune, render notes instantaneously, or react to your nuanced playing. In that case, they're not ready for everyday use, and you ought to take note of that, carefully identifying each reed correctly to avoid mix-ups.

Also, you'll find that some reeds play better under certain weather conditions than others. So, for example, reed Nº 1 will perform better on hot, sunny days, while reed Nº 2 will excel during rainfall or when humidity is at its highest levels. It's critical that you also remark those variables in the log and avoid doing any sanding or tweaking on the reed during the testing phase.

Step 4. Perform Minor Adjustments To The Reed

After you've finally been able to improve the tone on your reeds and discard the ones that didn't make the cut, you can proceed to make all the required adjustments to improve the reed's feel.

In many instances, new reeds tend to have a rough surface. This is because natural reeds are made from highly fibrous material. To soften the reeds, you can use sandpaper (preferably a 1200-grit size). Be careful not to overdo it, for our reed still needs to be perfectly fit for our mouthpiece.

To learn about shaving saxophone reeds, check out my article How To Shave A Saxophone Reed.

What Measures Should Be Taken After A Saxophone Reed Is Broken In?

The hardest part of the process was already done, but you'll still need to do maintenance work to prolong your reed's life and keep it from losing its tonal quality.

1. Prevent The Reed From Warping

Reeds perform better when wet, which is why players should commit to wetting their reeds before use. One side effect of this routine is that, eventually, reeds can start warping as they get dry.

In light of this, we recommend that you buy a reed case. Most reed packages are made of plastic and don't keep the reed flat (they only prevent accidental chips), so storing them in their original packaging might not be the best option.

Related article: How To Fix A Saxophone Reed (Hard, Warped)

2. Keep The Reed Disinfected

Reed should be properly sanitized before storage and before/after playing. This habit will not only secure its extended life cycle but will also keep you from getting ill. It's never a good idea to allow bacteria or mould to thrive in your reeds, for you could be vulnerable to serious health issues.

One of the most efficient ways to keep your reed sterile is by soaking it in hydrogen peroxide or a competent mouthwash for half an hour. Then, rinse the reed with clean water to remove any lingering foam. Finally, use a sponge to dry it off.

It's not advisable to use vinegar or other acidic substances because of the possible damages that they can provoke on material as porous as the cane used for reeds.

On our end, we should strive to keep our mouths clean every time we prepare to play notes on our saxophone. By doing this, we further avoid possible infection and compromise on the reed itself.

3. Store The Reed In A Ventilated Case

Chances are that you're going to store your reed while it's still wet. Even a slight trace of moisture can propel the appearance and spread of mildew all across the reed if it's not properly ventilated.

Many reed cases come with ventilation holes to avoid this fate. If you only have the original plastic packaging at arm's reach, punch some holes in it before stowing the reed.

4. Rotate The Reeds

It's always beneficial to rotate the reeds. When you rotate them, you are not constantly wetting the same reed over and over. This will give you time to sanitize them and allow them to dry properly.

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


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the 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 ( or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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