A proper reed is crucial for saxophone playability. Though fine-tuning a reed can seem like a compelling exercise, it's likewise risky, and we may end up with an unusable reed if we shave it the wrong way.
How to shave a saxophone reed:
- Lay the reed over a hard flat surface and use a razor blade at a 45º angle to gently shave near the reed's tip.
- You can also utilize sandpaper or a small knife, especially to flatten the underside.
- Alternatively, use a specialized tool such as ReedGeek, which comes with various scraping surfaces for convenience purposes.
In this article, we'll expand upon these reed adjustment ideas.
How Is A Reed Structured?
To understand the logic behind the procedures of shaving a saxophone reed, we should begin by delving deeper into the structure of a reed.
Saxophone and clarinet reeds are composed of three main sections:
- The vamp: The thinner part of the reed comprising the tip, rail, heart (the center), and shoulder which extends towards the bark.
- The file mark: The thin section that divides the vamp from the bark.
- The bark or stock: The thickest portion of the reed, which is fastened to the back of the mouthpiece by a ligature.
The length, width, thickness, and consistency of a reed are key parameters that deserve close attention. Small changes in those parameters could significantly enhance or decrease the tonal quality of your saxophone.
Most of the reeds available on the market are produced en masse. Most manufacturers produce their reeds in bulk to keep costs low for consumers and stay competitive on the market. This results in reeds not tailored to fit a particular playing style or tonal preference.
Some saxophonists (especially amateurs) are satisfied with the returns they get with these reeds “out of the box”, but more picky players often try to adjust or fine-tune them using sandpaper, a knife, or a razor.
Next, we'll turn our attention to these fine-tuning techniques and how they're carried out.
What You Need To Know About Shaving A Reed
If you feel that your reed performs subpar or it's too hard and needs shaving, there are various variables you need to consider.
Related article: Are Harder Reeds Better Than Softer Reeds? (Woodwinds)
How To Shave The Vamp
First, we must pay attention to the vamp area, which is the one that meets our mouth and wherein air first enters. It's crucial that we perform any shaving or sanding towards this specific section with the utmost precision to avoid any irreparable damage to the reed.
If you were ever to look at a reed placed right in front of a light source, you might perceive a mild gradation, with the tip being lighter or more transparent and the heart darker and opaque. The heart is the centermost and densest area of the entire vamp, and it needs to remain that way for optimal performance.
Moreover, you will also notice that the shaded part forms an inverted “V” shape that closely reaches out from the heart to the edge of the tip.
This “V” plays a major role in how the reed vibrates, effectively allowing us to render notes with more pitch stability and sharpness. Make sure that this V is not too broad or too narrow to achieve an overly balanced tone.
To shave the vamp, you'll generally be fine just using a regular razor, a small knife, or a piece of sandpaper. You would then:
- Lay the reed on a flat surface (namely glass or a smooth wooden desk).
- Next, place the shaving tool of preference at a 45ª angle relative to the reed position and carefully rub it towards the edges.
- You may use the sharp edge of the razor or precision knife to softly remove material from the portions that meet the mouthpiece's rail. This should be done very gently to avoid cracking the reed.
As you analyze the reed through a light source, you must ensure that the shaded part forming the inverted “V” looks symmetrical. You must never shave the heart unless it has been severely tampered with and/or looks extremely asymmetrical.
How To Shave The Underside Of A Reed
A reed is usually employed while it's wet (in fact, it needs to be wet for the saxophone to attain the best tonality). Repeated uses will eventually lead to slight distortions on the backside of the reed, which is the side that meets the mouthpiece's upper lip.
To soften these grooves, there are usually two traditional methods.
- The first one consists of grabbing a piece of fine emery paper, placing it on a flat surface, and rubbing the bottom of the reed softly lengthwise to sand it.
- The second method will have you using a razor blade to scrape gently and with the correct angles, sliding the blade steadily and smoothly across the base.
The ReedGeek is a tool that has gained popularity due to its versatility. It's marketed for being utilized even with the reed attached to the mouthpiece, and you will ultimately avoid the annoying clogging issues proper to sandpaper.
The ReedGeek “Classic” (link to check the price at Sweetwater) comes with two rail adjustors, a “pencil eraser” radius tip for more precise adjustments, and a square back that works for general scraping.
The ReedGeek “Black Diamond G4” (link to check the price on Amazon) is a variant of the “Classic” model, made from a very resistant alloy. It includes an additional rounded back scraper and curved rail bevels for rail profiling and fine-tuning at the heart and spine area.
Finally, the ReedGeek Universal Special ZR (link to check the price at Singin' Dog) is endowed with a stainless steel handle and a Chromium medical-grade treatment for additional corrosion resistance and longevity.
This tool currently enjoys a plethora of good reviews and has the endorsement of a wide array of personalities in the saxophone world, including David Sanborn.
However, it should be pointed out that this tool, while being a very convenient alternative, is also pretty pricey. This solution might not work for saxophonists with a limited budget.