How to Select a Clarinet Reed
by Jenny Maclay
Date Posted: January 31, 2024
This article was originally published to www.jennyclarinet.com. We thank Jenny Maclay for her continued support, insightful blogs, and contribution to the clarinet community.
Finding the best clarinet reed for you and your setup is a lot like searching for the perfect pair of jeans. There will be a lot of trial and error, but once you’ve found the one, it will be worth the effort.
Discovering how to choose the right reed is an important lesson all clarinetists must learn early in their careers to help them produce the best sound possible on the instrument.
Here are a few important factors one should consider when choosing a clarinet reed:
There are many different reed makers, and each clarinetist must discover their own preference for which brand(s) work best for them, so it is important to try as many different reeds as possible to determine what gives you the best results.
Cane vs synthetic
Clarinet reeds have historically been made using cane (Arundo donax), a naturally growing material similar to bamboo, but some companies have recently developed reeds made from synthetic materials which aren’t as prone to changes due to environmental variables.
Depending on your geographical location and performance opportunities, you might find that one of these works best for you and your clarinet. (Learn more about the difference between cane and synthetic reeds here.)
Continuing our jeans analogy, reed cuts are similar to different styles of jeans (boot cut, skinny, relaxed fit, etc). Everyone has a preference of what jean style is best for them, and reed cuts are no different. Cuts are simply the “tailoring” of reeds, which will create a difference in response.
Contrary to popular belief, reed strength is not the thickness of cane, but rather the flexibility of that cane. Choice of reed strength is best determined by what kind of mouthpiece you use and what its dimensions are (tip opening and facing length).
"...reed strength is not the thickness of cane, but rather the flexibility of that cane." - Jenny Maclay
Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are a few things to keep in mind on your quest to choose your reeds:
The best reed is the one that works best for you.
Ask a room of clarinetists what the best reed is, and you’ll probably get a number of different answers. This is why it’s important to try as many different kinds as possible until you crack the reed formula with YOUR best solution.
Try as many reeds as possible.
When you factor in the amount of different brands, cuts, strengths, and other variables, there are countless different reed options at your disposal, which is why it’s important to try as many varieties as possible to see what works for you and your clarinet.
Don’t be afraid to be a reed rebel.
Most reed companies offer charts to help you decide which reed strengths and cuts work best with their other equipment, such as mouthpieces. This is a wonderful starting point when you are trying new brands, but don’t be afraid to try other strengths or cuts than the ones listed to find what works best for you.
Don’t commit too quickly.
Once you’ve narrowed down your selection, try using your reeds over the course of a few weeks (rotating regularly) to see how they play when they’re new, after they’ve been broken in, and how long the reeds last. Play in different spaces to hear how they’ll respond in different environments.
Break in your reeds.
We understand how exciting it can be to find a new reed which plays well, but be careful not to overplay new reeds until they have been properly broken in. Creating a break-in process is important to prolong the longevity of a reed’s life, so make sure you develop a system in which you gradually extend the duration you play on new reeds so they don’t lose their playability too quickly.
Learn basic reed adjustments.
Each clarinetist uses their own strategy and equipment to adjust their reeds, such as reed knives, sandpaper, or other tools and materials.
Do some research about basic adjustments and work with your teachers to create a process which helps your reeds sound their best. There are many books written on this subject, and you can also learn a great deal about reeds from oboists and bassoonists.
Rotate your reeds.
Once you’ve determined which reeds work best for you, alternate your selected reeds so you don’t use the same reed for too long. This will ensure that you have several playable reeds in your case and prevent you from wearing down a reed too quickly. (Read my reed rotation advice here.)
Re-evaluate your reeds occasionally.
It’s a good idea to evaluate your setup from time to time to make sure your reeds are still playing with the same sound you loved in the first place. Make sure you stay up to date with the latest reed news and try new products, especially if you move or your performing needs change.
Once you’ve found the one reed (brand/cut/strength) to rule them all, make sure that you protect your reeds by storing them somewhere where they’re not prone to variations in temperature, humidity, or other environmental conditions. You can use plastic baggies, airtight containers, or specially crafted reed cases which cater to these needs.
My reed recommendations
I love Vandoren reeds, and I highly recommend them to all of my students. For what it’s worth, I use Vandoren V12 reeds, strength 3.5 (although the strength might vary depending on the environment in which I’m performing). As I mentioned above, it’s important to try multiple cuts and strengths, and there are plenty of options of Vandoren reeds to try.
I hope these reed tips (pun very much intended) help you choose the best reeds for your setup!
About Jenny Maclay
Henri Selmer Paris and Vandoren Artist-Clinician Dr. Jenny Maclay enjoys a diverse career as a clarinet soloist, recitalist, orchestral player, chamber musician, pedagogue, and blogger. In 2021, she was the Visiting Instructor of Clarinet at Brandon University (Canada) and was Visiting Lecturer of Clarinet at Iowa State University in 2020. She is currently the Adjunct Instructor of Clarinet at Harper College. Online, she is known as Jenny Clarinet, where she created her eponymous popular blog. Learn more about Jenny here.