Alto saxophone reeds are made from cane, which is a variety of grass. The cane takes two years to get large enough to be made into instrument reeds, and then the reeds take two years to dry. There are many different varieties of reeds for an alto sax. In general, they are numbered to indicate their hardness, with 1 being the softest and 5 being the hardest. They come in half sizes as well.
Choosing according to hardness
A beginning saxophonist will probably want to choose somewhat soft reed because they require less wind. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that more experienced players want harder reeds, because the different reeds create different sounds that work better in different types of music. A professional classical saxophonist, for instance, might always prefer a reed of a 2 or 2 ½ hardness because that is a good type for classical music.
Choosing saxophone reeds can be frustrating because they can vary even among the same brand and hardness. They can even taste different. (Some have flavor added for discerning tongues.) Two brands that are widely available are Rico and Vandoren. The Rico student reeds are considered to be quite good for an economical reed. Both companies produce several types based on different types of music.
Jazz reeds have a quick response, which makes them more difficult to control than the alto reeds designed for classical playing. At best, reeds are disposable and have to be replaced frequently. A new reed will feel harder than you expect until you’ve used it for a little while. It will continue to get softer, too. How long a reed will last depends on how the player plays and many other factors.
Further reading: Saxophone Reeds
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