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When it comes to setting up your instrument for jazz, the saxophone reed can make a surprisingly big impact on your sound and style.

In this article we’re going to look at the key considerations for choosing a reed and highlight some top performing brands. 

Whilst the question of ‘best’ saxophone reed for jazz will be personal to each individual player, there are some industry-leaders and we’ll take you through 5 of them in this guide.

To demonstrate, we’ve included some examples of the reeds chosen by the jazz greats – both modern and through history – so keep an eye out for the reeds recommended by everyone from Charlie Parker to Chris Potter.

If you want to increase the lifetime of your reeds, you might also want to consider a reed cutter, which we included in this list of 10 essential saxophone accessories.

Our #1 Pick!
Vandoren ZZ Reeds
Vandoren ZZ Reeds

All-round jazz reed with a rich, dark sound.

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Royal by D'AddarioRoyal by D'Addario

Extremely versatile, good value for money

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Rico Select JazzRico Select Jazz

Great projection and flexibility, making them ideal for jazz.

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Vandoren JavaVandoren Java

Brighter sound, particularly good for big band playing

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D'Addario La VozD'Addario La Voz

Free-blowing, played by many top jazz, funk and R&B players

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saxophone reeds for jazz

About the saxophone reed

They might seem like an insignificant part of the instrument compared to the saxophone itself – or even the mouthpiece and ligature – but reeds can play an important role in getting the jazz sound you’re after.

Your reed could contribute towards your instrument feeling easy to blow, or it could be the reason that making a sound is a struggle. In fact, it could even have more of an impact on your sound than the saxophone itself, at least initially.

And, as such, some reeds are better than others when it comes to playing jazz.

Given that a reed costs about the same as a cup of coffee, and a fraction of the price of a saxophone or mouthpiece, it’s worth taking your time and thinking carefully in choosing the right reed – in terms of both the model and the strength – for you.

Traditionally made from arundo donax cane, there are now various synthetic (aka plastic) alternatives available as well.

Reeds have a limited lifespan and will need to be replaced when they no longer feel responsive. A cane reed might last between one and two weeks, although this will depend on various factors, including how frequently it is played.

How to choose a jazz reed for saxophone

The best way to find the perfect reed for you is to experiment with different products and strengths: find out what feels and sounds best with your skill and experience level, the type of music you play, and the mouthpiece you use.

What do the saxophone reed numbers mean?

Strength is a measurement of a reed’s stiffness, and is usually quantified numerically, with a higher number signifying a ‘harder’ reed.

A harder reed will offer more resistance, requiring a more developed embouchure, so saxophone beginners will generally play on a softer a reed (perhaps a 1.5 or a 2).

More advanced players may enjoy a darker sound, perhaps with more depth, by playing on a harder reed, but there are no definitive rules.

What feels good in a reed is a very personal thing: Cannonball Adderley played a fairly soft reed (around a 2), while it’s been suggested that Charlie Parker used a hard reed (possibly even a 5!).

The tip opening of your mouthpiece will also impact which reed works for you, but more on that another time…

It is worth choosing one of the major jazz reed brands: even if they are slightly more expensive, their products will tend to last longer and be more consistent.

Five of the best reeds for jazz

Royal by D’Addario

Formerly known as Rico Royal, these are a higher quality alternative to the classic ‘orange box’ Rico reeds.

Although they are not specifically made for jazz playing, these are extremely versatile reeds that are used by many advanced players and professionals in both jazz and classical settings.

They are priced slightly lower than rival brands like Vandoren jazz reeds, offering strong value for money.

Unlike the unfiled ‘orange box’ Rico reeds, these have a traditional French filed cut, providing clarity of tone and a swift response.

A good option for players of all levels, they are available in strengths ranging from 1.0-5.0.

Royal by D'Addario Tenor Sax Reeds, Strength 4, 10-packRoyal by D'Addario Tenor Sax Reeds, Strength 4, 10-pack
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D’Addario Jazz Select

With a thick spine and a longer vamp, these aim to help the player to produce a fatter sound with greater projection and flexibility, making them ideal for jazz.

Most reeds offer half strength gradients (1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, etc.), but D’Addario Jazz reeds allow the player to be more picky in that regard by offering strength gradients rising in thirds: each strength number has a soft, medium and hard option (2S, 2M, 2H, 3S, 3M, 3H…)

They are available in both filed and unfiled versions. The exact implications of these options are somewhat mysterious and open to interpretation, but reports suggest that, whilst the difference is not massive, the filed version gives a brighter sound with faster vibration, whereas the unfiled cut offers slightly more resistance as a result of the bark from the reed’s shoulders remaining intact.

Noted for their quality control and consistency, these are endorsed by big names in the jazz world including Chris Potter, Camille Thurman and Miguel Zenon.

Rico Select JazzRico Select Jazz
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Vandoren Java Green

Introduced in 1983, these are the original jazz reeds from Vandoren, the famed French specialists in clarinet and saxophone equipment.

They feature a thicker tip with a thinner heart (the centre of the of ‘active’ part of the reed, in the middle of the vamp), providing vibration over a greater surface area and a more flexible palette.

This typically gives the player a brighter sound, which might be more appropriate for jazz or big band playing.

Like all Vandoren reeds, they are sealed in foil ‘flow packs’ to shield them from changes in temperature and humidity. A newer Java ‘Filed – Red cut’ offers even more flexibility and power, making it particularly suited to rock and funk.

Vandoren JAVA GreenVandoren JAVA Green
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Vandoren ZZ

This more recent offering from Vandoren is another one of their four reeds that are specifically designed for jazz playing (the others are Java Green, Java Red and V16).

In comparison to the Java, this is intended to offer a richer, darker sound, whilst still offering the projection and ‘zip’ required for the style; this is marketed as the perfect all-round jazz reed, ideal for both small group playing and section work.

Endorsers for the various Vandoren jazz reeds include the likes of Steve Coleman, Walter Smith III and Tia Fuller.

Vandoren ZZ ReedsVandoren ZZ Reeds
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La Voz

Crafted from premium cane with an unfiled cut, La Voz are played by many top jazz, funk and R&B players, and were the reed of choice for the late, great jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker.

Dispensing with the usual numbering system, they have an unusual strength grading: ‘soft’, ‘medium soft’, ‘medium’, ‘medium hard’ and ‘hard’.

They tend to be a little on the soft side, meaning that they will blow freely straight out of the box, although the flip side of this is that some users have found their life span to be shorter than other brands.

D'Addario La Voz ReedsD'Addario La Voz Reeds
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Value: The best jazz saxophone reeds

Most manufacturers offer boxes of 10 reeds at a better price per reed than if they are purchased individually, so this is a good option once you have settled on one that works for you.

However, until you get to that point it might be worth buying in smaller quantities (some brands offer boxes of five, or you could buy a few individual reeds), although reeds can vary noticeably, even within a box, so you should try a few of each type before making a decision either way.

It’s also important to remember that it can take time to ‘break in’ a new reed. It may initially feel resistant, so take your time and play it a little each day.

Strengths can vary from brand to brand – for example a Vandoren Traditional 2.5 is harder than a D’Addario Royal 2.5 – but these can be checked easily on a reed comparison chart.

So that’s it: 5 of the best saxophone reeds for jazz, as used by some of the great players around the world. As we mentioned, it pays to do your homework and try out some options.

Also, consider experimenting with your ligature too; it can have a surprisingly big effect on the sound.

If you have other saxophone reeds to recommend – or would like to share your experience with any of these, feel free to use the comments section below!

You’ll find all of our saxophone-related articles and reviews here.

Discover Jazz
Discover Jazz

The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!