Clarinets are woodwind instruments and fall into a category of instruments called reed instruments. These instruments need a reed in order to make a sound. Reed instruments are then divided into two main groups; single reed and double reed instruments. Oboes and bassoons use double reeds and clarinets and saxophones use single reeds. Some instruments from countries such as India and Thailand use quadruple reeds and these instruments usually have two reeds at the top and two at the bottom. Ancient Asian instruments can also use reeds and these are known as free reeds.
The reed that is used in a clarinet is an important part of how the instrument performs and as with anything in the world of music you need the correct reed and a reed that is fit for the purpose.
There are many unbranded reeds that can be purchased, but they are not great and a new player will struggle to get a good sound from a reed that hasn’t been made properly, and doesn’t fit the clarinet correctly.
There are several brands of reeds and each teacher and player will have their favourite which will have been found after several years of trying different reeds. Musical Instrument Hire send out all clarinets with Vandoren Traditional or Rico 1.5 reeds. Vandoren and Rico reeds are arguably the most widely played reeds in the clarinet world. The reeds are individually wrapped to preserve the humidity of the natural reed that they are made from.
The reeds are made from a giant cane called Arundo donax and usually grown in the southern coastal areas of France and Spain. Argentina has also grown this cane over the last few decades. Once the cane is cut it is laid out to dry over a period of a month and once dry is taken to a warehouse and then transported to a factory for cutting. Arundo donax enables companies such as Vandoren or Rico to produce a reed that is high quality and appropriate thickness which in turn enables the reed to last longer than a reed made from a less superior cane.
How long does a reed last?
A clarinet reed will last for an average of six months with average use. Children can go through reeds quicker as they are more prone to splitting, chipping or just breaking the reeds. Once a reed is split, or chipped it is of little use to a player as the crucial fitting on the mouthpiece will have been compromised. Reeds can be purchased in singles, blister packs or boxes of 10. It is more cost effective to buy a box but equally there can be less care in looking after reeds if they are too readily accessible for children! It is good practice to have a few reeds on the go at once, and for the reeds to be ranked (i.e., number the reeds from the favourite downwards, or vice versa). This enables the player to have several reeds that can be used rather than having one and using it until it breaks. When a new reed is used it takes a little playing before it is “broken in” and good to use. This is especially good practice if the player is working towards an exam. There is nothing worse than a broken reed on the morning of an exam and not having a worn in reed to fall back on.
There are two “profiles” for clarinet reeds i.e., how they look from the side. The reed you will need to use depends on the mouthpiece that you have on your clarinet. The profiles are known as American (or regular) and French. The styles basically are cut in opposite ways with thinner or thicker tips and then thinner or thicker hearts (body of the reed). This gets very technical and professional players will get the reed that suits their mouthpiece and playing style the best. Some players will have different mouthpieces, and reeds for different styles of playing that they do.
American Un-Filed Cut
French Filed Cut
Clarinet Reed Comparison Chart
Clarinet reeds are graded into strengths, but this doesn’t always mean that all medium strength reeds are the same across all brands and ranges. The chart below compares some of the most popular reeds to give an indication of how the reeds compare.