Putting together an instrument properly is something a lot of music teachers and musicians take for granted.
It’s also something where little mistakes could mess up your entire playing experience.
One of the most common mistakes I see is when people put reeds on their sax mouthpieces.
That’s why I wanted to come up with this guide on how to put a reed on a saxophone.
To put a reed on a saxophone, you need a reed, mouthpiece, and ligature, and follow these steps:
- Wet The Reed
- Take Ligature Off
- Line Up Reed With The Tip Of The Mouthpiece
- Put Ligature On And Tighten
- Double-check Alignment
More details follow in the rest of this guide, including common mistakes I see when people put their reeds on their saxes.
Note: This article and examples are geared toward the alto saxophone, but the steps apply to every type of saxophone, including the tenor saxophone.
Table of Contents
What You’ll Need
Here’s a quick rundown of what you’ll need with links where relevant:
- Good reed for saxophone (Check option on Amazon)
- Saxophone mouthpiece (Check option on Amazon)
- Ligature (Check option on Amazon)
- Your tongue (no option on Amazon here!)
Disclosure: Links in this article may be affiliate in nature, which means we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you! Thank you for supporting our content!
Step By Step: How To Put A Reed On A Saxophone
By the time you’ve got this practiced, you’ll be able to put your reed on in minutes or seconds.
But to make sure you do it correctly, we need to break it down and talk about each step of the process.
For people who prefer to watch a video or check out a visual, we have both of those as well later on in the article.
#1 Wet The Reed
Wood and cane reeds are naturally stiff, and stiff things have a harder time vibrating.
This is why reed instruments need to wet their reeds first thing.
By adding some moisture, the wood or material gets more flexible and makes a better sound (and it’s way easier, too!).
The best way to wet your reed is to just put it in your mouth!
You don’t want to soak it or anything like that; excess moisture isn’t great.
You only want to make it a little moist.
Put it in your mouth and let it sit there for about one minute before you play.
You’ll often see a saxophone player look like they lick it on either side a couple of times before letting it sit there.
They’re not tasting it or anything weird like that.
They’re just getting it wet!
Do about 30 seconds on one side, and then turn it around for another 30 seconds.
What about a plastic reed?
The jury is out on plastic reeds or synthetic reeds.
Does the moisture actually loosen it up?
Not really, but some sax players adamantly believe it makes a big difference.
Logically, it’s not going to do much, if anything.
#2 Take Ligature Off
After you wet the reed for a minute, keep it in your mouth.
Take off the ligature on your mouthpiece.
It’s critical you do this before putting the reed on your mouthpiece.
If you don’t, you dramatically increase the chances of chipping the end of the reed.
This ruins the reed and makes it unusable.
The exact method for removing ligatures depends on the design, but most have some screws you loosen to take off the mouthpiece.
The ligature is the part that wraps around the mouthpiece and holds onto it.
(Reference the image at the beginning if you need to.)
#3 Line Up Reed With The Tip Of The Mouthpiece
Place the reed, flat surface side down, thin side to the top, on the mouthpiece.
Make sure the reed is lined up in the center of the mouthpiece from side to side.
The reed tip should either be exactly in line with the tip of the mouthpiece, or it should be slightly below even with the mouthpiece.
The back of the reed is less important than the tip, so don’t worry about it.
It shouldn’t be over the tip of the mouthpiece at all.
When the reed is too far over, it’s not a good thing.
It’ll be harder to make your sound.
Reed placement is critical to get correct.
#4 Put Ligature On And Tighten
Replace the ligature over the mouthpiece.
Take great care not to hit the tip of the reed as you put it on.
Often, I have to adjust the reed a little bit after I put the ligature on.
A lot of people use one hand to hold the bottom of the reed in place while they use the other to move the ligature into place.
Pro-tip: Tighten the ligature slightly once in place, and then readjust the reed before tightening it completely.
The ligature that comes with your mouthpiece is probably fine, but if you’re serious about the sax, a lot of players find that using a different one (unique to each player) results in better playing.
#5 Double-check Alignment
Once everything is in place, I still do a quick check to make sure the alignment is right.
One of the things I like to do is turn the mouthpiece around, so the reed faces away from me.
Then, I line the tip up with my eye-line and make sure I don’t see any reed poking over the end.
I’ll also do another quick check to make sure the reed is centered left to right.
If it isn’t, I’ll adjust.
These are also the steps I know my wife uses when she works with her beginning saxophone students.
If it’s good enough for them, it’s plenty good enough for me!
Now, it’s time to put the mouthpiece on the sax and start playing!
Video Example Of How To Put A Saxophone Reed On A Mouthpiece
Common Problems In Putting A Reed On A Saxophone
I make a lot of mistakes, and I see kids (and adults) making the same ones with their instruments too.
I even asked my band director friends about saxophone and reed problems, and we all agreed on these things we see over and over again.
Read these to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes!
(Of course, if you follow the steps above closely, you may not have these problems.)
Reed Too Far Over
The most common (for myself and new players) is putting the reed too far over the mouthpiece.
This limits the vibration of the reed, and without vibration, there is no sound!
It also increases the chances of squeaking.
This is doubly true on the clarinet, but it’s still a problem with the saxophone too!
So it’s a single-reed instrument issue.
Reed Not Straight
Another common problem is when the reed gets askew from the mouthpiece itself.
This makes it almost impossible to make any sound at all, as the reed won’t vibrate when there’s no room to move.
Most people don’t mean to do this, and they’ll make sure it’s in line when they first put the reed to the mouthpiece.
But if the ligature bumps the reed as it’s put on or isn’t tight enough, it’ll wiggle and end up misaligned.
This is why double-checking the reed after the ligature gets put on is critical.
Push Reed Through The Ligature
Another mistake I see new players make is to slide the reed through the ligature while the ligature is still on the mouthpiece.
And every time I see it, I die a little inside.
Doing this isn’t necessarily bad by itself, but you dramatically increase the chances of hitting the tip of the reed on the ligature itself.
This can chip or bend the reed and make it no good anymore.
(Believe me, I’ve made this mistake too!)
The tip of the reed is the thinnest and most breakable part.
It’s also the most important part; this is where the wood vibrates and creates the sound in the first place.
Not Wetting Reed
People don’t always see the value in wetting their reeds.
To them, it feels like an extra step.
But these same people end up frustrated because they have a harder time playing their saxophones right away.
Often, it’ll take them a good 10-15 minutes of struggling to play before their reed is moist enough to vibrate freely.
But putting the reed in your and intentionally wetting it for one minute, while it may look a little silly, will cut out all that frustration.
Playing On Chipped Reed
I’ve played on a chipped reed when I had to, but trust me; it just doesn’t work right.
Chipped reeds are one of the number one reasons your saxophone will squeak.
It also breaks off and gets stuck in your mouth (or worse).
If the reed is chipped and you have another on hand, switch it out for one of your new reeds.
If you don’t, don’t play.
Go buy some more.
You always need to have 3+ on hand when you play.
If you get low, buy some more.
By the way, you should use a reed case to keep your reeds intact when not in use.
Using A Bad Reed
Different brands of reeds aren’t equal to each other.
The right reed is kind of like a “wand chooses the wizard” kind of thing.
Reed players always have a preference, and this comes through practice.
Matching the reed to your play style is important, so feel free to experiment.
But I do have some advice on good brands to check out, so it doesn’t take such a long time.
- Vandoren reeds
Commonly Asked Questions
How Tight Does A Ligature Need To Be?
The easy answer is: just tight enough.
It needs to be tight enough that the reed doesn’t move.
But if it’s too tight, it may impact the vibrations.
In some cases, depending on the design, it won’t move at all!
I’d err on the side of too tight at first.
Too loose, and the reed moves all around, then you have to stop completely and readjust.
If it’s too tight, all you need to do is loosen it a quarter turn at a time until the reed vibrates as easily as you want it to.
How Does Reed Hardness Work?
The number on a reed refers to the thickness or hardness of a reed.
Saxophone reeds are usually numbered from 2-5, and they use half numbers, too (2.5, 3.5, etc.).
The harder the reed, the better sound, and articulation you’ll get, but it’s tougher to handle.
If the reed is too hard for your skill level and play style, you’ll blow hard and get a few notes out.
A harder reed also sounds airy and dull if you can’t play it right.
A hard reed helps with the high notes.
Lower numbers are usually easier to play, but you’ll sacrifice potential in control and power over your playing.
Beginners generally start on a 2 or 2.5 saxophone reed.
As they get better, a switch to a 3 or 3.5 is called for.
High-level saxophonists (such as professional saxophone players) will carry different thickness reeds to play different styles of music and different pieces.
For the average player, this isn’t needed.
Just go with a 3 or 3.5 in the middle, and you’ll be just fine.
How Long Should A Saxophone Reed Last?
The answer to this one is going to shame some of you.
A saxophone reed should only last a week or two with regular playing.
If you play on it less often (only once or twice per week), then you can stretch this to a month.
I know reeds cost some money, but it’s worth it to your playing to keep them fresh.
An old reed starts to play poorly and makes you work too hard.
You’ll find yourself getting tired quicker and having a harder time making your notes speak.
Of course, if the reed is damaged, don’t wait! Replace it right away!
How Do I Know If My Reed Is Too Soft?
You know your reed is too soft for you when the sound gets too bright or “tinny” to your ears.
You may also start to notice some buzzing, like a kazoo.
A softer reed also struggles in the softer dynamics.
If you play and the tone gets fuzzy, it’s the soft reed.
Loud playing is usually unaffected.