The following suggestions
presume that the reed is made with the standard American long
scrape as illustrated in the accompanying diagram.
The performance of a reed
can be described using four basic criteria: response, resistance,
tone quality, and stability.
- Response: This refers to
the reed's ability to speak freely at all dynamic levels. It
should speak easily at the softest possible dynamic while maintaining
a true sound, and it should speak cleanly at a loud dynamic without
splattering or spreading. These characteristics should be consistent
in all registers.
- Resistance: Resistance describes
how much air the reed will accept and how readily it accepts
it. It should be possible to play your full dynamic range with
very little embouchure intervention except at the softest dynamics.
No-one can maintain good control and endurance on a reed that
requires constant embouchure action. A reed that is too easy
(resistance too low) is as tiring as a reed that is too hard
(resistance too high). Although the embouchure is very free on
a too-easy reed, the tendency to search for more tone and overblow
can cause fatigue very quickly.
Here's a good test to determine the reed's overall resistance
level. First confirm that the reed opening is correct. Then,
with the reed in the oboe, blow gently through it with a neutral
embouchure. Don't try to influence the tone in any way. Gradually
increase the air pressure until the reed speaks by itself. The
resulting dynamic should be mezzo-piano or very close to it.
If it is too loud, the reed will be too hard to play easily;
if it is too soft, the reed will feel "limited" and
not project well. It is essential for the reed's resistance to
correctly match the player's physical capacity. Any deviation
will result in uncomfortable playing and rapid fatigue.
In addition, we can describe another aspect of resistance - hardness
- that refers to the amount of embouchure tension (preferably
minimal) needed to keep the reed behaving. Before making a judgment
about the reed's hardness (and possibly ruining it), always confirm
that the opening is not too large. Squeeze the opening to a comfortable
size and try the reed again.
- Tone Quality: The actual
timbre of the sound is a personal matter, and not important here.
It is important to get a good balance between low and high partials,
allowing the sound to be as complex and rich as possible. A reed
that has only the lower partials will sound dull, lack brilliance,
and will not project. Do not confuse this with making a dark
sound. A reed that has only the higher partials will sound shrill
- Stability: Refers both to
the reed's overall pitch tendency as well as its ability to maintain
that pitch. Reeds can manifest a confusing variety of combinations:
flat and stable, flat and wild, sharp and wild, sharp and dull,
etc. Some of these have no ready solution. Ideally, the reed
should play in tune and hold its pitch at any dynamic, at any
level of air pressure, and with any reasonable variation of embouchure
tension or reed placement in the mouth.
Remember that anything you
do to a reed affects all four of the above considerations. You
will seldom cure one problem without creating another. Success
in the diagnostic process consists of finding the solution that
removes the most problems and creates the fewest new ones. Even
inexperienced reedmakers can usually get the intended result
from a scraping operation; the skill lies in anticipating the
unintended results. Think before you scrape! Keep notes if necessary.
However, the best reed-making is purely intuitive - you just
know what to do. This knowledge is the result of experience,
so don't be afraid to experiment occasionally - even recklessly
- to see what happens. You may learn something.
Three Golden Rules of Reed
1. Sharpen your knife.
2. Don't make any mistakes.
3. Adjust the function of the reed, not the tone.
Common actions and their
- Scraping the whole surface
of the tip thinner.
- Easier response
- Lower resistance
- Brighter, somewhat shallower,
- Slightly flatter pitch and
If the reed is nearly finished, scraping the whole tip is seldom
a good idea. It tends to make the reed chirpy and shrill because
it emphasizes the tip vibrations too much. In this case, it's
usually better to try to get more vibrations some other way -
scraping the heart a bit, for instance - and then finishing just
the sides and corners of the tip. Scraping the tip makes the
tip vibrate better; it doesn't necessarily make the reed vibrate
- Scraping just the extremities
of the tip (sides and corners - "finishing the tip").
- Somewhat easier response
- Somewhat lower resistance
- More focused, refined sound
- Minimal effect on pitch
If done carefully, finishing the tip can actually improve stability
without affecting the pitch. Often, finishing the tip will unify
all the elements of the reed after everything else looks all
right. It should be among the last things you do to a reed and
always with a very sharp knife.
- Clipping the tip.
- Harder response
- Higher resistance
- Duller, shallower, less
- Sharper pitch and improved
Before clipping the tip, be sure it really needs clipping. The
reed should feel a little loose and play a little flat. Clip
to improve the function of the reed, not the tone. Clipping a
bright, sharp reed that doesn't vibrate well to make it sound
darker won't help it a bit. Always clip off the tiniest possible
amount; it's better to clip a reed three times to get what you
want than to clip it too much once.
- Scraping the heart (not
- Somewhat easier response
- Lower resistance
- Brighter, more raucous and
- Flatter pitch and decreased
This is often the cure for a stodgy, wooden reed that refuses
to vibrate. Try to stay away from the center of the heart unless
the reed just doesn't vibrate at all. The heart acts like a valve
between the tip and the back. If it's too thick, the tip vibrations
will not continue, and the reed will feel stuffy and resistant.
If it's too thin, the reed becomes loose and noisy - as though
the tip were much too long.
- Scraping the back (top half)
- Slightly more sluggish response
- Slightly lower resistance
- Warmer, less brilliant sound
- Flatter pitch and decreased
After the first roughing-out stages, wood should mostly be removed
from the top of the back, blending as you get closer to the string.
Making the whole back thin weakens the reed too much. Be sure,
also, to leave a visible spine down the center and rails along
each side to provide structure. Avoid having too much of a hump
between the top of the back and the heart - blend it smoothly.
POSSIBLE CURES FOR COMMON
Reed too flat.
There are several things that can cause this problem: the opening
is too big, the reed is well-made but too large, the overlap
is too slight, or too much wood has been removed from the reed.
It can also be a combination of these factors.
If the opening seems too large, always take care of that first.
Soak the reed well and, with the plaque inserted, squeeze just
behind the tip gently, holding the reed between your thumb and
index finger. Once you're pretty sure it won't crack, squeeze
harder. Then, gradually squeeze a little closer to the string.
Finally, squeeze as hard and as close to the string as you dare.
Twist the tube back and forth a little to weaken the reed further.
If it cracks now, don't worry too much; it would have cracked
sooner or later anyway. Better now than during a concert. This
is the only effective way to make the opening smaller. Weakening
the reed by scraping is not effective. The next time you soak
the reed, the opening will probably be too large again. Repeat
the squeezing procedure, and after a few days it should settle
If the reed seems to play well but just a bit flat, it probably
needs to have the tip clipped. Be careful to clip only the tiniest
amount at a time and try the reed after each clip. You can raise
the pitch slightly by increasing the amount that the blades overlap.
Gently slip the blades a little apart. Note that this will also
make the tone less vibrant.
If the reed is flat because too much wood has been removed, it
may be difficult to remake. Usually, this happens if the back
or the heart (or both) have been scraped too thin. Try clipping
it a little. Chances are the pitch will improve but the sound
will not. Be prepared to give up and make a new reed without
making the same mistakes.
The general order of operation in the case of a flat, but otherwise
well-made, reed is to clip it until it crows "C", then
loosen it up if necessary, clip again if necessary, etc. The
closer you get to an acceptable result the smaller the adjustments
should be. Try the reed after every (tiny) clip and after every
(minimal) scraping procedure. As a rule of thumb, do not let
the crow drop lower than "B" while finishing the reed.
Then, you will always be able to restore the pitch by clipping.
Reed too sharp
Sharpness can be due to the
opening being too small, the reed being too short, too great
an overlap, or too much wood being left on the reed. Sharpness
is much less common than flatness.
If the opening is too small, there is usually no remedy. Try
soaking the reed for a good long time (15-20 minutes) and see
if it improves. Squeezing it gently open with you fingers is
a temporary solution. Some people recommend changing the shape
of the tube with pliers to adjust the opening, but this distorts
the reed and ruins the tube. If you get consistently small openings,
try using cane with a smaller diameter, and/or a wider shaper
tip, and/or tying the reeds on a little longer (but keeping the
same finished length). Also, make sure that the cane you use
has good resilience. It it's mushy and collapses easily, no amount
of correction will help much.
If the reed is clipped too short, it's probably hopeless. Often
this is the result of carelessly clipping too much and then scraping
too much, clipping, scraping, etc. Be more careful.
The overlap can be reduced by slipping the blades more nearly
on top of each other. This will also make the tone more resonant,
but is at best a temporary solution - the blades will slide back
to their original position after a while.
If the reed is sharp because it's still too thick, scrape more
off. The reed is probably not well balanced in this case, and
where to remove wood should be visibly obvious.
Reed won't vibrate
First, determine whether
the sound of the reed is dull and wooden or whether it's thin
If it's dull and wooden, removing wood from the heart usually
fixes the problem. In extreme cases, you can even take wood from
the center of the heart. Note that this will make the reed flatter.
If the reed is dull and wooden and flat, it probably won't ever
If it's shrill, take more wood from the back. Continue scraping
until the sound gets a little better, then balance the rest of
the reed to what you've done. This will also make it flatter,
but most shrill reeds are sharp so you're OK. Note that reeds
that tend towards shrillness rarely turn out well.
Reed vibrates too much (raucous)
This is often a good thing
in the early stages, particularly with English horn reeds. Usually,
the reed is well-balanced but just not finished. If this is the
case, scrape equally from the tip, the heart, and the top of
the back and try it again. Sometimes, raucousness in a nearly
finished reed is the result of the opening being too large. If
that's the case, squeeze it down before doing anything else.
Usually, the reed will play completely differently with the correct
- Sharpen your knife. This
seems obvious but is often ignored anyway. Make sure it's really
sharp before going anywhere near a reed. Spend ten minutes sharpening
if necessary. Sharpen it five or ten times per reed. This cannot
be emphasized enough! If you can't get your knife sharp, you
might need a new one, or you might need to restore the edge using
a coarser stone. A knife more than a year old is seldom much
use unless it was extremely high quality to begin with and has
been very carefully sharpened. Consider having one knife that
you use only for the most delicate work. (This is not to say
that the rough work should be done with a lousy knife! You need
a good edge always.)
- Never deliberately remove
wood from the center of the reed. Enough comes off anyway.
- When in doubt, adjust the
function of the reed, not the sound.The basic sound quality of
a given piece of cane can only be adjusted within limits. It
is not possible make a shrieking reed sound dull, nor is it possible
to make a dead reed sound brilliant. It is possible, though,
to make these reeds function correctly so that you can play with
ease and comfort. You will always sound better on a reed that
feels comfortable to you - you will be able to play in tune,
with reliable response and without fatigue. Deficiencies in these
areas are obvious to any listener - far more than delicate nuances
of oboe tone.
- Make the extreme tip (corners
and sides) as thin as you can. Measurements show that many reeds
have tips that are .01mm thick (that's .00039 in. - 4/10,000).
Sharpen your knife.
- Before doing anything, verify
that the opening is the correct size. A too-large opening will
completely distort a reed's performance.
- Think. Everything you do
to a reed is a compromise.
- Unless you're completely
sure of what you're doing, consider all of the effects of what
you're doing on the four basic criteria of reed performance:
response, resistance, tone quality and stability. A scraping
operation will almost always give you the intended result, but
it may also give a variety of unintended results which you must
anticipate. Try to find the solution that solves the most problems
and creates the fewest new ones.
- Try the reed after each
operation. Don't decide you need to scrape the back, finish the
tip and then clip it. Results are sometimes unpredictable. Do
one thing at a time, and always try the reed.
- Learn to clip the tiniest
amounts from the tip possible. If you can hardly see the remains
on the block, it's about right.
- Consistency is more valuable
than frequent experimentation.Try to find something that works
and stick to it. The more consistent the process, the more consistent
the result. Don't keep changing shaper tips, cane suppliers,
staples, gouge dimensions, etc. Only a true expert (there aren't
many) will be able to make sense of the various variables. Chances
are, if your reeds don't play with shaper tip "A",
they won't play with shaper tip "B", either.
- Consider the effects of
tying the reed on at different lengths (while maintaining the
same finished length). While it's best to keep the length fairly
consistent, this presumes that you're using the same cane, shape,
and type of tube for each reed. Tying the reed on shorter gives
a smaller opening and a wider "throat" (the area where
the reed meets the string). Tying the reed on longer has the
opposite effect. Ideally, the sides should close with the string
still one wind below the top of the tube. Tying on too long will
cause the reed to leak; too short and the sides crush together
causing the tip to spread apart.
- Make sure the overlap is
correct. The blade facing you should be slightly to the right
of the blade behind. That way the tension of the string wrapping
pulls the two blades tightly together. Don't overlap too much
- the resonance chamber is reduced too greatly. When tying on,
I try to make sure that the overlap isn't going the wrong way
more than I try to make it go the right way. If you tie left-handed
(i.e. with the mandrel in your right hand, and the string in
the left), the overlap should be reversed (the front blade slightly
to the left of the rear).
- The sides of the reed should
hold tightly together all the way to the tip. If the sides are
"loose" at all, the reed will almost never work well.
This problem is usually caused by warped cane, careless shaping,
or careless wrapping and cannot be solved by scraping. Be very
careful with every step of the process, rejecting even slightly
warped or twisted cane. Gouge carefully and measure each piece
of gouged cane. Shape accurately with a sharp tool. Tie correctly
onto the tube with the correct tie length. If you changed staple
brands recently, change back.
Observe everything. Successful
reedmaking is nothing more than an accumulation of experience
and the elimination of error. This includes not only obvious
errors like tearing off bits of tip and tying past the end of
the tube, but also cane selection, careful gouging, shaping,
tying-on, scraping, etc. Learn which types of cane work best
for you. Which shapes, which tubes, which knives, etc. If you
find something that works, stick to it. Most of all, think while
you make reeds. Observe everything. You may ruin the reed you're
working on, but make sure you learn something from the experience.
ENGLISH HORN REEDS
English horn reeds differ from oboe reeds in two important respects:
they are not as "finished" as oboe reeds, and they
generally have a wire.
Many oboe reeds have extremely thin tips and a rather thin back,
especially just below the heart. If you make an English horn
reed this way, it will sound small, dull, and may well be flat.
Instead, make a reed that works well, is well balanced, but has
less contrast between the three main areas - in other words:
thicker tip, thinner heart, thicker back. In addition, the difference
in thickness between the top of the back and the lower portions
is not as pronounced. If viewed from the side, the "waistline"
of the reed that appears just below the heart is lower down.
If you want to think in terms of oboe reeds, make a reed that
plays well but is not "refined".
The wire is not used to control the opening of the reed. If the
opening is wrong, the reed will have the same problems with or
without the wire. Rather, the wire stabilizes and focuses the
tone of the notes above the staff. Often, this allows you to
remove more wood from a reed that was sagging slightly before
Many reedmakers put the wire (#24 gauge brass wire from the hardware
store, wound round the reed twice with pliers) on the blank before
scraping at all. I prefer to add the wire later if necessary,
since a reed without a wire will always vibrate more richly than
with one. Having said that, I will admit that 90% of my English
horn reeds end up with a wire on them. Don't wind it on so tightly
that it grips all the way around the reed; stop as soon as you
feel it gripping the sides. Don't put it up too high on the reed
- 5-6 mm from the string (in other words, just into the beginning
of the scraped area) is high enough. The wire will usually slide
around when the reed is dry, but return to its proper position
when the reed is soaked.