Without the shaved bit of cane on the mouthpiece, a saxophone would be merely a collection of valves and brass tubing. With the reed, it becomes a soulful, vital member of any marching band or orchestra.
A reed is usually made from natural cane, thick at the bottom, thinning gradually to the slightly curved top. It fits against the instrument's mouthpiece and is secured by a metal band called a ligature. Saxophone reeds (or the reed of any woodwind instrument) compress the air column from the player's mouth and force it through the instrument in a regulated flow. The reed also makes the air column vibrate, which helps produce the instrument's sound.
Choosing reeds is an individual decision, made by the musician. Most players have their preferences for thinness, quality of tone and durability. A thinner reed generally vibrates more easily. Being made of natural materials, reeds naturally decay with use, and many players keep several reeds in their cases, and rotate which reeds they use, to maximize their durability. Natural reeds are prone to cracking, splitting and chipping, so players may be faced with choosing a reed that is thicker, and thus more durable, or using a thinner reed that sounds better, but breaks down faster. Another issue with saxophone reeds is consistent quality. A player may find that there are only two or three good reeds in an entire box. Again, since cane is a natural material, the quality and thickness are variable, unlike the machines cutting them.
Saxophone reeds must be wet in order to vibrate properly, so it is not unusual, before a practice or performance, to see the sax players, along with the other woodwind players, walking around with a reed in their mouths, wetting it before playing.
Like the other woodwind reeds, saxophone reeds are cut especially to fit the mouthpiece opening of the instrument. The reeds are slightly curved at the top, to match the curvature of the mouthpiece, and the player fits the reed edge evenly with the mouthpiece, or a fraction below it, depending on preference. The ligature must be tightened enough to keep the reed from slipping, but loose enough to allow full vibration. This is an adjustment that a player learns through practice.
Some manufacturers have developed reeds made of a synthetic polymer that do not require pre-conditioning (i.e. wetting it in the mouth); synthetic reeds can also be sanitized and are more durable than their natural counterparts. Musicians are divided in their opinions on how good the synthetic reed really is, and if it provides the same quality of sound as natural reeds.
Saxophone reeds may be purchased as a single unit, or more commonly, in a box of 10, 12 or more reeds. Reeds vary in price, from about $10 a box, to as much as $50 per box, for the top quality reeds. A reed makes the instrument sound like the player wants it to, and as the audience expects it to.