Reed Help for Beginners







FIXING REEDS without and with tools



For oboe players in particular, and even for beginners, the quality of the reed makes a big difference to ease of playing, pitch (particularly in the high register), dynamic variation and tone. The reed must be at least good enough that the student does not develop bad habits right from the very beginning! It is arduous, and unnecessary to try to undo bad habits later on. Of course, you do not always have control over who started your student, but the earlier the problems are fixed, the better.
The best way to have good reeds is to buy reeds from a local professional oboe player or a double reed store. Handmade reeds are generally the best, but also the most expensive. Hand-finished reeds from an oboe store may be the best route for young players (for a list of oboe stores see: Oboe Pages and Resources). Your students may need to try several different types of reeds to find the style that suits them best. Having your student take at least a few lessons with an oboe teacher can also help them get started with good reeds, and to know how to get them.
Detailed information follows on reed characteristics, identifying reed problems, and relatively easy ways to fix reeds.


More Opening -------------------------------------- Less Opening
more air needed------------------------------------- less air needed
better in low register-------------------------------- better in high register
flatter------------------------------------------------- sharper
louder------------------------------------------------- softer
harder------------------------------------------------- easier

More Vibration------------------------------------- Less Vibration
better low register----------------------------------- better high register
better response -------------------------------------- tends to have better focus, stability

As you can see, balance is best

More detail on the above chart: If the reed is too open, response, stability ( it will likely be flat) and endurance will be difficult in the high register. If the reed is too closed, the response, stability (it will likely be sharp) and dynamic range (will likely be limited) will be problematic, particularly in the low register.


These priorities are ranked in terms of what are the most important things a reed needs to be able to do, and what characteristics are crucial so that good embouchure development is possible.

1) Response/ease
A reed must respond in all registers easily, so that you can get the notes out, and must be easy enough that you can play for some time without getting too dizzy, or your embouchure getting too tired.

2) Stability/pitch
A reed must be stable enough that you are not using your embouchure to bite it in tune. Having to do this is too tiring, and creates a pinched sound. Ideally, you should be able to have a reed that plays in tune with very little lip pressure, and only minor lip and air support adjustments.

3) Dynamics
You need a reed with which you are able to play the musical directions, so the reed needs to have a wide dynamic range, with a minimum of effort in all registers. It needs to be able to be easily played loud enough to be heard, and soft enough to blend in the section.

4) Tone
Lastly, and least, the reed needs to be able to be played with good tone. It is much more important that the reed can do what you want, than it sound good. Usually, it will sound fine if it is easy and you are able to play how you want on it. At least you will fool your audience, if not other oboe players!


The opening of a reed should be football shaped, or slightly smaller with each corner touching. Each blade of the tip should be symmetrical in shape and thickness. A reed that is too open can be hard to play, particularly in the high register, and a reed that is too closed will have bad response in the low register, and will often be too sharp. If a reed is too closed, it can sometimes be opened, at least temporarily, by soaking it in hot water for a few minutes.

Good reed openings better

Sides of the reed:
The sides should press tightly together the entire length of the reed. If they do not, if the sides are “loose”, the reed may be unstable and inconsistent. This problem can sometimes be cured by soaking the reed in hot water, or by “squishing” the back of the reed.

Blade overlap:
The blades should be overlapped slightly, usually to the right. Look for too much or too little. Too much, and the amount of reed that can vibrate is small; too little, and there is a good possibility for leaks or loose sides which can cause instability in pitch and tone.

diagramed reed 2cropped

Scraping Style:
The scraping style most favoured in North America is the North American style, or long scrape where there is scraping in the “back” of the reed, but you will also find short scrape reeds (used by much of the rest of the world) at local music stores. Many other country’s oboists play a reed that is more vibrant and flexible than North American style reeds, and that does not always blend well in North American orchestras.

americanreedgood copy          short scrape
North American     Short Scrape (with wire)

Extras on the reed:
If at all possible, avoid reeds with wires and fish skin. While they may be used to insure that there is no leakage, they can get in the way of the embouchure and the vibration of the reed.
Avoid reeds with chips or cracks in the tip. Also avoid reeds with "feathers" of cane hanging off the sides.


Following are several tests that will tell you what quality of reed you have. If you decide to try to fix your reed, this is the first step in determining what to do. Try lots of reeds to give you a better understanding for what is possible.

1) Test for suction: cover the hole in the tube end with your finger, and suck on the reed as if it were a straw. When you let go, the reed should "pop". If the reed leaks, you will feel the air being sucked into your mouth. If the leak is very near the tube, it may be possible to apply fish skin/plumbers tape to seal it.
2) Crow the reed: put the entire reed up to the thread in your mouth and "puff" into reed. If the reed is too soft, the crow will come out with normal exhalation; if the reed is too hard, you will need to engage your stomach muscles to get a sound. Ideally the sound should be only two "c"s an octave apart (or slightly flatter than a "c"). This kind of crow is extremely rare in a machine-made reed, however. What you are more likely to hear is a noisy rattle. Try putting your lips lightly on the middle of the cane to see if you can get a crow this way.
If a reed is too open, soak the reed well, and try squishing the back. If it feels like you can squish it without cracking the reed, and the reed will stay squished, try the crow again. It may be better.
Pick the reed with the most "coherent" crow.

These following six tests check for response, pitch, and balance. Even a good reed may not be able to do everything equally well, but all reeds should be able to pass these tests before you take them out of the practice room.


Tongue 5 low C's rapidly without cracking (this may require some embouchure adjustment).

Breath attack (without tongue), high B5, C6, C#6, D6, and E6. The notes should speak effortlessly, with no embouchure pressure.

Soft attack (with tongue) the low notes, D4, C#4, C4, B3, and Bb3. The notes should speak easily and gently.


Slur up an octave from octave A, Bb, B, and C without changing embouchure or air speed. The upper note will be flat, but not so much that it could not easily be raised up to pitch.

5. Check
octave F#5 and E5. Be able to play these notes forte with a wide open mouth and closed lips without them sounding flat. These two notes are two of the first to become unstable, and demonstrate a lot about the stability of a reed.


Diminuendo to niente (nothing) on low G. This is one instance in which you can BITE the reed. As a simple rule, never bite a reed to raise the pitch, only bite a reed to play softly in the low register. Use a tuner to check that you keep the pitch steady. You may need to rollout/open up to keep the pitch down.

7. The reed must provide a
Dynamic Range of p to f in ALL REGISTERS.

8. You must be able to
play a long tone forte for @30 seconds with no diminuendo. If you cannot do this, then you are spending too much air for the amount of tone that is being produced. If you want to have endurance, you must play on reeds that don't waste your air.


9. Never sacrifice the above characteristics for the tone


There are three types of oboe reeds: handmade, hand-finished and fully machine-made. Handmade are the best, but often the most expensive. The best quality for the money is to purchase hand-finished reeds, generally from oboe stores (see Oboe Pages and Resources). You will be able to find good fully machine-made reeds sometimes, but generally these reeds have one of three problems:

1) Most commonly, the reeds rated "soft" to "medium" are very responsive, and will play every low note easily, but they are very often not focused, or pitched, and are too vibrant to allow the high register to come out easily. Consequently, students try to control them by biting and end up having a pinched, sharp, soft sound. Their embouchure is actually trying to quell the overabundant vibration.
2) If the reed is too hard (generally reeds rated "medium-hard" to "hard"), students will often bite to close the reed enough to make a sound (as when air escapes from a balloon , the opening has to be squeezed together to vibrate). Exerting this kind of control is tiring, however, and most students cannot keep it up consistently, and tend to play out of tune. Also, when they begin to play on reeds that do not need this kind of control, they are unable to stop biting, and have very small, sharp tones.
3) Some reeds sound great, but because the machine is unable to scrape in a precise manner, and cannot keep the "rails" of bark that come up the sides of the reeds and hold it open, the reed closes down too much almost instantly.

FIXING REEDS without and with tools

American oboe reedgood diagramed

If your reed is too closed, or is too sharp:

1) Open the tip of a soaked reed with your fingers. Be careful not to pinch too hard, or you may crack it! This is very temporary, but can sometimes get you through a rehearsal or concert.
2) Clean the reed out with a pipe cleaner. Wet the pipe cleaner and push through tube first. Do not push through in the opposite direction, cane first. This is particularly effective with older reeds that have collected “foreign matter” inside.
3) Using 600 wet/dry sandpaper, lightly sand the whole reed. This should scrape off any residue, as well as loosen the reed a little. It may also lower the pitch of a sharp reed. It is always better to take too little off than too much.

If your reed is too open or flat:

1) Squish the back of a soaked reed. You will know if you have done too much, and if so: see #1 above. If the back does not feel like it can squish without cracking the reed, there is probably too much cane on it.

If your reed leaks:

1) If the reed leaks near the thread, you can apply fish skin by wetting it and wrapping just once around if possible. Plumber’s Teflon tape works even better, and does not need to be moistened. If the reed leaks farther up, and your mouth does not cover it -throw it out!
2) Try soaking the reed longer in hotter water. It's a long shot, but it can work.

More Advanced Fixing

If you feel comfortable with using a reed knife, below are the tools you will need. Remember to always use a sharp reed knife as it scrapes more accurately with out squishing the cane. If you would like information on how to sharpen a knife, The reedmaking book by Weber and Capps,
The Reed Maker's Manual is a good reference. While scraping, support the reed with your finger and a plaque, and use forward strokes with the knife--the knife should not be pushed into the cane, but should scrape along the surface.

• Hollow-ground knife (Vitry or Landwell knives are good, and many other brands work well)
• Flat plaques (convex plaques force the sides of the reed apart which may cause instability in the reed)
• Block or billot (with a flat surface and non-skid material on the bottom)
• Sharpening stone (Your knife must be sharp at all times! A combination of a fine india oil stone or a hard arkansas stone works well for me . I also use a diamond stone to regrind the knife as needed)

Relatively easy things to do to fix your reed using tools:

1) If the reed is too vibrant, too flat and too easy, clip about a 1/4 mm. off the tip using the knife and the block. The reed should get harder and sharper. If it does not, something else may be called for: see #3 below.
2) If the reed is not vibrant enough, and too sharp, scrape lightly off the "channels" in the heart, i.e.: avoid the spine in the center and the rails on the sides. Be sure to scrape over the “edge” of the heart where it meets the tip but avoid scraping the tip. Also look at the end of the tip in a light. Sometimes the cane is too thick there and needs to be thinned.
3) If the reed is unfocused, unstable and too vibrant, you may need to address one of the areas that machines cannot get thin enough - the sides of the tip. Gently thin the sides of the tip with the plaque in and supporting them with your finger. The reed should get easier, and more focused. You may need to clip it when you are done. The reed should become sharper and more stable after each clip.
4) Another focusing technique is to separate the tip from the heart on the sides. Scrape gently where the tip meets the heart on the sides, with very short strokes. The tip may also need to be clipped after this to make the reed stable enough.
5) If the back feels unsquishable, and is holding the reed too open, scrape carefully, while keeping the rails on the sides, and the spine in the center. If your reed does not have rails or spine, scrape beside where you would like them to be, and you will create small ones this way. This should close the reed down, thicken the sound and sharpen the pitch, particularly in the high register.


The following suggestions will help to prolong the working life of your reeds:
1) Soak your reeds in lukewarm to hot tap water. Hot water soaks the reed more quickly, and makes them stronger. Older reeds generally need to be soaked longer. So soak your reed the amount needed to get the strength desired. Also, saliva has a destructive influence on cane, and will degrade your reed more quickly if you only soak your reeds in your mouth. If warm water is not available, soak the reed in cool tap water, then warm it up in your mouth as needed.
2) Always wipe the saliva off the reed, and suck it out of the reed before putting it away. Actually, there should not be much saliva on the reed in the first place, because you should be playing on the dry part of the lip.
3) Keep the reed in a sturdy, well-ventilated case. If you must use a "tube", poke a hole in the end to allow air movement. A "French" style reed case, or one that uses "mandrels" is the best.

French Style                        Mandrel Style

4) Rotate your reeds. Do not play your favourite all the time. Practice, or play the loud parts on your "B" reed. This should keep both of them going for longer. Ideally, you should have at least three at all times.
5) Keep lipstick and food off and out of your reed. These "foreign" elements will inhibit vibrations, and speed up the decay process.

Thanks to
for the above images.