Full articles could be and are written about the sub-categories of this topic. Because of how much information there is about reeds, I will focus on where to start in the beginning days of playing the clarinet. It is important to point out that reeds are a very individual choice. There is a great deal of variance from player to player regarding reed choice and strength. A lot of what I write comes from personal experience as a player and teacher of many years.
We’ll start with how a beginner might choose their first reeds. Usually, a beginner is going to have a plastic mouthpiece in their clarinet case, as the mouthpiece they will be fitting a reed to. A beginner that’s a child or teen might need a softer reed than an adult beginner. They should pick an inexpensive three-pack of #2’s for a child or probably #2.5 for an adult. Then they just need to blow them and see, first, if it is too soft and twangy, or overly loud or flat, this would indicate a reed that is too soft. If so, they should try playing the same thing one half – to one size stronger. A reed that is fuzzy, airy or hard to blow would indicate a reed that is too hard or strong. That student should go to a lower number and try again.
Vandoren has a three-pack that has, I believe, a #2, #2.5 and #3 in it. That is the perfect reed purchase for a beginner. Whichever reed strength is most comfortable, they should buy an inexpensive three-pack of that size (both Vandoren and Rico have these). Sometimes it pays to teach in a music store, to get to know popular products by the different companies.
The aim is to get a comfortable, clear, in-tune tone, that the student can sustain – maybe four to eight beats at that stage of development. The reed needs will change as the student progresses and the facial muscles and air stream get stronger.
At the beginning level, the student needs to get some sort of reed guard to protect their reeds. There are many nice inexpensive reed guards all the way up to very expensive humidity and temperature-controlled cases.
A beginner needs a minimum of a four-slot plastic case. There are nice ones by most companies such as Vandoren, Rico and D’Addario. I personally like the two-sided, eight slot plastic wallet-style case from Vandoren. I like many features about that case – it holds eight reeds (ten would be better), it’s lightweight, sturdy, and doesn’t take up much room in your case. Important for all reed guards is that the tip is protected, and the back of the reed is lying flat. With the plastic four-slot reed guards, look for the ones with grooves where the flat side of the reed lays. They may all have grooves now – my Vandoren cases do. These grooves allow air to circulate on the underside of the reed and will make them less likely to get mold or mildew in warm, humid weather. One of the criticisms by professional players of the plastic reed guards is lack of control over the moisture of the reed. A beginner to intermediate student can prevent reeds from drying too quickly in the winter months by placing it in a plastic sandwich bag; they can leave the case open and out of the clarinet case in warm, humid months to let reeds dry out if they are too moist after playing. For under $7, that’s a very important investment for all clarinetists, including beginners.
Beginners should go to music stores such as the nationwide chains of Music and Arts, Guitar Center or Sam Ash (to name a few) to get these supplies when the buy their clarinets. There are specialists there to help guide the beginners. Starting with these tips will help with initial reed selection. As the player develops, they will build and develop the facial muscles, and can move on to harder strength reeds, and more personalized reed choices.