What Are Double Reed Instruments?

Video single reed vs double reed

If you’ve been browsing the web for an oboe or bassoon for your child, chances are you’ve seen the term “double reed” used to describe them. Unless you play a wind instrument yourself or are very familiar with the instruments, this term is likely foreign to you. Unique within the family of wind instruments, double reed instruments feature reeds with two pieces of cane that vibrate against each other when a musician blows against them. As you’ve probably guessed, single reed instruments use only one piece of cane to produce sound. The term “double reed” also refers to collectively to the class of instruments which use double reeds.

Which Instruments Feature Double Reeds?

Within the family of double reeds are a variety of different instruments, each with their own distinct sound and characteristics. Generally, the instruments that fall into the double reed family include the bassoon, oboe, and English horn. Unless you already know which instrument you’d like to purchase, it’s important to have an idea of what sound or style you’re looking for before you purchase a double reed instrument. The bassoon produces a warm, dark sound while the oboe has a higher pitch and easily stands out in larger ensembles. While the English horn is similar to the oboe, it offers a slightly more dreamy tone.

How Are Double Reed Instruments Made?

Over time, many variations of design and construction methods for double reed instruments have been developed. Although most musicians prefer purchasing ready-made reeds, some purchase them in various stages of formation, including part-scraped reeds and reed blanks. Still others prefer to purchase the staples and cane separately. Cane is sold in several different forms, including in tubes, gouged, gouged and shaped, or gouged, shaped, and profiled. Although cane from southern France is the traditional choice, cane from several different regions can be used in reed construction. There are also many choices when it comes to staples and shaping equipment, which can have a subtle effect on the tone of the reed.

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Does Construction Material Matter?

A double reed instrument will bring a charmingly distinct sound to any ensemble or orchestra, but the exact sound will vary depending on the material used during construction. Double reed instruments made mostly from plastic are durable and easier to care for, making them an ideal choice for younger children or for those who may be more on the careless side, but don’t produce as warm a sound as double reed instruments constructed from wood. Although wooden double reed instruments produce a sound that’s more representative of the instrument, they require more maintenance than their plastic counterparts. In order to keep your double reed instrument in tip-top shape, proper care and maintenance is required.

How is a Double Reed Instrument Maintained?

While you should have your instrument professionally serviced every year or two, depending on how often it’s used, there are several things you can do to help prolong its life. First, take some time to learn how the instrument works. Speak with your child’s music teacher and learn about what designates an emergency trip to an instrument repair store and which issues can be fixed on your own. If you’d like to add years to your double reed instrument, here are some basic care and maintenance tips:

  • Wipe the keys with a cleaning cloth everyday,
  • Keep the wood (or plastic) free from dust,
  • Check the adjustment on a monthly basis,
  • Oil the mechanism every few months. To do so, take a needle oiler and put a small drop of sewing machine oil at every joint along the mechanism- just be careful to avoid getting any oil on the pads.
  • Take the instrument apart at least twice a year; clean everything, oil it, and put it back together.
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Why Are Double Reed Instruments So Expensive?

Even the cheapest double reed instrument will cost well over $1,000. Since oboes, bassoons, and English horns sell much more slowly than guitars or drum sets, even the benefits of mass production are minimized. When you spend more, you get more- but what exactly do you get when you purchase a double reed instrument? Essentially, you’re getting quality construction, additional keywork, and refinement of tone. As previously mentioned, the best double reed instruments are constructed of wood, particularly Grenadilla wood, and popular brands include Yamaha and Buffet Crampon. And, don’t forget the case- since double reed instruments are such an investment, you’ll want to take every precaution to keep it safe from harm.

Want to learn more? Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Woodwind Instruments.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>