Reeds can be one of the most frustrating, but important, parts of playing any woodwind instrument. Reeds are expensive, and many times parents opt for the cheapest box of reeds available but this can have serious effects on a young player's musical development. Cheap reeds can be stuffy and hard to play, making it difficult to produce a good sound. There are many different brands of reeds and they come in different strengths, shapes or cuts.
The Basics: Strength
The strength of a reed is usually measured in numbers, typically 1-5, with half sizes or quarter sizes in between. 1(one) being the softest and 5 being the hardest. Some reed manufacturers will simply label the reed soft, medium or hard. Beginners will start with a softer reed making it easier for the student to produce a sound. As the student progresses, they will move up to harder reeds as the student develops and strengthens their embouchure (facial muscles around the mouth). Harder reeds will give the player better control in the higher register and a more even sound throughout the range of the instrument.
Choosing a Brand
The most popular brand of reeds are Vandoren and Rico but there are many others to choose from. Each brand has a different method of aging and selecting the cane used in the final reed, and each brand has their own profile (the relative thickness of various parts of the reed) which affects the response and tone characteristics of the reed. To make matters more confusing, a "3" strength from one brand may not be equivalent to the "3" in a different brand. Finding the reed that works best for you is all about trial and error.