Wire Adjustment Q & A
Q: You advocate for the use of 4 wires on bassoon reeds, with each wire made from a different type of metal. (The Arundo reed design uses the following: wire 1 = #21 gauge brass, wire 2 = #22 gauge nichrome, wire 3 = #19 gauge copper, and wire 4 = #20 gauge galvanized steel.)
“What makes each metal particularly suited to its function as each specific wire [position]? I would assume that there is a unique aspect of the material’s science for each metal…”
A: Wire number 4, the butt wire. This wire needs to be stiff enough and heavy enough to hold its shape. It also serves the function of transferring vibration into the bocal. I first became aware of the use of a heavier wire under the binding in looking at a reed made by Sherman Walt, who was principal bassoon for many years of the Boston Symphony. His reed was either #20 or #18 gauge copper wire (a softer and more flexible wire). The use of the steel wire requires much more strength in pulling and rounding the wire to conform to the mandrel than the copper and is less likely to distort its rounded shape.
In some cases an additional wire is placed at the extreme end of the reed usually of soft brass of #22 gauge to help hold the reed on the bocal in the proper position or more often to seal leaks in the butt of the reed. In some cases in poorly formed reeds the end of the reed is not perfectly round allowing air to escape.
Wire number 3, the chamber wire. I place a #19 gauge copper wire over the binding midway between the butt wire and the second wire. Heavier gauges of copper wire are easier to stretch and form over the binding than other types of metal wires.
I first became aware of reeds made with four wires from legendary bassoonist and reed maker Don Christlieb. His third wire was covered by a plastic binding similar to what was used in toothbrush or tool handles and was soluble in acetone. The stiff plastic binding I’ve used is similar to what Christlieb used. I prefer putting the wire over the binding so that it can be tightened, easily removed or adjusted. It can also function (by rounding and tightening) as a way to reduce the amount of bocal penetration if the bocal is going too far into the reed. Wire number 3 also functions the same in tip opening adjustments as wire number 2 and can strengthen a weak reed. I used to call this wire the “resonance wire” but I believe that it actually helps focus the tone and also adds to the transfer of vibration to the bocal. In some cases on my own reeds I omit this wire if I want a more spread tone when I’m playing second bassoon. This added wire became the standard in all Arundo bassoon and contra bassoon reeds of my design.
Wire number 2, the throat wire. This wire should be as stiff as possible and rounded in forming the reed, #22 nichrome wire. The idea is that this wire is tight enough to be immovable. Roundness of the second wire was also recommended by Norman Herzberg. Nichrome is one wire type along with stainless steel that can hold its shape and like steel wire it requires greater strength in rounding and securing the wire to the tube. This wire essentially stops the vibration of the lowest notes. Christlieb used soft brass wire for all of his wires but advocated stiffening the wire through “work tempering.” This was accomplished by stretching soft brass wire between two pairs of pliers which makes the wire stiffer. It is possible to purchase brass wire which is not designated as soft brass wire but it is difficult to find. Most of us found only soft brass wire in spools at hardware stores until much later when #21 gauge wire became readily available.
Wire number 1, the blade wire. Using #21 gauge wire holds its shape and adjustments better than #22 gauge wire. #21 can also be tempered to stiffen this wire to hold its shape even better. In forming reeds, the Arundo method rounds the first wire to some degree but not necessarily always perfectly round. (Roundness is a constant that can be measured from reed to reed.) Soft brass wire is much easier to use when rounding and stretching the first wire in forming the reed. The sizing of the throat between the first and second wire is a variable that should not be ignored. Too rounded can make a reed inflexible, and not rounded enough can lead to an unstable reed especially if the wire is not snug on the tube. This rounding provides a more arched blade and blade structural strength which better supports a nearly finished initial blade profile. In no case should the first wire be so tight that it cannot be moved back using the fingernails. While the second wire should be immovable, the first wire shouldn’t be so tight that it can’t be moved back otherwise it will choke the vibration of the reed. This is a common problem with bassoonists that believe they should have their reeds soaking in water at all times.
What about the use of other metal types for the first wire? Stainless steel wire of #22 gauge is not uncommon and will hold its shape better than brass wire, although it may be harder to use in forming than brass and may end up too loose.
Another type of wire that I have used in the past which I have found to be an exceptional type is “gold filled” wire. This is used in jewelry making and is brass wire that is clad in gold. This wire is expensive and comes in fairly short lengths and should be reserved for that special solo. It has a different feel and resonance than the types mentioned above. It is really only practical to use this as the first wire as a replacement after the reed is formed and you know you have a special reed that you want to make even better.
Everything attached to the reed tube will produce a unique set of variables that effects the way the reed vibrates and its feeling of resistance, resonance, and response to the player. It should also be noted that this includes the wire, its gauge, and the material used for the binding. The binding may be stiff, soft, plastic, string, shrink tubing, but it should never be “naked” without a binding as binding provides stability. It should be firmly attached to the tube and immovable just as the second wire. The wire and binding combination that works for me personally may not serve your tastes.
Many of the inexpensive commercial (music store) reeds available have bindings that become loose almost immediately after the first few playings and wires that are so loose and not rounded in forming causing the blades to slip either side to side and worst case front to back. It is recommended to remove these loose string bindings and replace them, rounding the wires and securing the binding to the tube so it is immovable.