Before he developed Hemke reeds, Frederick Hemke used Vandoren reeds. "The problem was my lack of ability to pay for the number of boxes that it took to find a good reed," he says. Hemke remembers that he would go through box after box of Vandoren reeds but still couldn't come up with more than one really good reed every two boxes. "One reed in twenty, something like that," he says. "Now, because of competition, they've become better."
He became tired of that. "I approached the La Voz Corporation, also then known as the Rico Corporation, to ask if they would be willing to develop a reed that had the characteristics of a Vandoren but would have consistency."
"The Rico Company was noted for the consistency of their reeds. So they promised that they would use French cane, the same as Vandoren, from exactly the same area, the Var region. I spent a year working through twenty-five to thirty prototypes, until I came up with a reed that I liked, one comparable to the sound that I would have expected from a really good Vandoren reed. They went into production with these. They've done very well."
That was twenty years ago. "To put the reed into production took a long time," he says. "I'll tell you frankly that many of my students like the reeds, and use them. Some of the students don't. That doesn't bother me one iota. I was looking for a reed with a superior sound and excellent consistency, so that students and professionals did not have to go through this constant business of reed searching.
The search continues. "Find the perfect reed and you have solved one of the major problems of a saxophonist's life," he says. "I'm hands-on with this, to the extent that periodically I visit the factory in California, pick up reeds, test them and look for quality control."
The company is owned now by the D'Addario Company, which is located in New York. Prior to handling Rico products, D'Addario handled Vandoren products.