Saxophone Care and Maintenance

Let’s face it, saxophones are expensive! A good horn is a serious investment. Just like a car, they need to be taken care of and maintained. The better they are cared for, the longer they will last. Routine adjustments are just as important and need to be done by qualified technicians. If taken care of properly, a saxophone should last a very long time. With patience and a little practice, the following steps and suggestions will become like second nature…

Un-casing and Assembly:

  • Make sure the case is on a firm flat surface before opening.
  • Before taking the horn out, go ahead and put the reed in your mouth to moisten it and put the neck strap around your neck.
  • Put the mouthpiece on the neck (a small amount of cork grease may need to be used).
  • Very carefully remove the sax from the case making sure not to drop it or bend any keys.
  • Remove any pad saver or end plug from the top of the sax.
  • Put the neck into the tenon socket at the top (no lubrication should be used here!).
  • Place the neck strap hook into the strap ring on the sax and adjust it up or down to the correct level (remember the sax should come to you not the other way around).
  • Adjust the mouthpiece so it fits in your mouth properly (further adjustment, in or out, is done later during the tuning process).
  • When adjusting the mouthpiece, be careful not to “pull” down as this might bend the neck.

Things to remember while your horn is assembled:

  • Handle your saxophone with care and be aware of your surroundings.
  • Keys are easily bent, do not set it in a chair, on the floor, or leave it unattended.
  • Do not let a friend play or handle your instrument.

Alright, let’s get down to the truth of it!

    Saxophone Coddling

 A. Before you even open the case…

1. The case is vital to the protection of your horn and very much taken for granted. Hard shell cases are a necessity and provide maximum protection. Gig bags provide no protection and are very dangerous to your horn.

2. There WILL BE damage caused to your instrument if dropped while in the case, regardless of hard or soft shell!

3. If the instrument doesn’t fit snug, damage can occur over time just from everyday carrying.

B. Brass is a soft metal and care must be taken when handling.

1. Even a slight bump or tap can cause damage so always be aware of the surroundings.

2. When assembling, do not force or “rock” the neck back and forth, always twist on and off. No grease should be used for this tenon joint. If assembly is hard, it is probably due to dirt, lime, and scale. Make sure nothing is obstructing the mouthpiece from seating properly in the neck tenon.

3. Likewise, the mouthpiece should be twisted on with only a small amount of cork grease when needed. If the mouthpiece does not go on with relative ease, one can accidentally bend the neck while forcing it on. Always be careful not to pull down when adjusting the    mouthpiece for tuning.

C. Support your local neck strap!

1. The wrong neck strap can literally be painful not only on your neck but for the strap ring on the horn. Choose a strap that has comfortable padding if that is your choice and one that has a hard plastic hook with a spring loaded clasp. Metal hooks are made from steel and when the hook rubs against the brass ring, it can cause the ring to wear through.

2. The company BG makes the best straps on the market. They carry the most varied sizes and styles, including special yoke and harness straps that are extremely comfortable.

 D. Playing your instrument causes damage.

1. Be smart!  Do not eat or drink (other than water) before or while playing.

2. Saliva deteriorates the inside of the instrument and needs to be removed as much as possible after every playing session. It also breaks down pads and makes a wonderful home for mold and mildew.

3. Sweat, excess saliva, water, oils, and other contaminates should be removed from the outside as well. These can build up over time and cause sticking keys and can even rust the rods or screws.

4. Everyone has different acid levels in their saliva and skin. That is why instrument companies do not put warranties on any finishes.

5. The wrong finger pressure or the way you hold your horn can be harmful. Never squeeze or put excess force on the keys.

E. Cleaning up the mess.

1. There are so many swabs and cleaning products on the market. After trying many products personally and consulting various sources, I have come up with the following solutions to removing moisture.

Step 1- Disassemble the entire instrument.

Step 2- Pull a good quality corded/weighted swab through the instrument, neck, and mouthpiece to get the bulk of the moisture out.

Bari sax players…we are special, in so many ways! To my knowledge there is not a pull through swab made for us. However, there is a cool solution. The Hodge company makes a snake like swab that inserts into the upper neck bow crook. This is where the majority of the moisture resides anyway.

Step 3- Insert a pad saver at the top where the neck tenon socket is and twist inside several times so the fibers will “wick” up into the tone holes.

PLEASE NOTE-only use HW brand pad savers. All others are very inferior.

Step 4- Use your swab to wipe off any moisture on the neck at the bottom tenon where it fits into the body.

Step 5- A separate cloth can be used now to wipe off the outside of the instrument if desired. Always use a soft t-shirt or micro-fiber type material to prevent fine scratches. Do not use treated cloths for plated coatings on lacquered finishes. This can result in unwanted removal of the lacquer. PLEASE NOTE- Do not ever use Brasso on anything with a lacquered finish as it will instantly remove it. Brasso is only for raw unfinished brass. A little technician’s secret is to use lemon Pledge to clean the outside of your horn. A small amount goes a long way and always remove any excess.

F. Why do I need to get my horn adjusted when it seems to play fine?

1. Normal wear and tear to any woodwind instrument happens over time. As players, we get used to and adapt to the subtle changes and don’t even realize it most of the time. Even the most careful perfectionist’s instrument needs to be adjusted because of the settling in and perishable nature of pads, corks, and felts.

2. The wrong shop can cause much more damage than good! It is critical to get the right kind of work done by someone that has the precise feel and touch for the art of repair. Some technicians with many years of experience still do not have the ability to fine tune an instrument.

3. On average, an instrument should be adjusted about once every year to year and a half. If you catch potential problems early, it will save time and money in the future and keep your horn in optimal playing condition.

G. The scoop on pads.

1. So much has changed over the last twenty years in the pad industry. Up until about the 1980’s most pads had a very soft felt interior and an untreated leather exterior. With advances in technology and demand for longer lasting pads, companies began treating the leather with water proofing chemicals and using a harder more dense felt.

2. These longer lasting pads had many advantages over their predecessors except one…the dreaded sticky/tacky issue! When moisture, the sugars in your saliva, and humidity from your breath and surroundings come in contact with the surface of these pads, it tends to make a lovely recipe for disaster! Can we say, “Ah!  My G#, bis, and low C# pads are sticking again!” Just to name a few, right?

3. Many different exotic pad leathers exist and are being heavily pushed today. I am not a fan of these leathers. Most are much more expensive and although some offer a tighter cell density, they do not have any long term advantages. These pads still stick and the installation process is just as important as the materials. Leveling tone holes and pad cups are just the beginning vital steps to pad installation.

4. Please do not ever use a dollar bill to “clean the surface” of your pads. Use either cigarette rolling paper or ultra thin pad cleaning or powder paper. Some people use talcum or baby powder to stop sticking pads. This only works for a very short time and talcum mixed with moisture makes a nice sticky goopy mess.

5. There are several home and retail remedies that I am still testing.  Most do not work but some are promising.

Some myths, tips, and general merriment

– Use common sense when playing and handling your horn, it does not take a lot of extra time to really take care of it.

– Do not leave your reed on your mouthpiece after you play. Find a nice flat surface to store reeds on. Glass works wonderfully.

– I do not recommend working on your own instrument. Even the most careful person can do major damage.

– Please do not sit your instrument on the floor or in a chair. Sax stands are great but need to be used properly to ensure it doesn’t tip over. Always squeeze the bell holder prongs together as tightly as possible to hold the bell very secure.

– Did you know old school techs used to blow cigarette smoke through an instrument to check for leaks?

– I do not recommend key oiling your instrument. Most key oil bottles expel way too much oil and it makes a mess. Many instrument companies are using a heavier weight oil that tends to stay on the rods and pivot screws longer. Most after-market oils are very thin so they can flow very easily. Because the rods and tubes can only hold so much oil, these thin viscosity oils will only run down your posts. In some cases it can soak into a key cork and cause it to fall off. In one extreme case, I repaired an instrument where excess   key oil was used and pads were falling off.

– If you are in a marching band situation, please do not play in the rain!

– Make sure your case is latched or zipped closed before you pick it up!

– Never, EVER, leave your instrument in your car or any other extremely hot or cold place. Hot and cold temperatures will reek havoc on it (the instrument, not your car silly)!

– Did I mention that a poorly repaired horn is worse than a horn not repaired at all?