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8 Saxophone Care Tips that You May Have Never Heard

Saxophone Care

This article was inspired by a great question from reader in the UK, Peter (“reader”, “Peter” – that sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it?). Peter writes:

Hi Doron,

First of all let me say what a great site you have, a fantastic resource. Thank you.

I have just bought my first sax (alto) and I have a question about cleaning it. All the information I read stresses the need to clean after every use. I can understand and appreciate the need for this from a hygene point of view and for the sake of pad preservation. What none of this information tells me is, how do I do it. OK, I have a pad saver, but is simply inserting this in my Sax, good enough? I would just like somebody to tell me the proper way to dry and clean the inside of my sax after I have used it and I just wondered if you could help.

Very many thanks
Peter Nicholson

When I first learned how to play the sax the horn, I don’t remember anyone telling me how to clean the thing other than running a swab through the horn and calling it a day.  While there are a gaggle of sites with great saxophone maintenance tips out there, I thought I pluck out some of the important, tips that might have slipped by many of us in our early days.

1. Brush your teeth before you play.

This is particularly important if you’ve been taking in sugary food and drink. Sugar plus saliva makes for a nasty solution that accumulates on your pads and can cause them to stick, which is no fun when you’re rattling off inadvertent wrong notes.

2. Check your low Eb pad to see how much moisture you’ve got in your instrument.

Since your Eb pad is located at the bottom of the horn before it starts curving upwards into the bell, the curve at the bottom of the horn is where just about all of the saliva and breath water ends up. If you take a look at your low Eb pad and see that it looks black with a green ring around it, then it probably means that you’ve got too much moisture in the horn and really need to start getting more proactive with your swabbing – which brings us to our next tip…

3. Always swab your horn from the bell to the top

The wettest part of your horn is the top, so why would you want to drag all of that moisture down through the body of the horn? Make sure to swab from the bell, which is the driest part of the horn to minimize unnecessarily spreading more moisture through the instrument. If you’re having a tough time getting the weight at the end of the swab’s string to come all the way down through the top of the horn, give gravity a hand by adding some additional mass to the skimpy weight that comes with most of these swabs. You can bulk up that weight using heat shrink tubing fused onto the weight using a lighter.

4. Don’t use your padsaver as a swab

After a playing session, when the top of the horn is still wet and icky, pushing a pad saver down the body of the horn does nothing but spread that wet and ickiness throughout the sax – which is no good for your tone holes, and really just about any part of the horn. The pad saver is there to use only after the bulk of the moisture has been removed by a large cleaning swab.

5. Always hold your saxophone by the bell

This one should be pretty obvious as the bell is the sturdiest part of the instrument, and making a habit of squeezing down indiscriminately on the rods and keys is bound to mean trouble down the road.

6. Don’t close your case right after playing

Even after swabbing your sax and mouthpiece, make no mistake – there will still be a bit of moisture lingering in the horn. By closing the horn and depriving the horn of fresh air, you’re rolling out the red carpet for damaging bacteria to grow. Obviously, this is not something that’s practical to do after playing a gig, but any time you practice at home- leave that thing open for a bit!

7. Clean that octave key tone hole

This tone whole is absolutely crucial to the proper function of your horn, and unfortunately has a tendency to clog up with all sorts of sax ick. Go grab yourself a 
tone hole cleaner such as the one made by Yamaha
and keep that hole free and clear for crisp and clean octave action!

8. Bag that mouthpiece

Many of us – yours truly included, have allowed our mouthpieces to bounce around in the accessory compartment of our cases like shoes in a dryer. Not good – especially if you’ve got a hard rubber mouthpiece. Make sure to store your beloved piece inside a nicely padded mouthpiece pouch to keep it from being tragically damaged.

See How it’s Done

Much of what I’ve learned has come from this great video which really steps you through the whole sax cleaning process from start to finish.

Making it Last

So hopefully some of these tips will help you hold on to that horn much longer. With daily care and at-east-yearly maintenance, there’s really no reason that your shouldn’t last a lifetime and then some, so stop making excuses and start swabbing!

I’d love to get your saxophone care tips, so go ahead and drop ‘em in the comments section.

Category: Best of the Blog, Best Saxophone Tips and Techniques

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About the Author

I've been playing the sax since the late 80's, but my musical journey has run quite the gamut. The musical rap sheet includes tours with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and reggae master Half Pint, center stage at the L.A. Music Center, cozy cafes, raucous night clubs, gear-drenched studios, and the pinnacle of any musician's career - playing weddings in New Jersey! (duh). There's a lot of other stuff too, but you should be reading these blog posts and leaving comments instead. Now off you go!

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Comments (8)

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  1. Sue says:

    Hi Doron

    I’ve just read your very useful tips for cleaning a sax so I was wondering if you might have some suggestions for me re an old tenor sax I have acquired.

    The sax is a lovely silver coloured Dornay Belle Aire dating from the 1950s. A friend’s father used to play it. It seems that it may have been in its case unplayed for many years. I have found that whenever I play it I get severe flu-like symptoms for about 3 weeks afterwards so I think there must be something rather nasty lurking in there! Could you possibly suggest something strong enough to kill any bugs that will not harm the sax?

    Many thanks for your assistance

    Best regards
    Sue

    • Sue says:

      BTW: I have bought a new mouthpiece & have rinsed the neck with white vinegar twice.

      Thanks
      Sue

      • Hello Sue,

        Hmm, I don’t see how you could have germs on the horn that remain alive and keep re-infecting you to the point where you get sick on multiple occasions. Really, there should be no need to sanitize a saxophone (if there is you probably shouldn’t buy the horn) and if the mouthpiece is clean, I’m unfortunately at a bit of a loss as to why you’ve been getting sick. If you really want to sanitize it anyhow, I’d take it to a repair person and have them do it, as it could require removing some parts so that those parts of the horn aren’t damaged by whichever liquid you’re using to clean the horn.

        I’m no doctor, but it’s my sense that your 3 weeks of flu-like symptoms are not related to the saxophone, but to some other health issue. I would suggest going to the doctor and seeing what he/she says.

        I wish I could be of more help, best of luck!

        Doron

    • Kait says:

      Check your reeds and reed case. A friend had a similar problem and it turned out to be growing in her reed case, not the horn.

  2. Vitali says:

    Hello,

    I’m thinking about buying a pad and neck saver swab. However, I have heard negative things about them. Folks are saying that a pad saver does exactly opposite by keeping the moisture inside the horn and prevent natural ventilation. As you mentioned in your article, the horn should be well dried before using pad saver, however I’m not sure if it is possible to dry out each valve hole and pads after each play.

    Please give us your opinion or suggestions regarding this matter.

    Thank you very much for this helpful article.

    Regards,

    Vitali

    • Well, that’s why I recommend leaving the case open for a while after you play, if at all possible. You’re right, it’s not possible to dry every nook and cranny of the horn, but whatever you can do will help.

      I don’t actually use a pad saver myself, but not being a technician, I don’t have a super-strong opinion regarding whether or not to use one. People do say that the pad savers soak up moisture that would have otherwise stayed on the pads, but on the other hand the wrong pad saver can leave lint inside the horn. I’ve heard good things about the Hollywood Winds pad saver, so I would say give that one a try and see how it works for you.

      I hope that helps!

  3. Rob Darch says:

    I have been told by one of the top woodwind technicians in GB not to leave a pad saver in a saxophone pads need air to dry so if you insert the saver so far as the palm note rotate remove shake or beat it out, insert to the left hand pads rotate plus open and close pads remove dry then insert to the right hand pads and repeat.
    This is where my designed comes in this is the blurb….
    Would you like to play or practice your saxophone a lot more,like right now when you get that inspiration?leave it out on its stand just pull off the Dust cover and be playing in seconds with No assembly time.don,t lose that moment make some music now! get a “SAX O SACK DUST COVER”ideal for home or studio work always use a reed cap. SAX O SACK DUST COVERS are made of 100% cotton to let your sax breathe

  4. [...] to keep your saxophone clean is to make sure you play your instrument with clean hands as well as brushing your teeth before playing. Moisture always gets inside your saxophone while you play and you shouldn’t put your saxophone [...]

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