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:
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
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 hole 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!