Saxophone maintenance is a lot like going to the dentist. There are certain daily rituals you do for general upkeep; things you do every day in order to prevent the need to get a lot of work done when you go for routine check-ups. You brush your teeth every day to prevent cavities. Similarly, you swab your saxophone every time you finish practicing, in order to avoid having to get pads replaced frequently. Periodically, though, you need to get a professional to do certain things that you can’t do yourself. You wouldn’t pull a tooth or fill a cavity or perform a root canal yourself. Likewise, you wouldn’t replace a pad or remove a dent or solder a key guard by yourself (unless those are things you’ve learned how to do).
Different instruments require varying levels of maintenance. Some require less than the saxophone, while others require more. String instruments, such as the violin, viola, cello, bass, guitar, etc. need strings to be changed every so often, and need to have their humidity controlled (since they are made of wood). Brass instruments are made entirely of metal, so they can be cleaned in a sink or in a bathtub. Woodwind instruments are made of either mostly metal (flute, saxophone) or mostly wood (clarinet, oboe, bassoon). All woodwind instruments, though, do have felt, cork, and/or leather parts, which makes their maintenance a little more involved.
Daily Saxophone Maintenance
Daily saxophone maintenance is the most effective way to prevent mechanical problems from occurring quickly and frequently. There are some small problems you can fix yourself, but there are some issues that require a professional woodwind repairman. This can be expensive. The best thing to do to save both time and money is to get into the habit of performing daily saxophone maintenance in order to avoid needing to get your instrument professionally worked on more than is necessary.
The saxophone is made of mostly brass, but the pads (underneath each key) are made of leather. Leather and water do not mix so well. When we play the saxophone, we are constantly blowing moisture into it. After each performance or practice session, you want to get the moisture out as soon as you can. You should use a swab every time you are finished playing. If you don’t use a swab, the leather pads will suffer extra damage and, over time, possibly tear, causing a multitude of potential problems that may make the instrument more difficult to play, if not temporarily unplayable. The pads will go bad even quicker if you don’t swab and then put your saxophone in its case. The ideal situation would be to let your saxophone air out for a little bit after you swab it, before putting it in its case. A common mistake I see is people using a pad-saver as a swab and then leaving it in the instrument when they pack it away. Do not leave your pad-saver or swab in the instrument. The purpose of using a swab is to get rid of moisture. If you leave the swab in the saxophone, you might as well not even use a swab.
There are a few other things you can do to prevent unnecessary damage from occurring. Never drink sugary drinks or eat sugary food or candy and then play. If you do, make sure you brush your teeth before playing. This will cause pads to stick more often. Always pick up your saxophone by the bell. It’s the least delicate part of the instrument and, therefore, the least likely to be damaged from being mishandled. Remember to clean out your mouthpiece regularly. Bacteria builds up easily and quickly inside the mouthpiece and can cause you to become sick.
Periodic Saxophone Maintenance
In addition to daily saxophone maintenance, periodic maintenance is needed as well. You should, of course, take your saxophone to a professional repairman whenever there is a major issue that you or your teacher cannot fix, but you should also take your saxophone to a woodwind repairman about once a year just to get it checked out and adjusted as needed, in order to optimize its playability. The repairman can reseat or replace pads as needed, replace corks and felts, change key height, oil keys, etc. You’d be surprised how much better your horn feels after a period check-up, even if you thought nothing was wrong with it.
Common Problems and Diagnoses
Even with meticulous daily saxophone maintenance and prevention strategies, problems still do occur. That’s just the nature of playing an instrument. When a problem arises, it can save time and money if you are able to diagnose it yourself. Even if you know very little about the mechanisms of the saxophone, there are some problems you should be able to fix yourself. If you can’t figure a problem out, try taking it to your band director or private teacher. One of them should be able to figure certain problems out. There are, however, certain times when you need to take your horn to a woodwind repairman.
Before trying to diagnose a problem with your horn, always check your reed/mouthpiece set-up first. Take the neck off the horn and blow to make sure there is not a problem with your reed. Rule this out before going to the next step.
Anyway, here are a few of the most common problems:
“My G# key isn’t working when I press it”: This is one of the most common problems on the saxophone, and it’s usually easily fixable. The G# key is notorious for sticking on all types and brands of saxophones. To fix it, just figure out which key is the G# key (it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out), and pull it open. To keep it from sticking, use either a dollar bill, wax paper, paper (which will work temporarily) or powder paper (which will work a little longer). Like I said, this is one of the most, if not the most common problem on the saxophone. Personally, I check to make sure it’s not sticking most times I take my horn out to play. The key sticking is the most likely scenario. If this doesn’t fix it, there may be a problem with the spring mechanism, which is an easy fix, but should be done by your teacher or a repairman.
“My middle-D isn’t coming out right”: If you’re finding it difficult to play middle-D (low-D plus the octave key), there’s probably a problem with the octave key mechanism. The D should come out comfortably. If it has a fuzzy sound or if it overblows to high-A, then it’s time to troubleshoot fixing it. The fix is not so difficult. You could do it yourself, but it’s probably best to have your teacher do it initially. The problem is most likely with the octave mechanism on the neck of the saxophone. When you play middle-D up to high-G, the mechanism is slightly open on the neck. When you play high-A, it opens up more. If the mechanism on the neck is not opening properly, it can cause some problems. What you need to do is bend the mechanism back into place. If the problem persists even when you or your teacher fix it multiple times, maybe you need to be a little more careful when taking out or putting away your saxophone. Some saxophones are more delicate than others.
“The low notes aren’t working”: Depending on what low notes aren’t working, this problem could stem from a couple of different scenarios. If low C, B, and Bb aren’t working, but D through F are working fine, then there is probably a problem with the pads on the low notes. The pads probably just fell out of alignment (they maybe also have dried up or torn, but these pads are the most solid, so that’s not as likely). This is an easy fix, but needs to be done by a woodwind repairman. The pads just need to be reseated (put back into place, so they seal properly).This requires a hot flame though, something your repairman will be familiar with. To properly diagnose this problem, you can ask your teacher to show you how to use a leak-light. If all notes below G aren’t working properly, then there is probably a problem with a screw on the G# key. This can also be diagnosed using a leak-light. Your teacher can most likely fix this problem, although it does require a bit of troubleshooting to get it perfect.
“__ key isn’t working”: If any other key isn’t working, it’s best to take it to your teacher to look at. The saxophone is a complex instrument consisting of a bunch of separate mechanisms. There could be a loose screw, or a bent rod, or a torn pad, etc. Cheaper saxophones tend to have more problems than more expensive saxophone, based on the quality of materials they’re made of. If a key isn’t working, take it to your teacher before bringing it to a repairman. It may be an easy fix.
“The keys are making a lot of noise”: Some people may see this as a problem, while others may not. If you’re just practicing, and the extra noise doesn’t bother you, then there’s nothing really wrong. You probably won’t really hear the extra noise while you’re playing anyway. The problem would be if you’re making a recording. A microphone will pick up the key noise. If you want as little extra noise as possible when making a recording (a solo saxophone or saxophone and piano duet especially), then you may want to get your saxophone tuned up by a repairman. Getting keys oiled as well as replacing old or missing felts and corks will reduce extra key noise.
“I dropped my saxophone down the stairs”: Obviously, if you do this, and major problems occur, you should take your horn to a woodwind repairman. Dents and broken pieces are all fixable. Get an estimate first. It might make sense to buy a new, better horn. You can always turn your old saxophone into a lamp.
These are just a few common problems that can occur. It’s not a complete list. But, the moral of the story is, some of these problems are preventable, while some aren’t. Depending on the specific problem, it can be fixed by either you, your teacher, or a woodwind repairman.
If you take away only one thing from this article, take away this: swab your saxophone every time you are finished playing. This is the most effective form of saxophone maintenance to prevent your saxophone from needing frequent repairs. It’s a very simple habit that will save you time, energy, and money.
If something isn’t functioning correctly on your saxophone, or if it feels funny in any way, show it to your band director or your private teacher. One of them should be able to fix it or point you in the direction of a good repairman.
Daily saxophone maintenance as well as periodic maintenance will make playing the saxophone a lot easier and a lot less stressful.
One final piece of advice- definitely consider the cost of maintenance when purchasing an instrument. Cheap instruments will need to be repaired more frequently than more expensive instruments. If you buy a cheap Chinese or Taiwanese saxophone, you will probably pay more for repairs than if you buy a reliable, time-tested brand. It’s similar to cars. You will probably need to get a Kia repaired more often than a Toyota. Do your research before purchasing.