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Knowing When It’s Time to Get Your Saxophone Fixed

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Does your saxophone need repairs?

Let’s find out. I’m going to talk to you about some basic saxophone repairs you can look for on your own instrument.

Bob Reynolds’ Saxophone

While hanging out with my friend Bob Reynolds last week, we got to talking about equipment and at what point the condition of our gear begins to adversely affect our playing.

Bob Reynolds
Bob Reynolds
Bob Reynold’s 2020 album Runway

If you don’t know who Bob Reynolds is, he is a Grammy-Award winning jazz tenor saxophonist. He is mainly known for his work with the jazz and funk band Snarky Puppy, and pop artist John Mayer.

He’s even released nine solo albums, four of which landed in the Top Ten of Billboard’s Jazz Charts.

He has an incredible YouTube channel that showcases all kinds of his music. He also creates vlogs “documenting my attempt to balance my career as a professional saxophonist with raising a young family.” Bob’s Newest album Runway was released on April 2nd, 2020.

So taking at look at Bob’s horn, I’m going to point out a few typical problems that many of you may have right now on your saxophone. If you’re overdue for some repairs, let us know what work you need done in the comments.

I took a quick look at his horn since he told me he was having trouble with his low B. I used to work as a repair technician and I still do my own horns and often help friends with quick repairs. But I no longer do repairs so don’t ask.

Good Repair Technicians are in Short Supply

Who the hell fixed this horn?

This is something that just about every repair technician is guilty of I’m sure, including myself. You take it in and all they do is keep telling you how much the last guy messed it up…

I have certainly seen a lot of poor work done to horns that came across my bench. Not everyone repairing saxophones is doing so at a high level.

But once you’ve found a great repair technician, you stick with that person like a good dentist. So when you’re trying out new repair shops it’s usually because you’re not entirely happy with the last one.

Good repair technicians are in short supply and they cost a lot. You usually have to wait a while to get them to look at your horn.

Basic Saxophone Repairs – Visually Checking Pads

This first of the basic saxophone repairs is obvious. Take your horn out and check all the pads visually. If any of the pad leather is torn or worn through, it needs to be changed. When the pad closes on the tone hole, it needs to make as close to an airtight seal as possible, and a torn pad is not gonna get the job done.

Another adjustment is for when you press down the A key in the left hand. You can see there are 3 keys moving together. They all need to come down at the same exact moment. This is an area that can go out of adjustment pretty easily. It will then cause havoc with your instrument since it’s affecting all the notes from A down. Which is most of them…

One of the first things you want to check for if you feel like you’ve got significant leaks in your horn is if these keys are closing together with light pressure. If you can see visually that they are not coming down together, you should have it looked at.

There are a few things at play here with this adjustment. This is not something I would recommend you try to do yourself.

What often happens is you may get a new felt installed here, and after a week or so of playing, that felt compresses which will cause the Bb key to not close together with the A key. The cork on the key foot that actions the C pad can also get compressed. This causes the pad to not close all the way.

On older horns like some Mark VIs, sometimes the metal is a little on the soft side. This combination just goes out of adjustment over time from being played too hard.

Are Your Pads Sealing?

Here’s a simple way you can check to see if these pads are sealing. Take a piece of cigarette paper and cut it into a few thin stripes. Then take a strip and place it inside the tone hole, close the key gently, and pull the paper out. You should get some resistance when pulling that paper out. You can then move this all around the pad cup to see if the resistance is consistent everywhere. What you’ll find a lot of the time is that the A key closes more than the Bb.

It’s a simple adjustment for any repair technician and one of the first places we look when checking over a horn.

Changing a pad on a key that has a lot of mechanical play is a waste. That new pad is never going to seat properly and will always leak no matter what you do. This is something that is overlooked by a lot of repair techs unfortunately. The only way to get a pad to seal is if it’s installed in a key cup that is flat, and hinges without any extra movement. That key also has to come straight down on a tone hole that is perfectly level.

Repad vs Overhaul

Some repair shops say they are going to overhaul your saxophone. However, what they are really doing is a repad, or when you change the pads on your sax.

An overhaul corrects any mechanical issue on the horn, removes dents, fixes any solderings needing attention, ensures all your tone holes are level, and replaces all the corks, felts, and pads. Then there is a setup process done to get all connections working together perfectly. It’s a big job and takes a long time.

To be fair, to whomever worked on Bob’s horn in the recent past, he may not have been able to leave it with them the necessary amount of time to address these issues. But mechanical play can be corrected without doing a full overhaul.

It takes time…

In the past, for clients who needed this sort of work done but didn’t have the funds for a full overhaul or the time to leave the horn with me for a week or more, I would just do one hand at a time.

For example, one day I could take Bob’s right hand keys off, remove all the mechanical play in them so they are operating like new and then change the pads for all those keys. Some time later, Bob could come back to me and I’d do the same for the left hand. On a third visit I could take the play out of the palm keys, replace those pads and address any other issues on the rest of the horn.

Ideally, you would want to get a proper overhaul done, but there are alternatives if you don’t have the time and budget all at once. Yeah, it changes everything by making it better, but if the end result of the overhaul isn’t a significant improvement in how the horn plays, then you’re doing it wrong.

One area that can make a noticeable difference after an overhaul is the key heights. If the new corks and felts installed change how much your keys open, you may not be happy at first. So before an overhaul, you could talk to the technician and tell them you want those key heights to remain the same. Some players like their keys to open up more than the standard out of the factory setup.

A good overhaul should make your horn as good or better than new.

Final Thoughts on Saxophone Repairs

You don’t have to shell out the money for a fancy Gap Cap by Key Leaves. But you do need to reduce the amount your horn moves around in the case as much as possible. Having no cap at all is bad. For example, if your horn falls while in the case, it’s going to move a lot more. Think of having a car accident with a very loose seatbelt.

I want to thank Bob Reynolds for being a good sport and letting me make an example of his horn. However, let me be clear, Bob’s horn is in relatively good shape.

Be sure to check out Bob’s YouTube page here, and this great carpool session I did with Bob a while back.

Interested in more BetterSax Interviews? Check out this interview with master saxophonist Bruce Williams of the Juilliard School of Music.

Also be sure to follow BetterSax on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube to stay up to date with us for news, giveaways, and other saxophone tips and tricks.

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Time to Clean Your Saxophone? – Better Sax says:

[…] Unsure of whether or not your horn needs fixing or cleaning? Check out “Knowing When to Get Your Saxophone Fixed.” […]

Richard Casey says:

I’m a pro repair tech and I think you explanations and insights are excellent and a valuable service to sax players..

Jay Metcalf says:

Thanks Richard. Great to hear this from you.

Uli says:

They wanna make me go to repad
But I said: No, no, no. 🙂

Thanks for that fine episode. As always it‘s helpful, well explained and very entertaining.

I am a saxophone newbie with two vintage saxes and one of them is even older than me (which does mean something ?) So I enjoyed that episode very much.

Jay Metcalf says:

Glad you liked it.

Lindsay Weir says:

I get drips from the upper keys ( perhaps it’s only one key ?)which go onto my left fingers . It is annoying.Is this a common fault on my Selmer Mark 6 ?

Jay Metcalf says:

This is very common on Mark VI horns and other saxophones. Are you playing outside perhaps? When playing outdoors we get a lot more condensation inside the sax which results in this dripping on the left hand. I agree it’s annoying, but there isn’t any fix I’m aware of.

Amanda Leigh Woodruff says:

I’ve been wrapping paper around the cork on my tenor neck for years to have enough width to pull my Jody Jazz mouthpiece out where it plays in tune. I know replacing the cork is pretty simple, but I’m scared to drop my horn off anywhere! Every time I take it in to the local music store, they want to replace all the pads, which feels like major surgery! Whether it truly needs it or not, I just don’t feel ready!

Jay Metcalf says:

Amanda, without looking at your horn I can’t say for sure, but usually shops want to change pads that don’t need changing, they just need cleaning and reseating. I almost never replace pads on my saxophones. They should last 20 years easy if you do consistent maintenance and swabbing. If you need to fix your neck cork just drop off the neck without the horn. Or tell them just replace the neck cork and don’t change any pads. (you may need some pads changed though).



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