Cleaning your Saxophone

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Seems silly, doesn't it. A whole web page devoted to cleaning your saxophone. Well, don't despair ... it might well be the subject of some geek's PHD dissertation, but we'll try to keep it simple and fun.

The first thing to remember is that the saxophone is a complex, sensitive and easily screwed up musical instrument. Oh, and most likely, expensive. Be careful! Don't drop it. Don't press or twist things you shouldn't. Don't do dumb things.

I've had a querry about getting various diseases from a dirty sax (or trumpet or clarinet or etc.). Well, probably not. Not even if your sax is really, really grungy! Honestly, we worry way too much about germs and their little relatives. If there are some bad things deposited on your horn, they will probably be dead by the time you play it again. And, remember ... you blow into the damned thing, you don't suck or lick it (Well, you shouldn't!). So, relax.

After you finish playing your sax run a cleaning rag or swab though it. This is done simply to remove the moisture you've left there (not spit, we call it condensation!) You can make your own cleaner with a string, weight and old piece of flannel, but you'll do better getting a commercial product. Most on-line and brick and mortar music stores sell “silk” or “microfiber” swabs for well under $10.00. A bargain. Just make sure that it's sized for your horn: a tenor will need a longer string than an alto; a soprano will need a smaller dimensioned rag. I avoid the “shove it” things ... the hairy things you put in and leave. I've read that they shed too much fuzzy-stuff and they tend to hold moisture next to the pads. I run a swab though my horn after every play session and have only had to replace a few pads over too many years to talk about. It's a good habit.

When running the swab though it doesn't matter if you do it from the top to bottom, or the other way around. Just find a nice method which works. I remove the mouthpiece crock and hang the sax from the strap (still attached to me and the horn), drop the weighted end of the swab string down the horn from the top end (the small part) down to the bell (the big part) of the horn, and then turn the horn upside down so the weight falls down. A slow pull and then I repeat a second time. A few seconds and I'm done. Hold on to the horn, it's quite possible for the neck strap hook to detach when you're turning the horn about (I know this from sad, personal experience).

I also run a small cleaner though the crock. These look like the “shove it things” and are a bunch of fur on a piece of wire. Again, don't leave it in ... just push it in from one end and remove. Wipe your mouthpiece with a soft rag as well. Don't go nutty here, you're just trying to get the moisture out.

I try not to seal up my case after playing. Put the horn in the case, but leave it open so the moisture can dry. Of course, if you are not in your studio or practice room you can't do this!

About once a year (more if you are a clean-nut), replace the swab. At the least wash it. I drop mine in the laundry with my underwear (remove the string first), but you can wash the swab in the sink like it's a precious thing. Up to you.

After a few weeks or months of playing you are going to see all kinds of water marks (okay, it's spit) on your once-shiny horn. This will not effect playing ... but it sure looks awful. And, the crappy feeling on the keys is not nice on your fingers and doesn't inspire beautiful playing.

This is a two step process: clean and polish.

First, take a soft, damp rag and wipe off all the grunge you can. You might need a small brush or q-tip for hard to reach areas. Just use plain tap water for this. And be careful. You're not giving it a bath! Just a moist rag!

Next comes the polishing part. I use a can of Pledge Lemon Spray Wax. A can of this should last for many years. Don't spray the whole horn like it's a coffee table! Spray the wax on your soft, clean rag. Keep the wax away from the pads and pivot points on the horn. Be careful not to dislodge any of the springs or other connectors.

After cleaning the horn, it's a good time to oil the mechanisms. I try to do it about two times a year. Use a heavy weight, quality oil in a needle dropper. You can pick up a needle oiler at an electronics store like “Radio Shack” for under $10.00. Put a small drop of oil on all the pivot points of the horn. Have a old rag or paper towel on hand to clean up any excesses. A few ounces of oil should last a lifetime!

Don't forget to clean your mouthpiece as well. It will build up with calcium over time and this may effect your playing. At the very least, it's unappetizing and more than a bit gross to look at. I put my mouthpiece is a small shot glass filled with hydrogen peroxide (get it at any drug store). Leave it for a few minutes, until the bubbles stop. Then use an old toothbrush dipped in the same solution to clean up the rest of the mouthpiece. After good rinse in warm water you're set to go. To get a bit of luster back, I put a drop of olive oil on a paper towel and give the mouthpiece a little rub down. Update: Lately, instead of hydrogen peroxide, I've been using denture cleaner (Polydent) ... just throw in half a tablet and watch it bubble.

While you're at it, don't forget to vacuum out your case. At the least, turn it over and try to dump out the crumbs, sand, etc. Your ligature is probably grungy as well. Wash it with warm water. Put a drop of oil on the screws.

One player I know insists on putting a bit of Neatsfoot Oil on a “q-tip” and rubbing that on the pads to keep them soft. I've never bothered, but, as they say, your mileage may vary. Cleaning the pads with a damp rag or q-tip doesn't hurt. If you have stubborn crud on the pads use a q-tip with some lighter fluid (Ronsen is just fine).

Every five or ten years you might want to get your repair tech to strip the horn and bath it. This is a relatively expensive operation (about four hours of labor). The good thing is that each and every screw will be removed and lubricated. The horn will play more easily. And the tech will thank you the next time he has to remove a screw since it won't be seized. And all the watermarks you couldn't get off will be removed ... other than scratches it'll look like a new instrument. And it'll be shinny.

Don't put any parts of your precious horn in the dishwasher (it's tempting to put the mouthpiece in. DON'T!). Be gentle. Don't use any abrasive products! Be nice. Don't rush. Be patient.

Now, practice, play and have fun!

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