Spit Sponge in a Saxophone for Proper Saxophone Maintenance

Saxophone Maintenance 101 - How To Take Care of a Saxophone

Proper saxophone maintenance ensures optimal performance and prevents costly repairs. This article covers everything you need to know on how to take care of your saxophone.

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Daily Care

[Video] Daily Saxophone Maintenance Steps - Full Walkthrough

Properly Storing the Saxophone Between Uses

Reed Care

Periodic Care

Daily Saxophone Care

The most important part of saxophone maintenance is daily care, or care each time you play. Let’s talk about what you’ll be doing almost every time you pick up the saxophone:

  1. Playing prep (before playing). Rinse your mouth with water to avoid blowing any remnant food or drink particles into your instrument. Or if you can, avoid eating or drinking anything other than water before you play. Food and sugary drinks of any kind will cause bacteria growth inside the saxophone, leading to sticky keys and other messes. Trust us, you do not want this mess!

  2. Apply cork grease (before playing). Before putting the mouthpiece on the saxophone, check the neck cork. If the cork feels dry to the touch or if the saxophone mouthpiece does not slide over the cork easily, apply a light layer of cork grease. This helps condition the saxophone cork so it stays soft enough to do its job well for many, many years.

  3. Swab the saxophone (after playing). When you’re ready to put the saxophone back in the case, you’ll need to swab your saxophone using a saxophone-specific swab (see swab choices here). Saxophone swabs are essentially pieces of absorbent cloth attached to a weighted string. Pulling the swab through the saxophone helps collect and remove the dripping moisture left inside the sax. Swab cleaning your saxophone is vital to help keep your key pads from becoming waterlogged, sticky, and rotten.

  4. Dry the key pads (after playing). Dry off any additional moisture inside the saxophone by blowing dripping moisture off the keys. In particular, check out the palm keys (high D and up), as that’s where moisture most commonly collects.

    You’ll also want to use a pad dryer (like this) to dab and dry the key pads (the soft leather pad underneath the keys). This specific saxophone care step will help prevent your keys from sticking and help prevent sticky brass oxidation from forming on the raw brass edges of the metal tone holes. You want to keep your saxophone's pads and tone holes dry and clean.

[Video] Daily Saxophone Maintenance Steps - Full Walkthrough

This video walks you through all of the steps above to show you exactly what to do:

Properly Storing the Saxophone Between Uses

Believe it or not, the way you store your saxophone in the case is part of proper saxophone care and maintenance, and if not done correctly, it can cause significant disrepair in a short time. Here’s what you need to know about storing the saxophone:

  1. Use a saxophone end cap! The end cap (or end plug) is a small, usually plastic cap that fits into the end of the saxophone body before going in the case. The primary damage that occurs from not using the end cap is that the exposed octave key post gets damaged from moving around inside the case and can bend, rendering it dysfunctional.
    A tenor saxophone shown inside a case with an end cap plug and without the protective end plug cap.
    All saxophones come with an end cap, but if you don’t have one or want additional protection, consider investing in a GapCap saxophone cap. What do we mean by additional protection? Surprisingly, the end cap that came with your saxophone may not fit well enough to prevent movement of the saxophone inside the case, and movement inside the case leaves wiggle room for sax whiplash if the case gets a huge hit or impact. A quick way to test this is to lay your sax down inside the case with the end cap on, then wiggle the sax all around to see if the sax moves against the case padding. If it does, your saxophone may not be stable enough inside the sax case to protect the instrument. The GapCap sax cap helps remove any loose fitting gap inside your case with adjustable ends for a custom fit with your saxophone neck socket and saxophone case. There are other benefits to using a GapCap sax cap. It was the first saxophone end cap designed to give shock absorption if your sax case takes a bad fall or hit, and the open end of the design allows for more airflow inside the horn, which helps prevent buildup and helps prevent sticky keys (we’ll talk about that next).
    The GapCap saxophone end cap plug shown on an alto and tenor saxophone helps protect the sax from shifting and becoming damaged inside the case.
  2. Prop open problematic keys to prevent gunk buildup and sticky keys. Have you ever heard of sticky saxophone keys? If you haven’t experienced it yet, you likely will at some point. But you can significantly reduce your chances with one quick and easy step.

    Sticky keys on the saxophone can cause everything from mild frustration to utter embarrassment. There’s nothing like trying to play a G sharp, but the key sticks and plays G natural instead. Ouch! (G sharp is one of the most common sticky keys).

    Key Leaves sax key props and Vent Vine™ for saxophone gently keep the most stick-prone keys safely open inside your case while storing. Keeping sax keys open prevents buildup inside the saxophone (on the saxophone tone holes) from gunking up your key pads.

    You can learn more about how Key Leaves work here.

  3. Never lay your saxophone case lid side down.
    A saxophone case stored with the lid facing down causes moisture to drip onto pads and become sticky at the edge of tone holes. Avoid laying a saxophone case down on the lid.
    Most saxophone lids close down over the saxophone keys where the tone holes are facing up. So, if you lay your case down on the lid, you are turning the saxophone so all the tone holes face down and drip any humidity directly onto the saxophone pads. That’s bad for the longevity and health of your saxophone. This is an easy thing to avoid.

    Pro Tip: For best saxophone storage health, set your saxophone case vertically so the bow rests near the floor. That means any moisture left inside the saxophone has to work even harder to drip toward the delicate leather key pads.
    A saxophone case stored standing up right so the bow of the saxophone is closest to the floor. This helps prevent moisture from dripping down onto pads and tone holes. When possible, store your saxophone case this way to help prevent sticky pads.

Reed Care

Although replacing reeds when they crack or wear out is part of life as a saxophone player, there are a couple of reed care steps you can take as part of your usual saxophone maintenance to ensure the best possible playing experience:

  1. Protect your reeds. The reed (particularly the thin tip of the reed) is the most fragile part of the saxophone. Take extra care to guard and protect your reed. This means storing reeds in a secure case (each reed goes in its own slot inside the case or in its own case).

  2. Store the reeds to dry on a flat surface. When reeds dry after playing, they can become warped (like wood warps) unless they dry on a flat surface. The flat surface allows moisture to evaporate evenly. What is a warped reed, and why should you care? Trust us, you care about this. A warped reed tip becomes wavy, difficult to play, and produces a dull or fuzzy sound.

    For a straightforward and cost-effective solution, check out our minimalist saxophone reed guard/reed case that helps hold reeds flat to air dry, protects the reed tip, and allows you to wash the reed guard when it becomes dirty. That’s a saxophone care hygiene plus!

Periodic Saxophone Care

Aside from daily steps and proper storage, there are a few saxophone maintenance steps you’ll take periodically:

  1. Clean your mouthpiece. Wash your mouthpiece with lukewarm water and mild soap every so often (monthly or so). Never use hot or cold water on your saxophone mouthpiece, and never boil a mouthpiece. They are delicate, and this can be damaging.

  2. Wash your swabs and Key Leaves care products. Your saxophone swab and pad dryers are responsible for some heavy cleaning, and they will need a bath, too. Pad dryers (like the Spit Sponge) and your swab can be hand-washed with mild soap. Key Leaves sax key props are dishwasher safe for easy cleaning.
    Key Leaves Saxophone Key Props are dishwasher safe

  3. Clean your reed storage case. Yep, bacteria can build up here too. Just like everything else, give that a gentle hand wash with mild soap. The Key Leaves reed guard shown below allows for a quick and total clean.
    A photos of someone cleaning their clarinet and saxophone reed case guard under water to remove dirt and bacteria.

  4. Professional Cleaning, Oil, and Adjustment (COA). Saxophones use key oil, need occasional adjustments to their mechanisms, and gather dust and other grunge as they are used. So take your saxophone to a professional repair technician at least once every 18 months for a checkup, oiling, and cleaning. Professional sax players do this at least once every year. A COA will cost you money, but it’s a wise investment to keep the saxophone operating well and prevent damage from excessive wear and neglect.

Frequently Asked Questions About Saxophone Maintenance

What maintenance does a saxophone need?

In summary, saxophones need daily maintenance, proper storage, and occasionally additional, periodic cleaning. All of the steps above cover all of the maintenance your saxophone will need.

How often should I get my saxophone serviced?

You should get your saxophone serviced at least every two years. This regular maintenance includes a cleaning, key oil application, and other adjustments, including key height. If you practice regularly, a better rule of thumb is to have it serviced every 18 months. Professional sax players tend to have a repair checkup at least once a year.

Do saxophones need tune-ups?

Yes, saxophones do need tune-ups. Around every two years or more frequently, your saxophone will benefit from a good cleaning, oiling, and adjusting.

We hope this article on how to take care of a saxophone has provided a comprehensive view of the saxophone maintenance steps you’ll need to take to keep your saxophone in top shape and, most importantly, keep it out of the repair shop.

Check out our other content to expand your knowledge! We have beginner online courses, a ton of great content, and interviews with the pros on YouTube.

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