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Paul Coats

Improving Your Saxophone

by Paul R. Coats

When students play my instruments they always say, "Gee, this sax plays so easily." Where in the Saxophone Rulebook does it say that it has to be difficult?

There are a number of steps that may be taken to improve performance of your instrument. If done, even student line instruments will sound as good, and play as easily as professional instruments.

The first step is to assure that the pads are in good shape. The small pads must be replaced on a regular basis, about every 18 months or so. These include the octave vent pads, the palm and side keys (high D, Eb, E, and F), the high F#, if so equipped, and the small C pad just above the first finger of the left hand. These small pads cut through easily due to moderate force applied over a very small area. The pressure is much greater than on the larger pads. While these are being replaced the repairman should check for other leaks with a leak light, and correct accordingly.

The F# and low Eb should be checked at the same time, and replaced if needed. These pads are subject to more moisture due to their location on the back of the sax. Moisture collects in the bow at the bottom while playing. The sax is then placed in the case, and the case turned upright for storage. The moisture then runs downhill and collects on these two pads.

If the pads are all in good shape, check the following adjustments: Check the 1-4 and 1-5 Bb, and adjust the setscrew on the transfer lever above the right hand F pad if needed. Check the articulated G# by playing low D. Wiggle the G# key and listen for a change in tone or response. Adjust the setscrew on the G# closure if needed. If the G# cracks open the low C#, B, and Bb will be affected.

Adjustment of the front F or aux F lever may help the high F. Play the upper register A. With the third finger gradually open the high F palm key. Find the amount of opening that gives the best tone and response. Compare this opening to that produced by the aux F lever. If there is a difference, adjusting the aux F lever may help this high F.

Check proper operation of the automatic octave mechanism. Finger G and wiggle the octave key. The side vent should open and close, and the neck vent should not move. Finger A and wiggle the octave key. The neck vent should open and close, the side vent should remain closed.

If all the above adjustments are correct, "doping" the pads is the next step. Doping the pads will seal, soften, and waterproof the pads, making them last longer and play better. Doping may soften some old, hard pads, restoring them to use. One brand I have used is Runyon Pad Formula II. If you use it a little too generously it will not hurt the finish of your sax. It will darken the pads, but they will now be waterproof and last much, much longer. Doping will improve the ease of response even if your pads are new. Now you can play a ppp low Bb.

Dope the pads again a week after the first application. Repeat application three months later, and after that, once a year. Doping, and using the Lavoz Pad Saver swab to soak up moisture after each playing session, together, will give you excellent service and pad life.

Adjustment of the bumpers on the low C, B, and Bb pads may help the intonation or tone of the low notes. A good tuner is essential here. If the pads are too close, the tone will be stuffy and the pitch flat. If too open, these notes will be sharp. Check the pitch on the low and middle D. Adjust the C pad bumper for the best compromise between intonation and tone. It is easier to lip middle D down that to lip up the lower D, but you play middle D much more often. Adjust the low B bumper for the best intonation and tone on the low C. Adjust the Bb bumper for low B. It may now be necessary to cork or bend the keys slightly to even up the left pinky group.

If you have average to large hands the palm and side keys will require excessive hand movement. Years ago we had to have repairmen glue corks on these keys to extend them. Today we can purchase Runyon or Selmer Palm and Side Key Risers. These risers are little rubber booties that slip over these keys and make them fit the hands better. They especially help on some older soprano saxes and most altos, too. There is an extra riser in the Side Key Riser package which fits the F# key on the Yamaha 23 and Vito (made by Yamaha) student line saxes, bringing this poorly shaped key up to a better position. (I credit one of my students for showing me this.) These risers will stay on better if glued on with E6000 hobby and craft glue. This glue may be peeled off later with no damage to the lacquer finish on the keys.

Saxes, such as the Selmers, with octave keys having the hinge line to the left of the thumb, may be improved by having a wedge glued to the octave key. First, adjust the octave key to be even with the left thumb rest. This is done by adjusting the thickness of the cork under the transfer bar at the top of the sax's body, where the neck plugs in to the body. Then adjust the neck octave key loop to just clear the transfer bar by bending the neck key slightly, if needed. The wedge can be fabricated from a crescent shaped piece of 1/4" Plexiglass and contoured with a Dremel tool to fit the key and the end of the thumb. Glue the wedge on with E6000. Now, with only the tip of the thumb touching the wedge, minimal movement of the thumb will actuate the octave mechanism. On saxes with the hinge line to the right of the thumb (Bundy, Vito, Yamaha 23's), the direction of movement of the octave key would not be helped by the wedge, and would work against the thumb.

I have not experimented with different necks or finishes. Some say silver plating affects the tone. I have heard some claim great improvement, some say their sax was ruined by plating. Some say stripping lacquer from the sax makes it play better, while others say black lacquer, black nickel (black chrome), or gold plating is better. Most agree excessive buffing of the body in preparation to relacquer or plate thins out the brass and is detrimental to the saxophone. Collectors prefer original lacquer or plating, regardless of condition, to even a nicely refinished instrument.

I hope these suggestions help you make your sax "be all that it can be".


.. ©2000-2005 Paul R. Coats
Sax on the Web feature


Created: May 21, 2000.
Updated: January 3, 2005.
Information: Harri Rautiainen

Paul Coats is a regular Sax on the Web contributor. He shares his experience in frequent saxophone articles..
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