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Care & Feeding of the Saxophone

The saxophone has three basic pieces:

  • The mouthpiece, with reed, ligature and cap;
  • The neck;
  • The body.


  • The first step is to moisten the reed. The reed is the part that looks like it's made from a piece of bamboo. When the reed is placed correctly against the mouthpiece and you place the mouthpiece in your mouth and blow on it, the reed vibrates back and forth to make the sound.
  • The reed is very fragile, so please be careful when you handle it. One end is trimmed and thinner at the tip and the other isn't. Pick up the reed holding it by the thick (or heel) end and place the thin end in your mouth on top of your tongue, then close your mouth. Be careful not to bite down on the reed, and keep it in your mouth while you continue with the assembly of the instrument.
  • The next step is to pick up the neck and hold it in your left hand while you put a light coat of cork grease on the cork where the mouthpiece will go. When holding the neck, don't hold it near either end. You don't want to be touching the part of the key that has a small leather pad in it and you don't want to be touching the opposite end where the key loops around the neck. Instead, you want to hold it like you might hold a toy gun, with your thumb and forefingers wrapped around the middle of the neck where the key is attached. When you're holding it like this you can squeeze hard if you need to and you can't bend the key or tear the leather pad.
  • After you've applied the light coat of cork grease then hold the mouthpiece in your right hand and slowly twist it onto the cork. Twist it clockwise and counter-clockwise as you push in onto the cork. The mouthpiece is on the correct amount for a beginner when almost all of the cork is covered up and hidden from sight. At this time the side of the mouthpiece that has an opening should be on the bottom side of the neck, and the end of the key, (the upper octave key), the end with the leather pad, is on the top.

Putting On the Reed

  • All this time you've had the reed in your mouth. Your next step is to take the ligature, the metal clamp that holds the reed in place on the mouthpiece, and place it carefully over the mouthpiece so that when the window of the mouthpiece is facing you, the screws of the ligature are pointing to the right.
  • Then take the reed out of your mouth and slip it heel or thick end first into the space between the ligature and the mouthpiece. The thin tip of the reed wants to be even with the tip of the mouthpiece; no higher, no lower. The ligature wants to be low enough on the mouthpiece so that it doesn't cover up any portion of the reed that has been shaved or cut to make it thinner. When you have the reed in this position you can then tighten the ligature screws just enough to keep the reed in place.
  • Now you can set the neck and mouthpiece down for just a moment. If you like being extra careful, first carefully place the mouthpiece cap over the mouthpiece and reed; that will protect them against an accidental bump.
  • Then take the neck strap and place it over your head. If there's not enough room to slip your head through, then with one hand grasp the strap by the end farthest from the hook, and with the other grasp the part that looks like a buckle where the two sides of the strap are pulled into one piece and slide the buckle away from your other hand, which will make the looped part you place over your head larger in diameter.
  • Next, it's time to pick up the body of the saxophone, which you do with your right hand by placing your fingers inside the bell and your thumb outside. By holding it by the end of the bell you don't touch any of the keys, meaning you can't accidentally bend them during assembly.
  • While you're holding the body of the sax with one hand, pick up the neck and mouthpiece with your other hand and insert the larger part of the neck into the top of the sax. The neck and mouthpiece should be pointing toward you when the bell is pointing away, and the mouthpiece and the strap ring should be more or less in vertical alignment with each other.
  • With the bell pointing away from you, you'll notice a small ring in the middle of the body of the saxophone on the side facing toward you. Holding the sax in your right hand by the bell, use your left hand to grasp the dangling end of the sax strap which has a hook on it, and attach that to the strap ring. If it feels more comfortable, it's okay to hold the bell with the left hand and hook up the strap with the right. Now you're ready to play the saxophone!

After You Play

  • When you're through playing, the first thing you do is remove the neck, setting it down carefully where it's safe from being bumped.
  • Next, unhook the neck strap. Now you're ready to swab the moisture out of the inside of the sax.
  • First, holding the instrument as though you were playing it, tip the bell toward the floor so that any excess moisture that may have accumulated at the bottom of the horn can drip out the end of the bell.
  • If you're using a Pad Saver® for the body of the sax, hold the bell of the sax with your left hand against your body, with the top of the sax pointing to your right. Hold the Pad Saver® at the big end (the bottom), not the small end (the top), and feed it bit by bit into the body of the sax. Do NOT try to push it all the way in at once with one big push from the small end. The swab can bend (it is braided wire on the inside) and once it's bent it's hard to straighten, meaning that from then on out it will be harder to push in and pull out of the body of the sax.
  • If you're using a pull through swab for the body of the sax, there are two basic types. One has a square of chamois or synthetic chamois and the other a much larger and longer piece of fabric (cotton, linen or silk). If you have the second kind, be sure to first grasp the swab with both hands and pull it apart to make sure it is completely unfurled before you try to pull it through the horn. It's very easy for a bunched up swab to get stuck inside the horn.
  • Hold the bell of the sax with your left hand while you drop the weighted end of the string or cord attached to the swab down into the bell, followed by the rest of the swab. Tilt the sax directly backwards and then down so the weight and string drop into and down the main body tube and then come out the neck tenon receiver where the neck attaches. Grab a hold of the weight with your right hand and continue to hold the bell of the sax with your left hand. Hold the sax against your body, with the top of the sax pointing to your right, and slowly pull the swab all the way through the body of the sax and out the end. Repeat the process if you've been playing for a long period of time or if there appears to be moisture left in the instrument after the first time you pull the swab through.
  • Next, pick up the neck, remove the reed and carefully wipe the moisture off and place it in a protective container, preferably a reed guard. DO NOT leave it on the mouthpiece, because it can't dry out well, it can warp, and it could mold.
  • Then remove the ligature, followed by the mouthpiece, being careful to hold the neck by the middle, just as you did when you were assembling the instrument.
  • While the body of the sax is the most important part to swab out, it's preferable to swab the neck out as well. One way is to insert a Neck Saver® into the neck and leave it; the other way is to pull a swab through; a clarinet handkerchief swab made of linen or cotton (not one of the chamois ones) works very well for this. Just like with the body swab, grasp the swab with both hands and pull it apart to make sure it is completely unfurled. Then drop the weighted end through the neck tenon or bottom of the neck, let it drop through the other end, grasp the weight and pull the swab all the way through.
  • If you use a clarinet handkerchief swab for the neck, you can also use it for the mouthpiece, dropping the weight through the bottom and pulling the swab through and out the window where the reed is placed.
  • If you don't use a swab for the mouthpiece, once a week you should immerse it in lukewarm water and carefully clean the inside with a mouthpiece brush, being very careful not to scratch any part of the mouthpiece with the brush.

Cleaning and Polishing the Outside

  • Just use a clean dry cloth to keep the outside of the instrument clean. There are lacquer polish cloths available that are okay to use which are treated with a wax that cleans and shines and won't hurt the finish of the sax. If you are careful, you can also spray a polish such as Pledge® lightly on a cloth and then use the cloth to polish and remove any stubborn stains on the body of the horn.

Helpful Hints and Reminders

  • If you are using a large pull-through swab on the body or a handkerchief swab on the neck, wad the swab up loosely when you're through swabbing out and store it in the accessory compartment in the case.
  • Always have at least two reeds with you, preferably three or four.
  • When you are placing the horn back in the case do not store your band method book on top of the instrument. Most saxes and sax cases are designed these days so that padded inside of the lid comes right down on top of the sax, leaving no room for a book. Forcing a book to fit by pushing down on the lid to close it can damage the instrument.
  • Keep your saxophone safe. It should only be "on your face or in the case!" Do not leave it on your chair, the sofa, the table, the floor, or the piano. If a sax is dropped it can cause extensive damage and expensive repair.
  • Always carry your case with the lid or top side of the case toward your body. This way, if the case were to unexpectedly open for any reason, you would have the chance to pull the case against your body to prevent the instrument from falling out. If the lid is facing away from you and the case opens there is no way for you to keep the instrument from falling out.
  • Whether the information is on a card inside the case, a label or an ID tag, make sure your instrument has identification on it showing that it belongs to you. Almost all band instruments have their own unique serial number on the body of the instrument so you shouldn't mark the instrument itself, but do have proof of ownership somewhere inside or on the case.