Sax terms

When a horn becomes slightly harder to play, it may need adjusting. Over time the pads start wearing, moving or shrinking which makes the notes harder to play. This is the time when the horn may need to be looked at by a qualified repairer to adjust the pads and tone hole covers to re-seat them correctly.

A step inside the mouthpiece tone chamber that produces an interruption to the air supply as it passes through the mouthpiece. The larger the baffle (or step), the more interrupted the air and 'dirtier' the sound. Some players have been known to stick lumps of plastercine in their mouthpieces to give the same effect!

The widest part of the horn where the most of the noise comes out.

The main upright piece of the sax on which most of the keys, tone holes and tone covers are situated.

The u-shaped bottom piece of the horn that connects the body to the bell.

Cork is glued around the end of the crook so the mouthpiece fits snugly onto it.

Cork Grease
Grease used for rubbing into the crook cork enabling the mouthpiece to move along the cork for tuning purposes. Mostly in the form of a 'lipstick' it keeps the crook cork moist and conditioned.
I did have one student whose mouthpiece was stuck fast to the cork. Had it been tuned correctly it wouldn't have been so much of a problem. But it was more by luck than judgement that mouthpiece was freed without breaking something!

The top part of the sax that links the body to the mouthpiece.
The term used for the placing of your chops around the mouthpiece.

The recommended embouchure suggests placing your front teeth on top of the mouthpiece, about half way up the up the slope, with the top lip in front of the teeth forming the seal. The bottom lip can either be placed naturally around the bottom forming a seal, or can be curled back slightly for more comfort (a little like an oboe). Once you are confident about getting a good sound, you can experiment further with the position of your mouth on the mouthpiece. Some people (myself included) develop a style where the top lip is folded under the top teeth. It's all a matter of individual comfort and style.

The order or placement of fingers to obtain all the notes on the horn. The fingering is the same for all models of saxophone, although the position of the fingers can change slightly between saxohpone makes.
The 'dirty' sax sound obtained by humming or grating the back of the throat while blowing. Humming whilst blowing produces a mild 'texture' to the sound, while grating the back of your throat produces a much 'rougher' sound. Growling is great for effects in rock 'n' roll for example. It does, however, take some practice as it is quite an un-natural thing to do.

The areas pressed by the fingers to operate a tone hole cover (a note), inset with coloured pearl or plastic lookalike.

Lay or Facing
The facing or opening of the mouthpiece that curves away from the reed. A larger lay means a wider gap between reed and mouthpiece which in turn makes a horn slightly harder to blow. However, a larger gap does means more 'unused' air goes through the horn which produces the sensuous 'breathy' sax sound on the lower notes.

The device used to hold the reed onto the bottom face of the mouthpiece. The ligature needs to be tight enough to hold the reed securely, but not too tight to restrict the natural vibration of the reed. The ligature should sit just behind the 'heart' of the reed. Moving the ligature back on the mouthpiece body slightly will allow more of the reed to vibrate, thus making the lower notes slightly easier to play.

'Lipping up'
As no two saxophones will ever be in precise tune with each other, some notes will need 'lipping up' and some 'lipping down'. This is the process of tightening or relaxing your chops around the mouthpiece to alter very slightly the pitch of a note. 'Lipping up' or tightening your embouchure will make a note sharper; 'lipping down' or relaxing your embouchure will make a note flatter. The middle C-sharp on some alto horns, for example, tends to play flat and so needs lipping up to stay in tune.

A small music holder that fastens to the top of the sax body. Used mainly by marching band players. The screw for the lyre is usually next to the screw for tightening the crook to the body. It is worth checking this every now and then as, through lack of use, I have known this to work itself loose.
The bit that your chops seal around which, along with the reed, starts the noise process. Without being attached to the horn, this produces a 'squeak' when blown.

Usually made from leather, the pad is glued inside the tone hole cover. This forms an effective seal when pressed shut on to the tone hole. It's unfortunate that moisture and leather don't go together. Hence, your sax will need some or all of it's pads replacing every few years.
The keys are sometimes inlaid with pearl for aesthetics. Most, however are just coloured plastic.

A welded support protruding from the anywhere on the sax that supports a rod.

Plastic reeds
A relatively new product, these reeds are identical in every respect to 'nature's' reeds, but they are made entirely from plastic. They are far more reliable than 'normal' reeds as they don't 'wrinkle' as soon as they get wet, and they're much more durable. They are, however, more expensive than the 'normal' ones. You can also get 'normal' cane reeds which are coated with a thin layer of plastic - a kind of half and half!
Usually made from natural cane, the reed attaches to the mouthpiece with the ligature. Using airflow to produce vibration, the reed is where the process of getting a sound from your horn starts. As saxophones are different sizes, so are the reeds to suit the relevant model of sax, although all reeds look basically the same and operate in the same way.

Reed holder
The plastic or card holder that reeds are sold with. These not only protect the reed while being stored, but also (more importantly) keep them flat.

Reed strength
Softer reeds, or reeds that have been scraped thinner, vibrate more readily and are therefore easier to play. Beginners tend to start on a strength one-and-a-half reed. As players progress and develop, they move up to harder strength reeds which allow a better development of tone and sound. Reed strengths go up to five, although most pro sax players tend to play with reed strengths two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half.

A long bar that runs the length of the sax body in order to operate a tone hole cover remotely.

Sling or Strap
A neckstrap or other device used to take the weight of the sax around the player's neck.

Soft reed
A reed produced from softer reeds which makes a horn easier to play, but doesn't allow as much tone control.

Usually a thin metal strip or 'pin' that holds a tone hole cover open or closed.

Tip opening
The gap between the reed tip and the pointy-bit of the mouthpiece, determined by the lay (see above). This gap is smaller in beginners' instruments to enable ease of playing.

Tone hole
The holes pressed or cut into the sax. In cheaper horns, the tone holes are soldered to the body, whereas more expensive horns have holes that are pressed/shaped from the body's metal and therefore no soldered joints.

Tone hole cover
The 'lid' that closes on each tone hole to make each note. The tone hole cover is made from a brass 'cup' with a leather pad glued inside it. Some early horns like the Buescher had a 'popper' soldered to the inside of the tone hole cover which the leather pads were pressed or 'popped' into. As these early leather pads are getting more tricky (and more expensive) to find, one option when re-padding is to grind off the 'poppers'. This leaves the tone hole free to accept a more modern leather pad to be glued in with no problem.

The starting and stopping of a note crisply and cleanly by touching the reed with your tongue. This immediately stops the reed from vibrating and so stops the sound. This can take some time to perfect and some people find it tickles!

Trick notes
These are notes or sounds obtained by using 'non-standard' fingering. There are many effects that can be obtained through various combinationsof fingering - the best way to discover these is to experiment!



Hints and tips


Get your reed wet...
Saxophone reeds must be wet in order to vibrate properly, so it is not unusual, before a practice or performance, to see sax players, and other woodwind players, walking around with a reed in their mouths, wetting it before playing. As reeds gets older, they tend to wrinkle at the tip when they get wet, making them impossible to play. They do straighten out after a few minutes, but this could be a good indication that you need a new reed! Reeds typically can last several weeks or even months if looked after, but bear in mind that reeds will soften over time with playing.

Remove the reed after playing
Take the reed off the mouthpiece when you’ve finished playing and put it back in its reed carrier. The underside of any mouthpiece where the reed sits is a flat surface. However, the reed is only secured to the mouthpiece by the ligature over half its length. As the reed is permanently wet and vibrating backwards and forwards at a vast rate, the tendency is for it to curl towards the mouthpiece facing (the open bit). If left on the mouthpiece for long periods of time, the reed will adopt a slightly curved shape. This in turn will make the tip opening smaller. As a beginner’s mouthpiece has a smaller tip opening (to make it easier to play), a slightly curved reed will make the sax harder to play and can cause squeaks as the reed closes completely on the mouthpiece.

How long should a reed last?
When you first begin to play a reed it will feel slightly harder than it's supposed to be - or at least harder than it will be once it's been played in for a while. After about an hour's playing it will settle down to its 'real' hardness (plus you'll be more used to playing that new reed). As mentioned above, a reed will gradually get softer throughout its life to the point it will no longer produce a clean tone. The actual working life of a reed is ultimately dependant on the quality of the cane, the chemistry of a player's saliva, how it's played and how careful a player is. Some can last for months, some for a matter of minutes if inadvertantly used as a clothes brush!

Reed strength
For many years you were deemed to have ‘made it’ when you played with a really hard reed. In recent times though sense has prevailed and there is no longer a ‘macho’ association with harder reeds. Play with a reed strength you’re comfortable and happy with - one that suits your mouthpiece, your horn and your style of playing. I once picked up some strength five reeds in a job lot and I’ll probably end up using them as replacement floorboards! Beginners should start with one and a half strength reeds as these are easier to play, while more experienced players move on to harder strengths. Metal mouthpieces tend to play better with softer reeds compared to ebonite (black) mouthpieces.

Don’t use ‘feather duster’ sax cleaners
These are the big fluffy cleaners with a rubber bung on the top. They slide into the top of the sax as you put the sax away and are supposed to soak up any moisture inside the horn. In reality, all they do is hold the moisture inside the horn against the pads. There are some 'pull-through-shammy-type' cleaners which are much better - you pull through the horn to absorb some of the excess water. Moisture is the number one enemy of saxophone pads so the best thing to do is turn the horn upside-down to drain the excess moisture, and then leave it to dry naturally.

Cork grease
The mouthpiece is the only place you can tune the sax to other instruments, so it needs to move smoothly along the cork. Rubbing in cork grease into the cork every month or so will keep it in the optimum condition. In time, if you only use one mouthpiece with your horn, a small step will develop along the cork where your horn is in tune. Putting your mouthpiece on up to this step will always give you a good idea of where your horn is in tune. However, different makes of mouthpiece have different barrel lengths and so will tune in different places along the cork. Hence, a cork that’s been regularly greased makes the horn easier to tune.
I did have one student whose mouthpiece was stuck fast to the cork. Had it been tuned correctly it wouldn’t have been so much of a problem. But it was more by luck than judgement that mouthpiece was freed without breaking something!

Sax slings
Always use a sling that has an enclosed clasp (not a hook) where it connects to the ring on the horn. I’ve seen many horns hit the deck where players have bent down with their horn around their neck and the horn has caught on a pocket or belt buckle, detaching the horn from the sling. The repair bill to get dents out of horns can be rather large!
Also, get a strap that has some support around the back of the neck, and preferably one that is not elasticated. Personally I find the more elasticated slings are harder to play with as there is too much movement between the horn and one’s chops! Also, it’s much more comfy if you wear a polo-neck top or similar shirt with a collar.

How to clean your horn
Any real solution to this would be gratefully received by all horn owners. The short answer is very carefully! If you leave your horn on its stand between playing it will pick up dust over time. This, greasy finger marks and moisture leaking from the tone holes during playing, means that your horn will need cleaning once a month or so. I’ve found that a silver polish cloth and a spare half hour here and there does the trick. It is worth doing this regularly to stop the build-up of dirt in some of the tricky-to-get-to spots. Under no account should a horn be immersed in water - leather pads do not get on well with water!

Sticking G-sharp key
Most horns suffer at some point from the G-sharp tone hole cover sticking closed so when you go to play the G-sharp, the note still sounds like a G. This is due to the moisture inside the horn migrating towards this tone hole while playing, and it sticks shut as the horn dries out after being put away. The easy solution is to check it before playing the next time and, if need be, just ease the tone hole open with your fingers. This will stop it sticking during that particular playing session. Some modern horns (the Keilwerth SX90 for example) has a device that stops this happening (clever Germans!). And from experience it works. If you have any other tone holes that are stuck shut prior to playing, they will probably just need easing open and a good clean.

Wearing jeans!
If you’re determined to keep your horn in tip-top condition, check your jeans! Although these days most jeans don’t have rivets on the back pockets (to be kinder to leather sofas, chairs and car seats), there are rivets on some front pockets which can scratch your horn! Watch out. A long shirt should suffice.

Mouthpiece pads
If, like me, you’re one of those people that doesn’t like putting your front teeth on to a hard surface, then a mouthpiece pad is a perfect solution. Looking not unlike a bicycle inner tube repair patch, these pads stick neatly on to the top face of your mouthpiece, protecting your teeth. Perfect. These pads are made for clarinets and saxophones alike and are available from most good music shops. One pad should last at least a year, if not more.

Conditioned chops
To be able to play the sax for any long periods of time, the muscles in and around your lips need to be strong. This strength, or conditioning, will build up automatically in time through regular playing. Eventually you’ll be able to play for a couple of hours at a time without your lips ‘giving way’ through fatigue.

Finger positions
Once you have established where your fingers should sit on your horn (there are very slight variations between different makes of horn), you should get into the habit of not lifting them too far away from the keys. It’s harder to play quicker passages of notes if your fingers have to move a long way back to make contact with the keys. One simple way of checking this is to play in front of a mirror - you’ll soon see just how far away from the keys your fingers are moving. Another more extreme training aid is to put double sided tape on the keys...You’ll soon get in to the habit of not lifting your fingers up too far! Another point - you don’t need to press hard with any of the keys to get them to close. If you do, then your horn has gone out of adjustment and needs to be looked at. I know someone that pressed so hard to activate the octave key that she couldn’t play for six months due to a thumb strain.

Mouthpiece hygiene
It is a good idea to clean your mouthpiece every month or so. The very nature of playing any reed instrument means that whatever has been in your mouth will get transferred to your mouthpiece and therefore into the horn (a contributing factor over time to the sticking tone hole covers). I find that anti-bacterial wipes are good for cleaning both mouthpieces and reeds - and the taste is not too unbearable! A good swill with soap and water will also not do too much harm.

Unfortunately there’s not really anything that can be done to vastly reduce the volume of a saxophone. Unlike a trumpet or trombone whose sound only comes out the end (and can be muted), the sax has lots of holes all the way down it’s body where the sound escapes (although a large proportion still comes out the bell). You can make a slight difference by stuffing a t-towel or t-shirt (or similar) down the sax’s bell, but this may only make a slight difference in reducing the volume. There is also a danger that you could stop the bottom C, B and Bb from closing properly. If you do try this method of noise reduction, be careful.
More recently one or two manufacturers have brought out sax mutes. These resemble Star Wars fighter suits in looks and are basically an over-size sax case that encloses the sax with a hole at the top for the crook and arm holes to let you in to hold the sax. I have not used one yet so can’t comment on their effectiveness.

Sax stands

The first accessory you need to purchase for your sax is a stand. There's no easy way to put your sax down on a surface without scratching your sax or the surface you're placing it on! Most sax stands are inexpensive (£10 to £20 typically) and most are adjustable for alto and tenor horns alike. For a bit more dosh, SaxRax make a range of great stands that are VERY nice indeed. The only downside to leaving your precious horn out on view is that it will need dusting more often! And this is a skill in itself...

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