How to clean a saxophone step-by-step. Complete guide for deep cleaning the saxophone

How to Clean a Saxophone

Written by Greger Hillman, Saxophone teacher and music educator

Taking good care of your saxophone is fundamental to keep your sax in good playing condition. However, there's also a health aspect to this as you want to keep it clean from a more sanitary perspective too.

I've probably cleaned my own saxophones over 10 000 times over the past 35 years of being a saxophone player. Here you will learn how to clean a saxophone, so that you never have to end up with a nasty smelling and leaking saxophone.

You will also learn a couple of less known tips and tricks to maintain your saxophone that I personally use every day.

Cleaning all parts of the saxophone

The Saxophone has 3 main parts. The saxophone mouthpiece, the saxophone neck and the saxophone body. All three needs to be cleaned regularly to keep your saxophone in good playing condition.

How often should you clean the saxophone?

You should do a basic cleaning after every practice session on your saxophone. That will greatly prolong the lifespan of the saxophone key pads and corks on the saxophone. That also ensures that your saxophone will play well over time and prevent leaks around the key pads.

How to clean a saxophone

You should make a habit of cleaning your saxophone after every practice session using a pull-through swab, a cleaning cloth and mouthpiece brush. These are all part of a standard Saxophone Cleaning Kit.

Here's how you clean your saxophone:

  1. Remove the reed from the mouthpiece by loosening the ligature holding it
  2. Gently dry of the reed on the back of your hand before putting it back into the reed box or saxophone reed guard holder.
  3. Remove the mouthpiece by a rocking back and forward motion unscrewing the mouthpiece from the cork on the saxophone neck. Dry of the mouthpiece with a cleaning cloth before putting it back into the sax case.
  4. Remove the saxophone neck from the sax body and clean it by running a smaller cleaning cloth through the sax neck.
  5. Insert the pull-through swab into the bell of the saxophone before flipping the sax around so that the rope end (containing a small metal weight) can slide through the body of the saxophone. Then pull on the rope to make the cleaning swab go through the entire sax body cleaning any moisture at the same time. Repeat 2-3 times.
  6. Finally insert the octave key cap protector before putting the sax body back into the saxophone case.
  7. Put the Neck strap into the case and make sure everything is sitting in it's place inside the sax case before closing it. 

That's it. Making it a habit of doing a basic cleaning the saxophone this way will ensure that your saxophone plays well for many days, months and years ahead.

Deep cleaning the Saxophone

Aside from the day to day cleaning of the saxophone you should also do a deep cleaning of the sax now and then. The intervall differs depending on how much you play your saxophone, but once a month is a good bench mark if you practice your saxophone regularly.

A deep clean of the saxophone involves taking more detailed care of the mouthpiece, the neck and body of the saxophone separately.

The benefits of doing a deep clean is that your saxophone will respond better to your fingerings and articulation as you remove calcium residue buildup in your mouthpiece and clean the actual key pads.

This procedure can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour depending on the current condition of your saxophone.

How To Clean the Saxophone Mouthpiece

There are basically two types of mouthpieces for saxophone. It's the Metal mouthpiece and the Rubber mouthpiece (also referred to as Plastic or Ebonite mouthpiece).

The good news is that it doesn't matter which type of mouthpiece you have as the cleaning process is the same. You only need a few things to clean your mouthpiece and then, if you want to polish it and make it shiny, you can go through a few extra steps as well.

Preparations for cleaning the sax mouthpiece

You will need water, Liquid Dish Soap, a brush and a cleaning sponge (or a piece of cloth) for the actual cleaning of the mouthpiece.

Try to keep the water lukewarm and no warmer than body temperature. Never use hot water when cleaning your saxophone mouthpiece as it can discolor the mouthpiece and cause damage to the actual mouthpiece.

Cleaning the saxophone mouthpiece step-by-step

Make sure you disassemble the mouthpiece from the sax neck and body as well as removing the ligature and reed before you begin.

  1. Rinse the mouthpiece under water
  2. Apply some liquid soap to your brush
  3. Gently brush any residue of the outside of the mouthpiece
  4. Go over and brush the inside of the mouthpiece chamber thoroughly, so that you get rid of all residue along the tip and baffle on the mouthpiece.
  5. Rinse of the mouthpiece with clean water and dry it off

Your saxophone mouthpiece is now disinfected and clean from a sanitary perspective.This may be good enough for you but if you want to get that new saxophone mouthpiece look back you may need to remove stains and also polish your mouthpiece as well.

Remove calcium stains from the saxophone mouthpiece

Simply cleaning the mouthpiece will not remove stains and unevenness spots on the inside of the mouthpiece.

Even after cleaning the mouthpiece you may find stains and unevenness spots on the inside of the mouthpiece that cannot be brushed off.

This is caused by calcium residue buildup from your saliva going into the saxophone mouthpiece and you need to do some extra deep cleaning on the mouthpiece for that.

The process is pretty simple and it doesn't involve any chemicals or detergents. This will be all organic and you will see how to clean a saxophone mouthpiece with vinegar, water and a brush in just a few minutes. It's the same process for both metal and rubber saxophone mouthpieces.

  1. Put 2-3 caps of vinegar in a bowl and fill it with water (body temperature)
  2. Put your saxophone mouthpiece into the vinegar water and make sure it covers the entire mouthpiece
  3. Leave the mouthpiece soaking for about 20 minutes
  4. Use a brush and go over the inside and outside of the mouthpiece thoroughly.
  5. Rinse the mouthpiece and wipe it dry to see the final result

Deep cleaning the Saxophone Mouthpiece

If you still have spots or stains on the inside of your saxophone mouthpiece after a regular cleaning you need to address those stains separately. You often see these spots and grains on the inside on the baffle and tip of the saxophone mouthpiece.

These grains can actually affect your saxophone sound so you need to get rid of them and there is a clever way of doing that with some vinegar and cotton pads.

  1. Put cotton pads into the saxophone mouthpiece and make sure the cover the inside all the way up and over the tip of the sax mouthpiece
  2. Soak the cotton pads with vinegar so that the inside is in contact with vinegar through the cotton pads
  3. Leave with the open side up for about 2-3 hours
  4. Remove the cotton pads and rinse the mouthpiece with water while gently brushing the inside of the mouthpiece.
  5. Finally dry it off to see the final result – your deep cleaned saxophone mouthpiece

I find that this method for deep cleaning the mouthpiece works really well giving it a fresh look and feel at the same time.

Polishing the saxophone mouthpiece

Depending on what type of mouthpiece you have there's a simply process you can go through to polish the saxophone mouthpiece.

Polish a Rubber (or Plastic) mouthpiece

If you play a plastic (ebonite) saxophone mouthpiece you need olive oil and a piece of cloth for the polishing part.

  • Simply apply a little bit of olive oil to the sax mouthpiece and start rubbing it in with the cloth. You will see a nice shine starting to appear and when you are happy with the result you just dry off any excess oil still on the mouthpiece.
  • By polishing the plastic saxophone mouthpiece you bring back the shine to it for a while. It doesn't last forever though so keep in mind you will have to repeat the process again once the shine is gone again.

Polish a Metal saxophone mouthpiece

If you play a metal mouthpiece you can revive the shiny surface and get a polished look by using vinegar and bicarbonate. You find these ingredients in your local food store. The vinegar will most likely be next to other oils and bicarbonate in the baking or spices section of the store.

  • Add 1-2 caps of vinegar to a large glass and fill it up with cold water
  • Put the metal mouthpiece into the water
  • Add the bicarbonate and you will start to hear a sizzling sound, that's normal
  • Wait for 10 minutes before picking up the mouthpiece and rinse it of under cold water
  • Dry the mouthpiece off with a piece of cloth while polishing it at the same time

That's it. You've completed polishing your metal mouthpiece and can enjoy playing a fresh mouthpiece again.

How To Clean the Saxophone neck

To clean the saxophone neck you need to use a thin cleaning cloth found in a regular saxophone cleaning kit. You need it to be rather small and thin as it has to move freely through the entire neck and out in the other end. 

You should NOT use the regular cleaning cloth (for the saxophone body) as it will not fit. If you use a too big cloth it will get stuck and you probably have to bring your saxophone to a saxophone technician in order to get it removed.

For good practice you should run the cleaning cloth through the saxophone neck after each practice session to clean out saliva and moist that build up while playing.

Deep cleaning the saxophone neck

You need a precision screw driver with flathead, a cleaning cloth, cork grease, a cotton swab and water.

Before you get started a word of advice: Make sure you have a flat surface to work on and stay away from the sink to make sure you do not loose any screws down the drain unintentionally.

That happened to me once and that just becomes a huge headache trying to find the exact right type of screw for your exact saxophone model and brand. It's not like you can just pickup another one at your local store so keep that in mind. Using the kitchen table is much better, trust me on this one.

Cleaning the saxophone neck step-by-step

 Make sure you have good lighting on the table where you'll be cleaning the saxophone neck, so that you can see the tiny screw on the neck clearly. 

  1. Gently unscrew the tiny screw holding the octave key (bowed over the neck) and secure the screw for later. You do not want to loose that!
  2. Remove the octave key pad and holder by moving it up over the smaller end of the sax neck where the cork sits. That's the end where you normally would have the saxophone mouthpiece
  3. Clean the octave key pad by gently rubbing it with either a moist cloth or paper towel. This will remove any residue that has built up over time. When that is done you can put this part to the side for now
  4. To clean the actual saxophone neck you can bring it over to the sink and rinse it through with warm (not hot) water for about 1-2 minutes. Important note: This should only be done after disassembling the octave key pad from the neck.
  5. Use a cotton swab to gently clean the octave keyhole by pushing it in until you feel resistance, but not going beyond that point. Pull it out and repeat 4-5 times to make sure it's really clean.
  6. Run the cleaning cloth through the saxophone neck 2-3 times in order to dry out the excess water removing any built up at the same time.
  7. Reassemble the octave key pad with the neck by moving it over the cork and into it's position. Make sure the spring on the back is centered before gently pushing down so that you can put the screw back and tightening the screw gently. Do not make this too tight as the octave key needs to be able move freely.

This completes the deep clean of the saxophone neck and by removing any residue that builds up over time your air flows more freely through the neck and the octave key will be more responsive as well. 

Deep cleaning the saxophone body

You need a cleaning cloth, saxophone cleaning paper, cotton swabs, a glas of water and a precision screw driver with flathead (optinal).

A word of caution before you begin: You need to make sure you have a flat surface to work on and good lighting as this does take some precision. Also, you should avoid unscrewing anything if you are not sure how to reassemble it again.

Removing all keys is best left up to a saxophone technician with experience and the right equipment for that type of refurbishing project.

That being said, you can still do a deep clean of the saxophone body by going through the steps below.

Cleaning the saxophone body step-by-step

 After playing the saxophone for a few months you may start to notice that some sax key pads get sticky and that's the first sign of the need of a deep clean on your saxophone.

Clean the key pads on the saxophone

You will find that both Pro sax players and Saxophone beginners experience sticky key pads now and then. You can prevent this to some extent by always brushing your teeth before you play your saxophone. However, you will still have to clean the key pads on your sax at some point like this:

  1. Finger through the keys and take note of any sticky keys both by listening and watching the sax keys
  2. Using a wet cotton swab start cleaning one sticky pad at the time. Move and roll the cotton swab gently over the key pad to remove any build up. You may need to repeat this process several times depending on the amount of build up.
  3. Use the saxophone cleaning paper (or Cigarette roll paper) to dry the cleaned saxophone pad by inserting it between the hole and the actual key pad on your saxophone.
  4. Press down the key gently to produce light pressure to the saxophone cleaning paper as you pull it out to the side. Repeat several times to clean out the dirt and dry the key pad completely.

This process of deep cleaning the saxophone key pads can take some time to complete as you need to go over one pad at the time by completing the steps above.

If you notice excessive rattle or key noises on your saxophone it can be due to missing pieces of cork or felts that should be on your saxophone. In that case it's probably best to consult with a saxophone repair shop to see if they can help you out.

Clean the saxophone body

You only need a couple of pieces of cloth or towels to clean the saxophone body. Make one moist and key the other dry as you begin. Do not rinse the entire saxophone under water or in the shower as it will damage the key pads and could potentially make your saxophone unplayable.

  1. Use a moist cloth and go over the saxophone bell, keys and body to remove any stains
  2. Make sure to be gentle around the key rods, small pieces of cork and filt so that they do not fall off
  3. Follow up with a dry cloth to make the saxophone dry again

Any rust on your saxophone needs to be addressed separately as it will not make any difference simply cleaning the saxophone body in that case.

Final note on cleaning the saxophone

As long as you keep up the basic maintenance of your saxophone, cleaning it after each time you have played it you will be off to a good start. Deep cleaning your saxophone every 1-2 months will ensure the long term functionality and performance of your saxophone.

Saxophone teacher online Greger Hillman

Written by Greger Hillman

Greger Hillman is a saxophone teacher with +36 years of experience playing saxophone. 

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learn saxophone teacher Greger Hillman

Greger Hillman is a saxophone teacher and musician from Sweden.

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