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Troubleshooting Setup, Response & Play Issues
1. Hard Responding Upper Octave A
Q.  About 3 years ago I bought a Yanagisawa T-900. I liked its sound, but when I play the octave “A” note it always seems to clog up. Its like I can’t blow any harder. I’ve heard that other players have had this problem with this particular horn. I’ve thought about putting on metal resonators. Will that change the problem? I’m even thinking on selling it or trading it for a vintage horn, or a Yamaha Pro 62 model — or even a Yamaha 52 Intermediate, which I played once and thought it sounded very nice. Please give me some advice or insight on this problem. Thanks, Edgardo …

A. Resonators aren’t the problem. That’s most likely an adjustment to the automatic octave mechanism since A is the first upper register note that plays from the neck octave vent after the mechanism has switched. Other possibilities are a leak at either the A pad, the bis Bb pad or the small slave pad at the top of the upper stack. The A is part of one of the more complex key action combinations on your horn. It might even be an ill fitting neck, but the first thing to check is the octave train. I’m sure its a matter of a simple play adjustment by a qualified tech. Best of luck resolving your problem.

P.S.: IMHO, those Yamaha horns you mentioned are inferior to the T990 …

2. Flat Middle C#
Q.  I’m lucky enough to own a selmer mark VI alto.  I hadn’t played in years but joined a local community band and as chance would have it there is another mark VI alto in the band.  For some reason my sax (which sounds mighty fine and is in close tune on most notes) really goes majorly flat on middle C# (no keys depressed). In the upper octave C# is very close. I’ve been experimenting and have found that hitting the middle left palm key (Eb) seems to help  — but what else can be done?? I can lip it up some but just can’t get it quite there (watching on an electronic tuner). I just had the sax worked on and told them to see what they could do, but it’s still not where it needs to be. Thank you for any help you might be able to supply. Ken …

A. A problem like that is almost always pads too close to the tone hole rim – aka key heights. I would suspect the little pad at the top of the upper stack that’s a slave to the B, A & front F keys, or perhaps the bis Bb pad, which is slave to the A and the lower stack F, E & D. Since both of these pads are regulated & operated by multiple sources there’s lots of opportunity for mishaps in the setup process. The B pad could be involved, too (if the front F is holding it down), or it could be that your upper stack key heights are all a bit low. Less likely, but possible causes could be neck damage, or some sort of obstruction inside the horn. You may think that last one far fetched, but twice we’ve received horns with things stuck inside them that did not stop play, but affected certain notes. One had a vintage sopranino sax mouthpiece stuck inside – which we were happy to find – while the other had its neck plug (hollow) lodged in the upper body.

I don’t think the problem is a leak. Leaks normally make the all-open C# sharper, if anything, and if you had a bad leak around that area there would be other response issues with the horn. So check to be sure your open stack pads are uniform height, make sure your neck fits snugly, run something through the neck to be sure it’s not obstructed, examine the neck to be sure it’s straight where it’s supposed to be & has no significant indentations, and look inside your sax body (all of it) with a strong light to see if there are any obstructions. If all that turns up nothing then we need a measurement of your upper stack key heights.

Additional Comments
The shop that just serviced this sax should have found & fixed this problem before returning Ken’s horn. There are good techs and bad techs and techs that are just learning. We all overlook things from time to time, make errors and sometimes we just flat have a bad day, but none of this summation of the human condition excuses a non professional approach to your trade. To my mind, not resolving a problem that is as severe as  a note you can’t even lip into tune — and especially one that the customer reported about a Mark VI on the work order — is flatly unprofessional. Our advice is to play your sax if at all possible before you leave the shop with it. If it’s not playing correctly resolve the issue right then & there. You might make exception where you have a long-standing relationship with a tech of proven competence, but otherwise insist on playing the horn there at the shop. I don’t know any competent techs who will mind.
3. Fuzzy Middle D on Tenor
Q.  I play a Yanagisawa T-990 tenor. I love the horn and also love the article on the site [Yani factory tour]. I have an ensemble and solo competition coming up and I am asking your advice. During an ensemble I am playing in I have a very beautiful and lyrical solo on tenor that includes a lot of the notes middle D, E, and F. These notes on my horn (and on other saxes I have) sound awfully airy, and I would really like to impress the judges and see if I can get that natural airiness out. I play a Vandoren 3 1/2 on a Selmer C* with a Vandoren Optium ligature. I had the sax completely looked over about 2 months ago. I’m curious if you have any advice that could help me improve my score. Thanks, Rob …

A. The middle D on tenors is characteristically stuffy, or ‘fuzzy’, as some players put it. If it’s really bad you may have to adapt to alternate fingerings to keep from distracting your listeners. Common alternates used for this purpose include opening either your left pinky Db (this one works on my Keilwerth stencil tenor) or the high D while playing the middle D. It’s quite unusual to have this condition affect the higher notes in the upper register, such as your E or F, so I would suspect a leak, or perhaps a mis adjusted (or perhaps clogged) body octave vent. You might want to have your tenor checked again and specifically describe the problem on the work order for your horn. The last T990 we had was an awesome sax with no play distractions due to the issues you are experiencing, so the problem should be addressable by a competent tech.

A softer reed might help give you a clearer sound, too. You can go up in tip opening to offset it & maintain constant response characteristics. Probably a Selmer E in conjunction with a #3 reed would make a significant difference in the openness of your sound, and have similar response to your current set up. If you can obtain a vintage Selmer hard rubber Soloist tenor ‘piece, you might also find that its sound offers an appealing alternative to your current mouthpiece. These vintage Selmer mouthpieces keep the fine response & overall legit sound qualities of your modern Selmer mouthpiece while adding significant depth & edge to your tone. It’s certainly not a sound those judges are accustomed to hearing. Best of luck in your contest, and please let us know how we can help in the future …

Additional Comments
As many of our visitors are aware, there is a continuum of reed strength/tip opening combinations that produce roughly equal response characteristics. This is just a ‘for instance’ for the sake of illustration, but the following array of reed strength/tip opening pairings (for tenor in the example) might give the same response characteristics — while providing slightly different tonal nuances: 1/0.130″ .. 1.5/0.120″ .. 2/0.110″ .. 2.5/0.100″ .. 3/0.090″ .. 3.5/0.080″ .. 4/0.070″

As a reference point, a Selmer C* for tenor has a tip opening of just over 0.070″, while a Link 7 is 0.100″. The most aggressive openings used by pros everyone recognizes top out around 0.160″ (Plas Johnson of ‘Pink Panther’ fame, for instance, uses a 0.160″ Berg Larsen with a 1.5 reed), but by & large, most pros use very reasonable tip openings. With few exceptions, the ones who get up into the 0.120″ to 0.130″ area mostly use very soft reeds (2 or less). It’s fun to check out what pros are playing on, so go to sites like (from our Links page) & see the listings for yourself. You’ll find that the array we just sort of threw out above actually holds pretty close. What that means in English is that though there are different sounds coming out of a horn, most human beings are comfortable playing a saxophone that has certain uniform response characteristics — with the variations pretty much explainable by how loud the horn needs to be to fit in (and compete in) its ensemble environment. If you’ve ever played against amplified guitars you know exactly of which I speak.

Since mouthpiece theory is the latest saxual fetish here at CS, I can’t help but say that tip opening has more to do with the amount of noise you make than with the characteristics of that noise. It’s chamber size & shape that, on the large, makes you sound different. That’s why we suggested to our young friend Rob that he try a vintage Selmer Soloist … it has similar response to what he is accustomed, but a different chamber, and therefore a different sound. If you read between the lines here you will find one of the great insights to unlocking the potential of your saxophone …. at least it was for this fuzzy ole Bear :-)

4. My Sax Seems to Play Sharp
Q.  I have a Conn tenor saxophone Model 30 M “Conqueror” which was made in 1941 and which I’ve owned since 1955.  I lost the original mouthpiece and would like to get one that is compatible with my horn.  The mouthpiece I am using now seems to play extremely sharp to the point that in order to play in tune I have to pull it out to within about one half to three fourths of an inch from the end of the neck! I’m not a professional musician by any means so I don’t know if these intonation problems are due to the horn, the mouthpiece or to the way I’m blowing into it (Maybe all three!). I thought maybe you could offer some advice. Eve …

A. All of the above is the correct answer. As a person who plays naturally sharp I can tell you that the structure of your oral facilities make a difference. The setup on your tenor can contribute to tuning variations, as well. When a sax plays sharp mostly around the tuning point (concert Bb) we usually look to lower the key heights in the upper stack. The little slave pad cup that’s driven by the B & A keys is a prime suspect. You could also have some leaks in the upper part of your horn that are venting other notes sharp.

The horn itself isn’t to blame, meaning there’s nothing innately wrong with the design, though improperly repaired hidden damage may play a role in addition to the setup issues we mentioned above. You didn’t tell us what mouthpiece you’re using, but the 30M should respond well to most modern ‘pieces for you. One thing you might want to do is find a mpc that has a long shank. These are typically 4 3/8ths inches vs. the normal (for older tenor ‘pieces) 3 7/8ths. That extra 1/2 inch makes a big difference in the firmness of the mpc/cork interface. You can also build up the thickness at the end of your neck cork by wrapping it in Teflon plumber’s tape. That stuff is so slick that you can really make the fit snug enough to firm up your fit & feel a lot. Some long shank tenor mpcs are the Selmer Jazz, Berg Larsen metal, Brilhart ‘level air’ metal and some of the Runyon models (both metal & plastic). Some older Selmer ‘Soloist’ hard rubber mpcs are long shank, too. Best of luck resolving your problem. If you get a chance drop us a line & tell us what thing(s) actually helped.

5. Poor Low Note Response; Altissimo Issues; Making a Nifty & Compact Leak Light

[The extended material at the beginning is provided as background for the issues we are directly addressing farther into this article. In addition to being a fellow saxophile, Jay is, among other things, a university saxophone performance major, a talented videographer & photographer, plus a devoted fan of Delbert McClinton & his fabulous saxman, Don Wise (and Bear shares this respect for Don). You can see some of Jay’s excellent materials displayed in the “Sandy Beaches Cruise” section of Delbert’s web site. SBC 10 is the most current material of Jay’s presently available, but SBC 11 has just concluded. Much new visual material will be posted to Delbert’s site shortly. No Delbert fan needs any excuse for regularly checking his site for updates, anyway.]

Q.  We just got back from the best cruise ever.  I got to spend some quality time with lots of great musicians.  Of the 3 best Tenor men on the boat, none played a Selmer. Two Kings and one Martin. Don Wise gave me a Lawton 9b to try out.  That is a man’s mouthpiece, and maybe too much for me.  I tend to squeak more with it.  The altissimo is really good but I have a hard time generating enough wind power in the lower register.  Maybe it’s just the rhinovirus I picked up on the last day of the cruise.

I am all hot now to make a “Buena Vista Social Club” kind of movie about Delbert, his musician friends and the cruise.  The notion that 1,200 people pay $1,500-$4,500 apiece to enjoy artists that most of the country is not even aware of is a compelling plot line, itself.   I was nearly overwhelmed by the artists’ and cruisers’ response to my web videos, which were played at full resolution on the ship’s closed circuit TV.  I was also really jazzed to hear Mingo Fishtrap, a Tower of Power-like band, play.  These are all North Texas State guys in their early 30’s.  Absolutely killer. Jay…

A. Sounds like a lot of fun, Jay. I know when Delbert plays Tulsa he always packs ‘em in. The last time I saw him here was at the Caines Ballroom (made famous by Bob Wills’ live broadcasts & a U2 concert back in the 80s). Caines is a huge, Texas-style nightclub of maybe 70,000 sq. ft. That night it was packed elbow-to-elbow with a crowd that covered the full range of age & socio-economic possibilities. It was a blast. You could have made a movie solely about what happened that night in Tulsa. Like you say, there are more Delbert devotees than you would think. The fat cats (or maybe just the slim cats that saved half a lifetime) on your cruises are the tip of the iceberg. 

Be sure to try reducing reed strength before you give up on the Lawton 9b. I have some old Rico ‘brown box’ tenor reeds all the way down to 1 & 1½ strength. Lots of players who blow wide-open mouthpieces use very soft reeds. It produces a very edgy tenor sound that’s great for Rock or R&B work.

There are so many great saxophones around that it’s hard to quickly list ‘em all without leaving some very important ones out. I’ve considered putting together a classification of the world’s finest saxophones — something along the order of the Bordeaux wine classification of 1855 (1st Growth, 2nd Growth, Third…and so forth). It might surprise folks which ones made the top group. Similar to the wine classification, where Mouton Rothschild was placed in the second group & never accepted the result, there would be a similar controversy in my rankings. Based on a variety of factors (such as sound potential, mechanics, ergonomics, endurance, general quality of workmanship, cosmetics, simplicity of service & repair, ability to hold precision set up adjustments, & overall design innovation), I would not put the Selmer Mark VI into the highest class.

The point relative to your cruise observation about top players not playing on Selmers is that other saxophones can produce top flight results in the right hands. Those of us who have had the opportunity to study & play a wide range of brands & designs know that fact quite well. The saxophone snobs know only what they hear & read. It’s a sort of inbred culture where the offspring are doomed to be flawed.

The King Zephyr & Super 20 have always been highly regarded as Rock/R&B saxophones, so seeing them in the hands of power players is no surprise. I have been amazed, though, at how Don Wise uses his Martins to such great success in these same music genres. The reputation of Martins is quite contrary to the sounds that Don persuades from his horns. To my mind, that fact alone projects Don Wise into a higher strata of saxophonist. It also proves one point that I try to stress to folks looking for a certain saxophone sound: All the good quality saxophones of a certain type overlap 80% or more in their sound potential. Their stereotypical sound reputations are based on what these instruments will do in musical terms only at the margins of their potential. It is the set up, mouthpiece/reed configuration and player inputs that make for the delightful variety of sounds our beloved instrument can emit.

Likewise, the mechanics of any well made saxophone produced since WWI will support the technique of all but the master players among us. Again, the snobs who will only play Selmers are largely wasting a valuable musical resource. The King Super 20 carries top echelon mechanics, but the Martins do not. Martin mechanics are certainly quite sufficient, but in my rankings they would be somewhere below a 10M in that regard. Average for really good saxophones is still pretty darned good, of course. When you understand the relative mechanical disadvantage Don Wise overcomes when playing his Martins, his work is all the more amazing. I’m glad you all had such a wonderful cruise. I’d like to hear more about it & see the pix.

Q.  You were right about the Lawton 9 and a softer reed.  I still have a bit of problem on low C through B-flat.  I have to really punch them to get a clean sound.  Maybe it’s the 10M setup.   The altissimo is harder with the soft reed, too, but I can see some potential for the mouthpiece. I am totally committed to making a feature length music doc about Delbert, his friends and the cruise.  I will keep you in the loop. Jay…

A. I would say that your 10M’s set up is suspect considering the response issues you’ve outed. Do you have a way to get a light into the horn so we can do some investigation?
Q.  I’ll try to rig something.  Actually, it sounds better today than yesterday.  I’m going to take all the mouthpieces to my first sax lesson in 35 years, tomorrow.  The altissimo is still hard with the soft reed.  Probably bad embouchure. Jay…

A. You can make a workable single bulb light rig using an automotive 12V bulb & socket, available at most auto parts stores (and Wal-Mart). This rig can be powered either by a 6V lantern battery, or on a more permanent basis, by an AC converter outputting 12V/0.5 amps (a very common model). Maybe my display on leak lights will give you some ideas. Just be very cautious if you place anything into the sax powered by full house current that might break & short you to death. We don’t need curly fries with our saxburger. 

I strongly suspect you may find a leak at low Db. This is a weak area of 10M keywork, and a leak there would generate the low end issues you report. The other strong suspicion when a sax won’t play low notes after G# articulation kicks in is a maladjusted G# train. Should you have a G# problem you should also note issues if you ride the G# key (as we do in certain keys) while playing the notes from F# down to low D (in either register). 

On the altissimo front: There are no universal fingerings. That’s cuz saxophones are made with tone hole sizes & locations that differ. I have about a dozen different fingerings for high F#, alone. Of course playing condition & variable set up elements (like key heights) exacerbate the search for good altissimo fingerings for any particular sax. Here’s one for high F# that works on most 10Ms that are in sound playing condition: Front F + right hand F + low Eb. If you have general trouble with altissimo fingerings that involve the front F, then it’s probably not adjusted correctly. You can check for Front F health in two ways: 1) put a slip of paper between your B key & its tone hole, then try to pull it out when you depress the front F button fully. If your paper will slip out — even with some effort — your front F button isn’t closing the B pad fully. On a B pad that’s sealing correctly your paper will tear before it will come out. 2) Depress the front F fully & then check to see if your high F key is completely bottomed out (cork or felt key foot firmly meets horn body or other stop mechanism). There should be a tiny bit of play left in your high F when the front F is depressed – not much, but enough to know that your B key is solidly closed (and the little slave pad B drives closed, as well). If there is substantial travel left for your high F key when the front F button is bottomed out then you aren’t getting sufficient lift on the high F pad for proper altissimo (assuming your high F key’s lift is correctly set in the first place). Front alternate fingerings for high F & E ARE early altissimo fingerings that have simply become mechanized as part of modern saxophone keywork (via the addition of the front F key & linkage).

If you’ve played older instruments (or sopranos) that don’t have a front F linkage you may already know that the same result can be emulated by opening the high F key while fingering the regular high A or G. High F# is merely an extension of your standardized alt front F fingerings. You will note that the fingering I gave for your 10M is really a fork Bb — merely a half step above high A — with the low Eb added to help pop the note crisply (look for little aids like this on other altissimo notes, too). I can teach a high F# to any saxophone player that can play a front high F, using almost any mpc/reed set up. The high F# key is totally unnecessary – one of those ‘idiot magnets’ that the less talented (and less adventurous) clamor for on their instruments as mental crutches. Perhaps high F# has not been added to saxophone standard fingerings because there is another fingering that works mostly on just Selmers (wouldn’t you know?). Selmer’s typically won’t sound the high F# fingering I just gave you very easily, but a high A fingering, substituting front F for B, then depressing the side Bb, will work on most Selmers. Adding G# will help this note pop sometimes, and will always sharpen it a bit if you need that intonation adjustment. The relationship of these two basic approaches to a high F# is that they are both rooted in a ‘normal’ Bb fingering. Take the reasoning from there for other altissimo notes…

The best techs always triple check these three areas (front F train, G# train, low Db) that are problematic on most saxophones. Your G#/bis Bb junction with the lower stack is the holly grail of saxophone set up. You simply cannot have a top playing horn where this junction has not been meticulously addressed. A short glimpse with the leak light is all that’s needed to flush out a host of response-robbing maladies.

Q.  When I depress low b flat pinky key, B natural does not seal fully.  If I really press hard it will.  Furthermore, going B natural to B flat is tough because there is no roller to help the move.  My finger gets caught on the edge of B flat. Jay…

A. The low Bb/B relationship is a simple example of the many key interactions on a saxophone, where one key drives one or more additional keys in a master-slave relationship. In this instance your low Bb key is NOT sealing the B pad fully. This situation would cause problems with low Bb response, but would not affect any other low notes. Fortunately, this is easy to remedy. On a 10M low Bb presses on the B key arm to drive it closed. If B is not being pressed closed we simply thicken the buffer material between the two key contact points enough to accomplish the seal at B. Before proceeding we need to be sure that both B & Bb are sealing, independent of one another. If we don’t do that first, the task of assessing the bumper thickness we need between the two keys will not be accurate. It is possible to have a situation where Bb is not closing completely, and simply fixing that issue will cause the Bb arm to close farther than it did before, which has the same effect as thickening the bumper material between these two keys. Everything must come in a certain order when making saxophone set up adjustments. 

Once you know that both B & Bb pads are sealing, insert strips of paper between the two keys at their contact point until you have the correct thickness to add to your bumper material. You can actually use paper strips as a first aid adjustment to get you by until the horn can see its ‘doctor’. Use contact cement for the job. Be as neat as you can be, but the main thing is to get the two pads to seal simultaneously. 

On your B-Bb switch issue: Consider how the 10M spatula table is designed. From what you are describing as your sticking point, you must be using one of the poorer leverage possibilities that the 10M spat complex offers its player. If you can get accustomed to going directly forward, or even slightly forward & down, your leverage will improve, which will, in turn, will improve your seals on the low B & Bb pads. [Your saxophone's keywork relies heavily on the lever principle, where distance of travel is inversely related to force that must be applied to produce a given motion. We call this resulting force leverage. Leverage resulting from a lever's action can be either positive or negative, depending on how a lever is constructed. Since your low Bb key on a 10M travels in an arc, the forward tip moves a much greater distance than the portion closer to the mounting rod. That rod is the lever's axis point, or fulcrum. Interestingly, the other operative arm of the low Bb lever is the arm on which your pad cup is mounted, such that your low Bb pad is the equivalent to the fat kid on the other end of your teeter-totter. You will recall from playground experience that setting your end of the teeter-totter the longest allowed you to pin that poor fat kid up in the air for a while. Pressing on the tip of your low Bb key instead of the middle is the saxual equivalent of pinning the fat kid up in the air. I'll bet the engineers among our readers are smiling right now.] We can discuss adding a prosthetic lip to the lower edge of your low Bb key to give you both a bigger target, and a longer, upturned lip that will increase your leverage on low Bb. We still have other problems to find if you are having trouble with low C, Db & B…

Q.  Regarding spatula leverage strategy, boy do I feel dumb now.  And blind too. You are an amazingly patient and kind fellow. Jay…

A. Thanks for the kind words. I have a lot of patience with good people. Idiots don’t get much leeway. Thankfully, it’s not that hard to differentiate between the two groups. Next time you’re in Wally World (or the paradise equivalent) look around for some inexpensive materials that have self-adhesive backing. Felt is one good material to seek out, and it comes in various weights/thicknesses. Even our common computer labels are useful first aid materials in a pinch. If you look over the corks & felts on your saxophone you will see bumpers/buffers in a variety of thicknesses. There are maybe a dozen standard sizes of sheet cork available. One of these standards almost never works out to be exactly what’s required, so we learn to sand to exact tolerances using thin strips of sandpaper in 600 to 1,500 grit. A few of these sandpaper strips are a good material to keep around, too. If your low B/Bb situation had been reversed (low B seals, but a gap at low Bb) you would have needed to remove some of your buffer material between these two keys. That caveat about the order of things is very important when you are considering removing material from an existing cork or felt bumper (you can sand felt, too). You can’t put the material you’ve removed back — at least not nearly as easy as you can remove it, anyway — so be darned sure you’ve isolated the true cause of your problem before you reach for the sandpaper. Anyone who has worked on saxophones very much at all has this ‘isolation principle’ tattooed on their inner eye lids. If you ‘fix’ the wrong component of your saxophone’s set up you have needlessly (and often gravely) complicated your problem.

Below is my good deed for today…

click on an image to view full screen

Here’s a photo that shows a couple 12V auto light rigs I use in the CyberSax shop. The sockets, bulbs (one halogen, one conventional) and white wire loom (it’s quite heavy) came from an auto parts store. Connectors and live wires, plus the black wire loom came from Radio Shack. The DC converter came from an obsolete piece of computer equipment. I noticed that Best Buy has a DC converter that’s variable as to amperage output. The device creates a variable light level that is especially useful on the halogen bulb, which gets very hot at 0.5 amp. The halogen bulb is small enough to go just about anywhere in a sax, and can even be worked through the tone holes of a bari or bass sax on certain keys without removing them from the horn. The extreme halogen brightness is quite useful in lighting the larger saxophones effectively, and the heat it generates is less of a hazard in the open expanses of these great beasts’ bellies. In smaller saxophones (tenor & down) you need to work quickly & carefully with the tiny light, though. It will burn pad leather in a New York minute if you get careless. The conventional bulb is much safer (from a heat standpoint), though you don’t want to leave it against a pad needlessly. The wire looms aren’t totally necessary, but do add enough backbone to your light rig so the lights are easier to get into (and keep in) a position. There are no solder joints (though there could be), just shrink tube (various sizes) and duck tape. The heat generated by the light actually makes the duck tape more efficient. If you have a DC converter on hand in the right specs the rest of these materials cost under $10. Should you short these rigs out you will feel only a harmless tingle. I use the connector as an on/off control, but Radio Shack has tiny switches that will work in the line. To my mind, a switch is just something to go bad. In a pinch (like when you’re about to scorch something) a quick jerk on the wire instantly disconnects the juice. These can be made by idiots having a good day – and used by them safely even on a bad one…except for them maybe scorching themselves on a bulb. Come to think, though, it’s not a bad thing to have as many of our idiots as possible branded…

We’ll be adding responses to miscellaneous issues raised by visitors, so please check back regularly.

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