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Sticking Pads

Q.  I have a year old Keilwerth SX90R Alto in Black Nickel.  I love the sound and feel, but the pads stick after I play for awhile.  I use gig dust and it helps, but only temporarily. The problem seems to be worse when I play the horn after using key clamps.  Any suggestions? Thanks, Kevin …

A. First, lose the key clamps. I don’t know what they do on the up side, but on the down side they trap moisture in your ax, deepen the rim impressions on your pads, and gradually fatigue your springs – all of which promote sticking and shorten pad life. Swab off both the pad rim impression and the tone hole rim with a little water on a Qtip, and if that doesn’t do the trick follow up with acetone on a Qtip (donut get the acetone on your lacquered surfaces cuz it will mar the lacquer). If neither of those actions help you probably have rim impressions that are already too deep, and/or perhaps fatigued springs. The only choices are to replace the pads or increase spring tensions. The later will affect your action somewhat, the former will cost bigger bucks. Not much of a choice, huh? If your stickers are restricted to the usual suspects (B, bis Bb, the little B/A combo pad and G#) you may have caught things in time to avoid an expensive situation. 
Additional Comments
I have never seen a positive use for key clamps, but if someone wants to write in and explain the up side in a lucid & polite manner we will post that dissenting opinion here for all to consider. Pad (rim) impressions need not be very deep in order for your sax to function properly — provided your pad cups are in plane (leveled with) your tone holes. Since leveling the pad cups is a critical part of setting up a saxophone, the implication of rim impressions that are excessively deep is a faulty job by the tech. On rolled tone hole rims (Conn, Keilwerth & some SML horns) or Martin beveled rims, there is often barely a rim impression on the pads at all if the cups have been correctly leveled during setup. Some rim impression is inevitable with the straight, sharp-cut tone hole rims found on most saxophones, but it need not be so deep that the pad leather wraps around the rim in a ‘U’ fashion. In this situation it is easy to see how any foreign substance build up on the pad or rim (which is inevitable) invites sticking. If the rim impression on a pad is too deep even the suction created by just a little moisture will cause the pad to stick or appear sluggish in action. We are talking about the pads that normally come to rest in an open position, of course. The pads that are sprung shut at rest will develop deeper impressions, but the player’s force easily opens these keys even when they are a bit soiled. The effect of key clamps is to keep pads closed that are intended to be open, and you cannot tell me that most players don’t clamp the pads down rather firmly when applying their clamps. Trapped moisture issues aside, the pad rim impression is bound to grow deeper than the reasonable impression your competent tech created for you at set up.

To see the issue clearly you need only consider one isolated pad on your saxophone: the G# pad. Everyone who has played sax very much at all has experienced a sticking G# pad, so you will all agree that this pad is the most prone to sticking. Take a close look at the G# mechanism and the reason will become clear. Anyone who has set up a sax knows that the G# pad is designed to be in open position just like the other stack pads that surround it. The poor G# pad is bullied from all directions, however, in the effort to keep it closed when the player does not need to specifically play a G#. First, a spring of much greater strength than the one that opens the G# pad is attached to the G# lever to overcome the G# pad’s spring and hold this poor fellow closed. Next, even if the G# lever is held open by the player (to facilitate certain passages), the design of the saxophone’s lower stack forces the G# pad closed when either of the F, E or D keys are closed. This makes the three alt Bb fingerings possible, or an F#/G# trill, or facilitates difficult passages involving G# and the notes below it on the scale. This is all part of the wonderful design of a saxophone, but the effect of bullying this poor little G# pad by keeping it closed against its will is that its pad impression is a little deeper and its spring a little more apt to fatigue. Is any of this starting to sound like the predictable result of using key clamps on your other pads that are designed to remain open? The G# isn’t in a spot where it’s likely to pick up any more crud than other pads, but the least little bit of crud on it and you find yourself bumming a dollar bill from the drummer to drag between your G# pad and its rim. Eating a few less cheeseburgers on break is probably good for both you and your ax, too, but your diet is not truly at the heart of this issue. Even if you keep the G# pad in pristine condition, there’s still that issue of spring fatigue …

While I’m assaulting the holy grail for many of you let me go one step farther. Let’s talk about those furry, conical swabs called ‘pad savers’. Now, if you use one of these things just to swab out your sax after a session, then leave it out somewhere to dry thoroughly before its next use (okay — and you spray it with ‘Raid’ in the interim), it probably does a decent job as just a swab. If you leave it in your ax between sessions, though, let me give you something to think about: do you stuff your sweaty sox into your shoes after a workout and stick them inside the shoe box until the next time you need your tennies? Yuk! Of course not, but you will stick that pad saver in your sax, twirl it around a bit to make sure the germs have a decent shot at the whole horn, then button everything up in the case until your next session, won’t you? Oh … and then you clamp the keys down over the whole deal, to boot, so all the germs have a nice snug, dark & moist spot for their party. What is wrong with this picture? You might as well go ahead and volunteer to open the mail for Senator Daschele, cuz yer ax is gonna’ have more bugs in it than a fan letter from Bin Laden to Bush. As with the key clamps, we’ll listen to well-stated dissenting opinions on pad savers, too. Until then, IMHO, they are about as welcome as a runny-nosed kid in the buffet line …

key clamps & warding off evil spirits…

Q.  I read your post on clamps.  While I agree totally about the stuffit type swabs (yuk!) and I mostly agree with you about the clamps, I don¹t totally agree for all situations.  I practice a great deal (my wife says too much) and I play, on average, eight gigs a week.  I tour about a quarter of the year. I have clamps ONLY for when I am traveling.  Here¹s why; once, while in Copenhagen, I got out of a cab and with my balanced tenor and the strap to my case came unhooked (as you know that does happen) and my horn fell to the ground landing on the top of the case.  As you can imagine the upper stack and most of the lower became quite out of alignment. Luckily my horn did not bend but I had a gig in a couple of hours and my horn did not play.  I have since used the clamps and the same thing happened again (despite changing the fastening clips on my case strap) and the horn survived, mostly, in good order. Now maybe this is because of good juju or maybe it was luck but I now swear by them ONLY when I travel. Tom …

A. If you would like to know more about how key clamps do their dirty work, and in the process gain insight into all sorts of saxophone set up/regulation issues, we just posted another related Q&A article at this link. It would seem to me that if you could rely on your case operating correctly you might grow comfortable going cold turkey on the evil of key clamps. There is no logical reason why a set of key clamps would protect your saxophone from a tumble out of its case. You would be just as well off if you could recall the color sox you were wearing at the time and always have them on when traveling.

I’ve seen instances where shipping damage was exacerbated by key clamps. For instance: We recently received a Mark VI bari sax that had key clamps installed. The sax had taken a lick on the low C keyguard in transit. Sans the key clamp that was wedged in between the pad cup and guard the damage might have been avoided altogether – at least confined to the key guard. As it was, the clamp had transferred the impact from the guard onto the pad cup, severely bending guard, cup and key arm. We often close large pads lightly for travel with a piece of soft foam. The foam won’t press on pads, and it won’t transfer impacts.

At any rate, I appreciate your thoughts. There are [flight rated] cases with zipper closures, and of course the Walt Johnson safety latches. [it would seem a flight rated case is the real solution to Tom's problem.] Since something has already happened to you twice that should never happen even once, I would think these extra levels of protection might serve you well.

Additional Comments
You may wish to review our additional related article on traveling with your saxophone, where we explain that when traveling with a sax in a non-flight rated case it needs to be packed inside the case in the same as for shipping. Bottom line: Key clamps do create set up issues that can just as easily prevent your sax from playing on the other end of a trip as a tumble during transit. To solve a problem we must identify & address the real cause. As a wise man once said, “Facts do not cease to exist simply because we ignore them.”

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