Latest Update on Sticky Saxophone Pads

Every sax player I have ever known struggles with the G# key sticking in the closed position.    updated May 15, 2008

  This is because there is an “override” on G# which allows you to trill from G# down to F or E or D without removing your 5th finger from the G# key.

On the newer saxophones, there is a similar override on the low C# key, which allows you to trill from low C# to low B without letting up on the C# key.What do you do when these pads stick in the closed position?

Many years ago, I met a repairman who had a shop behind Local 47 off of Vine Street.  He swore by old dollar bills, the ones with a lot of hand dirt on them.  Apparently, the dirt dries out the gunk which makes the pad stick.  You store the horn in the case in between gigs with the dollar bill under the G# key.  This has the added benefit of making sure you have a buck for a beer at the next gig!

I believe it was Abe Brown – a wonderful repairman (and banjo picker) in Costa Mesa – who told me about talcum powder.  Same theory … it dries up the gunk … at least temporarily.  It turns out that when the talc gets wet, it transforms into a mush which can cause more sticking than before.

The problem seems to be exacerbated by rolled tone holes.  I figured a horn with rolled tone holes would be less likely to leak, because more metal contacts more pad surface.  Guess what … fewer leaks, more pad sticking!  Not only G# and low C#, but also the Bb “bis” key and the second finger E key now stick on my Keilwerth SX90R alto and tenor!  These keys are harder to deal with, because they are stored in the open position.  You cannot leave a dollar bill under the pad (even if you have a buck to spare.)

I finally resorted to applying rubbing alcohol to clean the crud off of the pad, but this dries out the leather and does not really stop the sticking for very long.

My current repair genius is the multi-instrumentalist Paul Woltz from Lynnwood, WA.  Paul and I have struggled with the sticky pad dilemma for a couple of years.  We also consulted with Paul’s friend, “Dr. Dan” Parker.  Paul found this amazing stuff called Blaster Silicone Lube.  I immediately bought a dozen cans of the stuff.  (It is also a better general lubricant than WD40.)

Paul fills a mason jar with the aerosol spray and then applies it to the pad with a paint brush while the key is removed.  I tried using a pipe cleaner but found it easier just to spray the silicone onto a scrap of paper and rub the wet paper on the pad.  I just use regular inkjet paper.

You also want to get the silicone down into the tone hole, where the fungus tends to collect and grow.  Sometimes I just spray the stuff into the body of the horn.  It’s great for the metal as well as the leather.  It lubricates the mechanism, is good for the springs, and conditions the leather for longer life and water repulsion.

Since writing this article, i heard from a British repairman who uses cigarette lighter fluid.  This works well temporarilly, but eventually destroys the leather.

More recently, i had the whole left-hand stack, the G#, and the C# on my alto replaced with the synthetic Schmidt pads.  They are expensive, but do a good job controlling sticking.

A couple of weeks ago, another repairman hipped me to mineral oil.  This also seems to help with sticky pads and should be good for the leather.

So what do you do for sticky pads?  Has anyone come up with a better solution?  If so, i would sure like to hear about it.

21 thoughts on “Latest Update on Sticky Saxophone Pads

  1. THANKS FOR THE INFO. CANNOT WAIT TO TRY THE BLASTER SILICONE LUBE. I HAVE A STICKY BIS Bb ON MY MARK VI ALTO, AND A STUBBORN G# ON MY RECENTLY PURCHASED CURVED SELMER SOPRANO. WILL KEEP YOU INFORMED OF MY SUCCESSES.

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  2. Check with Will Grizzle in Atlanta, Ga. He used to care for my horn here in Memphis, and overhauled it. He treated the pads when he installed them so that I didn’t know what a sticky pad was. Eventually, after he moved to Atlanta, I needed an overhaul, and had it done locally. Now I have a sticky G# and C# key. Will’s fantastic. By the way, he had a ratty old chair in the shed in the back yard where he worked. I sat in it when we talked about the horn. So did David Sanborn, and a lot of other really fine players.

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  3. I have this trouble with one or two saxes which I use professionally. It usually starts for me half an hour into a gig. To fix it, I keep a small strip of towelling in the case, which I slip under the pad, then pressing the pad lightly down onto it I pull the towelling out. Usually works first time, but if not try again. The other solutions suggested above have not been successful for me, but this has,

    Yours

    Hugh Harris

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  4. I have a secret spray I use on my customers horns: Teflon. It has to dry overnight, but it eliminates most of the sticking problems, especially the G#. If you want to check it out, go to my website (saxoasis) and use the contact button.
    Les

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  5. Interesting points being made here.
    I have used a British aerosol produst called Fabsil. It is intended to showerproof fabric garments.
    Cotton pads and lighter fuel to clean the pad and when dry, spray on the Fabsil.

    The problem never returned.

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  6. Very interesting indeed – thanks heaps for the info and comments. I must have been lucky – my tenor and my alto have never had this problem. However, I have just purchased a brand new soprano which has an unfortunate case of the stickies (especially g#). This is a brand new, never played, with all of those irritating little cork pieces that you have to remove with tweezers from under many of the springs. From reading the above, it appears that this issue is caused by moisture and associated buildup of gunk ? Can this happen on a brand new instrument ? I’ll try the suggestions above before I get too stressed about my new sax…. this may explain the dodgy lower end on my new sax too…. Thanks, Matthew.

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    1. Hello Matthew,
      I would have to play your new soprano in order to determine the source of its “dodgy lower end.” One generally runs for the “leak light” to search for leaks whenever the bottom end of the horn fails to speak. However, i have found that one’s mouthpiece, reed, ligature, and embechoure also play a part in getting the low end to sing. Are you new to playing soprano? I have found that the soprano has its own unique embechoure challenges in the altissimo & the low end. I can be well-practiced on tenor and still struggle with the soprano’s extremities, if i have not been shedding on it.
      An interesting new chapter in my own ongoing struggle with sticky pads … there have been zero sticky pad issues for me in the past year. Knock on wood! Is it my changing body chemistry? climate change? pad chemistry change? I don’t know. Hope it continues for me and that your G# issue resolves quickly & easilly.
      cb

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      1. Hi Craig – thanks for the reply. I have 25 years of Tenor and 20 years of Alto
        under my belt. My clarinet has only been played a few times in the last 10 years or so,
        but it used to get a bit of a work out.
        While I am not Maceo Parker (nor Charlie Parker for that matter – pity), I can
        get a vaguely decent and controlled sound out of both my Tenor and Alto.
        I am, however, a Soprano Virgin.
        This may go towards your theory – new (default) mouthpiece, too soft a reed, lack of Soprano chops, etc.
        Surely a bad workman is entitled to blame his tools now and then ?
        I’ll try a few baby wipes, some cigarette papers, maybe some lighter fluid on my new pads and see how I go…..
        And probably a fair bit of practice might help too 🙂
        Thanks for your suggestions – Matthew, Melbourne, Australia.

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  7. I’ve tried the dollar, but not overnight…i’m also going to look into the lube and mineral oil. I have a solo in marching band and EVERYTIME I play my G# it sticks, then half way through the note it comes unstuck. sounds bad and is annoying for all. thanks for the tips. can’t wait to try them.

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  8. Those with really chronic sticky G# problems may want to ever so slightly increase the tension on the spring; it won’t cure the horn, you’ll get that annoying sticky sound, but at least your audience will get the right note.

    My theory for the new-horn problem is that it may have a combination of dust and previous customer saliva as a guck base; I just purchased a horn that the serial number tells me had spent nearly a decade waiting for a buyer (I hope that’s not a really bad omen) and I can imagine all sorts of people might have tried the horn in that amount of time.

    I used to use a soft absorbent cloth that I pulled through the pressed-down keypad like the advice above for using a dollar, but I was later told that I ran the risk of shifting the pad position and shouldn’t do that, even very lightly.

    I’m tempted to try the same dilute vinegar solution I use to dissolve the guck that builds on the inside of the curves and in the mouthpiece. I figure it can’t hurt and usually clears out the mouthpiece buildup pretty fast. Any reason I shouldn’t soak a cloth in vinegar & water and let that sit against the pad for a minute or two?

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    1. Are you saying you purchased a “brand new” horn which sat in the music store un-purchased for 10 years??!! How do they stay in business with inventory overhead like that? How does your horn play? I just got a wonderful overhaul from John Guyer at Kennelly Keys Lynnwood, and my Keilwerth plays like a dream. He cleaned & reseated all the pads. Knock on wood…hope they don’t stick for a while. It comes & goes with me. Either my body chemistry changes, or the humidity changes. i went for 2 years with no problems, They re-imerged this spring.

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      1. Well, this is rural conservative Ontario, although there’s been a low-end Selmer I’ve seen sitting in the Toronto-suburban branch for years — I don’t find it particularly surprising given that 99% of their business is likely school bands who’d never look at a horn over $500.

        it is my guess the typically conservative and largely uninformed Canadians never looked past the stigma on the brand name on the horn; it is a Jupiter, yes, which means it is a Japan/Taiwan collaboration by the same company who also bring you those $200-$600 horns, but a little research shows that Taiwan is where Japan was in the 90’s, because it is now mainland China who are dominating the low-end manufacturing and like Japan back then, Taiwan realized they had to become credible to survive; the Jupiter Artist XO (2069) was among the first of the new pro-series hand-hammered horns, and while I’m no expert, I am perfectly happy with it, apart from the stickiness (which seems to be improving with use) I’d say it compares well with Yamaha’s that cost nearly $1000 more, the action is excellent as is the intonation, and only time will tell if I spent my money foolishly.

        but yes, the horn was factory-original, yet the serial number 000xxx apparently says it is a 1991 edition.

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          1. heh … thanks for the endorsement, and yeah, check out that PDF download, it is assembled from several online sources by some other bloggers (Casa Valdez is where I think I found it) and I just felt it needed a ready webhosting.

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  9. I use mineral oil. This is what is used on wood moisten wood furniture, and also used for knives and swords to prevent them from rusting. It is also a non-distructive liquid, even safe on leather and mechanical applications for cleaning and lubricating.

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  10. Hi Craig!
    I’m 15 and I’ve been playing the Alto Saxophone for 4 years so i don’t have much experience with the maintenance of sticky keys much. But since i want to grow more and more with my saxophone and become an excellent musician i want to learn how to solve these problems without going to the shop unless its a big problem. So without further ado, I have, in my opinion, a big dilemma because my key to play a low C# has been sticking very much and i have a biggg concert this coming Friday and i really want to fix this but i don’t know how to. I’ve used the dollar bill trick and it didn’t work but then i tried an oil absorbing sheet which can be bought at almost any store. I tried these sheets because i heard about them and i had some already and i told myself perfect! problem solved!….. Not really. You see the sheets only worked for other keys like the side keys for a B flat and others but not my main problem, the C#. Although, this trick worked liked magic! Any moisture i had in any of those keys, except the low C#, was gone and they sounded even better! But my C# problem didn’t go away. If you have any other methods of solving this problem please let me know before this coming Friday. Thank you! (:

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    1. Sorry, i was out of town last week performing at Northwest Big Band. Hope your concert went well. Take a piece of regular white computer paper. Spray it with 1 of the fluids described in my post. Place it under the C# pad WHILE THE HORN IS BEING STORED IN THE CASE OVERNIGHT. The next day, it should play fine. Repeat this procedure as needed.

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  11. Graphite works swell with smaller toneholes/pads (especially soprano octave holes/pads). Take a piece of cigarette paper, tear away the “glue field”, fold the paper to match the space/surroundings of the tonehole/pad (so you can stick it in). Then take a soft core pencil, scrape/draw back and forth on the cigarette paper to have a good layer of graphite. Blow excess graphite away and stick the cigarette paper under the pad (press the pad gently in closed position, if it’s an “open” pad) – and pull out the paper! This little trick won’t last you forever, but it will leave the pads unsticky for hours!
    Thanks for sharing all the good advice!

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