One of the first things we notice about a saxophone is it’s finish. And there are loads of options here both on vintage and new horns from bare brass to silver and gold plating and a variety of lacquered finishes. But few how do you properly care for the finish on our saxophones and how does the finish effect the sound that comes out of the horn?
The lacquer on all modern horns is very durable and thankfully requires minimal maintenance. A soft cloth is all you really need to keep the finish in top condition. For an extra clean you can use any non-abrasive lacquer polish like furniture polish, car polish or even Pledge (for that lemon freshness!). Carnauba wax can also be used for an extra shine.
The bottom line here though is that you need to avoid using any abrasive cleaning products so as to not damage the lacquer. So, stick to non-abrasive cleaning products and soft cloths.
Vintage lacquered horns
Older vintage horns are generally finished in a nitrocellulose lacquer which isn’t as hardy as modern lacquer finishes. Be very careful to never put an older lacquered horn in hot water because this can lift the lacquer off. It’s best, as with new horns, to stick to non-abrasive cleaners and if you need to do some more thorough cleaning, use some cold soapy water and a cloth.
There are two basic differences with silver horns. Most modern silver horns are generally finished in a clear lacquer over the silver plate. You can clean these modern horns in the same way you would clean a lacquered horn of any finish as described above.
However, older silver horns are generally unlacquered. You can tell if a silver plated horn is unlacquered because it will show smudge marks and the finish will also tarnish. For these horns keep some 3M anti-tarnishing strips in your case. This will slow down the tarnishing process a lot.
You can also use a silver polish cloth to clean unlacquered silver horns. These work great but can leave a film on the horn which will get on your skin and can also eventually get on the pads making them sticky. So, always wipe your horn down afterwards with a clean piece of flannel.
In the workshop we use a product called Tarni-shield when we have a silver horn apart. It has no abrasives in it so you can’t wear through the finish. Just like with lacquered horns, it is always important to not use any abrasive products because you can wear all the way through the plating if you are not careful.
Unlacquered silver horns will always tarnish so If you are really concerned about keeping your saxophone looking all pretty and shiny all the time then the bottom line is, don’t buy a vintage silver saxophone!
These days lots of manufacturers including ourselves offer saxophones without any lacquer or plating whatsoever. It’s not uncommon to see older horns without lacquer or with most of their lacquer missing. Plus many players opt to have their lacquer removed.
If you have an unlacquered horn then it’s best to not use any products to clean it except a cloth or some cold soapy water for a proper clean.
Remember part of the charm with older horns (and the sound – more on that later) comes from the aged look of the brass. Please don’t use Brasso or a metal polish on your old horn – it will look horrible and will badly affect the sound.
There’s money in the lacquer
If you’re in the market for a vintage saxophone then it’s always important to check if a horn has been relacquered. A vintage horn with original lacquer will always be worth far more than one that has been relacquered. Always check that a seller discloses whether a vintage horn has the “original” lacquer.
If a horn has been relacquered then expect the price to be lower accordingly. Although relacquering a horn won’t necessarily affect an instruments sound or the way it plays, there are a few things to be aware of.
Firstly, you can’t always be certain how well an instrument has been relacquered. It is unlikely that the job was done to the high standards of the original factory lacquer.
And secondly, although instruments are sometimes relacquered purely for visual reasons, most often a horn is relacquered following a serious repair. For these reasons I would generally advise steering away from a relacquered horn.
A vintage horn in it’s original lacquer, whatever the lacquer condition, will give you a more accurate idea of how it has been treated, and will be worth more.
Does the lacquer affect the sound?
With so many finish options for saxophones it can be confusing to know which to go for. Here is a quick roundup of how the finish of your saxophone will affect the sound it makes.
Completely clean brass sounds quite bright however as it ages, an oxidization appears on the surface. This can make an older unlacquered horn sound warmer. The cool thing about unlacquered horns is that, if you’re not compulsive about cleaning them, they sound better the older they get. So over time a horn develops it’s own sound that we as repairers are always very careful to protect.
Just about all modern horns have a lacquered finish. Generally lacquer gives horns a slightly brighter sound on the top end and a bit more weight in the bottom of the sound than unlacquered instruments. The tonal spectrum is greater in lacquered horns and this makes them generally more suitable for modern playing.
Gold and Silver plated horns
This is a tricky area because not all plated horns are the same. Selmer, Yamaha and Yanagisawa all offer silver and gold plated horns. These horns are considerable more expensive than their standard lacquered horns with the hand selected Selmer horns topping the price charts. Gold plating will generally make a horn sound darker and unlacquered silver plating will generally make the sound brighter.
This difference in sound is much more apparent with Selmer, Yamaha and Yanagisawa than you will find with most modern horns manufactured in Taiwan or China. With other brands the plating is generally much thinner so the effect on the tone is minimal.
It is however worth mentioning that it is possible to make a horn play much darker by adjusting the way it is setup and this is something we do regularly in our workshop.
Randy’s top tips
Check your venting
The distance your pads open (or your venting) can make a dramatic difference to the way your instrument plays and feels. This is something to check on your own horn or on a horn you are looking to buy. As a general rule, if it lookss too high – it’s too high, and if it looks to low, it’s too low!
On a tenor sax you should see 7mm on the left hand B key, 9mm on the right hand F key, and 11mm pm the low C, B and Bb keys. Alto saxes should be about ½ mm less all around.
Venting is easily fixed by a good repairer but identifying a problem here will help to explain why your horn behaves the way it does.
Check the join between your neck and body of your sax. This joint called the “tenon” is crucial to the way your saxophone plays. Make sure it’s a tight fit and not distorted. If you’re looking at a used horn to buy, check the bottom of the neck and inside the top of the body. If you see any worn areas or feel any ridges then this is an indication of a poorly fitting tenon and possibly a poorly carried out repair.
About the author:
Randy Jones is regarded as one of the leading saxophone makers and repairers of vintage horns in the USA. Check out his range of saxophones as played by Doug Lawrence from the Count Basie Orchestra.