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Saxophone Cleaning Tips – Eliminate Sticky Key Syndrome

Does your saxophone have sticking keys that make it difficult to play?

The first point would be to not eat or drink before or while you play saxophone.  Water should be the saxophone player’s beverage of choice when you’re playing or are about to play.

In terms of cleaning it, don’t buy a synthetic fuzzy saxophone swab-stick!

saxophone swab in the trash

saxophone cleaning stick in the trash

I had one myself, but then I cut off the cap and threw it away. They work somewhat well at first and are convenient.

BUT as they age, the fibers come off and get stuck to your saxophone’s pads. These fibers then create micro leaks which can hurt your sound.

Some saxophone players have used them for years and think that they work wonderfully. However, I know of problems they have caused. If you go to a repair shop and they have a special light, it can reveal the micro leaks in the horn.

It takes a little more time, but get a swab with a string that you run through the saxophone. I have a one for the body and one for the neck and mouthpiece.

Personally, I clean my saxophone each time after I use it. My cleaning consists of running the body swab through twice and then cleaning the pads on the spoon keys as well as swabbing the neck and mouthpiece.  Some players almost never clean their horns.

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  1. alejandra says:

    hi. i really didnt know that the saxophone swab..
    would make sound bad.
    i would really want to know more.
    wat affects the saxophone.
    or wat makes it better. :)
    i have a saxophone swab. but now im going to take it off. going to make it fuzzy and stuff like that..
    so thank you,


    • Hi Alejandra – you misread/misunderstood what Neal was explaining about what to use to ‘clean your sax’ – he is saying SWAB is GOOD – you get a good string on it and you also need to have a weight on the other end of the string, you can use a fishing sinker, but you have to pad it up so it doesn’t damage the interior of your sax.

      so you drop the ‘weight’ bit into the top of the sax, (remove the neck first!) , then turn your sax upside down so the weight with the string attached comes out – then pull it and it will pull through your swab which is securely attached to the other end of that string – do it a few times – make sure you ‘swab’ is not too thick or it won’t pass through the narrower top end of the sax. (the fluffy stuff gig is what Neal was saying that is NOT GOOD)… ok. :-) Unless it is expensive one perhaps made from sheep wool.

  2. Dear Sax Station,

    I was exploring the internet for saxophone care instructions and came upon your site. You’ve put together some great information, and I want to thank you for being at the forefront of helping players keep their horns in good order.

    The one issue I have is your assessment of the “fuzzy saxophone swab-stick”. You’re absolutely correct that most of these swab-type cleaners do swell, become brittle, and ultimately break down and leave lint in the horn. They also don’t fit well and the caps and tips fall off. However, I’d like to point out that these are inferior imitations of the original HW Pad-Saver® de-moisturizer, cleverly made to look like the Pad-Saver right down to the color. Some imitators have even gone as far as to infringe on the Pad-Saver trademark!

    I would like to send you a sample of an HW Pad-Saver de-moisturizer® for sax. You will see at a glance that the proprietary micro fiber is nothing like the imitation you’ve used in the past. Try placing a few drops of water on a flat surface and see how this fiber immediately wicks the moisture away and spreads it over a large area of the swab, allowing quick evaporation. Better still, play your horn and clean it the way you normally do and notice the moisture left behind. Next time you play, place the Pad-Saver® in, and then take a look.

    We are certain that you’ll find the original HW Pad-Saver® de-moisturizer to be a vast improvement over the cleaning method you’re currently using, and well it should be. It was invented by a world-class repair technician thirty years ago and regularly updated as new state-of-the-art materials become available. We’d appreciate your comments after you’ve had the chance to use it. We depend on the comments of our many professional customers, players and teachers alike, for future product development.

    Sincerely yours,
    Angela Koregelos
    President, HW Products, Inc.

    • My current cleaning method is to use two silk swabs- one for the body and another for the neck and mouthpiece. And sometimes I leave it out to dry in the air, after cleaning it with silk.

      How does your model prevent the fibers from coming off and getting into the leather of the pads?

      • Into or ON the leather pads. There is a difference. I don’t believe the fibers are strong enough or sharp enough to get INTO a leather pad. Unless you have some sort of Carbon Fiber one that maybe Lance Armstrong used in the 2010 Tour de France? I dunno.

        Now, the fibers getting ON a pad is different. I could see maybe making a case for them causing damage if there were a LOT of them gathered in one area and you didn’t notice it. That might maybe cause the leather pad to “regroove” itself. And when the fibers fall out or you remove them, then maybe the pad wouldn’t be able to readjust itself.

        All these are maybes because I’ve never seen it. A good leather pad is pretty darn resilient, and if the pad can’t handle a few fibers getting on it, how can you expect it to function properly being opened and closed thousands and thousands of times?

        • Hey Eric,
          Thanks for your perspective.

          Angela Koregelos, the president of HW stated in an earlier comment on this post,
          “You’re absolutely correct that most of these swab-type cleaners do swell, become brittle, and ultimately break down and leave lint in the horn.”

          When I asked how the HW model prevents fibers from coming off and getting on the pads, he did not respond. Maybe the HW model is better than others, let me know what Walt thinks.

          A few of my teachers when I was younger also started noticing the dust that the swabs can make and more leaks in the pads because of them.

          I edited the wording of the post to include the word “synthetic” since I think that is more likely to cause problems than cotton.

          Still don’t think they’re a great idea if they create more dust within your saxophone.

          It’s not a huge immediate effect….. never said it was. But I think it accumulates. Your argument that synthetic fibers couldn’t hurt leather seems like saying that water couldn’t affect rock.


  3. Oh please, “These fibers then create micro leaks which can hurt your sound”….really? I have NEVER, EVER seen this. Nor heard about it. Or anything. In fact, when I talk to Walt, the creator of the HW Shove It, I’ll ask him about it.

    I never, ever use a pull through swab. Ever. The only moisture that ever happens is in the palm keys, usually the F key. Simply blowing on the key generally fixes it. OR down at the bottom of the horn. In that case, a good “turn and drain” is in order.

    If you are REALLY concerned with pads, you could put some leather protectant on it. My old sax teacher used to use Needsfeet oil (I think that was the name of it) to give the pads a little more life. If anything, having leather dry out is more dangerous than it being wet.

    Back on point, HW Swabs. I think the two I have are at least 7 years old, if not older. I have one that has to be 15 some years old that is currently used in my Old Martin. That one maybe has some issues with fibers or hairs coming off, but it is old. Perhaps an original one.

    Wouldn’t it be easier to say to your readers that if they have an old one, and it does it to go get a new one instead of just damning the product line?

  4. First of all, good job with your website. I appreciate your enthusiasm for the saxophone! I agree with the comment that if fibers are falling off, then its time to replace it with a new one/better one. I prefer the pad savers because, for me, they are much better at taking care of residual moisture than the old swabs. Plus, the swabs get gross and grow mildew over time and eventually need to be replaced and the neck swabs inevitably get caught on the octave key-hole thingy. Anyway, it is important to keep the moisture at bay for sanitary reasons as well as saving the pads. Personal preference will dictate which method is best for you. As far as dust goes, storing the instrument in its case is best and not left out on an instrument stand. Pads will dry out in a dry climate if your in the habit of leaving it out of the case.

  5. Neal:

    I too no longer use the Shove-It type sax cleaner. I found that when I started using Key Holders that the moisture would just stay in the horn and the pads started to get dirty and funky, even changing color and getting this white crud on them.

    So for the last 15-20yrs I have been using a silk or cloth clarinet swab w/ a weight that is sewed into the pull string. I swab out the body of my tenor 4 times, same for the neck and mpc (metal Otto Link). Then I put the Key Holders on and that is it.

    It works.

    Larry W

    • Hey Larry,
      Thanks for telling me your perspective. Seems like some people are staunch supporters of them.

      I use the silk swabs too (2x through the body) and then I’ll leave the sax out to dry for a bit.


  6. I use a pull through swab and silk swab for Mpc. One tip I picked up from my teacher was to use nivea cream on the pads to help keep the leather in condition. just smear it on with a cotton bud and wipe the excess of with paper or micro clothe.

    • Thanks Bob. I heard about using a little Old English on the pads. But for anything like that, you have to be very careful. Just using a little and cleaning off the excess is important.

  7. Try keeping a couple dryer sheets in a resealable plastic bag. They come in handy for a quick fix to sticky key syndrome and will keep them from sticking for a few weeks.

  8. Emilo of Rayburn’s Music in Boston suggests coating the pads w/Old English Lemon oil. It works for about a month or so. Then you have to do it again. Also coffee filters seem to work for taking the sticky’s off pads.

    I find if you use key holders you always seem to get some pads that stick when you take the key holders off. The coffee filters cut to size seem to help better than a dollar bill.

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