How To Clean A Saxophone: A Beginner’s Guide

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Written by Laura Macmillan
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As with most wind instruments, the way that we produce a sound means that we are constantly blowing air and moisture through the saxophone’s body. Over time, this can lead to a buildup of dirt and bacteria, which can cause a myriad of problems to the instrument and, in rare cases, to the health of the player. Therefore, it is important to be proactive by taking good care of your saxophone, and to develop a positive routine of cleaning, maintenance and care.

In this article we’ll take a look at the steps you can take to keep your saxophone in the best possible shape for as long as possible. Occasional trips to the professional instrument repair person are inevitable, but if you can follow the advice we outline here you should be able to save yourself some money by keeping those visits to a minimum and making sure that your saxophone feels and sounds great for as long as possible.

What You’ll Need

While you might already have some of these items – either because they arrived in the case with your saxophone or because they are common household items – others you might need to purchase from a specialist music shop.

None of them should be particularly expensive.

The essentials for keeping your sax clean are:

  • Saxophone pull-through (also sometimes referred to as a swab): this is a piece of cloth attached to a long cord with a weight at the end, which you will use for the instrument’s body. Make sure you get the correct one, depending on whether you play alto or tenor
  • A smaller pull-through for the neck (or crook) and mouthpiece
  • A soft polishing cloth. You can buy microfibre cloths that are made specifically for lacquered instruments, but any soft piece of cloth should work. Avoid flannels or paper towels: the coarse threads on these items might damage the lacquer
  • A mouthpiece brush or an old toothbrush
  • Microfibre pad dryer cloth
  • Cotton buds
  • Optional bonus item: Key Leaves

You can also get saxophone cleaning kits that contain a lot of the above items.

YZNlife Saxophone Cleaning kit with Case for Alto Tenor Clarinet Flute and other Wind & Woodwind Struments Including Sax Cleaning...
  • 【Saxophone cleaning kit】:Includes a sax neck strap, a reed case, a thumb rest, a mouthpiece brush, 4 cleaning cloth and a mini screwdriver.
  • 【Saxophone Cleaning Swab】:made of soft fabric, better to absorb water and oil; One of the large-size pull-through cloth has ropes at both ends,...
  • 【Sax Necking Cleaning Swab】: Unlike circular saxophone cleaner pull through cloth, this one only has rope on one of its ends. For the smaller...

The other thing to mention is that this guide is specifically for the alto or tenor sax but the same principles apply to other types of saxophones too.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Now it’s time to cover the steps you’ll need to go through when cleaning your saxophone.

I’d recommend reading through all the steps first so you’re familiar with what’s expected before starting the process.

1. Using the Pull-Through on the Body

Saxophone Pull Through

Once you’ve finished playing, remove the neck and mouthpiece from your saxophone and put them to one side.

Take your pull-through (like the one below) and drop the weight on the end of the cord into the bell of the saxophone.

Hodge Silk Alto Saxophone Swab - Purple
  • 100 percent pure silk
  • Absorbent
  • No Lint

Gently flip the saxophone upside down, so the bell is pointing at the floor, and give it a small jiggle so that that weight goes round the curved part of the saxophone’s body.

Keep feeding the cord through the body until the weight comes out of the hole where the neck was screwed in place.

While using your other hand to securely hold the saxophone’s bell, keep gently pulling the weight and the cloth will follow, bringing out lots of moisture with it.

For best results, you might want to repeat this process once or twice more in leave the instrument as dry as possible.

2. Cleaning the Mouthpiece and Neck

Saxophone Neck Pull Through

Wipe any moisture off your reed after removing it from the mouthpiece, then take the mouthpiece of the neck and put it to one side.

Use your smaller pull-through to clean the neck.

It should have a shorter, stiffer cord than the larger pull-through, so you should be able to sort of poke it in one end of the neck, then gently pull it out of the other end, with the cloth part of the pull-through following.

You can then use the same pull-through to repeat this process with your mouthpiece.

To give the mouthpiece an extra clean, you can rinse it in water (though make sure the water is not more than lukewarm, as hot water may damage it).

Then give it a scrub with an old toothbrush or a specialized mouthpiece brush like the one below.

Saxophone, Clarinet, Woodwind Mouthpiece Cleaner, Brush, Polishing Cloth
  • Saxophone, Clarinet, Woodwind Mouthpiece Cleaner, Brush, Polishing Cloth
  • (1) 2oz bottle of mouthpiece sanitizing spray
  • (1) woodwind mouthpiece brush

3. Drying the Pads

If you have time, you might like to go round the saxophone, using a small microfiber pad drying cloth to remove any moisture from the pads (the brown discs that meet the tone holes when the keys are pressed).

MusicNomad Brass & Woodwind Premium Microfiber Polishing Cloth (MN730)
  • Untreated premium suede microfiber for brass and woodwind instruments
  • Ideal for cleaning and polishing
  • Safe on all surfaces

These cloths are also very useful in helping to solve any issues with sticky keys.

On that subject, Key Leaves are a simple new invention which keep the G sharp, C sharp and D sharp keys propped open while the saxophone is in its case.

Saxophone Key Leaves

This allows them to dry naturally, rather than retaining moisture and becoming sticky, which those particular keys are notorious for doing.

Key Leaves Saxophone Key Props, Silicone Sax Pad Saver for Alto, Tenor, Bari, and Bass Saxophone
  • PROTECT YOUR SAX KEYS: Prevent sticking pad malfunction with Key Leaves’ patented silicone key prop system. It opens your key pads to air dry,...
  • EASY TO USE: This saxophone pad saver is easy for anyone! It only takes seconds to slide the silicone leaf-shape under the Eb and C# key arms. It...
  • SAFE IN THE CASE: Dry your key pads even while your instrument is in its case. Whether you are a student traveling to a football game or a...

4. Removing Dirt

You may like to use a dry cotton bud to carefully and gently clean around the keys, rods and springs, as these are areas where dust, grime and oil can build up.

Be careful: some of the springs are sharp!

5. Giving the Instrument a Polish

Finally, use a cloth to gently wipe down the brass of your saxophone, removing any fingerprints or condensation.

If you don’t have a dedicated cleaning cloth, the cloth part of your pull-through, providing it is fairly clean and dry, should also be fine for this job.

Why You Need to Clean Your Saxophone

The saxophone is a delicate instrument.

It has a complex mechanism made up of lots of interrelated keys, rods and springs, and the smallest knock or leak can have a big impact on your ability to play.

If moisture remains inside the instrument then pads and other parts of the saxophone’s mechanism can decay, causing various issues including leaks.

It is recommended that you pay occasional visits to a professional repairer for a check up or a service, but by being proactive and keeping your saxophone clean, you can help to keep these as infrequent and inexpensive as possible.

We also sometimes hear horror stories of people becoming unwell through playing poorly-maintained wind instruments.

It’s unlikely that your saxophone will make you ill, but it’s not worth taking chances when it comes to your health.

For that’ reason, it’s worth having a thorough cleaning routine to ensure that your instrument doesn’t become home to dangerous build-ups of mould and bacteria.

How Often Should You Clean Your Saxophone?

It is recommended that you use your pull-through cloths on the body, neck and mouthpiece of the saxophone after every time you play.

This is prevent any moisture from remaining in the instrument and is the most important thing when it comes to saxophone mainentance.

How frequently you go through the other steps listed above is more open to interpretation and will depend on how often you play.

Perhaps you might like to polish the instrument, go over it with a cotton bud and give the mouthpiece a deeper clean once per week or so but it depends on how often you’re playing.

What to Avoid

Pad savers (as shown below) are long fluffy sticks, which fit down the bore of the saxophone when it is not in use.

H.W. Alto Sax Pad-Saver
  • Instantly whisks corrosive moisture from pads, tone holes, and bore extending life of the pads and saving money
  • Made of micro-fiber material that will not shed, shrink, or bleed
  • Can be stored inside or outside of instrument

The idea of them is that they absorb moisture and extend the life of your pads.

However, the issue is that they then keep this moisture inside of the instrument, so many players and repairers don’t recommend them.

Cheaper ones can also shed their fibres, leaving bits of fluff in the horn, which of course is not desirable.

Another thing to mention is that, as we’ve discussed, saxophones have a fairly complex set of mechanics, so don’t be tempted to take your instrument apart fully.

Anything along the lines of taking keys off or removing rods is best left to a professional repairer.

How to Maintain Your Saxophone

In addition to cleaning your saxophone regularly, there are a few other things you can do to keep it in top condition.

First of all, try to get into the habit of treating it extremely carefully.

The smallest knock, if certain keys or rods are impacted, can have catastrophic effects, so be sure to always bear that in mind while manoeuvring the instrument.

Saxophone stands can be really useful, but they can also easily be knocked over, so take care if using one.

If in doubt, put the saxophone back in its case.

It’s also important to have a good quality case for your sax.

Soft, gig bag-style cases can be appealingly light to carry, but will tend to offer less protection than a decent carbon fibre option.

An end plug – if your saxophone didn’t arrive with one – is also probably a good idea: it will help stop the octave key from getting bent out of shape while it’s in the case.

Saxophone End Plug


Saxophones are delicate instruments, and a single, seemingly insignificant thing going wrong can have a major impact on our ability to play them.

But by getting into positive habits with cleaning then – and especially by using pull-throughs to remove as much excess moisture as possible – we can maximize our playing experience, keep ourselves and the instrument healthy, and minimize expensive trips to the repairer.

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.