Choosing and Dealing with a Sax Technician

Steve Goodson

After finding the horn of your dreams, the right mouthpiece, a great teacher, and a plentiful supply of absolutely perfect reeds, the next decision you will be confronted with is finding the right technician to repair and maintain your instrument. Like trying to spot the best playing reed in a box, you can’t always tell what’s best for you by eyesight alone. Here are a few pointers in choosing the right tech, and for making the most of the relationship once you have established it.

What type instrument do you have?

It would seem obvious to me, but if you have a Conn 28M, you most likely don’t want to have it repaired by a shop that specializes in student model horns! There is a tremendous variation in saxophone mechanisms and characteristics, and a technician who is unfamiliar with your particular make and model instrument is extremely unlikely to do a first class job on your repairs. Don’t fall for the old “they all work the same” routine. They don’t. Look around and see what’s on the bench when you visit, and you should get a pretty good idea as to what sort of clientele frequents the shop.

Does the shop stock what’s needed to properly make your repairs?

Again, this should be obvious. If you need Snap In pads for your Buescher, ask to see them. If you have a Buffet with piano wire springs, do they keep them on hand? How about Reso Pads for your Conn? Do they have the firm key felt for your Selmer? If you want to keep your horn original, be certain that only the correct supplies are used in your repairs. I have seen many a vintage instrument ruined by technicians who simply did not care enough to maintain the integrity of an instrument. If you are looking for a performance upgrade, does the shop offer you choices of items such as resonators and springs? A good shop will stock every known type of resonator, and MUST buy their pads with no resonator installed so that the correct size can be fitted to each individual key. It is essential that the resonators match if you want to have a prayer of all of the notes on your horn speaking with an equal voice. Different brands use different types of needle and flat springs. The correct match must be used on your horn if you want to maintain a consistent feel on all the keywork. Be absolutely certain that the correct thickness pads are used on your horn. Most good shops stock at least three different pad thickness.

Ask specific questions about the repair techniques to be used. It is far better to ask before the repairs are done than to have an incompetent technician ruin your horn or expose you to the need for future repairs because they cut corners on your job. If springs are to be installed, ask if they are heated before the ends are flared. This causes the spring to lose its temper at that point and can lead to premature breakage. If dent work is to be done, will the metal be heated to soften it first (and destroy the finish!)? If so, you can say goodbye to the resonance of the horn at that point. If lacquer is being stripped, will it be done chemically or will it be (please, no!) buffed off? What type of adhesive will be used to install pads? If the shop is lazy enough to use hot glue rather than shellac, they don’t deserve your business.


What type of options is available?

Sax pads are available in many different varieties. It’s your instrument, have it done the way YOU want it! You can get pads in sheepskin, goatskin, kangaroo, and synthetics. Each of these varieties has its own character. Bumper material can be cork, felt, leather; or various man made products. Each has a distinct feel. There are many different types of resonators, and you should choose the one that suits YOUR playing style. Once again, be wary of a shop that does not offer options.

What are the technician’s personal qualifications?

This is the area that gives me the most heartburn! Unless you are Michael Brecker, the person that works on your instrument (in an ideal world) should have musical skills equal to your own. If your tech can’t play, it is IMPOSSIBLE for them to determine if your horn is really and truly “right”. Leak lights and key height tools are just a beginning. The only meaningful test is how the horn plays. There can be no compromises in this area. Don’t expect a really great trumpet player to be able to bring your horn up to its best level. Be extremely wary of a technician who is new to the business. I’ve been doing repair for over thirty years, and I see something new and different nearly every day! A well meaning but inexperienced tech is just as dangerous to your horn as an inexperienced surgeon is to your body! Most (but not all) good technicians in the United States are members of NAPBIRT (National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians), and there are other organizations in other countries. These professional associations provide continuing education, and have membership qualifications which exclude the really dangerous horn smashers. Don’t be afraid to ask for references.

Do I need to send my horn to a “famous” repair technician?

Most likely you don’t, unless there is not a good technician near your home. Most of the famous technicians are prima donnas (including your humble author!) and quite expensive. HOWEVER, if you want the very best possible job, there IS a reason that the best players in the world patronize a very small group of techs. There is a difference, but expect to pay for it. You will get highly personalized service and things that you can’t get done at your local school band shop, but at a significant cost.


What do I need to bring with me when I take my horn to the shop?
Bring your usual setup. The technician may want to hear you play, and certainly needs to know the type of mouthpiece you use. You won’t have to leave your mouthpiece, but the tech definitely needs to know if you are using a Dukoff Super Power Chamber on a Buescher True Tone and are experiencing intonation problems. It’s a good idea to clean all of the clutter out of your case. The tech doesn’t want to have to remove six months accumulation of broken reeds in order to find your neck.


What do I tell the technician?
Just like a visit to your physician, tell the tech EVERYTHING that is going on with your horn. Be as specific as possible. Don’t forget problems that seem to come up only once in a while. Be truthful: if you dropped the horn, the tech is not going to sit in judgment of you, but does need to know exactly what happened.


Can I expect to get a “loaner” horn while mine is in the shop?
Most likely not. If you are a professional player and don’t have a backup horn, you are living in a fantasy world. Saxophones need repair from time to time, and expect to have to put your horn in the shop. Most repair shops don’t keep horns to loan out to clients, and I know that my personal insurance does not cover rentals or loaners.


How long will the shop keep my horn?
There’s not an easy answer to that question. In all probability, you are not the shop’s only customer. Minor repairs can often be done while you wait, but don’t ever rush a technician if you want the best quality work. If you have an emergency that requires the tech to work overtime (I’ve had to pull some all nighters over the years) be prepared to pay what you would have to pay your plumber to work around the clock! Hopefully, the tech will be able to give a reasonably accurate estimate of the time needed for your repairs.


What if I can’t afford the repairs?
I cannot image doing a significant repair for a client and not giving a written, binding estimate. There should be no surprises when it comes to the final bill. Insist on a written estimate to avoid any misunderstandings. When the horn is ready, pick it up and pay your bill in full. I charge clients $5 per day storage for every day they leave the horn with me after the repair is done, and sell the horn if it is left over thirty days with an unpaid bill. I have them sign a waiver giving me the right to do this, which is a part of the work order. Your repair shop is not in the financing business. After the work you ordered is done, pay them.

Over time, you should have established a good working relationship with your repair tech. They should understand your playing style and needs. Be polite and respectful when dealing with your tech: the day is coming when you will need them!

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