The absolute best money that you can spend on maintaining your saxophone is to get a case that properly (1) fits your horn and (2) fits your needs and usage pattern. In my thirty years in the repair business, I have seen more serious damage caused by case issues than from any other source. A proper case costs no more than a good mouthpiece, and will pay for itself many times over in repair cost savings. As the airlines become more and more restrictive on carry on luggage, the choice of a proper case becomes even more critical for the touring musician.
The first step in choosing the best case for your needs is to assess what the case must do for you. Obviously, it must hold the horn as you go from point A to point B, but now is a good time to take a look at your needs, and what circumstances pose a threat to your horn’s well being. What accessories do you always take with you? I always carry a saxophone stand; my wireless microphone; a couple of mouthpieces; a box or two of reeds; an extra neck; assorted ligatures; my “gig” repair kit; and maybe some charts. Before too long, you’re talking about a lot of necessary stuff! How will the horn be traveling? In a truck or tour bus, the trunk of a car, in the luggage compartment of an airliner, or some other way? Will it always be handled by persons who are familiar with the inherent fragility of a saxophone? Is there a possibility that other instruments or equipment may be stacked atop your horn? Will it be exposed to extreme heat or cold? Now might be a good time to take out your gig book for the last year and take a look at how and where your horn traveled in the recent past. The results may frighten you!
Now that you have established your usage pattern, you must decide how many of your necessary accessories must travel in the case with your instrument and what can be carried separately. I carry most of my accessories in a separate case, which also has room for other stuff that may prove necessary for that particular gig. This greatly simplifies my case decision.
As in most of human existence, it’s always best to assume a “worst case” (no pun intended!) scenario: I always plan on my instrument being handled by abusive airline luggage handlers and that the drum tech will be bringing my horn into the dressing room after three sleepless nights in a row! What case design features will leave my horn vulnerable?
First and foremost, a case should fit your horn tightly! When the body of your saxophone is inserted into the case, it must not move in any direction. If this is a problem with your present case, fill any spaces with bubble wrap or soft foam. Any movement of the instrument will ultimately lead to adjustment issues or worse. Don’t forget to check for movement up and down after the lid of the case is closed. If your case is old, the padded lining may have compressed over time, and the instrument no longer fits as intended. Take the case to a good luggage shop and have the padding replaced.
Remove your instrument from the case, secure all of the latches, and see if the case flexes. Apply pressure diagonally, vertically, and horizontally, and see if it allows movement. If it does, you are asking for a bent body tube! This is the number one cause of “traveling disasters” that we see in our repair shop. The case must remain perfectly rigid at all times if you want your instrument to be fully protected. Any flexibility whatsoever is asking for trouble.
I think that it goes without saying that all of the latches and hardware should be in working order. If your case will not stay closed, sooner or later your horn is going to fall out and you are going to have a very expensive visit to the repair shop. Replacement hardware is readily available, and any luggage shop should be able to make necessary repairs for you. A couple of good sources of musical instrument case replacement hardware are Allied Supply and Ferree Tool.
Take a look at how you pack the accessories you carry inside your case and check for movement. I don’t know how many dented necks I’ve had to repair as a result of them being left loose in a case accessory box with metal mouthpieces! Be sure to properly protect your neck with a padded bag, and fill the accessory box with bubble wrap or foam so that nothing rattles around. It’s not a bad idea to check the latch on the accessory box to be certain that it can’t come open accidentally and allow a metal mouthpiece or other carried item to get loose and damage the keywork of the saxophone carried in the main compartment. I see this tragedy on a regular basis.
If you have decided that it is time for a new case, carefully examine the construction of all the candidates. I would strongly urge that the plastic cases be avoided! Look at the cases of your fellow saxophonists and you will see that plastic cases just don’t hold up: they flex; the “feet” get knocked in; they warp from heat. Fiberglass cases, although more expensive, are a much better buy in the long run. Take a good look at the padding, and reject any cases that lack a firm but flexible liner. Be wary of any case which uses ordinary styrofoam as padding! Be certain that the instrument is properly padded at the ends. I’ve observed that most cases land on the end when they take a tumble, and that the protection offered at that point is often woefully inadequate. The hardware should be heavy duty, and should not rely upon springs alone to ensure closure.
Now for a word about gig bags: I’m in the repair business and I love them! The use of gig bags pretty much makes my mortgage payment for me every month. Even the very best of them offers minimal protection. Why anyone would carry an expensive instrument around in a gig bag is absolutely beyond me!
What’s the best case? There’s no question about the fact that an ATA- style case constructed of heavy plywood and metal reinforced with thick foam padding and heavy duty hardware is a must for anyone who travels even short distances with their horn. Of course, such a case is heavy, big, and somewhat expensive, but if you are serious about protecting your instrument, you really have no other choice. I am currently working with a major case manufacturer to design the “ultimate” saxophone case for traveling musicians. Remember, a good case is a lot cheaper than a visit to the repair shop!