Choosing and Dealing with a Sax Technician
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 canít always tell whatís 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 donít 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. Donít fall for the old "they all work the
same" routine. They donít. Look around and see whatís 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 whatís 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 donít deserve your business.
- What type of options is available?
Sax pads are available in many different varieties. Itís 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 technicianís 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 canít
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. Donít 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. Iíve 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. Donít be afraid to ask for references.
- Do I need to send my horn to a "famous" repair technician?
Most likely you donít, 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 canít get done at your local school band shop, but at a significant
- 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 wonít 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. Itís a good idea to clean all of the
clutter out of your case. The tech doesnít 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. Donít 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 donít 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 donít 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?
Thereís not an easy answer to that question. In all probability, you
are not the shopís only customer. Minor repairs can often be done while
you wait, but donít ever rush a technician if you want the best quality
work. If you have an emergency that requires the tech to work overtime
(Iíve 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 canít 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
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!