Saxophone Won't Play Low Notes? Here's How to Fix the Low Note Problem on Any Sax
Wondering why your tenor or alto sax won't play low notes—why everything below C doesn't work? Here's are how to check what the problem is and how to fix it.
In this lesson today, we are going to talk about some saxophone repair tips. Specifically, what happens and what to do when the low notes on your saxophone—like from low C down to B and B flat—are just not working or popping out.
Actually, this problem happens a lot.
I hear it happen a lot with my sax school students and if it's happened to you, then you are going to find this really useful because we are going to talk about what causes it and the best ways you can fix it.
It is really important as a saxophone player that you learn a little bit about the mechanics of your instrument so that you can fix these issues when they happen.
Let's dive right in.
Now if you are thinking that there's probably one or two things that are most commonly the source of the problem, you would be right. It a fairly common problem
Usually, it's a problem with what we call a regulation bar—it's above the F# and it covers the G. Any saxophone made past the 50s will have two regulation screws on. The bottom regulation screw is for the long B flat, one-on-one, and the top regulation screw is for the G sharp.
So, how can you check that the regulation bar is the problem?
You will need a friend to do this test.
To make sure that the regulation bar is the problem, play your saxophone down to C, and the past C, so you are engaging any table key on the left hand—so your saxophone doesn't voice properly. Then have your friend gently touch the G sharp pad cup itself so that it shifts as it should do while you play. See if there's any improvement.
If you hear any improvement when your friend touches it versus when they release it, then you know that's where the problem is.
If this is the problem, when your friend hasn't got their finger on that key, you might notice that your B will do the dreaded "warble". The "warble" or "motorboating" on low B and C on saxophones is well known by most players of the instrument.
The sound is like a quivering vibration to the tone, which is present across the range of the sax and is more audible in the higher octave.
It sounds like you are short of breath (when you're not) and feels like there is a slight resistance inside the sax.
Okay, so if you have identified that the regulation bar is the problem, how do you go about fixing it?
To fix this problem you need two screwdrivers and you need to do two things:
Firstly, you want to screw the screw in so that when the cork comes back to the thickness it should be it even further out.
Secondly, while you do this, you want to prevent squashing the cork underneath, because if you do that you throw the regulation out even more.
So, what you do is, instead of pressing the screw down into the pad cup, get another screwdriver underneath the regulation bar, in between the two screws on top of the G sharp pad cup, to prevent the bar from shooting down.
You don't just stick your screwdriver in and start turning.
You can then turn the screw clockwise half a turn.
If you are at home trying this, I suppose you will just experiment with the turn. I normally start with a half turn, but what you want to do really, is maybe move it just a little bit and try the low notes again.
If they are getting better then maybe another little turn will do. And it's always clockwise as you are looking down on the screw.
If they then come out clearly then leave it alone.
All we've done here is wind that screw in a little bit to make sure that sealing.
If you were adjusting that screw and you went it too far, everything below a G will not work. The screw has gone in too far and you need to back it off a little bit.
Remember to put the little screwdriver in between the two screws to hold the bar back as you back off the regulation screw.
This is a bit of a quick fix until you can get to a repairer and get it actually fixed. You want to quickly get your instrument back in play, at least to get the gig done.
Start by looking down at the keys to see the sort of movement on the pads between the left and right hand. The idea is to identify the movement of G sharp on the pads
The G sharp key lets the problem pad/cup for low notes go up and down. The F key is the one that pushes it down.
So if you press the F key down and push the G sharp, you should see the G sharp movement forward only slightly—it's probably easier to see this movement from the left of your saxophone. Just a little bit of movement there.
If you saw that movement, that could be one of two things:-
It could be the regulation bar screw that's come loose, or normally, it's the cork that's come away from the screw.
If the cork has come away from the screw, it will be somewhere on the floor and you can't find it.
So, what do you do in that situation?
Right, method #2 requires just a bit of insulation tape for a temporary fix until you finish your gig unless you carry a piece of cork, and some glue or double-sided self-adhesive tape around. I guess you could actually but here goes.
So if you have a situation where the cork falls off that particular key affecting the lower notes, you need to cut about four thin strips of tape (about a ¼-½ inch each).
Now if the cork has, for instance, disappeared from under the screw of G sharp, and that cork hits the top of the G sharp pad, all you want to do is take the gap away by putting one piece of insulation tape there.
Pretty much everyone has some insulation tape lying around, and you can throw some in your saxophone case.
..then try and play the instrument now.
This will tell you how well the tape closes down there.
In most cases, it will play but it still won't be properly closed and you can still see a bit of movement there will with the earlier test.
You will be able to tell this if the sound is still a bit off.
All you need to do know is keep adding the other—starting with another piece on top of the first piece so it's becoming thicker now.
This whole process is doing the same thing as adjusting the screw but from the opposite end.
In fact, when you take your saxophone for repair, some repairers will use Loctite on the screw to stop the screw from turning. So, if you are in a situation where you physically can't turn that screw, you could also use this fix, as well.
Keep adding the pieces until the low notes start playing properly again.
When I'm out gigging, I have a set number of things I carry with me, especially when I fly out of the country. In places like that you need to be able to fix things yourself with a proper saxophone repair kit.
But, in most cases, I find that about four pieces of tape will the trick.
So, I hope that's helpful to you if you've got a problem where your low notes aren't sealing.
While the above problems are the most common ones, the other problem that could cause the low notes not to seal properly is a misalignment of the actual bell.
Well, for a start, if you have a relatively new saxophone, it's pretty horrific to think that the bell and the body could be out of alignment but they aren't necessarily welded down.
The only thing that holds the bell in place is the bracket attaching it to the body (located just behind the top of the bell).
If you took that bracket away, you could move the bell very easily left and right.
So, if your saxophone gets a knock, it's usually the bracket that's strained and pushed one way or the other.
If it gets pushed towards the players right, then the base keys are very heavy at the back, and light at the front. If it gets pushed the other away, away from the keys, it's the opposite.
This happens much more easily than you think. Especially because some people have a habit of picking up their saxophone by the bell.
You might also have banged it on something, or it could have happened in the case as well (if the case gets bumped or something).
It's amazing how easy the bell gets knocked out of alignment.
If you frequent an instrument repair shop, you can guarantee that saxophones come in for service with quite a few of them off.
I would suggest that adjusting the bell of your saxophone isn't the sort of thing you do yourself.
Maybe you're better off taking it to a repairer.
It might, however, come in very handy to be able to identify that that's the issue. So you know that it time to take it for repair, at a minimum.
So, if you learn that your low notes are not working and you've tried the first two fixes and nothing working, how could you check to see if bell misalignment is the issue?
To do this check, you need to get some kind of light either in the bell, so you can see the light from the front, or shine the light from the front and look down the bell.
This test will show any sort of alignment quite easily.
Almost any handy source of light really, such as that of your mobile phone, will do here.
Just shine the light directly to the lower front of your saxophone and press the low note keys. If you can see the light flickering through from the outside of the bell as you close the pads, that's an alignment issue.
If, on the other hand, you shine the light straight down the bell, and then close those keys, you shouldn't be able to see some light filtering through there.
If you can, again, that's an alignment issue.
If you have this problem with your saxophone, now you know the problem is not with your playing.
And remember, it is really important as a saxophone player than you learn a little bit about the mechanics of your instrument so that you can fix these issues when they happen...
...as they will and do...
...so that you can get back to playing your saxophone with as little headache and disruption as possible.