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Saxophone Maintenance and Repair Tips

Jazz saxophonist Derek Nash provides instrument repair advice and reveals the unlikely objects he never goes on tour without – from wine corks to humble rubber bands.

Last updated: 08 October 2020

Derek Nash is one of the UK’s leading jazz saxophonists and a mainstay of Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. He fronts the saxophone ensemble Sax Appeal and the jazz/fusion band Protect the Beat, and he is also part of Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion.

The saxophone looks and, in the hands of an expert like Derek, sounds beautiful, but it’s a complex beast. Anyone seduced by its bewildering fusion of keys, springs, felt, cork and reed must be a mechanic and a musician.

Derek, who plays soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, has a regular repairer, Martin Todd, who takes care of things when Derek isn’t on the road. On Martin’s advice, he doubles up on instruments, so one can be repaired or overhauled while the other is out on tour. That way he always has a sax ready for action on his return.

Instrument repairs on the road

When something goes wrong far from home, it’s often a case of Keep Calm and Carry On… and reach for a rubber band. It’s a key part of the sax first aid kit. “They are the most important piece of my armoury,” explains Derek. “The things most likely to break on a saxophone are the springs. Pretty much any key can be made workable with a rubber band. It may not look very nice, but 90% of the time it will get you out of trouble. A good stock is imperative for a saxophone player.

“Second most important is a set of jewellers’ screwdrivers,” explains Derek. “Ordinary screwdrivers are too big.”

Sax ingenuity and instinct

Little bits of cork to repair malfunctioning keys are also vital: Derek once saved the day with a sharp knife, a wine cork and some impact adhesive.

“The sax is an astonishing piece of engineering,” he says. “There’s so much that can go wrong on it, but you get a kind of instinct and you know the second when something isn’t right. Luckily there is usually a ‘get out of jail free’ card in the repair kit.”

Sadly, there are some things a humble musician cannot fix, such as the tenor sax Derek dented after he dropped it at the Rye Jazz & Blues Festival. “It doesn’t take much to make a saxophone unplayable,” he admits.

Favourite music gear

Even though modern instruments tend to be more reliable, Derek favours those of a certain vintage. Modern saxes, he says, are like modern cars.

“Everything works perfectly all the time but it doesn’t have the character of driving an

old Bentley or a Rolls Royce. I have played some fantastic new saxophones that sound really good but, personally, I prefer the feel and layout of the old Selmer instruments. Sometimes, when I play a modern saxophone, it can feel like I am playing a typewriter. Whichever model you choose, though, a basic repair kit can really save your bacon. Happy gigging!”