In this article, we’re going to cover the basics of cleaning your saxophone and focus on what you need to safely clean and maintain your instrument. You don’t need a lot of expensive gear and supplies to keep your sax in peak playing condition. You just need $15 and stuff you may already have around the house, along with about 20 minutes.
To clean your saxophone, what you can use depends on which part. For the reed, use hydrogen peroxide or mouthwash. For the saxophone mouthpiece, you can use vinegar or dish detergent, along with a mouthpiece brush or toothbrush. For the neck, you can use a pull-through swab but vinegar or detergent will work too. For the body and bell, you’ll use a pull-through swab for the interior. For the exterior, use a polishing cloth with a little furniture polish. For the finger pads, use pad paper.
There’s a lot of commercial products that you can use on your saxophone but you don’t need to buy those if you don’t want to. We’ll go over all the main options for both cleaners and accessories but here’s our quick and simple list for what to use for cleaning your sax:
- Pull-through swab
- Cleaning cloth
- Mouthpiece brush
- Furniture polish
- Vinegar or liquid dishwasher soap
- Cotton swabs
To save money, I’d recommend this saxophone cleaning kit on Amazon. Typically a good saxophone pull-through swab by itself will cost anywhere between $11 and $35. This kit includes pull-through swabs for both the neck and body, a mouthpiece brush, cleaning cloths, and a few extra goodies. Honestly, I’m surprised that they can sell it so cheap at $15!
So let’s go through each part of your saxophone and what you’ll use for cleaning each, starting at the top and working down. Let’s also cover what you should NOT use!
For cleaning your saxophone reed
Usually, you can get by with simply wiping your reed off after playing and letting it either air dry or putting it in its reed case. However, you should sanitize it every week since it could have micro food particles or bacteria on it from your saliva.
Use either hydrogen peroxide, mouthwash, or Sterisol with water in a half and half solution to soak your reed or reeds. Let them sit for about 15 minutes in the mixture to kill the germs and loosen any gunk.
Then, with a paper towel or cleaning cloth, wipe off the moisture in from the back to the front, in one motion. Make sure to not apply too much pressure to the front of the reed, where you put your mouth on, since it can chip or break easily.
You can pick up hydrogen peroxide or mouthwash at your local grocery store. Sterisol is a professional germicide that’s super popular with musicians. You can find it on our products page, or at your local musical instrument shop. I prefer mouthwash since it works just as well and tastes and smells much better.
For cleaning your mouthpiece
When it comes to cleaning saxophone mouthpieces, a vinegar or detergent solution both do a great job. Since the mouthpiece is made from either hard rubber or ebonite, it can handle the water.
In a bowl large enough for the mouthpiece, mix a solution of half water and either vinegar or liquid dish detergent. Vinegar will work better though since it will break down the limescale or calcium deposits better (it’s a light acid).
Make sure your reed and ligature has been removed from mouthpiece and then place it in the solution. Allow your mouthpiece to soak in this solution for 10 minutes.
You’ll next need to scrub off the grime inside your mouthpiece chamber. Keep in mind that this is usually the dirtiest part of your clarinet. As you play, minute food particles and sugars in your saliva coat the chamber walls. This can cause bacteria buildup, limescale to form, or mold to grow. All stuff we don’t really want.
The interior of your mouthpiece can get scratched pretty easily so we’ll need a tool that can lightly scrub but not damage. A mouthpiece brush is the perfect tool here but a bottle brush or baby toothbrush will also work.
You can pick up a bottle brush or toothbrush at your grocery store. For the mouthpiece, you can find it on our products page (recommended in a kit), or from your musical instrument shop.
After you scrub the interior, rinse it off fully in the sink with lukewarm water. Allow to air dry.
Some people will use a small pull-through swab to dry out the interior but depending on the swab, it may cause extra pressure as you pull it through. It’s a pretty narrow opening where the mouthpiece opens to the reed.
For cleaning the saxophone neck
The saxophone neck is usually made from brass so you can get it a little wet. But not too much since extended moisture will tarnish it.
In a bowl or container, mix a solution of 3/4 water and 1/4 vinegar or liquid dish detergent. Use a mouthpiece brush, bottle brush, or soft-bristled toothbrush to scrub any buildup or grime off, dipping the brush in the solution as needed.
They also make saxophone swab neck cleaners that are basically a flexible wire with a brush on the end. These are great but not needed.
After you have removed all crud, rinse thoroughly with lukewarm water from your sink. Then use your pull-through swab to remove all moisture from interior of the neck. Use a cloth to dry off the exterior.
Then use a polishing cloth with a little furniture polish to protect and give it a healthy shine!
If you soak your neck, make sure to remove the octave key beforehand since the water can damage the pad.
For cleaning the body and bell
The most important supply you should have in your inventory is a reliable pull-through cleaning swab. A saxophone swab is used for cleaning the inside of the instrument body and is made of a cloth with a string attached to it so you can pull it through. With the wider body in the main section, you’ll need a pull-through swab that’s made just for saxophones.
There’s 3 types of saxophone swabs:
- An all-cloth swab: generally made from man-made chamois, cotton, or silk
- A swab with brush: include a flexible brush that pushes the cloth up against the interior walls of the sax
- Pad-saver: a fluffy brush that you push into the body from the top and then into the bell – it doesn’t pull through
You can use any of these types of cleaning swabs on your saxophone. The pad-saver does the best job of removing moisture from your pads but you can also clean the pads with pad paper. The pad-saver generally costs a bit more too, usually around $25.
Generally the body and bell will be made out of brass. To remove discoloration, you can use a little water on a cleaning cloth to wipe them out. Afterwards, use a little furniture polish on polishing cloth to make the metal shine. Don’t spray furniture polish onto your instrument though to avoid getting it on your pads. Instead apply it onto your polishing cloth.
Should you use Brasso to clean your saxophone?
Since the sax is made from brass, you may be wondering if you can use Brasso on it. Brasso is designed to remove tarnish from a variety of different metals but with all the intricate contours and metalwork with a saxophone, it would be much more work than you signed up for.
Brasso leaves a white deposit and it can take hours to fully polish out, especially with all the nooks and crannies on the instrument. Brasso can also remove the lacquer from your horn so best to steer clear of this metal cleaner.
Use furniture polish, Pledge, or even carnuba wax for some extra shine instead.
For cleaning the keys, pads, and tone holes
To get rid of grime and buildup on and around your keys and tone holes, you can use a specialized duster brush or standard cotton swabs (Q-tips) that you can find at your grocery store. A toothbrush could work too but it’ll have a harder time getting into some areas.
With cotton swabs, you can dip them in vinegar to loosen up any gunk that’s a little more stuck on. The idea is to remove any spots and moisture.
For the pads, you’ll want to use pad paper to remove moisture and stickiness. Some people use a soft cloth – this can work too but you’ll need to take a little more care. Regular typing paper will work too, although it doesn’t handle the moisture from the pads as well.
To use, place the paper between the pad and the tone hole. Press the pad down firmly, release and pull out the paper. Do this repeatedly until all the moisture and stickiness is gone from the pad.
Just to wrap things up, here’s what you can use on your saxophone and where:
- Pull-through swab: smaller one for the neck, saxophone swab for the body
- Cleaning cloth: for the exterior of the instrument to clean and wipe
- Mouthpiece brush: for the mouthpiece interior
- Furniture polish: for the brass exterior
- Vinegar or liquid dishwasher soap: for the mouthpiece and neck
- Mouthwash: for the reeds and mouthpiece
- Cotton swabs: for the tone holes, keys, and metalwork
Where to Buy
Many of these cleaning items can be found at your local grocery store.
For the more specialized products, we recommend saving some money by purchasing a saxophone cleaning kit, either from a musical instrument store or online – more info on our saxophone products page.
We’ve researched a lot of different products so we can cut through the crap. Just like the cleaning kit, we look for the best quality and value so you can be confident with our recommended cleaning products.
As always, if this article was useful to you, please share with others. Happy playing!