There’s a lot of different ways to clean a saxophone mouthpiece but we’re going to cover the quickest approach here that still gets rid of the germs. Even better, we’ll do it in 11 easy to follow steps that also covers cleaning the saxophone neck, reed, and ligature; and sanitizing so bacteria and mold won’t grow inside your favorite instrument.
11 steps to clean and sanitize a saxophone mouthpiece:
- Take Apart Your Saxophone.
- Soak your reed in vinegar or mouthwash.
- Saturate inside of mouthpiece and neck with vinegar.
- Clean & dry ligature with soapy water.
- Scrub inside mouthpiece and neck.
- Wash mouthpiece with warm soapy water.
- Soak mouthpiece in mouthwash or Sterisol.
- Wash neck with warm soapy water.
- Rinse neck and air dry.
- Rinse mouthpiece and air dry.
- Rinse reed in warm water and air dry.
These steps should be followed in order for timing – while you’re soaking your mouthpiece and reed, you can move onto other things to make the most of your time. We’ll cover a few options as well and steer you clear of things that may hurt your saxophone.
You should clean your mouthpiece, neck, and reed every month. Or, if you play daily, every week. Proper cleaning will remove the limescale buildup (calcium carbonate), bacteria growth, and mold growth. Keeping these clean will keep your saxophone in peak playing condition, safe, and not smelling bad; since bacteria and mold growth can cause bad odors.
So let’s first gather everything we’ll need to clean and sanitize your saxophone mouthpiece. Then we’ll go through each step.
What you’ll need:
- Vinegar: Cleaning vinegar is preferred but white or distilled white vinegar will be great too.
- Mouthwash: Or Sterisol. We recommend antibacterial mouthwash since it’s easier to find but Sterisol is the official germicide for sterilizing musical instruments.
- Dish soap: Standard dish detergent that you should have in your kitchen.
- Mouthpiece brush: Or a bottle brush, or soft-bristle toothbrush. We recommend a mouthpiece brush since it’s the perfect size for your mouthpiece and the bristles won’t harm the ebonite of your mouthpiece, but the other options work too.
- Small pull-through swab: For saxophones, the cleaning swabs come in 2 sizes: the smaller one for the neck and the larger one for the body & bell.
- 2 cleaning cloths: You’ll want one for cleaning and the other for wiping and polishing.
- Paper towels: Or regular towel. This is to set your sax parts on to dry.
You’ll also need a sink or wash basin, water, and a couple of bowls.
If you don’t have all these items, you can find the more common items at your local grocery store. For the mouthpiece brush, swab, and cleaning swabs, you can find links on our Saxophone Supplies page or at your local musical instrument store.
Step 1: Take Apart Your Saxophone
Let’s start by loosening the screws in your ligature. After it’s loose, remove the ligature from your mouthpiece along with your reed.
Next, gently twist and pull the mouthpiece from the neck. If your mouthpiece is a little stuck, apply a little pressure. After you remove it, make sure to put some cork grease to lubricate and protect your joint cork. That way the mouthpiece back on will be easier to do.
Then, loosen your neck tenon screw. This is the screw at the top of the saxophone body that holds the neck into place. After loosened, you can remove the neck.
Now we have all 4 parts removed and ready to be cleaned and sanitized.
Step 2: Soak your reed in vinegar or mouthwash
Your mouthpiece and reed are arguably the most disgusting parts of your saxophone. Saliva, tiny particles of food, and sugars coat these parts as you play, more so if you eat or drink something right before.
The saxophone reed, since it’s made of wood, will soak up that saliva and can get some nasty odors. To disinfect and get rid of bacteria and possibly mold, we’ll need to soak it for a while.
In a small bowl or other small container, put in a mixture of half water and half vinegar or mouthwash. Place your reed or reeds in the solution and allow to sit for a while. Set is aside as we move onto the other steps. Feel free to clean other reeds at the same time.
Step 3: Saturate inside of mouthpiece and neck with vinegar
Your mouthpiece will get limescale buildup. Limescale, or calcium carbonate, is that white scaly substance that coats the mouthpiece chamber, usually a bit more in the corners. You can scrape it off but you want to be careful since scratches inside your mouthpiece can provide more surfaces for bacteria to live and can even affect the sound of your saxophone.
The acidity in vinegar can react with the ebonite of your mouthpiece so we don’t want to soak the whole mouthpiece in vinegar. Instead, soak a cleaning cloth with it and then apply on any areas that have limescale buildup. We want to saturate the area so it’ll start to break down. Apply as much as needed. Wipe off any access vinegar on the outside of the mouthpiece.
Set the mouthpiece aside and let the vinegar work its magic for a little while.
Next, you’ll do the same thing you just did with the mouthpiece. With the same cleaning cloth you’ve soaked in vinegar, apply to any areas within the neck that you see limescale or other types of buildup. You are looking to saturate those trouble areas to start breaking them down. Wipe off any access vinegar that may have gotten on the exterior.
Set the neck aside for a bit so the vinegar can do its thing.
Step 4: Clean & dry ligature with soapy water
The mouthpiece ligature generally doesn’t get too dirty but it use a quick clean.
Fill a small bowl with hot water and add a few squirts of dish soap. With your mouthpiece brush (a bottle brush or toothbrush works too), do a quick scrub on your ligature, making sure to get the screws clean.
Rinse fully and allow to air dry on a paper towel or towel.
Step 6: Scrub inside mouthpiece and neck
By this point, you’ve allowed the vinegar to saturate for a few minutes. That should loosen things up.
Using your mouthpiece brush, scrub the inside chamber of your mouthpiece to remove limescale and buildup. A bottle brush or soft-bristled toothbrush will work here too.
Depending on how bad the buildup is, you may need to dip your mouthpiece brush in vinegar and do more scrubbing. Continue until all the buildup is gone.
Now you’ll do the same with the interior of your saxophone neck. Scrub until you don’t see any more buildup. As you scrub, make sure to not apply too much pressure as the neck tubing can get bent.
Step 7: Wash mouthpiece with warm soapy water
Do you still have that bowl of soapy water? By this point, it should have cooled down a bit. Place your mouthpiece into the bowl and apply a light scrubbing to the entire mouthpiece. Scrub any buildup that may be on the exterior and double-check the interior to make sure you got everything. When you’re satisfied that it’s clean, take the mouthpiece out and put it to the side.
Hold onto the bowl of soapy water.
Step 8: Soak mouthpiece in mouthwash or Sterisol
In a new bowl, fill it with a mixture of half mouthwash and half water. You can use Sterisol instead of the mouthwash too.
Soak your whole saxophone mouthpiece in the mixture and set aside for a while.
A lot of germs can build up within the mouthpiece as you’re playing your instrument. If the vinegar and soapy water didn’t take care of them already, soaking in this solution will kill these bacteria.
Step 9: Wash neck with warm soapy water
Use the same bowl of soapy water from cleaning your mouthpiece. The neck probably won’t fit in the bowl but using your mouthpiece brush, give the neck a light scrub all over. Make sure the interior and exterior are clean and all buildup has been removed.
We’re done with the soapy water now.
Step 10: Rinse neck and air dry
If you’d like, you can pour mouthwash or Sterisol into the neck for extra sanitation.
Next, rinse off your saxophone neck with warm tap water, making sure to remove all soapy water.
Use your pull-through swab to remove all moisture from the interior. Slightly twist as you pull the cleaning swab through to get everything.
Wipe down the exterior to remove excess water. Now you can set the neck on a paper towel to air dry the rest of the way.
Step 11: Rinse mouthpiece and air dry
Your mouthpiece should be fully sanitized now from soaking in the mouthwash. Rinse it off with warm water under the faucet.
Shake off any excess water and allow to air dry on a paper towel.
Step 12: Rinse reed in warm water and air dry
Let’s get back to your reed since it’s been sitting a bit now! Rinse it off fully in warm tap water. Dab each side with a paper towel to remove most of the moisture. Then allow to air dry in your reed holder. The reed holder will protect the reed as it dries completely.
After your mouthpiece and neck dry completely, you can put them back in your saxophone case.
As you’re waiting for them to dry, you can take that opportunity to dump out your bowls and clean your washing area. Do you have any cleaning cloths to put in the wash?
Your saxophone mouthpiece, neck and reed are all clean and sanitized now. You can look forward to the next time you play since you’ll have a fresh, clean experience.
Do you need any saxophone cleaning supplies? If so, head over to our Saxophone Cleaning Supplies page to purchase online.
And as always, happy playing!