I've had quite a few triumphs this week.
If there's one aspect of my job I particularly enjoy, it's the diagnostic
stage - the part where the horn is taken out of the case and placed
on the workbench, and given a jolly good 'scrute' by yours truly.
It's an important part of the repair process. From the client's
point of view their interest lies in your ability to spot existing
and potential problems, and from the repairer's point of view there's
a need to provide a good quality of service and to accurately assess
the cost of the repairs.
For the most part it's a pretty run-of-the-mill process, but every
now and then a real doozy turns up and you find yourself dealing
with an apparently inexplicable problem. Or an aardvark,
as I call them.
I started the week off with a stuffy alto (gunge in the body octave
pip tube), followed by an intermittent but terminal problem on a
flute (missing trill key point screw) and then a tenor with warbling
on the low A/G (pinhole leak in crook socket joint). There there
was a brief diversion to deal with the problem of a sax player whose
mouthpiece only played in tune when it was no more than a centimetre
on the cork (a Delrin extension shank to fit over the mouthpiece's
own shank) and finally a real humdinger in the shape of a clarinet
that simply wouldn't play a low C.
D was fine, if a bit muted - and no problem with B and below. Having
checked both joints for leaks, and found none, I figured there might
be some obstruction in the bore...but it was as clean as the proverbial
Working on the basis that, on an open key, the note you want comes
out of the next open hole below the one you just pressed, I took
the ring key off the lower joint...and found that when the manufacturer
had milled the tonehole out, the toolbit hadn't gone all the way
through and had left a paper-thin disc of plastic at the bottom
of the hole. A quick prod with a stick and voilà! - normal
service was resumed.
So by the time a Yamaha 275 alto landed on the
bench, I was feeling rather pleased with myself. Smug, even. And
what better way to round off such a week with a simple general service
on a good quality horn. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, not a lot actually - at least not in terms of the job itself.
Just the usual stuff - a few dodgy pads, some iffy corks and felts,
a spot of wear and tear here and there...and a slightly offline
bell. All grist to the mill, and very much what we repairers call
a 'bread and butter' job.
By the time I'd finished I already knew what to expect when it came
to the playtest; a clean, punchy presentation with an eager response
and a lively action. Bog-standard Yamaha stuff.
And that's exactly what I got...as well as a buzzing noise around
the low F. Absolutely fine above it, no problems below it...but
as soon as I hit low F, it buzzed.
There's an old showbiz maxim that says "Unexpected
laugh? Check flies!" - and the sax repairer's version of that
axiom is "Unexpected buzz? Check lyre screw!".
In case you don't know what the lyre screw is (and why should you?),
there's usually a small socket fitted to the horn that allows the
player to fit what's essentially a small clipboard to it so that
you can read music and play while walking down the road. I know,
I know, it sounds very quaint and rather bizarre - but I guess you
could always bring it up to date by clipping your smartphone to
the lyre on very dull gigs, and use it to catch up on a few YouTube
Anyway, this little socket often has a small screw fitted which
secures the lyre in place, and over time it tends to work itself
loose. Once loose it's free to vibrate, and this can lead to an
And if that's not the culprit then the next most likely candidate
is one or other of the ligature screws. This isn't so much of a
problem if your ligature has only the one screw - because if it
ever gets that loose, your reed will have dropped out long before
the screw has started a-buzzing. But if you're somewhat old-fashioned,
or a cheapskate...or just completely unconvinced by the claims made
for fancy ligatures that cost more than the average gig pays, you
may well be using a traditional metal lig with two screws.
So I checked the lyre screw, and the ligature screws, but all were
done up nice and snug.
Guard screws are the next best bet. These don't
often work their way loose, but when they do they often have a tendency
to get juuuust so loose...and then just hang on in there, rather
than dropping off the horn. This is usually because they don't get
moved that often and various bits of gunge and grime collects around
the threads, which acts like a crude form of threadlock.
But no, the screws were up tight - and had there been any bumper
felt adjusters on this horn, I'd have checked those too.
From this point on it gets rather more technical, and less likely
to be the cause of the problem. The Yamaha has a glued bottom bow
joint, so there are no clamp screws to check - but there is a bell
stay screw (just the one), but this too was tight.
With all the 'exterior' fittings checked, the probability of the
buzzing being an issue with the action became increasingly more
likely. Perhaps a loose pivot screw (unlikely, since I'd just serviced
the horn) or a lack of lubrication (again, unlikely), or a missing
or shrunken tube on one of the lever keys. What about the key guides?
There are few of these on most horns - small 'cups' or channels
that offer support or protection to particularly vulnerable keys.
The crook key guide is a prime suspect, as is the double height
guide (sometimes fitted with a cap) that sits halfway up the side
In situations like this the disadvantage of working
alone becomes all too apparent, because what you really need is
an extra pair of hands. You want one person playing the horn, and
another to poke, prod, wiggle and grip various parts of the action
in the hope of tracking down the one part that's causing the buzz.
Without the aid of an assistant the lone repairer has to resort
to holding keys down with cork wedges...but this doesn't always
work. Or rather it works too well; unless you duplicate the precise
location and closing force of a finger on a key, you sometimes find
that the wedges cure the buzzing. It's not all bad news, because
it at least helps to narrow the search area down.
So there I was, surrounded by bits of cork and using fingering positions
you'll not see in any tutor book - and I still couldn't figure out
what was wrong.
Completely flummoxed by the buzzing, I moved away
from the bench and sat on my chair. I turned the lights off and
set to examining every nook and cranny of the instrument's bore
with a leak light.
I wasn't so much expecting to find a leak, as leaks, on the whole,
tend not to buzz - but there was a chance that perhaps a reflector
was loose, or maybe something had got stuck to a pad (such as a
piece of cork). There's also an outside chance that the buzzing
was down to the skin on one of the pads being a bit flabby...but
this tends to be more likely on instruments that use skin (bladder)
pads, such as flutes and clarinets - and in any event, the kind
of buzzing this problem produces sounds rather different to the
buzz I was looking for. It was more of a metal-on-metal noise.
But couldn't find a thing. So I set to examining the springs. It's
sometimes the case that a spring can buzz - either because it's
not tightly wedged in the pillar or not fully seated in the key's
cradle...but again, nothing. So I blew the horn again. And it was
fine. Absolutely perfect.
Well, these things happen. Perhaps there was a
piece of cork floating about inside the horn after all, or a wayward
spring - but in the journey from the workbench to the chair, it
had sorted itself out. It's annoying though, because I like to see
the problem and fix it...and thus know that it's fixed. If it just
goes away on its own there's a chance that it might come back of
its own accord too.
Back to the workbench then, and one final playtest.
And I'll be damned...the bloody buzzing is back again.
This was driving me nuts. I'd been through all the usual suspects,
I'd covered all the oddities and I'd been over the horn with the
kind of fine tooth comb you'd use if you wanted to comb your fine
tooth comb. But I got nothing.
And then I spotted it.
I'd bought some fancy soap a little while back, which came in a
rather posh tin - and being a typical workshop kinda guy, I nabbed
the tin as soon as it became vacant. Not that I had any specific
purpose for it, but a tin is a tin...and this one even had a hinged
lid. I should mention at this point that the betinned soap wasn't
bought for workshop use - it'd be wasted here, what with the kind
of grime that gets onto my hands during the course of servicing
a greasy, gob-smattered horn...and so I tend to prefer something
with a bit more gumption. A mix of sand, industrial-strength floor
cleaner, petrol and battery acid seems to work best - but failing
that a squirt of washing-up liquid will do.
So I had this posh tin, and had plonked it on the bench while I
considered what to put in it - and thereafter hadn't given it much
This in itself should hint at the status such
tins have. As a general rule nothing gets put on the workbench that
doesn't have a function; there are plenty of shelves, cupboards
and even spare floorspace for such storage - but a tin has its own
set of rules.
You can't simply acquire a tin, bung a load of stuff in it, shut
the lid and leave it at that. Oh no, you must take the dimensions
of the tin into account so that you can maximise your tinnage. Cram
too much stuff in it and you'll find yourself overtinned. Small
nuts, bolts and screws are a common source of overtinnage. The whole
point of a tin is that you should be able to open it and find exactly
what you want within a few seconds. A bit of poking about is acceptable,
but if you've overfilled the tin you'll just be moving the stuff
you've searched though onto the stuff you haven't...and the only
way around it is to tip the whole bloody lot out, sift through it
for the bits you want, then stuff the whole lot back into the tin.
This is the hallmark of the amateur tinner.
Undertinnage is just as much a crime, if rather
less useless. Having only half a dozen items in a tin that can comfortable
accommodate three of four times as much is just plain extravagant.
No, the correct use of a tin is to find things to put in it that
maximise its potential. A shallow tin is good for small screws or
a quantity of gloop - such as the Altoids mints tin I use to hold
my swedging grease in. I don't need great deal of it, and I don't
want my swedging pliers bashing into the walls of the tin every
time I want to grease up the jaws.
The soap tin, however is quite deep - so it's perhaps better suited
to housing a small number of things that are relatively large, or
tall. I could fill it full of shellac flakes, but then I don't want
to have to faff around with a lid when I need a pinch of shellac
(and besides, I already have an old Duraglit tin for that particular
job). I could put some essential oil bottles in it, but then I already
have a little wooden box for that job - which works better than
a metal one on the grounds that any spillage will be absorbed by
the wood. It makes for cleaner bottles...with the added bonus that
the box smells amazing when you open the lid.
So you can appreciate my dilemma - which is why
I'd placed the tin on my bench...just in front of my 'holding tray'.
This is a small aluminium dish where I keep various fixtures and
fittings that relate to the job in hand on the bench, such as key
guards and screws, adjusters, rollers etc. It not only prevents
small items from dropping off the bench onto the floor, it also
provides a quick visual reference at the end of the job as to whether
I've forgotten to put anything back on. And this is a particularly
useful feature for me because I have a certain 'superstition' about
trouser guards (the long plate that sits adjacent to the lower key
stack), which is that if this guard is fitted to the horn before
the playtesting is complete, it's practically a certainty that I'll
have to take it off again in order to tweak something. So the trouser
guard is only fitted once I've 'signed off' the job, and just so
I don't forget to fit it (it's happened, I'll admit), I've got into
the habit of using this useful little tray.
With the tin in front of the holding tray and having only removed
the trouser guard, I did what any sensible chap would would have
done and popped the guard along with its screws on top of the tin...and
the tin was acting like a microphone, picking up the sound of the
sax and vibrating in sympathy. As it resonated, it shook the two
little guard screws...with just enough vigour to produce a faint
I suppose I was quite pleased to find that I was
on the right track with my reckoning that the noise was coming from
a metal-on-metal source, and that I'd found the culprit - but I
was less pleased to find that I'd been looking in completely the
wrong place. I also wasn't especially pleased to note that it had
cost me half an hour of my time.
But there you go - that's the thing about tins....they
have an equal capacity to bring joy or misery...
The client called in later to collect the horn
and, as is often the case, asked me how the job went. "Absolutely
fine, no problems at all". I swear I didn't grit my teeth at
I played it for her (sans buzz), then got her to play it - and we
followed up the testing session with a brief chat about mouthpieces.
I thought she sounded quite nice, and said as much - and she responded
with "I hope so, I really like the way this sax plays. I was
a bit worried that some people say that Yamahas can be a bit tinny....but
I don't think it is. What do you think?"
"No, not tinny...not tinny at all".