"If they ask me, I could write a book" - so the song goes.
And they did - and I have.
In just a couple more months (as I write this) the Haynes Saxophone
Manual hits the shelves, and marks the culmination of a project
that's occupied me for nigh on two years.
I'll admit that I was slightly suspicious when the introductory
email from Haynes fell into my inbox back in November 2007, if only
because it seemed like a dream come true. I'd had similar emails
in the past which turned out to have been sent by my brother, courtesy
of a clever website that allows you to send out emails using a spoof
address. The last such email appeared to be from Jools Holland who,
finding himself short of a sax player for a local gig, had asked
around and been given my name.
It had me fooled, at least for a while. Once I'd got past the 'Oh
my goodness' stage and into a 'Yeah, right' frame of mind I looked
a bit closer at the email headers and discovered the ruse - though
not before I'd rung a few mates up and said "Hey, guess what!!??".
I shouldn't complain though 'cos I used the same site myself a little
later to send a guitarist friend of mine an email from 'Bon Jovi',
asking him to play guitar for them on a forthcoming UK tour. It
caught him out too.
Having established the email from Haynes was the genuine article
I entered into discussions about the content and format of the manual.
I've never been that impressed with instrument repair manuals and
suchlike on the basis that while the information contained in them
can be very useful, they tend to be focussed on the use of specialist
tools. Such tools are often hideously expensive and not all that
easy to come by, and require certain skills to make them work properly.
It's always seemed to me that if all you want to do is check for
a few leaks and maybe replace a couple of bits of cork, these manuals
are a bit over the top.
Besides, you can't pick them up in your local bookshop and have
a quick shufty through them to see if the writing and presentation
meets your needs.
So the emphasis of the Haynes manual was going to be on maintenance
and mechanical tweaking, coupled with an explanation of how the
sax works in a practical sense - and the tooling required was to
be kept to the bare minimum. I wanted people to be able to buy the
book, then nip down to the local hardware store and be able to kit
themselves out with pretty much all the tools they'd need. I know
from experience with clients that if there's even a hint of having
to faff around trying to source tools and materials, they simply
won't bother - you'd be surprised how many players can't even be
bothered to nip to the garage to buy a bottle of gear oil for lubricating
The principle of the book appealed to me inasmuch as it follows
on from what I've been doing on this site for the past few years,
namely attempting to demystify the processes involved in maintaining
woodwind instruments, coupled with a bit of down-to-earth science
and lots of encouragement - and with agreement on both sides contracts
were duly exchanged and the project was set in motion.
I think that's when it hit me - the enormity of the project.
The writing would be easy enough - I can generally write until someone
takes the keyboard away, or I run out of tea/baccy...whichever comes
first - but there were so many other things that had to be put in
place before I could even begin to think about my opening lines.
For example, the book was going to be lavishly illustrated, and
that meant photographs - and lots of them. I realised pretty quickly
that it would be completely impractical to get a photographer in
and that I'd have to do all the shots myself - and about five seconds
later a big red neon sign saying "Gadget Fest" lit up
in my head...I'd have to buy a 'proper' camera.
I've been a keen amateur photographer for years, but all my 'posh'
kit was film based - and while the digital cameras I had were fine
for general website work they simply weren't going to be up to the
job of publishing. What followed was a couple of weeks spent poring
over camera review sites - trying to find one that had an approach
similar to this site, that would give me the low-down on various
bits of kits and explain in very simple terms what it all meant
and whether or not it was important.
I'll say this much, if you thought the arguments between the various
factions in the saxophone world were bad (Yamaha v. Selmer v. Vintage
etc.) you should check out what the Canon v. Nikon fans have to
say to each other! In some places it's so bad that fans of one brand
won't even say the other's name, preferring to use such terms as
Noink or Conan.
In the end I followed the advice I often dish out to prospective
saxophone buyers - namely to work out what specific things I needed
in terms of features and quality, then get myself down to a camera
shop and try the things out. I was quite pleased, therefore, to
find that the camera I got on best with wasn't the most expensive
that I could have bought. Shades of my trusty old Yamaha 23 tenor
there, I thought.
But that wasn't the end of it, oh no - I had to decide on an overall
'look' to the book, and that meant finding a backdrop for the photos.
You might think it's just a matter of choosing a colour and getting
a sheet of fabric to suit, but it's a bit more involved than that.
For a start you have to be careful with regard to how the colour
will reproduce in print - it's not the same as taking a shot and
bunging it up on a website in a 'what you see it what you get' fashion.
Then there are considerations such as texture - a fabric that has
a natural sheen will reflect the light, which causes problems, and
if there's a distinct weave to the cloth it might produce unexpected
effects when the photo is printed. It also has to look good from
a distance as well as close up.
I spent ages schlepping round fabric shops, taking test shots, pestering
shop assistants and generally asking stupid questions (such as "Does
my sax look good in this?") and it soon became clear that I
would have to resort to specialist retailers. The result of this
was a steady stream of 'swatches' - little samples of cloth - going
to and fro, until I finally found a fabric that ticked all the boxes.
And whaddya know - the Queen uses it. I might have known. I could
have saved myself a great deal of time by nipping up to Buck House
and having a gander at the Royal Sofas.
Doing the photography turned out to be a baptism of fire. I'd had
some advice from a helpful pro which went along the lines of "So,
you're photographing a highly reflective, angular surface in close-up
along with handheld tooling in shot? Best of luck, mate!".
To be fair he did come up with a few useful hints and tips after
he'd ascertained that I didn't have access to a lens that cost more
than my car and a lighting setup that drew more current from the
national grid than the advert break at half time in the cup final.
I enjoyed the challenge though, and the beauty of working in the
digital format is that the results are instant - so you can see
exactly where you went wrong, and, even more crucially, where you
got it right. There were times when I took upwards of fifty shots
of a particular setup before I hit upon the right combination of
light and angles that made it clear what the job in hand was all
about, but as the months passed it became more instinctive and I
got it down to an average of around half a dozen shots. Having the
camera connected to a laptop that showed the shots in real time
as well as immediately after they were taken was a huge boon, and
I shudder to think how I'd have managed if I had to shoot the whole
project on film. Kodak's share price would have soared!
I don't mind admitting that a little bit of luck and trickery came
in handy too.
On the luck side I had a few clients turn up unexpectedly with rush
jobs, and it just so happened that the horns they had were just
what I needed for a particular shot. I felt a twinge of guilt for
one client who arrived out of the blue wanting a check-up on a horn
he'd just bought - I was so busy with the photography (and meeting
a looming deadline) that I had to refuse point-blank to take a look
at it. I couldn't overcome my own curiosity though and had to ask
what the horn was. It turned out to be Martin alto - and barely
thirty seconds later it was on the table being photographed. I still
didn't have time to look over the horn properly, but I gave it a
quick once-over and told the client he'd get a mention in the book...which
seemed to cheer him up considerably.
As for trickery, I found some shots to be all but impossible to
take in one go. The setup of these shots failed time and time again;
either the lighting wasn't right or the correct focus couldn't be
achieved, or there were more practical problems - such as a key
getting too hot while a flame played on it. And so it was that I
found myself using a few tricks to achieve the results I wanted.
For example - if you've ever been to an air show you might have
seen a couple of planes performing a dual aerobatics display. One
of the most popular sequences is where the two planes fly straight
at each other along the runway and appear to veer off at the very
last moment. It looks extremely dangerous and impressive from the
crowd line, but if you were looking down from above you'd see that
the planes, while at the same altitude, were quite a few meters
apart relative to the centre of the runway. The spectacle relies
on the perspective of the audience at the crowd line - and the same
technique can be applied via the lens of the camera.
It took a few burnt fingertips before I figured it out, mind you.
When it came to the writing the main difficulty I had to contend
with was the generic nature of the book. The market simply isn't
big enough to support manuals for each individual brand and model
of sax, so decisions had to be made as to what to include and what
to leave out. I felt the best way around this was to focus on the
theory - the mechanics of the instrument - on the basis that once
the workings of the mechanism are understood it should be reasonably
easy to apply the theory to any horn. Easier said than done though,
and I found I had to be quite ruthless with myself when it came
to describing, say, the octave key mechanism - of which there have
been countless designs and variations down the years.
There was also the need to keep it simple. Being able to perform
basic maintenance is a skill well worth having, but it carries with
it the risk that you might sometimes create more problems than you
solve. It's not enough to point up a typical problem and suggest
a solution - you have to bear in mind all the things that could
go wrong. And when that happens you're often into the realms of
specialists tools and skills.
My solution to this tricky problem was to write "Maintenance
- Not Repair" on a piece of paper and stick it on top of my
monitor. Crude, but effective.
It soon became clear that I was writing by my own 'philosophy'
of repair in general, which states that if you want to understand
how something has broken you must first understand how it works.
It might seem patently obvious, but I've seen any number of clients
who've come in with a non-working instrument, pointed to a key which
quite clearly has a spring that's popped off its post and said "I
don't know why it won't work anymore". It takes but a couple
of minutes to show them how a key works and how the springs power
them, and the knowledge they take away with them ensures that they'll
never have to call upon my services again with the same problem.
All good and well, but there were a couple of maintenance techniques
that required the application of what I guess you might call the
'Dark Arts' - AKA a bit of experience.
For instance, most half-decent sax players know the value of an
action that's properly balanced - but how do you explain to someone
what 'properly balanced' means, and how do you explain to them how
to achieve it themselves? It's easy enough to do so when the player
is standing next to you and you have the luxury of being able to
demonstrate the technique while they watch - but putting it down
into words in a book is an entirely different matter. You've also
got to keep it simple, and clear.
Fortunately I had a few 'guinea pigs' to help me out.
If you've visited this page before and found it locked out with
a stern request for a user name and a password it was because it
was being used to test techniques.
A number of clients very generously offered to take part in user
testing, by which they'd log on and view the technique and then
try it out - and report back on whether they understood what was
required and what sort of success or failure they'd had.
Once the writing and photography was complete (well, complete as
in "If I don't send it off now, I never will") I was at
the mercy of the 'copy editor'.
This was the phase I was most dreading.
As anyone who's looked over this site will have seen, I like to
indulge in a spot of banter (blimey guv, really?). When Haynes first
approached me they said that one of the things that appealed to
them was my informal, chatty style - and that this was something
they felt would be an asset to the manual. Naturally, I was very
flattered but couldn't help thinking that at some point someone
was going to say "This is too informal", and the final
result would be something rather drier than I would have liked.
I was also worried about the effect of having someone else effectively
critique my work. To be sure, you all do that - every reader of
this site forms an opinion, but in many ways it doesn't really matter
what they think. That's not to say I don't value their opinions,
but ultimately it's 'my site' - and it's up to me what goes on it...it's
just a happy coincidence that most people seem to enjoy my jottings.
The opinions of a copy editor are very much different, and it's
their job to fit the text into the 'house style' as well as to ensure
that it's universally understandable. I like to think I helped that
process along by avoiding the use of any Cockney rhyming slang (sneak
yer new horn up the apples an' pears so yer trouble an' strife doesn't
get a gander at it) and hardly any swearing.
All the same I waited with trepidation for the draft to come back,
fully expecting it to be crammed full of big red lines and comments
like "No, no! This simply won't do!" written into the
margins - and so I was very surprised to find that aside from a
few house style changes my text remained largely unaltered. In fact
the copy editor was very complimentary, which meant a very great
deal to me considering I'm inclined to think of myself as very much
an amateur when it comes to writing.
I suppose my biggest fear was that I'd over-written, and would have
to pare sections down. It's not that it's an impossible task, it
just means that the text loses its personality and a phrase like
"Mind how you go - if you think you've overdone it then it's
probably too late and you'll have to start again" becomes merely
"Do not overdo it" - and to me that seems to take away
the sense that someone's looking over your shoulder, helping you
All in all I felt the editor had done a very good job, and what
changes had been made improved the clarity and global accessibility
of the text - though I did dig up one small error...a change from
a double inverted comma (quote mark) to a single, made by a macro
that automatically converts quote marks into the house style single
quote mark format. Not normally a problem, but in this case the
double quote mark indicated a measurement in inches (6" = six
inches) - with a single quote it became 6'...or six feet. The passage
in which it occurred related to purchasing cork sheets, and I'd
advised readers to buy a number of sheets of cork of various thicknesses
- which were typically sold in 6" X 4" sheets. Assuming
a price of around £5 for such a sheet of cork, had anyone
rung up a repair supplier and asked for a six by four feet sheet
of cork the bill would have been £720. The copy editor drily
remarked that they'd probably get a quantity discount.
As with all big projects there are always a few last-minute details
that have to be tidied up, and one of these was sorting out the
images for the chapter opening pages.
Not a big deal for the most part, requiring a few large close-ups
that looked pretty and bore some relevance to the chapter in hand.
However, I found myself left with two pages I couldn't fill - and
by now it had become a sort of principal that all the photos in
the book would be shot by me (save for one I requested from a manufacturer).
What was needed was a couple of 'beauty shots'.
tried out a few vaguely arty ideas, but none of them seemed to work
- and then I had the idea of taking an 'ethereal' shot. It sounds
very posh but in fact it's just a shot with a sunset in the background.
A couple of problems cropped up almost immediately. It was October,
and the sunsets are quick and largely unspectacular - but I managed
to find a local spot that looked promising. It was just a matter
of waiting for the right weather.
When it eventually turned up I rushed to my chosen location, set
the camera gear up and took a couple of test shots. With a bit of
camera tweaking (OK, pressing buttons at random until everything
looked about right) I found an exposure setting that more or less
gave me what I wanted - so I took up position in front of the camera,
sax slung around my neck, and told my assistant to 'just keep pressing
the damn button'.
I took a dozen or so shots and then rushed over to have a look at
the results. They weren't good. I was too low down in the shot,
and worse still the consumption of pies over the years could be
seen in quite graphic detail.
I was aiming for 'Mystical sax god plays against a fiery sunset',
and what I got was 'Middle-aged, slightly pot-bellied geezer stumbles
around in the dark'.
Steps had to be taken - but as I didn't have any steps I settled
for standing on my sax case and holding the pies in.
In the meantime the sun was doing its thing, namely setting - and
fast. A rather dramatic cloud line had appeared - but the angle
at which it looked best varied from second to second due to the
This resulted in me running around a field in the ever-increasing
darkness with a sax in one hand and a case in the other, occasionally
jumping on the case and striking a pose (while trying to remember
the pies) and shouting 'The light! The light!! Press the damn button!!!'
I got my shot in the end, and was rather pleased with it - but the
editor said it wasn't really what they were looking for, so we settled
for a shot of Tubby Hayes instead. Very apt, I thought.
And so the deed is done, and the manual is now in the hands of
the designers. In a few short weeks "the book what I have writted"
goes through its final proof stages and hits the shelves (by the
time you read this it should be on sale) - and I can have 'Author'
stamped on my passport.
Am I nervous? Oh, you betcha I am! For one thing you can't, unlike
website publishing, simply correct any errors you might have made
- so if I've overlooked anything I'll have to live with it until
a correction can be made in a reprint. There's also the issue of
how well the book will be received. If it's half as popular as this
website then I'll be a happy man, but if it gets the old thumbs
down I'm going to be a bit crestfallen. That said, I had some advice
from another author who suggested that if anyone gets a bit shirty
all I need do is say that I'm very much looking forward to seeing
their book on the shelves in a couple of years time. Sounds fair
It also occurred to me that there might be one small problem; when
Haynes branched out into publishing manuals other than those related
to vehicle maintenance, one of the books they produced was a sex
manual. It seems to me that if you have a suitably 'plummy' accent
you're going to have to be very careful you don't end up with the
wrong book - though I daresay the section on 'Tweaking for Performance'
would probably come in handy either way.
Time will tell whether the public is pleased with my efforts -
if they're not I might just need that passport...Venezuela looks
like it might be a nice out-of-the-way kinda place...