As I write this I'm coming to the end of what
is my most significant piece of writing since the Haynes saxophone
& clarinet manuals - and the funny thing is...I never intended
to write it.
Well, OK, I did (otherwise I'd have written nothing at all) - but
what I mean is that when I started writing the article I had no
intention of it becoming such an epic tome. It just kinda...got
out of hand.
I suppose I ought to explain why I started writing
the article in the first place.
A large proportion of the problems players have with their horns
is related to the octave mechanism. It's as complicated a bit of
kit as it is a fragile one, and because of the handling it gets
when assembling and dismantling the horn it's also especially vulnerable.
But it can also fail in so many ways. I felt there was a need to
bring as much relevant information as possible together in one place,
structured in such a way that it would be possible to follow a diagnostic
path to the problem.
I also felt there was a need to describe the component
parts and label them accordingly, simply to make it easier for players
to ask the right questions. It's much easier to diagnose a problem
when the question is "The upper tip of the swivel arm has broken
in half, what do I do?" rather than "A tiny bit has fallen
off the wiggly thing that goes up and down..."
But by far the biggest driving factor was seeing
the same old questions come up time and again on the forums, and
watching the same old descent into anarchy that often happens when
more than a couple of people chip in with varying viewpoints. I
guess it's the 'curse' on the internet; there's an almost limitless
source of information - but there's equally a limitless source of
irrelevance, and so very often the one gets lost in the other. As
someone who often browses forums when looking for solutions to knotty
problems, I find this tendency particularly annoying - and I often
end up thinking "Why isn't there just one place where I know
I can get the answer I'm looking for?"
Let me give you an example:
Take a perfectly ordinary saxophone player, one who's perhaps a
year or so into their journey. Their horn has developed a problem
and they don't really have any idea what's gone wrong - so they
do what any sensible person would do and pop a post up on one of
the sax forums...
"I have a problem with my horn - whenever
I go from octave G to octave A, the note breaks up. Help!"
This is a very common problem and because it crops
up so often it's likely that the initial replies will be by players
who've seen the same question posted and answered before.
There'll be a handful of useful reponses...and then it kicks off
when someone criticises some of the terminology that's been used.
"That's the XYZ key, not the ABC key!"
"Is it? I've always called it the XYZ key."
"Well it's the ABC key".
You get the feeling the last response should have ended with a 'So
there" - but at this point in time things remain reasonably
Then someone asks what make the horn is.
This is akin to someone in a pub saying "What you lookin' at?"
In itself it's relatively harmless, but you know straightaway that
it isn't 'in itself', and that the chances of a 'spot of bovver'
have just increased rather dramatically.
To be fair, there may be good reason why the make of horn is relevant.
For example, the octave mech on a Conn 6M is very different to that
on, say, a Yamaha 62 - however, this distinction is not made clear.
And there's a follow-up question too: "Is it an Asian horn?"
The person in the pub who asked you what you were looking at has
just asked "You lookin' at me?"
Another poster has chipped in - thus taking a
little of the heat out of the conversation - and has proposed trying
a different reed. This is a reasonable if rather vague suggestion,
but it at least comes with some recommendations as to brands and
This sparks off a small run of posters politely disagreeing with
each other as to the best brand of reed, but at least it's keeping
things quiet on the Asian horn front.
A repairer arrives and makes the first qualified
post. There are some helpful and focussed suggestions, some pertinent
questions and some useful explanations. Things are looking up.
Another repairer arrives, makes some more suggestions and proposes
an alternative remedy. This is useful, it's always handy to have
Yet repairer arrives...and says "Ooh, I wouldn't do it like
that". A small fight breaks out as the three repairers
argue the point in ever increasing levels of minutiae that quickly
confuses anyone who's never owned more than a single screwdriver.
One of them tries to play a trump card and states "Well
I'd use my Hopffenstrasser-Klabberwacky gimble-mounted crobulizer
to fix that problem in a jiffy" - but will fail to point
out that the tool costs four grand, and if you make a slip-up when
using it it'll tear the horn apart.
You might think this would end the matter, but no - because yet
another repairer pops up and says "Oh, I had one of those
- but I found the Cumberbutton Bizwhizz tool to be far easier to
use". Another fight breaks out, which isn't helped by someone
pointing out that a file and a mallet will do much the same job,
and only set you back ten quid.
The seemingly-forgotten Asian horn question is
reprised when someone who owns an Asian horn takes umbrage at the
question and demands to know exactly what's wrong with Asian horns
- which means you've just spilt the pint of the person who was asking
you who you were looking at.
Anecdotes and opinions fly back and forth as the various posters
set up their camps - with the vintage die-hards proclaiming that
nothing made after 1941 is worth more than scrap value, and the
modernists insisting that anything made before 1961 is just lampshade
material. A few posters state that they're quite happy to play on
vintage or modern horns - but they're largely ignored in the melee.
Things get quite heated when someone claims that Asian brass is
full of Polonium, which is quickly countered by the suggestion that
vintage brass is chock full of Lead. Links to various Wikipedia
pages fly back and forth as the tinfoil-hatters argue it out amongst
themselves - and it only calms down when someone finds an article
that suggests that banjo players are statistically more likely to
rush towards an early grave...closely followed by drummers and bassoonists.
And then someone mentions a Martin - at which point all the players
with beards descend upon the thread and make comparisons with various
car engines. This appears to be harmless enough - amusing, even
- until another poster claims that cars are the spawn of Satan,
and that motorbikes are where it's at. Another fight breaks out.
By now the thread has spread across four pages
- which is when the 'agitants' arrive. These will be people with
no real interest in the thread but whom have been watching the proceedings
with mild amusement, and have decided to have a spot of fun by querying
some of the more suspect statements made by a few of the posters
battling it out on the Asian horn front.
The questions are cunningly phrased so as to be as awkward as possible
whilst being incredibly polite - and despite everyone knowing exactly
what's going on, no-one dares call the agitant out on it in case
it backfires horribly.
The disquiet among the repairers flares up again
as one of them states that whatever the problem is, it would take
them only a matter of moments to fix it. This kicks off a bizarre
competition as they all vie with each other to see who would take
the longest and thus, by inference, the most care in doing the job.
This rapidly descends into a debate about hourly rates and the need
to take into account the value of the horn versus the cost of the
repairs. The descent continues until it ends with a comparison of
the cost of living in various parts of the world. Photos of workbenches
may even be shown.
And in the meantime the person who posted the
original query has buggered off. Either they've managed to sort
the problem out by themselves or they've just given up in despair...but
no-one seems to notice.
If you've never visited a saxophone forum you
probably think this is all a bit far-fetched. If you have, though,
you'll probably be thinking "Ooh yeah - I remember that
This is why I felt it was high time that someone took the bull by
the horns and sought to bring all the relevant information together
in one quiet, calm place. Just you, me and a saxophone.
And having set out to fulfil that task I see now why no-one's attempted
it before. It's a vast, sprawling topic, chock full of what ifs
and whatabouts - made even more complex by the sheer variety of
octave key mechanisms that have been fitted to horns down the years,
and complicated still further by the variations necessary to accommodate
the different members of the sax family.
It's taken four years, on and off, to get as far as I have - and
last time I checked, the article weighed in at more than 75 pages
when saved to a PDF file. That's around half the pages of the saxophone
And I still haven't finished it. As it stands it makes a good stab
at dealing with the problems you're likely to encounter with a modern
mech on a modern horn - but before the advent of the modern swivelling
mech (as originally fitted to Selmers), practically every horn manufacturer
had their own design of mech. Granted, the way in which they all
work is much the same - but the variations in design can have a
dramatic effect on how and why problems occur, and how to deal with
But I've got the basics down, and it should now (hopefully) just
be a matter of expanding upon the article as and when suitable horns
turn up on the workbench...and when I have the time.
I'm also hoping for a fair amount of user feedback.
I already know there's a lot I haven't yet covered, but it's entirely
possible that some things could be explained more clearly - and
despite my best efforts to check procedures, I'm sure there are
bound to be a few hiccups here and there. If you think it can be
improved upon, let me know.
Incidentally, if you've made it all the way to
the end of the epic octave mech article, you may have spotted a
rather unusual photo of a sax
apparently on fire.
I showed it to a client prior to publication who promptly said "Ooh,
nice! Did you Photoshop it?"
Did I heck! It's the real deal - and what's more the shot nearly
cost me my workshop. Y'see, it's quite hard to shoot flames. You
don't want the ambient light too bright, which means having to use
a wide aperture and a slow shutter speed - but you don't want to
go too slow otherwise the flames look indistinct. And because flames
are rather 'organic' in nature you can't rely on getting 'the' shot
in one take.
After some brief, but fun, experimentation I found that cigarette
lighter fluid gave the most photogenic flames - and would burn off
before any real damage was done to the horn (it was only a scrapper...but
spare parts are spare parts, right?).
However, getting the timing right was tricky.
I had to squirt the lighter fluid on the horn, set it alight and
then start snapping. The first few shots would be 'blown out' by
the initial conflagration, but as they died down the chances of
getting a good one increased...until such times as the fuel started
to run out. Thereafter it was a case of repeating the exercise until
I had a decent shot.
I had a couple of goes - and it was on the third attempt where it
all went a bit wrong. Y'see, I thought the flames had died out when
I slooshed the next dose of lighter fluid over the horn...but they
hadn't. To make matters worse, the horn was quite warm by now -
so as the lighter fluid hit the brass it immediately evaporated
and burst into flames....right beneath my hand...which was holding
the tin of lighter fluid...which promptly caught fire. I did what
any right-thinking individual would do, and threw the tin to the
ground with an impassioned "Oohshitohshitohshit!".
Time, as it often does in such circumstances, slowed to a crawl
- and in those extended seconds I took note of the flames shooting
up from the sax on the table, the proximity of the burning tin of
fuel to the soldering gun's canister of propane...and the slowly
melting nozzle on the tin of lighter fluid. It was just as it had
become clear that this would not end well that the flame on the
tip of the lighter fluid's nozzle suddenly went out.
Whether by design or sheer pot luck, the nozzle had melted and shut
off the flow of fuel.
Similarly, the flames on the sax had died down - and in a truly
outstanding feat of recovery I managed to hit the shutter on the
camera and fire off half a dozen shots...one of which ended up as
the shot at the end of the article.