5 Reasons Your Saxophone Smells Bad & How To Fix The Issue

Saxophones are very classy instruments, but they're also prone to develop not-so-classy smells due to constant contact with pathogenic agents and toxins from a wide array of sources, including (but not reduced to) our mouths.

Here are the 5 most common reasons your saxophone smells bad:

  1. Bad breath
  2. Wet and/or dirty reeds/mouthpieces
  3. A smelly case
  4. Poor maintenance
  5. Improper storage

In this article, we'll be exploring the reasons in more detail, as well as tips to prevent and eliminate the bad odour.

Related articles:
• Top 11 Best Saxophone Brands On The Market
• Top 11 Benefits Of Learning & Playing Saxophone

1. Bad Breath

This is perhaps the most obvious cause but it bears stressing. When we play the saxophone, we transfer water vapour from our breath and small quantities of saliva containing remnants of the foods and beverages we consume.

Saliva can also combine with the sugar contained in many of these food products, producing a solution that can get into the bore and pads of your instrument. When we add to this the odour-causing bacteria that break down the food particles in your mouth, the smell can be very unpleasant.

Maintaining optimal oral health is key to avoiding the chances of faulty smells getting into your saxophone. Traces of food and drink could cause unwanted bacteria build-up on your saxophone pads.

Consider that pads are made out of fabrics such as leather and felt. These can very easily create environments wherein bacteria and fungi thrive as they absorb some of the water vapour from our breath and the occasional spit that can get inside the sax as we blow. These pads can likewise get sticky, which is yet another irritating setback.

Another important factor in a saxophone smell is our smoking habits. Tobacco produces its own kind of bad smell and can cause gum disease, which will lead to additional sources of fetid odours in its wake.

The reeds are probably the most affected components from our deficient oral health since they come into direct contact with our mouths. This will give us the cue to address reed hygiene below.

2. Wet And/Or Dirty Reeds/Mouthpieces

We benefit from wet reeds and, in fact, it's oftentimes encouraged that we use our own saliva for soaking our reeds before a performance. However, this will have a detrimental effect on their smell for the reasons we exposed earlier regarding the agents present in saliva.

The other variable that could prompt bad odours is the employment of flawed storage methods. Reed cases could preserve reeds from warping, but we must make sure that reeds are properly dried before being stored. At times, this is simply not possible to do, in which case, a properly ventilated case is always a better alternative.

Insofar as we allow for enough ventilation, the chances of mildew and mould forming and spreading on the reeds become slim. This will, in turn, prevent your reeds from acquiring an offensive odour.

The Vandoren HRC10 Hygro Case (link to check the price on Amazon) features grooved reed slots for superb air circulation/ventilation.

Vandoren HRC10 Hygro Case

To disallow the presence and development of odour-causing bacteria, you could sterilize the reeds by soaking them with hydrogen peroxide or mouthwash after using them (this also applies to mouthpieces).

Usually, you might proceed by submerging them for a few minutes, rinsing them with clear water, and drying them off with a sponge before placing them inside the ventilated casing.

3. A Smelly Case

The culprit of a smelly saxophone may also be a smelly case.

Cases are prone to develop bad odours because of exposure to excessive environmental moisture before sealing, especially airtight cases. Stowing wet objects in it, albeit just slightly wet, could trigger the formation of mildew inside the case, leading to that particularly bad smell.

Various methods have been suggested in online forums, such as applying grinded charcoal or a carpet cleaner to remove the smell. At times, the best solution is to simply buy a new case altogether.

It's also important to perform a periodic maintenance routine and to thoroughly clean and dry every single part of your saxophone before it's stowed, so as to evade any opportunity of fungal and bacterial activity on the inside.

4. Poor Maintenance

In line with the previous explanation, saxophones should be cleaned after each playing session or at least once a week. Skipping this routine will prove disastrous for your instrument's hygiene and, consequently, its scent.

Related article: How Often Should A Saxophone Be Cleaned?

The consequences of an unclean saxophone should not be underestimated. Saxophone lung is a serious respiratory condition that could turn fatal for any saxophonist. Beyond that, your saxophone will also definitely acquire a musty smell.

Moreover, a tarnished saxophone will deliver a very peculiar smell. Tarnish is a type of corrosion by which an opaque layer will form on the surface of the saxophone as it gets into permanent contact with sulphur compounds. The strong metallic odour can be quite off-putting. Oxidation (the degradation of metal with oxygen) can also provoke displeasing metallic odours.

Even in the case of a player with good oral hygiene, if the traces of spit and water vapour are not eliminated in time, your saxophone could develop very unpleasant smells inside the bore as saliva ferments and gets absorbed by the pads.

A good routine to counteract this consists of using pull-through swabs to thoroughly remove any hints of water and spit particles in the tube. You ought to also wipe the outer surface with a microfiber cloth to eliminate any water particles, sulphur compounds, sludge, grime, or sweat from the fingers. Additionally, you may use soapy water to clean the ligature, mouthpiece, and neck.

To clean the neck, you could detach it – by loosening the tenon screw – and submerge it in a bowl of soapy water for a few minutes until all buildups are removed. You can alternatively use vinegar.

Vinegar has a strong enough acidic content to separate grease and fats from the saxophone, as well as dissolve any calcifications, but not strong enough to damage the metal. Vinegar should not be used for the mouthpiece, though, since vinegar could compromise the mouthpiece finish.

5. Improper Storage

In theory, a saxophone should be stored in a case. In the absence of a case, you ought to find a dry and cool storage area for it.

A saxophone stored in a damp basement will ultimately develop a musty smell as the moisture gets into the fabrics and the reed, drawing fungi and bacteria to these parts. It will also eventually prompt the appearance of tarnish and other odorous agents.

A saxophone needs to be in a ventilated area with access to natural light. The sun's UV rays are very effective for killing germs and other biological agents that could potentially propel the appearance of foul odours.

How Can We Remove Bad Odors From The Saxophone?

Sometimes, the saxophone has just too much mildew accumulated and the regular cleaning sessions are simply not enough. In these extreme cases, the best course of action is to take the saxophone apart and clean each part separately and carefully. The pads are particularly susceptible to be affected by mildew due to their organic nature.

You need to avoid utilizing any strong chemicals when cleaning each part. At most, you may use dish soap for the body, keys, and rods. You can also apply a moderate amount of key oil to the springs and pivot screws to prevent oxidation.

We found this interesting tutorial on how to perform an intensive cleaning job for your smelly saxophone. But keep in mind that you may need professional help to deal with the disassembling and reassembling processes, particularly if you don't feel comfortable doing them yourself.

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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