What Causes A Saxophone To Sound Spitty & How To Fix It

Saxophone players may notice that, from time to time, their instrument produces a very annoying “spitty” sound. At first, it may seem worrisome, and you may be led to believe that something's wrong with the woodwind's mechanics. Luckily, it's a very common issue, usually with an easy fix. Stick around to find out more.

What causes a saxophone to sound spitty, and how can we fix it? Saxophones can sound spitty for various reasons related to the positioning and texture of the reed, moisture buildup near the mouthpiece or neck, or even dehydration on the player's end. Normally, the solution does not involve any major replacements or repairs.

In this article, we'll discuss the factors that cause a saxophone to sound spitty, the possible fixes, and strategies to prevent the issue from occurring in the first place.

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Causes And Solutions To Spitty Saxophone Tone

As uncovered earlier, the spitty sound on saxophones is usually caused by minor issues that can be resolved by performing some quick and easy tasks.

Let's take a closer look at some of the issues that may prompt this distorted tone, notably:

Reed Problems

The saxophone, just like many other instruments, is equipped with relatively permanent components but also highly consumable accessories such as corks and reeds.

The reed is probably the most replaced part of a saxophone, and for a good reason: it's regularly in contact with the player's mouth and, in turn, with warm breath and saliva. It's a critical piece of the instrument that requires regular care and replacement.

Issues related to the reed can be categorized as follows:

Reed Positioning

Reeds are known for being highly sensitive to movement. Any minor shift from its optimal position relative to the mouthpiece will greatly affect the saxophone's tonal character or ability to deliver notes.

In terms of positioning, the reed should be placed at the very center of the mouthpiece. If it's too low, you will lose control of the tonguing and the airflow, with a resulting breathy (and spitty) sound. Placing the reed too high will achieve the opposite effect, causing squeaking.

For more info on fixing saxophone squeaking, check out my article Why Saxophones Squeak & How To Prevent Squeaking.

Reed Warping

If the reed is made from natural cane, it's prone to warp easily. In these cases, the tone will suffer considerably regardless of how well positioned the reed may be. This might get fixed by immersing the reed in water for a while. The water absorbed by the reed should allow it to even out and rid it of any wrinkles and irregular surfaces.

Reed Moisture

While moisture enhances the reed's performance, soaking it or saturating it with water could contrarily thwart its functionality.

If you happen to soak it in water, remove the excess water from it afterwards. This is achieved successfully by adding a lot of pressure to the reed and then sucking it out (though this may disgust some people). Another alternative is to squeeze it against the flat end of the mouthpiece or wipe it thoroughly with a dry towel.

Reed Hardness

The reed may also be too hard, causing a forced bite and, consequently, a muffled tone. Generally speaking, the hardness issue should be fixed by gently rubbing the outer cane with sandpaper or softly bending the tip repeatedly up and down for one minute.

Another option is to adjust the ligature to bring the reed near the mouthpiece's upper lip, as that will allow for better interaction between these two and, consequently, a better output.

Faulty Reed

The quality of the reed's build and material may be faulty, no matter what. If all else fails, you should probably replace it outright in this scenario.

To learn more about breaking in your saxophone reeds, check out my article How To Break In A New Saxophone Reed Step-By-Step.

Moisture Problems

Muffled or spitty tones are often linked to moisture buildups. While this may not necessarily be the case, condensed water from our breath could likely be getting in the way of the air column, altering the sound negatively.

Whenever we blow inside a saxophone, hot water vapour from our lungs invariably gets inside the bore and the mouthpiece. The reed also naturally receives a great portion of that air. As the temperature inside gets colder, the water vapour condenses, forming small water accumulations.

Saliva is less likely to enter in great quantities since the embouchure technique doesn't rely on spit-buzz, a method used predominantly on brass instruments.

The neck is frequently where most of the moisture stacks up, especially at the bend, being the narrowest part of the saxophone. In these circumstances, the way to proceed is by forcing out the moisture, either through inhalation. Or, you can try taking the neck off and blowing it at the base or knocking it against a soft surface (such as the leg) repetitively.

Related article: Is It Bad/Damaging For A Saxophone To Get Wet?

Dehydration Problems

As strange as this may sound from the onset, the saxophone is bound to render spitty notes when the player is dehydrated. This makes sense since the saliva gets thicker because of the lack of fluids. What usually transpires is that air pushes thick saliva through and causes the saxophone to clog, which is why the resulting sound is “bubbly”. The obvious fix for this is to stay wholly hydrated before a performance.

Preventive Measures To Avoid Spitty Saxophone Tone

Indisputably, the best way to deal with a problem is by preventing it from even happening.

By cleaning and swabbing your saxophone often and after every rehearsal or performance, you eliminate any chance of moisture buildup inside the tube and, hence, the emergence of spitty notes.

The swabs used for this job are pieces of cloth (usually of a chamois-like material) attached to a weight by a string. The weight is introduced inside the bell and then passed through the neck by turning the instrument upside down, allowing the cloth to drag out all the impurities and water particles stuck inside. This process may be repeated two or three times per swabbing session for better results.

Reeds should also be wiped often to delay excessive liquid absorption, though, as said before, they should also remain slightly moist.

Performing frequent maintenance not only helps the instrument stay in shape and deliver optimal notes but also aids in deterring health complications such as “saxophone lung”, a type of pneumonia caused by fungi that thrives in a dirty and overly moist saxophone. Furthermore, you will effectively avoid uncomfortable situations when on the road.

For information on cleaning frequency, check out my article How Often Should A Saxophone Be Cleaned?

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 producing music. Check out his music here.

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