by Andrew Hadro (Updated August 2019)
Owning a baritone saxophone presents some unique challenges. Here is some advice on how to deal with them.
The only thing I have to give is my opinion. Everything I’ve said here is based on my experience playing, practicing, repairing, traveling, researching and talking to other musicians, there are obviously going to be exceptions.
The baritone comes with a few special care instructions. First – Never place or store the horn upside-down. In other words, never have the top of the baritone supporting the entire weight of the horn. This is the thinnest section of the horn and therefore the weakest. Often when a baritone is in a rectangular shaped, or oddly shaped coffin case it is hard to know which end is the bottom of the horn. Placing the horn upside down (especially when storing in a locker for long periods) can weaken and eventually snap the top of the crook.
Unlike the other saxophones, the baritone has an extra crook, or curved section just after the neck. This requires a spit valve – one should get used to spit on your pants (its mostly condensed water, not spit anyway…. right.). The cork on the spit valve should be checked regularly and wiped to remove any junk that builds up. Also the crook of the horn should be swabbed at least once a month. This can be done with some difficulty using paper towel, but is much more easily done with a special stiff, yet bendable swab made for this purpose.
The baritone, no matter how well looked after, is going to pick up some dings and dents. Best get used to it. Most of them will be harmless. Be sure not to lose things in the horn. People have a tendency to stick things in the bells of baritones (paper, balls, pencils etc), make sure none of these become lodged in the upper tube of the horn – be wary of loose reeds in your case as these can also become lodged inside your horn.
Keep an eye on the ring on the sax for the neckstrap. Some Conn’s feature a zinc ring that will not wear down as easily, but on most other horns, especially baritones, this ring will start to wear and become thin at one point (especially if you use a metal hook). If left untreated this can lead to a break and then a nasty drop for your horn when the ring breaks. The remedy for a worn neck strap ring is for a repairman to fill in the gap with silver solder, and to remove the entire hook and flip it around, and re-solder.
If you use a case with shoulder/backpack straps check them and their connection to the case often! These too will wear down and if not properly replaced or repaired will lead to a nasty surprise fall.
The first rule in home saxophone repair is don’t. The next rule is no superglue. There are very special compounds and glues used in saxophone repair for very good reasons. If something falls off or breaks on your horn, take it to a professional.
There are very few things you can do at home without proper training. Saxophones, just like all moving parts need to be oiled regularly. However you should still leave this to a professional as there are very specific oils that should be used to keep your horn in the best possible shape. Also, too much oil can get all over the rest of the horn and rot pads and cork.
I find that if it seems like all reeds don’t play and things are going poorly it may be due to leaks in the horn. A horn should be gone over every 6 months or so to fix any leaks that occur from regular use. A horn should be overhauled every 5-8 years or so. This can cost anywhere from $500-$1000 depending on the repairman and what is included. A total overhaul should involve completely dissembling the horn, removing all dents and dings, soldering any broken parts, and the having body cleaned. All pads should be replaced, as should all corks, springs and felts. Key heights and action should be set uniformly and all leaks removed.
When having pads replaced you should give some thought to what pads and resonators you wish to use. Leather pads are standard. Some pads don’t have resonators, some are plastic and some are various type of metal, all in different shapes. Discuss what kind of sound you are looking for with your repairman and he should be able to recommend what to use. Metal resonators generally project much better then plastic ones.
Having a good case for your baritone is extremely important as such a large instrument is prone to bumps and drops. A good baritone case should have not only a sturdy handle but strong shoulder/backpack straps as well. Remember to check these often as they can wear down and break! It is also extremely important that the case fit the horn snugly. Most damage can be averted it the horn is not flopping around in the case. Adding a little bit of extra foam can really help increase the protection. Unlike other instruments however there is a fine balance between protection and weight. Having a rugged heavy duty case may simply not be possible as the baritone alone weighs enough, adding a heavy case can make carrying it around overly unpractical. We have all dealt with the “coffin” cases. Large old wooden boxes that don’t fit the horn, are extremely heavy, and break easily. These are about as bad as you can get. Protec baritone cases, while light, don’t always fit the horn perfectly and offer very little protection. I have found that these cases also wear out and break easily.
Many baritone players opt for the leather case, or gig bag, as it is light and durable. Reunion Blues cases are perhaps the most well known of this variety. These cases do not offer very much protection at all, and should be attended at all times. The other extreme is the hard case. Recent advances have created the fiber-glass case which is both hard and light. Walt Johnson’s are perhaps the best example of modern hard cases. These cases are very well crafted, hand made, and come with a fantastic warranty. They can take a long time to get as they are often made to order. The plus side is that you can send them the exact dimensions of your instrument and a tracing and they will custom make you a case. I have found that their Low A case is superb, and very easy to carry. Their Low Bb case is a little unwieldy. Their latest cases feature wheels, a nice feature for a baritone case. The only complaint for some of their cases is that unlike their alto or tenor cases, their baritone cases sometimes have flat sides. Flat sides are far weaker then rounded sides and cannot not stand up to nearly as much force or impact.
When traveling by air your first task is to get through security. Make sure your case can be opened as many security agents will be unfamiliar with baritone and want a closer inspection. When flying I like to place extra padding in the case just to be safe. Getting through security should be not too tough. There is a letter you can get from the musicians union from the head of the TSA stating that musical instruments should be allowed. This can work well for getting through security if they balk. It also helps to tell them that the horn always fits and you never have trouble finding an appropriate place for it. Remember to take any strange items out of your case, reed knifes, screwdrivers, or any other mysterious items are sure to irk security.
There is a fine art to carrying a baritone onto a plane. The first thing you want to do is make your case as inconspicuous as possible. Scott Robinson is a master of this. The second thing you want to do is be as nice as possible to the gate attendants and flight attendants. Not only is this good manners, but you are at their mercy and they have the complete ability to make your trip a disaster. I generally walk up with a very big smile and lay the manners on. If you are good you can ask to be allowed to board the plane slightly early (perhaps with the baby strollers and wheelchairs etc) to find an “appropriate” place to stow your instrument.
Another more reliable option is to ensure you board the plane early regardless of gate attendant. Most flights are booked online now with e-Tickets. When doing this you have the option of picking your seat. If you know how the order of boarding is determined you can ensure an early boarding time and you can make full use of overhead compartments or closets. First to board is first class and priority fliers. If you don’t qualify for these, there’s not much you can do. The next group to board will be people in the back of the plane, and further more those with window seats. This is to maximize the efficiency of boarding. So if you pick a window seat in the back of the plane you will almost guarantee an early boarding. You can even log in the night before your trip and find a row that has at least 2 empty seats in the back so you can maximize available overhead space (assuming the flight doesn’t fill up). Large planes often have 3 seats on one side and 2 on the other, the overhead for the 3 seat side is larger, so book a seat on that side. When booking your ticket online you can also see what model plane will be used. You can use this information to determine the size and type of the plane. Larger planes will have larger overhead compartments and will be more likely to have closets.
It is also a good idea to check the airline’s policy on musical instruments ahead of time. It never hurts to call ahead and check the policy. Once you get on the plane your best bet is to try and place the horn in a closet in the front. Always ask the flight attendants permission to do so. Not all planes or airlines have closets, I have found that larger planes on American Airlines tend to have closets. Many international flights user larger planes and are more likely to have closets.
There are two last ditch options if they absolutely will not let you carry the instrument onto the plane. You can usually buy a seat for the instrument, depending on the availability of seats. This option is obviously not ideal and extremely expensive, although there is a small chance you can argue and convince the airline to reimburse you later. The attendants will sometimes not allow you to place the horn in the seat even after you’ve bought it so you end up placing it in the overhead anyways. For safety reasons an instrument should only be placed in a window seat, in a non-exit row of course.
If you plan on buying a seat for your horn you may need to do so ahead of time. Each airline I’ve done this with recommends calling and doing this manually over the phone to ensure that the ticket for your horn is properly coded etc. Unfortunately this often excludes you from cheaper fairs like ‘basic economy’ although you may be able to buy your own ticket first, then call to purchase the additional seat for your horn.
Your other last ditch option is a gate check. This means your horn will still be placed under the plane, however instead of being thrown from conveyor belt to conveyor belt for over an hour from the check in desk to the plane, it will be carried 20 feet from the gate to the plane and hand placed in the baggage compartment. They will give you a ticket and you should be able to retrieve at the gate at the end destination. However, your horn will still be placed underneath a plane with all of the other baggage and is very prone to damage.
If you choose to avoid bringing your horn into the cabin of the plane altogether you can try using a flight case. New baggage rules have made this more expensive then ever, although sometimes you can convince the tour manager/band leader to pay these fees, or they’re certainly tax deductible if its a business trip. Dealing with large cases while travelling outside of home is also a pain. The most effective flight cases are those that are actually cases that go around your normal (preferably hard) case. These are known as “anvil” cases. Another option is to ship your horn to your destination via USPS, FED-EX, UPS etc. all the normal protective advice applies.
When traveling by car there are a few things to keep in mind as well. Obviously you shouldn’t allow other band-mates to pile their instruments on top of yours just because it may be the largest. The other thing to consider when you have your saxophone in a car is that cars can heat up. Allowing your horn to get too hot can cause the pads too loosen, as the shellac that holds them in melts in heat.
Torpedo bags has some excellent guidelines for flying with instrument cases. Check it out here.