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Bench Notes #13

Red Wing Regional Clinic

Napbirt's regional clinics and advisory board meeting in Red Wing, MN, are coming up and there is still time to register! Curt is already over there getting ready to talk to the students on Thursday, February 21, 2013 from 1:00-3:00pm and to attend the meeting. He always enjoys his yearly trip to Red Wing, and has been known to take a spin on the Mississippi River or have conversations with friends at the local pub, so come on out to the clinic and stay for the fun!

Curt will also visit Eugene Rousseau's saxophone studio at the University of Minnesota and give a clinic on Monday, February 25th, from 3:30pm-5:00pm in Ferguson Hall Room 85. Come on out if you can!

Come on out to both or either of these events if you can!

Z-Gun Video

If you are still padding with a torch and a stick of shellac and would love to be more efficient and precise, we've got the solution for you! We created this short, instructional video that shows how the Z-Gun works and what it comes with. It truly is the best solution out there and we use it in the Pro-Shop nearly every day.

Also, leveling tone holes doesn't have to be done by hand. Check out this video of the Complete Tone Hole File Set and learn how to do the same task much faster with a drill.

Musikmesse Frankfurt: Order Now!

The 2013 Musik Messe in Frankfurt is approaching and we are very excited to make the trip to Germany! For everyone who is going to attend the Messe, we have a special offer!

Free Shipping on orders through March 20, 2013! You will be able to save on shipping costs and pick up your items directly at our booth!

Because we have weight restrictions while traveling, this offer is only good for pads, supplies, and small tools. Sadly, we will not be able to bring heavy items like the MDRS Dent tools. However, the MDRS display items at the show will be available to purchase. If you have an item in mind that is not a woodwind supply that you would like, please email Leah at to see if we have room to bring this for you.

To order, please follow these instructions:

1. Place your order on our website and select "Send a Money Order" in the checkout. Enter your shipping information. You will then receive an order number.

2. Email your order number to Leah at and let us know that you will be picking this up at the Messe.

3. We will then email you a packing slip with your items and the total amount to pay in Cash at the show.

If you have any questions about this, please email Leah as well. Specialty tools may be included on orders and will be on a first come first serve basis as weight is limited. If you wish to pre-pay please contact us first.

All the best and we'll see you at the Messe!

Sax Bores and Tone Holes 

A saxophone is a tapered tube with holes in it. Covering the tone holes are pads. When a note is played, pads are closed in a generally consecutive order, effectively lengthening the instrument. Sound flows primarily out of the first open tone hole and a note is produced. Aside from the player's obvious input of embouchure, air, reed, and mouthpiece, the note produced is affected by the bore, tone hole placement and size, and the distance that the pad(s) rest above the tone hole(s). In this short article, I will show you how to diagnose intonation on your saxophone and possibly discern the cause of your intonation problem(s).

Tuning a saxophone is usually not a simple task due to the number of variables and sometimes it becomes very involved. Your first step will be to limit the variables that might misguide you while playing and assessing by completing all preliminary repair and tuning work: all of the pads are sealing, the saxophone is Set-Up (all pads close on their tone holes at the right time), the key heights have been set (Balanced Venting Method), and the horn is balanced (Uppers, Lowers, Mids-Cut-In-Half). Should any of these steps be ignored, you may still find that you are able to improve intonation issues, but your bore work and tuning efforts will be misguided. You may create more problems or compound your current intonation issues leading to confused and unpredictable results. However, as this article is strictly related to the diagnosis of saxophone tone holes and bore, you are in no danger of messing things up. In the next article I will teach you to do that.

When tuning there are often a number of ways to achieve improved intonation, but there is only one way to achieve really great results. There are some nuances in tuning that are difficult to explain; some compromises that until I figure out how to explain, can only be taught through experience. Nonetheless, you're in a better position to tune and certainly understand your saxophone once you've followed these steps and completed the preliminary tuning procedures outlined in my previous articles.

Perhaps you have already been able to solve the intonation issues with your horn using the previous articles. If so, you may have made compromises using key heights and Tuning Crescents. Working directly with the bore and tone holes will allow you limit those compromises, if not completely remove them. This article will explain how to locate and distinguish between improper tone hole placement and bore problems, thereby getting to the root of the problem: the tapered tube with holes in it.

When you're ready to begin:
At this point, you have covered a lot of the variables involved in tuning a saxophone. Although your findings in this portion of your tuning work may cause you to go back and adjust key heights, you have basically removed the variables to the tapered tube that makes up the instrument and the tone holes. If your intonation is OK or even workable at this point, you may want to just forget this article and go practice. However, if you're still having intonation problems and you're sure that you cannot fix the problems with key heights alone, then read on.

Locating a Tone Hole Placement Problem
In a theoretical saxophone, there is a place in the bore that corresponds to each note on the instrument. Ideally, there would be a tone hole of the correct size at each location. Due to a number of logistical issues, a lack of understanding by the manufacturer and/or poor manufacturing, this is not always the case. Tone hole size has an effect on intonation and yes, there are times that changing the size of the tone hole is by far the best fix for that instrument. However, to keep this article less than book length, I'll only be covering tone hole placement.

Tone holes and their location set the pitch of the note. If a tone hole is too high (too close to the mouthpiece) on the instrument, that note will be sharp. If the tone hole is too low (too close to the bell) that note will be flat. To determine if your note is sharp or flat, play the saxophone to warm it up. Begin with the lower octave (fundamentals) starting at Low D. Low D is the first note that has a tone hole that both the lower and upper octave notes come out of. Play the notes from Low D to open C# chromatically. Look at the tuner as you play and understand which notes are out of tune, by how much, and in what direction. Fill out a tuning chart to help you remember. Get to know the notes in the first octave before you press your octave key. In this first octave alone, you can start to hear which tones are sharp or flat. Any note in your first octave that is sharp or flat represents a tone hole that is misplaced. Although it is quite unlikely to find four or five chromatic notes in a row that are suffering from incorrect tone hole placement, I have found this on some instruments, so it should not be ruled out. More commonly in this first octave, is a series of notes that are relatively in tune with an out-of-tune note in the midst of them.

Now that you understand which tone holes are improperly positioned on your instrument based on your first octave, press the octave key and repeat your diagnosis in the second octave. Continue your tuning chart and make note of the relationship between the octaves. Remember that you already know which tone holes are improperly placed.

If you find that your problem notes in the first octave are equally sharp or flat in both octaves, you have found an isolated tone hole problem that can be corrected by moving the tone hole. Note that, with few exceptions, moving a tone hole will not alter the distance between your octaves. For example, if a note is 20 cents (20c) sharp in the first octave and 20c sharp in the second, lowering the tone hole so the note plays in tune in the first octave will not change the relationship between octaves. Your corrected note will be in tune in both octaves.

Sometimes a note is out of tune in the first octave but in tune in the second. In these instances, tone hole placement is only part of a compounded problem. Nonetheless, tone hole placement is part of the problem and correcting this maybe part of your final solution.

Once you are aware of specific tone hole placement issues on the instrument, you can move on to understanding the intonation issues as a whole. Often there is a combination of tone hole placement issues in an instrument with incorrect bore size and shape. In order to assess this more complex issue, you must first know how the shape of the bore affects intonation.

Locating A Problem With The Bore
If you experience octaves which sound more than or less than an octave, you have found a bore problem. Bore problems are easy to locate if you remember that the bore is what causes your instrument to play exact octaves; or not. Do not get caught up trying to diagnose bore and tone hole issues simultaneously. You already know which tone holes are misplaced due to your research in the first octave. Now you're working to diagnose the bore independently, for which the eventual repair will only affect the distance between octaves, and not the notes that are out of tune at the fundamental.

To find a bore issue, start by warming up the instrument. When the instrument is warm and the mouthpiece is in the proper place to play the fundamentals in tune, play chromatically upward and take note of the intonation of the fundamentals. Now, press the octave key and compare the intonation of the second octave notes. If the difference between the two octaves is greater or less than exactly one octave, there is likely a problem in the bore of the instrument.

When assessing the bore, consider that a bore generally has an even taper and a problem in the bore will almost always affect more than one note in a row. For example, as you ascend in the second octave from G2 to C#2, the octaves may become gradually more spread.

Let's say you have the common problem of a very sharp second octave C# (C#2). If the problem is located in the bore, you will want to get your clue from the notes surrounding that C#2. Usually, the problem is not solely that the C# is sharp, but instead that the C#2 is the sharpest note in that run of notes from A2. Identify trends in the octaves as they lead up to C#2. Remember that you are not looking to see that the notes are in tune, but only noting the distance between the lower and upper octaves for each note. Here is how your octaves may look if there is a bore problem:

F-F2 Perfect octave (8va 0)

F#-F#2 Octave plus 5 cents (+5)

G-G2 (+10)

G#-G#2 (+14)

A-A2 8va (+18)

A#-A#2 (+25)

B-B2 (+28)

C-C2 (+31)

C#-C#2 (+37)

As you can see here, the octaves are getting increasingly spread as we ascend chromatically. This is a clear indicator that the bore has a problem and can be adjusted to fix the intonation. Also note that C# is the last tone hole before the palm keys.

To continue, lets explore the bore for the palm key notes. Palm key notes are generally not played without the octave key, but it is useful to do so in the following exercise to find the difference between octaves. Play Palm D and up chromatically but do not press the octave key. The notes that sound maybe grossly out of tune but this is not what you are looking for. Take note of the intonation. Now play the same sequence an octave higher, using the octave key, and compare the intonation.

Even though your first octave palm key notes may be out of tune, you can figure out the amount of octave spread with this technique. Your results will probably look like this:

D2-D3 8va plus 40 cents (+40)

D#2-D#3 (+44)

E2-E3 (+48)

F2-F3 (+54)

As with the first series of tones, you can see that the bore in this area is creating progressively sharper octaves as the instrument plays higher. However, you may also find that, despite the increasingly spread octaves through high C#, some or all of the palm key notes play in tune in the second octave but are very flat when playing the non-traditional fingering of palm key without the octave key. In this instance, the manufacturer was getting palm key notes that were sharp. Without respect to the bore, the tone holes were moved slightly down the body. The end result is an instrument that plays sharper and sharper up to C# and seems to correct at the palm D.

This presents a challenge: correcting the bore size will then create flat palm keys. You will be correcting a bore for an instrument that was designed around a bore problem. In this instance, you will need to consider both the bore taper and tone hole placement when implementing tuning techniques. If you do adjust the bore, you will have to either move the palm key tone holes to their new (proper) location or leave the part of the bore that creates that issue alone.

With this information, you should be able to play a saxophone and locate tone holes that are placed incorrectly (out of tune in the first octave, or fundamental). You should also be able to assess a bore problem (octaves that are more or less than one octave). You should also be able to determine if the problem is a combination of both bore and tone holes, such as in the case where the octaves are too wide or narrow and the fundamental is out of tune with the notes around it.

In the next article, I'm going to show you how to locate the place in the bore to correct problems with the bore of the instrument in order to get your second octave in tune with your first octave or fundamental.

New Products!



Spring Removing Pliers
Saxophone Neck Bag
Assembly Gloves
Whole Spring Removing Pliers Universal Saxophone Neck Bag Assembly Gloves
Acid Brush Pearl Square Mini Padding Torch
Acid Brush Large Pearl Square Mini Padding Torch