The reality of saxophones is that any given saxophone’s state of repair determines more, in terms of what the player experiences, than the actual design. The best saxophone in the world, in poor repair, is not going to play well, or to be able to reveal how special it is (except perhaps to a very, very experienced player and/or saxophone mechanic, who has played enough saxophones in poor repair to be able to translate bad results into potential, via intuition). To put this into perspective, very slight adjustments to the neck’s fitting can be the difference between a saxophone that feels live, vibrant, and indispensable and one that is “just OK,” never mind the more obvious, commonly experienced effects that every one knows a single maladjusted pad or linkage can exercise.

Keeping that reality in mind, the goals in repair are obvious on some levels, and less obvious on others, depending on the design and repair (or damage and trauma) history of a given saxophone. The player wants basically three things: (1) the sound that player is seeking, (2) the intonation and pitch behavior that is most comfortable, in the final analysis (which may not be the same as saying the most accurate intonation, in some rare cases), and (3) the response (speed of attack, sustain, openness, evenness, etc.) that best matches that player’s goals and needs in terms of expression. The better the player is, the more likely these desires are to fall in that order, as the better the player’s mastery is the more her/his desires tend to come down to a search for the right sound, and the more the second two needs fall under the rubric of “sound.” A master player usually has learned that with enough work, almost any saxophone’s intonation and response can be managed, while the equipment’s role in creating the sound one is after is often not controllable simply through mastery of the instrument.

On the repair side, in attending to those three needs, in a balanced way, there is a reality is generally known intuitively even by mediocre techs, but only fully certain to those who have done a good deal of actual experimenting with acoustical modifications: very subtle repairs and alterations, especially that effect spatial relations in the bore in any way, can exercise profound effects on how the saxophone performs from the player’s perspective. The basic intuitive bottom line on that is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” because if relatively subtle changes can have far reaching effects beyond what most would ever predict. Substituting a single resonator that alters the amount of space in a tone hole, for example, as compared to another one, can profoundly influence how the player experiences evenness and openness throughout the saxophone’s range, turning a saxophone that feels amazing into one that feels squirrelly and uncomfortable.

But, even to get to the point with a specific saxophone of being able to sense how a minor modification influences overall response, the saxophone first has to be completely tight mechanically and sealing throughout. A saxophone that isn’t 100% tight mechanically, and in the best possible adjustment, can reveal its needs, in terms of subtle acoustical modifications; when the saxophone isn’t tight, to make acoustical modifications would be a bad mistake, possibly causing future problems even while addressing current ones (where those current problems are actually caused by maladjustment in the instrument).

For reasons that I may eventually document in an article or two, but have not yet detailed, my perspective is that often what works best is something unexpected. The flip side of that is that often cliches and oft-repeated standbys about what to do, or not do, can sometimes be more harmful than helpful. There are many cliches about repair, and that are widely believed, that are just plain false, or at best misleading. Without getting into them in detail, the one rule of thumb is that you can only go by what is actually in front of you, not by what is thought by others to be true — no matter how many times it is repeated by people on the internet — or what one would prefer to be true.

The single most common area that this latter consideration comes into play is that of balancing cosmetic results with performance results. Often, what is cosmetically ideal is not what is ideal from the perspective of performance. There is for example a reasonably famous mouthpiece re-facer whose ugliest work, in my experience, is often his best work; his cleanest work is often his poorest playing. Similarly, some of the best saxophones I have ever played have had heavily reworked necks or dent work — something one should generally avoid, in the abstract, purchasing sight unseen. The single best alto I have ever played (and which I own) is a heavily, heavily rebuffed transitional Conn 6M whose key work has been moved around so that seating pads properly takes some sleight of hand. The reality is that when it comes to repair and performance related to it, the most important consideration, just as with writing a story, or making any kind of work of art, is knowing when to stop.

When I get spectacular results, I stop. When a saxophone owned by JS, to be offered for sale, is not performing well — despite sealing and being in its best adjustment — I keep trying. The upshot is that I do not continue working on a saxophone, to make it cosmetically more appealing, when I feel that there is a danger of upsetting a desirable state of balance and grace in that saxophone. What is important in a neck, for example, is not whether its walls are absolutely smooth and show no evidence of ever having had a dent, but that its bore taper is spatially close to original and that it produces a beautiful tone while playing in tune.

I have played and repaired most makes and models of saxophones, to the point where I have a good familiarity with how each make and model performs in the three player-desire categories listed above, so I know when the average balance of performance for that model has been exceeded. I also have experimented enough with the modifications and techniques in my repertoire to have a good idea of what can be expected — what the potential benefits and potential risks are of any special modification — with regard to saxophones in general. That is when I know how and where to stop.

The promise I make to internet and remote shoppers, is that I will be honest about my findings with regard to each saxophone I work on, or that is listed for sale, here. What I say is what I think. I always am aware that certain types of results appeal to certain kinds of players as well — a cutting, bright, modern sound is not for every one, for example — and I try to make clear in both repair service and in offering horns for sale that the important thing is to make the saxophone perform to the greatest expectation possible for a specific end user. This does mean that in certain cases, in saxophones overhauled for sale, most will be set-up to appeal to a particular segment of the saxophone playing population — namely musicians interested in jazz, R&B and rock, as these are the bulk of my customers. Set-ups that are more classical, or big band oriented are certainly a pleasure to do — they are also actually easier to do, thanks to the use of smaller resonators — but very few saxophones offered for sale will be intentionally set-up specifically with pre-modern styles of playing in mind.