How To Clean Saxophone Pads In 5 Simple Steps

how to clean sticky saxophone pads

Sticky pads and keys on a saxophone are one of the most annoying aspects of playing them. 

It never seems to fail that they show up when you’re about to perform. 

Experienced players know how to prevent and manage this problem in seconds, but new players may panic and take it into a shop. 

Or worse, they’ll ignore and keep playing on it, potentially ruining their pads and needing a much more costly fix.

Fixing this issue is simple and cheap, so today, we wanted to offer a quick guide on how to clean saxophone pads with 5 simple steps. 

Let’s dig in! 

5 Steps For Cleaning Sticky Saxophone Pads

Choose Your Method

The first thing we need to do is pick a tool or method to clean the pads. 

Each one has its pros and cons, so it’s entirely up to you which one you use. 


Simple lined notebook paper is one option for the tool you’ll use. 

It’s completely affordable, and you probably have some lying around your house or in a backpack. 

This tool works just fine, but it does tend to shred apart easier. 

If the pad or tone hole is wet, then it’ll dissolve into a mess as well. 

I don’t usually recommend this method unless you have no other option.

Dollar Bill

Strangely enough, using bills to clean pads is common among middle and high school level players. 

Adults often opt for the next method/tool, but dollars work almost as well. 

They’re tough enough they won’t rip or dissolve as lined paper can, and you’re able to reuse the dollar for its actual purpose later, so it costs nothing. 

Still, I wouldn’t use a hundred or something high value for this. There’s still chance moisture could cause it to rip. 

Specialty Pad Cleaner

A specialty pad cleaner is quite affordable, and it’s specially made for woodwind instruments like the alto saxophone. 

This particular option works great, and it comes with 80 of them, driving the cost of each one down to well under a quarter per paper. 

These specialty papers (this one or the ones you get from a music store) are tough and water-resistant enough to help pull the gunk off the pads without falling apart. 

Naturally, this is the one I recommend, so just keep a pack in your case for when it gets sticky. 

Place The Paper Under The Pad

Whatever tool you use, the steps for cleaning saxophone pads remain the same. 

We first need to put the paper over the hole and under the offending keypad. 

If you’re unsure which one it is, don’t worry! It’s best to do this with all of your keys, so just pick one and get started. 

Make sure the paper or bill completely covers the hole and is underneath the entire surface area of the pad. 

Press The Key And Pull Out

Now, press the key down and close the pad onto the paper. 

With one hand holding the key and the other holding the paper, slide the paper out. 

The force of the key pressing down will allow the paper to scrape any goo, moisture, or debris off the pad. 

Note: Pressing the key down harder won’t help with this step. Just push it down as you normally would. 

Repeat Until Pads Don’t Stick

Repeat the closing and pulling with the same hole, pad, and key at least 5 times. 

Check the pad to see if it’s still sticking. 

If it is, do it 5 more times. 

If you’re having a hard time telling if it’s that specific pad or another one, move on to the next step. 

You shouldn’t need to do this more than 10 times. If you do and you know it’s this specific pad, we have another tip for you later in the article (look for rubbing alcohol). 

Repeat With All Sticky Saxophone Pads

With one pad done, it’s time to repeat these same steps with all of the pads on your saxophone. 

If you notice the paper getting wet and/or collecting some gunk, either turn the paper, so a different part of it is used or get a new one. 

Make sure you get the right keys down for the right pads. 

Once you’ve done this, chances are, your saxophone pads are in great working order! 

Congrats! It wasn’t so hard, was it?

Want to learn more about the types of saxophones? Click the link to see our detailed breakdown with videos. 

How Often Should I Clean My Sticky Saxophone Pads?

There are two main schools of thought here I’ve heard from different sax players and music teachers: 

  1. Do it at the end of every time you play. 
  2. Clean them when you notice sticking. 

Allow me to offer the following advice: 

Clean your pads at least once per week OR every time you play after drinking or eating something that’s not water. 

Following this rule will do you just fine, and if you find you need to do it more, then go ahead. 

It only takes two minutes at the most to do every key quickly.

It doesn’t need to be a long process. 

Why Do Saxophone Pads Stick?

Saxophone pads are made of a cork or cork-like material, perfect for creating a good seal around the hole and making the notes stay in tune. 

It also does a great job of preventing a clunking sound every time you press a key. 

But cork loves moisture. 

As moisture gets trapped in the cork, any sugars or other types of things in your hot breath will gather. 

In some cases, this will make the pad slightly sticky.

As the key presses the pad down, it sticks a bit to the instrument’s metal, making it slow down. 

In some cases, it’s the food trapped in the corners of your mouth and teeth. 

If you eat around when you play, there are times that you’ll be able to see chunks of the food (gross!). 

Most of the time, stickiness is just caused by the buildup of moisture and other small bits of sugars and foods from your mouth. 

Warning! Be sure the pads are causing the stickiness and not the key mechanisms themselves. Watch how the metal rods work and see if the pad lines up with the hole. 

If it doesn’t, it’s not a pad issue; it’s a key one. This requires a different fix. 

Quick Tips For Preventing Sticky Pads

Preventing sticky pads is impossible, but you can reduce the frequency and severity of the issue with these quick tips: 

  • Don’t eat food or drink anything except water before playing the saxophone. 
  • Clean the pads with the paper method at least once per week or more. 
  • Avoid eating candy or chewing gum before playing, and brush your teeth before playing if you do. 
  • Keep a dehumidifier in your case to keep the moisture out of the keys. 
  • Avoid playing in humid environments where possible. 
  • If you have to play in a humid environment, make sure to swab the pads before putting them away. 
  • Use a prop system like these key leaves to keep the pads open to the air and dry when being stored. 

Why Are Sticky Saxophone Keys A Problem?

Are sticky pads such a big issue? Yes! 

On the surface level, it slows down playing and makes your technical ability less effective. 

This is annoying in itself. 

But if you ignore the issue, the debris will build up. 

It’ll start to prevent the pad from sealing around the hole. 

This lets air seep out, and it weakens your sound. 

Speaking of affecting sound, check out our tips for producing a good saxophone sound

It may even cause the notes to come out completely wrong. 

If the debris is too sticky, it’ll rip the pads apart as they stick to the metal of the instrument. 

Once a pad is ripped, it needs to be replaced. 

This is a semi-complex repair, and music stores will do it for you, but at a higher price. 

Can You Use Rubbing Alcohol To Clean Sax Pads?

If the gunk around your pads won’t come off with the paper, it’s time for the big guns. 

Soak the end of a Q-tip or cotton swab in rubbing alcohol and rub around both the hole and cork pad. 

The rubbing alcohol is safe to use and will dissolve most gunk with enough rubbing. 

Make sure if you do this, you leave your saxophone to air out before putting it away. 

Rubbing alcohol smells terrible when it’s been trapped inside a case. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher in Michigan with 12 years of experience. He's the President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and founder of the Dynamic Music Room.

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