Why Is My Saxophone Only Playing High Notes?

As I always say, saxophones are complicated instruments with many parts operating together to give a final output. And despite this contributing to how marvelous they can sound, especially as the player gets more experiences, it’s also a part of why multiple things could go wrong.

One of those things is when your horn suddenly only plays high notes. Now, this can be translated into different meanings: either that it could be playing only the high notes and not the low ones, or that it’s playing all the notes, but in a higher octave. So, let’s delve into the issues, how to verify them, and how to fix them.

Why Is My Saxophone Only Playing High Notes

If you’re an experienced player and this issue has been happening only recently, the problem could be that the horn itself needs some repair as it could be a leak in the instrument or a stuck octave key.

The former needs a visit to the repair shop, while the second is something you can deal with on your own. 

If you’re a beginner, however, it could be simple handling errors that can easily be fixed. So, here are some common reasons you could have run into the issue and how to solve them.

1. The Upper Part of the Sax Is Leaking

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If you want to verify if your horn is leaking from the upper part, try playing from the high F sharp and down chromatically to check the point at which playing gets hard, which happens once you get below the leaking key.

Note that you could find it difficult to play the high F sharp, in which case, you can start with the highest note that you can play.

Another more basic approach is to close all the keys on the saxophone and shine a flashlight down the instrument in a dark room. This way, you can identify the leaks by the light coming through any of the keys.

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And while you can use a regular flashlight, a more helpful choice would be a specialized leak-detection light like the Liyafy one. It’s around 10 bucks and you can keep it to check for leaks whenever you suspect one, as it’s a problem that can happen anywhere on the timeline of owning a sax.

It’s worth mentioning that if you hear some squeaking with the high notes you play, it could mean that it’s your horn’s pads that are leaking and not the key holes.

If the problem does happen to be a leak, you should immediately visit the repair shop as it’s always best to let a specialist deal with it.

Related: Why is my saxophone out of tune?

2. An Octave Hole Is Stuck Open

There are two octave holes on your sax, both of which should be closed by default. Getting stuck open without you pressing any keys could lead to your saxophone playing high notes only.

The one on the neck can easily be fixed with a bend of the metal on the neck, however, the lower one is a little trickier, so you should take your horn to a specialist in this case.

To test whether the upper one or lower one is the problem, play the upper one by pressing the octave key, then play the lower one by pressing both the octave key and ring finger of your left hand. When the lower one is opened, the upper should close. Playing the notes with the two different variations will help you pinpoint if the problem is with one or both holes.

Sometimes, you can clearly see that the octave key is open, in which case, simply pressing down and bending the round metal part of the machinery on the neck would do the trick.

Finally, if it’s not so visible whether the octave holes are stuck open or not, you can press down on the machinery right above both octave holes and play into the lower register. If you find yourself able to play the lower and middle notes like before, then you can verify that it’s an issue with the octave holes being stuck open. Also, in this case, you’ll have to pay the repair shop a visit.

3. The Reed You’re Using Is Too Hard

While harder reeds are a better choice when it comes to playing high notes, they can make it hard to play middle and lower ones. However, you might be susceptible to choosing a reed that’s unnecessarily too hard, especially if you’re a beginner.

Related: The Best Alto Sax Reeds on The Market Now

Typically, when you’re a beginner, you want to play on reeds that are of strength 2 and work your way up to 3 and 3.5. However, you shouldn’t be starting with those, especially if you haven’t taken the time to strengthen the muscles in your face required to play on harder reeds.

4. Using Improper Embouchure

Sometimes in the heat of the moment, you might pinch the reed too tight with your embouchure while playing, which makes it very difficult to play lower register notes.

If you’ve exhausted the list of possibilities and your sax still seems to be playing only high notes, you might want to look into whether it’s an embouchure problem. You can easily verify by loosening up the embouchure and see if the issue is fixed. 

In fact, you might even start the process with this step as it’s a very easy one and could simply be a result of stress or some anxiety over playing a new piece.

5. Improper Placement of the Mouthpiece

Just like harder reeds, taking in a larger portion of the mouthpiece could make playing higher notes easier, but too much of that could affect the way your lower register sounds.

Your lower lip should not go beyond the point where the reed meets the mouthpiece, which you can identify with the ligature and reed attached. In fact, it should rest right at the point. Otherwise, you’ll be struggling to play the low and middle registers properly.

Final Words

To sum up, if your horn starts playing high notes only, try to fix your embouchure’s pressure, using a reed of appropriate strength to your level of playing, and readjusting the mouthpiece.

If those don’t work, you’ll have to check for more serious problems like stuck octave holes or leaking in your horn’s upper part or pads. In these cases, it’s best to get the saxophone fixed by a professional, unless it’s the upper one on the neck, which can simply be bent back into place.