Art and craft of the saxophone
When Eric Drake sits at his workbench after the sun goes down, it can feel as if nothing else exists—only the sharp sound of metal striking metal and the windows echoing his reflection back to him.
In a way, that’s what his repair shop is: a little world of its own.
“The sound of the saxophone, number one, is like the most beautiful next to the human voice, I think,” he says of his favorite instrument. Saxology is Eric’s all-purpose saxophone supply and repair mecca in North Berkeley. He spends his evenings lost in concentration as he painstakingly fits brass pieces together. “It’s all sort of 19th century mechanical technology,” he explains.
The shop is funky and grimy in a lived-in way. Out front, photos of Jazz masters share space with political posters. Mean-looking machinery lines the walls, from angle grinders to medieval-looking steel mandrills, used to push dents out of the inside of saxophones. More than 70 saxes sit in cases on shelves or leaning against the walls. Beside rows of mouthpieces and extra keys, there’s a grimacing wooden mask. Next to that, a bull’s head made out of gears. The whole place oozes a mix of steampunk wonder and vintage decay.
And that’s not to mention the figurine collection, which gets its own dedicated space. From Porky Pig to one of the famous M and M mascots to Lisa Simpson, they statuettes have one thing in common: they’re all playing the saxophone. Eric inherited the collection from his business partner, Jay Clark. The two started the shop together eleven years ago, before Jay passed away soon after from a sudden stroke. It was a hard time for Eric, but he stuck with it, and now Saxology is beloved for many musicians.
Berkeley seems uniquely suited to host a little world as specific as a saxophone repair shop. Berkeley High is famous for producing saxophonists like jazzman Joshua Redman. There’s also the university, of course, and plenty of professionals who live in New York but come back to visit. They discover Saxology when they need a tune up. Then they tell their friends about it—and word spreads. Now Eric has customers from up and down the California coast and as far away as New York and Mexico.
Beyond general repair, Eric has also learned mouthpiece refacing, a rare skill. And he’s mastered the art of saxophone engraving—a niche within a niche. “If you give me a drawing of it, I can translate it into an engraving,” he says. “The weirdest thing I ever engraved is this figure that this guy that I know calls alien bear. It’s basically a teddy bear with a control panel on its chest.”
Skills aside, though, there’s no doubt that the biggest factor in the store’s success is Eric himself. With his corny sense of humor, soul patch, and long silver ponytail, he exudes a kind of hippie wisdom and a consuming love of music and mechanics. It doesn’t take much to convince him to take out a saxophone and play.
“This one is from the 40s,” he says lovingly, as he takes a beautiful saxophone, engraved all over with flowers, out of its case. (He engraved the flowers himself.)
For Eric, playing saxes – and fixing them, engraving them, returning them to their owners— is a way to transform his love of music into action. Still, someday soon, he’s planning to leave the store to his apprentice. His true destiny, he says, lies elsewhere. He’s thinking about picking up and moving to Peru. But his daydreams take him further.
“I dream about planets where everybody plays the saxophone,” he says. “Which I’m sure are out there.”
Until then, he’ll continue building a smaller version of that planet in the East Bay.
Alissa Greenberg is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism