‘Ya pays ‘ya money……’ya takes ‘ya chance A guide for the saxophone purchaser
Since 1972, when I went to work at Herbert Music in Auburn, Alabama, I’ve spent the better part of most business days assisting a customer with the purchase decision for a saxophone. I am forever amazed that consumers spend so much money based on so little information. I spent the better part of a day this week with a couple trying to decide on a professional quality horn for their daughter who was entering a top flight university saxophone program, and it became very obvious quite early in the transaction that despite good intentions, they honestly didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Hopefully, through this article, I’ll be able to convey some basic information to assist you with your purchase decision. I think that in the 40+ years I’ve been doing this I’ve been asked just about every possible question multiple times, and I’m going to try to present the information in a logical format, and I want you to know that I’m more than happy to answer any questions you might have if you will just call my office (504 – 324 – 3850) during business hours. I hope you will consider the points I raise in this article, and ask plenty of very specific questions of anyone trying to sell you a saxophone. If they can’t or won’t answer your questions, take your business elsewhere. There are plenty of people out there selling saxophones.
NEW VS. USED It is in no way unusual for a saxophone to last a hundred years with minimal care, and there is a great abundance of used horns available on the secondary market. To the casual observer, saxophones haven’t really changed all that much since the very first ones appeared in the 1840’s. Most retail music stores maintain a substantial inventory of used and reconditioned horns, often at a fraction of the price of new examples. If these instruments are still serviceable, what accounts for the significant price differential? I think a very valid analogy exists within the used automobile market. As in the car business, the initial buyer takes the “hit” of depreciation as soon as they walk out of the music store with a new horn. Although established saxophone manufacturers typically introduce new models every ten years or so, there is always a substantial portion of the buying public who desires nothing less than the “latest and greatest”, so less than current models, although quite serviceable, may suffer a further reduction in price. If the buyer is dealing with an established dealer, in all probability the horns offered will all have been serviced and brought up to playable condition and may actually offer a warranty. Alas, if you buy a saxophone from an individual seller or off an internet auction site, you are generally “on your own” insofar as condition and potentially needed repairs go. Of course, the dealers generally command a pricing premium for this service, since there is no such thing as “free lunch” in this world. Saxophone repairs can be VERY expensive: our shop bills at the rate of $100/hr, and some technicians charge even more. Of course, that hourly rate is far less than what my attorney, accountant, plumber, and electrician all charge me, but it’s still a lot of money, even for small repair jobs. If a used saxophone needs a complete overhaul, expect to pay a minimum of $1000 for the services of a technicIan who is experienced and competent. Another major consideration is the availability of repair parts for older horns. Pads and springs are pretty much generic items and readily available for most saxophones (except Buescher and Leblanc), but mechanical parts are an entirely different matter. Most manufacturers do offer repair parts, but only for models in current production. Some manufacturers (Selmer, Yamaha, Saxgourmet Jupiter, Unison, and others) offer parts for discontinued models for seven years after production ceases. Of course, if the saxophone in question is not actually manufactured by “the brand engraved on the bell”, you are generally out of luck with regard to replacement parts. The best rule to follow is to never, ever buy a horn that requires any parts. There are plenty of complete horns for sale out there.
“VINTAGE” vs. NEW HORNS There’s always a lot of talk about the many benefits of playing “vintage horns”. Now before I proceed with this discussion, I want to make a full disclosure that I have a collection of over 150 older horns, and that I love and enjoy each and every one of them. But here’s the simple facts: if you want to play your very best, use an instrument which represents the most advanced stage of the “state of the art”……saxophones have evolved considerably over the years, particularly with regard to intonation and ergonomics. “But” you say, “Coltrane (or fill in the blank with the name of any long dead saxophone player) sounded great playing a SBA”. Sure he did…..that horn was the current state of saxophone development in its day, but horns have evolved considerably. Any serious player should only consider an instrument that is easiest to play. There is no point in making playing the saxophone more difficult than it has to be. There is absolutely nothing unique about horns of the past that modern horns don’t do better. The build quality today is better than ever, and there is no “super secret” brass alloy that cannot be easily duplicated or improved upon. Think of it this way: if you were going to enter the Indianapolis 500, would you try to win the race with a 70 year old race car? I didn’t think so…..
HOW DO I FIGURE OUT THE HONEST PRICE OF A USED HORN? It’s hard to do if you don’t actively track the market………here’s a value guide that you might find useful. Be sure to read the preface for necessary pricing adjustments! http://www.saxgourmet.com/vintage-saxophone-value-guide/
AREN’T A LOT OF THE DIFFERENT BRANDS MADE TODAY ACTUALLY THE SAME? Well, yes and no……if you buy a horn from one of the major brands, in all probability (although not always!) the company who engraved their name on the bell actually made the horn. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of those companies. The overwhelming majority of new saxophones sold worldwide are manufactured by companies you most likely never heard of. These companies make horns for many, many different marketers, and yes, very often, the horns are mechanically and acoustically identical, differing only in the cosmetics. The dirty little secret of the industry is that almost nobody knows who makes what for who, and those who do know (me, for example) are very much sworn to secrecy. Since the saxophone manufacturing industry moved to Asia about 20 years ago (over 90% of all new horns are made there), design diversity has become a somewhat rare commodity. The overwhelming majority of saxophones manufactured in Asia (and Europe, for that matter) are variations on the Selmer Super 80 theme…..not that the Super 80 series is a bad starting point. The differences are basically build quality and cosmetics. Take a look for yourself and you will easily see what I am talking about. The basic horns are, for the most part, the same.
WHAT ABOUT THE ADVERTISING CLAIMS? Almost every marketer of saxophones claims that their horns are superior to all others and that they are unique in their design and construction. Here’s a good rule to follow: if the horn is really different from the competition, then it should be very easy to see, touch, and feel the differences. If you can’t actually see and actually touch a feature that is clearly different, in all probability there is no difference. You simply shouldn’t be called upon to use your imagination.
DOES COUNTRY OF ORIGIN MAKE A DIFFERENCE? While it may have at one time, that’s not true today. Saxophone manufacturing technology has really advanced and spread in recent years. No one country now holds a monopoly on producing good (or bad) horns today. In the last few years, production costs have become more and more equal in the countries that manufacture saxophones, so price is no longer a clear indicator of quality. The mainland Chinese horns have probably seen the greatest improvement in quality, and no longer enjoy their massive price advantage of the past. In the for what it’s worth department, my very favorite factory worldwide is located in Viet Nam! At this point, I want to guide the prospective purchaser through some of the physical aspects of saxophone construction that may have an influence on their buying decision. It goes without saying that before you consider the physical attributes, you should be absolutely certain that the specific instrument in question plays perfectly in tune with an even timbre throughout the range and that the octave pitches match perfectly. If there are intonation problems or an uneven scale, simply reject the instrument. Those issues indicate a fundamental design flaw, which in all probability cannot be corrected at anything approaching reasonable expense.
THE NECK Many saxophones today come with multiple necks, with each neck providing a different tone quality. If the horn you’re considering only comes with one neck, you should consider adding one from the many aftermarket options available. You will be surprised at the versatility multiple necks offer. Be sure that any neck has a nice, thick ferrule at the “mouthpiece end”. That’s where the metal is thinnest, and a thick ferrule helps prevent splitting. The ferrule should have a taper so as not to present a vertical obstruction to the wave as it enters the neck. The neck should fit both tightly and evenly in the receiver. To test the fit, insert the neck in the receiver and with a light finger pressure, rotate the neck. The amount of resistance should be absolutely even. If it’s not, then either the tenon or the receiver (or both) is out of round, and if it’s out of round, it leaks. Several brands (Selmer, Saxgourmet, and others) thread the interior of the neck tenon in order to generate a boundary layer which stabilizes the lower notes. Different materials will give different sounds and responses: copper darkens the sound by adding more mid and low overtones; additional zinc in the brass alloy make the neck brighter and thinner sounding by favoring the upper partials; solid silver responds quicker than brass or other materials.
THE PADS A variety of materials are used for saxophone pads, including sheep skin (the most common); goat skin; and and kangaroo leather. Sheep and goats are mammals, so the cell structure of the skin is somewhat random. Kangaroo are marsupials, so the cell structure is in the form of a regular lattice. Sheep skin is smooth and inexpensive, goat skin is extremely strong and very durable (although it tends to be a little grainy and the hardness makes it noisy), and kangaroo, although extremely soft (and hence quiet) and strong is also extremely expensive. Kangaroo leather is much less likely to stick to the tone holes due to the structure of the cells, and as a result does not require a waterproofing treatment. Silicone based treatments are often used on sheep skin and goat skin pads to prevent them from absorbing moisture, but these treatments can often cause pad sticking and should be rejected. A simple test for silicone treatment is to close all of the pads, and then allow them to open using spring pressure alone. Listen for an audible “kissing” sound as the key releases. If this sound is present, the pads are probably silicone treated and should be rejected. The underlying felt used in pad construction is critical to good performance. Good quality felt should be quite firm and exhibit straight, well defined shoulders at the perimeter. Soft felt tends to shrink and distort with time, causing leaks.
THE RESONATORS A resonator is nothing more than a mirror, reflecting the wave back into the body tube. The reflection should as accurate as possible, with the wave remaining unaltered by the resonating process. In order to accomplish this, the resonator should be constructed of the exact same material as the body tube, and sized to minimize the amount of exposed pad leather, which acts much like a sponge absorbing and deadening the sound. It is also important to avoid metal resonators made from steel and aluminum, which invariable quickly corrode (remember, saliva contains hydrochloric acid!) and have to be replaced before the pads themselves have reached the end of their useful life. Unless your saxophone body is made from plastic, plastic resonators should always be avoided.
ROLLED TONE HOLES A number of modern brands now offer the option of rolled tone hole rims. These rims are made in two different ways: either the metal of the tone hole chimney is folded back after the chimney is pulled from the body, or a ring is hard soldered to the top of the chimney. There’s no real manufacturing advantage to one system over the other, and rolled tone holes change the feel of the key as it contacts the tone hole by significantly increasing the amount of contact surface. There is absolutely no acoustic difference between a rolled and an unrolled tone hole. It is significantly more difficult to repair or level rolled tone holes. and this should always be a consideration. Very, very few repair shops have the requisite skills to properly repair and adjust them.
THE SPRINGS It’s generally agreed that blued steel needle springs give the best service life and “feel”. Stainless steel springs generally lack a precise “feel” and quick response time. The needle point serves to focus the energy of the spring onto the key, adding efficiency. It is important to remember that springs which are long and thin are far preferable to springs which are short and fat as they give a much more even release of energy and better feel. Blued steel is often too brittle to serve well for flat springs, and phosphor copper will give much longer and more reliable service in this application.
THE PLATED FINISH OR LACQUER (OR LACK THEREOF) The industry wide specification for the thickness of plated or lacquered finishes is 3/10,000ths of an inch. This is FAR too thin to have any impact whatsoever on the sound or response of a saxophone. Today’s lacquers are epoxy based and are applied electrostatically, so they are extremely strong and thin. A wide variety of lacquer tints are in current usage, and they are just that: tints. The different platings in common use (silver, gold, anodized nickel) are all applied in the same fashion and typically have the same ultimate thickness. It’s important to keep in mind that the different platings offered are an extremely high mark up item for the manufacturer, and can significantly increase the cost of an instrument without adding any acoustic benefit. There’s been a trend in recent years of completely removing the lacquer or plating. There is absolutely no question about the fact that removal of the final finish dramatically alters the way a saxophone looks. That’s all it does.
THE UNDERLYING METAL This is really and truly the “Golden Age” of saxophone metallurgy. We have more options available now than at any other time in history. I’ll cover this subject in far greater detail in a future article in Saxophone Today, but for the time being, here’s the basics you need to know: Most saxophones are made from a brass alloy that is 70% copper and 30% zinc…….the greater the percentage of zinc in the alloy, the brighter and thinner the tone……”rose brass” typically has a copper content of over 80%, and gives a much more complex sound due to the presence of more mid and lower partials…….silver and nickel silver tend to sound a bit brighter than brass and respond much more quickly…….Bronze is occasionally used, giving a little quicker response due to the addition of tin to the copper and zinc……various plastics have been tried since the Grafton saxophones of the 1940’s but they have never gained widespread acceptance due to thin tone and durability issues.
GIZMOS AND GEEGAWS There are a lot of “extra” features offered today that were unavailable in the past, and you should consider the potential effect some of them may have on the playability of your new horn. Among the options available today are double arms on the low C, B, and Bb (prevents leaks); screw adjustable keys (allows owner maintenance); G# anti-stick mechanism (a must have!); extended range keywork up to high G; additional “speaker” keys (improve intonation on cross vented notes); multiple octave vents (up to four, instead of the usual two for improved evenness of timbre and intonation); and many, many others. True, the availability of all of the modern options have made saxophone purchasing a bit more of a complex decision, but the good news is that saxophonists today have more choices than ever, and that in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, great saxophones are now actually cheaper to buy than ever. So, quit reading and go saxophone shopping, and let me know your questions!