What is the Best Saxophone for Me?

This is an extremely difficult question to answer. There are many good reasons to get a vintage horn and some extremely good reasons NOT to get a vintage horn. I discuss several of these below.

Please note: I strongly suggest that if you are a beginner or an intermediate player, get a Yamaha 52. These have extrodinarily good intonation and tone, as well as having very decent keywork (they also have nice, strong cases). A Keilwerth is also a good choice if you need a "sturdier" horn. If you need to save some bucks on a student horn, a Yamaha 23 or Allegro is the best choice. A Selmer Bundy II is the best choice for a "you can't kill it if you run it over with a steamroller" student horn.

I took my Yamaha horns through college -- yes, I also had some vintage horns in high school, but I played the Yamahas more.

Some school band instructors "require" their students to have Yamaha or Selmer horns. IMHO, this is a ridiculous requirement: if I had a student that walked in with, say, a Selmer Balanced Action, I wouldn't tell him he's gotta sell his horn and buy a YAS-23 (similar situation happened to me, more than once).


Why NOT to Buy a Vintage Horn

It'd be a really bad thing for a person right before a gig to find out that he's got a broken key on his 1965 SML Gold Medal tenor. That's not a part that your local repair shop will have in stock and it isn't one they're likely to get. If you break a part on a rare vinatge horn, you've essentially got the choices of: try to find a "parts horn" on eBay that's the same model as the horn you have, have the part remanufactured or buy a different horn.

Some very good vintage horns are very inexpensive. If you have the opportunity to buy two vintage horns of the same model, even if one is unplayable, but has all parts intact -- and they're not too expensive -- I strongly recommend that you buy both.

Some vintage horns are quite plentiful and parts are (relatively) easily accessible in the US. These horns include:

* 1920-ish Conn altos and tenors and most 6/10/12M models
* 1920-ish Bueschers altos and tenors, some 1940/1950 model Aristocrats
* Selmer Mark VI and VII (parts widely available worldwide)

Parts for most other vintage horns are uncommon, at best. Some parts, such as necks, can be remanufactured and purchased from a couple of places, but originals are difficult, if not impossible to find.

There are other reasons not to buy a vintage horn:

- Handmade. Most horns made prior to 1970 (and some thereafter) are handmade. This necessarily means that the intonation and "feel" will vary greatly from horn to horn.
- Stencils and poor models. Not all vintage horns are glorious. A very large percentage of "vintage" horns being sold at eBay are stencils (models made by a major manufacturer for a storefront, which would then literally take a stencil and engrave a design on the bell). Most American-made stencils are made with older tooling, poorer craftsmanship, lower quality material and poorer quality control. This is not to say ALL American stencils are bad: some play wonderfully.

Some stencils, such as some Lyon & Healy horns, are not exactly stencils: they're horns designed by Lyon & Healy, but manufactured by another company.

Some makes and models can be done without, too. Most Holton horns have, IMHO, a very tinny sound. The majority of Vito horns are student models. Olds horns have poor workmanship, but may play well, etc.
- Pitch. Many horns manufactured from 1880 to 1950 (or so) were available in high pitch. "Low Pitch" or "Concert Pitch" refers to the pitch that most orchestras tune to, "Concert A" (equivalent to 440 hertz). For high pitch horns, however, A climbs from 440 to 442 hertz - 460 hertz.

Horns produced prior to 1880 were available in a wide variety of pitches, and most should be considered only as collector's horns, not playable instruments.

In any event, horn that are not low pitch, A=440 hz will not play in tune with a modern ensemble.

Fortunately, Martin and Conn horns are labeled "L" or "Low Pitch." Bueschers are not. King/HN White horns occasionally are. Buffet/Evette & Schaeffer horns sometimes are. Adolphe Sax horns are not.
- Relaquer. Relacquering involves removing the original lacquer on a horn with lacquer remover or with a buffing machine and then spraying or baking on a new coat of lacquer, sometimes afer being buffed again. The problem is that relacquering with mechanical methods will remove metal and will affect sound, intonation and value. Relacquering will always make the sax's engraving dull, too. Relacquering can be extremely difficult to detect and it's really not fun to find out the supposedly minty 1962 Selmer Mark VI you paid $4000 for is now worth $2000 or less.
- Parts and Repair, Revisited. Not only are keys sometimes hard to find, sometimes a vintage saxophone repairman is hard to find -- and a vintage sax repairman with the right parts is even harder to find. What if your repairman doesn't have Buescher snap-in pads or screw-in gold-plated Norton springs? A good repairman might try to order these parts, but some will destroy the snap-in assembly and use modern pads and/or replace your Norton springs with standard blue-steel springs.
- Keywork. Most modern keywork is patterned after the Selmer Balanced Action. However, the keywork on most vintage horns is what the manufacturer thinks is best and this can mean unergonomic and difficult-to-use keywork. Keyrange may extend only from low C to altissimo Eb, or might not have front altissimo F keys -- some even may be missing some chromatic keys.

Below, I discuss some horns that were "award winners" in my 2000 Vintage Saxophone Shootout. These are good playing horns that are suitable for both a gig or for collecting.


A Brief Discussion on What Creates the Saxophone Sound

There are the things that, IMHO create the saxophone sound:

- YOU (70 to 80%)
- The mouthpiece, reed and ligature and what they're made of (15%)

... and the rest (5 to 15%):
- The neck, and what it's made of (brass, copper, plated with nickle, silver or gold. Some may be solid gold or silver)
- The saxophone bore size
- Resonators, or lack thereof (ranging from nylon to thick flat metal)
- The thickness of the saxophone construction
- The material that the saxophone is manufactured from (brass, bronze, copper or plastic)
- The material the saxophone is plated with (nickle, silver, or gold)
- The plating or construction of the bell (e.g. the King Silver-Sonic, with a sterling-silver bell)

The color or type of lacquer or enamel hasn't been proven (or discussed in depth) to have any effect on sound.

There is a rumor that delacquered Selmer Mark VI's (specifically) have a more open sound, however.

There should also be a brief mention that the location you're playing in will greatly affect your sound. You'll get a far more resonant sound playing in a small practice room than in a large, open space (such as a field). It is best to audition your prospective horn in the setting that you're going to be in the most often.

Note also that vintage horns seem to play better with mouthpieces from the era the horn was built.

Finally, saxophones of different pitches have a "natural" tone quality, e.g. a C Melody tenor has a deep bassonish quality to it's tone. Sopranos are generally quite bright. Basses are felt more than heard, etc.


!!! Caveat Emptor !!!

The best deals on saxophones are found on eBay, without question. However, most of these horns are offered without warranty or trial period. If you are unwilling to accept the risks of possibly getting a junk horn that plays horrendously out of tune, I strongly suggest going to a well-respected vintage horn dealership that has a trial period and a good reputation (like vintagesax.com, worldwidesax.com, Steve Goodson Woodwinds, etc.) and then try out the horn in whatever setting you will be most often using it. Use a tuner to check intonation -- even if you think you've got the world's best ear. Play scales, arpeggios, etc. and check with the tuner, often.

If you don't know who is a good dealer, drop me a line or post your question at SOTW. DON'T call or go over to a dealer if you don't have cash in hand. Don't call dealer X about dealer Y's horn -- they aren't in the business of selling other dealer's horns.

Also note that most vintage horns from eBay will need, at the least, a minor adjustment to make sure everything seals well (can be $50 to $200 at your local saxophone repair shop) and, at the worst, all new pads, corks, felts and springs ($300 to $900 at a GOOD saxophone repair shop). Most horns sold by dealers are checked to make sure they at least play -- unless they're sold as is.



The Best Saxophones

IMHO, the best saxophone is the one that can best suit the player. If the player plays mainly classical music, a King Super 20, for instance, would be a poor choice as a main horn.

Last year, I started a thread on SOTW regarding a "Vintage Saxophone Shootout": what is the best horn and mouthpiece combination for each style of music? I post some of the winners below:

Classical Music, Dark Tone
Buescher True-Tone, mid to late 1920's. Gold plate. Sigurd Rascher mouthpiece.
Advantages: extreme evenness in tone and intonation. Easy blowing. Played by most major classical players at one point or another. Relatively inexpensive ($1000 US or so for an alto on eBay). Can easily be used for occasional small ensemble work.
Disadvantages: "vintage" keywork (i.e. not like a Selmer) that may be a little slow. Altissimo keywork extends only to F. Considered to have a "quiet" sound.

Runner up: Buffet S1 or early Buescher Aristocrat models.

Small Ensemble Music, Dark Tone
Buffet SuperDynaction, 1960's. (Sparkle) lacquer. Selmer C* or LT hard-rubber mouthpiece.
Advantages: dark tone that's somewhat bright, but not overly so. Decent range. Relatively inexpensive ($1500 US or so for a lacquer alto on eBay). Can easily be used for occasional classical and jazz work, too. Dynaction model is similar.
Disadvantages: "vintage" keywork, although very quick. Altissimo keywork extends only to F. Considered not to have a "cutting" sound. Some natural intonation problems (i.e. endemic to the horn). Strap hook and thumbrest are in odd positions compared to other horns. Only tenors and altos are plentiful.

Runner up: Selmer Mark VI

Big Band Music, Full Sound
Conn 6/10/12M, 1940's. Lacquer. Otto Link mouthpiece.
Advantages: big sound with this setup. Rolled tone holes to "prolong pad life." Connqueror (26/30M) models available as a step up. Very popular. Can be expensive for good examples ($2000+).
Disadvantages: IMO, a boomy sound that's hard to control. Somewhat hard to keep in tune. If body tube is damaged, tone holes are difficult to repair. "Vintage" keywork.

Runner up: Conn New Wonder ("Chu Berry")

Jazz Music, Bright Sound
King Super 20 or Super 20 Silver-Sonic. Eastlake horns. Lacquer. Berg Larsen mouthpiece.
Advantages: beautiful, bright sound. Mostly "modern" keywork. It's THE jazz horn.
Disadvantages: Quite expensive for good examples ($3000+). Hard to control for other styles of music.

Runner up: Martin Magna or Committee

R&B Music, "Smoky" Sound
Kohlert 55 or 57. Mid to late 1950's. Lacquer. Otto Link mouthpiece.
Advantage: most people who try them say these are the best horns around. Rolled tone holes. Some Keilwerth design. Cheap when you find them ($500 or less)
Disadvantages: "vintage" keywork. Difficult to find.
I've never played thes horns, so I only recommend them through second-hand experience.

Runner up: Martin Magna or Committee

All Around Best Horn
Selmer Mark VI. Lacquer. Early 1960's. Selmer C* mouthpiece.
Advantages: can be played well for any kind of music. Good tone, excellent key layout.
Disadvantages: some intonation problems endemic to the horn. Expensive ($3000+ for a decent model).

Runner Up: SML "Rev. D" or Selmer Super Balanced Action


There are a bunch of excellent vintage horns that were not mentioned in the Vintage Saxophone Shootout. I list a few below:

- Keilwerth horns ("The New King" models, specifically, for big band and jazz music)
- Dolnet and Couesnon horns (for small ensemble music)
- "Leblanc System" horns (for small ensemble and classical music)

Also, GENERALLY, the model right before and right after the ones listed above are extremely good, too. For example, the SML "Gold Medal" horns are some of the best ever made, while not all of them have as good a feature set as the "Rev. D" models.


Finally, please remember that these horns are not necessarily the most collectible horns, but are good playing horns, as listed by other folks.

Your mileage may vary.

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