What is the Best Saxophone for
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
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.
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.
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
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:
... and the rest (5 to 15%):
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.
ALWAYS TRY TO PLAYTEST A HORN BEFORE BUYING.
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
Runner up: Selmer Mark VI
Runner up: Conn New Wonder ("Chu Berry")
Runner up: Martin Magna or Committee
Runner up: Martin Magna or Committee
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)
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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