I've played a lot of saxophones over the years. From working in music retail, to the many friends I have who play, and the friends I have that repair and service saxophones, and I have had the opportunity to play literally hundreds of saxophones, vintage and modern. Anyone who follows my blog knows how I feel about the great vintage saxophones, particularly my beloved old Conn 6M, but after having played many modern saxophones, especially horns made in the last 20 years, I have come to different conclusions about whether or not vintage saxophones are better or not from their modern counterparts. I will also dismantle a few myths about vintage versus modern saxophones and saxophone manufacturing in general.
First, let's define what makes a vintage saxophone a vintage saxophone. I've read many different opinions on what makes an old saxophone "vintage", so rather than settle on any one definition, I'll just use my own. Some use the 20 to 30 year rule for defining vintage. Well, I won't, because many modern horns are of that age, but I would hardly call them vintage as most of them after all this time are simply the same model with perhaps slight key improvements, cosmetics, perhaps the occasional change of neck, but still basically the same horn 30 years later. Also, many student and intermediate saxophones are that old and you could hardly call them vintage, though some stores and web sites try to sell them as such, but in reality are nothing more than old, cheap and not so well made horns.
To me, what makes a saxophone "vintage" is not just its age, but its style, its pedigree so to speak, its use as a professional instrument in its time and whether or not it was at the peak of design, sound and function at the time it was made. Also, a clear difference in design, bore sizes, keywork, etc., for each model line that preceded it and from the ones that would succeed it. Let's look at the evolution of design and keywork from Conn and Selmer as examples.
From left to right, we see the evolution of Conn's sax design in 4 models. The New Wonder, a.k.a. Chu Berry, the Transitional, the 6M and the 26M. The New Wonder had split bell keys, low B on the right side, low Bb on the left. Note the design of the G# pinky cluster. The Transitional model starts morphing into the M series, where both bell keys are on the same side, and the underslung octave key is introduced, but still uses the same G# cluster design. The 6M now has a redesigned left hand G# cluster, and all the way on the right, the 26M, one of the rarer models made between 1935 and 1940 has more elaborate engraving, a choice between the New York neck (pictured) or the underslung octave key neck, and the repositioned G# cluster moved forward to make it more ergonomic. It also featured the Permajust system, which instead of using felt and cork to adjust key heights which would wear and pack down with frequent use, instead used adjustable screws which could keep the key heights adjusted indefinitely. A mark of old saxophone design is wire key guards, and notice that the bell key guards are anchored to both the body and bell, and are soldered on so they cannot be removed and which if dropped or hit, would actually cause more widespread damage to the saxophone. There is also a single piece of wire to brace the bell to the body, also making it susceptible to more damage if hit or dropped. After this, Conn's designs did not evolve, and over time, the quality of the horns also went down. The same was true of other American manufacturers, and that factor, along with escalating prices for their saxophones (yep, at the time, Selmer saxes were better designed but cheaper to buy), lead to the decline and fall of American saxophone production.
From left to right, we see the evolution of Selmer's designs, and which are the template that all modern saxophones are drawn from. We start with the Model 28, and you see the same design elements that were in most saxophones at the time, except they put the bell keys on the same side of the horn a few years ahead of the American makers. The quantum leap in design begins with the Balanced Action. Bell keys moved from the left side of the bell to the right, a more ergonomically positioned G# cluster than other horns of the time, A 2 point bell to body brace, making it sturdier and causing less damage if hit or dropped, and could be removed. Sheet metal key guards instead of wire, giving wider and better protection, and they could also be removed to provide better access to the bell, body and keys when being repaired. The Super Balanced action adds the Remov-A-Seal from the bow to bell, so the bell can be separated from the body for easier access when repairing any damage to the bow and bell. It also repositioned the keys in a more radial fashion, rather than straight down like all other saxophones, for a more natural and relaxed position for the hands. Finally, the Mark VI, which is the most modern design of vintage saxophones and has been the basis of all modern saxophone design.
There were changes to the design after the Mark VI, employing a 3 point bell to body brace which makes it a little sturdier and also supposedly helps the horn be more resonant. Every modern saxophone pretty much will look like this, with sometimes slightly different design elements, like double arms on the low C, B and Bb keys, or a brace to anchor the G# cluster to keep it in adjustment better.
So are vintage saxophones better than modern ones? At one time I actually believed they were, because when I played my old Conn against some newer horns, my Conn shined, and it still does. However, the fact is that modern horns are really better than they ever were. Better by design, and as far as sound goes, well, if you have a well made sax, and you have the right mouthpiece to suit you, and you practiced and are a good musician, then it will sound just fine but probably play better as far as action and ergonomics go. The fact is, I have played some modern horns that sound every bit as good as my old Conn, but simply play better.
At this point in time, the technology for building saxophones is available to anyone that cares to build them. With computer programs, it is far easier to determine correct tone hole placement and heights and key placement. All factories, whether in France or China, have access to the very same metals and materials as the most famous brands do. The fact of the matter is, building a saxophone is not really as much of an art as it is a process. There really are no special skills involved, almost everything is done by machine and the only real art is the engraving. Whether a saxophone is a great horn or a piece of junk comes down to only two things: quality of materials and the quality control itself. Is the inspector catching any flaws in the adjustment or alignment of the keys, are there any visible blobs of solder, or has the solder not applied correctly where a key post or guard has fallen off? Is everything screwed tightly into place? Has it been test played enough to determine intonation and key action? If the same materials were used and the quality control was strict, then whether it's made in France, Taiwan, China, Vietnam or Indonesia, or wherever, all things being equal, one saxophone will be as good as another whatever price. I have played a Chinese made Buffet 400, several Taiwanese made saxes like P. Mauriat, Chateau and the Selmer LaVoix, the Yamaha YAS 480, which is now made in China, and I have to tell you, they all sound as good as my Conn and as good or better than most of the Mark VI's I've played, and the action and ease of playing are definitely better.
Does this mean you should ditch your vintage horn for a new one? Absolutely not. If your horn sounds the way you like, if you are fine with its keywork, then stick with it. One thing about any old instrument, whether made of metal or wood, if it has been played often over a long period of time, the material will achieve a resonance that gives it a more refined tone over time, or at least a tone that is shaped by the player. However, the same will happen with a new horn after it has been played a while. That should destroy the myth that old saxophones are inherently better than new saxophones. Actually, the quality of saxophones, even the cheapest brands, is better than it ever has been, and because of the shift in saxophone production to Asia, has enabled the player to better afford a quality instrument that will sound and play great without breaking the bank. This is why I can recommend a saxophone from these places. The factories are modern, as is the machinery, and in many cases they are using the same metal and materials as the more well known brands, so then it's just a matter of quality control. If you buy a Chinese made sax but that is under the umbrella of a famous brand that applies strict quality control, then that saxophone will be as good as anything else out there. For example, the Yamaha YAS 26 student model and the YAS 480 intermediate models are now made in China, but with no loss of quality because of Yamaha's strict standards of quality control.
Over the last few years, as I played many modern saxophones that were made in Asia, I was really amazed how good they all were, and it made me reexamine my outlook on vintage horns versus modern ones. Of course, the great old saxophones are still great, as long as they are properly maintained, they just really aren't better in general than modern horns, and definitely not as easy to play. Anyway, it wouldn't make sense for any reputable maker to make an inferior instrument at any price. So now, my Conn rests at home, and I pull it out only for playing in my room, or when I play one of those gigs with a band that plays swing music and all the players have instruments that were made in the late 20's through 40's for "authenticity" even though if we used modern instruments, it would still sound the same, it's just for looks, not that the average person who comes to the gigs would know the difference anyway. For everything else, it's my modern sax, because frankly, it fits my hands better and sounds every bit as good as the old horn with the same set up I use on the other.
So especially if you are starting out on the saxophone, it is much better to get a good quality modern horn, because of the ease of playing, intonation, and just the fact that it's new and it hasn't been handled or mishandled by someone else before you. Just like buying a new car with modern designs and safety features compared to an old car with questionable handling and reliability and perhaps a shady history.