Friday, June 19, 2015

The Golden Age Of Saxophone Manufacturing Part 2: If I Could Only Own One Saxophone

Part 1 dealt with saxophones that I would recommend for the student to the working pro on a budget based on what I have played and my personal preferences.  I have played many others and liked them, but the ones I chose for the article were the best in my opinion. Keep in mind that if you have the opportunity to try out saxophones for yourself, it is only you that can make the final decision based on your own personal preferences and budget.  My reviews and articles are meant as a guide, not the final say.

Part 2 is about saxophones that cost 3 grand and over brand new.  However, for this article, I am only discussing the latest models and versions since it is my opinion based on what I've been playing that with great improvements, from utilizing computer technology to advances in manufacturing technology, it is my feeling that we are in a golden age of saxophone manufacturing and that saxophones really are better than they ever were.  Even lesser known and lesser priced saxophones are at a level of quality not possible 20 or 30 years ago, and that match or exceed the quality and sound of many professional saxophones of that time.  Saxophones that are being marketed as step up or intermediate horns are more like entry level professional saxes at this point.  Many are that good.

This doesn't mean that you should throw away your Mark VI if it is the horn that works for you, but in the last few years, I have seen a fairly large number of players trade their Mark VI's for a new Selmer, Keilwerth, Yamaha, Yanigasawa, and P. Mauriat.  Two great players I know, Sonny Fortune and Richie Cole used to play Mark VI's, now they play References.  When I was still working in music retail, I had several players trade their Mark VI's for a new top of the line horn.  In many cases, a saxophone can be compared to an automobile.  Automobile aficionados love the old classic cars.  They may own one or more of them. Sometimes they take them out for a drive, but not often, because being old cars, they require a high degree of maintenance which is costly, not to mention the parts if you can still find them, and sometimes it requires the custom manufacturing of a part which always runs into money.  The fact is, they're beautiful to look at, fun to take on that occasional drive, but are simply not practical or desirable for every day use, because they will break down more often, and the cost of repairing it and replacing parts can be prohibitive.

I mentioned this in my earlier article on the Mark VI Mystique, that more Mark VI's than any other horn came into the repair shop in the store I once worked in, as well as in the shop of my own repair tech.  The key rods, posts and screws wear down in time, and there's only so much reaming of a key rod that can be done before the screw can no longer make contact with the rod and the action slips.  There is only so much of the neck tenon that can be burnished to stretch it out in order to keep it tight on the body before the metal thins out too much or cracks.  Once it gets to the point where you have to replace parts, the cost and practicality of doing so no longer makes sense.  Yes, I understand the emotional attachment one can have for a trusted old instrument, and as long as yours is in top working condition and sounds good, there is no reason to change.  On the other hand, if your horn is beginning to rattle, and it starts to spend more time in the repair shop than on the bandstand, it really is time for a new saxophone.

I really believed until not too long ago that the older saxophones were better, but playing dozens of new saxophones has convinced me otherwise, from key action and build quality to sound.  Add to that the leaps in technology in the manufacture of mouthpieces, ligatures, accessories, etc., and the saxophone player has choices that were just not available years ago.  Of course, I still love my old Conn 6M, just like so many players still hold on to their Mark VI's or King Super 20's, but since playing so many new saxophones, I know what the limitations of these old horns are.  Of course, sometimes a limitation can be an asset if you have a particular style or sound and what and where you play and the audience you have, but the majority of working musicians these days, as well as those in school and university programs play a greater range of musical styles and have a greater range of technical requirements for the music they play, and they must have a modern instrument to keep up with that.

I chose saxophones that I have personally played and would be happy with if they were the only saxophone I could own.  Of course, out of this group, I have preferences and have listed them in the order that I would choose them if my first and subsequent options were not possible.  To my own playing experience, these represent the best of what is out there, but this list is hardly inclusive and again, based solely on what I've played and my opinion.  I am only showing the alto versions, but the soprano, tenor and baritone versions of these models are of equal quality.  Some newer saxophone models like the Selmer Seles Axos, and the Limited Edition Adolphe Sax model, Theo Wanne's Mantra, Steve Goodson's Saxgourmet, etc., I have not yet had the opportunity to try, and when and if I do, you will read about it here.  Maybe later I will be able to afford some video equipment and post myself actually playing the instruments for you to hear.  Keep in mind that this is like my hobby, and I am not yet making any money or receiving samples or anything from doing this. I just love playing and discussing saxophones.

Anyway, here is my short list of the best of the best and what I would own if money were no object.

My first choice is the Buffet Senzo, because of all the new as well as old saxophones I've played, I was the most impressed with the richness of its tone, the superb keywork and construction, intonation, etc.  Playing the lowest notes was the easiest of any sax I've played.  It was also one of the most versatile horns I've played.  It handled the full spectrum of musical styles from classical to jazz to rock and funk, with no compromises.  The solid copper bell, body and neck give it a warm, complex tone and is beautiful to look at as well.  So far, my favorite all-around saxophone.

The Selmer Reference 54 came about by analyzing, with the help of advanced computer technology, the brass alloy composition and the bore size of the best Mark VI they could find which was made in 1958.  Reference 54 refers to the first year of  the Mark VI's production, 1954.  They added modern improvements in the keywork and placement of the tone holes for better intonation.  When I first tried the Reference 54's when they were first unveiled in 2001, I was not overly impressed.  Yes, I liked them, but I still had reservations.  10 years later, when Selmer unveiled the Dragonbird References and Series II and III horns, as well as the latest addition References, I was very impressed.  In that 10 year span, there were even more advances made in computer and manufacturing technology, and I literally played dozens of horns that day.  The picture on top from that show is only a fraction of what was on display and there for everyone to try.  Every horn I picked up that day played consistently well.  I played sopranos, altos and tenors, and every one of them sounded and played great from the get go.  The References were my favorite of them all.  This time, I had no reservations, and that day I felt that I would love to own this horn.  Far more consistent in sound and action than any Mark VI I ever played.  When I say consistent, I don't mean they all had a cookie cutter tone.  I mean that whatever your mouthpiece, reed and ligature setup and style  is, you are bound to get the sound you are looking for.  A modern classic as far as I'm concerned.

YANIGASAWA A-W020 and A-W037
I have always been impressed with Yanigasawa saxophones.  Excellent build quality, keywork, sound and overall playability.   These two are among my favorite saxophones, though I lean a little more to the W020 because of its higher copper content and what I feel is a warmer sound.  However both horns have great tones and are suitable for so many musical styles.  Several years ago, a friend of mine was working on cruise ships, and he generally needed both alto and tenor, but for this one cruise, he only needed the alto.  He had an old Martin Handcraft alto that sounded fantastic, and his tenor was the Yanigasawa 992 bronze.  Since he would be gone 3 months, he didn't want to leave it in his house just in case (this is New York after all), and he didn't want to drag it with him on the boat if he wasn't going to use it, so he left it with me.  I played it for 3 months and it was the best tenor I ever played, so I could see why he chose it.  You can't go wrong with a Yanigasawa.

 The Buffet Group purchased Keilwerth several years ago and it seems to be a good marriage.  By acquiring Keilwerth, Buffet has been able to take advantage of the already in place skilled workers at the Keilwerth factory when Buffet designed the Senzo.  While the design was conceived and executed at the Buffet factory in Paris, and bell, body tube and neck were all made there, they were able to utilize the Keilwerth factory for the assembly of the keys and posts, as well as the engraving.  In turn, Keilwerth was able to incorporate some of Buffet's qualities into their own saxophones.  The CX-90 is reminiscent of the Buffet Prestige S3, which was the predecessor to the Senzo, in its solid copper body and rich warm sound.  However, it is a completely Keilwerth saxophone in its design and keywork.  Beautiful to look at and beautiful to hear.

I tried the Custom Z in all the finishes that are available, and they all pretty much sounded similar with my mouthpiece, reed and ligature setup, so I chose the black lacquer finish because it is just gorgeous to look at and definitely has a stage presence.  The sound is rich and flexible, so it works for a great variety of styles.  Yamaha's build quality and keywork are legendary, so you really can't go wrong here.

The 875-EX has heavier key rods and they are arranged differently on the body than the Custom Z or other models.  The tone is a bit darker than the other Yamaha's and is used by many classical players, though I still find that it can handle a wide variety of modern styles.  The tone is rich and centered.  It is beautifully engraved and is another great all-around horn.

The Selmer Series III is made from a brass alloy with higher copper content, like the Reference 54's, and so it has a slightly warmer tone than the Series II.  The bore size is a little smaller, and it has a venting key for C# which helps bring that note into line.  Selmer quality, keywork and sound are all evident here, and this is another horn that can handle many musical styles.

Keilwerth SX-90R
The Keilwerth SX-90R is the flagship model of the Keilwerth line.  First marketed under the name H. Couf, for the man that designed it, once it gained a foothold on the American market it was marketed under its own name and has taken its place amongst the Big 4 saxophone manufacturers.  The SX-90R has rolled tone holes, but rather than drawn and rolled from the existing metal, they solder on tone rings.  The idea is that should the tone hole become damaged, it is easier to remove the ring, fix the tone hole and then replace the ring.  The drawback is that the rings can be placed unevenly and create leaks in the horn.  However, regardless, it is a beautifully made and sounding saxophone.  I favor the brushed nickel finish model pictured here, because I liked the warm yet clear tone that suited my playing style very nicely.

  The Selmer Series II has been the best selling saxophone in the Selmer line for years now.  It's one of the most versatile saxophones on the market that can cover a very wide variety of musical styles.  I preferred the black lacquer finish for its aesthetics.

Since officially retiring, I will now find the time to search out as many horns as I can find and try them all.  The one plus when working in music retail was that I had access to many new saxophone models. The minus was that they were limited by availability and which brands my store could carry.  Some brands are not available in stores near me, so this limits what I can try.  However, the quest will go on.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The New Golden Age Of Saxophone Manufacturing Part 1: My Personal Favorite Student and Intermediate/Entry-Level Pro Saxophones

Having retired recently, I have had more time to visit my friend who buys and sells saxophones, shooting the breeze, trading old man stories (you know, how we hurt more than we used to, hospital visits, what if any medications are you taking, etc.), but most of all, trying out lots of new and vintage horns. As a repair tech, my friend has been fixing horns for over 40 years, and he can take the mechanisms of the most clunky, unergonomic saxophones and make them feel almost brand new.  For a long time he, just like I, preferred vintage horns to modern ones. Give us a Mark VI or a Conn 6M, 10M or 12M, King Super 20, Martin Committee III, Buescher Aristocrat or TH&C 400, and forget the rest.  The rationale was that the old horns sounded better.  That's only true to a certain extant. Any fine instrument, whether made of metal or wood and properly maintained and that has been played frequently by its owner will achieve a certain resonance over time.  However, if the instrument uses inferior materials and is cheaply or badly constructed, it doesn't matter how many years you play it, it will still not sound good.

Many players still hold the image of the dedicated craftsman sitting at his bench, hammering away at the bell, meticulously hand fitting every part and fitting it all together, and the delicate and steady hand of the engraver putting an artistic touch on the final product.  There is still some handwork being done, mostly in the soldering of the posts and rods, and in placing and adjusting the set screws and key heights and in the engraving, and some manufacturers still have their workers hand hammer the bell hundreds of times while heating, cooling, reheating in a process called annealing which is supposed to make the bell more resonant.  I know that Selmer has stopped having their workers do that because of severe wrist injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome.  The majority of the work is done by machine, from stamping out the bell, bow and body shapes, forming the neck, drawing the tone holes, etc.  Computer technology has allowed manufacturers to better analyze and determine more accurate ratios of zinc to copper for the brass as well as other metal compositions for more consistent tonal qualities, the best and most accurate placement of the tone holes and their heights for better intonation and also how the bow size helps the air flow better so that it's easier to play the low notes down to Bb and A(for baritones) and be able to apply a wider range of dynamics to them.  Because of the big improvement in manufacturing techniques, I really feel that we are in a new golden age of saxophone building.  The Big 4 are still building top of the line instruments, but with new improvements, and many of the lesser known companies from Taiwan as well as some proprietary brands like Steve Goodson's Saxgourmet, Phil Barone and Tenor Madness, to cite just a few examples, are taking advantage of the modern manufacturing techniques and marketing high quality saxophones for the professional as well as the serious student at prices that won't break the bank.  This is a great thing, because now more quality instruments can be put into the hands of serious players, whether student, amateur or pro.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the best saxophones that I have personally played extensively and found to be my favorites that would be suitable for the student and the working professional on a budget.  My criteria was also that soprano saxophones be under $2500, alto saxophones under $3000, tenors under $3500, and baritones under $4500.  The prices represent the upper limit but it would be possible to find these horns for much less depending on the dealer.  However, always remember to never go too cheap.  If the price is too good to be believed, then it isn't too good and you can believe that.  This list is not extensive, and there may be other great saxophones that fit this criteria and can be had for even less, but I am only discussing saxes I have personally tried and can recommend with no qualms.  This also represents saxophones when purchased brand new.  The price of used saxophones is arbitrary anyway.  However, if you can find these models used in good to excellent playing and cosmetic condition, then by all means go for it. Still, I prefer purchasing a new saxophone because even over just the last few years, there have been big improvements to saxophone manufacturing and the newest versions of even the time tested models will have these improvements. Keep in mind that some of the models I highlight here started out as being anywhere from so-so to okay, but became much better as they were tweaked and improved.  So here are my personal recommendations. Of course, if you still have the chance to try them out personally, that is much better, but if you don't have access to a music store and buy online, just make sure that it's from a reputable dealer with a liberal return or exchange policy.  In any case, these saxophones represent in my opinion a good value in both money and sound.

YAMAHA YAS-26 and YTS-26

 The Yamaha YAS-26 alto sax and the YTS-26 tenor are the only student saxophones that make it on my personal favorite list.   The 26 is the successor to the very popular 23 line, probably the best selling student saxophones ever.  They are the best built student saxophones on the market.  The keywork, the durability, the consistent tone and the resale value are simply the best of any student saxophone out there.  There are other good student models, and some even have one thing the Yamaha 26 lacks, which is a high F# key, but none of them are built to the high standard of the Yamaha.  I have tried out many student horns but none come close to the Yamaha for quality. The student simply cannot go wrong with this saxophone.

YAS-480 and YTS-480

The YAS-480 alto and the YTS-480 tenor is upgraded and improved from the previous version, the 475.  It is marketed and priced as an intermediate saxophone, but I found that it can work every bit as good as any pro horn. It has a little more engraving added to it than from its previous incarnation, and has a high F# key.  I found the tone to be in the middle, not dark or not bright and very consistent from the top down.  Overall, a very good tone, and as I said it can be used as a pro horn or as a lesser priced backup for a pro player when their main horn is in the shop.   I wouldn't have any problems taking these horns onstage with me.


The YAS-62III and YTS-62III are the latest incarnation of Yamaha's entry-level pro saxophone, and until the introduction of the Custom Z and EX line, the only one.  Since its introduction as the 52 and on to the 62, 62II and now 62III, it has been one of the most popular and best selling professional saxophones on the market, and for good reason.  Excellent build quality and reliability along with a good solid tonal core makes this saxophone a great choice for any player either looking to step up from their student horn or any working pro that needs a workhorse for all the studio gigs, wedding gigs, club and bar shows, etc.  Slightly darker in tone than the 480, this saxophone can handle a variety of styles from classical to jazz to rock. A versatile, no-nonsense, no frills saxophone easy on the budget as good pro saxes go.


Since its introduction in 2008, the Buffet 400 line has become quite popular, and for good reason.  Priced at an intermediate level, these are really professional horns and represent in my opinion one of the best saxophone values out there.  Many players have already written me to tell me how pleased they are with their 400's.  Many others are surprised that a saxophone in its price point can look and sound so good.  The only complaint I have about it is rather minor, in that the key pearls are not real pearls but plastic.  That was one area where I was disappointed because many saxophones at that price point have real pearl or abalone key touches.  On the plus side, the keys are concaved in a way that really keep the fingers fitting nicely and comfortably into them.  Other than that, no other complaints.  The 400 comes in two finishes, a honey gold lacquer and a matte or vintage lacquer.  The alto and tenor have double arms on the low C B and Bb keys, which keeps those keys in better adjustment.  I also find the key action sure and solid, like the Yamaha.  The 400 is available as an alto, tenor and baritone.  If you've read my earlier reviews of this horn you already know I like it.  A great horn for the pro player as well as a the advanced student.

For my readers in Brazil:


Chateau is fairly new to the market, though their parent company Tenon in Taiwan has been making saxophones since 1979 for other names before marketing their own line.  I have only played the altos shown, not the tenors, but I was incredibly impressed with the build quality, appearance, keywork, and above all the sound.  These are in my mind another one of the best buys out there. The ones you see here have double arms on the low C, B and Bb keys and real rolled tone-holes, not soldered on tone rings.  The first two horns from the left are made from 93% copper, which gives them a warm and complex tone.  The next one is solid brushed nickel with beautiful abalone pearl key touches.  It has a slightly brighter tone than the copper models, but still full and rich.  The last one is a beautifully finished cognac lacquer and the brass is made with 85% copper content, which gives this horn a warm tone that is well suited to classical as well as jazz.  They are all beautifully hand engraved on the bell bell rim, bow and neck.  At this time, these horns can all be had for under $2500, and I saw the Cognac Lacquer model going under 2 grand, so if you have the chance to try these horns, I highly recommend them.  For the working pro, these saxophones are not only a good value dollar-wise, but have a great sound and appearance and will help you look and sound every bit the pro you are.

P. Mauriat

P. Mauriat has always been among my favorite new saxophone brands because they not only make top grade saxophones which have been adopted by some of the best players in the business like James Carter, Greg Osby and my friend Keyan Williams, but they have constantly worked on improving their saxophones.  I know Alex Hsieh, the president of Albest, the parent company of P. Mauriat, and he cares about his product and travels out of Taiwan extensively not just to attend the trade shows, but as a good-will ambassador for the saxophone.  He always listens to suggestions on how to improve the saxophone from other players and often incorporates those suggestions into his horns, quite often introducing a new model to accommodate those suggestions.  He even liked one of my suggestions on how to improve the low G# to Bb pinky cluster, and when I have the chance to visit him in Taiwan, he will sit down with me and actually have me draw it out and explain it.  It doesn't matter whether he ends up using it or not, it's still nice to know he's willing to listen.  Since the beginning of P. Mauriat's introduction to the marketplace, the 67R and 66R have been their flagship saxophones.  It achieved almost instant popularity with pros because not only the price point, but because of its big, full sound.  It was one of the first modern brands to employ real rolled tone-holes, which are drawn and rolled from the existing metal on the body rather than being soldered on.  The dark lacquer, gold lacquer, and unlacquered models can still be had at a great price.  The tenor is literally a beast, and the first time I played it, it reminded a lot of the old Conn Chu Berry, which is a good thing. The 66R and 67R are available in a variety of finishes.  The tipped bell soprano is one of my favorite sopranos.  The curved neck with the bell turned slightly outward allows you to actually hold the saxophone more comfortably while it projects a little more to the audience.  I have had issues with the keywork in the past.  Often, the keys felt spongy and soft, and some keys would even rattle, so the tech would have to spend some time tightening them up.  I'm glad to say that the latest horns don't seem to have that issue, and I hope they keep it up.  Overall, one of the brands you have to try.


Tevis and Cheryl Lauket began their enterprise by playing with a not so good sax in their kitchen, and by changing some things about it, like the neck, they found that they could improve the sound and intonation of the sax by tweaking various things.  They eventually raised some money and got a dedicated manufacturer in Taiwan to build the saxes for them.  They set up a second facility near Salt Lake City Utah where technicians would then do all the final adjustments and engraving before they went out to the shops.  Contrary to what many people think, these were not named after Cannonball Adderley.  I have to admit that I was not a big fan of the earlier incarnations of the Cannonball line, but over the years I've noticed many improvements and at this point, I consider them among some of the best saxophones you can buy if you're a serious student or working pro.  In the earlier models I found the keywork to be a little mushy, but now I find it solid and sure.  They are also one of the few manufacturers that are still using traditional point screws for their keywork, whereas many manufacturers today use what's called a pseudo-point screw.  I'll perhaps write an article about that later, but won't go into the differences now, and in fact refer to this article by Stephen Howard who could explain it better, being a repair tech.
The two saxes pictured here are my favorites of the Cannonball line.  On the left is the Brute, part of their Vintage Reborn series.  It features a dark vintage lacquer which looks like raw aged brass and beautiful hand engraving.  Most of the other Cannonball's use laser engraving. This and the tenor version have a great big sound and I really like the stone key touches. They look cool and felt great under my fingers.  The tenor on the right is the Peter Christlieb signature model.  This tenor has a cognac lacquer finish and a rich warm sound.  Of course these are my favorites, but many of the Cannonball saxophones come in at excellent price points and come in a wide variety of finishes.  I suggest giving them all a try. 

In my next article I will discuss the top of the line saxophones which I would own if money were no object.  No, I will not be discussing the Mark VI, just the new saxophones.  Stay tuned.