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.


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