Jazz Man Music

Shopping tips: saxophone for beginners

Which saxophone to choose when you start the instrument? In conservatories, it is sometimes possible to borrow an instrument for 1 year. It can also be rented from a specialised store, but this solution will quickly prove to be expensive (around 40 dollars per month, which means about 450-500 dollars per year). One day or another, it will be better to consider a purchase, because all students work better when they have THEIR saxophone.

There are several options according to the means available to the family: the prices indicated are for alto saxophones and correspond to the prices commonly charged by serious shops. Note that most offer a percentage discount from the list price.

One element to take into account will also be the size of the beginner concerned: very young children (around 7 years old) can start advantageously on a curved soprano sax, whose ergonomics is equivalent to that of an viola for an adult. These saxophones are often lent by conservatories in the first year. A problem can arise if after one year the child has not grown enough to reach the bass keys of an alto saxophone. In this case, an old sax will be an interesting passage: less heavy than a modern viola, the keys are often placed higher, therefore more within reach of the child.

In any case, ask your (future?) teacher for advice: he will be able to help you and will advise you on a type of instrument suitable for his pedagogy.

A) New instruments

Advantages: except for the lower end, no surprises to expect in general, but it is recommended to have the instruments tested by a professional no matter what happens.
Modern saxophones have made great progress in terms of ergonomics and accuracy throughout the 20th century: the bass and octave keys are more practical to play than on old saxophones (especially American or earlier than the Selmer Mark VI of 1954). Another advantage is the possibility of staggered payments offered by most stores, as well as a one or two-year guarantee.

Disadvantages: In terms of sound and ergonomics, they are often not very typical of one brand to another, and have more “all-purpose” personalities. Yamaha saxophones have a round sound but very little timbre in general. A Selmer has a lot more harmonics but can sound hard if it’s not well controlled. Yanagisawa is closer to Selmer, but with less stamp. Keilwerth (the pro model) has a fleshy and very open sound but is not well suited to the needs of classical music: it will rarely be recommended in conservatories. For intonation, the Yamaha are more temperate, the Selmer more supple… so it all depends on what you are looking for. In the long term, Selmer and Keilwerth have proven their longevity… up to 80 years. Yamaha may seem more fragile but we don’t have enough distance to judge it on the top-of-the-range saxophones. A Yanagisawa sax after the 90s also seems to be a good compromise and is in very good health after twenty years of good and loyal service.

1) New concert instruments (Selmer, Yanagisawa or Yamaha professional type, Keilwerth also for jazz) Dear, but durable (80 years at least for the 1st, which puts the purchase price in perspective). From 2500 to 3500 $ (or more). Possible resale: between 1600 and 2000 dollars for Selmer.

2) Medium range instruments (called semi-professional) of the Japanese type such as Yanagisawa or Yamaha mid-range.

Life expectancy of 10 to 15 years on average. 1500 to 2000 $ (maxi) depending on the models.

3) The entry-level saxophones (known as study saxophones) Yamaha, Keilwerth, Buffet-Crampon, Cannonball, GB, Paul Mauriat … are made in Taiwan, like Jupiter. They do not exclude some innovations: various metals, pearls… I have no idea of their possible durability: they are recent saxophones, but one can suspect poor performance. The Jupiter, (the most famous but unfortunately not the best) often have problems after 2 to 3 years… count 5 to 10 years for the others. However, it is difficult to have them repaired, as the cost of repairs is often close to the price of the instrument). 900 à 1100 $.

4) Low-end instruments (cheap study saxophones, such as Mainland China): saxophones of extremely variable quality from one instrument to another, but generally unreliable. They do not offer any guarantee of correct operation according to the brand (they are often interchangeable because they are manufactured in the same plants), nor of durability (the base alloy contains a high lead content). The main problem: you can hardly hope to use it more than a year before problems if you play a lot (a little more if you play a little… or not). In France, the prices of specialized technicians are high: maintenance costs quickly become prohibitive compared to the purchase price. No store wants to repair them. Count 300 to 900 $ according to internet purchase or store (but in the 1st case, the sax may not work at all…).

B) Second-hand instruments Advantages

: more affordable than new, these instruments may also have been well “opened” by an experienced musician, which is often better for a beginner who is still not very skilled.

Another positive point: old instruments often have magnificent tones (the lower end of the range did not exist before the 1960s) and differ from one brand to another: here the choice has a real meaning!
Disadvantages: Like an old car, they will probably require more costs for their maintenance. And the older they are, the less ergonomic they are compared to modern instruments. In the second-hand market, there are no payment facilities or guarantees in general. And there are some pitfalls to avoid, such as HP (High Pitch) instruments that sound almost a half a tone above the tuning fork, so unusable for ensembles… it is better to seek advice from someone you trust who knows this market.

1) Used branded instruments. For the recent models mentioned above: count around 1700-2300 $ (see asaxweb forum, for example). Prices depreciate little because their high durability is a long-term guarantee. For resale too: the same price is often charged for a 3 or 10 year old instrument, for example…
Some old instruments are considered Rolls-Royce (such as Mark VI Selmer, King Super 20, Conn 30 M, Buescher Top Hat & Cane): for these instruments which are between 50 and 60 years old, the prices flirt with the price of new, if not double or more… Another problem: few possibilities of payment facilities…

2) Antique instruments: American or French saxophones of good brands, 1920-1960 for example: Conn, Buescher, Holton, King, Martin, Buffet-Crampon, Dolnet, Couesnon….. have magnificent sounds! They are in the mid-range price range or even that of Chinese instruments (hopefully). It is recommended to use a period burner or at least a modern wide-chamber copy, to avoid tuning fork problems. In any case, try (or have tried) the sax-bec coupling. Count 300 to 500 $ of purchase plus 200 to 1000 for the refurbishment… so between 500 and 1500 $, depending on the model, its level of maintenance, its age…

3) Used study instruments: can be considered for a very short period of time, as a “passing” instrument. Take the time to try the instrument. And calculate its life expectancy (overall sustainability – real age). Never invest more than 500 to 600 dollars.

In all cases, it is essential to seek the advice of the teacher, who will be in the best position to advise his students according to their aesthetic preferences, objectives and pedagogical habits. And who will be able, if necessary, to choose in store the most reliable saxophone in the price range envisaged.
All the teachers experienced one day this student who arrives radiant after Christmas with a brand new sax offered by his grandparents… and who doesn’t work as well as we would have liked!!! (And we don’t really dare to tell him…).

I particularly recommend:

– the Mark VII: often overlooked by jazz musicians, its keying is less successful than the other Selmer models but its rough sound, typified “70s” sometimes has nothing to envy to previous models of the same brand, overpriced on the second-hand market.
May be suitable until the end of 2nd cycle of conservatory (8th year).
Around 1300 $.

Other matters:
Which brand to choose to start with on a curved soprano sax?

The roll is the model proposed by Yanagisawa, but it is quite expensive because it is not at all a study sax. Then, most Chinese brands offer them. Since this instrument should in principle only be used by beginners, we can take the risk, by favouring the Taiwanese.

Which main brands are recommended in vintage?

American saxophones of the 1920s and 1930s: for small budgets or for children who are still small, there are many good things to be found in Conn, King, Buescher, Martin or Holton. They also made “stencils” under other names: Wurlitzer, PanAmerican, Lyons & Healy… These saxophones can be used to follow a 1st cycle (4 years) curriculum, but they will then have to be changed so as not to be disturbed by their antique ergonomics. You can find on eBay.com revised models around $500, but with postal transport and the uncertainty of mail order buying, it is better to add a serious revision. In France, Buffet-Crampon, Dolnet, Couesnon, SML instruments are sometimes as interesting as their more expensive Selmer counterparts.

If you buy a vintage saxophone, can you use”modern” nozzles?

Yes, but we have to make sure the wedding goes well. In particular for reasons of accuracy and stamp quality. Trying an old beak seems important to me to understand what the musicians were looking for at the time. Often, a very large room, a limited opening and strong reeds: which gives a lot of input impedance, a very round and warm sound. We can then transpose this data onto more recent equipment that is more adapted to the habits we have adopted.

What about the tuning fork problem – true or false problem?

Beware of the saxophones marked HP (High Pitch, the A around 450 Hz), which sound almost a semitone too high: it will be impossible to integrate them into a set. Otherwise, the old saxophones are generally tuned a little low (440 Hz, today rather 442 Hz): we can possibly ask a skilled craftsman to shorten them, but it is better to push in the beak when possible… In general, old saxophones are more flexible than modern ones: they allow you to adapt easily to the context, but you still need to have a trained ear to know what to do…

Should an old saxophone, often spoiled, be revarnished?

The cosmetic aspect seems to me to be of little importance for an old instrument, considering its sound qualities. Most specialists recommend leaving the instrument “in its original state”, and in particular never to have it recoated (because stripping can alter the instrument’s timbre qualities). The operation requires a complete disassembly and therefore often a re-stamping, so it is often very expensive, for a random result. Choose the instrument for its timbre qualities and leave it as it is. All right. Nevertheless, Bob Mintzer plays a Mark VI (if my memory serves me well) that he has devoured, silvered and gilded. And apparently it sounds pretty good…
Overall, varnish is not always the friend of sound (too thick)… that’s why professional musicians prefer devarnished, silver or gold saxophones (thinner coatings).


What to do if the instrument is oxidized?

Same remark: the easiest thing to do is often to do nothing. Unlike rust, which degrades iron, copper oxide is a film that protects the metal. It is therefore unnecessary (except for cosmetic reasons) to remove it. Otherwise, use the usual brass products.

What pitfalls to avoid if you can’t try the instrument?

The most important thing is to check if the tube has not had any serious accidents, if chimneys or keys have been welded (which weakens the other welds), if the keys work freely and if the buffers are in good condition (because a refurbishment costs between 400 and 600 dollars). The condition of the springs also indicates how much care the former owner put into keeping his instrument.
Avoid instruments that have had major incidents (dents or dents), especially towards the upper body, unless they have benefited from quality repairs. Small blows (“dings”) and scratches generally cause little effect, especially if they are located at the bottom of the instrument (the breech is often affected, the incidence is rarely significant).

What if the jar is in poor condition?

Folded, dented or curved jars are difficult to exchange because all instruments are finely adjusted… this is one of the important points to check before purchase. On an old instrument, I do not recommend buying without a jar or with a jar out of order.

In which case should I change the case?

Storage in a humid environment or smoking cigarettes leaves odours of mould or smoke that can be uncomfortable (especially for young children): the case should be well ventilated… or changed… In addition, until the 1980s, the only existing models of cases were suitcase type. Often strong, but not as practical as the shape or “light” cases that can be carried in a backpack.