Guide to the saxophone

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You saxy thing...

Saxophones have always been seen as one of the 'in' instruments - maybe it's the shape and playing position, maybe it's the sound, from sleazy to funky, boppy to rootin' tootin' - but whatever it is, don't get caught with a dud!

Traditionally, saxes used to be amongst the most expensive of student instruments to buy and there's a very good reason for this. An awful lot of hand-finishing and labour-intensive craftsmanship is involved in creating a good one. Read on and discover why things aren't always what they seem in the shiny world of saxland...

What's the right sax for me?

First of all, what size of sax are you after? There are four basic sizes/types:
  1. Bb Soprano - traditionally straight, but curved models are popular. As with all high-sounding instruments it can be a beast to control. The sound is bright and pungent. On the straight type more of the weight is on the right thumb than on other sizes so beginners can suffer from aches and soreness.
  2. Eb Alto - depite being bigger than the soprano it's often the 'lead' instrument in many ensembles, so if you're a blushing violet don't go for an alto either. Often associated with that colossus of the jazz world, Charlie Parker, the alto has also led a parallel existence as a classical solo instrument, especially amongst French and American composers. It's equally at home as a band instrument too, be it wind band  or big band.
  3. Bb Tenor - perhaps the archetypal jazz instrument, and a great choice for beginners as it's much harder to sound too squawky on a tenor. It's repertoire encompasses all the best in jazz and rock styles and it's deep voice finds favour with young and old alike.
  4. Eb Baritone - The nominal 'bass' of the standard sax family and a great choice if you like the feel of floorboards vibrating. Rich, fruity or growly it makes a surprisingly good choice for a novice - as long as you can afford the purchase price and a steady supply of Shredded Wheat to give you the strength to carry the case around.
There are other sizes such as sopranino and bass, but one you also need to be aware of is the 'C' melody sax of yesteryear. Their heyday was the 1930s and they were a little smaller than today's Bb tenors, but bigger than an alto. They sound very sweet and can be beautifully made but they can be hard work. For a start, often being of some vintage, the mechanism can be quite different from a modern horn and not very ergonomic. They came in either 'Low' ('Concert') pitch, equivalent to our modern A=440 standard, or 'High' pitch horns - a little sharper and incompatible with modern horns. The important point is they are pitched in a different key to other saxes so don't really fit into modern usage.

Makes & models

So, now you've decided on the type of sax, which model do you get? As I write this in March 2006 several trends are becoming clear. There is frantic activity in the budget end of the market and many new models being released almost monthly. Obviously I haven't tested them all but first, find out where it's made and read on:
  • If it's a sax from China or India be VERY careful! In fairness, quality is improving all the time, but these *can* suffer from poor tuning, soft metal mechanisms needing frequent attention, poor overall design and indifferent quality control. The keys tend to be wafer-thin and easily bent and the action can be very spongey. They often play very out of tune and all kinds of things go wrong or fall off if you use them regularly - just carrying them a short distance in their cases can wreck the action. Some Jupiter saxes are made in China and these are good budget instruments - everything else be very careful with until you can get a trusted professional opinion!
  • Taiwanese saxes used to be ones to be wary of about 15 years ago, but you're more likely to get a great combination of price and good quality nowadays. Some of the big names have set up proper quality-controlled factories there and produce good horns. Good makes here include Trevor James, Earlham, Jupiter, Hanson and Elkhart. There are still some horrors out there so keep your eyes open!
  • Before Taiwan most inexpensive saxes came from Eastern Europe and makes such as Corton and Lafleur (Czechoslovakia) and Weltklang (East Germany) churned out saxes with pretty clunky and loose mechanisms - perfect for renditions of Clackety Sax! Corton retooled and now use the Amati name, still very much a budget range. Even Boosey and Hawkes put their once proud name to the '400' series, made out east in very much the same cheap but not cheerful mould. Buffet Crampon once made fine quality classical saxes in Paris, but they dropped the Crampon moniker and linked with the Evette (Schaffer) brand and went decidedly downmarket.
  • Many experienced players swear by saxes from the 'big names': Yamaha, Selmer (Paris) and Yanagisawa. You won't buy a dud from these, but you'll need to dig deep. Yamaha probably make more saxes than anyone - there's a great web video on precisely how (follow the links to Wind Instrument Downloads from www.yamaha.com/band and then to the sax video). Even mighty Yamaha have had to fend off stiff competition from emerging budget makes and some in the know feel their most recent inexpensive saxes have cut a few corners compared to Yamahas of old. Be aware that Selmer (Paris) make rather better saxes than Selmer (USA) - a US Selmer 'Bundy' sax is merely a workaday student instrument and should be priced accordingly. Yanagisawa, based in Japan, are a small scale sax-only manufacturer. Standard of craftsmanship is very, very high and there's a good range with a choice of  finishes. Their curved sopranos are very desirable.
  • Although Selmer (Paris) is the most famous European maker, there are some fine quality instruments made in Germany - and some makers such as Keilwerth and B & S made horns for other companies too, so called 'stencil' horns. Make no mistake, these are top-quality instruments and  a joy to play. They display genuinely innovative design and have a monster sound! To further complicate things, some budget Keilwerths are made in Taiwan and don't have that hewn from solid feel of their German brethren. I can't do justice to the whole range of other makers here, but do have a look at the information and resources listed further below.
  • The market in 'vintage' saxes is very buoyant and some models can even be considered investment potential! Selmer Mk VIs are fought over like grannies at a jumble sale, and there are strong opinions on what the best examples are. Conns and Kings are also much in demand according to model. One peculiarity of old saxes is that they often sound better with a lot of the lacquer missing, and having been played on for so many years the action can be nice and light. Unless you're sure of a bargain don't buy an old sax without trying it.
  • eBay has been responsible for opening up the market and this is where common sense needs to be most exercised. Stick to established makes from honest sellers with good feedback, ask pertinent questions first, and get good pictures too if you can. Ignore comments like 'blows great', 'this one's a keeper' and 'the one you've been waiting for'. Instead ask, how old, any dings, dents or scratches, percentage of lacquer coverage, when was it last serviced? Saxes don't photograph too well because of reflections - all that glisters could be obscuring a used and abused example! Read eBay's safe trading guides to ensure you enjoy the eBay experience - it can get very addictive!
Should you start with a 'cheap' sax and only get a good one when you're going to stick at it? My advice would be no, get the very best you can afford. Cheap saxes are a false economy because they are harder to play, have less resale value and can ultimately put you off playing altogether. If money is really tight start off with a good second hand instrument (Yamaha) or rent a better quality instrument for a few months - eBay has plenty to offer here. If the sax is for a youngster able to receive instrumental tuition at school they may be eligible to get a good educational discount on a new instrument (often 30%) and the VAT deducted if they buy through the 'Assisted Purchase Scheme', administered by the school and music shop in partnership with Customs & Excise - contact their school for more info. This scheme has knocked the stuffing out of the resale value of 'cheap' instruments from the  east - why buy a used clanky no-name sax when for a similar price you can get a new Yamaha?

What Next?

The fun really starts when you've got your sax. I haven't yet mentioned mouthpieces and reeds but they are fundamental to how everything sounds. The trick is to match one with the other, through trial and elimination - start off with the less extreme options and experiment until you find a comfortable setup. There's now  far bigger range of tutor materials and appealing music, often with play-along accompaniments, that get you up to speed, whether you teach yourself or get help from a teacher - ask around your local area. There's no substitute for practice though and you've got to 'pay your dues' before your chops will be licked into decent shape - jazzers call it 'woodshedding' and it's certainly every bit as intensive as the slang suggests. Above all, get the basics right - posture, breath control, long-note practice and scales - and keep listening and learning!

Resources

A superb book on the the history of horns is 'The Sax & Brass Book' (various authors ) published by Balafon, ISBN 1-871547-60-1.Whenever I have enough time on my hands I head over to Sax on the Web (www.saxontheweb.net). Enjoy browsing through the wealth of experience and opinion on this lively and popular forum. I also enjoy the extensive information available on www.saxophones.co.uk. Usenet has a couple of newsgroups that you can access via Google Groups - alt.music.saxophone and rec.music.makers.saxophone. Best of all, try and make contact with someone local, perhaps a teacher and player - they often have a wealth of experience and most are only too willing to help you avoid the pitfalls.

Good luck!

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