I've got me a new tenor sax!
I suppose it's not that big a deal - lots of players buy new horns all
the time - but I tend to be one of those players who finds a single horn
that suits my need and then sticks to it, come rain or shine. There are
solid reasons for doing so; for a start it works out a lot cheaper in
the long run, but more importantly it allows me to really get to know
a horn inside out. There's a lot to be said for this method, a great many
of the problems people have with tone and pitch are down to their not
having really explored the capabilities of their instrument in any real
depth. That doesn't mean having to be a flashy player - oh no, it just
means having spent a lot of time with the instrument.
Many of my regular readers will know all about my fondness for my trusty
old Yamaha YTS23. I've had this horn for well over 20 years now and there
haven't been many other horns that have made me think "Ooh, I like
this enough to change it for my 23".
True, I've played many great horns in all that time - it's one of the
perks of the job - but I realised a long time ago that 'different' isn't
the same thing as 'better'.
My philosophy on buying horns has always been that they must 'slap you
in the face' before they're worthy of becoming upgrade candidates. Over
the years this has saved me an awful lot of time and money, and it's allowed
me to be more objective about my choices.
I've also come to realise that changing a horn is as much about what you
lose as it is about what you gain. I think this catches a lot of people
out - particularly those who are tempted by a different tone colour or
a change in blowing resistance. These things are powerfully persuasive
and can turn any player's head, but over the years it's the smaller and
more subtle things that stand the test of time.
So what was it about the YTS23 that I liked?
For a start it's a very free-blowing horn. Some players like to have something
to blow against, others prefer a horn that doesn't get in the way. Neither
quality is better than the other, it's just a different approach to the
same end. It's a bit like the game of darts - some of the best players
in the world use darts that weigh hardly anything at all...11 or 12 grams
perhaps...and some use darts that weigh two or three times as much. But
they all win tournaments.
It's also a very neutral horn. This is where a lot of the criticism about
this horn is centred - and whenever I see it raised as a negative point
it always makes me chuckle. I've always felt that tone is a bit like colour...and
to stretch the analogy a little further, like paint.
Imagine, if you will, that you have a door to paint. At the moment it's
just a bare wooden door, and you have it in mind that you want to paint
it, say, light blue. Ideally you'd want the wood itself to be light blue
- that way you could do away with all the fuss and bother of painting
it...but there aren't many trees with light blue wood. So you'll need
to paint it - but first you'll need to prepare it.
Typically this will involve putting a coat of wood primer on it, followed
by a layer of undercoat and then your final coat of light blue paint.
In order to achieve the desired results it makes sense to match the undercoat
to the final coat - or at least as near as you can get it. So, a light
undercoat for a light final colour, a dark one for a deeper final colour.
Horns are rather like this in that they have a 'starting colour' - an
inbuilt 'in-house' tone. Some horns are quite bright, others are dark.
If the in-house tone is opposite to what you want, you're going to have
to work that much harder to paint your tone over the top of it. I won't
say it can't be done - or that it will lead to poor results - but it can
be a lot of hard work. This is why I've always valued the 23's neutrality
- it just doesn't get in the way, and with the right choice of mouthpiece
and the right technique it will do exactly what I want it to do.
It's also a very vibrant horn. This has nothing to do with any of that
'resonance' nonsense - your horn could vibrate like a chainsaw and it
still wouldn't make a difference to the tone. No, it's about how 'alive'
the horn feels when you blow it. It's the zing, the vivacity, the immediacy.
It just always feels eager - and that's something I really notice when
coming back to it after play-testing other horns...they never seem to
have quite that same degree of liveliness.
Some would say (incorrectly) that this might be due to the weight of the
23 - it's a very light horn - but the only advantage this brings is that
it's an easy horn to hang around your neck for hours at a time.
But when all is said and done the only reason that really matters is
that the horn suits me (or I suit it).
So if it's that good, why change it?
It's about a change in tastes. Many years ago I used to take my tea with
two spoons of sugar and a liberal dose of full cream milk. Over the years
that's shifted...first I cut back on the sugar and then I cut back on
the milk. These days I'm on a level spoonful of sugar and a dash of semi-skimmed
It's hard to describe the change in tone I've been looking for - in fact
it's more of a feeling.
I first came across it when I tried an Inderbinen. It had everything the
Yamaha had, plus a bit more...a sort of extra dimension. It wasn't brighter,
it wasn't warmer - it was a little more full in the midrange though, but
without being overly so. I also found it on a Borgani 09 Vintage...and,
funnily enough, on a Keilwerth SX90R Silver Anniversary (now there's a
poke in the eye for all those people who claim I hate Keilwerths).
Trouble was, while these horns all had that extra something, they also
had a few drawbacks - most notably the price on the Inderbinen - and for
me those drawbacks weren't things I was prepared to exchange for the benefits
these horns would bring (strangely enough, the dearer Yamahas didn't really
thrill me either).
It was then that I tried a Trevor
James Signature Custom RAW tenor.
I immediately noticed that extra something. Just like the Inderbinen,
the Borgani and yes, even the Keilwerth, the RAW has an indefinable quality
that keeps you coming back for more. In a way it's a bit like trying to
find the end of a rainbow...every time you move towards it, it moves away
- but you can see it ahead of you, just out of reach. It's the journey
that counts. If you can realise a horn's full potential in no time at
all then there's nothing to keep you interested, nothing to keep you pushing
forward. This is the mark of a student horn - it gives all it's got very
quickly, which is a good thing for a student - but a professional horn
should be a temptress, a tease, an enigma.
For sure, I can reel off a lengthy list of horns that have this spark,
but there's another important factor that has a bearing on whether a horn
'does it' for me or not, and that's its accessibility.
Imagine, if you will, entering a pub on a hot summer's day. On the bar
stands a glimmering, cool pint (or a glass of Creme de Menthe, if you're
that way inclined). In order to get your sweaty mitts on the drink all
you have to do is make your way from the door of the pub to the bar.
No problem, as a rule, but here's the catch. Between the door and the
bar are a number of tables, all full up with drinkers. There may be a
direct route to the bar, or there may not be...depends on the pub. As
you make your way through the pub your eyes are firmly fixed on the drink
waiting for you on the bar.
This, to me at least, represents a horn's accessibility. You know what
the goal is, you know where it is, and you want the least cluttered route
to take you to it.
Now, over the years I've played countless numbers of Selmers. We can all
agree they're great horns (that should stop the buggers emailing me...)
but they're not everyone's cup of tea. Whenever I've played a good one
I've always been able to feel the spark...always been able to see the
pint on the bar...but it's always been a bit of a chore to get to it.
I've got to weave my way around the horn's natural resistance, make sure
I don't trip up on the tuning and take great care that I don't knock over
the drinks on the table of Mid D Stuffiness etc.
So you can see that my criteria for a truly great horn is one that's like
a pub with a direct route to the bar...with perhaps a stop on the way
to tickle the pub cat under the chin.
The Yamaha was a very straightforward horn...you could be in the door
and at the bar in no time at all. The RAW has a few more distractions
along the way - but rather than being obstacles they're points of interest.
A stuffed badger with pair of Raybans on...one of those wartime signs
that says "Britain Needs You"...to which someone has added "You
Bastard"...a shelf full of rude gnomes...a fifty pound note glued
to the ceiling...a signed photo of Roy Orbison standing at the bar, clutching
a bag of pork scratchings.
It's stuff you want to stop and look at rather than something that gets
in the way.
And here's the killer feature - it's taken me three paragraphs to describe
this feeling and yet it's something you pick up from the horn in less
than a second. It's just there.
The final factor is how it all fits together. You can have the temptress,
you can have the pub, you can have the pint...but it all counts for nothing
if you get to the bar and find that the pint tastes of dishwater...or
the publican doesn't like the look of you and tosses you out of the door.
Everything has to work, everything has to do its job...and then get the
hell out of the way.
When I mentioned on a forum that I'd found a new horn I was asked what
would happen to the Yamaha.
It's a funny thing - although I've travelled (reasonably) far and wide
with this horn, and it's seen me through its fair share of gigs, good
and bad, and it's always been 'the horn I've come home to' - I don't really
feel any sense of regret about its effective passing.
I think this is because there's so much of it in the RAW.
I have plenty of clients who regularly use more than one horn. They might
have, say, a Selmer for the jazz gigs and a King for the blues jams. Some
clients have just the one horn, but use different mouthpieces. It's the
same principle though...not being able to get all they want or need from
the one setup. To be fair this is sometimes a necessity - it's bloody
hard work to walk off the stage at an R'nB gig with a Yamaha Z fitted
with a Dukoff D8 and go straight into a classical gig - but provided the
genres aren't too dissimilar there really aren't that many good reasons
for toting two horns around.
And that, I suppose is yet another factor that weighs in the RAW's favour...that
'one horn to rule them all' sort of thing. It has the versatility I want,
it moves where I move.
I'll keep the Yamaha as a backup. When you've played a horn that long
you get to know it intimately...and that can be a handy thing when it
comes to testing modifications or bits of kit. I'm sure that the RAW will
take over, but it has to pay its dues first...and that will take time
It says a lot for the humble old Yamaha YTS23 that it's been able to
keep my interest for over two decades, but it says a lot more for the
RAW that it's given me the promise of all that, and more. Much more.
And that, simply put, is why I've got one.