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
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,
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
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
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 milk.
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
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
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.
And that, simply put, is why I've got one.