What makes a particular saxophone a particular saxophone? What is
it that makes, say, a Yamaha YAS62 a YAS62 and not a Selmer SA80?
Well, you have the design for a start - the profile of the body,
the shape of the bore, the keywork. You also have the design of
the fittings, such as guards and braces - and, most importantly,
you have the way the horn plays.
But you can sometimes also include the way a horn is finished as
part of the overall specifications.
Let's say, for example, someone produced a range of otherwise identical
horns, but one of the horns in that range was called 'The Zebra',
on account of a rather unusual black and white striped lacquer finish.
What would happen if you took that finish off?
Not a lot really (unless you're one of those people who believe
the finish contributes to the tone) except that your 'Zebra' horn
would now just be a plain horn. No big deal maybe, unless the 'Zebra'
range turns out to be a design classic in later years and people
start trading them for obscene sums of money - or unless all you
ever wanted in life was to own a sax that looked a little bit like
a zebra...which is fair enough, if a tad worrying.
What caused me to ponder this point was the arrival in the workshop
of a Borgani Vintage tenor saxophone.
Borgani make some fine and unusual horns, and in recent years they
have developed a range of unusual finishes to match - such as that
seen on the Pearl
Gold range. I don't mind admitting that such finishes aren't
really my cup of tea - my personal view is that the sax is an elegant
instrument on its own and doesn't really require anything much more
than a decent coat of clear or gold lacquer, or perhaps a coat of
silver or gold plate.
But that's just me, and plenty of people prefer horns that have
a more overstated visual impact.
The Borgani in question started off life as an unlacquered horn,
to which various potions were applied in order to accelerate the
natural ageing of the metal's cosmetic appearance. A finish on bare
metal that has come about through a period of time with help from
exposure to air and moisture, plus a degree of handling, is called
a patina - and to some extent it serves as a protective finish as
it presents a relatively inert surface to the environment. It's
essentially the same finish as seen on the Ponzol
Because it takes time to produce a patina (especially on brass,
which can often end up just going green with verdigris), such finishes
are valued - and there's a ready market for any methods than can
speed up the process of tarnishing without the associated risks
of wear and corrosion.
These finishes rarely look 'the part' as far as I'm concerned, but
I can easily see the appeal of being able to buy a brand-new, modern
horn that (almost) looks like it's been around for at least a couple
of decades. This is exactly the sort of finish you'd find on a Borgani
Vintage model horn - a sort of warm yellow/brown effect with a bit
of sheen to it. Not something that was all that easy to achieve,
I suspect, and probably took longer to apply than the usual coat
So, you can appreciate my surprise when, on opening the case, I
found a...well, you'll find out in a moment...
Actually, I don't think 'on opening the case' does justice to the
event, and in no way describes the build-up that so often accompanies
such dire revelations. I can always tell that something's afoot
by virtue of the client being obviously reluctant to allow me to
get my hands on the case - there is a story be to told first, in
which the client lays out the mitigating circumstances or the comedy
of errors that have led to the current state of affairs. Although
I doubt it's been researched or documented I reckon it's a safe
bet to assume that the longer the story, the more bizarre or extreme
the problem that lies waiting for me in the case. In this instance
there was also an element of guilt to be purged as the client was
already 'on my books', as they say, but had been somewhat cajoled
into having this work done by someone else.
I do tend to resist saying "Well, I told you so", or allowing
myself to fall into schadenfreude
- but the payoff for this level of discretion and compassion is
my rubbing my hands together saying "This is soooooo gonna
make the Notes section!". See - I'm all heart.
And so the story builds until the client has set the scene and almost,
but not quite, described the outcome and all that's left is the,
by now, ceremonious opening of the case - shortly followed by ten
seconds or so in which time and motion seems to grind to a halt
in perfect, dreadful silence...broken only by sound of the traditional
'Sucking in of the breath'.
The horn's finish was gone - all that remained was plain, unadorned
Now, I've heard of people removing lacquer from horns - even done
it for clients myself, it's quite common...but why on earth would
you want to remove a finish that, effectively, relies on there not
being a finish at all?
Well, it seems that the horn was looking rather grubby - and whilst
on a local jazz course my client had been advised by the lecturer
that the various patches of green gunk dotted all over the horn
were spots of verdigris, which had to be removed with some haste
lest the horn disintegrate.
He was right, after a fashion - though he might at least have mentioned
the time-scale involved, which at a very conservative guess would
have been about sometime after the owner of the horn had shuffled
off the old mortal coils.
Verdigris tends to be more of a problem on lacquered horns because
it forms beneath the lacquer and eventually causes it to fall off
(which doesn't look very pretty), and because the verdigris is protected
to some degree it can retain moisture which tends to make it rather
On an unlacquered horn though it's more unsightly than it is damaging.
So, the advice from the lecturer was to have the verdigris removed
as soon as possible, and as it happened he knew just the man for
Now then, had that man been me I would have first applied some warm
soapy water to the verdigris to see just how much it would take
off. Had that failed I'd have resorted to something a little stronger
in the form of cigarette lighter fluid. More often than not this
is all it takes - but had the stuff been really stubborn I might
have considered treating it with vinegar and a bit of elbow grease.
Unfortunately it wasn't me, and what was previously a rather expensive
Borgani Vintage tenor was now, well, just a Borgani tenor I suppose.
It was a thorough job, I'll give him that - and judging from the
pattern of fine scratches on the brass I'd say that a medium grade
wire wool had been used (where wire wool is used in such a manner
it should only be the ultra-fine 0000 grade, also known as quadruple
0), which did nothing for the aesthetic appearance of the horn.
In some ways I can sympathise to a degree - the first time I ever
saw a 'fake vintage' finish it fooled me, but a closer inspection
revealed brush or swab marks that would never have been seen on
a horn that had aged naturally. I guess the guy must have sat there
for a couple of days or so, diligently rubbing away with the wire
wool, smiling with satisfaction as the grubby patina gave way to
clean (albeit now rather scratched) brass - perhaps picturing the
horn owner's face as they opened the sax case to reveal a nice,