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Choosing a pro sax header
 

There can't be many more things more daunting than the prospect of shelling out perhaps several thousand pounds on a professional level saxophone. I suppose the ultimate fear is that having spent the money, you find out that it's not exactly what you wanted. So here are a few hints and tips to help you choose wisely, and with confidence.

The very first thing you must do is decide exactly what it is you're looking for in terms of performance. I realise that this can be something of a grey area, as we'll see later, but it helps to think about what's important to you.
Every player has different needs: some will place the emphasis on the feel of the action, other will focus on the tone or the tuning. Some players want an all-round horn, others want one to work in a specific niche.
What's certain is that once you reach a certain level of quality, all horns are good.
To be sure, they'll each have their strengths and weaknesses - but you can be assured that (manufacturing defects aside) they'll all be up to the task.

What I want to do here is to encourage you to form your own opinions. It seems to me that rather too much emphasis is placed on researching the opinions of other players. This by no means diminishes their experience, nor the validity of their opinions - but all too often the information gleaned is given too high a weighting in the decision process. I have seen and dealt with many players who've bought such-and-such a horn simply because someone else told them to buy it. If you're lucky it might just so happen that the horn you bought actually suits you, but a significant number of players end up being a little disappointed - and you should never underestimate the effect of even a small dose of disappointment, it can make the difference between simply owning a pro horn or owning a horn that you love playing.
The absolute, 100%, sure-fire, undeniable golden rule is that just because horn XYZ works for Joe Dude it doesn't follow that it WILL work for you.

There are two distinct paths to the pro sax league. Some buyers will start off with a pro horn, or move onto one without necessarily 'paying the dues' (i.e. being of a playing standard commensurate with the quality of the horn). Nothing wrong with that at all - but it does leave such buyers rather at the risk of getting the wrong horn.
It has to be said - these people are more likely to be influenced by other people's opinions, and if there's a saving grace it's that they at least won't end up with a pile of junk.
The other path is followed by those who move up through the range, from a student horn to an intermediate horn - or at least move up in terms of playing technique and skill. These people approach the pro league with a very different set of values, and a lot of advantages. However, that's not to say that they too can defer to other people's opinions when it comes to the crunch.
In the case of the first type of buyer all I can say is that, quite honestly and without malice, you won't really have what's required to make a truly informed choice - but you still have a sense of what you want (which might not be the same as what you need), and perhaps even a sense of what you don't want...which can be just as useful a tool.
As for the second type of buyer, the world is your oyster - all you really need now is a steady nerve and a vision of where you want to go.

So let's examine exactly what it is that you would expect to get from a pro horn.
First up has to be tone. Above all else, the most common reason for people to upgrade is the desire for a better tone.
This is something of a minefield really, and I feel that far too much emphasis is placed on the perceived tone that any given horn will have.
In truth, your tone comes from you - a combination of your blowing technique and style, your embouchure and your choice of mouthpiece. By far and away the most drastic change you can make here is with the mouthpiece.
It's true that individual horns have their own tone - but you should think in terms of the horn merely being an amplifier for what comes out of the mouthpiece. What the horn will do is modify that sound to a greater or lesser degree...and it follows that the horn that makes it easier for you to achieve the tone that you hear in your head is going to be the one for you.
But this is where it can pay dividends to be flexible. A given horn with a given mouthpiece might give a particular tone - but the same horn with a different mouthpiece will give you something else entirely.
It's something of a tricky balance - and throws up an interesting debate as to whether the mouthpiece is more important than the horn. The obvious question you must ask yourself is whether you're prepared to change your mouthpiece (the decision might be moot, as we'll see a little later).
What you will find though is that each horn has a 'core tone' - something in it that's common to it no matter what mouthpiece you use on it. If you can find that core tone it places you in a very commanding position, one that allows you to almost predict a horn's tone with any given mouthpiece.

Tone is also the area where the biggest traps lie. Ask any player what sort of tone they get from their horn and you could well find that it fits the tone you're after. The next logical question is 'What make is your horn?'...at which point you could be forgiven for rushing out and buying one. This is precisely what happens when people ask what setup such-and-such a well known player uses, in the mistaken belief that simply duplicating the setup will give them a similar tone.
It's also the area where the most misconceptions lie. Comments like 'this horn is warm' or 'that horn is bright' abound - even comments like 'that horn has no character' can be heard.
You can't dismiss these opinions - but you should always remember that they're very personal...and regrettably sometimes less than honest. It's surprisingly common to find that players can be somewhat defensive about their choice of horn.
And there's a lot of, well, no other word for it I'm afraid - bullshit talked about tone. The manufacturers are just as guilty of this as players are. There are claims that silver plated horns sound this way, bronze bodies sound that way, unlacquered horns do that, gold plated horns do that.
I wouldn't go so far as to say these things make no difference at all - they affect the manufacturing process, and that will always affect a horn's tone - but the amount by which they affect the tone is negligible.
Having said that, never underestimate the psychological affect of such claims - if you're told a certain horn is 'warmer', there's a damn good chance you'll make it sound warmer. The problem is, it won't last.
Your tone is yours, and whilst it's possible to change it it tends to wander back home after a period of time.
You keep a 'copy' of your tone in your mind, and whenever you pick up a different horn you automatically try to reach that tone. The ease or difficulty with which you can do that will often determine your opinion of that horn. Given enough time on the horn you'll move close and closer to your own 'standard'.
If you've read any of my reviews you'll have seen my comments about various horns' tones. What those comments represents is how far the shift is from my own tone. This is why those comments are very much a personal observation - included for a bit of entertainment and a rough generalisation. However, having the opportunity to play many thousands of different instruments down the years perhaps gives me a very slight advantage in that experiencing the difference in tones and how a horn plays is very much an everyday occurrence for me. If you had the same experience you wouldn't bother reading this article, you'd just go buy a horn without even thinking about it.

Response is next up on the list of 'wants'.
Response is closely linked to tone in that it describes how the horn feels when it's blown (this is distinct from how it feels under the fingers).
This is an area where there's often a degree of common consensus, as the feel of a horn is something inherent in its design.
Having said that, the mouthpiece is hugely important in this equation - and a free-blowing horn fitted with a hard-blowing mouthpiece is still going to be a hard blow.
Generally speaking though the response of modern horns tends to be much the same between brands - and it's more the esoteric brands (like, say, the Borgani horns) where you might find noticeable differences.
That said, a horn that's perhaps 5% easier to blow might be exactly what you're looking for...though it's just as common for players to want something with a bit of resistance.
What sets a pro horn aside from its cheaper brethren is its consistency of feel. Many modern student horns blow very freely (not at all like the stiff horns of yesteryear), but sooner or later the money runs out and you begin to notice that, say, the lower notes are rather easier than the top...or vice versa. Evenness of response is designed in - certain compromises have to be made, toneholes have to be adjusted, bores tweaked etc. in order to achieve this - and that costs money.

Feel is next, where it relates to the action or keywork.
You have to be careful here because a very great deal is dependent on how the horn is set up. I don't think it's unfair of me to say that pretty much all new horns are dreadfully set up in terms of feel. Actions are set too high, springs are set too hard - and half an hour in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing can transform the action completely.
So it's more important to concentrate on such things as key placement - the bell key spatulas being a good example. These sort of issues can be harder to address later on down the line (though not impossible).
You'll find horns that you just can't play. This doesn't mean that they're badly designed (hopefully), it just means that your fingers don't suit the horn. A lot of this will be down to what you're used to, but you do need to take into account that your hands are unique and it's entirely possible that you might never be comfortable with certain horns.
Balance is a factor too - the way the horn swings on its strap. We're all different heights and shapes, and some horns are bound to prove more cumbersome than others.

I'd put tuning next - only because it's less of an issue these days than it used to be. Were I writing this article 30 years ago I would have placed it second perhaps (any earlier than that and it might have been first on the list).
All horns play out of tune - let's get that down on paper first.
They don't play in tune - you do.
OK, there have been horns made that quite a lot of people have had tuning issues with...but by no means everyone. These days though you're very unlikely to come across a significant anomaly. In recent years some players had issues with early Z series Yamaha horns, and a new crook was made available - but for every player I saw that claimed to have had problems, I saw another who noticed nothing untoward at all.
Some players are doomed to forever have tuning issues, others can play anything in tune. What's important to you is that you find a horn that you can play in tune.
This might not happen straightaway - it often takes me a while to get the hang of a new brand horn when it comes into the workshop. When I first tried the new Yamaha 475 soprano sax I though they'd made a monumental mistake, it was all over the place in terms of pitch...but it came into tune once I'd found my chops (a slang term for the embouchure).

The last criteria is value for money.
I'd imagine that some players would be surprised to see it listed at all - after all, how can you put a price on perfection, if perfection is what you've found?
I think it matters in as much as you can 'pay for the name'.
When you're shelling out that much money you have a right to expect a level of quality that represents a fair exchange: Your hard-earned dosh for an instrument that's going to do the business.
For most people there will have to be a trade-off. You can buy a decent pro spec horn for just over a thousand pounds these days...or you can pay £4000 and upwards.
It's not a linear relationship though - a horn costing four grand isn't four times better than one costing a mere £1000 - and if you find a difference in the playing you have to decide whether it's worth the extra £3000.
This is where tinkering with the setup can pay huge dividends.
Remember I suggested that the choice of mouthpiece might be a moot point? Well, what if you found a £4000 horn that played beautifully on your old mouthpiece? What if you found a horn for half that that played almost as well? Maybe it needs just a bit more edge...in which case maybe you need to think about using a different piece with it.
You can consider custom options too - what about aftermarket crooks, for example?
Don't be too swayed by 'gadgets'- most manufacturers want an edge, and if an extra key here and there or a lumpy thumbhook gives them a nose ahead in the marketplace then they're going to use them. The problem for the player is that it's hard to know if they make any difference. You can buy a horn with an extra key - but can you buy the same horn without it, to test the comparison?
I'm not cynical by nature, but I really believe it pays off to be at least thoroughly circumspect about such 'innovations'. You need to carefully assess the payoffs and the drawbacks of such features - and bear in mind too that today's 'feature' is tomorrow's 'nuisance'...just like the old Eb trill key, the ball and socketed side Bb/C, the swivelling upper thumb rest, the Microtuner crook....

The review section of this site focusses on this area. We can debate tone until the cows not only come home, but eat your TV dinner, make a mess of your bathroom and pinch all the duvet in your bed - but you can't argue about what's been built.
More often than not this issue is, happily, of little concern - but every so often there's a spanner in the works (such as the Keilwerth SX90R tone hole issue). These issues have a bearing because a pro horn might have to earn its keep - day in, day out, night after night. You can love a horn all you like, but you gotta know that it's gonna stay that way.
The point is, don't be too strongly tied to the notion that price is the chief arbiter of quality at this level.

Some horns of the same make and model may well be better value than the other examples. There have never been two saxes born identical, they each have differences - however subtle. What that means is that once you've narrowed down your choices in terms of make and model, you then ought to try out as many examples of that particular horn as possible - and don't be shy of swapping the crooks around either, sometimes this can make all the difference.

A few words about esoteric and vintage horns - and horns for specific purposes.
There are a few 'independent' makers in the market place who produce pro spec horns that are undeniably different from the run of the mill. The differences can be expressed in many ways, most particularly in the response or the feel. I think there's a need to be careful when trying out such horns, there's a risk of being swayed by the difference.
That's by no means a bad thing - indeed, it's the very thing that might persuade you to buy such a horn, but you'd better be sure that the difference is something you can live and work with down the years.
I've played a few horns like this, the kind that slap you in the face with their starkly unique presentation. They can be breathtaking at the time, but it's worth taking a step back and considering carefully exactly what it is that appeals to you about them.
It sounds a bit dire, I realise, but in a way that's a compliment to the makers of such horns - you can't treat them as run-of-the-mill. Similarly, you'd be playing a dangerous game if you bought one just because you wanted to be different.

Vintage horns are a whole 'nother kettle of fish altogether.
For a start you have to move the tuning issue right up to the top. That's not to say that all vintage horns play out of tune - they don't - it's just that they require a slightly different approach.
The first thing that might go is your mouthpiece. You might well love your fat, wide Dukoff, but it might sound like a stuck pig on a Martin or a Conn. That doesn't make them bad horns, it just makes them more fussy.
There's also the issue of the action. Modern horns are slick, no two ways about it, and very few vintage horns can compare. This is the payoff - if you want the vintage prestige, you must have the vintage action.
One of the best sounding horns I ever played was a Martin Handcraft tenor...the sound was to die for, but the action would have killed me!
These horns are designed differently to modern horns - the bore dimensions are different, the philosophy of design is different. Depending on your point of view this makes them wonderful...or simply obsolete. Whatever you do, don't go buying into the vintage caché without first careful considering the pros and cons.

Horns for specific purposes are those chosen for a particular style of music - classical, for example.
Such beasts don't really exist in reality - no manufacturer would be daft enough to limit an already minuscule marketplace by producing a horn that catered specifically for a single genre.
Oh, they may make such claims - but if you whack on a suitably extreme mouthpiece you'll effectively have shot those claims to pieces.
Common sense is what's needed here, and response is probably going to be the key factor. Wouldn't be much point buying a rather reserved horn if you were a dedicated Bar Room Walker, or a particularly feisty horn if you were looking to play classical. One reason that R 'n B players tend to favour vintage horns is that these old designs emphasise the midrange tonally. That creates a 'fat' sound. The drawback with lots of midrange though is that it can get muddy when things get quiet.

In the end though, you can pretty much make any horn do exactly what you want it to do. What makes us choose the horn we play is the ease with which that horn allows us to do the things we want.
Officially, a pro horn should be able to handle anything that it's asked to do - and to the greater degree they can, but they each have their own unique characteristics that suit some people and not others.

It's my hope that this article will broaden your expectations.
It's understandably tempting to go buy the horn that you've been told is the best there is, but the whole point about playing is that it's such a personal thing. Sure, it's something that can be shared with anyone who cares to listen - but there can only ever be one player behind the horn at a time.
The trick is to free yourself from other people's expectations.
This is precisely why I play the horn I do - I chose a Yamaha YAS62 alto and a YTS23 tenor*. I could have chosen any make or model of horn in the world, but I chose these ones because I arrived at the choice through a process of understanding my wants and needs rather that wondering what everyone else was playing.
For my style of playing, for my desired tone and my range of expression, these horns do the business for me - even in the face of inevitable constant comparison that comes with the business I'm in.

In summary then - the only person who can tell you which pro horn is the horn for you...is you.

*Since this article was published I've found myself a new tenor - the TJ RAW.

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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2013