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Yamaha YAS21 alto saxophone

Origin: Japan (uk.yamaha.com)
Guide price: From around £350 secondhand
Weight: 2.3Kg
Date of manufacture: 1970s
Date reviewed: January 2003

A no-frills student horn, built to a then unparalleled standard

Yamaha YAS21 alto saxophoneI'm going to start this review by stating uncategorically that I love these horns. And now I shall say precisely why...
To begin with though, a little historical perspective. At the time these horns were introduced to the UK (around the early 1970s) the student sax market was ruled by just two brands...the Corton (Czech built, also sold as the Lafluer) and the East German B&M Champion (which also popped up under at least three other brand names). It would be unfair to say that these were dreadful instruments, but even with the most rose-tinted of viewpoints you couldn't ever say they were great horns.

And then the Yamaha appeared.
It rightfully took the marketplace by storm. The philosophy behind its design was unique; the keywork had been kept simple, there were no fancy mechanics, heavy use had been made of computer aided design and manufacture, and most importantly of all the body had been designed to give maximum performance and accuracy for the money.
What this gave you was a quality of tone that had never before been heard on anything other than a professional instrument.
By the time you took into account the carefully designed mouthpiece and the slick case the whole deal was almost too good to be true. Over the years the horn has been changed slightly, and has appeared (in the UK) as the YAS23, 25 and now the 275.
For the most part, much of what's written in this review applies to the later models. There have been some additions and improvements down the years but the horn's basic feel and response remain much the same. You can read the review of the latest version, the YAS275, here.

So, 40 odd years on, how does the YAS21 stand up to the test of time?
Well, in a word - brilliantly.
A major innovation was the finish. The epoxy lacquer Yamaha used for this horn was (and still is) incredibly tough - so much so that a careful repairer can do small soldering jobs without ruining the finish. This example is a tad over 40 years old, and as you can see it's been through the wars a bit - but aside from the areas where it's been obviously whacked, scratched and handled, the lacquer is in pretty good nick. Indeed, I'd even say that this is quite a tatty example...I've seen 21s of a similar age that have been near pristine.
An unusual aspect is the lack of engraving. I assume that Yamaha felt a saving could be made by dispensing with costly engraving on the bell, and in its place is a simple but elegant transfer. I rather like it, I always felt the clean lines of the unengraved bell lent the horn a very businesslike quality.
The neatness of the well fitted pillars and fittings made this a very unfussy looking horn mechanically - and the use of individual pillars (single pillar construction) helped keep the instrument light.

Strangely enough, when the YAS21 first appeared it was subject to a lot of criticism from 'the establishment' - and one of the gripes was that it was such a light horn.
Surely nothing that light could be strong enough to last, they said - and much righteous indignation ensued...until it was pointed out that the legendary Selmer MKVI alto weighed exactly the same. It sounds ridiculous, but even today you can still find people who claim that a decent horn has to be a heavy horn.

Aside from the single pillar construction you also got a detachable bell. The 21 was fitted with a proper bell clamp - in later years this was dispensed with and a glued joint took its place. There's a decent bell brace, and although it only has a single mount point on the body it's nonetheless quite sturdy and well-placed (to prevent severe damage to the body in the event of an impact to the bell). That said, it's become clear down the years that the design of the bell brace relies heavily on the integrity of the bottom bow joint...and I'm not so convinced that it works quite so well with glued bell joints.

The toneholes are all drawn - and typically level. This one required some to be levelled...but then it also had a slight bend in the body and an offline bell, so it's only to be expected.
The stainless steel springs were quite a new feature at the time - and like the weight of the horn they came in for a lot of stick. Heaven knows why - because they last forever if looked after...and because the keywork has been designed to use them, they're capable of being tweaked to much advantage. Possibly the biggest rookie-repairer mistake is to remove these springs and fit blued steel ones instead. Complete waste of time.

You also got a full set of regulation adjusters on the stacks, a decently-sized sling ring and beefy guard feet. On the not-so-good side the thumb hook was a plain fixed affair (though I always found it, and the one on the 23 tenor, to be quite comfortable), the bumper felts weren't adjustable and you didn't get an 'official' top F#. I say 'official' because you could always get a top F# with a fake fingering (front top F+side Bb).
And you also got a very decent case. Sure, it was a box-style case, but it was very modern and had proper catches on it. It was also very light...though the colour of the light brown ones left a lot to be desired...

Yas21 G sharp MechThere were a few niggles - though these were perhaps more of an issue to the repairer than the player.
For example. The bell key guard was a single unit, and as just mentioned, there was no provision made for adjusting the height of the bumper felts. No big deal - not many players would want to fiddle with them anyway, but for the repairer this means having to shave or pad bumper felts to size rather than turning a convenient screwed holder.

The G#/Bb link pictured here is another example of a mechanism that makes life less easy for the repairer. The bar in the centre of the picture usually has two adjusting screws to set the regulation of the G# and the Bis Bb keys. Here there's just two blocks of felt (cork is normally fitted). Again, no big deal for the player but a bit of a fiddle for the repairer - requiring the lightest touch when sanding/ironing these corks/felts to size, with no room for errors. There's an element of reliability built in here though...at least there are no adjustment screws to work loose, or for curious students to muck about with. That said, there are many 'tweakers' out there who are able to diagnose and correct simple problems, and as the G#/Bis Bb is a common problem area the lack of an adjuster could prove to be a nuisance every now and again.
The G# key itself, and the corresponding bell key spatulas are a very simple arrangement, but surprisingly comfortable and swift in operation. Many modern student horns opted for the Selmer style tilting table - which is a great mechanism, but it does require some accuracy in manufacture - and consequently the bell key action was never really that responsive. Yamaha kept it simple, and to great advantage (more of which later).

YAS21 Low D key As far as the player is concerned there are only a couple of issues that bear comment. The most important of these is the size of the low D key cup in relation to the tone hole. Here's the low D key. Note the indentation in the pad. It's very close to the edge of the pad, and what this means is that there's no room for error as far as seating the pad is concerned. It also means less room to take up any shrinkage of the pad over time. This means that these horns can suffer from leaks from the low D key. It's a problem easily fixed by having a new pad carefully fitted.
Practically every 20 series Yamaha alto I see has a problem with the D key pad - so if you have one of these horns and you feel it's not giving its best then it's a very fair bet that this is where you'll find most of the cause. You'll be in good company too, there are a number of very expensive horns that suffer from this problem - the Selmer 'Cigar Cutter' alto for one.

Another niggle is the use of a barrel and pin link on the side Bb and C keys.
Ever since this key was first fitted to a saxophone there's been much deliberation over quite the best way to make it work. Early saxes used simple, one-piece keys - rather like large palm keys - but then someone hit on the idea of splitting the keys into two parts...a cup and a lever. It's a better way of doing things, but it rather leaves you with the problem of how to connect the pieces of the keys together.

YAS21 side BbHere's the side Bb key - on the right hand end of it you can see the little black nylon barrel that links it to the actuating key. It's not much of a niggle but these things can wear, and then rattle.
Having said that, these ones are pretty old and still in good order - nothing that a drop of grease or heavy oil won't quieten down. High Tack (HT) silicone grease is especially good for this job. The use of nylon is certainly an improvement over the metal ones that some horns use - though I'm pleased to note that Yamaha did away with the barrel and pin arrangement for its later models and went for the simple but effective fork and pin arrangement (rather frustratingly though, they reintroduced a similar barrel and pin mechanism and slapped it on their top-of-the-range Custom series - which is a bit silly really).

Of course, I'm being picky (would you expect anything less?) and in comparison to the competition these niggles are practically laughable.
Consider the other plus-points: A removable bell (fitted with a clamp - this was dropped in favour of a glued joint in later models), incredibly sturdy keywork with a resistance to wear that's second to none, cylindrical point screws that allow for a constantly adjustable action, a very nicely balanced action powered by stainless springs - even if it is set up far too heavy from the factory, adjusters on the stack keys (great for us repairers) and an overall build quality that still shames many a more expensive horn today. Add in the fact that this was, and still is, one of the lightest horns on the market and you have a world beater.
I should also mention the mouthpiece that comes as standard with the horn - the Yamaha 4C.
This in itself was a revolution. Before it came along there were but two choices for the student; a 'no-name' basic mouthpiece that could range in quality from completely rubbish through to reasonably OK...with a few examples hitting the heady peaks of 'really not that bad' - or an expensive professional quality mouthpiece, the price of which must have made many a parent cough in disbelief.
But the Yamaha range changed all that.
Initially the range comprised just three 'lays'; 3C (bright), 4C (medium) and 5C (mellow or dark). The key point about all these mouthpieces was that they were accurately made - and they were really rather good, and quite cheap too.
They still are, and they remain the most widely recommended mouthpieces for beginners worldwide.

Yamaha YAS21 bell key tableThe action as a whole is one of the horn's standout features.

Up until the arrival of the Yamaha, the action found on budget horns was rarely worthy of comment. At best it was functional - at worst it was mediocre. The 21 had a superb action, both in terms of build quality and feel. For sure, it wasn't a particularly complex action - but by keeping it simple, building it well and paying attention to the small details, Yamaha stole a march on all its competitors
For example, take the bell key table (as mentioned earlier). You don't get a tilting low Bb touchpiece, but what you do get is generously-proportioned touchpieces and rollers which move smoothly and easily. And because the keywork is quite beefy, it's less inclined to flex under pressure. The gives the mechanism a very positive feel, and the large touchpieces mean you don't have to hunt and peck at the keys. Out of the box these keys are quite highly sprung (so they're a bit on the stiff side), but with a quick tweak of the springs the action can be lightened considerably...and that's when this mech really starts to fly.

Yamaha YAS21 octave mechSimilarly, the octave key mech looks like it's been designed...rather than lashed together as an afterthought.

Compared to a modern swivel mech it's quite a simple design - but that's not necessarily a bad thing. With fewer fiddly small parts the mech is better able to withstand the odd knock - and wear and tear over time will have less of an impact.

The thumb rest is a no-frills affair - just a pearl fitted to a tube - but it's at least quite large and comfortable, and the shaped touchpiece caters for a wide range of playing techniques. Whether you prefer to push your thumb up or roll it off to the right, the touchpiece is right there. Marvellous.
All in all it's simple, reliable and surprisingly nimble mech - not much to dislike, really.
...Apart from the curious design of the pin key (the bit that connects the body key to the crook key).

Yamaha YAS21 octave key pinI'm not at all sure what went wrong here. It's not that the design is poor, or that it doesn't work - it's just that it looks a bit, well, bodgey.

The pin key is fitted to the octave key by way of bolt, complete with a pair of brass nuts. Mechanically-speaking there's not a lot wrong with this design (though it's no unknown for the nuts to work loose over time) - it's just that the implementation could have been a bit neater. There's a need to hold the pin key on to the octave key's barrel - so you'd need some kind of a screw with a head on it - and there's also a need for the screw to be able to pivot within the barrel, so you'd have to lock the threaded end outside of it. But surely it wouldn't have taken much to put a solid lump of metal where the lower (left) nut sits, and maybe fit the head of the bolt with a nice, rounded slot head?
Of course, it all comes down to cost - and I can see exactly why they went for this design...and I don't blame them. I'd happily put up with a few quirks if it meant having a better horn overall.

And here's another quirk.

The top stack is a bit of a blend of the old and the new. In days (long) gone by, all the keys on this stack would have pivoted off a single rod screw.
From the body octave key cup right down to the G key - and sometimes even the G# - it would all be fitted to one long rod. These days the top stack is broken up, so that only the Auxiliary B, B and A keys sit on the rod while the Bis Bb and G keys pivot on their own pairs of point screws...and the body octave key is part of the octave mech itself.
The 21 doesn't quite reach these giddy heights of modernity because the Bis B key is mounted on the same pivot as the B/A keys.
What this normally means is that the rod screw has to reach all the way down to where the Bis Bb arm sits under the bridge between the Aux.F and G# key cups - but what Yamaha have done is opt for a sort of hybrid rod screw, which terminates at the end of the A key in a point...with a corresponding point on the lowest pillar.
Yamaha YAS21 top stackHowever, this means that the A key barrel has to be rather longer than normal...which makes the key more costly to produce accurately and also makes it more vulnerable to knocks. To get around this compromise, Yamaha have fitted a spacer. That's it there, Photoshopped in purple.
It's no big deal, it does the job - and about the only problem with it (aside from being a curiosity) is that it's incredibly easy to lose this spacer whenever you dismantle the top stack. No reason why it should be so, really...other than the fact that once the spacer hits the bench it has a tendency to become very mobile indeed...

But forget about all that - just pick the horn up and blow it!
My oh my - even today, against all the competition, this horn still sings. Tonewise the clarity in the upper octave is truly remarkable, the accuracy of pitch is a breath of fresh air on a student horn (on any horn, come to that) and the sheer speed of attack this horn displays belies its humble status. It's a very 'refreshing' horn to play, you never get the sense that you need to 'build yourself up' to get the best out of it - just take it out of the case and blow it, and it's ready and willing.
There are dissenters though - some people feel the Yamaha lacks character, its tone is too neutral.
I consider this a bonus - I much prefer to play on a horn that allows me to decide what sound I get out of it...and by choosing the right mouthpiece you can make this horn do practically anything you want.

It's also worth mentioning that, as a repairer and player, I see quite a few of these horns used in a professional capacity. Indeed, my tenor of choice is the 23 (a later variant of the 21) - and whilst a see a great many superb tenors come through the workshop, I still haven't found one that does for me what my YTS23 does.*

I think that says it all.

* Postscript: I have now, though. Since 2012 I've been playing the remarkable TJ RAW.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015