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Yamaha YAS875-EX Custom alto saxophone

Yamaha YAS875EX alto sax reviewOrigin: Japan (uk.yamaha.com)
Guide price: £3700
Weight: 2.51kg

Date of manufacture: 2002 (lacquer version) 2005 (silver version)
Date reviewed: April 2006 (updated June 2017)

Yamaha's 'supersax'

Life was so much easier back in the 1970s. If you wanted a decent pro alto you looked either to a Selmer or a Yamaha. The only complication was that the current Selmer model was the MK.VII, which wasn't that popular, so most people looked around for a MK.VI. As for Yamaha, all you had to do was buy a 61 (later 62) series horn. Had you waited a few more years you might have had another contender to take into account from Yanagisawa. But then it all got complicated when Yamaha developed the concept of the 'supersax'.
Hundreds of thousands of perfectly happy 61/62 series owners were amazed to find that their once 'top-of-the-range' horns had been knocked off the top spot by the arrival of Yamaha's Custom series of horns.
As if that wasn't bad enough, it so put the wind up the other main manufacturers that they too jumped on the bandwagon and started producing 'top' pro models...whilst they all quietly played down the fact that their bumf for their previously top spec'd models had said things like "You won't get better than this", and "The pinnacle of sax design". Marketing...dontcha love it. Thing is though, they weren't exactly lying about the YAS62 - it's an extremely hard sax to beat.

On the flipside it's pretty clear that once you get much above the two grand mark, the ratio of improvements to price drops dramatically. You're effectively looking at incremental gains for quite substantial sums - and only you can decide whether those gains are worth the punishment your wallet will take.
It's also worth bearing in mind that a 'super' version of the horn you're currently playing might not be the answer you're looking for. This is common error that players make when adding an alto to an existing tenor, or vice versa. It doesn't always follow that brand X's tenor will be as good as their alto. If you're looking to step up from a YAS62 you might find that the 'extras' you get from a more expensive model of the same brand aren't necessarily the enhancements you're looking for.
It might sound obvious, but a surprising number of players stick to the 'brand ladder' without ever trying the alternatives - and these days there are many to choose from.
One thing's certain - the more you pay for a horn, the greater the expectation should be that it's been well put together...which is where me and my trusty screwdriver come in...

The construction is ribbed - which is to say that most of the pillars are fitted to a common strap (or rib) which is then fitted to the body as a single item. The remaining pillars are either fitted individually (on nicely-proportioned bases) or as small groups on plates (or flanges). Various claims are made for the tonal properties of ribs, and similar claims are made when individual pillars are fitted. The one thing you can be sure of is that it's cheaper to fit ribs than it is to fit single pillars.
The bell is detachable via the removable bottom bow joint and bell brace, there's an adjustable thumb hook (in plastic), a plastic thumb rest and a full set of adjusters for the bell key bumper felts. The tone holes are drawn - and my test standard shows them to be nice and level. They're also neatly finished too, with no nasty burrs.
Overall body construction is very neat and tidy - which is what I'd expect at this price-point.

Yamaha YAS875EX low C#I'm a bit concerned about the lack of meat on the low C# tonehole. As you can see, its top side barely rises more than a millimetre from the body. That's not a lot to play with. The YAS62 could at least boast of having twice as much height here.
This is quite a vulnerable area - if you drop the horn there's a very good chance that the front of the bottom bow will hit the deck first...and the resulting dent will very likely distort the C# tonehole. A conscientious repairer will go to great lengths to restore the level of the tonehole by working the body tube...but many others will rely on a tonehole file to do the work. This would be very bad news for this tonehole...if that side gets any smaller there's a chance that the pad will bottom out on the body. It's, admittedly, a bit of an unlikely concern - but I'm inclined to take the view that expensive horns are aimed at professional players...and such players spend a lot of time on the road. So there's a need for their horns to be sturdy and reasonably tolerant of what's likely to be quite a hard life.
If your 875EX ever suffers damage in this area you'd be well-advised to check with your repairer as to what steps they're going to take to sort it out.

Yamaha YAS875 bell braceThere's a two-point bell brace fitted.
Various claims are made about this - apparently it gives the horn "better efficiency", which means "you don't have to work as hard to sound great". It also gives you "enhanced projection and a free-blowing response". That sounds great - I'll take one!
But hang on a mo, Yanagisawa claim that their triple-point bell brace "enhances resonance".
Now I'm all a-dither - I'd like the enhanced projection and free-blowing thingy...but then I'd feel I was losing out on the resonance the triple-point brace gives me. What to do? What to do?
The answer is simple - you just stick your fingers in your ears and say "Yeah, yeah...blah, blah, blah...whatever".
Your sole concern should be whether the bell brace is sturdy enough to prevent the bell from being knocked out of line whenever the horn gets a bump. From that perspective I'd prefer to see a triple-point bell brace, because the weakest point of an otherwise sturdy brace is always going to be where it's attached to the base-plates.
This brace is quite beefy, and as I haven't seen many examples with shunted bells from day-to-day use I think it's safe to say it's up to the job.
The positioning is good - in the event of a severe drop the position of the body plate will go some way to spreading the force of the impact...which may help to avoid or at least reduce the chances of the body tube bending.

Yamaha YAS875EX low C spatsThe keywork has all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a top-of-the-range horn, and is quite tough to boot. Stiff enough to cope with the rigours of playing but not so much that repairers will have a hard time making the usual adjustments.
If you've spent any time with the YAS62, the EX will feel quite familiar - though there are number of tweaks in evidence. Perhaps the most noticeable under the fingers is the design and placement of the low C/Eb spatulas, and likewise the side/top F# touchpieces. I never had much trouble with the 62's layout, but the tweaks on the EX make an excellent layout that little bit better.

Another nice feature is an adjustable front top F lever. This is very useful for tweaking the altissimo response - which varies depending on the player and their setup. Some like the key to open the top F key wide, others prefer it to barely nudge the key open...and everyone else just makes do with something inbetween. With a turn of screw and the movement of a pin you can tweak the key to your heart's content.

I'm pleased to see that a set of proper mother-of-pearl touches have been fitted - none of the plastic rubbish that they now fit on the 62 - and I'm even more pleased to report that proper point screws (elliptical/bullet tip) are used throughout. These make it easy to dial in adjustments as and when the action wears. And speaking of adjustments, the horn sports a full set of regulation adjusters on the main stacks.
Or at least it does now. Take a look at this shot of an earlier silverplated model.

YAS875 side trillsSee that bit of red felt centre left of the shot? That's the A key foot with the Auxiliary B bar above it, buffered by that piece of felt. There's no regulation adjuster fitted.
What's curious about this is that the older lacquered model sports a full set of regulation adjusters for the stack keys.
It seems that adjusters were fitted to the earlier models, but were dropped at some point between 2003 and 2005. Why they did this is anybody's guess - perhaps it was a cost-saving exercise, or maybe they felt that 'adjusters' (in very inverted commas) were the sort of thing you'd only find on 'student' horns. Then again, the Z series has them...and you wouldn't exactly call those student horns.
I could understand it if the 875 never featured adjusters from the off, but to remove them on later models seems like a retrograde step to me.

I'm disappointed though to see a ball and socket arrangement used for the side Bb/C trill keys. This is a design that was seen on the Selmer MKVI, and even Selmer had the good sense to drop it. Once the mech wears (and it will, eventually), this type of link gets very noisy. The pin that fits into the lever arm rattles about and lends the key a very imprecise feel. You can quieten it by lubricating it with a stiff grease (I recommend HT - or High Tack - silicone grease, which you can buy from plumber's merchants or from various sellers on ebay), but it's a job you'll have to keep coming back to time and again. It's an unnecessary complication - and one that's more expensive and less efficient than a simple fork and pin link.

Yamaha YAS875EX compound bell key pillarAnd while I'm having a moan, I don't much care for the compound bell key pillar. It's a single-piece affair, and I just feel that having four heads mounted on a single shaft is asking for trouble.
A very common repair is putting a bell key pillar back into alignment after the horn has taken a knock (often while still in its case). The force of the impact, and it doesn't have to be a big one, causes the bell keys to act like slide hammers...and with three keys (four if you include the G#) acting on a single pillar, something's gonna give.
This is why you'll often see hefty semicircular pillars here - which effectively doubles the mounting area of the pillar and thus better resist the force of an impact.
That said, this pillar is exactly the same as the one fitted to my old YAS62, and it's never given me any problems at all. But then I haven't ever dropped it.

Note the 'pawn' (it looks like a chess piece to me) below the G touchpiece. This is a nice touch. G key touchpiece arms, by virtue of their length, can be a bit springy - so the 'pawn' allows for a buffer to be fitted to regulate the throw of the key. It takes some careful setting up though, as you still have to account for the inherent springiness of the key. Too little a buffer and it might as well not be there - too much and it'll prevent the G pad from closing. But get it just right and it'll add some solidity to the feel of the key.

In terms of finish the EX is excellent. The lacquered version features the usual bulletproof Yamaha epoxy lacquer and on the silver version it doesn't look like the finish will be in any hurry to wear away. Topping off the horn is a rather ornate piece of hand engraving - which looks nice, if you like that sort of thing - and the horn is presented in a decent case, complete with proper catches. There are shoulder strap mounts fitted, and while I have some reservations about their beefiness I can't say that I've ever seen any broken ones.

YAS 62 and YAS875EX stack springsUnder the fingers the action feels very comfortable. The key pearls are well sized and nicely dished giving the horn a sense of precision - though a domed Bis Bb pearl wouldn't have gone amiss.
The setup was none too inspiring though, with the springs being set way too hard and the action a tad on the high side for such a well-specified horn. The pads are of good quality, and fitted with nylon reflectors - and well set too, needing only very minor tidying up here and there. The use of burgundy coloured felt on the silver version's action contrasts nicely with the finish, and helps to keep the action slick and quiet.
The whole action is powered by blued steel springs, but I noticed that on the right hand key stack they're quite a bit shorter than those found on the YAS62 - and here's a comparison shot that shows what I mean.
On the top is the Yamaha 62 stack (with stainless steel springs) and on the bottom you have the 875EX. I've coloured the springs light blue to make them easier to see. I find these shorter springs don't have quite the same capacity for 'snap'. Put it this way, some of the finest actions I've ever had under my fingers have been on Selmer MKVI's and YAS62's...and both these horns have much longer springs on the right hand stack action than found on this horn (and the modern Selmers). A extra 5mm or so gives the action that extra little flick that really makes it fly.

I'd love to find out why a manufacturer decides to change a springing arrangement. I like to think that there's a team of boffins who sit at computers, number-crunching the sort of mechanical equations that would give most of us a headache - but this vision doesn't seem to fit in with the outcome. Maybe it's much simpler than that - maybe they just design a new key layout and the person who does the springs says "Oh, OK...I'll put them there then".
It's not that they don't work or that they can't be tweaked - it's just that you have to work that much harder to get the best out of them, and even then it's seldom as good as an action with longer springs that's only been casually tweaked. It's also fair to say that if you've never experienced a properly tweaked MKVI or a 62 then you're probably not going to notice the difference anyway.

Silver Yamaha YAS875EXOther than that I had no trouble whizzing about on the EX. I still didn't like the ball and socket side Bb/C action, but the revised low C/Eb spatulas were nice, as was the front top F touchpiece. Likewise the octave mech was slick and responsive - and with nylon/Teflon bushes on the ends of the swivel bar it'll be far less prone to noise and wear over time.

I first blew a Yamaha Custom back in the 1980's, shortly after they were introduced. A client of mine came rushing into the workshop brandishing a brand spanking new horn, keen to show me his new prize. I was just as keen to have a blow on it as at that time I was playing on a YAS21, which I was nonetheless very happy with.
Well, I blew the Custom - and was really quite unimpressed with it. I remember at the time I didn't say much, I just unpacked my 21 and handed it to the client. He had a blow, and his face was a picture. It was patently obvious the 21 was much more lively - and it seemed to me that what Yamaha had tried to achieve was to build a Selmer. It wasn't a particularly happy marriage. So when it came to blowing the new Custom 875 I was quietly hoping that they'd put things right. And they have. The thing is though, have they given us much more than the 62?
I think it's fair to consider the 62 series as the 'benchmark' for Yamaha horns - for many years they were the mainstay of their professional range, and (with the earlier 61 series) they were pretty much bang on target from the start. The 62 has a full, bright tone, it's a very easy blow with bags of cut and clarity coupled with terrific response, and I'm pleased to say the 875EX has these qualities. It also has a little bit more.

I say little because there really isn't that much to choose between my MK1 YAS62 and the 875EX in terms of tone. In my review of the Z alto I described it as a 'souped up 62', and that's a description that applies to his horn. That said, I personally find the Z to be more characteristic of a typical Yamaha...though this could be a plus or a minus depending on your own tonal preferences.
Playing the two side by side I noticed the Custom blows slightly freer. I liked this, but players who like a bit of resistance might trip up over this feature.
Tonewise it's much the same, though you get a sense of it being ever so slightly louder and therefore a touch fuller. The difference is really quite slight though, but at this level those differences can make, well, all the difference. The G1 crook shows its strengths in the upper register, particularly with the harmonics. They're cleaner and more immediate, but for those of you who like to scream a bit up here you might find yourself working to put a little 'dirt' back into the notes.
I haven't yet tried the new V1 crook that comes as standard these days, so you'll have to take these comments with more than the usual recommended hefty pinch of salt.

Yamaha YAS875 bellHere's something to consider though. I've been playing my 62 for nigh on 30 years now, and I'd like to think I know it inside out. I'm probably getting pretty much all I can out of it - but the 875EX is uncharted territory. Having blown one for the first time today I find that it gives me (tonally) all that the 62 gives me, plus a little bit extra. That in itself wouldn't be enough to persuade me to buy one, but you have to wonder what you might get out of it given more time to explore its potential. If I were looking for that kind of improvement I think I'd turn first to experimenting with aftermarket crooks, like the Gloger. I think it's very fair to say, though, that the EX gives you a sense of hidden depths - and perhaps its value lies more in it being a 'slow burner' rather than a horn that slaps you in the face.
It's around £1500 more than the YAS62, which is no small pile of cash, and it has to compete with both the 62 and the Z series, not to mention several excellent horns from other manufacturers. And with the arrival of the new WO series from Yanagisawa and the TJ RAW the choice has got even harder.
But all in all I feel there's enough here to give the EX a thumbs up. The build quality is up to the mark and it builds on the experience learned from the 62...which is no small place from which to start.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015