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TJ Alphasax header
 

TJ Alphasax
Origin: Taiwan
Guide price : £425
Weight: 1.9Kg (yes, really)
Date of manufacture: 2011
Date reviewed : November 2011

Description : A lightweight alto aimed at very young beginners.

TJ AlphasaxIf I had a pound for every time someone has asked me "I want to play the sax, so should I start on clarinet?" I'd have enough money to keep me supplied with single malt whisky for an entire year. The answer, of course, is "No" - but it's worth thinking about where this misconception comes from.
When a child wishes to learn a woodwind instrument there are few options that are practicable. Their arms and fingers aren't often long enough to cope with the size of standard instruments, and the sheer weight of some of them is an important consideration.
Unlike stringed instruments that are available in smaller sizes (such as 1/4 and 1/8th), you can't make a woodwind instrument smaller without affecting its pitch. Even brass players fare better, with the availability of pocket trumpets - which play in the standard Bb pitch but just have all the tubes more tightly wrapped. If you make a Bb clarinet smaller you end up with a C or an Eb clarinet - and while a C clarinet can sound presentable, an Eb in the hands of a child can be a painful experience for anyone within earshot.
But even so, such instruments are good for getting children started on the road to learning a woodwind instrument - and the experience gleaned will pay dividends when they're big enough to physically handle a saxophone.

So you can imagine that there's a large potential market in making a sax that can be handled at an earlier age.
"Aha!" you say, "What about the curved soprano!?" Well yes, it's an option - but it suffers a bit from the same problem as the Eb clarinet in that unless you can play it quite well, it sounds bloody awful and can be quite hard to play in tune. It's also relatively expensive compared to other woodwinds - though there are some surprisingly serviceable examples coming out of China now that fall well within the price range of a standard student alto.

Clearly you can't make the alto any smaller without affecting its pitch, and there's only so much you can do about the positioning of the keys - but you can cut down on the weight.
There are two ways of doing this; make it out of a different material, such as plastic - or make it with fewer keys.
The former is available in the shape of the somewhat controversial Vibratosax - a wholly plastic saxophone which sounds like a great idea in principle but hasn't really made the grade in practice (yet), and the latter in the shape of the TJ (Trevor James) Alphasax.

I have to admit I've always been slightly sceptical about 'cut-down' instruments - it always seemed to me that if you wanted to go down this route all you really needed to do was get a standard sax and have a few keys taken off. Of course, you'd need to have the relevant tone holes plugged up - but these could be opened up at a later date and the keys refitted when the player is able to manage them.
It sounds like a great idea, but in practice I realise it's actually a pretty daft one as it wouldn't reduce the weight by much and it would be rather a fiddly process, and some keys would still be hard to reach.
So the Alphasax makes sense - but does it make for a good horn?

Alphasax bell braceWell, it's certainly built well enough.
It might have fewer keys than a standard alto, but TJ haven't skimped on the features. It has a detachable bell, an adjustable thumb hook, a generously-sized thumb rest and sling ring - and they've even managed to include adjusters on the bell key bumper felts. I'm pleased to report that the tone holes were all level, though they could have been a tad smoother on the rims.
The pillars are individually mounted (as opposed to fitted to straps or ribs) which takes off a few ounces here and there, but this hasn't been done at the expense of strength. The pillar bases are decently-sized, as are the bell key guard feet, and there's an attactively-designed triple point bell stay as well as a semicircular bell key pillar.
Light though this horn may be, it's nonetheless been built to withstand the rigours of student use.

Things get very interesting indeed when it comes to the keywork, and perhaps the most obvious omissions are the B & Bb at the bottom end and the F and Eb at the top.
Slightly less obvious is the omission of the side C and lower F# keys - and not having a top F means there's no need for a front top F key, and no top Eb means there's no need for the side top E key either. There's no top F# either (which isn't that uncommon on some pro horns even today). That's quite a bundle of keys and fittings, and therefore quite a bit of weight that's been saved.
Alphasax top DJust as with the body, things may have been pared down but it hasn't been at the expense of build quality. The keys are well made, and TJ appears to have avoided being tempted to save a few grams by making the key arms thinner - they're as chunky as you'll find on any standard horn, and just as strong. Again, this bodes well for rough handling.
At this point the frills definitely run out - there are no adjusting screws on the main stacks (though the Bb/ G# adjusters are present), and both the bell key and low C/Eb spatulas have been replaced with simple touchpieces.
There is once concession to comfort though - the Bis Bb key pearl is domed, which makes for a pleasant action as your finger rolls over onto the key.
As far as I could see the pads look to be of reasonable quality, and quite well set. This should be a sax that will play straight out of the box.

The whole horn is very nicely finished in lacquer, and there's a rather elegant logo neatly stamped into the bell.

Also worthy of note is that the action is powered by blued steel springs. I'd normally say this is a good thing - but given that kids aren't perhaps going to be the most fastidious of saxophone owners, a decent set of stainless springs might have been a better bet. It's a small point though.
Not so small however is the use of pseudo point screws. These have no provision for adjustment when the keywork wears, and that could be an important consideration over time. Fortunately there aren't many of them, so it wouldn't be an overly-expensive job to replace them as and when necessary.

Alphasax bell keysUnder the fingers the action felt quite good. The horn is set with a medium-high action, which will be just about right for young players, and clearly some effort has been made to ensure that the springs are not set too strong. Top marks there.
The placement of the main stack key pearls is pretty much standard - no real need to move these around - but it's on the ancillary keys where the concessions to small hand will be found.
I have quite long fingers, so I found it quite tricky to hit the low C/Eb keys - in fact I couldn't hit the Eb key at all - but when I slid my right thumb further around the body (to simulate a smaller hand) these keys fell right into place.

Likewise, the bell keys (all two of them) feel a little strange at first, but are actually quite comfortable once you get used to them. The top D key seemed more or less as standard but the side Bb seems to extend just a little bit lower than usual...again, a concession for smaller hands.
As it happens I had a client drop by with her clarinet while I was working on this review and she'd brought her 8 year old son with her. I immediately spotted an opportunity and fitted him up with the Alphasax. His mum was a bit taken aback, but he seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly and was rather fascinated with it - and I was able to see how his hands fitted the keywork. Spot on.
I was very pleased with the results, but I don't think the client was all that happy - the lad seemed so thrilled with it that I told him if he was very good he might get one for Christmas. I caught a stern look from his mum, but it was already too late - as they left the workshop I heard the boy say "Mummy, I want one for Christmas!". Mr Popular - that's me!

Tonewise the Alphasax is quite a surprise - I expected it to be quite bright, but it's actually a little on the warm side. This is very nice. Most beginners are going to make a terrible racket for the first few months, and nothing's more guaranteed to put you off your dinner than the shrill squawking of a beginner on an alto sax...but that touch of warmth to the tone will really take the edge off.
Accident, or design? Who knows, but it's a nice touch.
It's an easy blow too. Not as free-blowing as some altos I've played, but then that's not always a good quality for a student horn. A little bit of resistance helps prevent the horn running away with itself. Think of it as traction control.
Alphasax bell holeThe only thing that caught me out a bit was the 'presentation' of the low C.
Nerdy readers will be wondering where the low C note comes out. It usually comes out of the low B tone hole (remember, when you play a note on a woodwind instrument, the sound comes out from the nearest open hole. When you close the low C key, the nearest open hole is the low B) - but as there isn't a low B on this horn it comes out of a special hole at the rear of the bell. This is a sensible place for it as the main body will offer it a degree of protection. (Even-nerdier readers will be wondering why they bothered with a full-sized bell. They'd be right too, there's no need for it - it's just there for 'the look').
So, when I hit the low C the sound didn't come from quite where I expected it to, which was a little odd. Not an issue, just a quirky observation from someone so used to hearing that note come from the right hand side (or the left on certain vintage horns). Supremely-nerdy readers will be poised to email me about the Buescher 400, which has its B & Bb tone holes on the rear of the bell).
I actually quite enjoyed playing it - but I think this was more to do with the lack of weight, it's really noticeable how light it is.
In terms of evenness of tone it's right there - very well balanced - and the tuning is bang on the mark.

One other nice feature that's worth a mention is the mouthpiece - labelled 'TJ Esprit II (by) Bari'.
It's a little warm for my tastes (but this will raise another cheer from long-suffering parents) but it at least blows quite nicely - which is much more than can be said for most 'supplied-with-horn' pieces. Better still it comes with a decent single-screw ligature, which will be an absolute boon for beginners. Trust me on that.

Alphasax caseSo just how much difference does all the paring-down make?
Well, a bog-standard alto weighs in at around 2.5Kg, with perhaps the lightest on the market being the Yamaha YAS275 at 2.3Kg (the same, incidentally, as a Selmer MkVI). The Alphasax tips the scales at a tad under 1.9Kg. That's a difference of about the weight of a pint of milk in a plastic bottle - and for a child that's not an insignificant amount when it's hanging around their neck.
And it's not just the sax that's light, the specially designed case is too. In fact the whole lot comes in at a miserly 3.25Kg.
I know from my own schooldays that lugging around a standard alto in its case takes its toll - but even the school wimp could handle one of these!
Of course, with a case that's this small there's not a lot of room inside - so there's a handy pocket on the outside for all your gubbins.

On the face of it, this makes for a powerful selling point for the Alphasax - but let's have a closer look at the pros and cons:
As just mentioned, the weight is the biggest pro factor. No competition there.
The specifically designed keywork is a boon too, you simply won't get this degree of comfort from a standard horn if you have small hands.
It's a quality product - the build quality is good, it's built to take knocks...and better still, you get a 5 year warranty with it.
It's a proper alto sax, in Eb - not a higher pitched horn.

But...

It's pricey. At £400+ it's around double the cost of an Ultra-Cheap horn.
It's limited in terms of the notes it can produce.
It has some non-standard key designs.
A clarinet would be even lighter, and cheaper.

Those are pretty powerful counter-arguments - so let's have a closer look at them.

The price may seem a bit steep, but then this isn't a cheapo horn. It's well made, well set up and it plays very well indeed. An Ultra-Cheap Chinese horn can be had for around half the price, but it would be rather heavier (and less well-made)...and even modifying it wouldn't reduce the weight that much.
Because of this there's going to be a healthy resale market for the Alphasax - there will always be a steady supply of youngsters keen to learn the sax, so providing you haven't beaten the thing to death you'll be able to sell it on (and pretty quickly, I should think).
I should also add that the Trevor James company has been around for quite some time now, so you're not likely to find that 5 year warranty is worth less than the paper its printed on. It occurred to me though that most people are going to buy this horn and get, say, two or three years of use out of it before wanting to move on to a full-spec sax - which leaves a couple of year's worth of warranty to run. Wouldn't it be good if the next buyer could make use of it? Well, they can. It's transferable with the sale, so as long as you have the original receipt you'll be covered. Better still, it's valid at any TJ Alphasax dealer - not just the one it was originally bought from. Now that's what I call a warranty!

The limited range of notes isn't that much of an issue. The target age range will mean that players will be working on grades 1-3 of the Associated Board Examinations, and players taking these exams wouldn't be required to use any notes not provided on the Alphasax. By the time they got past grade 3 they'd be big enough to handle a full-spec horn. There's more than enough music out there that fits well within this range - and in fact I've even played on gigs where I've never needed to go above top D or below low C.

The non-standard key designs aren't that much of a big deal - any player swapping between brands of horn has to get used to slightly different keywork.
I noted the limitations presented by my long fingers, so by the time the player is ready to move up it should feel like a natural progression.
I would say too that there's some merit in making the keywork less complicated - I can well remember the first time I clapped eyes on a saxophone, and I found myself wondering how on earth I was going to manage to work all those keys. These days, of course, I could do with a few more...

As for the clarinet - well, it's a clarinet. Nothing against them personally, but when a child wants to learn a sax and they're given a clarinet its a bit like you asking a barman for a glass of white wine and being given a pint of lager. I know, I've been there.
I don't think many people would disagree that the sax is a good deal easier to learn than the clarinet - and let's be honest here, it's way cooler. Such things are important, y'know. If that offends any clarinettists out there, let me add that once a child has learned to get around on a sax they will be far better suited to maturing their skills with the clarinet.

So, having started off this review with a degree of scepticism, I'm pleased to say I'm something of a convert.
Yes, it's not an insignificant outlay for a first instrument the the student will grow out of - but the resale value will knock that right down - but I really can't think of any other significant drawbacks.
The absolute knockdown killer feature is that the Alphasax will shave a couple of years off the starting age for the sax, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it on that basis alone, let alone all the other plus points.

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