Borgani 'OBA' alto saxophone
Guide price: £2000(ish)
Date of manufacture: 2015(?)
Date reviewed: April 2022
It's always a point of interest for me whenever
someone brings in a Borgani for repair. It's not so much that I
don't see that many of them and more that I'm always keen to see
whether one of them might 'break the mould' that such horns are
often very distinctive in the way that they play and feel, but that
they're often plagued with build quality issues.
What's not such a point of interest for me is nailing down which
particular model happens to be on the bench. I like my horns to
be nicely labelled; a nice corporate logo on the bell and a bit
of engraving or a stamp that proudly proclaims the model name or
number. Some manufacturers are very good at this, others rather
less so - which means I then have to go trawling the web for hints.
This is an incredibly frustrating pastime given that for every article
or forum post that states "It's this model" there's nearly
always another that contradicts it. Gets right on my wick, I can
is known about this horn is that it was bought new
in or around 2015 - and from what I can gather from the web, the
OBx series made its debut around 2011. Given this piece of information,
and the OBA prefix on the serial number, I'm going to chuck my hat
in the ring and declare this horn to be an OBA model. If you know
otherwise, let me know.
The construction is single pillar (post to body),
and it's worth pausing here to take a close look at the pillars...or
at least the pillar bases, because they're a bit of a mixture.
In this shot you can see the standard type of pillar base - which
is just a disc of flat brass that's brazed on to the bottom of the
pillar, like the pillar on the left. But look at the base on the
pillar in the centre of the shot.
It's very much thicker and has been cut or cast (not bent or formed)
to fit the body tube. Isn't that lovely? Granted, it makes sod-all
difference to how the pillars work - it just looks nice, though
I couldn't begin to tell you why only some of the pillars are made
this way as it seems almost like a random choice. I originally thought
it might have something to do with the height of the pillars - with
the taller ones having a more substantial base - but the shot above
shows that's clearly not the case.
There's a triple-point bell brace (with a reassuringly
substantial mount plate on the body) along with a detachable bell,
an adjustable metal thumb hook, a flat plastic thumb rest, a decently-proportioned
15/9 sling ring and a fixed semicircular compound bell key pillar.
You also get a full set of adjustable bumper felts on the bell key
G# lever key's lower pillar is what I call an 'outboard' pillar
- which is to say that it's slung across the body at an angle (you
can see its base just to the right of the bell brace). It's a reasonably
common layout, typically used when space is a bit tight between
the Auxiliary F and G# toneholes.
The tone holes are of the plain drawn type. Because
this horn's been round the block a few times it's perhaps unfair
to pass judgement on the flatness of the toneholes - but I find
that that the low F, E and D holes are a pretty good guide to how
things were when the horn was new by dint of them being reasonably
well-protected from knocks. Likewise the palm key toneholes are
a good indicator of production standards. They weren't very level
The finish (or what's left of it) bears closer
The body appears to be made of nickel silver (which is nice). The
main body tube is finished in nickel silver plate and the rest of
the horn in gold plate (including the keys and fittings).
all sounds rather splendid - and it would be had it not all been
doused in a coat of gold lacquer. I really can't think why they
bothered to do this - the horn didn't need it and putting lacquer
over plating is always tricky because it tends to fall off after
a while. As it's done here.
Honestly, it looks bloody awful. Sure, it's a 20 year old horn,
but it shouldn't look this bad after such a relatively short space
of time. I don't know how well or otherwise this horn was looked
after, so I can't really say whether it's common to any other examples...but
I really wouldn't be at all surprised if it was.
a nice shot of the layers of plating showing through the wear on
the octave thumb key. You can see the base metal of the key (brass)
followed by a coat of copper, then nickel and finally gold.
You can think of the copper and nickel as being akin to a coat of
primer and undercoat...with the gold being the gloss paint finish.
All things considered I was reasonably impressed with the build
quality of the body; the solderwork was all as neat and tidy as
you could hope for.
On to the action now - and I think I'm gonna
kick off with the plus points and deal with the...issues...a little
I think the first thing I want to mention is how tough the keywork
is. It really is very tough indeed - or at least the main stack
keys are. It's very common to have to bend a key slightly during
the course of a service, and this is usually done to correct a key
cup angle. I know some people insist that no-one should purposely
bend keys on their horns, but that's simply because they're bloody
idiots. If they really wanted to ensure that their repairer wasn't
going to bend any keys, they should rush out and buy one of these
horns. Key stiffness is a useful feature (for the most part, at
least) and bodes well for long-term reliability in the face of heavy-handedness
or the rigours of touring.
pleased, too, to see plain and simple fork and pin connectors on
the side Bb and C. It's a tried and a tested mechanism that's simple
and efficient - and generally quiet in use provided the action is
kept tight and well-lubricated, and the buffers are in good order.
I also liked the rather domed key cups. They don't
need to be like this, and it really serves no practical function
- but it looks nice. However, having rather domed key cups affects
the way in which the pads have to be installed because it means
there'll be more of a gap between the centre of the pad base and
the top of a key cup. What you'll need here is shellac - and plenty
is why I was delighted to see that Borgani have spared no expense
in this area. Take a look at this pad I hioked out. Have you ever
seen this much shellac on a pad before?
What a joy. Maybe this explains why so many other manufacturers
skimp on the stuff....because Borgani have bought it all. Top marks
there, and then some.
Pad are of good quality too - Premium Deluxe, no less.
On a much geekier note, if you ever intend to reset one of these
pads you really do have to remember that they're 'floated' on the
shellac. There are a few ways of fitting and setting pads. My preference
is to fit the pad so that its base (or at least the rim of it) is
in near contact with the pad cup - but many repairers prefer to
use a great deal more shellac (or hot melt glue) so that the pad
quite literally floats on it (hence the term). There are pros and
cons with both methods (as usual) - but one of the biggest cons
with floated pads is that if you attempt to reset one without being
aware of the seating method used, you could end up with loads of
shellac oozing out of the key cup. And then you're in a spot of
bother. If a pad's been floated on hot melt glue it can all turn
into a nightmare quite rapidly. So go carefully.
a bog-standard swivelling octave key mech fitted, and I was pleased
to note than even after a few decades of use it was still in pretty
good order with very little play on the swivel bar and tips. This
mech gets a hell of a lot of use, and to find one in such good nick
after all this time points to it having been very well made in the
With that said I was a little disappointed to see a plain flat bit
of plastic used for the thumb rest - I really do think this horn
deserved something a little better and more in keeping with the
looks. It's comfortable enough, however.
Also disappointed to see that there are no adjusters
on the main stacks. I'm non-too-fussed about key height adjusters
but regulation adjuster are, in my book, an essential feature. It
makes my life a lot easier, it makes your repair bills smaller -
and for those players who're handy with a screwdriver it makes it
entirely possible to dial in incremental adjustments as and when
a pad shrinks a bit or a piece of cork/felt compresses. They're
a bit like electric windows on a car, or air-conditioning - why
would you choose not to have them?
You do, however, get the usual trio of adjusters on the Bis Bb,
the G# and low B to C# key cup - and as an added bonus they've also
included and F# helper arm.
These things are, I feel, of limited use because they often have
too much flex in them to make them a worthwhile addition - but the
Borgani scores a few more points by virtue of the adjuster arm being
soldered to the top of the F key cup. You can see it quite clearly
in the beauty shot at the end of the review.
Right then, on to the ranty bits...
The Borgani features sprung inserts for the point screws. You'll
see this system on a some of Selmer's horns, and I've commented
about it before. I've never been convinced as to the efficacy of
it - even less so after recently having to ream out a key barrel
and make a new insert (due to it being worn)...which then had to
be lapped to fit the key barrel . I always said the inserts would
eventually wear and create a headache for both the player and the
repairer. If you're unfamiliar with these inserts check out my article
on point screws - or the Selmer
Ref.54 tenor review.
at least Selmer had the decency to ensure that the inserts were
correctly fitted in the first place. Not so on the Borgani.
Upon dismantling the horn I found that almost all of the inserts
were jammed in the key barrel. Some of them freed up after a great
deal of poking and fiddling - many of them did not. The whole point
of this system is to take up wear in the keywork as and when it
occurs. That it does so with mediocre results is neither here nor
there - because if the insert won't move it leaves you facing the
same problems as on any other horn with standard key barrels...and
easy to see why the inserts were jamming - just look down the bore
of the barrel. See those screwthread-like marks? Those are from
the drilling operation. How on earth you can expect an insert to
be a smooth sliding fit against burrs like that is quite beyond
me. It's pretty clear to see that the inserts have been fitted to
the barrel and then the key fitted to the horn. Once the point screws
have been tightened up they've pushed the inserts in with considerable
force - whereupon they've jammed solid, never to move again. While
we're here, note that the barrel has been drilled off-centre. If
you wanted to ream the insert hole out and fit an oversized (and
correctly-fitting) insert, you won't have a great deal of room for
If you have one of these horns and fancy doing a strip down maintenance
service, my strong advice is that on no account should you mess
with the inserts. If, in an attempt to get one out you end up pushing
it further into the barrel it's going to completely ruin your day.
The whole sprung insert idea is a complete pile of poo, and when
implemented as badly as we see here it's...well, an even larger
pile of poo. It completely defeats the object of the damned things
in the first place (to provide a self-adjusting action). Which never
works that well anyway.
And while I'm on a roll I might as well comment
about the key fit. Not impressed.
I had to make new rod screws for all three palm key and the side
Bb/C cup keys. It wasn't because they were worn excessively, it
was simply because they were way too short.
you could argue that it really doesn't matter that much - but I
would say that it's not the sort of thing you should have to accept
on what's essentially a high-end horn. In any case the pillar for
the top F had been overdrilled, which allowed the rod screw to move
about..and thus the F key - so it seemed like a sensible bet to
just upgrade the whole lot in one go.
I also didn't care for the way in which the key
barrel ends had been finished. Or rather unfinished.
I like to see nice, crisp, straight edges so that when a pillar
butts up against a pillar or another key there's barely more than
a thin line that marks out the boundary. Not only does this look
neat it also provides a larger surface area, which increases the
time before friction (and thus wear) takes its inevitable toll.
it's perhaps not quite so important on point screw barrels - particularly
on a horn that features sprung inserts (or at least sprung inserts
that actually work) - but it's still the mark of a manufacturer
who cares enough to spend some time getting things all neat and
I guess some would argue that this merely shows the horn's handmade
credentials - but that's a complete load of old hogwash because
every decent repairer has a set of hand tools whose function is
to square off uneven barrel ends. In other words, you don't need
a machine to be able to do the job.
Speaking of which, pretty much every key is stamped with the serial
number - which tends to indicate that the keys are hand-fitted to
Under the fingers the action feels as good as
you'd expect. It's a standard layout and an alto, so there won't
be too many people who will struggle to reach the keys.
The two standout features are the Bis Bb and front top F touchpieces.
OK, I can understand (just about) that some players may have a preference
for a slightly different design of the front top F touchpiece but
the Bis Bb touchpiece ought to be fitted to every horn...by law.
It's a simple, effective design - and I really can't imagine anyone
complaining about it.
keywork is quite hefty, but this is balanced by a set of blued steel
spring that have a good length to them - and in the hands of a repairer
who really understands how to balance a set of springs, the action
is capable of being swift and responsive. Nothing to complain about
there at all.
The key pearls (real mother of pearl, incidentally) are worth a
quick mention. They're flat in profile - which, I feel, always gives
the action a nice feel - and the pearl holders have a rather wide,
rounded rim. It all adds up to a very smooth and comfortable experience.
I really enjoyed whizzing about over the keys.
Tonewise the Borgani wastes no time in showing
off its vintage leanings.
It's a full, rich sound to be sure, but it's perhaps a little bit
'unseasoned' at the edges - which is to say that it seems to lack
a bit of sparkle. In this respect I feel it places it very much
in the camp of altos that have a very tenor-like quality, such as
the Holton 666.
That's no bad thing if that's your bag, and the Borgani does it
very well indeed. It's gentle, laid back, a bit reserved.
I always say that when I'm playtesting a horn, the horn dictates
which tunes I tend to play - and so it was that I found myself veering
more towards classic tenor ballads ('Like Someone In Love', 'The
Night We Called It A Day' etc.) rather than the more energetic tunes
that seem to better suit the alto.
you can push it some - but it's quite a resistant blow, and if you're
looking for a tone that has more cut and thrust you're either going
to have to work harder for it or opt for a baffled mouthpiece to
help you out a little.
I s'pose I'd say that there's vintage...and there's very vintage
- and I feel the Borgani tends slightly towards the latter. Not
that it's unpleasant, oh no - on its own it's really very playable,
if perhaps a little 'introspective'. It's when you compare it to
the competition that you start to notice some of the tonal compromises
- and it just so happened I had a rather nice late '60s Selmer MkVI
to hand. Seemed like a fair match to me; they're both expensive
horns with vintage credentials.
I described the Borgani as having a gentle approach,
but the Selmer threw a bit more perspective on that description
- and perhaps the best way I can describe it is that the Borgani's
'gentle' is akin to an elderly couple waltzing together at a tea
dance. The Selmer is like a ballerina...with a Katana slung across
her back. It has a much more open and immediate presence, it's more
lithe, it's more alert. It's more dangerous...and thus a lot more
"Aha!" you might say "It's a Borgani, not a Selmer!
That's the whole point!" - and you'd be right. It's a different
horn for players who want a different soundscape. Nothing wrong
with that at all. But then I've played quite a few Borganis - and
while they have indeed been different from the norm, they've not
been that far outside of it. In point of fact, when I was looking
for a new tenor the Borgani Vintage 09 made my shortlist of three
horns. I can't in all honesty say that this alto would have made
the cut in a similar shoot-out.
When all is said and done I'm not really sure
how to sum up this horn. I realise that if I don't say that it's
utterly wonderful I'm likely to hear no end of wailing from Borgani
fans - but then it is what it is. My personal observations probably
don't matter that much - but 'the bench don't lie', and at the sort
of price-point this horn originally sold for it's only fair that
it gets judged accordingly.
The crappy sprung inserts are a complete disaster, the keywork isn't
very neat and tidy in places - and the finish has aged awfully.
I'd expect better, and from that perspective alone I'd advise caution...or
at the very least paying an appropriate price.
And did it break the mould?
No, sadly not...