TJ Signature Custom RAW XS alto saxophone
Taiwan, assembled in UK (www.tjsaxes.com)
Guide price: £2249
Date of manufacture: November 2013
Date reviewed: February 2014
A pro-quality alto from TJ that sets new
standards across the board
Having switched from my trusty old Yamaha 23 tenor to a TJ RAW,
my mailbox has been inundated with queries from interested players
as to how I'm getting on with the new horn (just fab!) - along with
a fair few requests about my opinion on the RAW alto. I had some
limited experience of the alto but felt that I could save everyone
a great deal of time by running up a proper review of it - so I
asked TJ if they'd send me one to put on the bench.
It took a while to get hold of it, which probably relates to the
way in which these horns are produced - they're not just bunged
out by the dozen - but I persevered, and pulled a few strings...which
mostly involved my sending them a steady stream of emails along
the lines of "Is it ready yet? Is it? Is it? Is it ready?"
And here it is.
This is the XS version. It's identical to every other RAW series
alto, except that the original factory-applied 'tarnish' has been
removed (by hand, no less) to give the horn a more 'lived in' look.
I nicknamed it the TJ Ready Rubbed - which might prompt a few modest
chuckles from any pipe smokers out there.
The construction is fairly typical with drawn toneholes (all nice
and level), a removable bell and ribbed construction...which means
that the main stack pillars, and a few others, are fitted to strips
of brass which in turn are fitted to the body. The remaining individual
pillars have decent-sized bases, which bodes well for long-term
a triple-point bell brace, fully adjustable bumper felts on the
bell keys, an adjustable metal thumb hook and a detachable side
F# key guard.
There's also a generously-proportioned thumb rest fitted, and the
addition of the Signature Custom logo on the top adds a nice bit
of grip for when things get a bit hot and sweaty. As per the tenor,
the rest can be removed by loosening the lock screw in the base.
Note the slight bevel on the inner face of the octave key touchpiece
- it's a simple thing, but it makes it so much more comfortable
It has a large(ish) bell fitted - which measures 124mm (4 7/8").
That's slightly larger than the bell on my YAS62 MkI, which comes
in at 119mm (4 3/4"). It's certainly not the largest bell I've
seen on an alto, but then again I feel that if you go too large
it makes the horn look a bit odd.
The sling ring is exactly the same as that fitted to the tenor -
and whereas I'd liked to have seen a bit more 'meat' on the tenor's
ring, it's just about right on the alto.
It's all put together very nicely, with neat soldering on the pillars
and fittings and crisp, clean edges on the keywork.
The keywork itself has a few nice design touches that bear mentioning,
particularly the double arms on the lower stack keys.
I'm still inclined to remain sat on the fence over their effectiveness,
but then again I can't say that they'll do any harm. It's certainly
fair to say that the low F and D key cups can be prone to twisting
due to the key pearls being placed on the side of the cups - so
anything that helps to prevent this has to be a bonus.
As with the tenor I'm still a bit puzzled as to why the double arms
aren't fitted to the low B and Bb key cups, given that these two
keys are often inclined to twist a little over time.
There's also a slightly domed Bis Bb key pearl - which makes for
a slicker transition between the B and the Bb, a well-positioned
teardrop touchpiece for the front top F, and a very sensible fork
and pin connection between the side Bb/C levers and their key cups.
a tilting table mechanism for the bell keys, and a nice touch is
the bevelled low B touchpiece which aids the transition from low
C# to low B.
I'm still of the opinion that the G# touchpiece is just a tad on
the small size. I wouldn't say that it was too small - rather it's
perhaps as small as it can realistically be without causing any
real problems. I realise that some of you might now be wondering
what the problem is - and I have to admit that while I pointed up
the same thing on the tenor, I haven't actually noticed it giving
me any gyp over the last year or so. However I'd still
have liked it to have had just a bit more meat to it...maybe just
a couple of millimetres longer, and perhaps one wider.
It might just be a matter of proportion - take a look at the mock-up
image on the right, with a Photoshopped larger G# touchpiece. Looks
more balanced, doesn't it?
I just think the larger size adds a bit more security when the going
gets a bit wild. You might never use that extra couple of millimetres...but
it's nice to have it there, just in case.
The corkwork is worthy of mention. This doesn't usually get pointed
up in a review other than my saying whether it's particularly neat
or otherwise, but in this case it's exceptional. Much use is made
of compression-resisting synthetic felt, and this gives the action
a very smooth and quiet feel. To be sure, you could have such felts
fitted to any horn - but to have such tweaks as standard out of
the box is a real plus. It's very clear that someone with some technical
expertise has given some thought to the matter, and that's something
I find very reassuring.
mechanical terms the killer feature of this horn is that it's fitted
with proper point screws. Not silly pseudo points that only do half
the job, or pointless (literally) parallel screws that do little
more than hold the keys on - but proper, honest-to-goodness, no
nonsense point screws.
What this means for me is that when the time comes to service the
horn it'll be a great deal easier to take up the inevitable wear
in the keys that pivot on these screws - and what that means for
you, the player, is that the action feels more solid, slicker and
responsive for longer, there'll be fewer wear-related leaks from
the pads...and best of all, it'll cost you a lot less to have the
action adjusted down the years. Proper point screws - everybody
If you have an older RAW alto you'll be pleased to hear that the
new screws can be retro-fitted to older models - and it's definitely
worth having the upgrade done next time your horn goes in for a
Wrapping up the keywork we have a set of well-set, good quality
pads and a set of blued steel springs.
case provided is of the semi-soft, shaped variety - and on the whole
it's a very good case. The horn is held nice and snug, and there
seems to be a fair amount of protection to cope with the various
knocks and bashes it's likely to see down the years. However, it's
a zippered case - and I really don't like zips on cases.
I see so many broken ones, and tire of putting instruments back
into cases where only one of the pair of zip fasteners works, or
the zip only does up so far because some of the hoops are broken...or,
even worse, you forget that in order to open the case the zip has
to be opened right around the back of the case, and there's that
chilling tearing sound as you rip the last couple of inches of the
zip apart when you're in a hurry to get your instrument out of its
The RAW case has one extra gotcha - there's a carrying handle on
the top of the case, which prevents you from sliding the zipper
right around the back of the case (you have to poke your hand through
the handle). This is a proper pain in the arse.
As it's a shaped case there's not a lot of room inside for bits
and bobs - there are slots for the crook and the mouthpiece. There's
a little bag provided which will fit down the bell, but I'm always
wary of putting anything down the bell of my horns.
There are also a couple of zipped pockets attached to the outside
- and the one on the top is big enough to take a flute in a clutch-type
case, which is a nice bonus given that many sax players double on
flute. With a bit of careful wrapping in some cloth you could get
a clarinet in there.
Something I'm frequently asked is how well do unlacquered horns
stand up to corrosion. Well, brass doesn't rust - but it can go
green with verdigris (a sort of brass mould) and in extreme cases
it can even develop something known as red rot. This is why horns
are usually lacquered or plated. However, there are plenty of vintage
horns knocking about that have no lacquer left on them - and they've
managed to survive quite happily for at least 50 years or so.
Much depends on how you care for the horn, the environment in which
the instrument is played and stored, and your body chemistry. Some
people sweat more than others, and some people seem to have more
acidic sweat than others.
this instrument is going to tarnish - that's the whole point - and
hopefully it'll do so gracefully so that it ends up with that lovely
crystalline brass patina that many vintage horns possess.
It doesn't take that long either - note the difference in the shine
between the tube of the crook (which has had a fair bit of handling)
and the crook socket (which hasn't). The more you use and handle
the horn, the sooner it will tarnish.
Some players are going to find that their horn develops a few green
spots here and there - though these can be removed (cigarette lighter
fluid does a good job for light blemishes) - and I think it's fair
to say that keeping an unlacquered horn looking neat and tidy is
as much about post-playing care as it is about luck. If that sounds
like too much hassle then go for a lacquered or plated option -
it won't sound any different.
While we're on the subject, I noted that handling this horn left
the smell of brass on my hands. It doesn't bother me that much (I'm
used to it), but some players might not like it. It's more of an
issue with 'fresh' brass - once it tarnishes it's far less noticeable.
The setup was spot on. As mentioned earlier I had asked TJ to send
me one of these horns to review, and having previously spent some
time with Dave Farley (TJ's sax tech) I expected it to be nothing
less than bang on. But here's the thing - this isn't a one off,
a special edition, a super-tweaked sample...they're all like this.
This is the RAW's USP - they're assembled and set up in the UK by
Dave Farley and his team. All of them, to the same high standard.
This means the springs are nicely tensioned and balanced, there's
no niggly double-action where corks/felts have settled, there are
no leaks from the pads and the height of the action is just how
most players will want it. In monetary terms that's worth the cost
of a post-purchase setup - about £60 - but in terms of knowing
that your new horn will perform perfectly right out of the case,
it's priceless. It's also no less than you should expect at this
For the playtesting I lined up a couple of choice competitors;
my own Mk1 Yamaha YAS62 and a recently overhauled Selmer BA - the
idea being to see where the RAW would sit when compared with two
highly-regarded professional quality horns, with the YAS62 fighting
in the 'contemporary tone' corner and the BA defending the vintage
The YAS62 is well known for its punchy and bright presentation,
the BA for its depth and richness - so it was a tough challenge.
Comparing the YAS62 and the RAW showed straightaway that there's
far more depth of tone to the RAW, but it also retains a healthy
touch of brilliance that serves to prevent the midrange from becoming
too boxy. Better still, the brightness is a lot more controllable
- on the Yamaha it's right there from the off, but the RAW seems
to allow it to slide in gracefully as and when you feel you need
it. It retains the punch of the Yamaha, but whereas the Yamaha comes
across like a boxer's left jab (fast, precise and sharp), the RAW
has a right hand uppercut waiting in the wings. It's more considered,
weightier...and when it hits, it hits with a lot of power.
And as big a fan as I am of the YAS62 I think I have to say that
the first round is a straightforward knockout to the RAW.
BA is a far more even match, and I was very surprised to find a
lot of tonal similarities. The RAW has that 'full spread' thing
going on, but with a touch more openness and clarity - to the point
where it made the BA seem a bit introverted.
It's certainly a touch more complex down the bottom end (thanks
to the hint of brightness) and certainly a lot more powerful - but
without becoming as strident or as 'barky' as the BA when pushed.
As you go up the range the RAW gets sweeter - as does the Selmer
- but here's where it gets really interesting. The RAW is far more
open at the top end than the BA, to the point where it almost makes
the Selmer sound a bit, well, twee.
Now I'm sure that's practically a heresy, but it's really the only
way in which I can describe it. Played on its own the Selmer is
lovely at the top end, it really is - but the RAW seems to pick
up where the BA leaves off.
Tonewise I feel the RAW achieves a remarkable balance between the
lyrical qualities of the vintage era and the soulful edge of the
contemporary, yet it does so with grace, poise and just the right
amount of grit. It's also got that 'morishness' thing going on that
I found in the tenor - the sense that every time you pick it up,
it has more to give.
But does that mean there'll be legions of Selmer/Yamaha owners chopping
in their trusty horns in favour of the new kid on the block? Probably
not - because there isn't 'one horn to rule them all', and while
there's a lot of competition out there that shines by being different,
the RAW seems to go a step further with a much more considered approach.
It's a good looking horn too - There are some nice cosmetic touches,
such as the series name engraved on the crook and the trouser guard,
as well as the model name stamped into the bell ring...all topped
off with a nicely engraved bell.
On the specs alone it's an impressive horn. The build quality,
the setup and the whole package adds up to a very credible pro-quality
instrument - and when you factor in the feel, the tone and the response
I think it's fair to say that the RAW XS raises the standard for
the 21st century alto.
Update April 2021:
with many manufacturers of professional instruments TJ continue
to tweak their horns through their production run - either to improve
the ergonomics, the tone or the tuning or simply to take account
of feedback received from players - so I thought it's high time
I got around to documenting some of those changes, using this example
of a RAW XS with a build date of around 2018.
As far as I'm aware all the changes have been cosmetic - which
is to say that the design of the body tube has been left untouched.
Given that TJ made some changed to the tenor crook I compared the
crook on this newer example to one from an earlier model and could
see no difference.
was particularly pleased to see that they've taken on board my comments
about the G# touchpiece and made it a little bit bigger. Smart move,
that - though I can't really take credit for it. I rather suspect
that I wasn't the only one who felt it was tad undersized.
I also noted that they've fitted round buffer mounts to the palm
keys. If there's a mechanical advantage to these (over and above
a standard key foot) I'm pretty sure it'll be minimal. However there's
no denying that it looks rather nice, and it matches up with the
other key feet dotted around the horn. And I'm all for that.
In terms of ergonomics the only difference I could spot was that
the low C/Eb touchpieces had been moved a little further back around
the body - which moves the tips of the touchpieces a little further
away from the low D key. I can't say that it's something which made
a difference to me as I'd never noticed any problems reaching these
keys, but players with smaller hands might find it useful.
change is that the side F# touchpiece has lost its oval pearl. Again,
it wouldn't make much of a difference to me as I rarely use this
key - though fans of trilling will probably be a bit miffed with
the very slightly reduced grip on this key. I'm afraid I have little
sympathy as trilling sets my teeth on edge, so anything that makes
it that little bit more difficult doesn't worry me at all.
But fear not, because with the money they've saved on such dubious
fripperies they've been able to add an F# helper arm.
These things have limited use; the idea is that it provides some
extra stiffness to the connection between the F key and the Aux.F
(which is technically the F# key). However there's usually so much
flex in the arm that most of the benefit is lost. Still, I suppose
it's better than nothing - and it gives DIY tweakers the ability
to adjust the regulation without too much hassle.
that its much hassle on the RAW as it has regulation adjusters on
the rear of the key stack anyway - but a big, friendly brass grub
screw is a lot less daunting than a fiddly little regulation screw.
On the minus side I'm not so happy about the cutaway on the top
E upper pillar.
On the example reviewed above (but not shown) the cutaway is quite
slight, but what's left of the pillar just about makes the grade
in terms of beefiness. But only just.
On this newer example I feel they've somewhat overcooked it, and
shaved rather too much off the pillar. I wondered whether it might
be a one-off - perhaps someone slipped during the production stage
- but I had a three year old TJ SR alto in a few days later and
noticed the same large cutaway.
In case you're wondering what its purpose is, it's to give clearance
to the body octave key cup - but as you can see there's more than
enough space available.
It's unlikely that this pillar will take a knock directly as it's
protected by the top F# key barrel which sits above it (and which
has been removed in this shot). But a knock further down the horn
can result in a sort of slide-hammer action which may push over
a weak pillar further up the instrument. Such
damage is most often seen on the top F# upper pillar and the compound
bell key pillar - which although not usually small and weak nonetheless
has three or four keys mounted on it.
To put it in perspective it's not going to be an issue unless your
horn takes a tumble - at which point the damage to this pillar is
likely to be the least of your concerns. But it's still a weak point
in my books, and as such I like to flag it up.
I guess the big question is whether or not any of these changes
have made any difference to the way the horn feels and plays.
In terms of feel the larger G# touchpiece is an obvious win, and
for some players the tweaked low C/Eb touchpieces will be helpful
- but that's about it.
As for how it plays - it plays exactly the same as the older model....give
or take the usual variance between any two apparently identical
horns. I'm very pleased about that because it shows consistency
of manufacture, which is what I'd expect from a professional horn.
All things considered - and the overshaved pillar notwithstanding
- I'm delighted to report that I'm still very much impressed.