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 reliability.
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 to use.
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 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
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 millimeters...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 wins.
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 major service.
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 case.
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 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
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 price.
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 crown.
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
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 'moreishness' 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
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.