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Yamaha YAS61

Yamaha YAS61 alto saxophoneOrigin: Japan (
Guide price: £700 for a very good example
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: Early 1970's
Date reviewed: March 2008

Yamaha's first pro-level horn, now arguably one of the modern-day icons in the saxophone world

It's easy to underestimate just how important the 61 series was in terms of the historical development of the saxophone.
When they first appeared on the market it was at a time when there was almost no choice for the professional player other than to buy a Selmer or look for a decent horn that had been built a few decades earlier.
More importantly, it heralded a new approach to design and manufacture - along with a completely fresh perspective with regard to tone and performance. In short, this was a contemporary horn in every respect. The price was right too - the production techniques used by Yamaha allowed them to sell this horn remarkably cheap, putting it well within the reach of non-professional players who nonetheless required a decent horn.

Naturally it had its detractors - some people said these horns would fall apart, wouldn't last; others said they had no depth, no tone - and yet here we are some 30 plus years later and used 61s are still going strong, and fetching good prices on the secondhand market.
What was particularly interesting about these horns is that they came out of nowhere. Unlike the already established marques there was no historical line of development...there wasn't a line of previous models that led up to this simply appeared in shop windows one day and sliced itself a major portion of the market before anyone had time to notice.

It had plenty of things going for it; a superb action, rustproof springs, impeccable build-quality, unfussy design, clarity of tone and precise tuning, the aforementioned price - and a consistency of manufacture hitherto unknown among saxophone manufacturers.
It was often said that these horns weren't 'individual' - which is a fair comment to some degree - but for those players who loved the tone and feel of the 61s it meant that it was possible to lose one (perhaps through damage or theft) and be able to walk into a shop the next day and buy one that played exactly the same as the horn that had just been lost.
You didn't have to worry about whether you'd got a bad one - they were all of a standard, though If you searched long and hard enough you could sometimes find an example that seemed to have a little bit extra.
Another great selling point was the setup - these horns nearly always played right out of the box. This alone was a major boon for retailers...though it did perhaps herald the end of the in-store technician. This also translated into reliability - in spite of the 61 and 62 series being one of the most popular ranges of horns ever built, they aren't particularly frequent visitors to the workshop.

The body itself is neatly built, with cleanly soldered pillars on generous bases. It featured an adjustable thumb hook as standard as well as a detachable bell and the now-distinctive 'all-in-one' bell key guard.
The finish was superb, a coat of tough lacquer that (if you were careful enough) could withstand minor soldering work.
It's still possible today to pick up an example with barely any lacquer blemishes at all - and that's not bad going when you consider that these horns can be pushing 40 years old.
I've always felt though that the low C tone hole is a bit of a vulnerable point for these horn (as it is on the 62s) because it's so shallow. This part of the horn, the bottom bow, takes a lot of punishment - and should it cop a large enough whack that damages the tonehole, there simply isn't enough 'meat' on the tonehole wall to make it an easy fix. You certainly wouldn't want to have to take any metal off the front and rear of the hole - there's barely a couple of millimetres of metal before you end up on the body itself.

Yamaha YAS61 alto bell braceThe bell brace is a simple but effective design, with the body mount placed to deflect an impact to the side of the body rather than concentrating it at the centre of the tube. This was replaced on the 62 with a more complex design, but the 61 bell brace is still in use today on the 275 series horns.
The action is the real prize though. The ergonomics are superb, though it's interesting to note that Yamaha eschewed the complex modern Selmer layout for the bell key spatulas, opting instead for a simpler non-tilting table. It was a brave move, but one that paid off simply because the design was good and build accurate (it's still used on the 275 series) - though they later switched to a tilting table on the 62 (early 62s had a slightly modified version of the 61 spatulas, without the tilting table). Note the G# link, almost dead centre of the photo.

The use of stainless springs was a new idea, and it worked because the keywork had been specifically designed to accommodate the characteristics of these springs. Quickest way to screw up a 61's action? Fit blued steel springs! (OK, you can do it - but you need to know exactly what you're doing).
Not only was the keywork well-built, it soon became clear that it was tough too - and even today it's rare to spot any significant wear to the action in spite of many years use. Just as well really, because the 61 features cylindrical point screw, which have no provision of taking up any free play in the key barrels. To do so would require replacement of the screws with proper point screws.

Yamaha YAS61 side trillsPoints get knocked off too for the use of a pin and cylinder link on the side Bb/C keys. This design is flawed and tends to wear relatively quickly - but at least the cylinders are made of nylon, so they're a great deal less rattly when they wear than those made in metal - especially if you forget, as so many do, to lubricate them occasionally.
Both main key stacks feature adjusters at the rear, and these are extremely useful when it comes to setting up the action.

The whole outfit came in a very nice case too - possibly one of the very first examples of a fully-fitted case, whereby the instrument lay in a cradle of lined polystyrene that kept it safe and snug...with dedicated compartments for the crook and mouthpiece, as well as an accessory box.

Even though these horns have long since been superseded by the 62 series I still get many emails enquiring about them, specifically requesting the differences between the two models.
For the most part the differences relate to the keywork. The biggest difference was the move to straps on the 62 (whereby a set of pillars is fitted to a brass strip that's then fitted to the horn) as opposed to the individually fitted pillars on the 61.
The size and shape of the bell key spatulas was changed - they became slightly smaller. The front F key touchpiece changed from a traditional pearl to a plain brass curved touchpiece (thus improving the 'hitability') and the F# and top F# touchpieces lost their mother-of-pearl covers and became plain brass.
YAS61 octave key mechanismThe design of the G# mechanism changed - the link bar moved to the front of the horn, although I always felt the rear mounted link on the 61 was rather effective. There was a new octave key mechanism, based on the Selmer style ball pivot (not that the 61 mechanism, shown here on the left, was any less effective...just more complicated to make, I suspect) and the thumb rest lost its mother-of-pearl cover.
There were a few other minor differences too - the aforementioned side trill key links, the design of the low C# connecting link, the bell brace and a couple of pillar design changes. The decor on the bell key guard changed too.

Tonewise the 61 was quite different to anything else on the market at the time. For many players it was a 'love it or hate it' scenario - the horn had a great deal more clarity and brightness than anything else around (though interestingly enough I later found that some vintage Martin Handcrafts have this ability, with the right mouthpiece), and so much precision and definition that it often felt you could cut glass with the sound this horn could put out. It was also very free-blowing, quite unresisting. That's not to say that resistance is a bad thing - in the same way that some people prefer to use a heavy pen when writing and others prefer a much lighter one. A resistant horn gives you something to push against, but tends to stamp its own sound on yours - a free-blowing horn just blows, and lets you determine the tone (for better or worse).
Performance in the altissimo register was superb - but in spite of the overall brightness of the horn it was still possible to get depth from it.
It was also very forgiving when it came to mouthpieces - you could bung almost anything on the 61 and know that it would work, both with regard to tone and tuning.

So how does it compare with the 62?
Well, I'd say that opinion is very much divided. For every player that says the 61 is brighter you can find another who swears it's darker.
Whilst writing this review I compared this 61 with my own early 62. I felt that the 61 had a touch more openness at the top end, and that the overall sound was broader - but I had to look quite hard for the differences. I think I'd go so far as to say that if someone swapped the 61 for my 62 without my knowledge it would be quite some time before I realised.
I'm inclined to think that such minor nuances are more about the inevitable differences between any two horns of the same make and model, rather than the differences between two distinctly different horns.
Some people feel the 61 is more robust than the 62 - but I can't say that this bears out in the small number of examples that find their way onto my workbench.

My bottom line is that the 61 is close enough to the 62 to be considered the same horn in terms of playability, and as such remains a top pro horn that's an absolute bargain at current secondhand prices.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015