Yanagisawa A-500 alto saxophone
Guide price: £1500 (in good condition)
Date of manufacture: 1989 (Serial range: 00156xxx)
Date reviewed: September 2018
A right little beauty
Following on from the mystery of the Yanagisawa
S6 soprano, we now have another 'Not really sure what it is'
horn in the shape of an alto.
Fortunately (for me) this one took rather less research before I
was able to nail a model number to it - helped in part by some distinctive
telltale features and some pertinent information from the owner
about the date of purchase, and the price paid. And by bringing
all these details together I'm able to say with certainty that what
we have here is a (very) late example of an A-500.
The word on the street - or at least the internet
- is that the 500 series was built as an intermediate-quality horn...which
is to say that it's a step up from a beginner's horn, but doesn't
quite have the gravitas of a full-blown professional model.
I'm not terribly convinced by this, given my (as yet unconfirmed)
suspicions that the S6 is so strikingly similar to the S800 - which
may mean that the A-500 is an 'intermediate' horn in name only.
And price. Scouring through my collection of old price lists I found
one from John Myatt in 1984 that listed the retail price at £599.
Now, you could run that figure through one of the many "How
much is a pound/dollar from 1984 worth now?" engines on the
web and come up with an modern-day value - or you could just look
a little further down the price list to see what else was selling
at around that price. And thus we find a Yamaha YAS32 with a retail
price of £618. Bingo!
This, more than anything else, tells you precisely where the horn
was aimed in the marketplace - but it doesn't tell you whether you're
merely getting value for money...or rather more than you bargained
for. To find that out we're going to have to pop it up on the bench
and take it apart to see how well it's built, and then put it back
together and see how well it works.
The construction is single pillar (post to body).
The pillar bases are of a reasonable size and, on the whole, quite
neatly fitted - with just a couple showing some slightly careless
bell section is detachable via a bottom bow clamp and a rather substantial
two-point bell brace - which in turn is mounted on equally hefty
I've seen it suggested that this bell brace is adjustable. It's
not - and no bell brace is. The seat of the bell key pads relies
wholly on a set position of the bell brace. If it moves even a fraction,
the pad seat will be lost. The two brace screws should be snugged
up tightly - no more, no less.
It's a decent design - the brace is large and meaty enough to shrug
off the usual knocks and dings, and the body stay is offset to the
side of the main body tube...thus helping to minimise a catastrophic
bend to the body in the event of the horn taking a proper tumble.
There's a 15/8 sling ring fitted, which is smaller than I like to
see - but more than adequate on a horn of this size and weight.
The toneholes are all plain drawn and were quite
level, save for the lowest four - which only required a light dressing
to bring them back to spec. It's impossible to say whether they
were like this from new because of the age of the horn and the likelihood
that the bell section has copped a few light whacks over the years.
None of them exhibited any burrs, which suggests that some time
had been spent on finishing them after they'd been drawn from the
The horn sports an adjustable plastic thumb hook,
a textured flat plastic thumb rest and plastic bell key bumper felt
adjusters - along with a plastic key barrel guide for the top E/F#
keys. These are all indicative of cost-cutting - and although, on
the face of it, that sounds like a bad thing, it may yet mean that
the money has been spent where it matters the most.
There's yet one other 'plastic' part - and if you don't already
know about it I'm willing to bet you'll never be able to guess where
pillars or cradles have been used for the palm and side keys. Although
these are cheap to make (and fit) they're not a cost-cutting feature
unique to the A-500, and can be found on some of Yanagisawa's rather
I have little love for them - they look tacky and the lack of meat
on the threaded side means that the pivot screws have less than
half the contact area afforded by a standard pillar.
Note the texturing on the thumb rest. I haven't made up my mind
as to whether I like this feature or not. In theory it's a good
thing because it provides some grip when things get a bit sweaty
- but on the flip side it tends to resist against your thumb sliding
back and forth. And then it wears off...which leaves you with a
half-textured/half-smooth thumb rest - which is neither one thing
or the other.
with pillars, there's just a single one for the bell keys - albeit
with a very substantial base - and a rather curious arrangement
on the side key stack.
The side Bb upper pillar (top) is a very chunky affair - and you
might suggest that it's this size because of all the gubbins on
the top...namely the guides for the top E and F# key barrels. And
sure, the flat and wide profile of the pillar seems very sensible...but
look at the base. It's huge - way bigger than is necessary, given
that the pillar doesn't actually have to do an awful lot. You might
also suggest that the large base provides a means of spreading the
load in the event of the E/F# barrels taking a whack - but there's
a lot of metalwork around this area anyway, and the force of any
such impact will be spread over a wide area.
So it seems like a bit of overkill.
Now look at the side Bb lower pillar( bottom). It's a '4-ganger'
- four heads mounted on a single pillar. It's what you might call
This pillar is the most vulnerable of the pair - it stands alone,
with very little surrounding metalwork to spread the force of an
impact. Indeed, in the event of a horn hitting the deck it's a near
certainty that this one (along with the top F# upper pillar at the
top of the horn) will get pushed into the body. It's such a common
point of impact damage that I even have special tool dedicated to
lifting it up (not, it has to be said, that it's much good). And
all that's supporting it is a standard base. If you grip the top
of the pillar and give it a wiggle, you can actually see the body
flexing beneath it.
Naturally it's only a problem if you drop the horn - and it's not
likely to be any better or worse than any other horn - it's just
that if you're going to go to all the trouble to make an especially
beefy pillar, it would make more sense to put it where it's really
needed. And it seems that Yanagisawa agreed - at least in part -
because on the 900 series horns the lower pillar base was changed
to a slightly larger oval.
Note the point screws - they're of the parallel
type, and rather stubby at that. The big disadvantage of this type
of point/pivot screw is that it's not easy to take up the free play
in the keys as and when they wear. With that said I was pleased
to note that the key barrels have been accurately drilled - and
because this horn hasn't seen much use the action was still quite
Note too the stainless steel springs. You might be tempted to whip
these out and replace them with blued steel ones - but that would
be a mistake. The horn is designed to accommodate the slightly larger
diameter of stainless springs, and replacing them with similarly-sized
blued steel springs would result in the horn being rather oversprung.
You can tweak that, but why bother...the stainless springs are plenty
good enough and will likely last forever.
to the keywork, and the first thing that needs to be said is that
the fit and finish of the keys was really rather good. There was
a touch of free play in the palm and side keys, but no more than
I'd expect to see on any horn that's had a moderate amount of use
without any ongoing lubrication. The main stacks (which are lubricated
with grease) were spot on, and probably as good as the day the horn
rolled off the production line.
As is typical with Yanagisawa horns, there are no adjusters on the
main stack - though you do get the usual trio for the G#/Bis Bb/low
C#. Although I consider this to be something of an inconvenience
I'm at least pleased to be able to say that the regulation corks
are all made from thin composite cork that's been neatly fitted.
Indeed, the rest of the cork/felt work is equally neat and sensible.
sensible is the use of simple fork and pin connectors on the side
Bb and C keys.
In this case the forks are of the enclosed type with some provision
for adjustment courtesy of a slit on the outside of the fork (lower
right in the photo on the left).
There's no advantage of this design over plain forks other than
it looks a bit neater and maybe there's less chance of catching
your sleeves on them.
Note the plastic key guide for the top E/F# key barrels.
It does the job but I think it's fair to say it's a bit on the flimsy
side, so I really can't say how well it'd stand up to a whack. With
that said I've yet to come across a broken one - and if I did I
very much suspect that the design is the same as the metal ones
used on the 900 and WO series of horns...so finding a replacement
shouldn't be a problem, and it's not exactly a critical part anyway.
And while we're back on the subject of plastic
parts, it's now time to reveal the mystery plastic part - and you'll
find it on the tilting bell key table.
It's the low Bb touchpiece.
Why make it out of plastic? I guess the most obvious answer is the
cost. It's a relatively large and complex part which would be expensive
to make and time-consuming to finish - and as it isn't subject to
a great deal of stress in use and is well supported on its key arm,
plastic (it melts when poked with a hot pin) seems like an ideal
My one concern is that this is quite an exposed key, and the first
to cop a whack if the horn falls on its left side. If it breaks
there's probably zero chance of finding a replacement these days.
that said I suspect it wouldn't be too hard to adapt a touchpiece
off a 900 series to fit (just guessing here) - and if the worst
came to the worst there's always the very modern option of having
one 3D printed. Just make sure you pick up all the bits if you ever
break one of these keys so that you have a pattern to work/measure
Another suggestion for the use of plastic is that it makes the table
lighter. This it does, but not realistically by any amount that'll
make much of a difference given the overall weight of the whole
key. It's also been suggested that this key has been made out of
die-cast or 'pot' metal at some point in the past - though I'm more
than happy to accept that this may just be a rumour.
And how d'you spot a plastic Bb touchpiece? Well,
you could try tapping it with the shaft of a screwdriver and comparing
it to the sound made when you tapped the G# touchpiece - but the
comparison is slightly skewed by the fact that the plastic piece
is metal plated (what with, I'm not sure...but probably nickel).
You could take it off - by removing its pivot screw, as visible
in the lower centre of the shot - and feel the weight of it. You
might think you'd need to be experienced in gauging the weight of
key parts, but I think you'll find that this is one of those things
that feels a great deal lighter than it looks.
But perhaps the easiest way is to get the horn in the right light.
If you look closely at the shot (and your screen colour is set right)
you can just about make out a difference in the tint of the Bb touchpiece
compared to the rest of the keys on the table. It's just a tiny
bit lighter, and under certain lights perhaps just a hint more bronzey.
Either way, the takeaway message here is to mind you're careful
not to bash this key around given that it won't take a great deal
of punishment and won't be easy to replace.
an excellent swivelling octave mech fitted. Nothing much to say
about this other than it's well made with no apparent slop and works
as swiftly and quietly as you'd expect.
The only minor grumble is that the touchpiece, though shaped, isn't
profiled on the leading edge - as per the 900 series horns. If that
sort of thing bothers you (and why not) it's an easy enough job
to remove the key and file/sand a bevel on it. Or you can ask your
repairer to do it for you...and it'll be a beer-money job.
A quick word about the lacquer. It's good.
This horn hasn't seen a great deal of use, admittedly, but it isn't
always use that causes lacquer to deteriorate. In fact it's often
likely to suffer more in storage than it is from use. Either way
it's held up pretty well on this example, with few if any signs
of flux bleed.
That about wraps the keywork up other than to
say the horn comes with a decent set of pads fitted (complete with
burgundy plastic reflectors/resonators) and a set of proper mother-of-pearl
touches - which are flat (or as near as makes no odds) rather than
the more common concave type.
there's just one other detail that's worthy of note to those who
are concerned about such things, and that's the shape of the side
or chromatic F# and top F# touchpieces.
As far as I can tell this pair of keys went through three design
changes over the horn's run. One variation had both touchpieces
matching the shape and orientation of the side Bb/C keys. Another
variation changed the shape of just the top F# touchpiece to the
design shown in the shot - and then (possibly finally) the chromatic
F# touch was canted round at an angle (again, as shown).
This - and probably a number of other keywork tweaks - is typical
of pre-900 series Yanagisawas, which is what sometimes makes it
tricky to pin a model number down. I'm at least thankful that they
didn't 'do an S6' - and change a keywork feature...and then change
it back some years later.
Still, at least it shows they're willing to tweak the design of
a horn down the years, which is surely something to be appreciated.
Unfortunately the horn didn't have its original
case, but from what I've seen it would have been a fairly typical
box-style case with proper catches fitted. Nothing to complain about
Under the fingers the first thing that hits you
is the feel of the flat key pearls. They just make a horn feel more
nimble. I'm sure there are reasons why a concave pearl is a better
bet (wet fingers are less inclined to slip off), but there's just
something about the feel of flat pearls...though I fully accept
that it might just be because they're different.
The factory setup was a bit on the stiff side. Not overly so, just
a little heavy. With a good quality action like this there's really
no need to up the spring tension, and backing them off paid significant
dividends. And because the spring are stainless steel you can pretty
much keep bending them until the cows come home. Just like the old
Yamaha 23, it's a tweaker's dream.
And just like the 23 it's a very light horn, weighing in at just
40 grams (1 1/2 ounces) more than the 23...and the venerable Selmer
MkVI. That's certainly something to bear in mind if you're at all
worried about the weight of a horn around your neck.
My one and only niggle relating to the action was the design and
placement of the front top F touchpiece - what with it being a round
pearl. It works fine if you lift your finger off the B and reach
up for it, but if you prefer to roll your finger backwards you're
going to be out of luck. Some tweaking will help, but ultimately
it's never going to be as slick as a teardrop-shaped touchpiece.
the A-500 was a delight. It's a very lively horn, very eager and
very easy to blow. This is usually the mark of a bright horn - and
while, tonewise, it certainly leans towards to that camp, there's
enough going on in the low and midrange to balance it out. The low
end has plenty of slap and pop, and the top end just about hangs
on to a touch of silkiness until you push it hard...whereupon it
gets nicely gritty.
When you first pick the horn up there's very much a sense of 'what
you see is what you get' with the tone - but as you spend more time
playing it you find it's got that 'onion' thing going on. You know...layers.
There's a balance about it that isn't set in stone - all it takes
is a quick tweak of your embouchure and suddenly it seems as if
the whole dynamic of the horn has shifted.
I've always felt this quality marks a great horn out from a merely
good one, and it perhaps explains why so many players consider the
A-500 to be a rather better horn than its original asking price
How come it's so good then? Maybe Yanagisawa were
being a bit provocative. There are a number of 'cheapening' features
on the horn - such as the plastic Bb touchpiece, the plastic bumper
adjusters, thumb hook and thumb rest - and maybe, just maybe, they
took a hit on their margins in order to muscle in on an otherwise
lucrative sector of the market. I can't be sure, but the build quality
and the playability of this horn seems extraordinarily generous
for the asking price back in the day.
Granted, it's not perfect - I noticed a little pinching of the tone
on the top C, and it has a hint (just a hint, mind) of some deadening
on the low B...but to be honest you really have to go looking for
it. And hey, what horn doesn't have its foibles? Players who feel
that the A-500 was heavily influenced by the Selmer MkVI will perhaps
recognise these 'tonal trademarks'...
It was clearly pitched to compete with the Yamaha
32 - which, as you may know, is just a cheapened version of a 62
(same body tube). But I feel they slightly overdid it and ended
up with a horn that comfortably exceeded its market position. And
as such I'm going to nail my colours to the mast and say that it's
nearly (if not at least) as good as the old Yamaha 62. Not the same,
mind you - it has a rather more relaxed tone - but easily its equal
in terms of how it's built and, arguably, how it plays.
And as such it comes highly recommended if you're in the market
for a good quality used horn that won't break the bank.