Yanagisawa A-WO33 Elite alto saxophone
Guide price: £4,700
Date of manufacture: 2015 (serial range: 00343XXX)
Date reviewed: May 2017 (Postscript
A reference-standard alto, but I'm still
not a happy bunny
When a client contacted me to arrange a service
on this horn there was never any doubt about whether I'd review
it or not.
It's not just because it's an expensive horn, it's also because
I was rather impressed with how the AWO2
had improved upon the earlier model and I was understandably keen
to see what changes they'd made to what was previously the 9933
- which was in Yanagisawa's top-end, no compromises range. These
were already good horns, and if what they'd done with the AWO2 was
any indicator, this horn ought to have gone from good to truly incredible.
I was also keen to see if would live up to my
expectations - and those of the client who'd bought it.
I don't think he'd mind me telling you that he's not a very experienced
player - but having caught the bug a little while back he decided,
quite reasonably, that he'd like to upgrade his starter horn and
go for something rather more special.
It just so happened that he attended a class where the tutor was
playing on one of these things - and being so impressed by how the
horn sounded and looked, he decided on the spot that this was the
horn he wanted.
He could have bought a much cheaper horn - a substantially cheaper
horn - and would probably have been just as happy. But when you
reach a certain age, and you have a few bob saved up for life's
essential treats, it's nice to know that you have the option of
going for the best there is. You might never realise its full potential
- but you can at least bask in the knowledge that if anything's
going to get in the way of your progress, it ain't gonna be the
And such people form a substantial slice of a manufacturer's customer
base. They perhaps don't have the playing experience to detect the
finer points between one horn or another, nor the technical knowledge
to asses the pros and cons of the design features. They simply buy
a horn on the well-understood principle that the more you pay, the
more you get.
So lets open up a fresh tin of Mr Picky, pop this
very expensive horn on the bench and see if that principle holds
The first thing you're going to notice is the
silver bell and crook. I'm not generally a fan of silver on saxes,
though I've come across one or two that seem to have managed to
pull the look off - and I'm even less of a fan of the combination
of silver and brass. It probably sounds a bit odd, but it's a look
that often seems a bit 'spivvy'
to me. That said, I quite liked the Bauhaus
M2 - but that's maybe because it was so outrageously spivvy
that it actually look kinda cool.
Proponents of the 'materials make a difference' theory will be pleased
with the Yani's combination (though perhaps less keen to state what
tonal benefits it will bring given that even the manufacturers can't
agree) and, one assumes, happy to pay through the nose for the privilege.
For the rest of us, the WO33 carries off the look quite nicely...and,
dare I say it, looks quite distinguished. As far as physical changes
go there have been some tweaks to the dimensions of the bore and
the toneholes as well as some changes to the keywork. In terms of
tone the bore/tonehole changes are where the meat and potatoes are...any
other changes can essentially be regarded as cosmetic (in spite
of some of the blurb).
construction is ribbed, with what few standalone pillars there are
being mounted on generously-proportioned bases.
There's the usual party-bag of features, such as a detachable bell,
a sturdy semicircular compound bell key pillar, an adjustable metal
thumb hook, a metal thumb rest, a triple-point bell brace and the
standard 15/8 sling ring.
Yanagisawa's blurb says that the bell brace "ensures
structural stability and rigidity and enhances resonance even at
fortissimo levels." I'll give them structural stability and
rigidity - but enhanced resonance? Even at fortissimo levels?
Presumably there's a bell brace out there somewhere that only enhances
the resonance when you're playing quietly. Quite how a lump of brass
and three screws performs this astonishing trick is way beyond my
Back in the real world the brace is at least sturdy, with a generously-sized
base on the body. The offset positioning should go a long way to
helping prevent the body from bending if the horn takes a tumble.
toneholes are all drawn, and those I checked were reassuringly level.
They were reasonably well finished, but while most the rims were
what I'd call 'crisp' (flat with definite angled edges rather than
rounded off) a few exhibited very slight burrs. Only very slight,
mind, but still detectable when you slid your fingernail up the
tonehole wall to the rim - and while I might overlook it on a cheaper
horn (if you're lucky) I think it has to go down on the scorecard
as minus point on such a pricey one.
The semicircular compound bell key pillar is firmly
affixed to the lugs on the body with a pair of screws. It's a sturdy
setup which should prevent the pillar being jolted out of alignment
due to the inevitable knocks a horn receives during its working
life. The bell key table is of the tilting type, and features Yanagisawas
nifty swivelling 'roller' between the low C# and low B touchpieces,
so that your finger doesn't so much roll between the two keys as
Wrapping up the body features you get a full set of adjustable bell
key bumpers - and a nice detail is a disc of blue felt that shows
through the hole in the top of the adjuster. It's a simple thing,
but it adds a touch of class.
The overall finish is good - everything's been neatly put together
with no signs of sloppy solderwork.
keywork has the usual raft of features, along with Yanagisawa's
distinctive front top F touchpiece.
Looks a bit weird, doesn't it - but in use it's really quite comfy.
The stepped profile acts like a gentle stop when you slide or roll
your finger up for the F, and gives the finger a very definite stopping
point. It's a small detail, but a nice one.
As you can see, proper mother-of-pearl touches
are fitted - they're slightly concave (bar the flat oval on the
G# and side F#) and well fitted. It would have been nice to have
seen a domed pearl on the Bis Bb though.
As usual (for Yanagisawa) there are still no adjusters on the main
stacks, though at least much use has been made of hardwearing composite
corks for the regulation buffers. I really don't know why they don't
fit them - it can't be down to the effect they might have on the
feel of the action because the old Yamaha 62 was bristling with
the things, and still managed to sport one of the finest actions
you'll ever find under your fingers.
You do, however, get adjusters for the Bis Bb/G# and the low B to
C# link - and there's another one on the end of the helper bar that
extends off the F key...which, according to Yanagisawa's Japanese
website, is supposed to dampen vibration on the Auxiliary F key
cup. Which it would, were it not for the fact that it's too thin
to do very much dampening at all. But given the lack of regulation
screws it at least provides a means for making some adjustment in
the lower stack. In fact on the UK site it says the arm is intended
to ensure proper sealing of the Aux.F - which is much more sensible.
The octave key touchpiece is shaped and sculpted,
and in combination with the large, slightly domed metal thumb rest
feels as comfortable as your favourite armchair. The ends of the
swivel bar are, apparently, fitted with Fluororesin coated tubes.
Very posh. If you don't know what that means, just think of them
as Teflon tubes...and if that's still a bit of a puzzle you can
settle for non-stick plastic.
the player it means that the ends of the swivel bar won't rattle
around in the sockets, which is a very common cause of noise and
free play on horns that feature this type of octave mech.
Note the plate on which the palm keys are mounted.
This, apart from adding some strength to the body and (cough) being
cheaper to make and fit than individual pillars, adds "mid-range
resonance, acoustic depth and projection across all registers, and
exceptional tonal stability".
I might see if I can order a few of these in and slap them all over
my TJ RAW tenor. I mean, if one brass plate can make that much of
a difference, imagine what half a dozen of them can do....
Double key arms are fitted to the low C and low
B. I'd have liked to have seen them on the low C#, as this is a
particularly vulnerable key cup - and I'm a bit puzzled as to why
the low Bb doesn't have them. It's my understanding that the arms
are supposed to help prevent the key cup from twisting - but from
the arrangement on the WO33 it looks like the intention is to add
stiffness to the key barrel to prevent torsion. But if that's the
case, why add one to the relatively short low C key? We many never
know, but given they don't do any harm (and may well do some good)
I wouldn't worry about it unduly.
And you needn't worry about the side Bb/C linkages - plain old fork
and pin connectors. Simple, reliable and slick. Just the business.
Proper points screws have been used - which allows
for constant adjustment of the relevant keys as wear and tear takes
it toll - and these were all threadlocked in place. Not that they
needed to be. I removed, cleaned and replaced a number of screws
and found them all to be a nice snug fit. Still, I'm all for the
belt and braces approach - so top marks all round.
And finally (for now), the action is powered by a set of blue steel
Up until this point the WO33 was doing pretty
well. Many good points, a few grumbles, but pretty much hitting
the mark for a horn of this calibre. And then I found a couple of
things I really didn't like.
Whenever I examine a horn one of the first things I do is give the
keys a bit of a wiggle. I do this because the sound you get out
of a horn is dependent on a chain of integrity that begins with
the physical construction of the body and ends with the precision
with which the pads have been set. A problem anywhere along the
chain is going to have a knock-on effect on how the horn plays -
if not immediately then certainly over a period of time. In an ideal
world every horn would be built to exacting standards, but in real
life there are nearly always some compromises to be found - and,
ultimately, you have to accept that even the best horn is too crude
a design to really be considered a precision bit of kit.
But there are standards that can be achieved - and on a horn of
this calibre I would expect them all to be met...and then some.
I was very disappointed to find some free play in the top stack.
There were two points of play; between the first and second pillars
and on the B key. I measured the play between the pillars at 0.1mm
(4 thou) and the play in the B key at 0.15mm (just under 6 thou).
This was solely end-to-end movement - if it had been down to wear
or incorrectly drilled key barrels you'd have seen some wobble on
the key as well.
I know it doesn't sound like a lot of free play,
but it's actually quite significant. When fitting keys we repairers
aim for a sliding fit, which means that when a key is presented
at the correct angle the barrel should juuuuust slide between the
pillars. You should be able to flip the instrument over and have
the key hold itself in place...not by friction but more because
it needs to be perfectly aligned between the barrels in order to
be able to move.
It's also significant when you consider that a typical feeler used
for testing the seat of a pad is around 0.02mm thick (just under
a thou). If a pad is able to move five times that distance off axis,
it's going to affect the integrity of the seal. In fact the total
potential for movement on the B key is at least double that, because
it's nested within the Auxiliary B key. This key can move 0.1mm...and
then the B key itself can move a further 0.15mm.
But let's have some perspective. In practice such
sloppiness won't have such a drastic effect. The springs will tend
to hold the keys in a certain position, as will the weight of the
keys in the playing position. And the pad itself has a degree of
tolerance built in (being relatively soft).
It becomes far more serious when lateral play (wobble) is present
because this will have an effect on the regulation between linked
keys. The cogent point here, though, is that such free play shouldn't
be there - and it very definitely shouldn't be there on a horn that's
only 18 months old... and it really, absolutely, 100% shouldn't
be there on a horn that costs the best part of five grand.
For some more perspective I measured the play on a fine old Yamaha
purple logo 62 alto that had come in for a service, and measuring
in the same places I got 0.05 (2 thou) and 0.1 (4 thou) respectively.
This is a horn that's substantially cheaper, and knocking on 40+
years old. It's also minty fresh with no signs of work having been
done to the action - so it's fair to assume that the play was either
built in at the factory or it's down to fair wear and tear...or
a bit of both.
So how did the play on the AWO33 get there?
The play between the pillars could be down to a knock. If the body
of a horn gets even slightly bent it'll throw the pillars out of
line...and this often shows up as play in the keywork. I checked
for this and couldn't find anything out of line - but let's be generous
and give the benefit of the doubt.
But what about the B key? To get that kind of play in a key that's
nested within another one means you'd have to bend the outer key
so much, the whole stack would be jammed solid. So no, it's not
down to a bend. You can bet your dinner money on someone at the
factory being a little overzealous when it came to adjusting the
keys to fit. And on someone in quality control having an off day.
No other keys on the horn exhibited such a problem
- they were all snuggity-snug. So they can get it right...they just
didn't this time.
I sincerely hope this is just a one-off - one that slipped through
the quality control net - but my advice if you're trying one of
these horns out is to give the stack keys a bit of a wiggle. If
anything moves side-to-side, chuck it back at the retailer and ask
to see another one.
I decided not to address the wear during the course of the service.
Because this is such a new horn I consulted with the client and
suggested we leave the play there for the time being and we'll see
whether Yanagisawa agree that this is below their usual standards
and offer to sort it out. Should that happen I'll be sure to let
you know, otherwise it'll get sorted when the horn next comes in
for a service.
pads are of good quality - Pisoni Pro - but I was rather surprised
at how much pad work this horn required given its tender age. There
were small leaks all the way down from the Bis Bb. Nothing very
serious, and certainly nothing that would stop the horn in its tracks
- but from G downwards I had to consciously up the finger pressure
to get the horn to speak with its full clarity. This isn't good
enough - not on a horn of this standard. And the reason for the
problem became clear when I set to sorting the leaks out.
Here's the low F key with its pad removed, and here's why there
were so many small leaks. This is a pad that's merely been stuck
in the key cup rather than fitted. You get a dollop of shellac dead
centre (and not enough at that) and sod all around the edges. It'll
certainly hold the pad in the key cup but it quite plainly won't
hold a seat.
Pads are going to move - they're going to swell and shrink, it's
what they do when they get wet and subsequently dry out. They're
also subject to varying degree of compression while in use. In order
to minimise the effect of these small but critical shifts in the
dimensions of the pad, it needs to be fully secured in the key cup.
There's also the chance that water might find its way into the air
gap behind the pad, which'll lead to yet more unexpected problems.
The worst of it is that when a repairer attempts to reseat the pad
(by heating the key cup to melt the glue and then shift all or part
of the pad) it'll be a complete waste of time - with so little glue
behind the pad the adjustments simply aren't going to hold.
I found similar issues in varying degrees on the
Auxiliary F, the low E, the G, the A and the low Eb. In each case
the position of the leak corresponded to a lack of shellac in that
area. I dare say other keys may have been similarly affected, but
at the time of the service they weren't presenting any leaks
also noticed that some pads exhibited a visible mix of shellac and
hot melt glue (HMG). While it's possible to do this (with the right
combination of glues) it's not standard practice - and besides,
the glues weren't mixed. It was almost as though someone had started
off by using HMG and very quickly changed their mind, and switched
to shellac. This would make sense on a single key, maybe two at
most...but after that you'd have to start wondering why they kept
forgetting that they wanted to use shellac.
The mystery was solved when I removed the low Eb pad and spotted
a very definite blob of HMG, right in the dead centre of the pad
and the key cup. It's to seal the reflector rivet.
Now that's what I call attention to detail. Yes, there's a very
slightly chance that air might seep through behind the reflector,
track beneath the pad and come out at the side of the key cup -
in which case it's effectively a leak. A very small leak. There's,
admittedly, a very slight chance that this might happen - but it's
good to see that someone has acknowledged the risk and taken steps
to mitigate it. And it's at about this point that repairers all
over the world are shouting "If they think it's that much of
a risk, why the hell don't they just use more bloody shellac in
the first place!!?" And they'd have a very good point.
It's a fix that only makes sense if you know there's not enough
shellac in the key cup to fully coat the base of the pad. In other
words it's a bodge.
Issues like this are nasty. It's very easy to
point at misaligned pillars and shonky solderwork - and such things
are quite visible to the eye of the prospective buyer. But something
like this is impossible to see unless you strip the horn (not something
that tends to go down well when you're shopping for a horn) and
yet it has a direct effect on the playability and reliability of
I saw a very similar problem on the Conn
Selmer Avant 200 tenor I reviewed recently. Same brand of pad,
same lack of glue. I had a bit of a pop about it - and that was
on a £1500 horn. This one's more than three times the price.
Am I having another pop? You betcha arse I am. And let's be clear
about this - no-one else apart from the manufacturer has worked
on this horn.
I think a fair question would be 'Why have they
done this?", to which the answer would be "I don't know".
It can't be a process thing because a little more shellac in the
cups isn't going to make setting the pads any more difficult (in
fact it will make it easier...provided you don't overdo it) - and
it most definitely can't (or shouldn't) be a cost-saving thing because
you'd only need half a stick of shellac to make things right, and
that'll set you back about about £2.50. I've half a mind to
send then a handful of sticks...with a little note that says "Here
ya go - knock yerself out".
horn comes in a snazzy case with proper latches (none of that zippered
The flap over the middle catch is a bit of a faff, but then I guess
it's better than catching your fingernail on an exposed latch. It's
a hard shell case with a 'canvas style' covering, which should be
You get loops for a shoulder/back strap, which is contained in an
integral pouch on the bottom of the case (a nice touch), and an
external zippered storage pouch on the top. Inside the case there's
a separate compartment for the crook and mouthpiece and a storage
area for all your accessories.
In the hands the horn feels quite weighty. At
2.64kg it's not the heaviest alto I've seen, but it isn't far short.
It only weighs three or four ounces more than the average at 2.5kg,
but those few ounces might make a difference once you've been standing
on stage for an hour or two.
The action, however, is quite light and nimble. Disregarding the
issues I found, the setup was reasonable - a medium/light action
with a medium key height. Should be good enough for most people,
and there's plenty of latitude for tweakery.
I didn't stumble over any awkward key placements - and to be honest
I'm struggling to find anything to say about it. This is how it
should be - a good action is practically transparent. It just does
the job and doesn't get in the way.
it came to playtesting the horn, the Yani drew something of a short
straw...or a long one, depending on your point of view. I was knee-deep
in quality altos, so I picked out four others to take part in the
grand play-off. Well, you would, wouldn't you.
Tonewise the Yanagisawa oozes supreme confidence
from the off. I'm not kidding - you blow it, and it just shouts
"Hello, hello! Here I am! Everyone look at me now!"
It's not that it's loud or brash, it's rather that it's authoritative
- and extremely solid. If you're looking for an alto that's stable,
the Yanagisawa is practically hewn from granite. That might sound
a bit daft but that's really the impression it gives off. Its definitely
a contemporary alto, with plenty of cut up at the top end yet balanced
with a robust and powerful low end.
The free-blowing response is impressive - it'll go from a scream
to a whisper in an instant, and it does so with very little change
in the tone. This is quite a feat to pull off and marks it out as
a very consistent horn. That said, when you back off it seems to
dial in what I can only describe as a bit of tenderness...like it
just smooths off the edges a tad. But don't mistake consistency
for tameness - this is a horn that has an remarkable ability to
keep pace with you, no matter where you choose to go.
If I had to choose one word that describes this horn it'd be clarity.
It has a purity of tone that's quite refreshing and an easy-blowing
approach that makes it almost effortless to play.
As you expect, or at least hope for at this price,
it's a very even-toned horn. It doesn't really matter where you
are on the scale, the tone remains consistent. I noticed an initial
drop-off on the middle D, but this soon blended in nicely after
I'd warmed up a bit - which is pretty much par for the course on
any first-time blowing of an unfamiliar horn.
I pulled out the TJ
RAW XS and straightaway noticed the difference in approach.
Both horns have a serious amount of clout, but RAW tips a nod to
the altos of yesteryear and tempers the clarity with a bit of grit
and roundness. It struck me that perhaps a pertinent analogy would
be that the Yanagisawa is David Suchet's Poirot while the RAW is
Bogart's Sam Spade. They're both in the same business, but they
go about it in different ways. And Bogart fits the RAW to a T...it's
more relaxed, arguably more exciting and definitely packs a better
was next, and I figured this would be an interesting comparison
as I've always felt the 875 had oodles of clarity.
And it does, but up against the Yanagisawa it quickly became clear
that there's clarity...and there's clarity.
Imagine, if you will, that someone has given you a rectangular steel
paperweight - a solid lump of precision-built steel, perfect in
On the Yamaha version the edges of the block would be precise and
almost sharp - but on the Yanagisawa version someone has taken the
time and trouble to just ever so slightly smooth those edges off.
As a result, the Yanagisawa block feels better in the hand - and
so does the horn. It's more refined, more considered - and despite
the tonal spread of both horns being remarkably similar, the WO33
has more weight and presence.
And then I pulled out a lovely old purple logo
I've always been a big fan of this horn, but I was expecting it
to get severely drubbed in this play off. It had already been given
a bit of a licking by the TJ RAW, and the 875 had shown it a thing
or two...so how the hell was it going to square up to the W033.
Well, call me surprised, but it did rather well. I think what swung
it was its undeniable 'cheeky-chappy' approach. It's free-blowing,
lively, very responsive - and while it doesn't have the all-round
gravitas and weight of tone that the Yanagisawa has, it nonetheless
matches it in its playability. It put up a good fight and put on
a damn good show.
And finally, just for
fun, I dug out an old Martin Committee III. This was a totally unfair
comparison - and not because the Martin's a bad horn (it's not)
but more because it's in for a major job and is currently leaking
like a sieve from the pads and at least a couple of toneholes.
But I really only wanted to get a sense of how far the contemporary
alto has come - and I have to say it's actually not so very far.
That said, I've always considered the Martin to be the most modern
of the vintage horns - and very nearly swapped my venerable old
Yamaha 23 tenor for a Handcraft.
It gave of its best, and while it couldn't match the clarity of
the modern horns it nonetheless showed that it's come at something
of a price for the sheer depth of tone. You can pick your teeth
clean with the contemporary tone...but you can take a dirty great
bite out of the vintage one. Only the RAW showed some empathy, with
its respectful nod to the Martin's chutzpah.
which one won the playoff?
That's a tricky one. These are all great horns. If you'd never played
a sax in your life and you walked out of the shop with any of these
(the rather poorly Martin aside) you'd be as happy as a pig in...well,
whatever pigs are happiest in. And that's essentially the nub of
the matter. Once you get past a certain price point, everything's
good - but what's best will depend entirely on what each of those
horns does for you. Not me, not a random name on the internet or
that bloke on the cover of that Blue Note album....but you, and
From a personal perspective even if I could have
a free choice of any of these horns I'd still pick the RAW. It's
a more interesting horn, it's more fun - and it's a damned sight
cheaper than the WO33.
But with my reviewer's hat on I'd say that the Yanagisawa's formidable
clarity wins the day and I can see that many players will love the
sheer stability it has. I think, too, that if I was at all inclined
towards a classical bent it'd definitely be the WO33 I'd go for.
I can see how it would truly excel in that genre. I especially liked
the response, it's so fast that it almost feels like the horn knows
where you want to go before you do. That's very moreish.
Then comes the RAW, which once again kicks arse in the bang for
Next on the list would be the 62 - you just gotta love this horn.
It's light, it's nimble and it's versatile. It's still a tough act
to beat even after all these years.
And last on the list would be the 875. Technically it's a better
horn than the 62...but it's not so much better than its price suggests.
And I think the Martin gets an honourable mention for being a good
sport in spite of its dire state of repair...and I'll revisit it
once it's all fixed up (see
When all is said and done it's clear that Yanagisawa
have improved on what was already a superb alto. The improvements
have retained the essential tonal quality that all their horns have,
and added a bit of sparkle. It makes a difference, and it makes
for a very fine horn indeed.
In terms of clarity and stability the WO33 sets a new reference
(and yeah, I chose that word deliberately), which marks it out as
a very serious horn indeed. Which it ought to be, for the price.
However, I'm less than happy about the issues I found. For the asking
price I don't think it's at all unreasonable to expect uncompromising
build quality and superb set up (they call it the Elite, after all).
It can be found on far cheaper horns, and I think it behoves Yanagisawa
to pull their finger out and up their game.
Picky I may be, but at five grand so should you be too.
The owner of this horn dropped me an email to
say that he'd met up with a representative of the UK distributors
of Yanagisawa, who took one look at the horn and - quite without
prompting - insisted on having the horn sent back to the factory
to have the fault addressed...and supplied the owner with a backup
horn in the meantime.
As much as I'm quick to point out build quality
issues, I very much welcome the opportunity to report back on excellent
customer service - and if I wore a hat I'd tip it to Yanagisawa
and their UK agents on this occasion. It's what the customer deserves...and
it's what the horn deserves.