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Yanagisawa 901/902/991 baritone saxophones

Yanagisawa 901 baritone saxOrigin: Japan (
Weight: 5.6Kg (901)
Guide price: £4470 (901) / £5310 (902) / £5415 (991)
Date of Manufacture: 2001 (901) / (902) / 2005 (991)
Date reviewed: April 2004 / October 2005 / April 2007

A range of quality baritone saxes from one of the best manufacturers in the business

As the 902 is essentially the same horn, but with a bronze body, all comments relating to the build and mechanics apply to both instruments. There are some additional comments on the 902 at the end of the review. Likewise, the 991 differs only slightly mechanically and is commented upon at bottom of the review.

Now this is a nicely built horn.
Yanagisawa have for a long time had a good reputation for build quality, and this bari is no exception. A bari needs to be well built too, its size and weight make it far more prone to knocks and bashes than its common brethren, the alto and tenor - but there's a drawback to a hefty build, and that's weight - and this bari feels weighty. The reason for this comes from the very generous pillar bases, the substantial bell brace, the similarly beefy top bow brace and the extra plates on the inside curve of the top and bottom bow.
Might not look like much metal, but it all adds up...even the double arm on the low C key adds a few grammes, as does the secondary brace arm over the Aux. F key, and then, of course, you've got the extra weight of the low A bell.
Oddly enough though, whilst the pillars have large bases, the guard feet are relatively small - which is, I feel, a bit of an oversight when you consider that the guards are far more likely to take a knock than any of the pillars.

Another oversight, and one that's likely to prove to be something of a nuisance, is that the sling ring is too small. This will severely curtail your choice of sling - and with a ring this small it's quite possible that the hook may become wedged in the ring and fly apart when it takes the weight of the bari, with the obvious result. I've seen it happen, and it's not pretty.

Yanagisawa have sensibly opted for a detachable bell and lower top bow. The removable top bow deserves a comment.
The whole point, to my mind, of this feature is to enable the top bow section to be removed so that either the bow section or the body can be worked on without having to resort to any unsoldering (which tends to damage any lacquered finish). If you look at the shot of the bow section you'll see that the joint isn't at the top of the main body, rather it's at the next junction along on the top bow. This means that removing the top bow would still leave a section of curved tube attached to the main body - and this prevents the repairer from getting any dent bars etc. down the bore.
OK, so the bottom bow is detachable too - but it's a far bigger job to remove this section than it is to whip off the top bow assembly...and a real pain when all you want to do is knock out a small dent around the G tone hole or perhaps straighten the top body section after one of the inevitable knocks that baris are prone to.

Yanagisawa 901 baritone bell braceAs noted, the brace is a very substantial affair, with a secondary arm that will prevent the body from twisting in the event of a light knock.
I noticed nothing unusual with the tone holes, which is how it ought to be.

The keywork is generally sturdy - perhaps a bit functional in places, but then this is their budget baritone. Composite cork has been fitted to a lot of the key feet, and this makes the action a tad noisy in places - so a spot of judicial tweaking with some felt would pay dividends.
Baris do tend to suffer with clanky keywork, so any tweaks that can improve this are worth investing in.
Some nice touches include cantilevered side trills and low C#, and compound top F and F# keys - all pretty standard on a modern bari, but very much appreciated nonetheless.
Under the fingers the action felt nicely laid out - perhaps a little hard, though positive and slick enough - and again, some tweakery to the springing would bring improvements. Proper point screws have been used throughout, which allows for adjustment in later years when the action wears. As per the modern trend, there's no low A key on the left hand spatulas, just a lower thumb key. It works well enough, though the whole arrangement needs careful balancing to take into account the inevitable key whip with such long key barrels.

The low A thumb key arm is somewhat flimsier than that on the Yamaha YBS32. The perennial problem with long, large keys is that the flexibility in the metal becomes more and more of an issue the longer a key gets. Hitting a low A (without using the left hand low Bb fingering) requires the low A thumb mechanism to take the strain of the entire set of bell keys, and whilst it seems to manage it fine it nonetheless feels quite spongy in use as you never seem to reach a definite stopping point with the thumb key.

On the sling the horn felt nicely balanced, which is very important if you're planning on standing up on stage for a 90 minute set. The finish is everything you'd expect, and after three years 'in the field' this bari showed no signs of any residual flux bleed through (which forms those characteristic, and heartbreaking, black spots).

Yanagisawa 901 bari case I was a little concerned that the case doesn't appear to have much padding in critical places. In fact, this particular instrument came in to have some knock damage fixed, and one of the problems was a distorted crook socket. From examining the case it would appear extremely likely that this was due to the crook socket screw butting up against the rear wall of the case...with nothing to pad it.
In fact, during the course of writing this review another 901 bari came in for repair - with practically identical damage (only this time the crook socket had come clean off), so I believe this is something of an issue. If I owned one of these I'd be urgently considering either a new case, or making some modifications so as to pad the top end of the case more firmly. A couple of strips of polystyrene or dense foam would help (in the positions marked on the photo), but I'd still advise caution when transporting the instrument. If you already own one of these, check out the wear to the case lining where the crook socket butts up against it. Likewise, the outer lip of the bell looks vulnerable - so a definite mark-down in points there.

Yanagisawa 901 baritone sax case wearSince the publication of this review I've seen a number of examples of this wear around the crook socket and, unfortunately, yet more examples of damage from 'case shock'.
As you can see in the photo, the locking screw rubs against the rear of the case and eventually eats its way first through the lining and then into the wooden case shell itself. What this means is that there's no protection whatsoever for the crook socket in the event of a knock to the case and you can't rely on the rest of the padding in the case to absorb the shock.
Should the worst happen and the bari takes a tumble in the case it's quite likely that the crook screw will be damaged - and if you're very unlucky it might result in damage to the socket and tubing (subsequent to this review, I have been informed by Glenn Spiegel via the newsgroup that his 991 case exhibits the same problem - see below).

Yanagisawa 901 bari thumb hookSharp-eyed players might notice something slightly unusual about the thumb hook. Instead of sitting flush against its base, the hook has five raised bumps the bottom. Apparently this is to decrease the area of surface contact with the body, and thus prevent the thumb from dampening the resonances from the body. You can hear for yourself whether it actually works - just lift your thumb off the hook when playing. Notice any difference? Nor did I.
I tend to be somewhat sceptical about these gimmicks - particularly when the money spent on them could be better spent elsewhere.

Take the auxiliary F arm, for example - in theory it's a fine gadget, it supplements the connection between the rear foot of the F key with the bar of the auxiliary F (the key above the F), thus providing a 'belt and braces' mechanism that should help to ease the problem of regulating the action against a not inconsiderable amount of flex in the large keywork.
Trouble is, the arm is too weak to be of much use - and flexes just as much as the rest of the keywork.
Yanagisawa 901 bari aux FThe money spent on faffing about with this arm, and the dimpled thumb hook, could have been spent beefing up the auxiliary F bar...which would make a very noticeable improvement in both the tone and the reliability of the horn by ensuring a consistent seal on the right hand key stack.

Playing the horn was much fun, tonewise the Yanagisawa has a nice crisp feel with a slight touch of 'urgency' about it and plenty of bounce. If it were a dog it would be jumping up at you, wagging its tail, begging for a brisk walk. The tone was even, with not too much thinning out from top G upwards - though that's inevitable on a bari, and, frankly, some of its appeal.
I felt that perhaps the tone was inclined to be a little 'dry', particularly down the lower end - and I think you'll know what I mean if you've ever blown something like a Martin or a Conn, where the tone seems to saturate everything in earshot.
This is no bad thing really, plenty of players prefer a more neutral tone (including myself), but it perhaps marks up the difference between the cheaper model and the rather richer and more expensive examples.
It also comes with quite a decent mouthpiece - and many a bari player might well find themselves needing little else.

A fine baritone then, with only the Yamaha YBS32 to compete with in its price range.

Additional notes on the 902:

Yanagisawa 902 baritone saxThe 902 certainly looks the part - its bronze body contrasts nicely with the brass keys and gives the horn a very elegant appearance.
Manufacturers make all kinds of claims with regard to body materials and tone, but the differences, if indeed there are any, are likely to be very subtle indeed...and quite possibly no more than the difference between any two seemingly identical horns.
The only way to know for sure that your extra cash is giving you value for money is to play the various options side by side.

I've mentioned the issue with the proximity of the crook socket to the base of the case - and this horn had a bent crook screw barrel. Easy enough to fix, but it will be a recurring problem.

Tonewise I felt that the 902 wasn't quite a dry as the 901. There was perhaps a touch more roundness and warmth to the tone - though I also felt that this came with a corresponding drop-off in power. It still has the cut, the clarity and the bounce of the 901 but it didn't quite have the volume.
It's 'swings and roundabouts' really - emphasise the lower harmonics and you're bound to lose a bit of edge - keep the sound bright and you get bags of punch but at the risk of the sound becoming too edgy when it gets loud. The 902 gets the balance about right, but really punchy players might feel they're being held back a tad.

I noticed some imbalance in the tone on the second octave. Over the F to G break there's really quite a change in tone as the octave keys switch (from the body key to the crook key). This is perhaps where Yamaha's double octave key chimney arrangement on the body really pays off, as it gives a more even feel across this break.
Similarly, I felt the middle D was a touch out of balance compared with the E and F - being somewhat brighter than these two notes, though I suppose it could be said that the F and E are a little dull, perhaps?

Recommending this horn is a little tricky. It sits right between Yamaha's YBS32 and 62 in terms of price (being £500 more than the 32 and £700 cheaper than the 62). I don't feel it's worth £500 more than the YBS32 - and for the extra £700 it takes to reach the YBS62 you'd get a better octave key mech and a beefier low A mech.
You might also find that simply buying and fitting the bronze crook to the 901 would give you much of the tonal difference.
But, as with all things related to tone, if you like the sound of it it's a competent and sprightly performer.

Yanagisawa 991 baritone:

Not much point posting another photo - to all intents and purposes the 991 looks almost exactly the same as the 901, save for a few cosmetic additions such as the inclusion of pearl touches to the side F and F# keys.
What you get for your extra cash is the same action as the 901, but a slightly different body - and thus, hopefully, a slightly different tone. You get the same case too - and with this you also get the same problem of the crook socket rubbing against the rear of the case. I have mentioned this problem to Yanagisawa - so we'll see what, if anything, happens.

Tonewise the 991 is more refined than the 901 and the 902. It has a greater sense of presence - and whereas I felt the 901 to be a touch on the 'dry' side, the 991 is positively juicy. Gone too are the slight imbalances I found on the 902 and yet the 991 retains all the crispness and precision found on the cheaper models. In short, it just gives you more.
It has to - at this price point it's almost head-to-head with the equally superb Yamaha YBS62, and that's some very stiff competition.
The 991 is certainly up to it though - and if you have four grand to spend on a bari and you don't check out this horn then, frankly, you're insane!
In the notes regarding the 902 I wondered about the economics of buying it over the Yamaha baris, and at much the same price as the 991 I'm inclined to think it's even less good value for money. It might look nicer, with its bronze body, but the 991 is nicer blow.



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