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Yanagisawa 900/901/902/991 baritone saxophones

Yanagisawa B900 baritone sax reviewOrigin: Japan (www.yanagisawasax.co.jp)
Weight: 5.52kg (900) : 5.6kg (901)
Guide price: £2000+ (900, used) : £4600 (901) : £5400 (902) : £5800 (991)
Date of Manufacture: 1991 (900) : 2001 (901) : ? (902) : 2005 (991)
Date reviewed: April 2004 (901) : October 2005 (902) : April 2007 (991) : July 2017 (900)

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

As the 9XX series horns are nearly identical in mechanical terms, this review covers the entire series - with additional notes on the small variations.

The 901/2 horns differ only in that the 901's body is brass and the 902 is bronze. Ditto the 991/992.

It's generally accepted by all players these days that Yanagisawa are one of the 'Big Four' manufacturers, but what often comes as a bit of a surprise is that their history goes back quite some way beyond the point (in the mid '70s) where their horns became a familiar sight in music shops around the world. In fact it goes back to the mid '50s. The early models were decent-enough horns, but perhaps not quite distinctive enough to lift the name out of the background - which was largely overshadowed by Selmer and, later, Yamaha.
But that changed in 1990 when Yanagisawa's 9xx series hit the market. Overnight their horns shifted their place in the market from "Well, I'll try one if you have one" to "I really want to try one" - and both Selmer and Yamaha found themselves having to budge over to make room for a new voice.

It's perhaps something of a hallmark for Yanagisawa that they were rarely content to rest on their laurels (bit of an in-joke there) - and despite the 9xx series being (to date) their longest-lived series, it too begins with what I guess you could now call a 'transitional' model...the 900.

And this is the baritone.
It's quite a chunky-looking bit of kit and yet it tips the scales at a touch lighter than the Yamaha YBS62. I weighed the 900 at 5.52kg and the 901 at 5.6kg - but I rather suspect that the extra weight is due to the inaccuracy of the scales used to weigh the 901. Either way, the Yamaha is still heavier.
As you'd expect from a modern bari, the body features all the usual advanced features. There's a detachable bell and top bow, a triple-point bell brace, drawn toneholes, an adjustable thumb hook (plastic) and a large plastic thumb rest.
You also get two additional braces on the top bow, which help to stiffen and support this very vulnerable area of the horn.
The construction is single pillar, with each pillar having a suitably large base. This bodes well for reliability and resistance to knocks, though I would like to have seen slightly larger feet on the bell key guard stays. Speaking of which you get a full set of bell key guards (even the C# has one), and these all feature adjustable bumper felts. The adjusters, however, are made of plastic.
I'm in two minds about this. For a horn of this quality I'd have liked to have seen brass adjusters - but then again it's not like they're going to see a great deal of use, and they're less likely to jam up due to corrosion.
Swings and roundabouts, as always.

Yanagisawa B900 top bowThe detachable top bow is very useful for repairers, but they've chosen to place it on the crook side of the bow rather than the body.
Personally I'd have liked to have seen the clamp fitted to the body side of the bow. Baritones tend to get knocked about, and if you get a large dent or a bend in the body it's going to mean having a dent bar shoved up the main tube. You could, of course, remove the bell - but this is a much larger job than removing the top bow. So it would make sense to detach the top bow at the top of the main body tube, right?

Well, you could also argue that the top bow (aka the pigtail) is more likely to cop a whack, and it's a lot harder to deal with dents in a curved tube than it is in a straight one - so breaking up the pigtail makes sense.
Both views have merits - but the clincher for me is that if I have to unsolder a joint I'd far rather it was one that wasn't obstructed by nearby pillars and fittings...of which there are a number around the body joint.
Maybe the best solution is to put a clamp on both side of the top bow and have done with the whole business...

No such quibbles with the bell brace, it's meatier than a butcher's window.
The main brace is a rather obvious ring, with a stout boss on the bell and an almost identical one on the body - which is offset to the side.
It's a simple but effective design. In the event of a knock the ring will compress and thus absorb some of the impact, and the placement of the mount to the side will help prevent the body from creasing.
However, it's not such a good design for preventing the bell from swinging side to side - hence the additional brace that extends backwards from the bell mount and is fixed to the centre of the body tube. This adds a great deal of stiffness to the brace and should keep the bell aligned in the face of all but the most severe knocks.
Yanagisawa B900 bell braceAbout the only drawback is that if the horn ever cops a big whack, it can be a right royal pain getting both parts of the brace back in to proper alignment - but then I guess that would be the least of your worries.
Incidentally it's worth giving this brace a bit of a wiggle occasionally just to check everything's still nice and snug - it's not unheard of for the bolts to loosen up over time.
And that about wraps up the body features, save to say that the toneholes were all nice and level and had been well finished off on the rims.

On now to the keywork, and my first port of call is the low A mechanism.
For a modern horn the design of the low A mech is surprisingly clunky, and this is mostly down to the use of rather long connecting arms fitted to each of the bell keys.
Saxophone keys are notoriously flexible - and the bigger they get, the more they flex. By the time you get to something the size of a baritone it's something of a major concern - which is why I'm non-too-keen on Yanagisawa's arrangement.
Here are the low Bb and A key cups. Each key is fitted with an arm which drops down onto a corresponding arm fitted to the next key down, thus closing all the connected keys. Whenever you press one of these large keys down, it flexes. The key barrel flexes, the cup flexes, the arm to which the cup is attached flexes...and the bit you press on flexes too. It all moves - only very slightly - but it still moves.
You've also got some flexibility in the pads. They're good quality pads, but they're not rock-hard.
In spite of all this the mechanism works, but because of all the 'spring' in the keywork there isn't a sense of it ever reaching a definite point of closure.

Fortunately the low Bb is linked to the low B via the usual tab beneath the bell key touchpieces - but the only way the low A key can close all the bell keys is via the arm at the top of the photo. This presents a few problems when it comes to setting up the bell keys. If you set the low A so that it works when you first close the low B/Bb (via the touchpieces), there's a very good chance that the mech won't work quite so well if you try for a low A using just the thumb key. The spring in the keywork will push back against the A key and allow the B/Bb pads to leak.
So you set the mech up to work with just the thumb key - but if you find yourself playing a low B or Bb and then press the low A thumb key down, the spring in the keywork will now prevent the A key pad from closing.
It sounds awful, but it's not so uncommon on saxes - you nearly always have to accept that there are some mechanical compromises to be made, and so you dial in a little leeway to help balance it out. It's no big deal on small keys, but on this scale it's much more of a problem.

Yanagisawa B900 low A thumb keyHere's the other end of the mech. The thumb key itself is reasonably chunky, but the arm (with the little roller on it) that connects to the low A cup key is extremely long, due to it being curved over the top of the stack keys. This adds yet more flex and spring to the mechanism.
But if the mech works, what's the problem? The problem is the Yamaha YBS32. It features a low A mech that's been designed to keep all those flailing key arms as short as possible, and some thought has been given to the leverages in play. And there's an extra arm off the thumb key that handles the closure of the low B/Bb keys.
It all adds up to a mech that has a very well-defined point of closure - and if your priority when choosing a baritone is the ease with which the low A key works, it's going to be a significant factor.

In order to minimise the effects of key flex it helps to have an action that fits nice and snugly on its pivots.
The Yanagisawa does very well with the keys that are mounted on rod screws - even after a few decades of use there was little or no sign of wear. The keys mounted on point screws, however, had fared slightly less well (but only slightly). This'll be down to the design of the screws, given that they're of the parallel type and are rather short...though relatively large in diameter.
Yanagisawa B900 baritone point screwsThese screws work fine when they're accurately fitted (the stub of the screw is a close fit in the corresponding hole in the key barrel), but once the key starts to wear there's no easy way to take up the free play. More often than not it just gets left alone - to get steadily worse down the years.
So I'm very pleased to report that Yanagisawa came to their senses by the time the 901 replaced the 900, and these screws were dropped in favour of far superior proper points - thus making it a great deal easier to take up the wear and tear without having to indulge in some fairly complex and expensive repair procedures.

Note the blemishes. There were quite a few of these dotted about the horn. They're typical of soldering flux contamination - known in the trade as acid or flux bleed. You're more likely to seem them growing at the base of the fittings (as in the patch at the bottom of the pillar), but they sometimes pop up in other places (as in the patch on the tonehole). Quite why they do so is a bit of a mystery, but the most likely explanation is that a blob of flux that splashed out of a nearby joint during the soldering process somehow survived the clean-up operation, and was subsequently covered with lacquer. On a horn of this age it's not unexpected to see such blemishes - and, on the whole, the lacquer has survived remarkably well.
I'm often asked if these spots should be dealt with. I think it's safe to assume that if they've been there for any great length of time it's unlikely that they'll spread - but if they pop up within the first few years of a horn's life then it's perhaps wise to nip them in the bud.

Yanagisawa B900 adjustersDespite being a modern horn with a (mostly) modern action, there are very few adjusters fitted. In fact there are but three. There's the usual pair for the G#/Bis Bb and you get an extra one on the helper arm off the low F key.
I like to see regulation adjusters fitted to the main stacks, and on an action that's as 'approximate' as that on a baritone they can really help to dial in the compromises required to even out the effects of key flex. To this day Yanagisawa seem reluctant to fit them - so even on a bang-up-to-date model you'll have to make do with single adjuster above the auxiliary F to trim up the regulation of the lower key stack. Unless, of course, you fancy having a go at the regulation corks with a bit of sandpaper.
Not that the F arm will be of much use - it's quite long and thin, and suffers from the same degree of flex as those bell key arms...so don't bank on it being terribly precise.

Yanagisawa B900 side Bb linkNice to see plain ol' fork and pin connectors for the side Bb/C keys.
This is a simple, efficient, no-nonsense design that's tough, reliable and slick in use. Shouldn't give you any problems at all - other than the parallel point screws on the lever arm (to the right) can lead to the action getting a bit rattly over time. It's not a big deal as long as you keep on top of the lubrication.

And that's about it, other than to point out that you get a decent octave key mechanism, the compound bell key pillar is suitably sturdy, there's a double key arm on the low C to add a bit of stiffness to the cup and there's a full set of mother-of-pearl key touches. And the whole action is powered by blue steel springs.

A quick word about the case. It's big (obviously), and of the box-style design with proper catches fitted. It's a nicer case than the more modern ones, and although it's much the same in terms of layout I noticed that the crook socket sits a little further away from the back wall of the case. There was some evidence of slightly scuffing, but to nowhere near the same extent as seen on the later models. This makes a difference - as you'll see in the 901's details below.

Under the fingers the action feels nice and tight. At least as tight as a baritone can be. You're always going to have to deal with the spectre of key flex, but it's much less of an issue on a modern horn than on a vintage banger. The ergonomics are good, I really didn't find anything to complain about. Everything's where it should be, there wasn't anything I tripped up over. It almost has as tenor-like quality, but I'm afraid the low A mech tends to ruin the illusion. I'd like to say that you'd get used to it - and I suppose you will - but if you ever get your hands around a Yamaha's low A mech you'll wonder how you managed to put up with the Yani's.
The balance is very good - and this is an especially important consideration on something as hefty as a baritone. The horn 'hangs' just nicely, either standing up or sitting down - and you don't get that sense that you're always having to pull the horn in or, worse still, keep it from smacking you in the mouth.
I'd have liked to have seen a larger sling ring though (it's a standard 15/8 job).

Yanagisawa B900 baritone sax octave mechTonewise the 900 is perhaps little on the dry side (as opposed to fat and juicy) initially. This is something I noticed on the later 901 baritone - and it seems to be a common theme that runs through all Yanagisawa's early horns.
It's not a poor tone by any means, but if you were after a tone with a bit of punch and vivacity you'd probably find yourself having to work a bit harder to get it out of the 900. If, however, you wanted something more restrained or laid back, the 900 ticks all the boxes. I'd hesitate to call it 'mellow' because it's clearly a contemporary tone, and neither would I call it smooth...because there's still a bit of grit there. Perhaps the best way to describe it is that it has a modern core with a bit of softness around the edges. Naturally, this is all up for grabs by changing the mouthpiece - but from my perspective I'd say the horn's forte is ensemble and solo work rather than as the lynchpin in a section.
But I said initially - because once you get used to the horn's presentation it reveals a slightly more punchier aspect. It's still not as hard-hitting as the Yamaha 62, but it's not a case of it 'not being as good as'. It's just different.

There's the usual unevenness as you bridge the gap between the body octave key (octave D to G) and the crook key (octave A upwards), but it's a lot smoother than the difference you'll find on an older horn. This is largely due to the development of the baritone's bore over the years, though it's fair to say that the payoff is perhaps a loss of warmth. It gets a bit better on the later models, where you get the sense that they've refined the balance between the need for accurate tuning and the desire for an appealing tone.

The tuning's good too, reasonably even - though I did notice a touch of progressive sharpness from top A up to D which disappeared once I hit Eb. It's not something I'd be concerned about - it's the sort of thing that a few hours practice would sort out.

All-in-all I'd call it a good all-rounder. It may well not have quite the finesse of the later models but it's a viable option if you don't want to go 'full vintage', and you're unwilling to shell out big bucks for a Selmer MkVI (which has its own foibles).

Additional notes on the 901:

Yanagisawa 901 baritone saxFrom a mechanical perspective the 901 is almost identical to the 900, but by far and away the biggest improvement is that the stubby parallel point screws have been replaced with proper points. These really help to keep the action nice and tight, and will go some way to mitigating the effects of key flex.

In terms of body design there have been some changes to the position of some of the toneholes - and this will have changed both the tuning and the tone.
It won't be by much though.
Yanagisawa 901 bari thumb hookAnother change is the design of the thumb hook, which is now metal and sports a set of dimples on its base.
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 tube. You can hear for yourself whether it actually works - just lift your thumb off the hook when playing. Notice any difference? Nor did I.

Another change is the design of the case. It's still a large box-style case with proper catches, but the internal design differs slightly from the 900's case. And this seems to have led to something of a problem, because the crook socket is now too close to the rear of the case (or the bottom, when you're carrying it).
I've seen many examples where the crook clamp screw has been rubbing against the lining - so much so that it's chewed right through the fabric and into the wooden structure of the case itself. By itself this is merely a disappointing inconvenience, and takes the shine off an otherwise excellent case. However, having such a vulnerable part of the horn resting right against the case wall is a disaster-in-waiting.

Yanagisawa 901 baritone sax case wearHere's a shot of a fairly typical example.
With the crook clamp resting against the now-exposed case wall there's absolutely nothing to cushion against any shocks to the case being transmitted straight through the wall and into the crook socket.
Your best case scenario after a light knock is that the clamp will have chewed yet another lump of wood out of the wall - and thereafter it gets rather more serious. A slightly heavier knock will probably result in a bent clamp screw, though it's just as likely that the socket will deform - which is precisely why this horn came into the workshop.
Cop an even heavier whack and the damage could be quite substantial. In one instance I had to deal with a socket that had been knocked clean off.

It's a particularly critical issue for a baritone as it's quite common for players to leave them standing upright in the case (there are studs on one end of the case to allow for this) - and it's almost equally as common for them to get knocked over. By the time the top end of the case hits the deck it'll be going at quite a speed - and when it comes to a sudden stop all that energy will be converted into a hammer blow. It won't be a good thing.
So what can you do about it? Clearly you're not going to rush out and buy a new case (though that would solve the problem), so your next best bet would be to modify the case with some extra padding.

You can normally get by with stuffing a few cleaning cloths around a horn that's a bit loose in its case - but in this instance you'll need something a bit more permanent, such as some dense foam or polystyrene.
There are two areas that need padding - the first is behind the top bow. Some padding here will help to keep the socket pushed away from the rear of the case - and some additional padding between the rear of the case and the socket will add further cushioning.

Yanagisawa 901 bari caseI very strongly recommend making this improvement, even if there's no sign that the socket has been chafing on the rear of the case. For the sake of tuppence worth of padding you could save yourself a repair bill that could easily tip into three figures. I'm told that the 991/992 cases exhibit the same problem.

Other than that, this horn was doing quite well after three years in the wild. The lacquer was holding up nicely, with no sign of blemishes and the action was still nice and snug (if a little heavily sprung from the factory setup).

Playing the horn was much fun. Tonewise the 901 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.
It's a definite step forward from the 900 - and although its perhaps not as easy-going in its presentation it feels like a more cohesive horn. There's not a lot in it, though - and it's perhaps helpful to think in terms of a good baritone that just got a little bit better.
I still feel the tone is 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 this 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.

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 twisted crook clamp barrel. Easy enough to fix, but it'll be a recurring problem unless the case is modified.

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. In a strange kind of way I felt it leant more towards the response of the 900.

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?
With all that said, the 902 is essentially just a prettier 901 - and the tonal differences are well within the sort of range I'd expect when trying out any two otherwise identical horns.

Recommending this horn is a little tricky. It sits right between Yamaha's YBS32 and 62 in terms of price. I don't feel it's worth £600 or so more than the YBS32 - and for the extra £700 or so 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 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. By far the biggest difference is that pillar construction has been switched from single to ribbed.
Various tonal claims are made for each method, but the one thing you can be sure of is that the ribs add a bit of stiffness to the body...which can be handy if you ever drop the horn.
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 the cash to spend on a pro-level 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 I feel the situation's much the same with the 902/991. The 902 might look nicer, with its bronze body - but the brass-bodied 991 is nicer blow.

 

 

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