Borgani (1970s) soprano saxophone
Guide price: Don't pay a lot
Weight: Not heavy
Date of manufacture: Early to mid '70s (serial range: 5xxx)
Date reviewed: May 2017
It could have been so much worse
Funny old things, Borgani horns.
Back in the '70s, when I was just starting out in this business,
the Borgani brand was synonymous with cheap and (not so) cheerful
horns that could always be found at the bottom of a pile of instruments
at the back of a school's music room store cupboard. Unwanted, unloved...and
I can't remember who they were distributed by in the UK (Bill Lewington's,
possibly - or was that Grassi horns?) - but I do remember that they
occupied that forlorn part of the product catalogue where you'd
go when you decided you couldn't afford a 'proper' horn. And then
one day, completely out of the blue, the prices rocketed. At the
time I think my reaction was along the lines of "That much?
For a Borgani?? Are you !*^%ing kidding???"
But they weren't kidding - and time has proved that these modern
Borganis are very creditable horns. Indeed, when I was in the market
for a new tenor the Borgani Vintage 09 was number two on my wish
list (just below the formidable Inderbinen).
So they've shaken off the dusty past and stepped
into the limelight - but what of those old, much-maligned horns?
Were they really that bad?
The internet seems to think so - but when this wee beastie came
in for a service evaluation I found myself facing something of a
Sure, it wasn't the best-built horn I'd ever seen, and it was in
very poor shape (with some major body damage) - but what few notes
it could play it did so with gusto and charm. I suspected something
of a diamond in the rough. Well, perhaps not a diamond - but maybe
Was I right? We'll find out in a while - but first let's bung it
on the bench and see what it's made of...
From the start it's plain to see that this is
an old horn. Not so much in terms of its physical age but rather
because of its design. I could easily have put the build date at
around 1930 and I doubt whether anyone would have raised an eyebrow.
There's no top F# - there's not even a front top F - the action
looks more 'rounded' than angular and the octave key mech look like
something you'd see on an old C melody.
The body is reasonably up to date, featuring drawn toneholes for
the most part with those above and including the Auxiliary B being
silver soldered. This is quite common even today.
The construction is single pillar, and aside from a (broken) plastic
thumb rest there are no other mod-cons...you get a lyre holder and
a non-adjustable thumb hook, and that's your lot. There's just one
adjuster, fitted to the octave key mech - there are none on either
of the main stacks and none on the G#/Bis Bb bar. And there's no
terms of build quality this old Borgani certainly lives up to its
dubious reputation. Aside from the problems with the action (which
we'll deal with in a little while) there's a general sense that
it's all a bit slap-dash.
Actually, I take that back - it's not all slap-dash, it's just a
bit crappy here and there.
For example, here's the top Eb key. It's quite neat and tidy save
for the small issue of how they've drilled the pillar for the rod
screw. It's completely off centre. There's no need for it to be
drilled like this - it's not like they found they needed some extra
clearance below the key barrel (there's plenty)...they simply drilled
the hole in the wrong place.
In many respects it's a bit like a modern Chinese
horn. Some parts are fine, some are pretty dire, and if you look
closely enough you can see where all the corners have been cut.
This shot of the top stack lower pillar is a good example. Note
how the base of the pillar looks a bit distorted. Rather than pre-forming
the curvature of the body onto the base, someone's just given it
quick tweak with a pair of pliers...hence that visible dip on the
lower side. If you look very carefully you can see a similarly-distorted
base on the next pillar up. And when they fitted the pillar they
didn't bother to tidy up all the excess solder.
that any of this is particularly important, at least in terms of
how the horn will work or how reliable it'll be - it's just an indicator
of how much or little care and attention has gone into the manufacture,
and thus serves as a marker for the price of the horn. That said,
I'm awarding some brownie points for the lacquer. I know it looks
rather tatty now, but this horn is almost 50 years old and it still
has most of it intact.
It's in the design of the keywork that you'll
find the most archaic features. The top stack is entirely mounted
on a single rod screw - as is the lower stack. There's also no additional
key for the top C# - which, on early implementations, would have
added another tonehole above the Auxiliary B (the small one just
above the B). Later designs amalgamated these two toneholes into
a single one with a 'doughnut' key cup on the bottom and a smaller
closed cup above it. The Borgani gets halfway there by virtue of
a link from the rear of the Aux.B key that connects to the octave
key mechanism. It's perhaps not the best solution but it seems to
work well enough.
plastic key pearls are quite chunky, though somewhat indifferently
fitted. Originally this horn would have had a matching concave pearl
on the Bis Bb, but as it was missing I took the opportunity to make
a domed one up as a replacement.
The regulation for the top stack is a bit of an arse. With no adjusters
you're left with using buffers fitted beneath the key arms. You
can see the two regulation points in this shot - the first is beneath
the B key arm and the second is to the left of it, on that stubby
arm that's connected to the Bis Bb key. You can also see the Auxiliary
key bar running beneath them.
It's a real labour of love setting up the regulation on such a small
horn - you very quickly reach a point where the need for precision
is hampered by the inherent flex in the keywork. This is where adjusting
screws really earn their keep - it's so easy to dial in the compromises
required 'on the fly'. If you get it wrong it's a simple matter
of giving a screw a quick turn...but without any adjusters you have
to rip the buffer off and start again.
Fortunately the Aux. bar is pretty short and sturdy, which makes
it stiffer - but a design like this has absolutely no tolerance
for any free play in the action (of which there was much. Very much).
That said, the keywork is incredibly tough. You'll find it very
hard to bend a key accidentally on this horn, and even deliberate
tweaking will require a fair bit of grunt.
rod screws are worthy of note. As is quite common, there are two
sizes of rod used; typically the main stack action and the larger
keys will use the thicker rods while the smaller keys will use thinner
rods. The Borgani has two thick rods for the upper and lower stack,
and one for the low C/Eb...and that's it, all the other keys use
thinner rods. Nothing very special about that, except that the thinner
rods really are quite thin. Perhaps the thinnest I've ever seen
on a sax (save for those rods that are often used for the crook
octave key, the rollers and the tilting table on the low Bb). They
measure just 1.96mm - which is about the size of rod screw you'd
find on a flute or a clarinet.
As you can see, the thin rod screw looks quite small when compared
against the thicker rod for the low C/Eb.
Speaking of which, the main stack action was dreadfully
loose, despite some signs of previous attempts to swedge the key
barrels. There are two ways this happens; either through advanced
wear and tear or by sloppy manufacturing. It's usually quite easy
to tell one from the other, given that wear presents itself rather
differently from poor build quality. In the Borgani's case it was
all down to build quality.
In such cases it'll be a lot of hard work to make the keys and pillars
match the existing rod screw (2.96mm) - and the better fix is to
increase the size of the rods. As it happened a 3.05mm rod was a
perfect fit in the pillars and most of the key barrels, leaving
only a few keys that needed further swedging to bring them to size.
As for the thin rods - I doubt there are any particular advantages/disadvantages
to using them on a small horn - or at least none that don't cancel
each other out - so I'm inclined just to note it as a point of interest
and leave it at that.
as for the point screws, they're proper points - but shoulderless.
I very much like this style of point screw because it allows for
constant adjustment as the action wears. However, without a shoulder
(or head) on the screw, there's a very good chance that the screws
will work themselves loose over time. This is easily dealt with
on a modern horn by the use of threadlocking fluids or, in some
cases, nylon inserts fitted through the body of the screw.
Back in 'the old days' they tended to rely on more mechanical means
of securing such screws, which is why nearly all the point screw
are fitted with a locking nut. You can find exactly the same arrangement
on many King horns - and it's still used today by Eppelsheim (he
of the Tubax).
In theory it's a perfectly good way to lock a
shoulderless point screw in place - but in practice it has a few
drawbacks, the first of which is that it looks bloody awful. And
if you take the horn apart to service it you've got the added risk
that you might drop and lose one of the nuts. It's also rather more
difficult to set the screws accurately. The idea is that you turn
the point screw in until you're happy with how it fits the key,
and then tighten the nut against the pillar. However, as you tighten
the nut up it tends to turn the point screw...which throws out your
careful adjustments. So you need to keep a screwdriver in the screwslot
to prevent it from turning while you tighten the nut up with a spanner.
But then the spanner will exert more torque than the screwdriver,
so you have to add a little reverse force to the screw...and...and...well,
it all gets a bit fiddly.
A drop of threadlock solves all those problems (in this instance,
Loctite 243 or 245 is the one to go for). It'll hold the point screw
just where you want it with no fuss or bother...and a little drop
on the nut will mean it's more of a cosmetic fixture and needs only
to be snugged up against the pillar.
Note the low B/Bb pillar at the top left of the
shot - you can see there's no locknut fitted. It's not been lost
because you can clearly see the head of the screw isn't protruding
far enough to accommodate a nut - and the most likely explanation
is that someone made a boo-boo in the design stage which led to
there being no room between the pillar and the low C# spatula arm
to get a nut in. And just to make it look like they meant to do
this, there's a similarly short screw and no nut at the other end
of the key...despite there being plenty of room for one.
While we're here, take note of the height of the G# spatula compared
to the bell spats. Quite a step, isn't it? You'd really want the
top of the G# key to be level with the bell keys - but you can't
because there's a hefty plate on the bottom of the G# spatula which
forms part of the articulation mechanism.
Nothing's been bent or twisted out of whack - this is how they built
the horn. The fix would be to either fit a riser to the G# or remove
the articulation plate and refit it lower down the key.
octave key mech is positively ancient in design, with three levers
extending off the main key. Compared with the mechs being fitted
to other sopranos of the day it's extremely crude - though once
properly set up and tweaked it's not too clunky in use. It's here
where you'll find the horn's single adjusting screw, which sets
the closure of the upper octave key pad when the G key is pressed
Setting up this mech is akin to playing with a Rubik's cube - if
one part of the mech is even slightly out of spec, it'll lead to
problems right down the horn. The first thing you have to get right
is the thickness of the lower octave key pad. This, and the corresponding
arm off the G key, is responsible for regulating the height of the
entire stack action. The upper stack height is controlled by a buffer
beneath the G key touchpiece, which in turn is controlled by the
arm over the octave key, which in turn is controlled by the thickness
of the octave key pad - and the lower stack height is controlled
by the Bis Bb arm...which is controlled by the G key. Make sense?
There's precious little room for error, which
is why I fitted cork pads to the octave keys...the last thing you
need is a pair of pads that might shrink or compress over time.
You're also completely reliant on the geometry of the octave mech
being set correctly, and likewise the arm and the foot off the G
key. If the horn takes a tumble and cops a whack on this mech, it'll
be a proper nightmare to get it all lined up again. And when you
think you've got it right, you've then got to account for the link
to the Aux.B key.
From a repairer's perspective the very worst thing that could happen
is that they set the mech up and then the client says "Could
you raise/lower the action a tad?"
On the plus side the touchpiece is quite nice and comfortable, though
the factory-fitted thumb rest is a bit too small (you can just see
a hint of the replacement I made).
here's something for all the folks who're adamant that you should
never put a sharp bend in a spring.
Not one, but two kinks on the low E key. Given that this horn turned
up with its original pads in place it's more than likely that it
also has the original blued steel springs - so this one's been chugging
away quite merrily for nearly half a century.
Note the captive spring cradle in the key's foot - another example
of 'olde-worlde' design.
So the design of the action is quite old - but
apart from one or two quirks it's really quite plain and simple.
The payoff for this is that once cured of excessive free play and
properly set up, it's actually quite nimble. Granted, being a soprano
helps - had this been a larger horn I think there would have been
'issues'...but with light and small keys it all works rather well.
The layout's not too bad either. The palm keys aren't best placed
for speed, but the simple bell key table works quite well - with
the only stumbling block being the relatively low height of the
G# touchpiece. It's by no means a deal-breaker, though - and if
you were desperate you could pretty much fix it by supergluing a
strip of wood onto it.
- well, this is where we come back to my opening point about the
diamond in the rough. On the face of it this horn was a scrapper;
indifferent-to-poor build quality in places, some hefty structural
damage and a reputation for being a thoroughly nasty piece of work.
But it had more than a hint of quite a well-balanced tone. Certainly
enough to shift my recommendation from "Forget it, it's not
worth the expense" to "It's borderline, but if it were
mine I'd take the gamble". And that's a pretty good recommendation
bearing in mind that I don't make a habit of betting with other
And, I'm pleased (and relieved) to say, I was right.
It's got a lovely tone, and if that sounds a bit naff then maybe
this will put it into perspective. When I've finished prodding and
poking a horn, I settle down to a session of playtesting. Typically
this will involve lots of scales and patterns which help to map
out a horn's functionality and test the integrity of the action.
I'll then shift to intervals, which help to determine how responsive
a horn is and how easy it is to nail the tuning.
After that I'll generally noodle about, to get a feel for the characteristics
- I now know the horn works and I know how it responds...but this
is about how it plays.
When I blew the Borgani after its repair I managed a couple of scales
and broke straight into 'On A Clear Day'. Yep, it's that kind of
It's got that curious hollowness in the midrange
that gives the soprano its ethereal quality - but either side of
it it's got a nice warmth to the lower harmonics and a creaminess
to the upper ones. It's not a brash, shouty horn with bags of cut
and edge - but it's also not muddy and indistinct. When you blow
harder it ramps up very nicely and maintains its tonal balance.
I was impressed...and I'm not even a fan of sopranos.
It's a straightforward nice blow. Nothing too demanding and very
easy to get along with.
The tuning? Surprisingly good. Sopranos are always
tricky, older sopranos even more so...and older, cheaper sopranos
are pretty much the worst hand you can be dealt. But about all the
Borgani threw up was a slight flatness around the low C/B. The rest
of the horn was well within the expected norms for a workable soprano.
On the face of it, then, a rather nice soprano.
It wears a noble badge, it's certainly distinctive and it has the
playability to back it up. So would I recommend you rush out and
Disregarding the structural damage this horn had suffered, the cost
of bringing the action up to spec and dealing with the build quality
issues means this horn is unlikely to ever be a bargain buy. You'd
be extraordinarily lucky to have any change out of half a grand
for the sort of work of these horns is likely to need, and that's
assuming you can find a repairer who's willing to take on such a
job. If you can find one for a couple of hundred quid you might
stand a chance of coming out even - but after you'd shelled out
for the repairs you'd be well into the sort of price you can pay
for something of a known quality like a Conn, a Buescher or even
a Martin. The Borgani gives them a run for their money - but that's
this Borgani...and I wouldn't like to swear that all the others
will be quite as playable.
And what of the comments on the internet about the poor quality
of Borganis from this period? To be fair I suspect a lot of it's
to do with the mediocre build quality. It's hard to get a feel for
a horn's potential if it's struggling to work at all. There's also
perhaps something of a technique to 'blowing past the faults' to
get to the core of the tone - which is something a repairer does
on an almost daily basis.
If you've got one stashed in a cupboard or under the bed then, sure,
it might be worth getting it up and running - but if you're thinking
about buying one on the basis of this review, I'd advise caution.
If you'd like to read a bit more about the work
that went into this horn, check out the accompanying articles on
the Benchlife Blog - the first of which details the repairs
to the body, and the second of which deals with the broken