Sequoia Lemon soprano saxophone
Guide price: £1800(?)
Date of manufacture: 2014
Date reviewed: June 2019
Well, is it?
On the bench today we have another not-quite-boutique
Not quite? Well, the proper definition of a boutique horn is one
that's built by one company and rebadged and sold by another. It's
very similar to a stencil horn, with the major difference being
that the manufacturer only builds horns for other companies and
doesn't retail its instruments under its own name. It's a slightly
simplistic overview of the genre, but I'm sure you get the gist.
What it means is that just about anyone can set themselves up as
a 'manufacturer', buy a bunch of horns from one of many companies
who build the things, whack a brand name on them and offer them
up for sale to the general public.
For the most part this is about as far as most boutique resellers
go. They buy an off-the-peg model and rebadge it. In some cases
there are options available, which allow the reseller to customise
the horn to some degree so as to make it distinct from all the other
sellers who're running with the same horns. These options are typically
cosmetic in nature (various finishes) but can extend to changes
in detailing (guards, braces etc.) - but the body and keywork remains
pretty much standard. If you're prepared to buy enough horns, or
you're willing to spend a bit more money, the manufacturers will
take on more advanced customisation work - and if you want to go
one step further they'll even build a horn to your own specifications.
It makes no difference to them, provided you're willing to foot
the bill at the end of the day.
This raises a (vaguely) interesting philosophical
question; If you have someone build you - and only you - a horn
to a unique specification, is it still a boutique horn?
It's a tricky one. There are those who will argue that if you're
rebadging horns that you don't build yourself then yes, you're selling
boutique or stencil horns. Equally there are those who argue that
if you're having horns built to your own acoustic design then you're
simply subcontracting the manufacture, and thus can't be considered
a boutique retailer.
Sequoia, I suspect, would consider themselves
to fall in to the last category. The company is owned and run by
two repairers, and - according to the website blurb- they had a
'concept' of how a horn should play and feel. They found a manufacturer
they could work with and set about having a range of horns built
to their own specifications.
At least in terms of the bodies, anyway. The keywork is largely
stock - and this makes sense. It costs an awful lot of money to
have custom keywork made, and it's far more sensible to take off-the-shelf
keys and adapt them to fit (if necessary).
In terms of the marketplace it rather blurs the
boundaries between the definition of a boutique and a stencil horn,
but it also raises the prospect of being able to buy a distinctive
horn at a very favourable price. It also helps to move the market
away from what I suppose you could consider to be 'safe horns'.
You know, not too bright, not too dark - just sort of middling I
Then again it also carries with it a certain amount of risk. There's
a very good reason why the 'Big Four' are the big four - and why
slightly smaller companies are constantly snapping at their heels.
They have design experience, and the sort of financial clout that
allows them to spend quite a lot of time and money in research and
But you know what they say - a good little 'un will always beat
a bad big 'un...and maybe, just maybe, sometimes you get lucky.
But that's enough of the overview - let's dive
onto the workbench and see what's what...
construction is semi-ribbed, which is to say that some pillars are
mounted on long plates (the main stacks), some are grouped on smaller
plates, and the remainder are fitted individually. Most of the individual
pillars have suitably large bases bar the few that have small bases
due to space constraints. It's a two-piece body with a detachable
crook, of which three are provided with the horn. It's keyed to
Being a soprano there's not much scope for body features - you get
an adjustable metal thumb hook, a flat plastic thumb rest and quite
a large sling ring (17/11mm). This is impressive, if rather overkill,
and I've seen far smaller rings on much larger horns.
The toneholes are all plain drawn, bar the top
G - which is soldered on. It looks like it's soft soldered, which
may lead to problems with selective galvanic corrosion in the (distant)
future. However, it seems to be a very hard kind of soft solder...so
perhaps it won't be an issue. In any event, it's such a small tonehole
that having it unsoldered, cleaned and resoldered will likely cost
beer money - so I wouldn't be at all concerned about it.
Note that gap beneath the pillar behind the tonehole. I wasn't too
happy about that. It's quite an exposed pillar and will be prone
to taking a knock if the horn is put down a little carelessly onto
a hard table. That said, it was the only example of mean soldering
I found on the horn - all the other pillars and fittings (bar one,
as we'll shortly see) looked just fine.
toneholes were pretty level on the whole - not perfect but well
within expectations, and better than average. Just a couple at the
top end required a little levelling - the G (as shown) was rather
bad, as was the A.
Technical geeks might suggest that a wobbly G tonehole is down to
the horn having copped a whack, as it's usually the tonehole that's
most affected by a bend in the body - but the bore looked as straight
as a die, and the warps didn't really fit the profile of a bent
body tube. And the warps on the A tonehole didn't match the profile
of those on the G. It seemed rather odd...
And while we're here, I wasn't very impressed
with the soldering around the rather beefy compound bell key pillar.
The soldering on the rest of the horn is just fine - all neat and
tidy - but someone's made a right pig's ear on this fitting. The
colour of the solder looked a little odd (it's rather bright), and
I wondered whether it might be remnants of a coat of plating - but
it wouldn't make any sense at all to plate a horn and then remove
it. I guess it's just down to the soldering alloy that was used
I did wonder whether it might be deliberate. I've seen this sort
of thing before - lots of patently untidy solderwork that's been
left 'as is' in order to give the horn a kind of "I've been
round the block a few times" look...but it's been spread throughout
the horn and not in just one spot. Still looks rubbish, mind.
It also occurred to me that this pillar might have been removed
after manufacture, and prior to sale. You only have to look at all
the other pillars and fittings in all the other photos to see that
there's very little evidence of any solder showing at all. Perhaps
this and the warped toneholes matches up? Maybe the horn copped
a whack in the warehouse and had to be repaired? I couldn't see
any evidence to suggest as much, and the owner hadn't had any repairs
carried out, so it'll have to remain a mystery.
The fit of the crooks was pretty good. Just one
needed a tweak, but that's par for the course after five years of
I'm pleased they got this part right, as the crook joint is often
the source of leaks that can be very hard to detect. They seldom
stop the horn dead in its tracks, but lead to a gradual loss of
response and precision over a period of time - and the less surface
area that you have to play with, the more likely that leaks will
develop. As you can imagine, a crook joint on a soprano is particularly
susceptible to this problem.
finish of the toneholes was fine - all smooth, neat and tidy...save
for one. The finish on the Auxiliary B was appalling, with a full
set of splendid grooves from a file on display.
It has to be said, of all the toneholes that you least want a rough
finish on, the Aux.B on a soprano tops the bill. It's such a tiny
wee pad, and there's (hopefully) very little downward force on the
pad such that the slightest anomaly in the pad seat is going to
result in a leak.
All the other toneholes were fine - so I really have no idea why
this one slipped through the quality control net.
A quick word about the finish before we move onto
It's a bare brass finish with lacquered keys. Bare finishes are
popular these days, which means my email inbox is peppered with
queries from players who've bought such horns and are now wondering
why they're turning green. Now, I quite like a bare brass finish
(I have such a horn myself) - and while it can look quite cool it
can sometimes turn out to be something of a liability. If you're
a 'dry' player - which is to say that you don't tend to end a gig
by tipping half a pint of water out of the bell - you'll probably
be fine. If you're a wet player you're going to have to be quite
fastidious about cleaning the horn on a regular basis.
Being a wet or a dry player has nothing to do with proficiency (at
least once you're past the beginner stage), it's just the way you
are....like being left or right handed. If your current horns are
covered in water marks, a bare brass horn is perhaps not the wisest
action was rather loose, and in some places severely so. It's usually
pretty easy to spot when this is down to fair wear and tear rather
than manufacturing defects, and one of the big giveaways is when
there's a substantial difference in the play on the main stack keys
- given that wear and tear will happen more or less equally along
Another telltale sign is to look at the ends of the key barrels.
Worn keys will have smooth faces on the barrel ends - poorly-built
keys will still show file marks, and sometimes burrs too.
By far the worst two keys were the top B and the low E, and you
can see the extent of the play in these two animated gifs. Ideally
you'd want no free play at all, of course - but if there's ever
place where you really, absolutely, unquestionably don't want it,
it's in the top stack of a soprano. The keys and pads are quite
small, which tends to magnify the effects of any play. A key barrel
on an alto or a tenor that's oversized by, say, 0.2mm may lead to
a given pad leaking across 10% of its surface (typically at the
rear of the pad) - but that same discrepancy on a smaller key will
lead to a much larger leak....say 25%. Similarly, the discrepancy
between two keys that are regulated with each other will also increase.
this much play on the top B key there wasn't a hope in hell of getting
the B and the Aux.B key above it to close at the same time - and
what with the play on the rest of the stack you're looking at a
group of keys that's never going to work properly no matter how
hard you try to compensate for the play. The only way around it
is to use a gorilla grip when playing the horn. Or have it fixed,
The play on the low E is just as severe - and
while it will still have a notable effect on the feel and responsiveness
of the lower notes, it won't be quite as dramatic as that on the
One way to at least partially counter the effects of a sloppy action
is to set the spring tension super high (blued steel, on this horn).
This works in two ways: it 'preloads' the action by forcing the
key barrels against the pivot screws, and it causes the player to
have to press harder on the keys. Guess what the action felt like
on this horn. Yup.
You might suggest that this horn's five years old, and who knows
how much use it's been subjected to - and yes, a certain amount
of the free play is going to be down to wear and tear. But how d'you
explain the significantly worse B and E keys? Maybe the owner's
spent the last five years doing nothing much else but trilling on
the B and the E? I somehow doubt it.
The point screws are of the pseudo variety and,
on the whole, were quite well fitted to the keys. One or two showed
some free play - which I'd put down to wear - but the play on the
bell keys was rather more significant...to the point where I was
able to show the client how the low B and Bb keys were lifting at
the rear of the pad as the play got taken up by the springs. Had
proper point screws been used it would have been a simple matter
of tightening the up to take up the play, but since that wasn't
the case it was down to swedging the barrel ends to make the points
a better fit.
Incidentally, it appears that while the point screws are made of
plain steel, the rod (or hinge) screws are stainless. This is a
very worthwhile feature and means that there's a lot less chance
of finding yourself scuppered by a rusted-in screw at some point
down the years.
a full set of regulation adjusters and I was particularly impressed
with the design of the adjuster on the lower stack.
I mean, c'mon, just look at 'em - they're lovely aren't they? The
key feet terminate in a round block and the foot of the adjusters
sit atop the blocks. It's beautifully done and provides a large
surface area for the regulation point, which means compression of
the buffers is less likely to be an issue over time. Top marks there.
Not quite so many marks for the regulation adjuster
on the top stack. They're fine (and very welcome indeed) but look
at how long the bar is that extends under the Bis Bb to the adjustment
point on the A.
might look like the bar is hefty enough but there's always the spectre
of key flex to take into account - and a bar that long is going
to flex. Oh, it won't be by much, to be sure, but even a tiny amount
will show up in the integrity of the pad seat on the Aux.B key.
A smarter design would be to move the supporting arm (seen in the
centre of the shot, just down from the uppermost adjuster) to a
point just below the Bis Bb cup arm. This would leave a much shorter
distance between the arm and the A key adjuster, and make for a
much stiffer setup.
And on another whingey note, the key feet on the top stack are all
plain and straight - it would have been a nice touch to have duplicated
the round feet that feature on the lower stack. Might have have
added a tenner to the cost of the horn, but it would have been worth
wasn't very impressed with the padding. The pads themselves aren't
too bad - they're not the best quality but they're adequate enough
- but the fitting left a lot to be desired...particularly some glue.
Here's the low Eb, and you can see it's practically 'dry'. Never
mind "A li'l dab'll do ya", this pad's barely seen a lick
of a passing stick of glue. I was about to reset this pad and had
inserted a pick down the side of the key cup so that it would be
in place when I heated the pad to soften the glue. That's when I
saw the pad move. It was already loose in the key cup.
low C doesn't fare much better, though you can see there's a cursory
smear of glue in the key cup...but not enough to contact the backing
of the pad.
However, there's plenty of glue that's been used to glue the rather
large shim in place.
It's the same old story up and down the horn - insufficient glue
and/or large shims - which makes servicing a bit of a nightmare
because you simply can't reset a pad with any degree of reliability
(or even at all) if there's no glue behind the pad. So you have
to take them out, pop some glue on then refit and reset the pads.
Essentially a repad, without the cost of new pads. Your wallet won't
The use of shims is somewhat controversial; there are repairers
who insist it's unacceptable, and there are those who feel it's
of little or no consequence. I tend to feel that it's an acceptable
method when all other alternatives have been exhausted. This might
include varying the thickness of the pad, manipulating the angle
of the key cup, adjusting the position of the pillars, floating
the pads on a deep bed of glue etc. The point is that it's a means
of ensuring a decent pad seat on an instrument that either hasn't
been built very well or has suffered significant damage (or poor
repairs) down the years. If you're having to use shims at the production
stage, then something's wrong with the geometry of the keywork and
really needs to be corrected.
It's pretty much standard practice on many a cheap horn, and when
you're buying a horn for just a few hundred pounds you have to expect
that a few corners will be cut at the factory. But as the price
of the horn rises so too does the expectation that such practices
will be less and less necessary - and at this price point I don't
think it's unreasonable to say that it's a complete no-no.
Some of the key alignment was off in places too
- and while this is rather more of an aesthetic issue it can have
a bearing on the reliability of the pad seat depending on how far
over the key cup is canted in relation to the tonehole.
In extreme cases it can cause very real problems, as seen here on
the top E key.
rear of the pad is so close to the edge of the tonehole that there's
barely any of the pad to cover it - and so there was a rather large
leak right at the top of the body tube. This is never good. This
is another issue that should have been caught in the manufacturing
The fix for this was to bend the key arm to better align the cup
with the tonehole. This wasn't at all difficult to do because the
keywork is rather on the soft side.
a standard tilting bell key table mounted on a curved compound pillar,
with additional support coming from the rear G# pillar. We've seen
the pillar itself earlier, and I'm more than satisfied that it seems
to be robustly built - and should easily cope with the sort of light
to moderate knocks that a soprano is likely to receive in its normal
Wrapping up the package you get a semi-soft box
style case (with the dreaded zipped fastener) which has plenty of
storage space for all your reeds and other gubbins, plus dedicated
storage slots for the crooks and a mouthpiece.
In the hands the horn feels quite comfortable,
though it soon becomes apparent that there a degree of heft to it.
At 1.41kg it has to be the heaviest soprano I've ever seen. No wonder
they put a massive sling ring on it.|
If you're in the habit of using a sling I doubt the extra weight
will make a difference - but to those players (like me) who prefer
a head-up, horn straight out playing position, the weight could
well prove to be an issue on a long gig.
There's really little else to say about the feel other than it improved
massively (and I mean massively) once the action issues had been
sorted and the ridiculously strong springs had been slackened off.
It's all laid out in the modern fashion, and I doubt anyone will
have any real problems aside from the usual ones that crop up on
any horn (palm/side key placement)...and these are easy enough to
I liked the feel of the only very slightly concave key pearls (plastic)
coupled with the slightly domed Bis Bb. For fans of pearls all round
you'll be pleased to hear that both the G# and the side/chromatic
F# feature oval pearls on the touchpieces.
it came to playing the horn I was expecting great things. The website
is liberally peppered with 'inspirational' quotes. You know the
sort of thing...lots of phrases that contain words like 'heart',
'soul' and 'artistry'.
It also informed me that "The body of the instrument is left
unlacquered, while the annealing is different than in the other
models. This gives a fuller and warmer sound." - and that the
silverplated model has ""increased projection and brightness,
due to the silver plating and thicker walls".
I raised an eyebrow. Then another - and if I had a third one I'd
have raised that too. But as I'm not triple-browed I settled for
having a little chuckle about "different annealing" while
popping a mouthpiece on the horn to give it a blow.
Tonewise it's a rather resistant blow, and as
such there's a kind of 'thickness' to the sound that (purely coincidentally)
seems to complement the weight of the horn. It's not stuffy by any
means, but there's a sense that each note has a touch of rounding
off around the edges. This is especially noticeable at very low
volumes, where the tone becomes almost husky at times - especially
down the lower end. In this respect it has a sort of Mauriat-like
quality inasmuch as there's a distinct shift in the presentation
as the volume drops off. That could be a good or a bad thing depending
on how you like to play.
It's not a shouty horn, and even when you play it at full tilt it
hangs on to its rounded approach - which, for me, kept pushing the
repertoire towards smoky 3am bluesy ballads. You know what I mean,
something like "One More For My Baby (And One More For The
Oh sure, you can push it hard and it'll do the job, but it takes
a lot more effort to maintain it than on a horn with a bit more
cut and punch dialled in as standard. It is, however, quite even
across the range - so you won't have to rein in any harshness up
at the top end. All-in-all it's a bit of a tonal curiosity. It's
not quite what I'd call warm and it's definitely not bright - and
neither is it middle-of-the-road. It's sort of lazy, weighty, a
bit husky and very easy on the ear.
The Sequoia is supplied with two crooks - a straight and a curved
one. This example had an additional straight bronze one.
I tried them all in turn and found that the curved
brass one really wasn't my favourite. It seems to dull things down
somewhat, and the huskiness became muddy. It was also a rather stiffer
blow. The straight brass one was very nice - easily my pick of the
bunch. It gave the tone a bit of a lift and sharpened up the roundness
a little, and was the least resistant of the three.
The bronze one was quite close in response to the straight brass
but seemed to make it slightly harder to achieve almost the same
sound. So if you're expecting it to add a rosy bronze-tinted glow
to the tone you're going to be disappointed because the tonal changes
won't be down to any voodoo regarding the material they're made
from, rather it'll be down to the simple and boring fact that the
internal dimensions of the crooks will all be ever so slightly different
from each other. Which means that the crooks you end up with are
likely to be entirely different in response to these ones, so it's
really down to pot luck.
- thumbs up/thumbs down?
I'm in two minds about this horn. On the one hand it's undeniably
a unique soprano; its relaxed and measured approach sets it aside
from the majority of the competition, and in that respect it has
an ace up its sleeve.
It's not without its tonal foibles (what horn isn't?) but they serve
to distinguish the horn rather than detract from it. As such I can
see that prospective buyers might fall into two categories; those
who don't care for it at all, and those who absolutely love it.
I don't think it's the sort of horn that you'd be ambivalent about.
But, as you know, I'm all about the nuts and bolts - the build quality,
the prospect of the action staying in regulation and the pads holding
a seal. If the mechanics aren't up to scratch you're quite literally
wasting your breath. The wobbly keys were a big disappointment,
and the padding left a lot to be desired. The toneholes could be
better and some attention to detail in the soldering department
wouldn't go amiss. And it's damn heavy for a soprano.
We need, however, some perspective - and that comes in the form
of the asking price. It was no mean feat tracking down a price for
this horn, and even now I can't be sure it's wholly accurate. The
Sequoia isn't what you'd call 'widely available' - in fact it seems
to be limited to a mere handful of dealers, most of whom seem to
work on an appointments only basis. In some ways it's reminiscent
of Cannonball's marketing technique - which works on the principle
that if you're interested enough, you'll make the effort to find
The only price I managed to nail down was one of £1800. At
this price it's slap-bang in competition with the Yamaha 475 (MkII).
This is a formidable horn, and even if you're not taken with its
neutral and precise presentation it's a given that the build quality
is commensurate with the cost of the horn. There's also the Bauhaus
M2, which offers a very different tonal approach to the Yamaha.
And then there's nothing much else of note aside from a handful
of Mauriats - and they don't do so well on the build quality front
either - until you get to around two and half grand, at which point
the Eastman and the Yanagisawa become available.
On that basis it could get a thumbs up - but with the caveat that
you may well have to spend another hundred quid having your repairer
go over the finer (and not so finer) details. But here's the rub;
if you factor in an independent setup, you might just as well consider
the Mauriat Le Bravo...or the 76 if you wanted to spend a bit more.
And I daresay many of you are thinking that a used soprano with
a £100 service wouldn't be a bad bet either. And you'd be
Because of this horn's distinctive tonal approach
I'm loathe to knock it down, but I just can't ignore the build issues
- so I'm going to say that if those issues were resolved it'd be
a very nice horn at a very fair price that would likely suit players
who prefer a more vintage presentation rather than a contemporary
one. The rest is up to you...and Sequoia.