Yanagisawa S800 (Martin) soprano saxophone
Guide price: £750
Date of manufacture: 1980 (Serial range: 00102xxx)
Date reviewed: June 2017
Almost the last stop on the Martin line
When is a Martin not a Martin? When it's a Yanagisawa,
of course. Yes, it's a stencil horn.
So how did the once proud and venerable name of one of the giants
of American sax manufacturing come to be stamped on a Japanese horn?
The simple answer is money (as it so often is). Having produced
some of the finest horns of the era during the mid 1900s, Martin
were struggling by the end of the 1960s - and in 1971 the name was
sold to Leblanc. At this time Leblanc were distributing Yanagisawa
horns in the States under a variety of names - so it would have
been a very simple decision to turn the once-proud Martin brand
into a stencil for these, then, up-and-coming horns.
By the time this example hit the shops, Yanagisawa were building
a name for themselves in their own right - and I guess you can think
of this horn as the start of the swansong for the Martin brand.
From almost this point onwards a Yanagisawa horn would be stamped
with the Yanagisawa name. And I say almost because you can still
find a few 880 series Yanagisawas with the Martin name stamped on
It's quite probably not the fate the original Martin company would
have hoped for, but at least the name had the dignity of being placed
on a decent horn. Many other noble names ended up on quite mediocre
For the canny and well-informed buyer, such horns
represent a golden opportunity to pick up a quality horn at a bargain
price - provided, of course, that some loudmouth hasn't bunged an
article up on the internet that tells prospective sellers that their
seemingly unknown horn is really rather nice. But hey, it's not
like I'm breaking an exclusive here - this information has been
out there for ages, and you don't really have to look very hard
to find it. OK, so now maybe you have to look a little less harder.
From my perspective this is a very interesting
horn. It was built at a time when Yanagisawa were beginning to break
their own mould, so to speak. They were very clearly influenced
by the great marques of the day, but strove to improve upon industry
standards. If you look at (and play) their range of horns in chronological
order, there's a very definite upward progression. And so while
this horn may well have been the herald of the end of Martin, it
was also that of the 'old' Yanagisawa. From here on in the gloves
were off, and the company would go on to become one of the industry's
800 is a single-piece soprano (the detachable crook would be a feature
of the next series, the 880) with single pillar construction, featuring
a single, and rather crude, saddle for the side Bb and C keys. It's
functional, but not very pretty. The pillar bases are on the small
side, but nevertheless well-fitted to the horn.
The toneholes are drawn - at least up to the top B, whereafter they're
silver-soldered on. This is a typical construction technique on
modern sopranos, and probably comes about because of the inherent
difficulties of drawing such small toneholes out of the body and
the need to reduce bore deformation to a minimum in this critical
I noted quite a few uneven toneholes. On a horn of this age (and
one that's clearly seen a few knocks) I'd have to give the benefit
of the doubt - but I found rather more warps than a few knocks would
suggest...so make of that what you will.
There are few body features, which is pretty typical
for a soprano. You get a large adjustable plastic thumb hook, a
large plastic thumb rest and a sling ring. And that's yer lot. The
sling ring is less of a ring and more of a loop - but it's large
and fitted to a stout base, so no complaints there.
the keywork side the point screws are of the parallel type. These
are of an unusual design, being rather fat and stubby. They still
suffer with all the disadvantages of a parallel screw, but the correspondingly
larger holes in the key barrels should make it easier to swedge
the barrel ends to take up the inevitable wear.
Note the spring hole in the nearest pillar (low Bb upper pillar).
That's not a missing spring. It caught me out - I went to all the
trouble of selecting a spring of the right diameter, flaring the
end and fitting it into the pillar...before checking the length
against the key. That's when I discovered that the spring cradle
was fitted to the other end of the key. This hole's a dummy.
I'm not sure how it got there. They wouldn't have simply drilled
all the pillars out as a matter of course (as you can see on the
pillar behind) - so either it was a mistake, or the key was originally
designed with the spring cradle at this end - and when they changed
the design of the key they forgot to change the design of the pillars.
Who knows? A poster on Cafesaxophone
says that the same hole appears on his Yanagisawa S6 soprano - so
it's clearly something that's being going on for quite some time.
And I guess that now would be a good time to mention that the action
is powered by stainless steel springs.
per the body there are few bells and whistles on the keywork. The
bell key table is of the non-tilting type. I quite like this layout
- it's simple and uncluttered, and on something the size of a soprano
you could argue than anything more complex would be overkill. It
has a nice 'connected' feel, which is something that tends to get
a bit lost with a tilting table.
It's also quite a robust design - one that can tolerate the odd
knock without being shifted out of whack...and with each key being
mounted on its own pillar (as seen above) it'll be resistant to
damage from case shock.
That said, this was the last outing for this layout - from the 880
onwards a modern tilting table was a standard feature.
Sticking with simplicity, the side Bb and C keys are single-piece
designs. It might seem rather quaint, but it makes sense for keys
of this size. The only niggle is that they have to be fitted as
a pair, which means removing the top F# lever key to gain access.
This stops being fun after a couple of goes.
get a little more complicated on the octave key mechanism, where
there's a ball and socket joint to connect the mech to the touchpiece.
This is a bonkers-mad idea on many levels. For a start it's an inherently
sloppy mechanism; unless it's built to precision standards (which
saxes aren't) there's always going to be play where the ball sits
on the swivel arm pin, and likewise where the ball fits into the
octave key touchpiece. And that's from new. The moment you start
using the horn, this joint will start to wear.
You've already got a number of points of play within the mech (the
ends of the swivel bar, and its central pivot), and this will translate
to lost motion at the touchpiece. As these parts wear, the lost
motion will increase...and that's before you add in any wear in
the key barrels themselves.
Of course, there are steps you can take to prevent this wear - of
which the main one is keeping the mech well lubricated and the ball
joint well greased. But hey, how likely is that?
It would have been far cheaper to have gone for a simple fork and
pin connector here, and in the long term it'd have meant a slicker,
less noisy octave mech. If you were so inclined, or you somehow
managed to lose the ball joint, it wouldn't be too difficult to
convert this link to a fork and pin.
Other than that it's a good mech, and although the octave key touchpiece
is flat it's at least profiled to curve around the thumb rest.
Adjusters are a bit thin on the ground. You get
the usual trio (Bis Bb, G# and low C#) but there's only a single
stack adjuster - on the top B, which means that the regulation for
the A key is via a piece of cork on the arm that sits beneath the
Bis Bb touchpiece.
It's better than nothing, but I like to see regulation adjusters
right along both stacks. Makes my life easier, makes your bills
smaller and it allows the more experienced player/tweakers to dial
in adjustments as and when required.
The stack layout is quite modern, with the Bis
Bb and G keys mounted on their own pillars. Note the G key's nickel
It's often said that the manufacturers use nickel silver because
it's stiffer - which it is, though not by enough to make a difference
in such applications - but it would make far more sense to use a
stiffer barrel on the bell keys, which are both longer and subject
to more stress in use.
far more likely explanation is that it looks nice and provides a
little accent to the rest of the horn. It's also true to say that
it's a feature that Selmer were quite keen on...
You also get a dual Auxiliary B, with a lower
'donut' key and a plain key cup above it.
In normal use these two key cups act as one - but when you play
a top C#, only the lower key closes (via a link to the octave mech)...with
the hole in the 'donut' providing a little venting to the note.
This helps improve the tuning, tone and stability of this otherwise
And you get a full set of proper mother-of-pearl key touches. These
are almost, but not entirely, flat - with just a hint of concavity.
A very curious omission is that of a front top
By this stage in horn development the front top F key was pretty
much a standard fixture - and as the whole point of a soprano is
to play high notes you'd think that anything that aided fluency
in the top register would be a dead cert. Apparently not.
What's even stranger is that this horn is fitted with a top F#.
It seems like an odd oversight, but then again Yamaha did much the
same thing with their 61
soprano - so they're in good company.
of which, the palm keys are a bit of a throwback - and perhaps,
like the nickel silver G key barrel, point up some (shall we say)
'references' to the Selmer MkVI. I initially found this layout to
be very cumbersome under the fingers, though I got used to it after
a while. One nifty feature is that pressing down the Eb key also
open the D, which might save a bit of time in the right circumstances.
However, it makes the action really rather heavy when using this
This layout was never a great design, even on the Selmer, and it's
not much better on the Yanagisawa. They missed a trick here, and
would have done better to have taken a leaf out of Yamaha's book,
who were fitting 'proper' palm keys on their sopranos at around
the same time.
Note the pitting on the touchpieces. This is classic acid sweat
damage, and the only reason the D touchpiece (in the middle of the
group) isn't similarly affected is because the player's finger would
tend to rest on this key, thus constantly 'polishing' it.
The horn still had its original case - a simple
box affair with a couple of sturdy catches. It's not a great case
- it was built in the days when a case was seen simply as something
to put the horn in and carry it around. There's hardly any padding
in it and every time you lift the case up you can feel the horn
rattling around inside. Owners would be well-advised to invest in
some 'auxiliary padding' (AKA a couple of dusters). It's highly
likely that this case is specific to this stencilled model, and
that the case that comes with the 'proper' S800 is rather more modern.
If in any doubt, the stencil case presents a square profile when
viewed end-on, the Yanagisawa case is more rectangular.
In the hands the 800 feels nicely balanced and
the action feels swift and positive. To be honest it's pretty hard
to go very far wrong with a horn the size of a soprano, but you
nonetheless get a sense that action's got some finesse. The original
stainless springs were still doing their job, and although capable
of being set quite light I found this horn feels better with just
a bit more weight to the action.
The only two issues of note were the palm keys - which took some
getting used to - and the bell key layout. This wasn't down to a
problem with the keywork, rather it's that so many horns use a tilting
table these days it can sometimes take you a little by surprise
when you handle one that doesn't. And, of course, there's the missing
front top F key.
Other than that, everything worked very well and was where I expected
it to be.
the 800 comes across as a rather restrained horn. It's not unpleasant
- in fact it's got a nice, rounded tone...albeit with some resistance,
which makes it a slightly stiff blow. This isn't necessarily a bad
thing - lots of players prefer a horn they can get their teeth into
rather than one that tends to run a bit wild.
I tend to prefer the latter, so I found myself feeling like I needed
to coax the horn into action - but to be fair it responded quite
well. Bear in mind that this would be on the same mouthpiece I test
all the sopranos on (HR Link 5), so I daresay that a more extrovert
piece would liven things up a bit.
It's quite even-toned, and this, perhaps more
than any other feature, highlights Yanagisawa's steady progression
towards a more cohesive soundstage. They haven't quite nailed it
at this point (there was some slight pinching and fuzzing on the
top C), and some of the vibrancy has been lost in the mix - but
it's still a step up from the variability that often plagued sopranos
of this era.
In a strange kind of way it seems that they set
out to make a go-ahead, thrusting, modern horn and ended up with
something that would probably appeal more to vintage players than
So it's a bit of a blend of the old and the new - which, coincidentally,
is something Martin horns of old were very comfortable with. So
maybe that name on the bell isn't so wide of the mark after all.
If you're after a quality soprano on a budget
and you prefer a more rounded, softer approach, the 800 'Martigisawa'
should do you quite nicely - but keep an eye on the price as it's
possible to find 880 and later models for not much more.