Cannonball 'Vintage Reborn' TVR-SD/BR tenor - Vintage AV/PC-L alto -
Stone Series GA5-B alto
Guide price: TVR Tenor £2190 - AV/PC alto £2055 - GA5 alto
Weight: TVR tenor 3.42kg - AV/PC alto 2.52kg - GA5 alto 2.72kg
Date of manufacture: 2011
Date reviewed: July 2011
Three distinctive saxes from a company whose horns
you might not have considered before
I don't often get asked by manufacturers to review their products - and
this is probably for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it takes a brave manufacturer
to hand me a horn and tell me to take it apart, and secondly I tend to
avoid review samples on the basis that I like to be impartial...which
is good for you, the reader, because it means I don't have to worry about
In this instance though I have accepted three Cannonballs via their
UK distributor, dawkes.co.uk,
for review. I did so for a number of reasons; I don't see many Cannonballs
come through the workshop - this is either because they're not as
common as other brands or because they're generally quite reliable
(we'll find out shortly); I also felt that it was high time I had
a good, close look at these horns...some good things have been written
about them and I like to know what's what out there.
So it was rather fortuitous that Cannonball got in touch with me recently
to say "Hey, c'mon - what about our horns!?"
Fair enough, if they've got the balls (nice pun there) to let me crawl
all over their horns, I've got the screwdriver and the pair of pliers.
So I accepted the samples - but strictly on the basis that if I found
anything I didn't think was up to scratch, it gets published.
Let's have a look, then, at what we have.
There are three models on review; a Vintage Reborn tenor, a Pete Christlieb
alto and a Gerald Albright alto. I've decided to put them all in the same
review as they share many identical build features.
The horns are of Taiwanese origin, and what sets them apart from the ever-increasing
range of Taiwanese horns under multiple brand names is that they're extensively
customised and tweaked. Cannonball make some quite grandiose claims about
the effects of such customisation - to the point where there has been
much heated debate about it on the various saxophone forums on the web.
They're certainly not the first company to claim an 'edge' by such means,
and they probably won't be the last - but for me the proof of the pudding
is in the eating...and the workbench is an uncompromising leveller.
It has to be said from the off that the setup on these horns is very
good indeed. The action height is bang on the middle ground, the springs
are very well balanced and everything is neat and tidy. I'm always going
on about having to spend another forty or fifty quid to have a setup done
on a brand new horn that's just cost you a couple of grand, but with the
Cannonballs it comes as part of the package. I spoke to Windcraft about
this and was told that each horn is checked when it arrives for any settling-in
due to shipping, but other than that they're exactly as they left the
My standard advice on buying any new horn is to whip it straight round
to a repairer to have it properly set up - it can make a world of difference
- but if Cannonballs are coming out of the factory like this then they
deserve to be wholeheartedly praised. The action height was bang on, the
springs were well-balanced and the pads were well-seated. It's a sad fact
that I have to say that such a setup is rare on a horn fresh from the
That's a good start, and it shows that someone can be bothered.
It many ways it sets the theme of this review, which is attention to detail
- and as we go through the horns you'll see little touches that just seem
to say "We thought about this".
The build quality on all three horns is rather good. The bodies themselves
are neat and tidy and there's little else that need be said about them
(other than the tenor has an annealed body and neck and the altos a 'triple-annealed'
bell - what difference that makes depends on whether you believe it makes
one or not), but it's the quality of the fittings that catches the
eye. The main stack pillars are fitted to ribs, but where they're free-standing
they have substantial bases. This bodes well for strength and reliability
- more surface area means a stronger bond and less chance of a pillar
being knocked off if you're a bit clumsy with the horn.
If there's a drawback to this beefiness it's that it adds to the weight
of the horn, but only by a little.
There're all the usual convenience and comfort options; they all have
detachable bells, adjustable thumb hooks, removable side F# key guards,
a generously-sized and comfortable thumb rest and a sling ring that's
big enough to accommodate a chunky locking hook - and everything's well
fitted and tidy, with no gaps where solder hasn't run or any excess oozing
out from the bases.
The tone holes, of the standard drawn type, are nice and level and reasonably
well-finished on the rims - though it has to be said that I spotted one
or two where running a fingernail up the wall would show up a very slight
burr on the rim. I wouldn't say it was excessive, but it's still there
All the horns feature a triple-point bell stay, but the tenor goes one
better with an additional arm to take account of the extra weight on the
brace and the leverage provided by the longer bell.
I've heard it said that modern horns only require these extra braces because
they're not as well-built as vintage horns. Such a statement could only
have been made by someone with little of no experience of fixing horns
- a moderate knock to the bell of any horn of any vintage can be enough
to displace the bell a tad, which leads to leaking bell key pads. It might
not be by much, but it's often enough to take the sparkle out of the bell
notes - and because many players only really notice it after a repairer
finds the fault and fixes it, it's rather more common a problem than might
An extra brace, which adds but a few grammes of weight, effectively protects
the bell from these casual knocks and ensures the bell keys remain true.
It's perhaps worth pointing out that a lot of these knocks occur while
a horn is in its case, and that this kind of 'shock' damage can happen
with even quite expensive cases under certain circumstances.
is why I was pleased to see an auxiliary brace for the semicircular compound
bell key pillar.
This type of pillar seems to have become the norm these days and provides
a less complicated and cluttered means of supporting the bell keys than
that found on horns from yesteryear.
The extra brace will prevent the pillar being knocked back in the event
of your dropping the horn while in its case. This happens because the
shock from the drop travels along the key barrels, and as there are four
of them fixed to this pillar it means there's quite a lot of force that
gets focussed in one place...and so the pillar bends.
The brace is removable, which will prove useful when a repairer requires
access to the A key cup. I suppose if you wanted to lighten the horn by
a few grammes you could take it off yourself, but I really wouldn't recommend
The finish on the bodies is nothing short of immaculate. Even the Vintage
tenor looks good, with it's faux-aged sheen. This is a finish that so
easily tips over into gaudy if you're not careful, but this example looked
to be suitably understated - though I can't quite get away from the fact
that is, in fact, a brown sax. Sure, if you get close enough you'll see
swirls of yellow and greeny reds - but if you stand back and look at it
as perhaps an audience would do, it's undeniably and quite definitely
The Pete Christlieb alto is finished in a, frankly, stunning deep gold
lacquer. This is about as tasteful as finishes get, and even when the
finish wears (as they inevitably do) it will simply make the horn look
The Gerald Albright, in contrast, in an exercise in black. The black lacquered
finish is complemented by black leather pads - and even the case is black.
Readers familiar with The
Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy might suppose that this would be
an ideal horn for Hotblack Desiato...
it's the detailing that really sets off the look of these horns.
For example, take a look at the crook socket screws. Isn't that neat?
Sure, it's no big deal - a pair of standard screws with a triangle punched
out of the head - but how often do you see little touches like this? There's
an additional Cannonball logo on the front of the socket itself - yet
another small but neat and discreet touch.
And check out the matched metal end cap. This is a very nice feature
indeed. How many of us have bought horns costing several thousand
pounds and have had to make do with cheap plastic end cap? It's
costs but a few quid more to make one in metal, and it all adds
to the sense that someone cares.
look at the bell key guards. Again, someone has sat down at a drawing
board and given them some thought. Not only are they functional, they
look good too - quite distinctive, I thought. Better still, the guards
are fitted to feet that have substantial bases. This is a common weak
point, and I'm often having to re-solder guard feet that have come away
from the body after a knock - but I can't see these feet going anywhere
in a hurry.
I suppose if you were picky you might argue that the guards won't be as
tough as they could be, and under certain circumstances you may well be
right - but I feel it's a very small price to pay for a touch of distinctiveness.
The attention to detail continues with the keywork, which isn't always
the case. I've seen many a good-looking horn that's been let down by iffy
keywork, but Cannonball have fitted their horns with keys that are both
strong and elegantly fashioned.
From a distance the keys look much the same as those found on any other
horn, but get a little closer and you'll see several subtle features that
are aimed squarely at the player.
example, the scalloping on the octave key touchpiece makes the key feel
incredibly comfortable. Granted, it's not often I find myself with a sore
thumb at the end of a gig (except when I've been using a vintage horn
- some of those early thumb keys can be vicious), but little details like
this help to make the keywork 'transparent'...as in it disappears under
your fingers. That's a feature worth having on any horn.
The domed Bis Bb key pearl is just as welcome - this a feature that ought
to be fitted as standard to every horn as it makes such a difference to
the feel and response of the mechanism.
I was also impressed by the fit of the rollers on the spatula keys.
This isn't something I usually comment about, simply because it
seems to be a given that the standard is that they rotate freely
and tend to have a bit of end-to-end play in them. Not so on the
Cannonballs. Not only do they go round smoothly, they don't have
any appreciable end-to-end play. It's a very small point, but it
means that they're less likely to become rattly in the near future...and
again it shows that some care has been taken in construction.
But best of all, the keywork was strong.
There seems little point in going to all the trouble of making a horn
look and feel great and then making the keys out of butter - but this
can be a surprisingly common problem with horns from this part of the
world. I carried out my usual thoroughly scientific tests - I gave the
keys what we in the trade call 'some welly'. Yep, they will bend, but
only if you really want them to.
the extravagance of the horns I half expected to see quite a few unnecessary
features. Such features are disappointingly common on modern horns - little
bits and bobs that don't really do anything other than add to the complexity
of the mechanism. There weren't any on the Cannonball - even the side
trill keys, a common target for over-complication, were just simple pin
and fork affairs.
No fancy connectors, no swivelling trinkets or superfluous adjusting screws
- just a plain connection that will do the job nicely, quietly and reliably.
What more could you possibly need?
One particularly nice feature is the addition of a 'helper spring' on
the G# lever arm.
Sticky G# pads are the bane of a saxophonist's life and over the years
many tricks have been tried to help alleviate this problem. The helper
spring method is simple, effective and elegant and is a mod that's been
popular since way back - so it's always nice to see it implemented at
the point of manufacture.
Topping off the action is a full set of blued steel springs, and the
keys are fitted with good-quality leather pads.
Under the fingers the Cannonballs feel like most contemporary horns.
The ergonomics are good, there aren't any keys that require any stretching
to reach them and everything is pretty much where you'd expect it to be.
For sure, you can't please everyone - there will always be players who
dislike the placement of, say, the palm key or side trill touches - but
nothing on these horns struck me as being out of place, aside from a couple
of small issues that cropped up during play-testing.
I had some reservations about the key pearls though - purely from an aesthetic
point of view. They not mother-of-pearl (or even plastic), they're stones.
Now, one of the problems with plastic key pearls is that when you fingers
get a bit wet they can be a bit slippery. MOP does rather better as it
tends to retain a bit of grip even when you've worked up a bit of a sweat
- so how would non-porous stones work out.
Surprisingly well, as it happens.
suspect this is more to do with the contouring of the 'pearls' rather
than the material itself, but it works nonetheless. In fact I have to
say I found them very comfortable indeed - though I can't say I was all
that taken by the look of them. I should also say that they were very
well fitted - even the oval pearls.
I baulked a bit at the extra pearls fitted to the palm and side trill
keys on the Gerald Albright alto. To be fair I didn't really notice them
that much during playing, but every time I stopped and looked at the horn
I felt myself shudder a little bit. Personal preference, and all that,
Finishing off the cosmetics is some excellent engraving. I'm usually
not that fussed about such things, I quite like the clean lines of an
unengraved bell, but even I have to admit that I was impressed. Yes, it's
perhaps a bit flowery, but it somehow seems to fit in with the slightly
gothic look these horns have.
Before we get on to the play-testing part, a quick note about the accessory
bundle that comes with these horns. The cases are of the traditional type
- and reassuringly heavy. The standard finish is a mock brown leather,
but as mentioned earlier the Gerald Albright alto case is finished in
black - mock-croc, no less.
And not only do you get a polishing cloth, a sling (quite a nice one),
a crook bag and some cork grease - you also get a mouthpiece with a cap
and a ligature that matches the finish of the horn. Now that's a very
nice touch. Even if you never use the mouthpiece, it's still a very nice
So as we come to the end of the 'techy' bit - do I have any bad things
to say about these horns?
Well, I do - but I don't mind admitting that I'm really scraping the barrel.
Having been impressed by the build quality of the body and the keys, I
took a screwdriver to the action to see what sort of point screws they
"Aha!" I thought, "Pseudo point screws. Gotcha!".
Pseudo point screws are flawed in design because they eventually end up
acting like parallel points - and there's no neat and effective way to
take up the free play when the keys wear...but there is one way in which
they can work quite well, and that's when the key barrel has been properly
drilled so that the point of the screw is in contact with the barrel (see
here for more details about such screws).
This is precisely how the keys were drilled on all these horns and it
means that when the keys wear, the pillars can be reamed to allow the
screws to drive deeper into the pillar and thus take up any play.
Now that really surprised me - and completely scuppered my chance of pointing
to these horns and saying "Yeah, nice-looking horns, but shame about
the action eh?"
what was I left with?
Not much, as it happens - in fact I found just two issues that could do
The first is the positioning of the stack adjusters. In some instances
these weren't positioned dead-centre above the key feet. What this means
is that an off-centre adjuster is a lot more likely to rip up the shim
cork, so it doesn't bode well for reliability.
It's not a huge problem - I would simply back the adjuster out until it
was flush with the key bar and just use a sanded shim, as used on any
horn without adjusters. But, if you're going to fit adjusters you might
as well get them in the right place - and when you're charging a premium
price for a horn it's little details like this that really ought to be
My other criticism is that the catches on the cases were a bit poor.
On the one hand I'm delighted to see proper catches fitted (as opposed
to crappy zips), but they didn't close with quite the 'snap' that says
'Your case is shut and secured'. I found that a casual knock could half-unlatch
the catch - not so much that it would open, but enough to leave the catch
tab sticking up...thus making it rather more likely that another knock
would open it completely.
I warned Cannonball that I would be brutal in my assessment of their
horns - that no discrepancy would go unreported, that their reputation
was firmly on the line...and the best that I could come up with was iffy
case catches and a couple of off-centre adjusters...and perhaps a couple
of burrs on the odd tone hole or two.
I think that's pretty remarkable - but does it hold up when it comes to
playing the horns?
The Vintage Reborn (VR) tenor's name gives the game away - tonewise it's
sultry, warm and smoky. I'm inclined to feel that this is perhaps a bit
of poetic license given that I've played a fair few vintage horns that
have been as bright as any contemporary horn, but I can understand where
they're coming from.
If there was an area in which this horn excelled it was in its tonal stability.
I quite like a horn that's a little on the edge - not too much though,
just enough to allow you to control the way the notes break up if you
push the horn really hard. Not really an option on the VR, no matter how
hard you push it it remains as solid as a rock.
You can take that two ways, some players will jump at such a feature,
others will think it somewhat restrictive - but it's in no way a bad feature.
I was very impressed by the evenness of the tone - from top to bottom,
and at all volumes, each note blended seamlessly into the next, even into
the altissimo register. That's not to say that it doesn't have clarity
though - there's none of the stodginess that's often associated with a
warm tone, and if you bung a bright mouthpiece on this horn you might
be surprised at how funky this horn can sound.
I put the VR up against my trusty Yamaha 23, and just as quickly put the
23 away again. They're so completely different as to make a comparison
useless - and this seems to be a common theme with this horn...it's a
modern horn that isn't. A better comparison might have been an old Buescher,
or maybe an early Martin - it's got that same creamy roundness.
key layout felt very comfortable under the fingers, though I would have
liked a slightly larger G# touchpiece as I kept missing it until I'd got
the measure of it (as I did on the altos). I really liked the feel of
the domed BisBb touchpiece, and while it wasn't as rounded as, say, those
found on Borgani horns it still felt a great deal better than the standard
dished pearls that are usually fitted.
As noted earlier, the setup was particularly good, and this showed up
in the way the horn felt. Not only did it feel balanced tonally but also
mechanically. You could undoubtedly improve upon the setup if you wanted
it tailored to your specific needs, but I reckon most players would be
happy with the action as it is - straight out of the box.
That's worth a few quid in my books, given that a tweaking session on
a new horn can easily set you back £40.
I'd go so far as to say this horn felt familiar. There aren't many tenors
on the market these days that lean towards the warm...in fact I can think
of just one other from the same region, and that's the Bauhaus M2 Studio.
In a side-by-side play-off I found it remarkably difficult to distinguish
between the two horns, as did a couple of listeners.
With a bit more playing and a lot more listening I'd say that the VR had
a tad more edge than the Bauhaus, but to put that into perspective I'd
say it was about as much as the difference I'd expect to find on any two
seemingly identical horns.
it came to play-testing the altos I lined up a spot of competition for
them in the shape of a Yamaha 62 and a Yanagisawa 992 - the 62 comes in
at slightly less that either of the Cannonballs, the 992 slightly more...so
in theory I would expect them to slot nicely inbetween.
First up was the Pete Christlieb (PC) alto.
Tonewise this horn seems cleaner and clearer than the Yamaha, although
with a similar tonal spread. It's a touch warmer, and maybe even a little
more introverted (not difficult, as the Yamaha can be quite 'in-your-face).
Definitely not as raunchy, I found, but the payoff was a noticeable sense
of stability - just like that found on the tenor. Like the Yamaha it gives
you a sense of 'automatically' placing the notes, only more so...on some
horns it can feel like you have to work to get each note in tune and in
Compared to the Yanagisawa the tone was, again, very much similar but
with a touch more brilliance.
This was quite a neat trick to pull off - to be able to capture the essence
of both horns and yet come up with something different and distinctive
- and it seemed to me that the PC alto took the punch and clarity of the
Yamaha and coupled it with the depth and darkness of the Yanagisawa, the
result being a very nice mix that simply oozes versatility.
Better still, it bridged the gap nicely between the free-blowing Yamaha
and the slightly more resistant Yanagisawa, providing a sense of having
something to get your teeth into without feeling like it would become
a chore on an extended blow.
I can see how a horn like this might divide opinion - players who prefer
a bright horn will want a bit more and players who favour warm horns might
feel there's too much edge. You certainly can't please everybody, but
this alto has a jolly good go at it - and with the right choice of mouthpiece
you should be able to tip the balance either way according to your preference.
My overall impression is that this is quite a playful horn, it's eager,
precise, sure-footed but lively - very boppy.
No real issues with the key layout, save for finding the G# touchpiece
a little on the short side. I could hit it, no problem, but my fingertip
was right on the end of the touchpiece - both the Yamaha and the Yanagisawa
give you a bit more to play with.
I also stumbled a bit on the placement of the side F# touchpiece - it
was just a bit too far back for my liking...but I could get used to it.
Other than that I was very impressed with how comfortable it felt in my
to the Gerald Albright (GA) alto now, and the first thing I noticed when
I blew this horn was how much more '3D' it sounded compared to the PC
Now you might think that's a good thing, what with just about everything
being 3D these days, but what you gain in the tone spread you lose in
the focus. Tonewise this is more extroverted horn - where the PC was boppy,
the GA feels funky.
It's a harder tone, more glassy - play the PC and GA side-by-side and
it seems like the GA has a touch of glitter about it.
It felt like a more responsive horn to me - and although that's often
a trademark of bright horns, in this case it ran a bit deeper.
It seemed quicker to form the notes, and to jump from quiet to loud and
back again. I guess a reasonable analogy would be that the PC responds
like a car that's set up for a degree of comfort and the GA is tweaked
more towards sport.
Both setups have their pros and cons, and just as with the cars the GA
gives you the response at a cost of some of the smoothness.
This was more noticeable at the top end. It had more power and cut, to
be sure, I could really belt out the notes without any sense of them breaking
up, but as I did so they took on a sort of brittleness. It wasn't unpleasant,
in fact it's probably exactly what many players want in this range, it's
just that the PC did it with a touch more decorum.
Things were more even down the lower end, and the GA felt more robust
here with that 3D effect coming to the fore.
It's less noticeable to the listener, so I was told, but the player will
certainly hear it.
GA came with another crook - a silver-plated underslung model known as
a 'Fat Neck (tm)'.
I didn't like it initially, it felt like it closed the horn down and pinched
the tone in somewhat, but after a while it began to open out and I started
to notice just how much it darkened up the lower end of the horn. However,
I felt it had a touch of boxiness about it...a little too busy in the
midrange for me.
It's not as 'pushy' a crook as the standard affair, it feels more resistant
- but if you go with the flow and back off, it seems to respond better.
I felt it brought a sort of 'soft bounce' to the horn, which makes it
excellent for ballad work - but for me the bottom line is that the PC
alto does this much better as is, and without that touch of boxiness.
At any rate you certainly can't complain about having it as an option,
and there's every chance that it might work better than the standard crook
with your chosen mouthpiece.
Nice octave key design too - the split key probably makes little or no
difference to the feel (I compared it to the 992's single-piece underslung
key) but it's yet another example of someone having put a bit of thought
into the horn.
In terms of personal preference I found myself facing something of a
quandary. I liked the playfulness of the PC but felt the GA better suited
my style of playing...and then began to wonder whether the GA simply fits
into my expectations while the PC perhaps provides a bit of inspiration.
Tricky one, that.
What it clearly tells me though is that the myth that Taiwanese horns
are all pretty much the same is well and truly busted - there are differences
here that are both subtle and obvious at the same time, which is quite
a neat trick to pull off.
I'm usually pretty good at choosing between two contenders...I figure
out what each one has and hasn't got, decide what it is that I can afford
to let go of and what it is that I really want to have, and then cover
it with a generous dollop of instinct before point to the chosen one and
handing over the cash. This mean I can walk away knowing I've made the
right choice and not be plagued by "What ifs" for ever after.
In this instance though I found it a great deal harder to come to such
a decision, and even resorted to simply looking at the horns.
just look at that engraving on the GA alto - when it catches the light
just right it lights up against the black nickel plate. In this shot the
horn is sitting atop its case, and I can honestly say that I was just
as happy to sit and look at it as I was to play it.
I think what's very clear is that this selection of horns from Cannonball
show just how much clout the company has. I freely admit to having regarded
them as something of an also-ran in the past - a company that knocks out
reasonable horns that turn up from time-to-time, but nothing really to
I now freely admit that was a mistake, because these three horns put them
firmly in centre-stage - not just as 'lookalikes' to the major names but
as individual horns in their own right.
The Vintage Reborn tenor almost stands unique in the current marketplace
(were it not for the Bauhaus M2 Studio) - and while you could argue that
you'd save a few hundred quid with the Bauhaus it's also fair to say that
the VR is aesthetically more impressive. Not only do you get all those
nice design features and that artistic engraving, you also buy into the
Cannonball brand - and that's worth something if ever you decided to sell
the horn on. I certainly wouldn't feel hard done by.
As for the altos, they too stand proudly under the spotlight. Both horns
have a certain sound to them - the Cannonball sound, if you will - but
the differences between the horns bring out subtle variations in that
sound. I have a feeling that what takes me back to my Yamaha 62 is familiarity
rather than a tonal preference, because 'on paper' the Cannonballs seem
to have more to offer. Up against the Yanagisawa they both square up to
the competition with ease, and if you can get past that "Yes, but
it's a Yanagisawa!" state of mind you might well find yourself walking
out of the shop with one of these altos.
With four altos on the floor and time to kill, it was the PC model that
I kept coming back to - and that's got to be a fine recommendation.
I mentioned at the start of this review that Cannonball make various
claims regarding the tweaks they make to their horns. The accompanying
product brochure goes into these tweaks in more detail, and looks impressive.
I probably have something of a reputation as a sceptic when it comes to
such things - I've seen far too many claims made that simply don't match
up to the science, and even more that don't match up to the playing.
So I shall say this much. Have a look at the brochure and admire the quality
of the presentation. Take note of the real 'meat and potatoes' stuff,
like the enhanced features you'll find on the action. And when it comes
to the stuff about stones, tones and tweaking - put the catalogue down,
pick up the horn and just play it. You won't be sorry, you really won't.