Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Reviews from the repairer's workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
 

Dave Guardala Earth Tone Series tenor saxophone

Dave Guardala Earth Tone tenor saxophoneOrigin: Germany (B&S)
Guide price: £3295 (when new)
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: Unknown (no longer in production)
Date reviewed: September 2008

A top-end 'name brand' horn from the now defunct B&S stable

The use of a 'name' to sell a product is marketing technique that's been in use ever since manufacturers realised that associating their products with a familiar face helps to shift boxes, and it wasn't much longer before they caught onto the idea of using a 'celebrity' in the design process itself - assuming they could find a familiar face with some degree of expertise in the relevant field. In the saxophone world this led to specific models that either bore the name of the celebrity (such as Holton's Rudy Wiedoeft model) or became forever associated with them such as the Conn 'Chu Berry').
In more recent times we've seen such collaborations as that of Borgani with Peter Ponzol, etc.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't (the Selmer MKVII and its association with Johnny Griffin being perhaps one of the better-known examples of an 'unhappy marriage') - but when a highly respected manufacturer gets it on with an equally highly respected designer you'd think that there's a better than even chance that the results will be impressive. Thus we have the Guardala saxophone.

It's a collaboration between B&S and Dave Guardala. On the one hand we have a manufacturer once known for turning out some very interesting professional quality horns, and on the other we have a designer noted in particular for his range of high-end mouthpieces.
It sounds like a match made in heaven that could only lead to riches all round - but B&S went out of business in the early 2000's, and Dave Guardala is currently awaiting trial in the States on various counts of alleged fraud. Dave Guardala's involvement with B&S lasted a few years, after which time the range continued under the Chicago Jazz Series name - some people say it's the same horn, others disagree.
But that's now, and this horn was built in better times perhaps.

The body is well put-together, with the pillars and fittings all neatly attached. The main stacks are fitted on straps and the bell key guards feature generously sized mounts.
There's a detachable bell, a decent bell brace, adjustable thumbhook and a detachable side F# key guard. There's also a detachable arched bell key pillar and a large, sturdy strap ring. In other words it looks like the body has been designed for the rough and tumble of professional use - so it's a little odd to see that some of the individual pillars at the top of the horn have rather small bases - which strikes me as bit of an oversight considering these tall pillars are quite vulnerable to knocks.

Guardala G sharp mechanismThe keywork is nicely built and well fitted, with the pivot screws being proper points (hooray!). Perhaps the most striking feature is the 'anti-stick' G# mechanism, which is now seen on Keilwerth horns. Another nice feature is a nylon 'bridge' between the low C# and B key spatulas which helps your finger to slide over that often cavernous gap between the two touchpieces.
It's also nice to see plain and simple fork and pin connections on the side Bb and C trill keys - they're fast and efficient and a great deal more sensible that some of the overly-complicated links seen on many other horns.
Just a couple of niggles though - although there are adjusters on the feet of the right hand stack keys (to adjust the height of the action) there are no adjusters for the link bar to the Auxiliary F, so any regulation has to be done by sanding the appropriate corks...and there are no adjusters at all on the left hand key stack.
There's a stout guard for the side F/F# key barrels, but in some ways it's only half-finished...there's no anti-whip buffer to prevent the F key barrel from bending, unless you consider a bit of felt shoved in the guard to be an adequate solution (which you won't when it eventually falls out and the F key barrel starts rattling against the guard). A couple of quid's worth of nylon wouldn't have gone amiss here...

I should also note that I found the keywork to be a tad on the soft side. Not excessively so, it must be said, but definitely not the hardest keywork I've seen on a pro-horn by quite some margin.

Guardala Earth Tone bellThe finish demands particular comment. The horn has been bead blasted to achieve a fine matt finish to the brass and then coated with lacquer, save for the bell and some of the long key barrels which are finished in clear lacquer. The body is extensively and beautifully engraved (if you like a traditional flowery motif) through the lacquer. Although it's not quite my cup of tea I have to admit that it looks quite good - but I'm not at all sure that it will stay that way for very long. Three reasons for that supposition; firstly, because the engraving has been cut through the lacquer to expose bare brass, sooner or later the brass will tarnish and this can often bleed under the surrounding lacquer. There are already some areas where this has started to happen. The second reason is that there are a few dark spots around some of the soldered fittings, which is indicative of soldering flux residues leaching out from small holes in the joints - and thirdly, this all happened once before...this horn had to be sent back for a refinish.
None of this will come as news to Earthtone owners - these horn are notorious for the (ahem) 'variance' in their finish.
Some people say that this was deliberate - these horns were meant to get shabby...but then if that was the case why not simply leave them unlacquered in the first place? I suspect it's more a case of someone's bright idea turning out to be less than bright, and too much inertia/embarrassment involved in doing anything about it.

Guardala Earth Tone octave keyUnder the fingers the keys all feel as though they're where they ought to be. In ergonomic terms I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary, and on the exceptional side the octave key touchpiece is about as comfortable as they get - as is the front top F touchpiece as well as being exactly where everyone wants it. I'd have liked to have seen the Bis Bb touchpiece a little closer to the B key - it just seems a bit odd to go to all the trouble to get the position of the front top F touchpiece dead right, then throw it all away by being less than careful with the Bis key. It's not a real problem, it just could be a bit better - and it really ought to be at this level.
Where the feel falls down though is in the setup, its blued steel springs are far too heavily set for a horn of this calibre - and the factory-set action is a touch too high too. I'd quibble about such issues on a £1000 horn - I'm certainly not going to let it pass on one costing over three times that amount.

Playing the horn was something of an experience.
I don't mind admitting that I was expecting great things, and I approached the play testing on the basis that a horn of this price should start where all the £2000 pro horns left off. That didn't mean that I would particularly like the tone or the response, but it should definitely have that undeniable 'certain something' that every really good horn has.
It didn't. In fact, it had very little to offer at all.
This caused me a fair degree of consternation - I'm used to all the usual caveats such as bad reeds, unfamiliar horns, changes in embouchure etc...even plain old-fashioned 'bad blowing days', but the Guardala never really opened up no matter what I did.

Tonewise it's undoubtedly warm - and that's no bad thing, but it had no edge, no crackle or sparkle. You can get away with that on an alto (such as the B&S 2001) because it has a natural sparkle by dint of the higher pitch, but the tenor doesn't have that luxury - so it has to be 'built in'. It also seemed remarkably 'un-complex' with not so much a thin, clear core tone but more a sort of vague unfocussed wide band in which I found it hard to pin down anything to use as a basis for a tone. Where was the vibrancy, where was the élan, the joie de vivre?
I didn't find it all that even either, noticing quite a difference in the tone around the mid E and D. This settled down after a prolonged blow, but the D remained distinctly dull - even for a restrained horn.
The tuning was fine though, no problems there.

I decided to get a second opinion. It's rare that I feel the need for such a thing, I can usually spot the core tone and response of a horn and know that even if someone else highlights other aspects of the horn's character, those core qualities will still be there underneath it all.
In fact I ended up with at least four other opinions, and although they varied slightly in terms of the perceived brightness/warmth/depth of tone they all reached the same conclusion - it's an unremarkable blow. It really becomes apparent when you blow it alongside other pro-quality horns, and even if you don't much care for the tone of the other horns there's no doubting that the Guardala lacks power, punch and vibrancy by comparison.
At the risk of upsetting people who've bought these horns (and who presumably love them) I have to say I've played better horns costing a third of the price - and I don't mean 'better, taking into account and making allowances for the price difference' - I mean 'Better. Period. Full stop. End of'.
I suppose it's possible that this particular example is just a bad horn - most manufacturers turn one or two out from time to time - but then it's hardly a mass-produced item. It's a specialist horn, a custom horn - each and every example ought to be of a certain standard just to make it out of the factory gates. There are no excuses at this price point, none whatsoever.

I expect I'm going to get a lot of flak for this review, but I gave the horn the best chance I could to shine. It was playtested by a number of players against a number of horns (including a Conn 10M, a Mauriat 66R, a Yamaha 61, a Bauhaus 900 and an old SML - and even my own humble Yamaha 23) and they all outperformed the Guardala by a wide margin.
Even the guy that owns the horn has another tenor that he seems to prefer playing - and I can't honestly say that I blame him.

The bottom line is this: A horn of this quality ought to have a feel, tone and response that wraps itself around you like hand-fitted suit of purest silk - but as it stands it's less of "Joseph's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and more like "The Emperor's New Clothes", and if you take into account the problems with the finish even they appear to be somewhat tatty.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015