TJ Signature Custom (SC) RAW tenor
Taiwan, assembled in UK (www.tjsaxes.com)
Guide price: £2499
Date of manufacture: August 2011
Date reviewed: August 2011
The latest, and perhaps the greatest, pro
model saxophone from the house of Trevor James
If you were in the market for a pro-level tenor a few years back
and had drawn up a shortlist of brands to try, the name 'Trevor
James' probably wouldn't have been on it.
To be sure, the TJ brand has been a solid performer down the years
- they've made a very respectable name for themselves with their
student range and many's the player who has started out on one of
their instruments, such as 'The Horn' and the TJ Revolution. But
it's been rather more of a struggle for TJ to break into the pro
Their Signature Custom range was introduced a few years ago in order
to raise the bar, but despite being a decent enough horn it never
seemed to really make it into the limelight. Probably because being
merely 'decent enough' isn't quite enough - there's some hot competition
around, and while such a sax might have cut the mustard a few decades
ago, it takes rather more to stand out from the crowd these days.
The boffins at TJ were aware of this, and for the last couple of
years have been working on a new model - the Signature Custom Raw.
What makes this horn rather different from its predecessors (and
a great many other horns on the market) is the way in which it's
been developed. Rather than come up with a design and put it into
production, the SC Raw has been through a number of prototype stages
- with each version being thrown out into the marketplace for review,
criticism and feedback. I should know - they threw one at me.
To be honest it's not all that unusual for manufacturers to do this
- review samples are often sent out for appraisal, but in most cases
all the manufacturer really wants to know is whether it works or
not. In other words it's a thinly-veiled rubber-stamping operation.
Trevor James' approach differed in that they acted upon the comments
fed back to them - from techs, players and dealers - in an effort
to improve the product.
And they have.
The first model I saw impressed me very much, but I found a number
of flaws. I passed on my comments, half expecting a polite 'thank
you' and never hearing from the company again. How wrong I was.
I did hear from them again, and what I heard sent a tingle down
And so what we have here is the finished product - and the question
now is 'Is it good enough to stand out from the crowd?'
The body is nicely built, with level and smooth tone holes, and
features a detachable bell section. The model featured here is the
big-bell variant (159mm - 6 1/4") and there's a standard bell
model available for £50 less.
The pillars and fittings are neatly made too and well-fitted with
no signs of sloppy solderwork, and include all the modern features
such as a removable side F# key guard, adjustable thumb hook and
a triple-point bell stay.
The pillars are fitted to ribs - also known a 'ribbed construction'
- and those that are standalone feature generously-sized bases,
which will help prevent them being dislodged in the event of a knock.
I would have liked to have seen slightly larger guard mount feet
though, as these are quite vulnerable and often prone to being knocked
would also have liked to have seen a slightly beefier sling ring.
It's strong enough as it is, but a little extra meat here never
goes amiss and adds to a feeling of solidity.
No complaints with the thumb rest though - it's big and wide, and
the logo carved into it helps to give a bit of grip when the going
gets hot and sweaty.
The body finish is, well, it's not really a finish at all, which
seems to be all the rage these days. As the horn's name suggests,
it's bare-brass finish - it's simply dipped in a cleaner to remove
the manufacturing grime and then given a coat of wax polish. At
the time I reviewed this horn I had three similarly-finished tenors
to hand, all from different companies. Some manufacturers appear
to be better at it than others - the SC Raw looks quite good, I
think - but if you take a few steps back they all look like brown
saxes. I guess it's a finish you either like or you don't, but TJ
have sweetened the pill a little with some rather nice engraving
on the bell, as well as the model name engraved into the crook.
Because there's no lacquer on the horn the finish will change over
time with use - but because of the oxidisation from the dip and
the wax polish it's unlikely to go green, as many plain bare-brass
But if you feel that even this pre-tarnished finished is too much,
there's always the XS version (I've reviewed the alto here)
- which is exactly the same horn but one that's been hand finished
to bring the horn back to completely bare brass.
keywork is nicely made, and features an interesting approach to
the popular double-arms on the key cups.
You can see from the main image that they're present on the low
C and C# key cups, but not on the low B and Bb. Given that the larger
the key cup the more likely it is to suffer from twisting, it would
have made more sense had the arrangement been the other way round
- but then since twisting key cups are seldom that much of a problem
it's probably a moot point.
So is there an argument for using them on the lower stack keys?
Possibly. I'm certainly used to having to adjust the low F and D
keys on saxes, where years of use on the side-mounted key pearls
has resulted in a little bias to the key cups - so I can see the
benefit of beefing up these key arms.
It adds very little weight to the horn (or the action), but I've
a slight concern that the additional arm on the low F key will hinder
any swedging the key might require in the future.
The rest of the keywork is pretty much standard fare, and I'm pleased
to see that TJ have been sensible and stuck to a simple fork and
pin linkage on the side Bb/C keys and a well-placed teardrop touchpiece
for the front top F key. A nice touch is the slightly domed pearl
on the Bis Bb key, which makes for a comfortable and swift transition
between the B and the Bb.
bell key spatulas feature a tilting table, and the keys are mounted
on a semicircular pillar - again, a popular modern design.
There's no extra brace for the pillar though, as seen on quite a
few other horns that use this type of arched design - and as TJ
have gone to all the trouble to add extra arms to the lower stack
keys I feel it would have made sense to continue the 'beefy' theme
by adding a brace here.
One feature that's worthy of comment, if only because you probably
won't notice it, is the quality of the regulation buffers fitted
to the main stack keys. Most manufactures fit a piece of cork and
leave it at that - but it makes sense to use a material that doesn't
compress as much as cork and yet remains quiet and smooth in action.
TJ have done exactly that. It's a small point, granted, but it makes
quite a difference - and I was pleased too to see that regulation
adjusters are fitted to both stacks.
the time of writing this review the RAW was fitted with pseudo
point screws. I had my usual moan about them, but noted that
TJ intended to switch to proper point screws once a few design tweaks
were in place. Well, that time (as of March 2013) has come - and
here it is - a proper point screw fitted to the RAW.
Granted, it doesn't look like much - but believe me, this will make
a big difference to how the action feels and responds, and it will
add a measure of adjustability to the keywork so that wear-and-tear
can be taken up with relative ease. It's a considerable advantage
that puts the TJ RAW some way ahead of the competition.
And if you've already bought one of these horns you're going to
be delighted to know that these screws will retro-fit onto your
RAW. I think it's fair to say that it'll be a little bit more involved
than simply taking the old screw out and popping the new one in,
but it won't be too difficult.
I should also mention that the screws won't be available to the
general public for a little while yet, so don't go badgering TJ
for them. I would imagine that there'll be some small cost involved
too, but it'll be a fraction of what you'd have to pay to have a
repairer take up the play in a key pivoting on a pseudo point screw.
In the hands the horn feels solid and well-balanced. It's not a
particularly light horn, but it's also not that heavy. What gives
it the feeling of solidity is the action - those double arms on
the lower stack really seem to make a difference. These, coupled
with good-quality pads and blued steel springs, give the action
a very stable and responsive feel. Very nice indeed.
Everything is where you'd expect it to be - I had no particular
problems reaching any of the ancillary keys, though my personal
preference would have been for a slightly larger G# touchpiece.
It's not so small that it's a problem, but I'm used to having something
a little larger to reach for. Once I'd got the feel of it I didn't
find myself missing the note.
At present the horn comes in a large, semi-soft box case. It's
big, it's tough, and it's a bit on the heavy side. No real complaints
there, but TJ say they're working on a shaped case - so I'll keep
you posted as and when I hear of anything.
So far then, what we have is a well-built modern horn with a few
nice features. On paper I could probably name at least half a dozen
other horns that could compete on features and price - and what
TJ needs is for this horn to be different from all the others. Special,
And by heavens it is.
began this review by focussing on TJ's reputation as a manufacturer
of decent, solidly-built student horns - and mentioned one of the
models...the Revolution. I think they missed a trick with the SC
Raw - they should have named it the Revelation.
When all is said and done, what really matters is how a horn plays
- and the Raw plays. It really, really plays.
Tonewise the SC Raw is reassuringly complex but beautifully balanced.
The early prototype had a touch of instability that made it an exciting
but unpredictable blow - the sort of horn you'd really have to learn
to live with - and what I most wanted to find in the new version
was the same sense of excitement but without the need to wrestle
with the horn. I wasn't disappointed. In fact I was delighted.
It's actually quite hard to describe the tone. Most horns have
a 'central character', be it warmth, darkness or brightness - but
this horn's centre seems to be whatever you want it to be. It has
all these typical tonal characteristics, but they're balanced in
such a way that a mere shift in your embouchure can bring one out
in favour of the other. So I could tell you it's a dark horn, or
a bright horn, or a warm horn - and it could be any one of those,
or all of them. Your choice.
You know that taste sensation you get when you eat certain foods
like, say, Parmesan cheese? Well, there's a word for it. It's called
umami, and it's sort of the 'sixth sense' of flavours. Unlike sweet,
sour or salty it's much harder to define, but the literal translation
is something along the lines of 'tasty' and 'morish'. It's that
pleasant combination of taste sensations that makes you smack your
lips in anticipation and usually ends up with you eating far more
than you planned.
Some saxes have this quality, an indefinable something that makes
you want to keep on playing them - and a sense that there's always
more to be got out of them.
The TJ Raw has it, there's an edge to the tone that's draws you
in and suggests hidden treasures waiting to be found. And it has
it in spades.
Such complexity is usually the province of horns that are quite
resistant to blow, but this horn bucks the trend by being fairly
free-blowing. In many respects it follows in the footsteps of the
remarkable Mauriat 66R, which also manages to pull off the free-blowing-but-complex
trick...but where the TJ Raw pulls ahead is in its versatility.
It's not the one-trick pony that the 66R can be, it doesn't sulk
when you back off - the tone stays the same, it just gets quieter...as
The evenness is impressive too, there isn't that feeling that the
horn is divided up - you don't get a dramatic change over the octave
break, it doesn't get shrill at the top and the low notes don't
boom excessively. It still has a wide tonal spread - it's not an
introverted horn, but it's also not over-focussed either.
Long-term readers of this site will know of my love for my trusty
old Yamaha YTS23 tenor - a humble horn with a price-tag to match,
and yet for me it's one of the most 'alive' horns I've ever had
the pleasure to play. Some people have been quite surprised by my
preference, incredulous even - but some have been curious enough
to try one out, and have been more than a little surprised by the
results. It's still a tough act to beat, even today - and while
I've played a great many horns that I've liked, I've not yet been
moved enough by them to consider changing (excluding a few £5000+
horns that were divine but crushingly expensive)...until now.*
But this horn comes in at less than half the price of these fabulous
horns, and yet easily squares up to them in terms of build quality
and response. That's quite something to think about.
I could compare the RAW with the 23, but I guess many people would
consider it an unfair comparison - so I tried it next to a Yamaha
YTS62. Now, the 62 is a great horn - a modern classic - and easily
capable of squaring up to the competition...if not seeing it off.
Against the RAW though it sounds almost muted. There's just more
of everything from the RAW.
The TJ boffins were looking for a horn that would break them into
the pro market. They've found it, and in so doing have rewritten
the shortlist. It's not just a good horn, it's a great horn - and
for the price you'd have to be utterly, utterly insane not to try
one before buying anything else.
*After much deliberation, play-testing and not a little soul-searching
I've taken the plunge and got myself a TJ RAW tenor.