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 market.
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 my spine.
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
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 off.
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
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 horns do.
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
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
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
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'll be upgrading my own RAW once I can get my hands on a set of these
screws - so I'll do an article about the upgrade and go through the procedure
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
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, even.
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 it should.
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
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
*After much deliberation, play-testing and not a little soul-searching
I've taken the plunge and got myself a TJ RAW tenor.