Yamaha YTS-23 tenor saxophone
Guide price: £250+ used
Date of manufacture: 1980 onwards
Date reviewed: September 2014
Possibly the best 'student-quality' sax ever
Ah, the Yamaha YTS23. Or, as I call it, The Giant Killer.
My 25+ year love-affair with my own YTS23 is a matter of public
record - and while I've recently moved on (I now play a TJ
RAW), the 23 still has a place in my heart.
The way it feels in the hands, the way it responds, the way it blows
- it still delights me, even after all these years.
So how come it's taken me so long to review it? Well, I suppose
it's a bit like the Selmer MkVI - it took years before I got around
to formally reviewing one, mostly because there's already so much
info out there already.
And so it is with the YTS23.
It also must be said that I wanted to review a decent-looking one
(which instantly rules out my own) - and as these horns tend to
lead quite hard lives, a good-looking example is not that easy to
find these days. But all good things come to he who waits...
The 23 followed on from the 21, which was in production for about
10 years from 1970 - and while the 21 was a groundbreaking horn
in its day, it's clear that the 23 is a more 'mature' horn both
in terms of design and appearance.
As you can see, it's quite a neat-looking horn. Some of that will
be down to the clear lacquered finish, and some to the relatively
simple and unfussy construction.
The body features drawn toneholes, and for the most part these
are nearly always nice and level. I say nearly always because every
so often I come across a 23 with a few slightly iffy toneholes -
and in most cases it seems to be the low D and C which are the most
common culprits. Fortunately it's relatively easy to fix the problem
- but if you're having trouble with the low notes on your 23, it'll
be worth casting a critical eye over the rims of these two toneholes.
Individual pillars are fitted, and these have generous bases and
are very neatly soldered in place. Likewise, the bell key guard
stays have large feet, which will help prevent them being knocked
off in the event of a minor ding.
The 23 sports separate guards for the low Bb/B and C keys, and this
is perhaps the biggest cosmetic change over the 21 - which had a
large single guard that covered the whole key group. I'm in two
minds over which design I prefer; the separate guards look neat
and tidy, but the single guard had a kind of art-deco appeal, and
at least provided the low C# key cup with a bit of protection. However,
nothing looked quite so bad as a 21's bell key guard after it had
taken a few knocks.
Another notable difference from the 21 is that the bell no longer
has a clamp fitted at the bottom bow joint. It'll still come off
though, because it's now glued on. Despite how it sounds, it's not
usually problematic - though a hefty knock to the bell can sometimes
cause the glue to crack. You might not notice it other than to find
your low notes aren't quite as punchy as they used to be - and a
good way to test the integrity of the joint is to grip the horn
at the crock socket (or neck receiver) and at the bell and give
the horn a bit of a twist (don't go mad though). You might see the
body twist very slightly...but you're more likely to hear a faint
creaking noise coming from the bottom bow joint. If so, you'll need
to have the joint re-glued (wrap PTFE tape around it in the meantime
to seal it up).
a two-point bell brace fitted, though only one end (on the body)
is detachable. I can't in all honesty say it's particularly sturdy-looking
brace, but then again it seems to have withstood the test of time.
At least on the tenors; the altos seem to suffer rather more from
bells knocked out of alignment...but this might be more to do with
youngsters handling the horns, given that the alto is more likely
to be found in schools etc.
On the down side the sling ring is a bit small - and some locking
sling hooks will jam in it. I well remember having to shave off
a bit of material from the bottom of my old BG sling hook before
it would fit through the hole.
And there's no adjustable thumb hook - all you get is piece of slightly
rounded brass bent at 90 degrees, but I always found it to be very
comfortable in use and never had any problems with it (unlike many
an adjustable thumb hook I've used). If it proves to be an issue
you can always customise it with a sachet of Sugru
- or have an adjustable thumb hook fitted...though bear in mind
this will involve some soldering. Later models are fitted with an
adjustable plastic thumb hook as standard.
Lastly, the bell key bumper felts aren't adjustable - which means
that if you want to tweak them to change the opening height of the
keys you'll have to cut down or add to the felts as necessary. Given
that the bell key heights are pretty much bang on out of the box,
I'd leave well alone.
The body is finished in clear epoxy lacquer - and it's damned good
lacquer too. It'll even stand up to a spot of soft soldering in
the event of, say, a pillar being knocked off. Provided your repairer
is careful (and, let's be honest, a little bit lucky) there's a
better than even chance that the repair can be carried out without
any loss of lacquer surrounding the job.
The nickel plate on the keywork is similarly tough, if perhaps a
bit drab. It looks OK when it's like this example - all nice and
shiny - but it soon goes a sort of milky grey...and nickel plate
is tiresome to put a shine back on. My advice is to let the horn
go 'George Clooney'; keep the body crisp and clean, and the greyness
of the tarnished nickel will add a little cheeky gravitas.
The keywork can be described as utilitarian. It's functional, well-built
and sturdy but very clearly looks like it's been punched out of
thick sheets of metal by a giant machine rather than lovingly hand
carved by elves. To be fair, the giant machine is obviously very
good at what it does (and it tends not to whistle quite so much
as elves do), and keywork problems are seldom an issue with these
octave key mechanism is unusual, and at first glance it seems to
hark back to the clumsy vintage mechs of old. It's only when you
use it that you realise it's actually really rather slick and responsive.
It's also quite simple, which makes it reliable.
This theme is carried on to the top stack, which is a curious mix
of the old and the new. An older horn would usually have all the
top stack keys mounted on a single rod (or hinge) screw - a modern
horn removes the Bis Bb and G keys from the line-up and has them
mounted on separate point screws. This latter arrangement tends
to allow for a more responsive (and reliable) action.
The 23 has a separate G key (mounted on point screws) but retains
the Bis Bb in among the upper stack - but divides it up between
two pivots. So, the top end of the key pivots on the main upper
stack rod screw, but the bottom end shares a rod screw with the
G# key cup.
It's nothing you need to worry about - I merely point it out as
something of a technical oddity, given that this is a contemporary
horn. It's a bit like having a clockwork iPhone.
no tilting table for the key keys. Opinion is divided among players
as to whether this is a good or a bad thing, but ultimately it comes
down to personal preference. However, from a engineering point of
view I would say that a well-made non-tilting table mech will comprehensively
outperform a mediocre tilting table. It's also a great deal less
noisy in use and is likely to remain that way for a very long time.
That said, it's not as well designed as the non-tilting table that
featured on the MkI 'purple logo' 62 series horns - which had more
sculpted spatulas. I suppose that's fair enough, given the difference
in price - but would it have hurt Yamaha to let the 23 have the
62's non-tilting table when that series moved over to a tilting
And while we're about it, take a look at the size of the G# touchpiece.
There's no missing that, even when the going gets frantic.
Note too that there's no compound bell key pillar. On most modern
horns the bell keys are mounted on a single pillar or arm with four
'heads' - one for the low C#, the low B, the Bb and the G#. Nothing
wrong with that, except that in the event of a knock to the horn
there's a good chance that the impact energy might find its way
to the compound pillar - and with four keys mounted on it, that's
potentially quite a lot of energy. If the design and build of this
pillar isn't robust enough it will bend under the stress.
No such problems on the 23 - because it doesn't have a compound
pillar. The G# and C# sit on their own pillars, while the low B
and Bb share one. What this means is that in the event of a knock,
any energy transmitted up the bell keys will be split three ways...and
thus be more likely to be dissipated harmlessly.
I may have been lucky, but I've never yet had to realign the bell
key pillars on a 23 where they hadn't been directly impacted.
Note the rather small screw heads. They look rather like the heads
you'll see on the rod screws - but these are shoulderless
point screws. I love these things; they have proper points on
them, which means they can take up wear in the keywork simply by
being screwed further into the pillar - and because they're shoulderless
(they don't have a large head that's wider than the diameter of
the threaded hole in the pillar), they can be screwed into the pillar
as far as you like without having to ream out the pillars.
adjusters are fitted to the main stacks (as well as the standard
adjusters for the G#/Bis Bb keys), which makes my life easier and
your repair bills slightly cheaper.
Note the size and shape of the octave key touchpiece. I particularly
like the size and shape of it - you don't have to worry about whether
your thumb has to go up or across...just as long as you move it
vaguely in the direction of the touchpiece, the mech will work.
Granted, the plastic thumb rest is a bit on the mean side and it's
not uncommon to see 23s on the bench that have been fitted with
extra padding in this area. Sugru, again, is a popular option for
Another nice feature that can be seen in this shot is the simple
fork and pin connector for the side C key (and the Bb below it).
This is a huge improvement on the noisy, imprecise plastic barrel
and pin affair that was fitted to the earlier 21 series horns...though
Yamaha were later to reintroduce a similar connector on their Custom
series horns. Don't ask me why, though.
Plastic key pearls are fitted. They feel OK, and that's about the
best that can said of them. A very worthwhile upgrade is to whip
them out and replace them with proper mother-of-pearl ones - and
while you're having that done, get a domed Bis Bb key pearl fitted.
It will make a big difference.
Sticking with the comfort theme, the top front F key has a plain
round touchpiece. It's not as slick and efficient as the more modern
teardrop touchpieces, but it's at least well-placed...though it'll
benefit from being angled slightly down towards the B key. With
a bit more effort it can also be brought closer to the B key pearl...though
this involves some careful bending of the key (ask your repairer
to do this). And while we're in the area, the 23 doesn't have a
top F# key. No big deal, you can get this note with ease by simply
fingering a standard front top F (top F key + A key) and then adding
the side Bb key. It's a bit flat, however, and you'll get a better
note by going for the Bis Bb key rather than the A.
The action is powered by stainless springs - and normally that's
all I'd have to say on the matter. However, in the case of the 23
the action has been designed to take these type of springs...so
don't be tempted to whip them out and replace them with blued steel
springs. I've seen it done, and the results are usually pretty poor.
In any event, you shouldn't ever need to replace them - but if you
do, put stainless springs back on.
Finishing up the keywork is a reasonably decent set of pads, fitted
with plastic reflectors (resonators).
Finally, the horn comes in good old-fashioned box-type case, fitted
with decent catches. What it loses in portability it more than makes
up for in terms of the protection it affords the instrument in transit.
There's a large accessory compartment, and separate slots for the
crook and the mouthpiece. It comes supplied with a standard Yamaha
mouthpiece - which is as good a piece as you'll get for the money.
So now we come to the feel.
Oh, the feel.
I'll come straight to the point. The action on the 23 is simple
and nimble. If you can't hand your 23 to an experienced player and
have them say "Wow, the action is reeeallly light, isn't it?"
then you've not got it set up right (or you just prefer a harder
action - and that's cool).
This is Part One of what makes the 23 a giant killer - the action
is superb. Or rather it's capable of being so. It's never that good
out of the box, and to get the very best out of it you have to have
it tweaked. It's not a difficult job - you could do it yourself,
or you can have your repairer do it for you. It'll take about 5
minutes...and the results will last the lifetime of the horn (or
you, whichever comes...or goes...first).
The layout of the keys is spot on. Sure, I'm biased - I played one
for decades - but I can still remember the first time I picked one
up, and how comfortable it felt in the hands.
There's no one horn that will fit everyone, but I've always felt
the 23 made a pretty good stab at it - and if all else fails there's
always the option of tweaking a few keys here and there if needs
It's also a very light horn, weighing in at 3.1kg. Most tenors
seem to hit the scales at around the 3.4kg mark, which makes the
23 around .3kg lighter - and in old money that's around half a pound.
It doesn't sound like much but believe me, it makes a difference
when you're holding that much brass out in front of you for three
hours at a time.
I've heard it said (many times) that the 23's lighter weight makes
it a flimsy horn, but this doesn't fit in with my own practical
experience. It's a very popular horn, likely to be bought by those
who're less experienced at (shall we say) taking care of an instrument
- which means I ought to be seeing quite a few of them on the bench
with bent bodies and crushed bells.
Doesn't seem to happen. But...I do see a fair few with bent bell
rims, which means these horns are getting the knocks but are standing
up to them pretty well - perhaps because the bell rims are deforming
and absorbing the impact rather than transmitting it to the body
(which is always a very, very bad thing).
So perhaps it's more accurate to say that the 23 is resilient...
Tonewise? Well, what can I say?
The thing I most liked about the 23 was that there's no 'in-house'
tone. Pick up just about any other brand of horn and you're picking
up someone else's concept of tone.
Now that's not necessarily a bad thing, assuming you like that sort
of thing. It means you're one step nearer to tonal nirvana...and
no-one in their right mind can criticise that.
But what if it's a step in the wrong direction? Well, that's not
an insurmountable problem - it just means you have to work a little
harder to overcome the horn's natural tendencies before you can
stamp your own sound on it. The 23 does none of that. It seems to
be almost completely neutral. This is why some people describe the
tone as thin, or weedy, or without character and depth.
I like to think of it in terms of the difference between a car that's
packed full of fancy handling-aid electronics and one that's just
simple but beautifully designed. Both will go round corners, but
one does so with no sense of your being involved in the process
other than to turn the steering wheel...and the other makes you
You can get what you want out of a 23 - but you've got to put the
time and effort into it.
This is a horn that was designed for the student market. As such
it's an easy, non-resistant blow - and no matter how bad a player
you are, you'll very likely get a note out of it without too much
trouble. But if you drive yourself and the horn a little bit harder,
and spend some time choosing the right mouthpiece, the 23 will sing
for you. And it won't get in the way. There's no midrange 'bloom'
to work over; it doesn't get all woofy at the lower end; it doesn't
lose its stability at the top - it just gets on with the job in
But there's a price to pay for that neutrality (aside from having
to work at building your own tone) and that's the 23's tendency
to 'run bright' if you let it.
It's easily done - it's a free-blowing horn, and if you slap a high-baffled
piece on it it'll practically play itself...but the tone will cut
glass. This is fantastic if you're the only horn in a 5 piece rock
band...you'll easily compete with a guitar or two, but it won't
The trick is to tame that natural edge, but not to smother it -
it's all about finding the balance. And when you've found it you'll
discover that the 23 has more to offer than you might have thought,
because it'll allow you to keep on refining that balance down the
years. And that, to me, is the mark of a great horn - there's always
something about it to discover, and it's always good. And that's
Part Two of what makes the 23 a giant killer.
So - it's a great horn, it's well built, it's tough, reliable,
easy to maintain, light in weight, relatively inexpensive and capable
of far more than the price tag suggests...and decent used examples
are widely available at bargain-basement prices. What's not to like?
Well, the example reviewed is quite an old horn - as is my own 23
- and while I might once have said "You can't go wrong with
a Yamaha", I'm afraid I wouldn't be quite to quick to say it
these days. Standards seem to be slipping, and if I were in the
market for a 23 I'd be inclined to follow the 'older is better'
And then there's the issue of what's a 23 and what's not.
This isn't as clear-cut as you might think. The model reviewed
was built in Japan - but later models have been built elsewhere
(Indonesia, for example - and now China). It's also been said that
some models were made in Japan but assembled, lacquered and padded
in the US...though this ought to mean that standards have been maintained.
And then there's the business of the model numbers.
Whether it's by accident or design, the nomenclature for the 2x/2xx
series horns is a complete mess.
At its simplest, the 23 is the 'rest of world' version of the European
275. Or so we're told. But there are a number of differences between
the two models, which may or may not be confined to the keywork.
And then there was a 25, and a 24. And as for where any of these
horns were built...well, it's anybody's guess.
Unfortunately (for you) I have much more interesting things to do
than track down which model is which, where and when it was made
and how it plays in comparison to a 23 - so if that sort of thing
matters to you, you'll have to go a-googling.
For everyone else, if you want a decent example of a Yamaha YTS23,
stick to the ones made in Japan...and the older the better.
And just for fun - and just to show you what the ol' 23 is capable
of - here's a snippet of me playing mine a few years ago. It's not
subtle...but that's a Dukoff D8 with a Rico Plasticover 5 on it.