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Yamaha YTS-23 tenor saxophone

Yamaha YTS23 tenor saxOrigin: Japan (uk.yamaha.com)
Guide price: £250+ used
Weight: 3.1kg
Date of manufacture: 1980 onwards
Date reviewed: September 2014

Possibly the best 'student-quality' sax ever built?

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).

Yamaha YTS23 bell braceThere's 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 horns.

Yamaha YTS23 octave key mechThe 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.

Yamaha YTS23 bell key spatulasThere's 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 mech?

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.

Yamaha YTS23 adjustersRegulation 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 this mod.

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 be.

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 go "Yeeeeeeeehhaaaaaaaa!".
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 hand.

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 be subtle.
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' mantra.
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. Whaddya expect?

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015