Yamaha YTS61 tenor saxophone
Guide price: £700+
Date of manufacture: 1974
Date reviewed: February 2014
The horn that kicked off a revolution
There have been many important horns down the
years, and if you asked a player to list a few I'm pretty sure they'd
come back with names like Selmer, Conn, Buescher, Martin etc, -
but I wonder how many of them would name a Yamaha? I guess some
would consider it laughable - sacrilege even - that a mass-produced
Japanese horn could have shoehorned its way into the annals of history...but
it did. And in so doing it dramatically changed the landscape.
Up until this point the options for a pro player
were very limited; you either bought a Selmer or you plumped for
a vintage horn, such as the Martin Handcraft, the King Super 20
or the Conn 10M. If you fancied something a bit left field there
was always Keilwerth or Rampone, but these were never mainstream
horns. This was how it was, right through the '60s.
But the times they were a-changing. Jazz and its derivatives, as
a popular form of music, was giving way to rock, r'nb, soul, motown
and nascent funk - and players were looking for something equally
fresh and snappy.
Enter the Yamaha YTS61.
I don't think it's too wide of the mark to call
this horn revolutionary. It earned the epithet in two distinct ways;
it was a mass-produced horn, and its tonal approach differed significantly
to anything that had gone before. It was keenly-priced too, and
for the very first time it put the prospect of owning a pro-spec
horn into the hands of players who were finding it hard to justify
the cost of a brand new Selmer.
Naturally, such brazen commercialism laid it wide
open to criticism - and there was plenty of it. If it wasn't the
tone, it was the build quality - and if it was neither of those
it was the point of origin. I think it's fair to say that time has
been the arbiter - Yamaha went on to become one of the world's leading
horn makers; none of their instrument spontaneously self-combusted...and
whether you like the tone or not there's no denying that there was
now, at last, a choice. And plenty of players made that choice.
But more than this, it marked the dawn of a technology-driven approach
to manufacturing - and that fair put the heebie-jeebies up the established
manufacturers. And rightly so. Merely having experienced craftsmen
and women doesn't mean a horn will be good, or ever great - and
neither does having a factory full of computers and robots. No,
what makes great horns is competition - the knowledge that if you
screw up, there are half a dozen other manufacturers who will step
up to the plate and provide what your customers want - and this
was something that hadn't been seen since the glory days of the
great American marques.
If you look at the market now it's awash with choices for pro-spec
horns; Selmer, Yamaha, Yanagisawa, Keilwerth, TJ, Mauriat...the
list goes on - but it was the Yamaha 61 that rekindled the fire.
As far as dates go, there's some disagreement
about when the 61 made its debut, with some sources putting it as
early as 1968, and others as late as 1971 - so let's just say "at
the turn of the '60s". In any event, it was superseded by the
62 in 1978 - so it had a relatively short run in saxophone terms.
what's the fuss all about?
In terms of features there wasn't anything particularly new. The
body was of single pillar construction (with a plate for the palm
key group), it had a detachable bell and and adjustable brass thumb
hook - which has been replaced on this example with the plastic
version that's fitted to the 62. Probably not a bad idea, as the
orginal one wasn't very comfortable.
There was also a large, flat plastic thumb rest - though earlier
versions were made from mother-of-pearl - and in slight contrast,
a rather small sling ring.
The most obvious features were the solid, flat bell brace and the
eye-catching single-piece bell key guard, which lent the horn a
slightly art deco look. Many fans cite this feature as being among
their favourite - and yeah, it looks pretty cool...but after it's
had a few knocks and bashes it often ends up looking a bit like
a train wreck.
The build quality was impressive. I can well recall being told that
these things would fall apart after 10 years or so, but you've only
got to look at the size of pillar bases to see that this was a horn
built to take the rough and tumble of professional use. And it was
all very neatly put together; the excellent soldering gave the body
a very clean look. Everything was crisp and precise.
The only niggles were the compound bell key pillars, which was a
single pillar with a base no larger than a standard pillar - and
the bell brace, which although was pretty good at handling front-on
impacts, wasn't so good at dealing with those from the side.
Topping off the body - or rather bottoming - was a purple silk-screen
logo on the bell. I guess this was always a 'love it or hate it'
feature. Personally, I loved it - and so did a great many other
players...to the point where the words 'purple logo' now carry a
degree of kudos among those in the know.
But it's the keywork which was the star feature
- in particular the feel and ergonomics.
Sure, the Selmer (MkVI) had a great action - but not a lot else
did. The Conn 10M perhaps, but most of the other vintage offerings
were somewhat quirky. Better still, much of the feel and layout
of the 61's action was available on its cheaper brother - the 21.
for the time, the action was powered with stainless springs - but
they weren't simply put on the horn in place of standard blued steel
springs...whether by accident or design, the horn was built to take
them (which is why it's often not a good idea to replace them with
blued steel springs). Some thought had clearly gone into the design
of the keywork because the main stack springs were quite long...which
gave the keys a very snappy feel (something that Selmer forgot when
designing the SA80 series).
There were some quirks, however - the most critical
being the use of parallel point screws...and rather short ones at
This is the Achilles heel of the 61, especially on the tenor, where
the extended key length means more flex in the action. With such
short stubs, and no provision for taking up any wear and tear, the
accuracy of the pad seats suffered...especially on the bell keys.
It wasn't ideal, and the screws were soon ditched in favour of proper
point screws on the 62. It also wasn't particularly easy to swap
out the screws for proper points, which meant that taking up the
wear and tear involved quite a lot of hard graft. That said, it
was possible to build up the screw stubs with silver solder, and,
after truing them up, give the action a new lease of life.
Despite being a modern horn, the top stack layout
had more than a passing nod to the actions of yesteryear, with the
Bis Bb key being mounted on the main rod screw - and being a 'split
design', which meant the lower portion of the key was mounted on
another rod screw further down the instrument.
Likewise, the G# key cup was mounted on the lower stack rod (instead
of it's own rod) and featured a curious 'round the back' lever arm.
I quite liked this feature on the alto - it gave the G# a snappy
response, but it didn't work quite so well on the tenor.
quirks continued with the side Bb/C keys, which connected to their
corresponding keycups via a small plastic barrel. These things were
notoriously rattly, and even a drop of heavy oil won't keep them
quiet for very long. The best bet is a sticky grease - and I find
that MusicMedic's silicone-based pivot and roller grease is perfect
for this job. Should you wish to grease up the connectors you'll
find it much more effective if you remove the keys cups. It's a
simple job, just undo and remove the key cup screw, grease up the
connector, refit the key and pop the screw back in. Simple.
Just one thing to watch out for - those plastic connectors are often
'handed'. If you find that the key is a little stiff and sluggish
after refitting it, remove the key again and turn the connector
180 degrees on its pivot. I'd also recommend only removing one key
at a time - so as to avoid the chances of getting the connectors
Another less-than-ideal feature was the length
of the arm that housed the Bis Bb and G# adjusters. It's extraordinarily
long, and not terribly thick. This link is a very prone to flex,
even on today's horns - so making it longer and thinner was just
asking for trouble.
same is true of the low B to C# link (which keeps the low C# closed
in the event of a stray finger when going for a low B). Not to put
too fine a point on it, it doesn't work at all. The design of it
means it imparts the maximum amount of leverage from the C# key
cup to the low B - so it either prevents the low B key cup from
closing properly, or it lifts it open with ease should you inadvertently
catch the C# touchpiece when going for a low B.
The simplest solution is to back off the adjuster so that the mechanism
no longer functions...and then spend some time learning how to hit
the low B touchpiece when you want a B, and not the C#.
Sticking with the bell keys, there's no tilting
table. I actually quite like this feature - it makes the action
nimble and quiet, and it was retained on the later 62 model...at
least for a while.
My last keywork-related moan (there have been
a few, I know) is for the round front top F touchpiece. I've never
liked this design (though some manufacturers still use it today)
and it was swiftly replaced on the 62 by the far slicker teardrop
How about some good stuff then?
Well, you got a full set of regulation adjusters on the main stacks
- and this was a real boon for repairers and home tweakers alike.
On something so basically imprecise as the action on a saxophone,
having the ability to make small adjustments on the fly just makes
all the sense in the world. Why some manufacturers still refuse
to fit them to their horns is quite beyond me. Maybe they're just
mean...or have their heads shoved up the backside of yesterday (you
can tell I feel passionately about this issue).
octave key mech, whilst not of the Selmer swivelling design, was
nonetheless very light and fast in action - and not being quite
as complicated meant it was reliable, and able to tolerate a few
light knocks. It also sported a large, shaped (though flat) touchpiece.
While this wasn't a particularly new idea it was nonetheless very
well implemented on the 61. The large thumbrest was a nice touch
Proper mother-of-pearl was used for the key pearls,
and a very nice touch was the addition of a pair of shaped pearls
for the side and top F# touchpieces...and yeah, it went up to top
You got a decent set of pads, with plastic reflectors...and
it says a lot about them that I still see 61s on the bench today
with their original pads. They still work too...for the most part
And then there's the lacquer.
Yamaha's lacquer was notoriously tough stuff, to the point where
a careful (or lucky) repairer could carry out small resoldering
jobs without losing any of it. This was a major feature. It was
standard practice for repairers to warn clients that a soldering
job carried with it the risk of losing some lacquer - and while
we still issued the same warning when tackling a Yamaha, it became
a source of professional pride to be able to return the job to the
client with absolutely no visible signs of lacquer damage after
such a job. It still makes me smile, even today.
Finally, the whole outfit came in a well-made
box case, complete with proper catches. They were great cases -
well fitted, light, strong and stylish (or at least as stylish as
a box case can be). It might not seem such a big deal these days,
but back then it was quite something to see a case interior that
was actually shaped to fit the horn...rather than a vaguely saxophone-shaped
cut-out that relied (unsuccessfully) on an integral endplug and
a couple of foam cushions to keep the horn from rattling about.
the niggles with the design of the keywork, its feel under the hands
I've always been of the opinion that the Yamaha 'keyboard' was the
finest ever made - and the best of it is that they got it right
more or less from the get-go. Even out of the box their horns felt
good, but with a few careful tweaks they could be made to feel even
better. Better still, it stayed that way. The keywork was reasonably
stiff and the springs very resilient - once you set it up, it stayed
that way, year on year.
In terms of ergonomics it was all there, right under your fingers
(for most players, at any rate) - and there's really not much else
to be said about it.
Tonewise there's a bigger difference between the
61 and 62 tenors than there is between the alto counterparts. In
my review of the YAS61 I said that I'd be hard put to tell the difference
between it and my trusty old purple logo 62 - but the tenor is rather
warmer than the 62, and doesn't have quite so much of that fizz
and crackle - especially down the lower end. It's not as 'immediate'
- which is not to say that it's a particularly resistant horn -
it just doesn't have the brashness of the 62.
You could argue that that's a good thing - and the owner certainly
did - but I remain in two minds about it. For example, I get that
sense of immediacy from a Conn 10M, and there's no way I'd describe
that horn as being bright and brash...quite the opposite. So it
remains a bit of a puzzle for me.
can say that it's quite a clean sound - and at the time of its release
it represented a startling departure from the norm, which seemed
to be getting progressively more bloated in the midrange. It was
a new approach, a fresh perspective - and while that in itself is
laudable, I feel the 62 went the extra mile.
Something the 61 brought to the table was an evenness of tone across
the range. This is very much a 'like it or loathe it' feature; on
the one hand you could say that a variance in tone between the lower,
mid and upper ranges gives you a lot of flexibility, and on the
other you could equally say that it's a real pain in the arse having
to concentrate on steering the tone as well as the tuning. Both
points are valid, though, which is why as many players said 'Meh'
to the 61 as those who said "Shutup and take my money".
I'd also say it's not quite as versatile as the 62. The 61 does
very well at moderate and quiet volumes - indeed, it's very 'centred'
- but when really pushed I felt it started to lose some of its grip,
which brought a little harshness to the mix. Most horns will do
that to some degree, but it's the way in which they do it that makes
the difference. It's perhaps akin to the difference between overdrive
and distortion for guitarists...and whereas I quite like a bit of
overdrive one a horn, I'm not so keen on distortion.
It must be said, though, that mouthpiece selection will change how
and when (or even if) this will cut in.
The tuning is good. It's not quite as precise
and 'locked in' as the 62 - but it shouldn't pose the average player
I'm aware that tone is a very personal thing - one player's staid
and stuffy is another's bright and thin...and perhaps I'd be better
off sticking to comments based purely on engineering. So here they
It's perhaps blasphemous...but why bother? For
starters, the stubby point screws are a liability. You could swap
them out for proper points, but the MkI 62 has them as standard.
The extra-long link bar for the Bis Bb and G# is just asking for
trouble as is the low C# to B link, and although I'd be happy to
describe the tone as contemporary, the action has too many nods
to the past. All the quirky features were changed for the 62, and
although a slightly brighter blow it's essentially the same horn
with an improved action...and half-decent secondhand examples are
quite common these days. A decent 61 will set you back the best
part of a grand...which is about what a respectable 62 will cost
you. It's something to bear in mind.
I have a feeling that many readers will consider
this to be quite a harsh review - but I believe the 61 can take
it. It wasn't a perfect horn by any means (if such a thing even
exists), but it was at least good enough to give the market a well-deserved,
damn good shake-up.
It was also a very divisive horn...and even today I still come across
players who are dismissive of Yamaha's efforts. I think that's a
big mistake. Barely a week goes by when I don't work on a horn that
I don't much like, but I can nevertheless appreciate its place in
the great scheme of saxophone things...and only a fool would write
the 61 off as a pretender.
I've had a good whinge about some aspects of its
design - but as a player I can't ignore the tone, and I think it's
fair to say that the 61 tenor represents what you might think of
as 'the missing link' between the conservative and the progressive.
On that feature alone it's worth a punt - but it's getting increasingly
hard to find decent examples. Choose wisely, and budget for some
tweaks...and you won't go far wrong.