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Yamaha YTS61 tenor saxophone

Yamaha YTS 61 tenor saxophoneOrigin: Japan
Guide price: £700+
Weight: 3.32kg
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 'n b, 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.

Yamaha YTS61 bell braceSo 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 original 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.
Yamaha YTS61 point screwsUnusually, 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 that.
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.

Yamaha YTS61 side keysThe 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 mixed up.

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.
Yamaha YTS61 Bis Bb linkThe 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 design.

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).

Yamaha YTS61 octave keyThe 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 too.

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 F#.

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 anyway.

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.

Yamaha YTS61 bell keysDespite the niggles with the design of the keywork, its feel under the hands was sublime.
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.
Yamaha YTS61 G#I 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 any problems.

Yamaha YTS61 logoBut 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 are:

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.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015