Saxophones - vintage v. modern
or later anyone who has anything to do with saxophones will be asked
whether a vintage horn is better than a modern one. Depending on
the outlook of the person asked the answer could range from an unequivocal
'Yes' right though to an indignant 'No!'
In fact the real answer lies somewhere in the middle.
The purpose of this article is to raise your awareness of the issue.
To give a definitive answer would require assessing each individual
horn - something that's better covered in the review section.
The first thing to determine is exactly what constitutes a vintage
It's not enough to slap a date on the table and say that any and
all instruments made before that date are vintage - the term actually
implies a degree of quality...and just as there many cheap instruments
on the market these days, so it was back then - although some vintage
'cheap' horns can far outclass their modern counterparts.
There's also a degree of obsolescence to be dealt with, as will
As of the date of writing, the general consensus of opinion is
that the Selmer MKVI is the most modern vintage horn. Since production
of this horn stopped in the early 1970's you can see that a mere
30 years is enough to qualify a horn as vintage - though the 'golden
age' is reckoned to be the years from approximately 1920 through
to 1965. Curiously enough, if a certain manufacturer doesn't change
the name of one of its models in the near future it may be entirely
possible to find that this particular model will be available both
as a modern instrument and a vintage one.
So let's examine the practicalities first... the pros and cons.
The undisputed pro of owning a vintage horn lies in the fact that
the passing of years will chip away at the purchase price of the
instrument. This is known as depreciation, a factor that affects
just about any new item you might care to buy. As soon as you leave
the music store, your brand new sax starts shedding pounds or dollars.
Fortunately it doesn't shed its structural integrity at anywhere
near the same rate, which means that an instrument that cost a great
deal of money when new can be bought much more cheaply many years
later, and still have plenty of life left in it.
Consider this; You have a budget of £700 with which to buy
an alto saxophone. For that money you could buy quite a nice brand
new student/intermediate horn. Or, for the same price, you could
buy a professional quality horn that was built some forty or fifty
years ago...and which, in real terms, would represent a new horn
costing upwards of £1500.
This stands true for the vast majority of vintage horns - but
there are those (such as the aforementioned Selmer MKVI) whose price
increases through a combination of rarity and the esteem in which
players hold them. In such cases models like these can cost almost
as much as a brand new professional quality instrument...and often
Build quality is another pro. This is more of a qualified pro though,
it shouldn't be forgotten that you'll generally be buying horns
that were expensive when new...they're bound to be well made (if
you buy a cheap vintage horn you might find it to be less well put
It's likely that greater care was taken in manufacture, and you
can expect more artistic touches such as intricate engraving or
fancy key guards.
From here on in the arguments in favour become somewhat cloudier...
Many people consider that the ultimate pro is that of the tone a
vintage horn will give you - Indeed, for the real connoisseur this
is really the only issue that matters.
The problems arise when people confuse 'different' with 'better'.
Horns built many years ago may have many differences from their
modern counterparts - and whilst it's possible to debate the relative
merits of bore sizes, tonehole placement etc., what's certainly
true is that manufacturers were building their horns for a very
different marketplace and were naturally following the trends of
It's actually quite hard to define a vintage tone. It's not enough
to simply say it's mellower or fatter - for every vintage horn that
fits this description there's another that's brighter and thinner
in tone than many a modern horn. Not only that, it's highly debatable
as to whether anyone but the player can spot the difference without
any visual clues...or, if a difference can be heard, whether they
can state which is the vintage horn and which is the modern. It's
a great deal harder than you might imagine.
Assuming you find a vintage horn that you like the sound of then
this is undeniably a pro - but it can also be a con in that if you
buy a such a horn purely on recommendation you may very well find
yourself having to work 'over' that tone in order to get the tone
This, of course, is true for any sax - it just tends to be more
markedly noticeable with vintage horns.
The feel of a vintage horn is often raised as a pro. This is largely
due to these horns being highly specified originally - quite a bit
of care would have been taken in the design of the action.
Having said that, these designs would have been largely artistic
- and sometimes that provided a rather hit and miss approach to
Some earlier horns just weren't that well designed ergonomically
or otherwise, others had extra keywork that was useful only for
the style of music of the day (such as extra trill keys). Some were
just plain clumsy.
final pro (before the cons take centre stage) is the simple cachet
of owning and playing a vintage horn.
They look different - some would say more elegant. They have a history
- a horn that's fifty or sixty years old may have had several owners...who
can say who they were or what they did. They may only have had one
owner, who cherished the horn for their entire playing career.
It sets you apart from the crowd - it's a statement that says you
don't buy into the 'modern way' of doing things, and it takes on
the mantle of an old friend. It may even make you the centre of
But let's come back down to earth with some harsh practicalities.
First, and most importantly, brass is a relatively volatile metal.
It's soft, it has poor wear resistance, it degrades over time and
it reacts fairly badly to acids.
Now, that's not to say that all vintage horns will disintegrate
into a pile of dust after eighty years, but it does mean that they
will be less able to tolerate hard knocks as well as a modern horn.
There may be evidence of wear from the previous owners' fingers,
and in extreme cases they may have even worn holes right through
the body or keys.
Naturally, you should be able to spot such wear - but you might
find it harder to spot wear in the action.
Where keys rub up against steel pivots and brass pillars there will
be evidence of wear. Keys can feel imprecise and leaks can develop.
These problems can be corrected, but only at a not inconsiderable
There's also the issue of the history of the horn. Whilst we'd
all like to think of our vintage horn as being previously owned
by an unknown but brilliant jazzer who lived for nothing but his
music and polished his sax each and every night, it's just as likely
that it was first owned by a jobbing musician who never came back
from the war, after which time it found its way into a student's
hands who was never really all that interested in playing the sax.
You may not be able to tell whether the horn has suffered any major
structural damage in its past, or whether any previous repairs had
been done properly. In some cases you might not even know whether
it's completely original. All this has implications for the strength
of the horn, so it pays to be cautious when considering how you're
going to treat an old instrument.
Related to the issue of previous repairs is that of the horn's
In years gone by it was common practice for horns to be relacquered
when they were overhauled. This was most likely due to the fact
that the old lacquers were less than durable (though you can still
find immaculate horns, if you're very lucky).
Relacquering a horn is a big job, and it involves removing the old
finish, tidying up any imperfections in the metal, polishing it
to a high finish and re-applying the lacquer.
It's in removing the imperfections and polishing the metal that
the potential for real harm lies - with a heavy hand on the polishing
machine it's possible to remove quite a lot of metal in the process...and
it's a process that may have been repeated several times. In mitigation
it's worth noting that there were an awful lot more repairers and
relacquerers around back then, and the standard of workmanship seems
to have been much higher than it is (regrettably) these days.
You'll often hear people boasting that their vintage horn has the
original lacquer... or what's left of it.
The implication is that a horn with its original finish will sound
It's very hard (if not impossible) to prove that, and on many occasions
that so-called original finish is in fact not original...just an
On balance though, a relacquered horn means that it's been through
a process, the quality of which no-one is around to attest to.
Silver plated horns tend to fare better - far fewer of them were
ever refinished, simply because it was expensive and not often required
The most common con that arises is that of the tuning.
Before I get started on this one I have to make this fact very clear
- saxophones do not play in tune. You play in tune,
the sax does not.
This is true for just about every musical instrument that's ever
been made - the combination of physics and the human ear means that
compromises are made all over the place.
The saxophone is the veritable master of the compromise - but even
the most accurately built horn needs a leg-up from the player. In
practice this is no big deal - the vast majority of players breeze
over the imperfections without even noticing them - but, and speaking
very generally, these imperfections tend to get larger the further
back in time you go.
The upshot of this is that some people will
have problems playing some vintage horns in tune.
If you're worried you might be one of those people, don't despair
(yet) - there are ways and means of correcting such issues, such
as careful choice of mouthpiece and that oft forgotten standby...plenty
Given that the process of design and manufacture was less advanced
when these horns were built, the chances of encountering a tuning
anomaly are heightened, and this is especially true for vintage
soprano saxes (part of the reason that modern sopranos cost so much
more than it appears they ought to, size for size).
That about wraps it up for vintage horns for now - let's consider
The biggest pro has to be that of the horn's history. Assuming
you buy a new horn you're right there at the start. You could own
that horn all your life and know it intimately by the time you put
it down for the last time.
Even if you're buying secondhand, a modern horn stands a far greater
chance of not having lived through any terrible ordeal.
place design next. Modern manufacturing and measuring techniques
means that even a modest student horn has had its design run through
a computer at some point, perhaps having even been built by one.
This means that the compromises that have to exist in a saxophone
have been rather more carefully evened out - though this is no guarantee
that they'll be compromises you'll like or get along with.
They also have the benefit of all the research that's gone before
- and this shows in the use of keys that are practically straight
copies of established, popular forms (the Selmer counterbalanced
octave key mechanism is a superb example of this).
All in all, a modern horn is more likely to fit comfortably under
most people's fingers.
The material structure comes as the next pro - modern alloys resist
wear far better in most cases (note, not all), so wear in the action
is likely to be less of an issue in later years...though sooner
or later it'll need attending to.
New brass is far more elastic than old brass, so in the event of
an unfortunate accident your biggest worry will be the cost (so
that's a relief, eh?).
And now we come to the tone and the tuning.
It's really the same argument as applied to the vintage horns. The
difference is that the modern marketplace demands a more open, powerful
tone. If you like it, you like it. I personally find modern horns
to be more flexible tonally, with far fewer horns throwing up mouthpiece
mismatch problems. If I want a vintage sound I can pop on a mouthpiece
that gives me a warm, focussed tone - if I want to cut glass I can
shove on a high-baffle piece and make people's ears bleed.
Granted, there are vintage horns out there that are quite capable
of doing this - but for me they fall down on the other cons.
As for tuning, on the whole it's much improved. Modern horns still
have to meet the compromises, but because of the accuracy of design
and manufacture it means that those compromises are more evenly
spaced. That's not to say that it's a finished work - manufacturers
are still making modifications in the hope of improving things even
more (though why they don't just tell disgruntled punters to go
away and practice a bit more is beyond me).
Build quality is an area in which there are pros and cons. As stated
earlier, modern alloys tend to be stronger - but in some cases this
has led to manufacturers cutting corners in order to both speed
up production and cheapen it. This means that modern horns are a
built a lot lighter than vintage horns on the whole, and in some
cases it could be said that the line has been overstepped, with
some modern horns suffering from overly soft keywork. It can also
be said that the assembly of the horns is sometimes less than wonderful,
though this is more prevalent on cheaper models.
Another area is that of the finish. Modern finishes are typically
epoxy based, and are thus far more durable - so much so that many
can withstand a careful soft solder job to the body without any
damage. However, there seems to be less care taken with pre-finishing
preparation, and this often leads to soldering flux residues bleeding
out from under pillars and fitting, which starts up spots of oxidisation
on the brass, which corrupts the lacquer.
Perhaps this was a problem with vintage horns too - but you can
forgive a fifty year old horn for having a few blemishes. It's a
bit harder to forgive the same on a horn that's barely half a dozen
People sometimes say that the availability of spares parts is a
good reason to go for a modern horn. In practice though it's extremely,
extremely rare to need a spare part - much of what breaks can be
repaired, and very few people ever lose a part off the horn.
The price is about the last con - buying a brand new horn will
cost a premium, and although a secondhand horn will ease that pain
you'll be very lucky to find a decent pro horn for much less than
As you can see, much of the argument is subjective. I have tried
to focus on the practical side, but in the end you can't really
dismiss such issues as tone and feel as being irrelevant. For every
player that swears a modern horn has no character, there's another
who swears vintage horns are quirky and troublesome.
The fact is that modern horns are far less demanding in terms of
ownership, and vintage horns require a little bit more thought from
their owner before they will truly give of their best.
So, if you're convinced that a vintage horn is the way to go then
you might find a few tips useful when choosing one.
First off - ignore the hype. There are several 'legendary' vintage
horns - among them is the Selmer MKVI, the Conn 6M Underslung alto,
the Conn 10M tenor, the Martin Handcraft, the original Buescher
400.....the list is long.
Any or all of these might be just right for you...and equally as
wrong for you. The only, only way to know is to try
OK, you might take a chance and get lucky - which is all well and
good, but it may mean you spent over the odds because you went for
a name, and it may mean that the real horn of your dreams went to
someone else...for half what you paid for yours.
Those lists of great horns are valid only in as much as they really
are great horns in themselves. The build tends to be good, the tone
and tuning even, the feel comfortable - but all that counts for
nothing if they don't truly inspire you to play.
And don't ignore the modern horns out of prejudice - I can think
of several modern models that simply ooze a vintage feel, and some
that combine the best of both worlds.
Check your prospective purchase very carefully.
Read my pages that deal with the action - find out how to detect
wear in the keys, learn what a dodgy pad looks like, check the body
for signs of previous repairs or refinishing.
Do your research. Find out the date of manufacture from the serial
number (there are lists on the web that will give you a rough idea
of this) - some horns were produced over a great many years, and
sometimes the earlier models are considered to be better.
Compare prices - people get taken in by the hype and tend to pass
it on, which results in over-inflated prices. Keeping an eye on
the completed auctions on ebay is a good way of ascertaining what
the going rate is for a horn on the private market.
Keep an eye on your budget. A horn that needs a basic repad may
cost you another £300 or more...and one that needs extensive
work to correct wear in the action may add another £250 to
that bill - and unless the horn has been recently serviced you can
very likely bet on spending £80 or so on a general service.
And don't forget the case - if it's as old as the horn then it probably
needs chucking away...remember that the older the horn the more
fragile it's likely to be. A decent case will cost anything from
Lastly, play the thing. Be critical, don't overlook minor problems
simply because the horn is a vintage one...that hard-to-reach low
Bb key may drive you to despair in the end.
I'd also recommend you check out Matt Stohrer's guide on evaluating
a used horn for purchase. It's mainly geared towards vintage
horns, but a great deal of the information will apply to any horn.