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Saxophones - vintage v. modern

Sooner 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 horn.
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 shall see.

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 more.

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 together).
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 the day.
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 you want.
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 the keywork.
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.

The final pro (before the cons take centre stage) is the simple caché 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 attention.

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 cost.

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 finish.
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 better.
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 excellent relacquer.
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 anyway.

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 of practice.

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 modern horns.

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.

I'd 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 years old.

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 four figures.

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 them.
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 £200 or more...and one that needs extensive work to correct wear in the action may add another £150 to that bill - and unless the horn has been recently serviced you can very likely bet on spending £60 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 its likely to be. A decent case will cost anything from £80 upwards.

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.


Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015