Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals


As I write this it's "Day 8 in the house" - which is to say that I've been snowed in for eight days now. I'm sure many readers across the world will sympathise, being all too familiar with temperatures that drop right off the bottom of the thermometer, and snowdrifts the size of small houses. However, I'm pretty sure the sympathy will dissolve like an ice cube in a frying pan when I tell you that the snow is only about a foot deep, and it's not even freezing outside (feels bloody cold though).
And so for the past week or so I've been making use of the spare time by catching up on correspondence, flirting with the saxophone forums and generally contemplating my navel. To be honest I've been enjoying the enforced break. Yes, it might well be costing me a small fortune, and yes, it's thrown my work schedule completely to hell, but it's been quite some time since I had the time to be 'busy doing nothing'.
And then I had a thought.

It was one of those thoughts where you marvel at the simplicity of it - an idea so simple that you wonder why no-one has thought of it before - but as you sit there throwing the idea around in your mind it becomes evident that it's actually far more complicated than you initially imagined.
So what's this great idea? An answerphone with enough intelligence to keep a double-glazing salesman chatting for half an hour? A pen with ink that changes colour just before it's about to run out? A wallet with a smoke-alarm that lets you know when your trousers are on fire? Nope - A chess set.
Oh, not just any old chess set, mind you - a saxophone chess set!
You've seen the sort of thing before, I'm sure - a themed chess set, perhaps based around the characters in a book or a film. It doesn't sound very complicated, I know, but think about it carefully...

If you wanted to build a chess set around, say, "The Lord of The Rings" you wouldn't have much trouble deciding which characters will represent which pieces on the board. It's a done deal that Aragorn gets the role of the white king, and maybe Saruman picks up the position of the black king - and thereafter you share the lesser pieces out among the varied and many characters - with the Orcs and Hobbits filling out the ranks as pawns on each side. Easy-peasy - but when it comes to a saxophone chess set it all seems to get messy really rather quickly.
The difficulty is in deciding where the various brands and models of saxophones produced down the years would sit in any kind of formal ranking - given that, unlike Lord of the Rings, there aren't any obvious 'goodies and baddies'...and whatever you end up choosing there's going to be a sizeable number of people who will completely disagree with you. If I had any sense at all I'd drop the idea right here and now, but if I don't work my way through it I think it's going to be one of those ideas that keeps coming back to haunt me, time and again.

The biggest problem is that you only have ten 'premier league' slots to fill, and when you consider how many fantastic and important saxophones have been built since the modern design was laid down in the 1920's, it soon becomes clear that some ruthless decisions have to be made. You also have to put aside any personal preferences - you might well think that the Yamaha Z tenor is the best thing since sliced bread, but does it have enough importance to merit a place among the hallowed few?
In a way it's a bit like the 'balloon game' - something of a favourite of debating societies, in which half a dozen or so prominent figures from history are taken for a trip in a hot air balloon which subsequently develops a leak...prompting an often heated discussion as to whom should be thrown overboard in order to ensure the survival of the others. It's always struck me as a slightly pointless game inasmuch as the hot air generated by six individuals trying to decide who gets chucked over the side would probably be more than enough to keep the balloon airborne - but you get my drift.

So, on the basis that I can write what I jolly well like here, and that I know a thing or two about saxes in general - here are my suggestions (and justifications) for a saxophone chess set.
I should point out that I make no distinction between the 'goodness' of white or black pieces, despite it being a popular choice for themed chess sets. I know I'm going to get enough flak as it is over my choices, never mind casting them in 'good' or 'bad' roles!

White players:

King - Selmer MkVI tenor/alto. I'm sure this choice will please many players, but even those who have never quite caught the Selmer bug will surely agree that the MkVI has been one of the most influential saxes ever built. It's been, and still is, the choice of many a top professional and its legacy lives on in the shape of many modern horns whose design has been inspired by it.

Queen - Conn 10M 'Naked Lady' tenor. Bit of an obvious choice really, what with the famously undressed lady adorning the bell, but in terms of historical importance the 10M carries quite a clout. To this day it's still the vintage horn of choice for a great many players.

Bishop - Keilwerth SX90R tenor. Bishops, traditionally, come in two types - saintly, and slightly dodgy. I'm thinking here of one that's perhaps a tad too well fed, and not averse to making off with some of the collection money. Slightly flawed, but nonetheless influential.

Knight - Buescher Aristocrat alto. The name itself implies breeding, and the Aristocrat is nimble on its feet and quick to respond.

Rook - Yamaha YAS62 baritone. To my mind, one of the finest baritones ever made, and of a suitably imposing stature that befits this sturdy and powerful piece.

Pawns - Bauhaus-Walstein bronze alto. A very new horn this, and a toss-up between this and the Jupiter 500 series - which has been the mainstay of student horns for many years. The BW wins out on being more versatile, and capable of performing beyond expectations.

Black players:

King - King Super 20 tenor. Another obvious choice, given the name, but nonetheless a formidable instrument even today. It's powerful, ornate and expensive. Let's face it, it doesn't get more grandiose than this.

Queen - Yanagisawa 992 alto. A very pretty horn, but devastatingly accurate and hugely powerful. It's a go-anywhere, do-anything alto, as befits its capabilities on the board.

Bishop - Mauriat 66R tenor. In keeping with the dodgy cleric theme, this relative newcomer has something of the 'wide boy' about it, but still carries enough authority to be taken seriously.

Knight - Conn 6M 'underslung' alto. The knight needs to be agile and quick, and can catch you unawares. The 6M fits this description beautifully, with an action that's second to none even today - and a tone that can switch from mellow to razor sharp in an instant.

Rook - Martin Handcraft baritone. A close call between this one and the Conn 12M 'Crossbar' - but the Martin pips the Conn at the post for its impressive depth and clarity of tone.

Pawns - Yamaha YAS23 alto. Ubiquitous is the word, and the word is ubiquitous. Common as muck, reasonably cheap - but reliable, with a down-to-earth character and a heart of gold.

So there you have it - my saxophone chess set!
I'm in no doubt at all that there will be cries of indignation when players see that their horn of choice isn't one of the top pieces, or even mentioned at all, but you have to consider the very tough choices I had to make. For example, where's my alto of choice, the superb YAS62? It's without doubt an extremely important saxophone historically, but I wanted to achieve a bit of balance within the set - and there are already two Yamahas in it.
See? It's not as easy as you think! I suppose, at a push, you could always go for individual pawns - but I consider that to be a bit of a cop-out. I'm not unreasonable though, and if anyone can make a decent case for their horn of choice I might well consider it - but it would have to be a damn good case, the competition is pretty stiff.



If you've enjoyed this article or found it useful and would like to contribute
towards the cost of creating this independent content, please use the button below.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2017