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Yanagisawa S6 soprano sax

Yanagisawa S6 soprano sax reviewOrigin: Japan
Guide price: £1000
Weight: 1.23kg
Date of manufacture: 1982 (serial range: 00114xxx)
Date reviewed: January 2018

Or is it...?

Following on from my review of the Martin/Yanagisawa S800 soprano, we now have its forerunner - the S6.
At least I think it's an S6.
Y'see, there's something of a problem with Yanagisawa sopranos from this era, which basically boils down to there being little solid information about what models were made, and when. For example, it was long thought that production of the S6 (started in 1968) ended when the S800 began ten years later in 1978 - but it now seems this wasn't the case, and both models were available for quite some time after the S800 appeared on the scene (certainly longer than could be accounted for by old stock). They were very similarly priced too, so it's not as if the S800 was considered to be a better model (as in the difference between intermediate/pro). In fact it's now believed that the S6 was in production until around 1990.
Things were made worse by virtue of Yanagisawa being inclined to meddle with the design of their horns throughout a production run. To be fair this isn't all that uncommon, but unless such changes are documented it's very easy to lose track in the mists of time. This can sometimes make it difficult to pin a model down, especially when there's no model number stamped on it. What may appear to be a different model may in fact be just a transitional one, or a special edition...or even one made for a specific geographic market.
And just to make matters worse, they 'did a Yamaha' and gave identical models different model numbers depending on where in the world the horn was destined for. And as if that wasn't enough they also produced a number of stencils too - which may or may not have had slightly different features to the official models.

I was told by the owner that this was an S6. It had been bought as such, and neither of us had any reason to doubt the provenance. However, during the course of servicing it and writing up review notes as I went along, I began to have some doubts. There was much about the S6 that reminded me of the Martin stencilled S800 I reviewed seven months ago, but it was supposed to be an older model...and yet it seemed slightly more modern.
I find this sort of thing rather annoying. Although I seem to have spent almost my entire life surrounded by saxophones, I can't honestly say that I've ever been all that interested in the historical minutiae. Is it well built? How does it feel? How does it play? Sure, this is my cup of tea - but when it comes to nailing down the differences between largely identical models (what you might call 'transitional' models) my eyes glaze over and my thoughts drift away to pints of foaming ale and a plate heaving with a large pie and an unfeasibly generous portion of chips.
If I were Emperor of the universe I'd make all manufacturers stamp model numbers and revisions on all their horns...and I'd make them do it retrospectively too. As this is unlikely to happen, I'm stuck with trawling around the internet trying to figure out who knows what...and who's simply making it up as they go along.

S800 superimposed on S6And having duly trawled I've reached a conclusion - it's not worth reviewing the S6, because it's as near as makes no difference to the Martin S800.
This too is annoying - not just because you good folks keep badgering me for more reviews and I don't like to disappoint you, but also because I can't now be sure which horn is what. Or what horn is which. And because articles like this will end up being a point of reference, I feel it's important to be accurate.

Of course, I realise I can't just say the S6 is the S800 without some evidence to back it up - so what follows are the collected observations I've made coupled with as much information as I've been able to glean from the usual sources. It's not definitive, by any means, but I think it brings some new information to the debate which may lead to further refinement of the truth at a later date.

As you can see from the opening shot, the S6 looks remarkably like the Martin S800 - but it would be useful if we were able to compare them side-by-side. What would be even more useful is if we were able to overlay one atop the with the aid of Photoshop, a lot of squinting and a bit of swearing, this is exactly what I've done.

This is the Martin S800 laid over the shot of the S6 - with the opacity of the Martin then reduced by half (so you can see through it).There's a little bit of disparity given that the shots were taken at very slightly different angles (and 7 months apart), but I think you can see that's they're more or less identical.
In fact the only clear and visible difference is the position of the A key pearl - it's a little further forward (toward the front of the key cup) than on the Martin. Remember this point, because it's going to prove interesting a little later.

I should also point out that there may be differences in things like tonehole size and placement, which would only be visible when the keys were removed. As and when other examples come in I might set up a jig so I can record this information (assuming I don't get bored of the whole thing in the meantime), because if there are any important difference, it's here where you'll find them.

As far as these two horns are concerned, the other differences are as follows:
The toneholes from the Auxiliary B to the top F# are plain drawn on the S6 - and on the Martin S800 they're silver-soldered on, which is the practice Yanagisawa use to this day on their sopranos. This certainly doesn't tie in with the production dates. Going from wholly drawn toneholes to partially soldered on ones is a big production line change, and it seems extremely unlikely that a manufacturer would put this build change in place...and then reverse it at a later date. The only way it makes any sense is if there are two distinct models (see addendums).

Yanagisawa S6 octave keyThe S6 thumb rest, while still flat and made from plastic, sports a textured surface for extra grip - and there's a change in the way the octave key touchpiece connects to the swivel mech. It's a simple fork and pin connector rather than the ball and socket joint that appears on the Martin.
The S6 tips the scales at 10 grams (less than half an ounce) lighter than the Martin - but this is easily accounted for by someone in the padding department being a little more generous with the shellac. In other words it's negligible.

In addition to these difference there are a few other features that changed over the years. I tried to put my findings into some sort of a chart, but it got extremely complicated very quickly, so I'm simply going to sum up my conclusions in a list. Again, bear in mind that these aren't conclusive - they're just based on what I was able to find while I spent many, many hours scouring the internet for images of S6/S800 sopranos whose build date could be confirmed by visible serial numbers - and that some of the models may have been misidentified by whoever put the photos online.

Ball and socket/fork and pin octave key connector
Smooth/textured thumb rest
Inline/offline A key pearl
Plastic/metal thumb hook
Metal/pearl side (chromatic) F# touchpiece
Various engravings/stamps

The ball and socket octave key connector ran from the start of the S6 range up until around 1980, when it was last seen on an S800. Hereafter the connector changed to the fork and pin style.
However, the fork and pin connector appeared on a Vito S6 stencil in 1972 - but the ball and socket connector reappeared on a 1977 Vito stencil.

The thumb rest originally had a smooth surface, which changed to a textured one around 1978. I also found a 1978 variant that had a dark red plastic thumb hook and thumb rest (textured). However, I subsequently worke on a model from the early 1980's that had a smooth black plastic thumbrest.

The pearl side F# touchpiece only appeared on Elimona badged examples - the earliest I found being a 1981 S800

The "Made By Yanagisawa" engraving seems to have disappeared around 1978, when it changed to simply "Yanagisawa". This changed around 1981/2 when it became a stamp.

Yanagisawa S6/S800 topstack pearlsThe offset position of the A key pearl (originally inline with the B key pearl) would seem to be the most likely candidate for a visible defining feature - but it appears on both the unmarked models and the Elimona-badged S800 (with the pearled side F# touchpiece) and seems to have run from 1981 to 1984.
There was clearly some jiggling going on around this time, because the recently-released 880 featured an inline A key pearl - which probably made more sense given the new palm key design (three separate keys, as found on all the larger horns).
Whenever I see seemingly arbitrary changes in key/touchpiece positions it rather makes me wonder whether the manufacturers had taken advice from a 'celebrity' player. Maybe they had especially long or short fingers, and persuaded the makers that such-and-such a change would be to the benefit of all players. This would last until the pile of letters complaining about the change grew too big to be ignored...or until another celebrity player suggested moving the keys back to where they were in the first place.
Who knows?

Here's a shot of the different A key pearl positions - and if you look closely you'll see that the 1986 S800 A key pearl hasn't been moved back quite as far as on the 1980 Martin S800 example, but still isn't as far forward as on the 1982 S6.

The metal thumb hook appears to be a standard feature up until 1978, after which it became plastic. Later models sometimes sport a metal hook, which may indicate it was either an optional extra...or players upgraded it themselves.

As I said earlier, what makes it all so difficult is the lack of a model number stamped on the horns - and given that I'm having so much trouble pinning down any consistent features, what are the chances that anyone else really knows what's what? And, it has to be said, a great deal depends on whether that Martin really is an 800.

We know for certain that the S6 sopranos produced from 1968 to at least 1978 would have featured an inline A key pearl, a smooth thumb rest, a metal side F# touchpiece, a metal thumb hook and a ball and socket octave key connector (the Vito stencils aside). After that it gets a bit sketchy, with 1981 looking to be a significant year of change (different engraving, offset A pearl). And perhaps that 1986 soprano with the inline A pearl indicates another change.

Soldered on toneholesThe only other feature that might nail it down is the palm key toneholes, and whether they're drawn or soldered (see addendums). Unfortunately it's all but impossible to see this on anything but the most detailed photo...and no-one really seems to bother taking such shots when putting a horn up for sale. So if you have an S6/S800, feel free to drop me a line and let me know.
It's not too difficult to spot them - just look around the base of the tonehole for a silvery ring, such as on these two examples from a 902.

It all adds up to a bit of a mystery, or at least a perplexing lack of delineation on Yanagisawa's part. The stencil stuff is understandable - dealer clients who order such production runs are usually looking for a cheaper model or merely something distinctive, so there are bound to be minor differences.
But what we appear to have here is almost complete confusion surrounding that period in time when Yanagisawa were switching from one model range to another.
There is a precedence, however. It's well know that certain Selmer MkVI horns carried on in production for quite some time after the staple altos and tenors had changed to the MkVII. In this light it begins to make sense.
It's also the case that a manufacturer will introduce a new range, but keep the old one on as a budget option (new ranges typically tend to be more up-market). This would fit in with the fact that the S6 ran concurrently with the S800 for a while - though the price wasn't all that different (£100 or so in it). And it's cheaper to change a few minor features on an existing horn and rebadge it than it is to bring a whole new one into production.

Yanagisawa S6 bellAnd there's also the possibility that a great many S800 sopranos are being misidentified.
It's easily done; you pick up an old Yani soprano, you do a search for a production date based on the serial number and you find an article that tells you the S6 went out of service in 1978. If your horn dates later then it must be the next model. Makes perfect sense.
But that's an awful lot of misattributed horns. Can they all be wrong?
There's also a credible suggestion that an S800 should carry the Elimona badge and sport a pearled side F# touchpiece.

I don't mind admitting that I'm way beyond throwing my hands in the air and crying "Hell and damnation! To heck with it all!" (or words to that effect) - and as this review draws to a close I'm very aware that I've not been able to provide much in the way of clarity.
I think you can be sure that any Yanagisawa soprano built between 1968 and 1978 is going to be an S6 and will have the features described earlier.
Any soprano built after 1978 that doesn't have a model number and sports an Elimona badge and a pearled side F# touchpiece is an S800.
For anything else I shall say this: It might be an S6, or it might be an S800 - but it seems extremely likely that they're essentially the same horns...give or take more or less bling and a sprinkle of marketing. And the real change came with the 880 series.

If this sort of thing really interests you, you might want to check out Pete Hales' very informative articles on the issue - but if you came to this page expecting to see a review of the Yanagisawa S6 you might be feeling (understandably) rather hard done by.
So - in terms of build quality and features it's the same as the Martin S800. In terms of feel it's the same as well. As for how it plays - it has exactly the same characteristics as the Martin, and I'd go so far as to say that if there's any difference between them it's likely only to be detectable if you were able to play them back-to-back...and any difference will be about as much as there is between any two apparently identical horns.
As the saying goes - the story's the same...only the names have been changed.


Nick Wyver posted some photos of his S6 on after reading this review. Dated 1981 (00108xxx), it's identical to the review model save for the A key pearl being inline - and even has the original manufacturer's product tag that says "S-6". I did an overlay with the review photo and found both horns to be a perfect match...and on this basis I can confirm the review model is an S6.

Carl Polke sent me some details of his soprano, dated 1979 ( 00101xxx). Identical to the review model save for a ball and socket connector on the octave key and fitted with a red thumb rest and hook (subsequently replaced). He also provided some clear shots of the palm key toneholes that showed they were drawn and not soldered.

Yanagisawa S6 00105xxx palm key toneholesHad an S6 in for repair - serial range 00105xxx - and it's rather added to my confusion because it has soldered toneholes from the Aux.B upwards. You can quite clearly see the telltale ring around the base of the holes, and were it not for the gold lacquer these rings would show up silvery against the brass. Note too the slightly textured appearance of the rings - you won't see that on a drawn tonehole.
The problem this poses is that we now have this sequence of known drawn/soldered toneholes:

00101xxx (1979) - drawn
00102xxx (1980) - soldered (Martin stencil)
00105xxx (1981) - soldered
00114xxx (1982) - drawn

I mentioned in the review above that this sequence was puzzling, but suggested that the Martin stencil might have been a different model. But this 105 example is a fully-badged Yanagisawa (engraved). The only way the sequence makes any sense at all is if I misidentified the 114 toneholes as being drawn rather than soldered. I guess it's possible - and unfortunately I don't have any clear shots of the toneholes in my archives. It's the only logical explanation, and one I'll stand by until such times as another 1982 S6 comes in and proves otherwise.
To further add to the confusion, this example sports a smooth black plastic thumb rest and a ball and socket connector on the octave key. The octave key fits the timeline, but the thumb rest doesn't.



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