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Borgani OBT 'Vintage' tenor saxophone/alto saxophone/Joe Lovano tenor

Borgani OBT 'Vintage' tenor sax reviewOrigin: Italy
Guide price: £5000
Weight: 3.24kg
Date of manufacture: 2022
Date reviewed: July 2022


Brand new horns; dontcha love 'em? All shiny (unless you went for an unlacquered model) and new, and ready for gigging straight out of the box.
Yeah, right. It's what we all hope for. Indeed, it's what we expect once we get much above a budget price-point - but the harsh truth of the matter is that hardly any brand new horns are as good as they could be. Or as good as they ought to be. Some retailers will go the extra mile and set the horns up prior to sale. This is an excellent practice - in theory. Sad to say, some of the 'set ups' I've seen have been bloody appalling - the last one came in with an action so optimistically lightly sprung that the low D key wouldn't open when the horn was laid flat. Complete waste of time.
Most players trust that the manufacturers have got everything bang to rights, and happily go about their business...blaming any difficulties on 'getting used to the new horn'.
But the canny ones whip their new baby straight round to a proper repairer and have them give it the old 'once over'. It's worth it. Even if you've bought a horn from a manufacturer that pays more attention to the details (typically Yamaha, Yanagisawa and TJ these days), there are always tweaks to be made that can lift the playability that little bit more.

And thus it was that this Borgani turned up on my workbench a little while ago. Fresh out of the box, mail-ordered straight from Italy.
I raised an eyebrow at the client. I've written many times about the (shall we say) tendency of the Italian manufacturers to big up the 'sound' and wander off down the pub when it comes to the nitty-gritty of engineering - and while I might have sighed at the client's impetuousness, I certainly couldn't fault him for bringing it straight round for a 'scrute'.
Very sensible.

So how did it work out? Well, let's have a look at what we have...

It's a Borgani OBT 'Vintage' tenor. I had a peek at the manufacturer's site to see exactly what constituted the vintage epithet, but as as far as I can tell it really only relates to the finish....assuming you don't pay much heed to the marketing-speak. Anyway, the upshot is that this is an OBT model with a scratched bare brass finish. Fair enough.

The horn features a single pillar construction throughout - not one single rib, strap, plate or saddle. It's single pillars...all the way down. The pillar bases vary in style - some are simple discs, others are thick and sculpted to match the curvature of the body. Makes no odds as long as they're of sufficient size, but the variation seems to be something of a Borgani quirk.
There's a triple-point detachable bell stay but the bell is soldered on. This might seem like an anomaly but there is some logic to it because if the horn gets damaged and the bell has to come off, the job is a lot easier if you don't have to faff around with soldered-on bell brace. Of course, it's easier still if you don't have to faff around with a soldered-on bell...
The toneholes are all plain drawn - and you get the usual bunch of fittings, such as a set of bumper felt adjusters on the bell key guards, an adjustable metal thumb hook, a curiously-dimpled plastic thumb rest (more on that later) and a 15/9mm sling ring.

Borgani Vintage tenor solderwotkThe construction was a little less than neat in places, with some evidence of sloppy solderwork here and there.
In mechanical terms it's unimportant; as long as the part is properly fixed to the body then that's all that really matters. Aesthetically, though, it does matter - and especially so at this price-point. It wouldn't have taken more than five minutes to have properly cleaned up the overspill around this joint - and about thirty seconds to sort out that little blob on the lower left. It's not impressive.

Borgani Vintage tenor toneholesWhat's also not impressive is the flatness of the toneholes - or rather the lack of it.
It's true to say that very few manufacturers turn out horns with truly flat toneholes - but most of the big manufacturers manage to get reasonably close to it. What you see here is the sort of unevenness that I'd expect to find on an Ultra-Cheap Chinese horn. I've only shown two of them, but I was spoilt for choice - there wasn't a single tonehole on the entire horn that made it to the "OK, well, that'll do" standard.
Of these two toneholes the upper one (Auxiliary F) is the nastiest. An awful lot of the playability of a horn depends on this key being set up spot on. Every tiny error here knocks a percentage point off the performance of the horn all the way down to the low Bb. It's perhaps a moot point on this horn because it had leaks right from the top down.

And when I say right from the top down, I mean from the crook downwards.
Borgani horns display their handmade credentials by dint of each key being marked with the horn's serial number - and the crook follows suit.
Or at least it's supposed to. This horn came with a crook that had a different serial number stamped on it.

Borgani Vintage tenor crook wobble I mentioned it to the client, who told me he raised it with Borgani when the horn arrived and was informed that it's because they 'match the crook' to the horn based on how well it performs. I find this a bit odd. I mean, it's a laudable approach - don't get me wrong - but if it was standard practice you'd surely leave the stamping of the serial number until you've selected a crook....because now you have two horns with serial numbers on their crooks that don't match that on the body.
I'm also somewhat sceptical because of the extremely poor fit of the crook. It has to be said, it's about the worst I've seen on a new horn - and surely, if someone's going to all the trouble to play through a bunch of crooks to find the best sound, they absolutely cannot have failed to notice that the damn thing doesn't bloody well fit properly.

And here's the thing. The nearer to the top of a horn a leak is, the more of an effect it's going to have. You'll surely have heard of the saying "Rubbish in - rubbish out" and it's fundamental to the integrity of a horn's airtightness. If you have a horn that's perfectly airtight save for, say, the low D key then most of the horn is going to perform perfectly well. The low and middle D will be a touch stuffier than normal - and the bell notes will have just that little less punch to them.
But put that leak right at the top of the horn and it'll make its presence felt over the entire range - and if there are any other leaks further down the horn it will just add to the accumulation of leaks.
Any decent repairer will tell you how important it is to have a well-fitting crook joint, and how much it boosts the tone and response of a horn.

Borgani Vintage tenor crook tenon sleeveHere's a shot of the crook tenon sleeve. A standard diagnostic test for a loose crook joint is to draw four lines down the sleeve with a marker pen. The crook is inserted into the receiver in the normal playing position and then rotated back and forth a few degrees before being withdrawn. This gives you a 'snapshot' of what's going on in the joint and can show you just what it is you're up against.
In this case you can see that there's some contact with the receiver at the top of the joint and the bottom. But it's not even. The upper line has more contact at the top of the sleeve and virtually none down the bottom. The lower line has less contact at the top and a little bit at the bottom. This is bad news. On a joint that's worn you'd see a similar pattern...but it would be even - so each line would typically show some scuffing at the top end and nothing at the bottom. That indicates that the tenon sleeve merely needs expanding (though it could also indicate wear in the receiver). What the pattern of wear here shows is that either the tenon sleeve or the receiver is out of round. And possibly both.

Borgani Vintage tenor receiver slotIncidentally, you'd do this test without the crook clamp screw being tightened up because it's not the job of this screw to form a seal in the joint - merely to lock the crook in place. And also incidentally, the animation above was made with the crook clamp screw tightened up. That's how bad the joint was. In fact it nearly made it into the Black Museum. It's no simple job to correct this - you could easily find yourself looking at a bill of £100+ by the time the joint has been rounded out, tightened up and lapped in.

Finally, a quick word about the slot in the receiver.
Just look at the size of it! The slot is necessary to allow the clamp ring to deform slightly and grip the tenon sleeve, but in most cases it's about 1mm wide and is barely longer than the depth of the ring. You could almost get a reed through that bloody gap, and what's with it being cut so far down the receiver? I mean, that's just asking for trouble down the line.
If you look closely you can also see that there's something going on at the lower right edge of the slot. See that little step up? No, I don't know why it's there either - but perhaps whoever cut it did so after they'd come back from the pub...

Borgani Vintage tenor engravingFinishing up the body is some rather nice engraving. I'd call it tasteful; it's not too florid nor too understated and sits well with the general look of the horn.
However, this too falls down on the finishing because someone forgot to go over the chasing and take down the burrs. It's by no means sharp enough to cut you, but if you're in the practice of resting your horn's bell over your legs on a seated gig you might find your best keks are going to end up looking a bit shabby.

OK folks, on to the keywork...

Borgani Vintage tenor compound pillarThe first problem I encountered was that quite a few of the pillars were too far apart. In most cases it was only by a millimetre or so (still not good) and easily rectified with a bit of judicious tapping with the trusty pillar mallet.
The anomalies on the compound bell key pillar were quite interesting. I've seen people ranting on the forums about having mail-ordered a horn and found that, on arrival, the bell keys are practically falling off. They're often quick to blame the manufacturers - but excess play here is very often the result of a knock to the horn. This can happen even when the horn's in its case (it's called shock damage) - whereby the force of the impact turns each of the keys into miniature slide hammers. With four keys hanging of the one pillar, something's gonna give - and it's usually the compound pillar that gets knocked backwards.
Is that what's happened here though?

It's unlikely, because while the G# (top key) and low B (third one down) show a large gap, the low Bb (second key down) is fine and the low C# (bottom key) isn't too bad. Shock damage wouldn't be selective - all the keys would show an equal gap here with the other end of the keys flush against their pillars.
I'll have to give this one the benefit of the doubt, but let's have a look at the rest of the keywork...

Now this isn't shock damage.
Borgani Vintage tenor side C leverMake no mistake, this is a huge gap. You won't see a gap between a pillar and a key barrel this large unless something has gone terribly wrong. Not even fifty years of wear and tear would account for it. No, a gap this large means that someone's been hacking at the key (often when a key has had to be cut off the horn due to rust) or the body has suffered some sort of trauma. Clearly neither of those two options would apply to a brand new horn - which leaves only one possibility; that the pillar has been fitted incorrectly.
Of course, there's another pillar at the lower end of this key that might be out of position - but it has two other heads on it; one each for the top E and F# keys. As both of these keys were a reasonably snug fit it meant that the side C upper pillar was the one that was out of place.

Borgani Vintage tenor C lever pillar fixedJust as with the wobbly crook, I'm struggling to see how this was allowed out of the factory. It's clearly not right, and equally clearly visible. Someone, at some point, had to say "Meh, that'll do". Well it won't do - so I put it right.
All neat and tidy, right? Yep - but what if this had been a lacquered or a plated horn? No matter how skilled (and lucky) you were, there would have been a witness mark that showed where a pillar had been moved.

But did I need to move the pillar?
The Borgani features sprung inserts on all the keys that are mounted on point screws. We've seen these before on other horns (Selmer uses them on some of their horns) - the idea being that they're supposed to provide a self-adjusting action. Borgani Vintage tenor key barrel insertI've never been a fan of them. In fact the worst example of them I've seen was on another Borgani - the OBA alto - in which I noted how many of the inserts were jammed in the key barrels.

With this in mind I checked each and every insert to ensure they were able to move back and forth within the barrel. I'm not going to say I'm happy to report that I found only one that was jammed - because even one is too many, but it's at least an improvement.

There's not a great deal you can do about this. If you start poking around down the barrel there's a chance that you'll drive the insert in even further - and if the key was reasonably snug beforehand, it certainly won't be now.
If the key isn't snug and the insert is jammed you're either going to need to drill the damned thing out and make a new one...or you're going to have to put some kind of 'filler' into the key barrel to take up the gap.

So with this ability for the action to self adjust, could I have left that pillar be? Yes, I could. The inserts would have taken up the free play - and in fact in order for the system to work you actually do need a little bit of a gap between the pillar and the end of the key barrel. But not as much as that.
It's bodgey and sloppy - and it's not what you'd expect to see on such an expensive horn.
Borgani Vintage tenor stuck key insterAnd while we're here, take a look at the end of the key barrel on the left. See how rough it is? See how rounded it is too? Almost all the barrels were like this. Squaring up the key barrels is an important part of key fitting. It ensures a good contact between adjacent keys or pillars which helps reduce wear, it helps to keep dirt from finding its way into the action - and it looks neat and tidy. This is particularly important on a high-end horn - after all, would you be happy buying an expensive car on which none of the doors lined up with each other? Of course not; above a certain price you expect such things to be 'just so' - and if they're not, well, there are other brands that do manage to get such niceties right.

So much for the point screws, what about the rods?
Oh my, where to begin...
There were two major problems here; the first was that the rod screws were undersized (or the key barrels oversized - take your pick), and the second was that the the pillars were similarly affected. What that leads to looks like this.

Borgani Vintage tenor topstack wearThis is the top stack, and there are two things going on here. The inaccuracy in the rod screws is allowing the keywork to move back and forth - and the same inaccuracy in the pillar is allowing the rod screw itself to move. That's a double whammy. In terms of how this affects the action it means that it's virtually impossible to regulate the action properly. If you press any key in the upper stack down it also brings down the Auxiliary B (shown in the gif). Ideally you'd want this key to come down the same amount and at the exact moment as the key you pressed. But when there's this amount of play in the action, the Aux.B key is going to push back against it and take it up...which means the key will open slightly. And that's a leak. And never mind that it makes the action feel bloody awful.

Borgani Vintage tenor low C keyTo really experience the full horror of it you can do no better than take a peek at the low C/Eb keys.
Granted, the play here is a great deal less critical than that on the main stacks but it'll still have an effect on the accuracy of the low C pad seat, and it isn't going to do the feel of the action any favours. And yes, although I'm rather stressing the keywork (as can be seen by the slight movement of the lower pillar), this amount of play can only get worse over time. Almost all the larger rod screws were affected in this way along with a few of the smaller ones - and those keys that weren't still exhibited axial play. Much, much more to the point - none of it should be there, not on a brand new horn in this price bracket.

For the geeks amongst you I can report that the original (large) rod screws came in at 2.98mm diameter and that the smallest size rod that fitted snugly through the most overdrilled pillar was 3.18mm. On paper that's just a 0.2mm difference - but you can clearly see what that means for an action. In order to fix the action I had to ream out all the larger keys and associated pillars to 3.18mm.
The smaller keys (palm and side keys etc.) weren't so badly affected, but still required work to snug them up and to ensure a proper fit between the pillars.

Borgani Vintage tenor thumb restI mentioned the curiously-dimpled thumb rest earlier, and here it is. Anyone know why they did that?
It's not a solid lump - if you press a fingernail into to, it deforms...which means it's quite thin. Not sure how that's going to stand up to wear over the years. I also found it slightly annoying under the thumb, but that might just be me.
Of more note is the distance from the thumb rest to the octave key touchpiece. That's quite the gap there. One of the reasons you fork out piles of cash for an expensive horn is that (you hope) more thought has gone into making everything as slick and precise as possible. That gap is not slick or precise and is about twice as large as it ought to be.

....Whereas the pillars on the thumb key are rather smaller than they ought to be.
See how the key barrel projects out past the face of the pillar? What's happened here is that Borgani have used the smaller sized pillars (as found on the palm and side keys) but with a full size key barrel (as found on the main stacks). Granted, it's a very minor point - but it bugs me something rotten.

Borgani Vintage tenor padsThe pads are unbranded, but they look to be of at least decent quality - and they're glued in place with a reasonable amount of hot melt glue. However, they seem to be quite soft and have been set with very deep impressions. It's debatable whether or not that matters, but most repairers these days tend to use at least medium-firm pads set with a light impression - and most manufacturers fit medium-firm pads to their horns.

It's a curious choice, unless you consider that trying to seat a firm pad with a light impression on a wonky tonehole is a truly Sisyphean task. Much easier to whack in a soft pad and clamp it down hard until it takes a seat. It works...for a while at least.

And speaking of soft and squishy, the corkwork on the Borgani is not much to write home about. Indifferent sums it up nicely. It's not terribly neat in places, and there's limited use of more modern materials. Some plastic/silicone tuning has been used where a lever arms connects to another key, but it's quite squishy. It's a minor point, but it slightly affects the feel and response of the action. Other manufacturers of horns at this price-point (and well below it) are using buffering material more intelligently - and with more neatness. And given that there are no stack regulation adjusters on this horn, a bit of composite cork or synthetic felt here and there really wouldn't have gone amiss.

Well, I don't know about you but I'm rapidly running out of the will to live - so let's wrap up the tech specs with a few good points and get to the crux of the matter.
Proper mother of pearl key touches, nicely domed metal Bis Bb touchpiece, fork and pin connectors on side keys, F# helper arm, blued steel springs, elegantly-rounded key cups...and comes in a Bam Softpack case.

Under the fingers the horn, wait...what's the point?
The difference between how this horn came into the workshop and how it left it is chalk and cheese. If the build quality seen here is indicative of what Borgani are chucking out at the moment then you're not going to be able to buy a Borgani that feels like it did after I'd tweaked it unless you chuck another £500 or so at it. And if you chuck that much at the action of just about any half-decent horn, it's going to feel just fine.

Borgani Vintage tenor Tonewise? When it came in it was weak, stuffy, indistinct, tiresome and uninspiring. By the time I'd finished with it, it had a solid, presentable, middle-of-the-road slightly warmish sound - though perhaps a little understated when compared to my TJ RAW. In fact I'd go so far as to say that the tone is almost identical to that of the RAW, except that the Borgani has a softer response and doesn't have that nice glittery shimmer around each of the notes.
But none of that really matters, because the bigger picture here is about expectations. That's your expectations when you fork out five grand for a horn, and my expectations when someone brings me in a high-end horn for a service. I mean, what do you expect for that much money? A horn that works straight out of the case? An action that's slick, responsive and reliable? Some integrity of build, some artistry perhaps? It's clearly not too much to ask because Yamaha can do you an 82Z at around four and half grand, or an 875EX. Yanagisawa will see you right with a TWO20 for much the same price - and if you push the boat out just a little you can bag a Selmer SA80II for just over five grand. Fancy something a little different? Rampone and Cazzani's R1 is about four and a half - and bang on five grand is the very lovely Andy Sheppard.

All of these horns have one thing in common; they're well-built. You get what you pay for. Sure, they all have niggles - but nothing showstopping. Calling what I found on this horn niggles is like having your leg slowly chewed off by a carnivorous sloth and saying "It's only a flesh wound".

I mentioned earlier that I'd been to the manufacturer's site - and had been regaled by lots of effusive marketing-speak about the ethos behind the 'vintage' brand.
I have to say I'm impressed. Not only have Borgani striven to provide you with a horn that attempts to match the look and sound of yesteryear's horns - they've pulled out all the stops and provided you with an action to match. Yep, when you buy a Borgani vintage you get a vintage sound, a vintage look...and an action that feels like it's seen 70 year's worth of wear. Now that's what I call attention to detail.

I thought long and hard about how to approach my review summary. Should I be diplomatic? Should I be cryptic? Should I just present the evidence and let you make up your own mind? Or should I say what I really feel?
What I feel is angry. Sure, I get annoyed when I see silly errors and slip-ups that should have been caught during quality control - and I get frustrated when I see the same mistakes being turned out time and again. But there was almost nothing on this horn that passed muster and I simply couldn't work out why anyone would think this kind of build quality was acceptable on such an expensive horn.

It's deeply, deeply disappointing to see stuff like this on my workbench. I cannot recommend it.


Borgabi Vintage tenor with Yamaha thumb hookHaving played it for a couple of weeks the client asked me to make a couple of modifications.
The first was to replace the thumb hook. I didn't personally find it too uncomfortable, but he did - and we both agreed that the slotted nut (used to tighten the hook down) was fussy and not terribly reliable. So he purchased a Yamaha thumb hook assembly, which I duly fitted. It's a much nicer arrangement - plus it allows for a degree of height adjustment.

Borgani Vintage tenor thumb rest modThe second mod was to replace the dimpled thumb rest. It didn't take him very long to find that the dimple was distracting and uncomfortable - so I made a replacement rest in cocobolo. It also allowed me to make the rest slightly larger in diameter, thus dealing with the overly large gap between the rest and the thumb key.

With these modifications in place, and the remedial work carried out to bring the horn up to the proper spec, I'm delighted to report that he's very happy with it.

*Or at least he was. While he was at the workshop I brought my TJ RAW tenor in for a bit of a comparison - and let him have a blow of it. He seemed impressed - but rather more than I imagined. He emailed me a while back to say that he couldn't get the sound and feel of the RAW out of his head. I suggested that spending some quality time with the Borgani would surely cure that...but it didn't. He subsequently bought a RAW and will be selling on the Borgani.
That doesn't take anything away from the Borgani at all - we each have our tonal preferences - but it perhaps goes to show that buying a horn on spec because you've read a few forums and watched a couple of videos is never going to be a replacement for actually trying out a horn before you part with your money.


Borgani Vintage alto saxAddendum November 2022 - Borgani Vintage alto saxophone

Shortly after the above review was published I had a client contact me to arrange inspection/repair of a Borgani horn. It's the same model as the one above, but this time it's an alto.
Borgani Vintage alto crook socketI thought about running up a separate review but as the design/build is identical to the tenor and the particular focus of the review would certainly be the build quality, I felt it made sense to place it here.

This example was bought new in May of 2022, direct from the factory at a cost of around £4000. In terms of the manufacturing timeline I can't, of course, be certain about which horn was built first - but as they were both bought within a month or so of each other I think it's quite reasonable to assume that they paint a consistent picture of recent manufacturing standards.
Naturally I was quite keen to see whether the build quality differed from that of the tenor, and to kick off with I'm pleased to report that the crook was a reasonable fit. It also bore the same serial number as the horn - so I presume that whoever did the 'crook matching' decided that the crook that was built for this horn was the best sounding one...

One of the first things I noticed was that the expansion slot in the crook socket/receiver had been rather more neatly cut than that on the tenor. I still feel that it's rather too long given that it extends almost half the length of the tenon sleeve.

So that's the good news done and dusted.
The bad news is that the action suffered from almost exactly the same faults as I found on the tenor - resulting in most of it needing a rebuild.
There were some differences though; in some places the action was slightly better than on the tenor, in other places slightly worse. Swings and roundabouts.
The client told me that the horn arrived with a damaged crook; the tenon sleeve was dented and the mouthpiece tube opening was out of round. Neither of us could work out how this could have happened in transit because the horn was shipped with the crook placed down the bell, in a padded bag. It therefore seems likely that it was dropped or somehow crushed before being packaged up with the horn.
Borgani Vintage alto top DHe contacted Borgani about this and they had him return the crook, which was later sent back to him repaired.
Obviously it would have been nice if it hadn't happened in the first place but you certainly can't fault Borgani's response.

So let's walk through the action and see what's what...
First up, the palm keys. As per the tenor the rod (or hinge) screws were undersized for the pillars and key barrels, resulting in quite severe play in the keys. You could perhaps remedy the situation by swedging the barrels but that would still leave you with the issues of the overdrilled pillars. You could perhaps peen these up - but you'd still have to make a new rod screw because the fitted one is too short.
Might as well bite the bullet and upgrade the whole lot with a new, larger diameter rod screw. Sorts everything out in one go. The Eb key was similarly poor - but the top F just barely scraped past the test and was upgraded anyway...just for consistency's sake.

The low C/Eb key suffered from the same problems.
I suppose you could say that it's not that much of an issue because the spring tension will tend to take up such play - and it will, provided the tension is high enough.
Borgani Vintage alto low CThis, of course, limits how light you can set the action - and in any event it's not the job of the springs to take up defects, they're there to simply power the action. In the meantime it makes the action feel spongy and imprecise - and as the action wears still further (which it will do, at a faster rate than normal) it'll eventually get so bad that even the springs can't deal with it. So that's another upgrade job then.

The main stack keys were somewhat hit and miss.
Some keys were wobbling on the rod screw, some were a passable fit - but this was academic because both stack rods were undersized for the pillars.
This is especially problematic on stack key groups because there are a number of keys that are linked together - and if there's wear or free play in any one of them it'll throw the regulation out...and that will lead to leaks.
Borgani Vintage alto lower stackOn the lower stack there were noticeable gaps between the key barrels and the pillars, with the worst example being that on the low D key.
At first glance it might appear that the pillar's been knocked back - but it hasn't because its face is parallel with the next pillar up the stack. So it's either been fitted too far back or there's a problem with the length of the key barrel. And that of the low C# lever.

I found something very curious on the top stack; look at the height of the B key's barrel in relationship to the adjacent pillar. What's going on here?
It looks as though the B key's barrel has been drilled off centre, but it hadn't been - rather it's the pillar that been drilled off whack. It's not a problem, per se, as long as all the holes in the pillars line up (which they did) - it just looks a bit naff and isn't at all ideal in terms of providing the maximum bearing surface for the B key barrel and the lower barrel of the Auxiliary B key.
Borgani Vintage alto upper stackIt could be fixed, but it's a bit of a big job. You'd have to remove the pillar, fit a small extension piece to the base to raise the overall height - fill the screw hole, refit the pillar and then drill out a new hole.
The thickness of the pillar bases varies depending on where they're placed, so I'm wondering if perhaps the wrong base was specified for this pillar as a one-off error. I won't really know until another alto comes in - and if it exhibits the same problem it's likely to mean that the stock pillar for this position is too short.

Borgani Vintage alto side C keyThe side key cups were spectacularly awful.
Here's the side C key - and you can clearly see the rod screw poking out from the gap between the end of the key barrel and the inner face of the pillar. I've seen this sort of thing before - on vintage horns that have been around the block a good few times without so much as a lick of servicing. And on some of the worst examples of Chinese-built Ultra-Cheap horns.

Here's a more detailed look at what's going on.
On any well-made horn the key barrel butts up against the head of the pillar at the red line - which represents the perpendicular. This results in a nice, neat joint that ensures the key is held snugly in place - and maximises the bearing surface...which reduces wear.
When a pillar is made it's usually left a little oversized on the bearing side (that which faces the key barrel) and at the time of fitting the keys a small tool is used to cut this surface to ensure it's perpendicular to the through hole (which the rod screw sits in) and that the key fits between the pillars.
Borgani Vintage alto side key  graphicThis process is call 'facing'. Similarly, the key barrel will be made a little longer than necessary so that it too can be faced off to fit. This process can be done before finishing (applying lacquer or plating) or afterwards. In some cases the body is finished after the pillars have been faced and the keys are faced later.
If the manufacturing process is suitably accurate it's possible to make the parts to a tolerance which either eliminates the need for facing or reduces it to a minimum. This is fine for a much cheaper instrument, but on a high-end horn it's reasonable to expect that some key fitting will have taken place.

The disparity between the pillar and the key barrel in this instance is, well, massive - and, for me at least, it raises the question as to how this came about. Could it be that the pillars and barrel were faced - and then the person who polished the horn completely buffed the nuts off everything? Seems a bit unlikely. It would account for some of the rounding off on the barrels and pillars that we saw on the tenor, but surely nothing as severe as what we see here.
And given the disparity and the fact that the key was able to move axially between the pillars, there can't have been any facing carried out at all. Which leaves the only other possibility; the pillars and barrels were made like this...and then bunged on the horn. That's a bit crappy.

Borgani Vintage alto side C key pillarHere's a very revealing shot of just how oversized the pillars had been drilled. As I said earlier, you can tighten the barrel up on the screw all you like, but that huge amount of play in the pillar is just going to render the work a complete waste of time. All in all I had to upgrade all of the rod screws bar the G# and low C# cup keys (which at least shows that Borgani can get it right...sometimes).

As for the keys that are mounted on point screws it was pretty much the same affair as on the tenor. The alto didn't have the mispositioned pillar on the side C lever key, but most of the pillars were too far apart in relation to the length of their corresponding keys. And, of course, they all had the characteristic rounding off on the barrel ends.

Borgani Vintage alto jammed insertI checked all the sprung inserts and, again, just like on the tenor found one in the side keys that was jammed - the side Bb lower one. Might just be a coincidence or it might indicate that there's a problem with the inserts in the side key levers. Won't really know for sure until more examples come by the workbench.

In terms of the construction the alto was more neatly assembled than the tenor. I had a good look around but didn't spot any sloppy solderwork - so maybe the person who assembled this horn is a bit more of a dab hand with the old gas gun than whoever put the tenor together.

Toneholes? Same old, same old. None were even reasonably level, some were really quite poor indeed - like the low C tonehole shown here.
Very few manufacturers seem to be able to turn out horns with flat toneholes these days, but most do a rather better job than this.

Borgani Vintage alto low C toneholeOnce fully tweaked the horn was very much improved from the state in which it came in. The action felt far smoother and slicker, the response was much better and it was far less of a struggle to play. The only thing I didn't much care for was the physical response of the low C# key - it felt a little bit less than snappy. I did some tweaks and swapped out some buffering, which helped - but my feeling is that the geometry between the lever key and the cup key is wrong. But due to the handbuilt nature of these horns it might just be a one-off.

Tonewise it's a nice blow. Like the tenor it leans towards the warm. If I had to throw a comparison at it I'd say the the Selmer BA would be a good bet. It's got that enhanced midrange response which makes it a great ballad horn - and just the right amount of polish and shine on the upper harmonics. I noticed a slight pinching on the tone on the top C, but then that's something I often notice on Selmers.
It's got a lot of presence too. You know how some horns seem to 'sound introverted' - like the sound that comes out of them wraps itself around you rather than project outwards? Well, it's not at all like that. It sounds like it's loud, even when you're playing quietly. That's a nice touch. It'd be a nice horn for those players who like their altos a little bit on the tenor side.

Having been very disappointed with the tenor I really was rather hoping the alto would pass muster. Followers of a particular brand are understandably rather indignant when an example gets a poor review - and it's often the case that the cry of "But it's just a one-off!" goes up. But we had all this with the Keilwerth SX90R. If you work on horns for long enough and you really understand the engineering processes involved you can generally spot a trend coming a mile off simply by knowing how the mistakes were made.
It's also understandable that folks might say that perhaps someone had a bad day, or that the person who does the quality control was off on a sickie when a particular horn made it out of the factory gates. Frankly they're pretty poor arguments because it still leaves the question as to whether the manufacturing process and subsequent inspection is adequate for a horn of this price.
I think the alto addresses that question, quite unequivocably. Or, to put it another way, "Fool me once..." - well, you can fill in the rest.

I couldn't recommend the tenor and neither can I recommend the alto. I sincerely hope that the folks at Borgani will give their collective heads a bit of a shake and have a very serious think about how they're going to compete against the likes of Yamaha, Yanagisawa et al - because the horns are potentially very good....they're just knackered by indifference. It's a bloody shame.


Borgani Joe Lovano tenorAddendum April 2023 - Borgani Jubilee 'Joe Lovano' tenor

I've had a couple of people take up my offer to look over their Borgani horns - one being this Jubilee 'Joe Lovano' model (estimated build date around 2010 - serial range: 195xxJ) and the other being an OBS soprano...for which I'll do a separate review. As this tenor is essentially the same mechanical design as the Vintage (right down to the scratchy engraving on the bell) I'll skip over the basic details and simply summarise my findings.

The body tube is nickel silver, finished in what seems to be a sort of frosted silver finish. The keywork is brass - and what at first appeared to be gold plating turned out to be gold lacquer over nickel plate and (then) gold plate. This is rarely a good idea; lacquer just doesn't hold onto plated surface at all well, and this accounts for the rather tatty appearance of the keywork.
I should also mention that the alloys used for both the body and keys are incredibly hard. In rebuilding the action and precision levelling the toneholes I found that quite a lot of elbow grease was required - particularly so when sorting out the toneholes. Tech note: If you're taking on one of these horns for tonehole work I'd recommend bumping up your usual price by 50%.

Given that it's a nickel silver body you'd expect the horn to be a bit heavier than the brass version - and so it is. It tips the scales at 3.31kg, which makes it 70 grammes heavier...or around two and half ounces in old money. Not a great deal really, and rather less than I would have expected.
As far as the construction of the body goes there's not much to comment on. There are the usual variety of pillar bases - but for the most part everything's neat and tidy.

Borgani Joe Lovano tenor toneholeThe toneholes, though, were all over the place. Here's a shot of the low Bb. It wasn't the worst - it was just the easiest to photograph. It's absolutely bloody hopeless. But hey - this is an old(ish) horn, right? It's been round the block a bit, it might have had a knock or two. Yep, it's entirely possible - but after almost 5 decades of tweaking horns you kinda get a feel for what's 'damage' and what's 'carnage'. Putting on my 'reasonable hat' I can discount the bell key toneholes...but I wasn't at all hard put to find other equally shonky toneholes on the main stacks.
On the plus side Borgani have sidled around this problem by fitting the squishiest pads available. Now, I'm not one of those protagonists for the old 'extra hard pads are the gold standard'. They feel desperately awful under the fingers and require a very great deal of precision in the action and a lot of skill in setting them - which are, sadly, in very short supply these days. But most horns should work just fine with, say, Premium Deluxe pads or even just bog-standard medium-hard brands - but the Borgani needs extra-squidgy pads to disguise the inherent problems in the build.

The play on the keywork was abysmal. As per the wobbly toneholes I reckon I'm pretty adept at spotting what's down to fair wear and tear and what's down to shoddy manufacturing. It takes a very great deal of time to wear the keywork to the degree this horn exhibited; certainly far longer than the age of this horn. Nope, there's no doubt about it - the sloppiness in the keywork was built in from the factory.

Borgani Joe Lovano tenor G# playHere's the G# cup key, showing rather more than the kind of wear I'd expect to see on a much-gigged horn from the 1930s. This is particularly nasty because the regulation arm that sits atop this key (to prevent it from opening when the bell keys are pressed) won't have the ability to stop the back of the key cup from lifting - at least not unless you screw the adjuster way on down...but then that will prevent the Aux.F key from fully closing. Either way you look at it, this horn would nearly always have had a leak on or around the G#.
This key is entirely representative of all the other rod screw mounted keys, which makes setting up the regulation with anything approaching even vague accuracy completely impossible - and as such the client accepted my recommendation to ream out the keys and pillars and fit oversized rods.

Regular readers of my reviews might recall my taking Yanagisawa to task for presenting a five grand horn with just 0.15mm of play in the top stack (which, credit where credit's due, they subsequently sorted out). I didn't need a set of precision feeler gauges to measure the axial slop in the Borgani's keywork - I could have poked the tip of a screwdriver into some of the gaps. And just to drive the bodgey point home, almost all of the rod screws were too short.
Borgani Joe Lovano tenor low C# rod screwHere's the low C# cup key rod, hiding away deep inside the pillar...
You might not think this matters much - at least from a mechanical perspective - but pillars wear in much the same way that key barrels do, and the less 'meat' you have wrapped around the head of the screw, the sooner you'll get free play.

The point screw mounted keys threw up something of a surprise. When I inspected the horn I noted that most of these keys exhibited a noticeable amount of play. Upon stripping the horn down I found out why.
Unlike all the other Borganis in this review, the point screw mounted barrels aren't fitted with those awful sprung inserts - but here's the thing; they look like they've almost been drilled to take one. And I say almost because the holes are quite some way larger than the diameter of the screw point, and much deeper than the length of the point - but not deep enough to take an insert. It's a sort of halfway house which leaves the keys wobbling about on their pivots - because neither the diameter of the points nor the (pseudo) tips are able to make constant contact with the key.

Borgani Joe Lovano tenor point screwThis shot shows the length of the screw's tip against a reamer - with the red line indicating where the end of the key barrel would be. As you can see, the hole in the barrel is almost half as deep again as the length of the tip. The proper fix for this would be to make up a set of bushes and solder them in place, thereafter reaming them out to match the profile of the point screw. This is, of course, quite an expensive operation - so Borgani have got around the problem by stuffing the barrels with some sort of fibrous synthetic material.Borgani Joe Lovano tenor  point screw fluff
And, naturally, being Borgani the stuff they've used has turned out to be either insufficient or unsuitable. Or both.
The truly daft thing is that there's a reasonably cheap and effective fix for this - namely using a piece of suitably-sized nylon (or some other robust plastic) tube. Simply cut it to the right length, pop it in the key barrel and then fit the key. It lasts a good long while, does a good job - and it's something the average DIYer can do themselves.

Anyway, I think you get the gist - it's quite clear that this example conforms to the standard seen in the models reviewed above, and there's really not much else that's worth saying about it other than once the build issues had been sorted out the horn was left with rather a nice action and a much more positive feel under the fingers.

Borgani Joe Lovano tenor lacquerTonewise I'd describe the Lovano as having a somewhat warm presentation. It's a bit of an odd one actually, because it's not warm in the sense of, say, a Martin or a Conn - rather it's more than there's not quite as much brilliance around the edges of the notes as you might expect. I suppose I'd describe it as a straight-ahead jazz tenor that's just a little bit soft around the edges. Compared to the Vintage I'd say it was a slightly more laid-back horn - y'know, a bit relaxed and not quite so eager.
But, of course, these are very individual horns - so I'd expect to see some tonal variation between otherwise identical models.
It also suffers from a touch of unevenness in places. The A is noticeably muted compared to the B and the G, and there's a distinct murkiness to the middle D...perhaps a bit less so on the low D. You'll notice it more when playing very quietly - when you push the horn a bit harder it evens out a bit more. I guess the mark of such horns is that they're supposed to be distinctive, and in that respect it fulfils the brief. It only remains to be see whether that's something that floats your boat.
As for my comments about the scratchy engraving on the Vintage tenor - the client who owns the Lovano informs me that the bell will rip through a pair of tights in no time at all. You have been warned.

Bottom line, then. It's a nice horn with a distinct tonal presence - but severely hampered by imprecise toneholes and dreadfully sloppy keywork; all of which will cost many hundreds of pounds to fix properly. Factor this in when purchasing.




If you've recently bought a Borgani and are concerned or curious as to whether your horn suffers from similar issues, you are invited to bring it along to the workshop for a free inspection. In the course of the inspection I shall examine and test the instrument and take photographs as necessary, whereafter they will be added to the this review (good or bad). In return for your time I will carry out a basic setup and lubrication job on your sax free of charge.


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