What Makes A Sax A Pro Model: Revisited

A few years ago I wrote an article about this before, but due to recent events I had an opportunity to revisit the question: What makes a sax a pro model? This came about because of my opportunity to do extended play-tests on a pair of SeaWind saxophones.

I currently have a SeaWind tenor and prototype baritone that I will be using in my upcoming performance at the Vancouver Art Gallery on February 6. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you likely know I don’t play modern horns. I’m a vintage horn player, so new and shiny doesn’t sway me.

baritone saxophone, SeaWind baritone saxophone, bari sax
SeaWind prototype baritone saxophone

That said, I’ve been very impressed by these two SeaWind horns—I’m especially fond of the baritone. I’m going to be very sad to have to give it back to the fine folks at SeaWind after my show at the VAG. :(   (A review of the horns will be out in the weeks to come. I’m currently working on it.)

SeaWind saxophones are being marketed as pro model horns. But what makes them that? Is it the fact that they’re assembled by hand here in Canada, and play-tested and adjusted before being sent out? That they were designed in Canada? That the factory that manufactures the parts in Taiwan has strict quality control measures? Is it that the features and build quality are that of pro level horns? All or any of the above?

I asked my repair tech last week what, in his estimation, makes one Asian-made saxophone a pro model, while another is considered an intermediate level horn. All things being equal, David felt it often comes down to reputation.

If saxophone brand X has a heavier marketing presence, or has a bigger name attached to it, it would more likely be perceived as a pro model than brand Y. This further led us down a conversational path that touched on many subjects including: modern stencil horns, manufacturing techniques, and the impact that horns from the Far East are having established firms like Selmer.

At this point it’s worth revisiting my original article from 2010. I’m surprised at how little I had to update four years later. I would be very curious though to hear your views on this subject. I hope you do chime in.

What makes a sax a pro model?

alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, soprano sax, Selmer Mark VI, set of saxophones, pro model saxophone

A set of Selmer Mark VI saxophones. No one would argue that these are pro model horns.

Since the fairly recent influx of horns from the far East, it is getting harder and harder to know the players without a program. Years ago when a student walked into my studio with a sax that they bought in a pawn shop or at a yard sale, and asked me: “So, what kind of sax do I have here? Could you tell me something about it? Is it a good brand? Is it a professional model? Is it a student model?” I could tell them something with a reasonable amount of accuracy. Nowadays, that’s much harder to do.

Long-standing saxophone manufacturers such as Selmer and Keilwerth, and even fairly recent newcomers to the world of saxophone manufacturing such as Yamaha, are finding themselves ever further crowded in the professional horn marketplace, by more recent upstarts such as Cannonball, Trevor James, and P. Mauriat. Besides these brands, there are a great many other Asian-made saxophones that seemingly appear out of nowhere, and multiple almost like rabbits. Hence my opening comment that it’s getting harder and harder to know the players without a program.

Over on the Woodwind Forum, a few of the other Content Experts and I discussed the question: What makes a “pro” horn, a “pro” horn? I suggested that we try to develop a checklist to help younger, or less experienced players try to identify what it is that they are actually looking at, when shopping for a new horn. Are they really seeing a pro model sax? Or is it really just a student model horn merely packaged and marketed as a pro horn?

I’ve started to liken the use of the term “pro horn”, with the use of the word “show dog”. It’s all pretty subjective. One breeder’s show dog, is another’s pet stock, just as one manufacturer’s “pro model” is another’s “student model”. For example, we need look no further than the Monique brand of saxophones that were sold a few years ago, and were marketed as pro horns. While they may have had fancy finishes, and a high F# key, they had:

…poor intonation, poor mechanics and poor build quality… [Furthermore, they were] made with very soft brass, as reported by a repair tech who tried adjusting a rod and ended up bending the entire lower stack, toneholes that weren’t level, bits o’ metal left from punching things out of molds and not sanding them down, pieces that wouldn’t fit right, etc., etc.

Source: Woodwind Forum Discussion On Professional Horns

It has been suggested that it would be difficult to develop a checklist for professional saxophones, because what one person wants, is not necessarily what the next person wants—for example a high F# key. Or how one person plays, is not how the next plays. In my estimation these are not insurmountable problems, as long as the standards are objective, and in some cases flexible. For example, a low A needs to be considered optional on baritone saxophones.

When looking at what makes a horn a professional model, vintage saxes have a unique place in this discussion. Vintage horns would need to be compared to others of their same time period, and while many of the professional criteria will apply, some may not. For example, the ability for any horn to play in tune is paramount. However, a vintage horn will likely have greater intonation variables that require slightly greater player correction, than a new, professional saxophone.

In doing some research into this topic, I came across Stephen Howard’s web page on Choosing a professional saxophone. Stephen has identified some key objective points that a player should be looking for when buying a pro horn:

  • Tone: While keeping in mind that the sax is really only an amplifier that projects your tone that is produced through a combination of yourself & your mouthpiece setup, it is true that each sax has it’s own core tone (not to mistaken with the main tone I discussed in my article about The 3 Aspects Of Saxophone Tone). This core tone will be apparent regardless of what mouthpiece you use on the sax. If you have different mouthpieces, obviously try them all, because they all might be quite different on the sax. However, the core tone of the horn will remain. Ultimately, the sax that allows you to project the sound you hear in your head, is the sax for you.
  • Response: How does a sax feel when it’s blown? Does it respond evenly up and down the entire range of the horn? Is there more resistance in a certain part of the horn than in another? A professional model saxophone will be consistent in how it responds over its entire range.
  • Feel: With this particular point, Stephen notes that one has to be careful, because most new saxophones—yes professional ones too—are extremely poorly set up, and usually require less than an hour with a competent tech to get the key action right. Therefore, rather than focusing on the key action, Stephen suggests that you check to see if the horn feels right in your hands. Is it well laid out for you? Is the neck strap ring in the right place, that it balances well given your height and shape?
  • Tuning: As Stephen points out, all saxophones play out of tune. You are the one that plays them in tune. The trick is to find a horn that you can play in tune. Since this list is hierarchical, Stephen points out that tuning would have been first or second on this list 30 or more years ago.
  • Value For Money: If you’re considering buying a new pro horn, you can find them in all kinds of price ranges. The question Stephen poses, is would you buy a less expensive pro horn, that gives you a great sound, but would require you to change your mouthpiece? Or would you spend 3 or 4 times that amount, and buy one that sounds great with the mouthpiece that you’ve got? Also, you can do a lot with after market necks. You can buy a less expensive pro horn, and add an after market neck, and still have spent less than if you’d have bought the more expensive horn. Stephen also cautions players not be swayed by the latest gadgets such as extras keys, and reminds us of the fork Eb of days gone buy. His point is that don’t be tied to the notion that the price of a pro horn is the chief determining factor of its quality.
tenor sax, Martin Handcraft tenor saxophone, silver plated sax, vintage horn, vintage sax, pro model horn

Martin Handcraft #68XXX, circa 1926. This was considered a pro model in its day, and has the build and sound quality to back that up. It’s tuning is spot on. It was my back-up horn for many years, and even my main horn for a while.

  • Vintage Horns: With vintage saxophones tuning needs to be the #1 consideration. Can you play it in tune? Does it play in tune with your mouthpiece? Are you willing to change mouthpieces? Key action is the next thing to consider. Are you able to play this (perhaps) ergonomically challenged sax? There are lots of pros and cons to consider when buying a vintage sax. His point here is don’t just jump onto the vintage sax bandwagon. Do your homework first.

While Stephen Howard has given us a great place to start, I think there are things that be added to this list, including:

  • Build quality. As demonstrated by the Monique example early on in this article, those saxophones didn’t pass the sniff test. The question is: How would a player find out about a horn’s build quality? Unless it’s glaringly obvious, short of taking the sax to a tech, I’m not sure it’s possible.
  • A good warranty that is supported by a company that stands behinds its products, and will work to ensure that any defects in workmanship and manufacturing are addressed. Purchasing the new saxophone through an authorized dealer is usually the only way to ensure such a warranty is honoured.

What do you think are the qualities of a professional saxophone? I’m sure there are things that can be added to this list. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

Large Ornamental Sax In Holland

If you’ve been following my weblog for a while, you likely know that I like to keep an eye out for photos of large saxophones that adorn the outside of buildings. The other day I happened across a shot on Flickr that shows an ornamental sax affixed to the outside of a music store in Wormerveer, North Holland.

Saxophone Teacher Lives Here

ornamental saxophone, ornamental sax, saxophone sculpture attached to building, Marjan Mol blaasinstumenten, Wormerveer, North Holland
Source: Flickr  Photography by: Michael Coghlan

I’m not sure why Michael Coghlan would title his photograph like this, since from the outside it would have been clear that this ornamental sax is affixed to a retail store called Marjan Mol. Even if you can’t read Dutch (BTW, blaasinstrumenten means wind instruments), a storefront should have given it away.  ;)

Since I didn’t know anything about either the town, or the store, a bit of Google sleuthing turned up a website for Marjan Mole blaasinstrumenten. Unfortunately a number of the pages on their site are still under construction, and those that are finished don’t offer up a lot of information.

A bit more Googling, this time on Google Street View, tells us that Marjan Mole blassinstrumenten was not yet located at Zaanweg 4, in July 2008—the last time this street was indexed by Google Street View. There is no large, ornamental sax on the outside of building, and no mention of the company’s name anywhere to be seen, just the name DE RUITER on the main floor, and a little green sign on the left side of the building.

Edit: I finally found a page on the company’s website that indicates that they opened on June 3, 2009. Apparently the owner opened up this shop when the one he worked at closed down after being in business for 46 years.

I don’t know what kind of repairs the shop does, or what kind of instruments Marjan Mole specializes in, but I must say I love their taste in signage.   :saxy:   Large ornamental saxophones always get my vote.   :down:

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

How About A Nasta Super Sax?

If you were born in the 1980s, and were into saxophones from an early age, then this Nasta Super Sax ™ Electronic Saxophone might have been the very first horn you ever owned.

Nasta Super Sax, electronic toy saxophone, 1990s toy, musical toy
Source: tonistoychest on eBay.com

If so, and if you’re feeling nostalgic, then you might be interested in the Nasta Super Sax ™ that’s currently up for sale on eBay. The seller describes this little toy from the 1990s like this:

Saxophone and box are in great condition and very clean. I tested it and it works. What you see in the picture is what you will recieve [sic].

Nasta Super Sax, electronic toy saxophone, 1990s toy, musical toy
Source: tonistoychest on eBay.com

Nasta Super Sax, electronic toy saxophone, 1990s toy, musical toy
Source: tonistoychest on eBay.com

Nasta Super Sax, electronic toy saxophone, 1990s toy, musical toy, instruction sheet
Source: tonistoychest on eBay.com

Although the photos show us a toy sax in seemingly good condition, the seller’s description doesn’t tell us much about the toy itself. Therefore I decided to see if I could find something out about the Nasta Super Sax ™.

A quick trip to Google found a number of sites that all basically say the same thing:

On Thursday, January 04, 1990, a U.S. federal trademark registration was filed for SUPER SAX by NASTA INDUSTRIES, INC., New York 10010. The USPTO has given the SUPER SAX trademark serial number of 74016150. The current federal status of this trademark filing is ABANDONED – NO STATEMENT OF USE FILED. The correspondent listed for SUPER SAX is Howard N. Aronson of Lackenbach Siegel Marzullo & Aronson, PC, One Chase Road, Scarsdale, NY 10583 . The SUPER SAX trademark is filed in the category of Toys and Sporting Goods Products . The description provided to the USPTO for SUPER SAX is Toy musical instruments.

Source: trademarkia.com

Then I happened across this gem of a site which has a copy of the 1990 Nasta catalogue. Apparently the Nasta Super Sax ™ had a Mega Mike ™ counterpart.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a video anywhere that demonstrates what the Nasta Super Sax ™ sounds like. Maybe the seller would like to upload an example to YouTube for us.

In any event, if you’re desperate to relive your youth, or you have a shelf of saxophone collectibles that won’t be complete without one of these, you’ll have to dig deep. The seller is asking $149.99 for this blast from the past. Hey, that’s about three times the amount that the average Sax-A-Boom is going for—and that’s with Jack Black using it as a stage prop.

As it stands, the sale is slated to end on February 15. Let’s see what happens. I can’t imagine it will sell at this price, buy hey, you never know.

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is www.bassic-sax.info. If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!