It used to be that what a stencil horn was, was clearly identifiable.
Vintage stencil horns: what were they?
Very simply put, a stencil saxophone is a horn that was made by one of the major manufacturers for another company or perhaps a music store. The ordering company would then have their name engraved, or “stencilled”, on the saxophone, and then the horn was sold without any reference to the actual manufacturer.
Oftentimes the major manufacturers would alter their main line of instruments slightly for their stencil productions, depending on what the ordering company wanted. American and European saxophone manufacturers were for the most part, all involved in manufacturing stencil horns for others.
For a complete discussion of vintage stencil horns, please see the stencil saxes page on my website.
Saxophone production today: How we got here
Today however, the definition of a stencil horn is not so clear. Over the last few years, there are fewer and fewer companies making their own saxophones. And with the fairly recent influx of saxophones from the East, it’s harder to tell the players without a program.
Factories in Taiwan and China make horns with a multitude of brand names, but how many make saxophones under their own names? (For example, we know Jinbao does.) How many factories only make stencil horns?
These are very good questions, but ones difficult to find the answers to. Jinbao—the makers of the French-style bass—do make a few with their own name engraved on it, but for the most part their horns are sold with names such as: Oleg, Hunter, International Woodwinds, Tuyama, Levante, Swing, and Wessex.
So with all these factories all over Taiwan and China producing their saxophones for other companies, music stores, and even individuals, it strikes me that many (most?) of the new saxophones sold today are stencil horns.
Think I’m wrong? Think about this for a moment: How many big name saxophone companies are left now? Selmer Paris. Keilwerth. (They are still around, aren’t they?) Yamaha. Yanagisawa. As well as a few smaller and boutique companies like: Borgani, Eppelsheim, and Inderbinen.
Now think about all the companies and individuals that have their saxophones made by the factories in Taiwan and China: Trevor James, Cannonball, P. Mauriat, Theo Wanne, Steve Goodson, Kenny G, SeaWind, etc, etc, etc. These are just some of the higher-end, name-brand, new stencil horns from the Far East.
Now think of all the cheap stencil horns that are found by the thousands all over eBay and online stores. Do you think that the combined sales of horns from the Far East out-sell Selmer, Yamaha, JK, and Yani significantly?
The answer is yes, which is why we’ve seen a major new product announcement from Selmer Paris as they try to compete with their new SeleS saxophone, and why Yamaha no longer produces its student horns in Japan. Established saxophone companies are having to shift their way of doing business in an effort to compete with the new kids on block… But it isn’t so rosy for all these new kids either.
I was recently told by a person in the know, that there used to be approximately 50 factories in Taiwan making saxes. Now there are only 5.
Why this remarkable reduction in saxophone factories? In part because they are getting squeezed out by cheaper labour in China. Does this sound familiar?
When Japan began manufacturing saxophones, this was the directly responsible for many European companies being forced out of saxophone production since they could no longer compete with the cheap Japanese products. It took a few decades, but a few years ago we already noticed that Japan was being beaten at its own game.
Cheaper labour costs in Taiwan were undercutting the prices of Japanese saxophones to the point where the Japanese companies could not compete with Taiwanese-made horns. Now we see the cycle being repeated yet again, as China aims to fill the world’s need for cheap consumer goods.
All this leaves me wondering: What country can beat China for cheap labour? Why are we as a society so obsessed with cheap consumer goods? What’s wrong with buying a quality item, and keeping it for our lifetime? (Aside from the fact that we are of course being bombarded by ads 24/7 telling us to buy product X or Y, to fill a supposed need we have in our life.)
So what is a stencil horn today then?
Given the plethora of factories cranking out saxophones with names, many of which no one has ever hear of before, I would argue that in today’s world almost all saxophones are stencil horns. Only saxophones coming from, and bearing the names of established manufacturers like Selmer Paris, JK, Yamaha, Yani, Borgani, Eppelsheim, et al, are not stencil horns.
Some companies like Selmer Paris don’t make stencil horns. Other companies like Yani and JK have made them in the past. That said, the economic situation today is such that very few, if any, companies are going to established saxophone manufacturers for their stencil horns. Instead company X is turning to factory Y in Taiwan, or more likely China, to have their new stencil horn made.