Vintage Or Modern: Choices, Choices, Choices

When it comes to choosing a pro horn, there are literally hundreds of makes and models to choose from if one is open to either vintage or modern saxophones.

Anyone who knows me, or has visited my website, knows that my inclination lies towards vintage horns. I didn’t really make that choice consciously to begin with: it just happened 20+ years ago when I acquired my first pro level horn. I should note, that when I got my first used Mark VI (my tenor) in 1981, it was about 9 years old, so it wouldn’t have been considered “vintage” at the time. I should also note, that there are those in the saxophone playing world who don’t consider any Selmer Mark VI vintage at all, since that model heralded the change in ergonomics that would forever change all makes and models of saxophones that followed. However, that’s a topic for another day. So for today, let’s just go with the Mark VI as being vintage by virtue of its age, OK?

Over the past 10 years, the saxophones I have sought out, are of the vintage variety. I am drawn to them for an inexplicable reason: it certainly isn’t their stellar ergonomics. Vintage saxophones are not for everyone. They can be finicky beasts with temperamental dispositions that require patience & greater embouchure control, and thus are not the best choice for beginning or even all  intermediate students.

Just as an aside, for my students just starting out (especially young ones in school), I never recommend a used vintage pro horn, despite the fact that many of them can be found at the same price point, or less, than a new student or intermediate model horn. For my young newbies I usually suggest a good, used YAS 23 or YTS 23 if they can find one. Although I personally don’t like the Yamaha brand for myself, the student model horns are easy to get a sound from because they have very little resistance compared to vintage horns, and they are incredibly easy to play in tune (something that vintage horns sometimes seem to not want to do at all).

Vintage saxophones, much like vintage anything, have a unique quality about them. I think it has something to do with the fact that these objects have a history. Someone else owned them before we did. Many of them existed before we were born. Used musical instruments have a mystique about them that goes one step further than mere history. Music is something that’s “alive”. It’s in the “moment”. It can enhance moods, settings experiences, feelings, memories, sensations, and almost every human emotion. 

When I look at a vintage musical instrument I always wonder: Who played you? Where did you get played? Who listened to you?  What kind of stories could you tell if you could talk?

When I experience the tactile sensation of holding that same musical instrument, at that moment I wish I had a more active imagination, or real psychic ability (think Patricia Arquette in Medium) , and could actually feel some of the history that this instrument was part of.

If the musical instrument is a saxophone, and I take this tactile experience to its fullest level and actually play the horn, I really wish that I had a psychic ability to see some of where this horn has played in the past. But alas, I don’t. And perhaps that is a good thing. Due to my “limitations” my romanticized version of events is intact, because nothing would be more depressing than feeling/seeing/sensing/whatever a wonderful old horn being groped by a bunch of middle school students year after year after year. I prefer to think that the saxophone in my hands might have been the one that was played in the swing band where 2 people met, fell in love, and lived their lives together. Wow…Am I romanticizing or what?…

All romanticizing aside, vintage horns do have a lot going for them. Many of them, Selmer Mark VIs not withstanding, are actually much more accessible financially than modern horns. It only takes 5 minutes on the Internet to find many, many good used vintage pro horns that are affordable. It just depends on what you are looking for. One of course has to be very careful of condition. That’s why I alway like to buy my horns on-line from a reputable dealer, and there are a number of them out there. Do your homework, and it won’t take you long to figure out who they are. This way you know what you’re getting. No surprises. eBay can be a bit of a crap shoot for this reason. While there are reputable dealers on eBay, there are many more that are very questionable. For example, just a couple of weeks ago a seller would have been happy to sell you a “new” bass saxophone for $10,000. (Red flag number 1 “new”. Red flag number 2 “$10,000”.) And the best part of all: the photo in the ad was of a 1920s Conn. (Red flag number 3.) I hope no one ended up jumping at that auction in the end, and I also  don’t know if eBay was notified and pulled it or what. But these type of sellers are all over eBay, and some do manage to slip through the cracks. 

Over the years I have managed to accumulate a number of vintage horns (13 at last count, I think), and they all have something in common: They share a complexity, depth, and breadth in sound that I do not hear in the modern horns of today. This is as true of the soprano as it is of the baritone, and all sizes in between. (Can’t comment on new bass saxophones because I haven’t had the chance to hear one.) Why the tonal difference vintage versus modern I can’t say for sure. Many people have speculated wildly about this though:

  • There are those that say it’s just not the case at all, and those of us that hear a difference, are imagining it. OK…Whatever…
  • Some say that it is due to the aging process of the metal. OK…I can see wooden instruments aging, but metal? I don’t know…Where’s that metallurgist when you need him?…
  • There are those that say that the composition of the metal that makes up saxophones has been experimented with over the past 100 years, and so different makers had different mixes…I think we’re getting somewhere now…
  • There is no denying that vintage horns are on the whole much heavier than the horns of today. Metal composition plays a role here too, but common sense would dictate that a heavier horn would sound different than a lighter weight one.
  • Set ups vary greatly. How your tech sets your horn up for you, the pads, resos, etc used, combined with the mouthpiece & reed combo you select will go a long way obviously. You can make that 1920s c melody sound authentic, or you can alter its sound so much so, that it is unrecognizable and will be neither fish nor fowl.

The point at the end: listen and determine for yourself if you hear a difference between vintage and modern saxophones. If you have the chance to try some vintage horns, play them. Play lots of them. See what you think. 

Without writing an entire thesis, although this post is starting to look like one 😉 , these are the reasons I’ve chosen vintage over modern horns, and am very willing to work with their quirks, idiosyncrasies, and ergonomic challenges. I notice a complexity of sound that I prefer in vintage horns, that I do not find in their modern cousins. Vintage horns have a mystique to them that begins when you open their old style cases, and smell the “old horn smell”. And because they are “old”, good deals can be found at yard sales, flea markets, Craig’s List, and even antique malls and auctions, etc. etc.. The fact that most times they are no longer shiny, makes vintage horns less desirable in the eyes of the seller. This is why I was able to pick up my Hüttl for $175. And if you’re like me, the hunt is sometimes the most enjoyable part of the process.  

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

© 2008 – 2009, Helen. All rights reserved.


Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.

One Comment:

  1. Great post, Helen! I love that you romanticize your horn’s histories.

    I’d like to see you write a fiction novel about one of your vintage horns. One of my favourite books, Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, spans a century following the movements of a button accordian as it moves throught the lives of 9 very different owners. Proulx’s book was very dark, because the accordian was cursed. I’d like your sax story to tell a more uplifting series of stories.

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