Vintage Vs. Modern Saxes: An Interesting Theory

MartinMods of Miami, wrote his theory about some of the differences between vintage and modern saxophones, in a thread on SOTW. His theory is very interesting. I hadn’t thought of this before, but it makes a lot of sense. I’m curious to know whether or not there’s validity to it. He writes:

Vintage saxophones were designed to play with a big sound – loud – because they didn’t have microphones and PA’s to help them. And thusly, they are very flexible as far as tone quality and intonation are concerned. This is a good thing if you know how to tame one – You play the horn and you tell it what to do. Then you have a seemingly endless pallet of tone color and effects to use in making your music.

If, however, you haven’t yet developed your chops/ears enough to tame one of these, then it is going to take you all over the place – to key centers that don’t even exist.

Modern saxophones are designed to be “safer” in regards to intonation, and as a result, they have far less flexible tonal qualities. For this reason, some players consider them “nutered”.

Maybe someone will disagree, but from my experience, once you can play a vintage horn and make it do what you want, you have absolutely no interest in playing a modern saxophone. They are too limiting tonally.

I totally agree with his last paragraph. It certainly reflects my overall experiences with the modern horns I’ve played, and echos my feelings about vintage versus modern instruments.

…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.


  1. I got a vintage Weltklang alto (well, it’s probably from 1986, so not that old, but still not modern) and as a beginner the intonation feels super easy to me… Or am I just a natural, hehe? But also, the seller also told me that now he’s got a $4.000 modern sax (he didn’t told me which manufacturer) he suddenly has problem with his intonation… Kinda funny, isn’t it? At first I was a bit grumpy that I couldn’t afford a modern sax, but now I really felt in love with vintage saxes! Just as most of my hi-fi is vintage (from conviction!)!

    • Hi there SaxBo. Welcome to my site.

      Weltklang did very little to modernize their designs over the years, so in effect you are playing a vintage horn. 🙂

      I don’t know what kind of modern saxophone the previous owner got, or how long he’s been playing, but the fact is no saxophone plays in tune automatically. The player has to learn to correctly play each sax he/she has in tune.

      I have about 6 different tenors that I might use on stage, and each of them requires different adjustments of my facial muscles to get all the notes to play 100% in tune. When I first get a new to me sax, it takes me a month or so before I master the tuning on a the horn. By far and away the vintage tenor that has posed the greatest challenge to me has been my Hohner President.

      With regards to modern horns, they are now so accurately built—in part through the aid of CAD design—that many of the facial corrections required on vintage horns, are no longer necessary. Thus when a player switches from a vintage to a modern horn, it can take quite a while before they can play their new horn in tune, because they have to unlearn all the facial muscle corrections that they developed over the years.

      I always give this example: Yamaha pro horns are known to be some of the best saxes in the world, and some of the easiest to play in tune. (They automatically nearly play in tune, they are that accurately built.) Yet I can’t play one in tune to save my life. Why? Because I what I just wrote above. I’m constantly making minute facial muscle adjustments that screw up the tuning of a [nearly] perfectly built sax.

      I’m glad you enjoy your Weltklang SaxBo. They are solid little horns, and an last you a long time if looked after right….helen

  2. I got on the waiting list for an Aquilasax back in February, and confirmed it somewhere around April (when I was told to expect it in May or June) but it seems the request died somewhere after that point, so I placed another in late November and sent an e-mail explaining this was a refresh request — and that I was changing my preferred engraving but would take ANY engraving (or none at all) so long as the horn is black. I have no idea when it will actually be ready.

    Like Alan, I have found that a bit of “mission creep” has set in, and my C-mel doesn’t really sound like a “small tenor” either — at least not like ME on tenor. My tenor sound is dark and fairly complex, though this becomes more of a liability than an asset up high on the horn. By contrast, the C-mel sound seems to be focused and straightforward, though not overly aggressive. This is probably the narrower cone at work. I can still make it do the small tenor sound at the bottom, especially in subtone, but that isn’t the default sound coming out of the horn any more. It now has its own distinct voice, though it’s one that is more appropriate to the bands I’m in than is the tenor, and more versatile than my alto. The alto is still better standing in for a second (or even lead) trumpet, but the C-mel is adequate to the task and has a range better suited to the book.

    Interestingly, I pulled the alto out today and went through my mouthpiece selection — I’m not sold on the metal Meyer 5M I just got, but I’m not ready to write it off either. The Lakey 4*3 has fallen out of favor for the Rousseau JDX8 (I’m sure I’ll reverse this decision at least once more), and on the “legit” side, the Conn Steelay 5 does the job nicely, pushing both of the Selmer S-80’s aside. But I noticed during the course of the switching that I had started to lean toward that Paul Desmond “dry martini” sound on all of them, which I never particularly noticed before. Maybe it’s just because I have a cold. I didn’t record it, so I don’t know if it was just in my head or if I really sounded like that. (I usually have a distinctly different alto sound that peels paint and makes dogs howl).

    In short, the Buescher C-mel is neither a tenor nor an alto in the end, but I can make it pass for either one, provided there are no side-by-side comparisons.

    I made a couple comparison recordings in April:

    Same mouthpiece, same reed, same day, same microphone, different horn. The first might pass for a tenor at first blush, but only until you hear the second one. For the audiences I usually play for, I doubt it makes any difference whatsoever, as long as I play the right notes, and I have just never really “clicked” with my YTS-21, even though it is a high-quality instrument (despite the “student” reputation it carries — it’s spartan, not stripped-down). It took a couple months before I felt comfortable on C-mel, and a couple more months for my ear to stop transposing everything down a minor third before sending it to my fingers, but I have achieved a level of comfort with it I never found with any tenor. It’s not the mechanics, as there is little doubt the Yamaha tenor and Jupiter alto are both superior in that regard. Nor is it the ergonomics (same story, though I’ve improved those significantly). It requires frequent tweaking to stay in adjustment, as the keywork is softer metal than modern standard. Yet something about it has me playing it almost to the exclusion of everything but the low horns (bari and bass clarinet).

    It might be that it does offer such a neutral starting point, from which I can coax it in any number of directions — from whiskey and cigars to brash and abrasive. The tenor sort of restricts me to the broad sound, and the alto similarly ties me to the focused-like-a-laser sound. While the C doesn’t really reach either of those extremes, it gets most of the way there and lets me cover everything in between. It’s also physically easier to handle than the tenor, and not much bulkier than the alto. The three extra notes at the bottom are more useful than the alto’s four extra at the top (including high F# for which the alto has a key and the C does not), since it performs reasonably well in altissimo even though this was probably not a concern at the time it was built. The alto also lacks warmth at the bottom end, even when the lower range of a song is within its reach. I have no such complaint about the C-mel.

    My understanding is that the Aquilasax tends a bit more toward the bright side, which I may have to counter by using something like the Meyer 7M, or by taking the wedge out of the Link. Still, this is a “problem” I can accept and accommodate in return for modern keywork/ergos and altissimo by design (rather than happy accident).

    I’ll run A/B tests between the Buescher and the Aquilasax, which will be easier than when I compared C and tenor because I don’t have to transpose differently — it will be more of an apples-and-apples sort of test rather than the apples-and-pears test that was C vs. tenor. I would expect that the difference between the two C-mels will be smaller than the difference between C-mel and tenor, or C-mel and alto. The Aquilasax may be modernized, but it’s still based on a Conn C bore and scale.

    What will become of the Buescher if the Aquilasax proves a worthy replacement? I have not decided, but selling it probably isn’t an option after all the hacking I’ve done on it. It is not well-suited to life as a backup, since the keywork tends to seize up if I don’t play it at least once or twice a week. (The more I play it, the less adjustment and oiling it needs — especially oiling.) Most likely I’ll keep it out on a stand at all times so I have an incentive to pick it up and practice, just like I do with it now. The real gigging horn would be used less frequently (though more publicly), unless it’s really THAT much better. In terms of features, the Buescher has been fitted with a front F and a bar-type G# key, and the trill G# and fork-Eb are gone, so other than the non-linked pinky cluster it acts and feels more like it was built in the 40’s or 50’s rather than pre-1920. It might be worth getting the pinky cluster replaced per one of your prior blog posts, since the authenticity is already so compromised.

    Bb and Eb horns are certainly simpler to work with when playing from music written for them! This is why I write the second horn book specifically for C-mel, and offer a tenor part as a backup option. I don’t LOVE playing in five and six flats, any more than I enjoy five and six sharps on alto, but at least it’s a straightforward relationship. If I’m suffering in Eb minor, so is everyone else save for the trumpet. Saxophones seem to be naturally more adroit in sharps than in flats, but not enough to make that a primary consideration.

  3. Oh, I meant to ask, when are you expecting to get your new Aquila C Melody?

    I am very curious about the new generation of the horns. I know Alan likes his, but I think he got one from the first generation.

    I have never spent much time on my C melody. The Runyon C mel piece that I have doesn’t really work very well for my Conn straight neck. Intonation is spotty in places. Tone is good though. (Although it doesn’t sound anything like Alan’s samples on his site.)

    I have a really nice Otto Link Tone Edge (tenor) that plays perfectly in tune, but I’m not keen on the sound.

    When I first got the sax, I ordered a Woodwind B6. Hate it. I’m sure it would make a great door stop though. 😈

    The piece that came with the horn is a Herb Couf Special 4*. It plays in tune, but is very stuffy sounding.

    If I had a reason to play the sax, I would spend some time hunting down a good mouthpiece. But at this point in time, I don’t have any reason to do that.

    For me, I always wanted my C mel to have an “authentic” vintage C melody sound so that I could use it, if necessary, in the appropriate setting. For example, I have dragged it out to seniors’ homes in the past, and read over the shoulder of the piano player, and the residents loved it. For me, that is what I would want to use it for: nostalgia purposes. My Bb and Eb horns cover me for all my other needs.

  4. My use of Fibracells came from my no longer wanting to deal with the inconsistencies of cane reeds. In my experience, even the best ones are inconsistent. Also with doubling on 2 horns minimum, and up to 5 saxes in my own jazz band, keeping reeds moist, was no longer a concern… Especially for that horn that I might only play on 1 song over the course of 3 sets.

    The other thing I really like about the Fibracells is that they’re really durable compared to cane. My style of playing can be pretty tough on reeds, and with cane, I was going through them at a very high rate.

    With Fibracells, I put 4 in a Reedguard, rotate them like I would cane, and I get a year’s worth of playing easily out of them…And that’s on the horns that get used daily (tenor & bari). Now that I’m not playing much at all compared to what I used to, my same tenor reeds have lasted over 3 years.

    So overall for me, the Fibracell reed responds like cane, sounds like cane, but is better for my needs than cane, without all the hassles of cane. Kinda’ a no brainer in my case.

    I hear you on the mouthpiece variety and flexibility today versus in the past. Having said that, Bobby Dukoff’s pieces have been screamers for decades, and vintage Bergs are some of the loudest and baddest out there… I have some of each of those. Paired up with the right vintage horn, and they will strip the paint off any wall.

    The really vintage (20s and 30s) mouthpieces, I also have a few of those, definitely wouldn’t do much to rattle the china in a cabinet. Hell, they hardly cause the horn to vibrate when you play it flat out!

  5. I have a mixture of modern, vintage, and in-between saxophones, and aside from ergonomic and mechanical issues, I really don’t find an incredible amount of difference between them. I’m not saying there isn’t a difference, but I don’t find it as striking as some others do. This might be because I’ll pop the same mouthpiece onto the neck (at least for a first blow) regardless of the age of the instrument. I have a small selection I’m comfortable with and feel I can control.

    I have ordered an Aquilasax C-melody and will certainly spend a fair amount of time comparing the sound (and the volume) with that of the 1919 Buescher. It is possible, though not likely, that a wedged tenor Link Super Tone Master is not an appropriate piece for the Aquilasax, in which case I have two nice Meyer pieces (a hard rubber 6M and a gold 7M) to turn to. I know the gold 7M has a GREAT sound on the Buescher, and the facing is quite comfortable, but I find it just doesn’t have much edge even when I push it. It’s not at all what most people would associate with a streamlined metal mouthpiece, and it’s far removed from the stereotyped “small and stuffy” C-melody sound. I’ve tried both of the pieces that came with my C-melodies (I have two of them) and they both just suck. If I had to play a vintage mouthpiece to play a vintage horn, that would be totally unacceptable.

    I think that as long as a horn is set up right and does not reject a particular mouthpiece outright (like my 70’s Buescher alto rejects my paint-peeler Rousseau and Lakey pieces), the sound is more reliant upon the mouthpiece, reed, and player than it is on the horn itself — and especially on the reed, which is unfortunate in a way because it’s such a hard variable to control. I have embraced Fibracells for their extreme reliability, even if they aren’t as good as the finest cane. I know you use them as well, though I do not know if that is one of your major reasons. It will behave pretty much the same whether the horn has been on the stand for ten minutes or ten days, and there are no issues with moisture, warping, environmental factors (within reason), or any of the other considerations that used to plague me.

    Today, just for a hoot, I put a Vandoren (blue box) 2 1/2 on the Link, which should be roughly comparable to the Fibracell 2 1/2 in strength. Maybe it is, but it sure FEELS more resistant, and it is much less responsive at the top end. I could almost certainly work it into acceptable shape, but that doesn’t keep it from blowing out all too soon, meaning I need fully prepared backups. With the Fibracells, I can pull a brand new one out of its shipping case and it’s good to go.

    I think maybe some of the vintage horns were made so flexible, and to sound so big, because the mouthpieces on offer at the time were just the opposite — small-sounding and inflexible by today’s standards. As mouthpieces (and selection) have improved, the horns have needed to be reined in a bit to keep the overall balance. I do not think it’s the amplification issue, because many saxophones still get played in purely acoustic environments — concert bands, marching bands, big bands (where maybe a soloist gets a mike but nobody else has one), etc. It may be that the more recent offerings have been engineered somewhat to be easier to mike, because saxophones (like all woodwinds) spray their sound in all directions in an ever-changing pattern that depends on the open and closed holes. This makes them relatively tough to pick up consistently. Brasses require no accommodations whatsoever, just point them at the mike and play.

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