A couple of options in the current crop of student model tenor saxophones
Yesterday I did something I very seldom do: I play-tested a couple of brand new tenor saxophones. These were not pro models, but rather current student models that are targeted at beginning players. They were so new that they had never been played before, and one even still had corks holding all the keys down.
I tried both of these tenors yesterday at my tech’s shop while he spent a couple of hours working on a few of my horns. I was trying these horns out for a band colleague who is a music teacher up-country, whose school might be in the market for a couple of tenors. I asked David if he had any tenors suitable for a high school, so we dug around in his storage room to see what he had. We came up with a couple of different possibilities that I tried out. The following are my thoughts on these horns.
A couple of things of note:
- Neither of these horns had been set up. I played them exactly as they came out of the plastic wrap.
- I play-tested each horn with the mouthpiece that was shipped with the horn. Why? Because I only had my Dukoff D7* with me, and it didn’t fit on the corks—and it’s highly unlikely that any high school student is going to use a Dukoff on a school horn anyway. 😉
- Both of these instruments would likely benefit from a having a good, basic mouthpiece like a Rico Graftonite B5 or Yamaha 5 or 6C mouthpiece.
Gemeinhardt GST600-LQ tenor student saxophone
When David first told me that he had some Gemeinhardt tenors, I was confused, since I only think of them as a flute maker. He explained to me that the company is now the distributor of LA Sax, and that he ordered some of these student horns last year when he needed tenors. As it turns out, he did not need them, so all of these tenors where still sitting in their original plastic, with corks holding the keys down.
I didn’t quite know what to expect when I picked up this tenor for the first time, but I was immediately struck by three things: 1. How heavy the horn was, 2. How strangely awkward the key layout was—especially the left thumb rest and octave key lever, and 3. That it had a high F# key.
The weight, in part, can be attributed to the ribbed construction that the horn has. I noticed this immediately, and pointed this design out to David. He was quite surprised.
If you check out the Gemeinhardt website, this is what they say about their GST600-LG tenor:
This Gemeinhardt GST600-LQ tenor student saxophone features ribbed construction for added stability and durability, high F# key, front F key, steel springs, and lacquer finish. Additional features include adjusting screws and detachable bell making repairs and tune-ups easier for repair technicians. GST600-LQ comes complete with an ABS case.
Brand Gemeinhardt Finish Lacquer Skill Level Student Case Type Hard-shell Plastic Warranty 3 Year
When I played this Gemeinhardt tenor, I was quite frankly shocked. I expected it to play very badly. It didn’t. Remember it had been shipped from whatever Asian country it was in, and had sat for who knows how long in its case after being exposed to all kinds of bumping and jarring by various shippers.
This horn was very well-regulated. I could play it from top to bottom with no issues what so ever. And best of all: it was able to play 100% in tune with only very minor embouchure adjustments. A student could very easily make this horn play in tune.
I must say I was suitably impressed. The only thing I don’t know is how it would hold up over time, since David hadn’t had a chance to look at how it was constructed. Was it soft? Would it be one of those student horns that leaks all the time? Or would it hold up to the rigours of student use, and hold its regulation well?
As I mentioned at the outset, the only thing I found somewhat awkward about the Gemeinhardt GST600-LQ tenor student saxophone was the left thumb rest and octave mechanism. I don’t know who designed it, and how their thumb and hand was constructed, but for me—as a person who has played Selmer and other vintage pro horns for 30 years—I found this design just plain uncomfortable.
That being said, for a student just starting out, they are not going to be as picky as I am. For them, they would likely not have an issue with the left thumb key layout.
Selmer Student Model TS400 Tenor Saxophone
The second horn I tried out is Conn-Selmer’s current student tenor offering. But if you’re like me and grew up with the old pinky-buster Bundys, you will be sadly disappointed.
These Asian-made Selmer USA student horns have the basic feel of a real Selmer horn, which gave this TS400 a leg up on its Gemeinhardt competition yesterday. Sadly that’s the only area it did better on.
Conn-Selmer USA describes their horn like this:
400 Series saxophones from Selmer will help you play like a pro right from the start. Priced to make it easy for you to get started in music, the 400 Series’ tone and features will have you sounding like you have been playing your whole life. So when you are ready to step into the spotlight, the 400 Series from Selmer will have prepared the way.
- Rose brass neck for a warm, rich tone
- Full rib design for a full sound
- Angled stack for easier reach and playability
- Double bracing to ensure seating of the pad
When I tried to play this horn the first thing I immediately noticed was how out of tune it was. I was using the mouthpiece that came with the horn, and I had it where would normally be the sweet spot on a neck (about ½ down the cork).
After trying unsuccessfully to get the mouthpiece far enough on the neck to get the sax to tune with a tuner to F# or C, David sanded down the neck cork. This particular TS400’s tuning spot was almost at the end of cork. There was only about ¼ of an inch of cork visible. And no, the cork was not shorter or thicker than normal. It was a normally sized cork on the neck. 😉
With the mouthpiece at nearly the end of the cork, I finally got this TS400 to tune to F#1 and 2, as well and C2. I then used the tuner to see how badly out of the tune horn was. It was out by 20 to 40 cents in either direction on almost all notes. Sharp, flat, flat, sharp. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how it played.
I could force it into tune, but a beginning student? Or a student with only a couple of years of playing under his/her belt? Forget it.
Now it is possible that some of this might be correctable through a proper set-up. However, given that I had just played its competition that came from the factory properly set up, why would someone opt for the Selmer TS400?
Perhaps this TS400 was an anomaly. Perhaps not. I don’t know. Whatever the case, it seems quality control was sadly lacking when this Selmer student tenor was sent out the factory doors.
If I was parent, and I picked one of these up, I’d be annoyed. Actually, I’d be more than annoyed, since I would most likely be looking at a neck pull down repair within the first weeks of having the horn in my house.
Looking at what these are being sold for online shocked the hell out of me. The prices I saw ranged from just under 2K to over 4K! WTF? Parents having to spend even $2,000 US on an Asian-made horn with sketchy quality control seems totally out of touch with reality.
Or maybe it’s me. Perhaps I’ve lived in vintage horn land so long, that I’ve gotten used to being able to get an amazing, albeit vintage, tenor that has been professionally restored by my tech for around $2,000. Of course vintage is not necessarily ideal for beginners, which brings us back to the current crop of student horns on the market…
So what that this TS400 is keyed to high F#. So what that it has ribbed construction. Who cares that it has a rose brass neck. If the horn won’t play in tune, all the bells and whistles in the world won’t make it a good instrument to learn on. It will however, make it an instrument that will frustrate students, music teachers, and parents alike. In the end, having a bad horn may contribute to a student giving up playing altogether.
Playing this TS400 yesterday reminded me how my very first tenor, a Bundy, might have not been the easiest instrument to play, but at least I had a fighting chance to learn how to play a saxophone in tune. With this new crop? I’m not sure I’d want to be a beginner just starting out, or a parent picking out a horn for their kid. The odds seem to be definitely stacked against you.
© 2017, Helen. All rights reserved.