If you’ve ever tried to buy a used car, then you know a bit what it’s like to try to buy a used saxophone: You have to be patient, lucky, and good at recognizing the differences between a donkey and a mule. In saxophones, those differences can sometimes be very subtle.
Saxophones are complex machines. In his book, Saxophone Manual: Choosing, Setting Up and Maintaining a Saxophone, Stephen Howard notes that the average saxophone is made up of about 250 parts (p.24), but I’m not sure if he’s counting the pads, felts, corks, etc. in that number or not. At times assessing a saxophone can be a real challenge, and even seasoned, cynical pros sometimes like to get a second opinion—especially when it comes to questions such as if a lacquer is original or not.
Over the past 10+ years I’ve had a lot of people ask me questions about horns that they’re thinking of buying. A few years ago I wrote a page for my website that addressed how to buy a saxophone online, but for some reason I never wrote about how to assess a horn that you are checking out in person. That was a pretty big oversight on my part actually, and one that I’ve chosen to correct with this article: Tips On How To Buy A Used Saxophone.
In person shopping is the best
It doesn’t matter if you’re buying your sax through Craigslist; classified ads in a newspaper; a music store; or even eBay, any time you buy a saxophone, playing the horn before you lay down your hard-earned cash is always the best way to go.
The following lists are a way for you to assess the horn you are thinking about buying. These bullet pointed lists are also available below as both Word and PDF documents—in case you want to take one with you when you go sax shopping. (I have removed the photos from the download copies for quicker downloads.)
Questions to ask before going to check out a horn:
When you text, email, or phone the person about the saxophone, here are some of the questions that you really would want to have the answers to.
- Is the horn in playing condition?
- Does it play in tune?
- What kind of finish does it have? (Lacquer? Silver plate? Nickel plate? Gold plate? Etc.)
- Is the finish original?
- When was it serviced last?
- What was done during that service?
- What is the serial #?
- Is there a model name engraved anywhere?
- Is there a model # engraved on the horn? (6M, 10M, etc)
- What does all the engraving on the bell say?
- What kind of damage has it had in the past?
- Are there any dents on the horn?
- Where are the dents? (Neck? Body tube? Bow? Bell? )
What to take along when testing horns:
- Mouthpiece that you normally use
- A good selection of reeds
- Cork grease
- Plumbing tape (in case the cork is too small )
- Neck strap
- Pad of paper & pen to take notes
- Another person to listen to it
- If that person is another sax player, even better. This will give you a second opinion on the horn, and give you a better idea of what the sax sounds like.
You’re finally at the place to be able to look at and play test the saxophone, but what should you be looking for?
Overall appearance & condition:
- Does the case smell the minute you open it?
- Is the horn green, or have patches of green on it?
- Is it covered in red rot, or have patches of red rot on it?
- Is it blackened? (This likely means it’s a silver plated horn that is in dire need of cleaning.)
What to avoid at all costs:
- Saxes with scratched out serial numbers. This can mean that the sax is stolen!
Any damage to the neck can have serious consequences on the tone and intonation. Ideally the neck should be free of dents and dings. Necks can be repaired, but it takes a very skilled sax tech to do the job well.
For example, this is what the neck of my Conn 10M looked like when I first got it. It appears that someone attacked it with a ball peen hammer. (This photo doesn’t even show the damage as bad as it really was. The horn is quite photogenic.)
This is what it looked like after the late Steve Stransky, AKA Sarge, at World Wide Sax was done with it. It’s not pretty, but it’s smooth as a baby’s bottom now.
When buying a used saxophone, the questions you should be asking/looking for the answers to include:
- Does it have a neck?
- Is it original? For example, is it the right make and model to the horn? Does it have a matching serial #?
Here is a Weltklang tenor saxophone # 17658…
Weltklang is one brand that also happened to have a matching serial number stamped on the neck…
- Is the neck damaged, or was it damaged in past, like in a pull down?
- Any dents that go into the inside of the neck?
- Dents like these are likely to go into the neck. Often you can tell by putting you finger into the neck and feeling for a bump.
- If the damage is beyond where your finger can reach, your tech can tell you for sure with one of his/her specialty tools.
Body tube, bow, & bell
This sax is not straight, smooth, nor round… Oh, and it’s missing its keys, springs, and neck. This would not be a good buy.
When buying a used saxophone that you want to play, (not hang on the wall) these are the questions you want to be asking yourself:
- What condition is it?
- Is it straight?
- Is it smooth?
- Is it round?
- Are there any dents in the body tube?
- Are the dents 5 mm wide or less?
- Dents that are deep enough that they go into the body tube can cause swirls in the air flow, and lead to tuning and tonal issues.
- Where are the dents located?
- Dents around tone holes can be problematic, because they may cause pads to not be seated correctly, or worse, damage the tone hole.
- Are any posts pushed in?
- Is there a bump inside the bell opposite to where the bell to body brace is?
- Is there a dent on the body tube where the bell to body tube attaches?
- Either of these two things indicates that the sax was likely dropped in its case.
- Minor dings and dents on the left side of the bow are pretty normal as players bump the horn into chairs, etc, and usually don’t interfere with the tone.
- Is there any evidence of repaired damage on the body tube? For example, the lacquer shows signs of damage and almost seems to have lines that run up and down.
- Any soldering repairs?
- Are they well done?
- What kind of tone holes does it have? Drawn or soldered? Soldered ones like those on Martin saxes can be prone to leaking, or even falling off, and require the skills of an excellent sax tech.
- Is the finish original?
- Relacquered horns generally are worth less than ones in original condition. This is especially true if the horn in question is a Selmer.
- ID relacqs by: fuzzy engraving; shiny finish on a horn that doesn’t match its age; or lacquer overspray onto the pearl key touches.
- Really good relacs are sometimes hard to tell from original, because shops might re-cut the engraving. For example, Selmer Paris was known to relacquer horns for players. Those relacs are very hard to tell from the original.
- This Mark VI bari however, was obviously not relacquered in the Selmer factory…
- If the horn is relacquered, poorly done jobs may have damaged the tone holes.
- Silver, nickel, or gold-plated horns generally sell for more than lacquer ones.
- Move the hinge tubes up and down and side to side.
- If there is too much movement, this will have to be repaired, and should be factored in to your offer.
- NB: Vintage Keilwerths are especially prone to wear in this area, and because of their rolled tone holes, repairs are tricky. A really good sax tech is your best bet when faced with this kind of repair.
- What condition are they in?
- Are they soft?
- What kind of resonators do they have in them?
- Are the pads and resos matching? Or is there a hodge podge of different kinds on the horn?
Questions you should be asking yourself:
- Do you like the tone?
- Do you like, or can you live with the saxophone’s ergos?
- Can you see yourself playing this horn for a few years?
- Does it meet your needs? For example, are you buying a vintage horn for university, when you should be buying a new one instead? Or are you buying a high pitch horn when you in fact planning on playing current music with others?
Do I really need all this information just to buy a used saxophone?
Yes, yes you do. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with asking if you can get your tech to look it over and giving his/her input—this is especially true if you are buying an instrument worth thousands of dollars.
Thousands of dollars or not, buying a saxophone is always a very personal decision, and represents an outlay of your personal savings. My hope is that this article gives you some helpful tools that you will be able to use when you go out and try some used horns.
If you’re like me, and are a fan of the French saxophone maker Pierret, then there are a couple of interesting horns on eBay at the moment, that may be of interest to you. The horn types and models are very different, and span decades of the company’s nearly 70 year existence.
The first sax that caught my eye is an alto “Vibrator”, which is being sold on the German eBay site. The “Vibrator” was one of Pierret’s early models, and is circa 1930. (One would have to do a search of the European and American patents to confirm the years that the respective patents were issued. This is something I’ve been meaning to do, but have so far not done.)
The seller of this “Vibrator” describes the horn like this:
Altsaxophon Pierret a Paris
Manufacture Spezciale de Saxophones
De L’opera Paris
215 Patent Pending USA
BREVETE SGDG 215
Äußerlich schöner Zustand.
Internationale Versandkosten je nach Land.
The first few lines of the eBay are mostly the text stamped on the bell of the horn. Therefore, according to both Google and Helen Translate ;) , here’s the translated eBay ad text:
Alto saxophone Pierret Paris
Manufacturer of Saxophones
215 Patent Pending USA
PATENTED SGDG 215
Mouthpiece Filed [presumably for patent, and he likely means the neck]
Needs an overhaul
Outwardly in good condition
International shipping costs vary by country
These “Vibrator” saxophones by Pierret didn’t have a neck fastening screw. The tenon simply fit tightly into the socket and provided a good seal. IIRC, the idea was that this allowed for less dampening, and more vibration—hence the model name “Vibrator”.
Source: viertelpause on eBay.de
I’m curious what the number under the model name “Vibrator” is all about. This horn is stamped 215 below the model name, while another “Vibrator” alto I saw earlier this year was stamped 512 in the same place. And just in case you’re thinking like I was—that the engraver got the order wrong on the bell—the octave key is stamped with 512 as well.
If you are interested in this vintage French “Vibrator” by Pierret, you have until August 5 to get your bids in. At the time of writing there were 9 bids on the sax already, with the high bid being €146.00.
The second Pierret that caught my eye was a Super Artiste baritone. Like the “Vibrator” from Germany, this Super Artiste is in need of an overhaul before it can sing like it was meant to.
Source: encoremusicrx on eBay.com
The Super Artiste was Pierret’s last model, and was produced for a many years. The Super Artiste is generally the most sought-after of the Pierret saxophones. This particular bari is one of the earliest ones, since it is #1522.
This is how the seller describes this interesting old sax:
You are bidding on a used L. Pierret Super “Artiste” Model Bari Saxophone for parts or overhaul. The L. Pierret Company was a Saxophone Shop located outside Paris that started in 1906 and stopped producing Saxes in 1972. They made saxes for Olds (Parisian), Beuscher, Runyon, and others. The serial number is #1522 and from what I have been able to determine it was made sometime around 1953. The only part that I can tell is missing is the key guard for the Low D# key. It appears to have had some soldering work, but it the rest of the horn is intact with not too many dents. This horn could be overhauled and made to play again, I just don’t have the time for this kind of project at this time. Or you could use it for parts on another Pierret Super “Artiste” Bari Sax. It does not come with a case but it will be packed well to ship.
The photos show a horn that, while far from being a beauty, is not as beat-up as many baris we see for sale:
Source: encoremusicrx on eBay.com
What’s interesting about this low Bb Super Artiste baritone by Pierret is that the seller is starting the no reserve auction at only $99.99. At the time of writing there were 3 bids on this Pierret classic, with the high bid being $104.50. The auction runs until August 5.
It is spring, and every spring for the last 5 or so years, I end up with a new saxophone. (With new being a relative term, since all the horns have been at least 50 years old). This year’s offering: a Pierret Modele D’ Artistes tenor.
This old-timer is circa late 1920s or early 1930s, and bears a striking resemblance to my Concerto Model with Virtuor Improvement alto. As a matter of fact, other than the upper octave key on the neck, and the microtuner, these horns look pretty much identical.
A cursory glance at the right side shows a simple horn with no frills. The key and key guard shapes are identical to those on the Concerto Model.
The left pinkie cluster shape on this Modele D’ Artistes, is identical as that on my Concerto Model. (The nail file G# on the tenor is quite dirty. Apparently a previous owner played the horn with dirty fingers.)
The left-sided bell keys and their guards, the bell to body brace, and the chromatic F# key guard, are all identical to those found on my alto as well.
The horn still has its original case—which weighs a ton BTW—and end plug. I don’t think that the mouthpiece is original. There might be some writing on the top of the piece, but it has been rubbed off. I haven’t yet checked to see if it’s still visible with a magnifying glass.
This Modele D’ Artistes, like my Concerto Model, was engraved with the name C. Jeuffroy on the bell. Although, unlike my alto, nothing on this horn’s bell indicates that it was manufactured by Pierret.
This Pierret-made Modele D’ Artistes & the connection to C. Jeuffroy
According to a fellow from France, who contacted me a number of years ago, C. Jeuffroy was the name of a store in Paris. Based on the number of C. Jeuffroy saxophones that have appeared here in Canada—6 are in the gallery portion of this site alone, and they are all from approximately the same vintage—I can only assume that there was an importer in this country, who, during the late 1920s/early 1930s, brought in Pierret saxophones from the C. Jeuffroy store in Paris.
The backstory of this Modele D’ Artistes tenor saxophone
Although this C. Jeuffroy tenor has been hanging around my house for a few weeks now, I’m not sure if I’m going to keep it. The horn belonged to a music teacher who passed away, and his daughter is selling off his horns. (The Pierret was the only saxophone.)
The woman dropped the horns off at my tech’s shop on consignment, but this Modele D’ Artistes was way over priced. I made an offer based on the condition of the sax (it needs a full restoration), and am waiting to hear back whether my offer was accepted. In the meantime, I have had the chance to play it for a while, and decide if I like it enough to have it restored.
This Pierret is completely unlike any of my other tenors. It has a much softer, gentler tone than any of my American horns; is nothing like my mid-century German saxophones; and shares no sonic qualities with my Mark VI. Instead, this Modele D’ Artiste is a quieter, heavy-on-the core tone, soft-sounding horn, that is perfect for classical and jazz playing. Despite it leaking like a sieve, and needing a complete restoration, the horn’s true nature and sound are still very present. If restored this would be a lovely saxophone.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of getting together with a Professor of Saxophone Performance, who also happens to be a Yamaha Artist. What he could do with the Modele D’ Artiste was actually remarkable. He agreed with me, and thought that the sound was quite lovely—but then he also really liked the Concerto Model alto, and he could really make it sing as well.
In conclusion then…
In the end this Pierret tenor gets a big thumbs up from me. :down: I really do like this old-time tenor sound. The horn plays perfectly in tune, and is quite well laid out from an ergonomic standpoint.
Is it a horn for a beginner? No, but then generally most vintage horns aren’t. I always suggest that students get a good, used YTS-23 or YAS-23. It will make their lives much easier to start with.
Is this Modele D’ Artiste a saxophone for everyone? Again, the answer is no. Even many vintage players will not like the horn, since it’s a much softer-sounding instrument than the brassier, ballsier tone that many vintage players are looking for. That said, these old-time Pierrets do have their place in the vintage saxophone world, and do deserve their recognition.
Pierret was ahead of the curve in some areas. For example, I really like the spatula front F that they put on their early horns. Both this Modele D’ Artistes, and the Concerto Modele have this feature.
Modern horn manufacturers now frequently use this spatula-shape key for the front F. It is much more comfortable to play than a button key. Pierret had already come to this conclusion more than 80 years ago.
If you’d like to see the rest of the photos of this Modele D’ Artistes tenor, you can find them in the gallery portion of Bassic Sax. To read more about Pierret, please check out the page I’ve written about the company. There you’ll also find more links to other Pierret resources.