Tips On How To Buy A Used Saxophone

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Pierret tenor saxophone, Source: Helen Kahlke. Copyright 2013

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.

How To Buy A Used Saxophone: In person shopping really 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? )
items to take along when saxophone shopping, how to buy a used saxophone, tuner, mouthpiece, reeds, neck strap, cork grease, note paper, plumbers tape

These are the things to take with you when you shopping for a saxophone.

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
  • Tuner
  • 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?
green oxidation, saxophone, how to buy a used saxophone,

A Herb Couf tenor from Florida suffering an extreme case of oxidation. Source: Notes_Norton on the Woodwind Forum

  • Is it covered in red rot, or have patches of red rot on it?
tenor sax, red rot, de-zincification, how to buy a used saxophone,

A mostly unlacquered, vintage B&S stencil horn, with large patches of red rot (de-zincification). Source: Bobs Great Clutter on eBay.com

  • Is it blackened? (This likely means it’s a silver plated horn that is in dire need of cleaning.)
c melody saxophone, tarnished silver sax, vintage Martin sax, how to buy a used saxophone

Silver plated, Martin Handcraft C Melody. This horn is desperately in need of silver polishing.

What to avoid at all costs:

  • Saxes with scratched out serial numbers. This can mean that the sax is stolen!

Neck

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.)

sax neck, saxophone goose neck, tenor sax neck, how to buy a used saxophone

Conn 10M neck from tenor #: H42XXX. This was the condition it was in when it arrived from the seller. Source: Helen Kahlke

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.

sax neck, saxophone goose neck, tenor sax neck, how to buy a used saxophone

Same neck after Sarge from WWS was finished repairing it. It takes a tech with the skills of someone like the late Steve, AKA “Sarge” Stransky, to bring a neck so close to dead, back to life.

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…

saxophone, serial number, thumb rest, how to buy a used saxophone

Weltklang tenor, serial # 17658. Source: eBay.com

Weltklang is one brand that also happened to have a matching serial number stamped on the neck…

sax neck, saxophone goose neck, serial number,  tenor sax neck, how to buy a used saxophone

The original neck for Weltklang tenor # 17658, with the serial # stamped on the neck brace. Source: eBay.com

  • Is the neck damaged, or was it damaged in past, like in a pull down?
tenor saxophone, silver sax, neck damage, neck pull down, how to buy a used saxophone

This neck pull down on this Hohner President is the worst I think I have ever seen. Source: eBay.de

  • 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.
baritone sax neck, bari neck, dented sax neck, how to buy a used saxophone

Weltklang baritone # 2210. Source: damienek on eBay.com

  • If the damage is beyond where your finger can reach, your tech can tell you for sure with one of his/her specialty tools.
tenor sax neck, tenor neck, dented sax neck, how to buy a used saxophone

Weltklang tenor # 45850. Source: damienek on eBay.com

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. 😉

smashed saxophone, Conn alto sax, saxophone art, how to buy a used saxophone

Conn Director Series alto (a MexiConn). Source: Helen Kahlke

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?
alto saxophone, severely damaged saxophone, how to buy a used saxophone

This is an extreme example of a sax not being straight. Most don’t look this bad. Source: AOK Supercenter on eBay.com

  • Is it smooth?
  • Is it round?
  • Are there any dents in the body tube?
  • Are the dents 5 mm wide or less?
calipers, pencil, what 5mm looks like, how to buy a used saxophone

You don’t have to take calipers or even a ruler with you. If you have a sharpened pencil with you to take notes, this photo gives you a good reference point.

  • 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.
saxophone keys, mother of pearl key touches, dent near post,  how to buy a used saxophone

Notice the dent just below the tenon by the post. I picked up this Conn 6M for around $400 at a pawn shop. Despite having a bunch of dings and dents in it, it played amazingly. It has been my main alto for nearly 10 years now. My tech has removed the damage and the horn is nearly as good as new.

  • Are any posts pushed in?
alto saxophone, severely damaged saxophone, how to buy a used saxophone

This post is obviously pushed in on this Selmer Prelude. It goes along with the dents, etc. on the body tube. Source: AOK Supercenter on eBay.com

baritone sax, silver sax, Martin bari, how to buy a used saxophone

Not all post damage has to be as obvious as that above though. You can hardly notice the ding on this Martin Committee III bari, but its significant enough that the bell notes don’t speak well. Source: Helen Kahlke

  • 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.
saxophone bow, evidence of dent removal, how to buy a used saxophone

This photo is a good example of not-so-great repair job of dent removal. This Selmer Mark VI alto had previously had some repair work by a tech who tried to remove the dents that are quite commonly seen on left side of the bow. Notice the “unlevelness” of the metal? This is a sure sign that heavy-duty dent repairs have been conducted on this horn. Source: worldwidesax.com

  • 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?
saxophone, bell to body support brace, resolder work on sax, how to buy a used saxophone

The bell to body brace was resoldered on this Vito Special alto, serial # 200XX. Source: doctorsax.biz

  • 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.
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Soldered tone holes on a Martin Handcraft tenor #68XXX, Source: Helen Kahlke

saxophone tone holes, rolled tone holes, Hohner President, alto sax, how to buy a used saxophone

In this photo you can clearly see the drawn, rolled tone holes of Hohner President alto # 48XX

Finish

  • 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.
bari sax, Selmer Mark VI, baritone sax, bell engraving, relacquered horn, how to buy a used saxophone

Here is an example of how the engraving can appear faint on relacquered horns. Selmer Mark VI baritone # 147XXX. Source: Helen Kahlke

bari sax, Selmer Mark VI, baritone sax, bell engraving, how to buy a used saxophone

This is what the bell engraving is supposed to look like. This is the original lacquer on Mark VI baritone # 188210. Source: eBay.com

  • 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.
bari sax, Selmer Mark VI, baritone sax, bell engraving, relacquered horn, how to buy a used saxophone

This Mark VI baritone (serial # 60XXX) was quite possibly relacquered at the Selmer factory. Although the lacquer colour is right for its age, the engraving is just a bit fainter than it would have originally have been. Source: 2saxy4u on eBay.com

  • This Mark VI bari however, was obviously not relacquered in the Selmer factory…
bari sax, Selmer Mark VI, baritone sax,  relacquered horn, how to buy a used saxophone

Selmer Mark VI # 147XXX. Source: Helen Kahlke

  • 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.

Rods

  • Move the hinge tubes up and down and side to side.
c melody saxophone, hinge tubes, how to buy a used saxophone

Conn New Wonder Series II C melody, serial #: 193XXX. Source: Helen Kahlke

c melody saxophone, hinge tubes, how to buy a used saxophone

Conn New Wonder Series II C melody, serial #: 193XXX. Source: Helen Kahlke

  • 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.

Pads:

  • 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.

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Word 2007/2010 version of Tips on how to buy a used sax
Word 97-2003 version of Tips on how to buy a used sax

 

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