Is a vintage sax right for me?

Vintage saxes are not for everyone Flow chart Beginning players Pro tips Have a teacher? Intermediate & advanced players
Keywork Intonation Pro tip Sax techs Buying from DIYers  

My article Vintage Or Modern? was written years ago, and was fine at the time. However, over the years I find myself writing so many more details in emails that I thought encapsulating them in a flowchart would make everyone’s life much simpler. Think of Vintage Or Modern? as a introduction to what follows below. 

Are vintage saxes right for everyone? Absolutely not.

As much as I am a champion of vintage saxophones, I am the first to admit that they are not for everyone. I NEVER recommend them to my students just starting out. I also never recommend them to players who are going to university—that is unless they have checked with their potential profs about what the department’s requirements are. 

Before we start looking at all of this in greater detail, it’s important to remember the definition of what a vintage saxophone is: 

A vintage saxophone is any saxophone that was built to the level of a professional model horn at the time of its manufacturing. 

So no, student model Bundy saxophones from the 1970s—as cool as they might be—do not meet the generally agreed upon definition of a vintage saxophone. 😉 

A flow chart to streamline a boat load of variables 

Here is the link to the PDF version of this diagram.

flow chart, is a vintage saxophone right for you,

Even before looking at or exploring the details, you can see that modern horns (outlined in red) suit more players than vintage ones (yellow outline) do. By the numbers alone, the ratio is slightly over 2:1.

Based on the all the vintage sax talk on saxophone discussion boards, Facebook groups; and yes, even websites like this 😉 ,  who would have thunk that?

Beginning players

Beginners—whether young or old—generally should not start on a vintage horn. Why? Because vintage horns are more finicky and need more finessing than modern horns. 

Case in point, that lovely Silvertone tenor I wrote about in an article in February 2020, is on consignment at Wind Works in Bellingham because its owner, a mature adult who decided to learn the saxophone, found it was more difficult to play the Silvertone than a modern Yani. He got the Yani and now the Silvertone is looking for a new home. 

Whatever you do, if you’re just starting out, please DO NOT buy one of these cheap, $150 – $300 or saxes from eBay or the likes. (For this price point, I’m talking new altos.) These cheap Asian stencil sopranos, altos, tenors, and yes, even baris, are often easily identified by the white gloves that are photographed as being included with horn—and of course their ridiculously low prices.

These no name stencil horns are poorly made, and when something goes wrong—which it will—you will often find out that the repair costs more than the entire horn did. This is not because the repair tech is ripping you off, it’s because you got ripped off when you bought it.

Pro tips

  1. I always recommend my students get a good, used Yamaha 23 alto or tenor.
  2. I also recommend to players when they talk to me, to find a teacher to get some help from.
  3. Go to a reputable brick and mortar music store in the city where you live—preferably one that also does repairs.
  4. Doing #’s 1-3 will help you find a good, decent, starter horn, and reducing the chances of getting ripped off. 
  5. Buy used if you can. Saxophones are like cars: they depreciate the minute you walk out of a store with them. A saxophone that cost you $5,000 new, will likely sell for ½ of that price in a year or two later if you’ve changed your mind and want to sell it. This is especially true of student and intermediate level horns, but pro model saxophones too depreciate greatly. Yes, even Selmers. 😉

Have a teacher?

vintage sax, Buescher bass saxophone, silver sax, bass saxophone stand

My Buescher bass set up in the teaching/practice corner of my studio

Regardless what level of player you are, you should always, always have a teacher. The best players are the ones that never stop learning; never stop striving to grow as players; and yes, never stop getting better. Many great players continue taking lessons all their lives. They might not take formal lessons, but they get together with other great players and work on ideas; think of ways to improve elements of their playing; improvising, etc.

However, all of this starts with a sound foundation of the principles and fundamentals of their instruments. If you don’t know exactly how to do everything your axe can do, how can you use it to play music properly? 

This is where teachers come in. They push you to be your best.

I’ve worked with the same teacher off and on for over 30 years. He was the 1st tenor in a US Air Force band and is a killer player. He is always pushing me to be a better player, and to look at things in a different way. He too still improves regularly through daily practice, as well as informal lessons with great players. 

The role of a good music teacher cannot be over-stated. When you find the right one, they also become your mentor. 

If you have a saxophone teacher, ask their opinion on what saxophone might be right for you. Modern? Vintage? Perhaps they might go out with you and playtest 1 or 2 once you’ve narrowed the field. I do it regularly for my students.

Intermediate & advanced players

If you are an intermediate or advanced player and have never tried a vintage sax before, the first thing you need to do is try some. Not 1, not 2, not 3, not even 10. Try as many as you can get your hands on. 

Remember vintage horns are considered anything pre-1980s, so that encompasses A LOT of ground. Try different American brands and models; French makes and models; and of course, my favourite: German makes and models. Try as many as you can. Take your time. Don’t be in any hurry: enjoy the hunt. 

What should you look for when trying out a saxophone? Although written for buyers, this article I wrote a few years ago should be of help.

Keywork 

There are a hell of a lot of variations when it comes to key layouts alone. Vintage saxophones can range from a Martin Handcraft to a Selmer Mark VII. The left pinkie keys alone couldn’t be more different. Some people can’t manage their way around the left pinkie cluster of a Handcraft, but love that of a Mark VI

Although I don’t really find a difference, some people find the inline keys of the older horns harder to play than the offset ones. Again, it comes down to makes and models, and personal preferences.

These are just a couple of the myriad of keywork differences that can and will be found on vintage saxophones. That’s why playing lots of them is important.

Intonation

Intonation is a big thing as well. Not all vintage saxophones are created equal. We’ve all heard it said that no saxophone is 100% in tune, it’s the player that makes it play in tune. But how a player does that varies from horn to horn; from MP to MP; and to some degree from player to player. 

It is quite possible that the MP you are using on your current sax, might not be the right fit for the vintage sax you’re trying. For example, the Toneking alto I have is very fussy when it comes to MPs. I am lucky that the original MP came with it, since not 1 MP I have in my possession, or I have tried, plays the horn in tune. Why? That’s a good question, since the Toneking tenor I have from the same year takes almost any MP with no issues whatsoever.

Pro tip

Something else to remember, very few vintage saxophones are still in their original condition, and if they are, they are more often than not, not playable. If they have been overhauled in their lifetime, you are not playing the horn so much as the overhaul of the last tech. 

I have played some horns that should have been great, but because the tech who did the work didn’t have a clue how to work on vintage saxophones, they were so badly set-up, or had the wrong pads in them, or the pads weren’t seated properly, or, or, or…. The possibilities and combinations are nearly endless. 

This is another reason why you really need to know what you’re doing when buying a vintage sax, and should, if at all possible, buy the horn in person so you can playtest it before paying for it. 

If after trying a boatload of vintage saxophones you can’t get your head around the key layouts and intonation, then you may well be better off getting a modern horn. There is nothing wrong with that. There are lots of lovely modern horns to choose from. But again, try a bunch to find the one whose tone, intonation tendencies, and key layout you click best with.

Sax techs

If the keywork and intonation of vintage horns don’t present a problem for you, the next thing you have to think about is: Where can I get it fixed? 

Just as not all saxophones are created equally, not all sax techs are equal either. If you live in a major metropolitan centre, there is a good chance there is a speciality shop around that can work on vintage saxophones. Oftentimes there is more than one. 

When looking for a great tech, I look for one who is also a machinist, who has the skills and tools, and can actually make the parts necessary for my horn if something breaks, or if it is missing. Why? Because for most vintage saxophones replacement parts are no longer available. This is why techs have a large collection of donor instruments in the back that they can scavenge parts from.

vintage sax, Zenit, FX Hüller alto sax, stencil sax,

Bell to body brace on a Zenit alto 24xxx by FX Hüller. Source: zoltiimro4 on eBay.com

However, if a particular part is not available—say a bell to body brace for a particular model of a FX Hüller saxophone—what do they do? A tech who is a machinist can make a part so close in appearance that it is indistinguishable from the original. This is what David at Matterhorn Music did with the octave lever and mechanism on an Adolphe Sax C pitched tenor a few years ago. 

David researched what the mechanism should look like; designed the parts; created the pieces in house from raw materials; and finally sent them off for silver plating. The end result was an octave mechanism that looks just like the original, and is indistinguishable from the one that was made in Adolphe Edouard’s factory in Paris. 

Realistically, very few shops can machine parts. However, the question you need to ask yourself is: Is there a shop in my area that is reputed to know what they are doing, and has a good reputation when it comes to vintage sax repairs? If the answer is no, you may be better off getting an instrument for which replacement parts are more readily available. 

Regardless if you go the modern or vintage route: You need an excellent tech. Someone who has some serious skills and knows what the hell they are doing. If you are going back and forth to the shop more than once every few months, either you are very hard on your horn; it is a junky sax that won’t maintain its regulation; or your tech is not particularly good.

But what about players who can do their own repairs? You don’t mention them on the chart.

That’s correct. I don’t. Why? Because I am looking at this from this perspective of someone who performs in pro or high calibre bands and needs to have their horns working 100% correctly. I have bought a few horns from DIYers, and have played many more, and to be blunt, none of them have worked exactly right. 

vintage sax, Conn 10M, tenor saxophone,

A late-model Conn 10M that I bought from someone who sounded like he knew what he was doing and had a good rep. on SOTW. The horn was sold as “repadded” and only needing its final adjustment. It went to Sarge at WWS. Sarge found the pads to have placed in with a dab of glue and never floated. It needed a full rebuild to the tune of $1800.

I don’t begrudge hobbyists from trying to fix their own horns or buying old student horns on eBay and trying to fix them up. What is problematic for me is when those hobbyists try to pass them off as “overhauled”. eBay has a seller refurbished category that can be applied, but based on the very limited experience I have had buying online from sax players, I have zero faith that people know what they are doing. 

Players might know how to play, and sound like they know what they are doing online. But once the money has changed hands and you play the horn they have refurbished, repadded, or god forbid “overhauled”, more often than not you realise that they don’t have a clue. 

Repairing instruments is a craft. That’s why European craftspeople are so highly sought-after by shops in North America. Training there is generally 3 years long—usually as a woodwind or brass wind maker—before a person begins their year-long apprenticeship. Or in some cases, the intensive courses are taken concurrently during apprenticeships. However, that program too is 3 years long.

Even here in North America there are schools—albeit not many—that teach a person how to repair instruments. Most offer a 1-year program. After that a person will go and apprentice.

Regardless of where a tech does his/her training, after they apprentice, that’s when the real learning starts: Once they work with someone who knows what they are doing. 

Working on instruments properly takes special tools, knowledge, and skills. Sure, you can buy some tools, but watching YouTube videos, or talking online isn’t going to teach anyone the knowledge and skills needed to repair musical instruments. 

Think of it this way: Would you hire an electrician, plumber, framer, or carpenter to work on your house if he/she had never had any training but had only learned by watching YouTube videos or talking on discussion boards? How about your car? Would you take your car to a mechanic who has never had any real training, and only bought their tools online? 

Why should your saxophone be any different? A saxophone is a highly complex piece of machinery that was made by craftsmen who knew what they were doing. (That is of course, unless it is a mass-produced POC that isn’t worth the $$ to fix it because you bought it off eBay for $125. Remember, you get what you pay for. Sadly, in that case you paid for crap, and that’s exactly what you got.)

So the takeaway from this is, always, and I do mean always, assume that when you buy a used saxophone from a private seller that it needs an overhaul. This way if it doesn’t, you are ahead. But if it does, you have budgeted for it. Overhaul prices vary based on the size of the sax, your geographical location, and the shop in question, but generally they will be +/- $1,000—not counting any dent work or replacement of missing bits and pieces.

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