What Makes A Saxophone A Professional Model?
Since the fairly recent influx of horns from the far East, it is getting harder and harder to know the players without a program. Years ago when a student walked into my studio with a sax that they bought in a pawn shop or at a yard sale, and asked me: “So, what kind of sax do I have here? Could you tell me something about it? Is it a good brand? Is it a professional model? Is it a student model?” I could tell them something with a reasonable amount of accuracy. Nowadays, that’s much harder to do.
Long-standing saxophone manufacturers such as Selmer and Keilwerth, and even fairly recent newcomers to the world of saxophone manufacturing such as Yamaha, are finding themselves ever further crowded in the professional horn marketplace, by more recent upstarts such as Cannonball and P. Mauriat. Besides these 2 brands, there are a great many other Asian-made saxophones that seemingly appear out of nowhere, and multiple almost like rabbits. Hence my opening comment that it’s getting harder and harder to know the players without a program.
Over on the Woodwind Forum, a few of the other Content Experts and I were discussing the question: What makes a “pro” horn, a “pro” horn? I suggested that we try to develop a checklist to help younger, or less experienced players try to identify what it is that they are actually looking at, when shopping for a new horn. Are they really seeing a pro model sax? Or is it really just a student model horn merely packaged and marketed as a pro horn?
I’ve started to liken the use of the term “pro horn”, with the use of the word “show dog”. It’s all pretty subjective. One breeder’s show dog, is another’s pet stock, just as one manufacturer’s “pro model” is another’s “student model”. For example, we need look no further than the Monique brand of saxophones that were sold a few years ago, and were marketed as pro horns. While they may have had fancy finishes, and a high F# key, they had:
…poor intonation, poor mechanics and poor build quality… [Furthermore, they were] made with very soft brass, as reported by a repair tech who tried adjusting a rod and ended up bending the entire lower stack, toneholes that weren’t level, bits o’ metal left from punching things out of molds and not sanding them down, pieces that wouldn’t fit right, etc., etc.
It has been suggested that it would be difficult to develop a checklist for professional saxophones, because what one person wants, is not necessarily what the next person wants—for example a high F# key. Or how one person plays, is not how the next plays. In my estimation these are not insurmountable problems, as long as the standards are objective, and in some cases flexible. For example, a low A needs to be considered optional on baritone saxophones.
When looking at what makes a horn a professional model, vintage saxes have a unique place in this discussion. Vintage horns would need to be compared to others of their same time period, and while many of the professional criteria will apply, some may not. For example, the ability for any horn to play in tune is paramount. However, a vintage horn will likely have greater intonation variables that require slightly greater player correction, than a new, professional saxophone.
In doing some research into this topic, I came across Stephen Howard’s web page on Choosing a professional saxophone. Stephen has identified some key objective points that a player should be looking for when buying a pro horn:
- Tone: While keeping in mind that the sax is really only an amplifier that projects your tone that is produced through a combination of yourself & your mouthpiece setup, it is true that each sax has it’s own core tone (not to mistaken with the main tone I discussed in my article about The 3 Aspects Of Saxophone Tone). This core tone will be a apparent regardless of what mouthpiece you use on the sax. If you have different mouthpieces, obviously try them all, because they all might be quite different on the sax. However, the core tone of the horn will remain. Ultimately, the sax that allows you to project the sound you hear in your head, is the sax for you.
- Response: How does a sax feel when it’s blown? Does it respond evenly up and down the entire range of the horn? Is there more resistance in a certain part of the horn than in another? A professional model saxophone will be consistent in how it responds over its entire range.
- Feel: With this particular point, Stephen notes that one has to be careful, because most new saxophones—yes professional ones too—are extremely poorly set up, and usually require less than an hour with a competent tech to get the key action right. Therefore, rather than focusing on the key action, Stephen suggests that you check to see if the horn feels right in your hands. Is it well laid out for you? Is the neck strap ring in the right place, that it balances well given your height and shape?
- Tuning: As Stephen points out, all saxophones play out of tune. You are the one that plays them in tune. The trick is to find a horn that you can play in tune. Since this list is hierarchical, Stephen points out that tuning would have been first or second on this list 30 or more years ago.
- Value For Money: If you’re considering buying a new pro horn, you can find them in all kinds of price ranges. The question Stephen poses, is would you buy a less expensive pro horn, that gives you a great sound, but would require you to change your mouthpiece? Or would you spend 3 or 4 times that amount, and buy one that sounds great with the mouthpiece that you’ve got? Also, you can do a lot with after market necks. You can buy a less expensive pro horn, and add an after market neck, and still have spent less than if you’d have bought the more expensive horn. Stephen also cautions players not be swayed by the latest gadgets such as extras keys, and reminds us of the fork Eb of days gone buy. His point is that don’t be tied to the notion that the price of a pro horn is the chief determining factor of its quality.
- Vintage Horns: With vintage saxophones tuning needs to be the #1 consideration. Can you play it in tune? Does it play in tune with your mouthpiece? Are you willing to change mouthpieces? Key action is the next thing to consider. Are you able to play this (perhaps) ergonomically challenged sax? There are lots of pros and cons to consider when buying a vintage sax. His point here is don’t just jump onto the vintage sax bandwagon. Do your homework first.
While Stephen Howard has given us a great place to start, I think there are things that be added to this list. One of the things that is missing, is quality of construction. As demonstrated by the Monique example early on in this article, those saxophones didn’t pass the sniff test. The question is: How would a player find out about a horn’s build quality? Unless it’s glaringly obvious, short of taking the sax to a tech, I’m not sure it’s possible.
I believe another criteria of a new pro horn is a good warranty that is supported by a company that stands behinds its products, and will work to ensure that any defects in workmanship and manufacturing are addressed. Purchasing the new saxophone through an authorized dealer is usually the only way to ensure such a warranty is honoured.
What do you think are the qualities of a professional saxophone? I’m sure there are things that can be added to this list. I’d like to hear your thoughts.