A note about saxophones in case you ever thought about picking one up to learn on.
Alto, Soprano, or Tenor?
A quick run-down on which horns are easier to start off on or to transition to.
- Soprano (what Kenny G’s recordings usually feature) is high-pitched and hard to start out on. It takes a lot of pressure and relatively little air. If you already play clarinet or oboe, it won’t be too hard, though.
- Tenor (my first sax) is relatively low-pitched. It’s the saxophone you hear most often on vintage Rock records and countless Jazz and Blues recordings. It takes a lot of wind and relatively little pressure to play. It’s easy to start out on, but many folks find that going from tenor to alto is a little harder than going from alto to tenor.
- Alto is only a little harder to start on than tenor. But it’s relatively easy to go from alto to tenor OR soprano if you decide to change later on. It’s also a LOT easier to go from alto to soprano than going from tenor to soprano. BTW, Kenny G played alto in H.S., in case you wondered.
- Baritone doesn’t count. Yes, you get those great low notes (think Dave Clark Five), and it’s relatively easy to start on, but a playable baritone will set you back as much as a drivable used car.
The other advantage of alto – and it’s huge – is that almost everybody else in the world started on alto sax, so there are millions sitting around in closets or showing up at garage sales, flea markets, auctions, etc.
Why Not New? Expensive or Crap
New good ones cost a lot because they have over 488 separate pieces, and many of those have to be hand-assembled.
New cheap ones from Cecilio/Mendini or whoever will start losing pads and maybe other pieces in a matter of months if not weeks.
Used Horns Aren’t Always as Advertised
Used horns often sell at rock-bottom prices. Unfortunately the seller usually has no idea if the horn is playable or can even be made playable. Most online sellers consider “excellent condition” to mean that there aren’t many scratches or dings. But your first concern is not the horn’s cosmetics. Are all the keys in line? Are all the pads and springs there? A $100 horn that costs you $350 in restoration is not necessarily the bargain it appears.
If you buy online, get a guarantee that it is playable and can be returned if it is not as advertised.
Vintage Horns Worth Considering
Best case, if you can get a post-1967 Yamaha or Vito (that was made in the Yamaha factory to Yamaha specs), you’ll be buying a solid instrument that, frankly every other instrument company has been copying for fifty years. (Yamaha product numbers are YAS-21 Alto and the YTS-21 Tenor. Later Yamaha YAS and YTS are also good as a rule.) Look for horns that have both of the low pads on the right side of the bell, from the player’s perspective.
Going back further in time, the original Buescher Aristocrat was an American-built professional horn in its day – it only got discontinued (about 1964) because Selmer took the company over and didn’t want to try to keep explaining why they had two “professional” lines. Buescher fans argue endlessly over which Aristocrat is “the unicorn.” A number of these guys seem mostly to be trying to drive up the value of a horn they already own. Look for horns that have both of the low pads on the left side of the bell, from the player’s perspective.
The Selmer Bundy (I) is a solid horn based on Buescher’s professional (“True-Tone”) horns of the 1910s, with keywork based on their 1930s-1940s upgrade horns. Its sound is not as rich as the Aristocrat, but it’s a good starter horn if you replace the mouthpiece with a good one (Selmer S-80 C* is a good start). It was discontinued because the aforementioned Yamaha/Vito horns sounded better and played easier. That said, if you can get one in playing condition for not too much money . . . . Like the Aristocrat, it has both of the low pads on the left side of the bell.
Bundy II was Selmer’s response to the Yamaha Vito horn, with improved construction and other features, but it was too little, too late. Like almost all horns designed after 1970, it has both low pads on the right side of the horn.
Both Bundy lines suffered by comparison with the Yamaha/Vito horns and got a negative reputation that isn’t quite deserved, especially in comparison to the vast majority of horns coming out of China today. Again, they don’t have the quality of the Aristocrat or the YAS 21 and its successors, but they’re built much, much better than the average under-$1600 Chinese-built saxophone.
Avoid Chinese Bundies. A few years ago, Selmer started selling “Bundy” horns that were made in China, but had no success. They sold the “Bundy” name to a third-tier manufacturer who may or may not be making cheap horns under the Bundy name today.
What about Conn, Martin, King, etc.?
During the time the Bundy was being made, Conn made a similar student instrument called the “Director,” but more commonly called the “Shooting Star” because of the pattern on the bell. I was never a fan, but then again, I have had the chance to try one with a decent mouthpiece. Conn stopped manufacturing professional horns in 1971, and the ones that survived that era are beyond the cost range most beginners want to lay out. If you are looking at a “Shooting Star,” keep in mind that it’s essentially Conn’s answer to the Bundy (I) and the price should reflect that.
Professional horns from the major US manufacturers occasionally turn up on the market. The “Vintage Pro Timeline” article on our page TheSchoolOfTheRock.com provides details. Any post-1935 sax on that timeline is likely to give you good service, as long as it is playable, or at least reparable for a reasonable fee.
As a rule, the student horns were either:
- Early 1900s designs that were once “professional” but were relegated to “student horn” status when companies designed newer and better horns, or
- Horns made in different factories with different tooling.
That said, some of the student line horns have potential as well, especially compared to Chinese saxophones under $1600. I have some overview information on older student horns in the article Vintage Student Saxophones, but to be honest, I haven’t played enough of those to have a sure opinion on them. If you see, say, a Martin Indiana, or a King Cleveland, that seems to be playable cheap, that might be a consideration, but don’t confuse them with, say, the Martin or King professional lines.
There are a dozen other lines. When shopping vintage horns, even vintage student horns, I would prefer instruments made in France, the US, or Japan over instruments made in Italy or Korea, though there are, of course exceptions. Once manufacturing moved to China, all bets are off.
What About Key Shapes?
First of all, know that since about 1916, all saxophones have used the same fingerings for notes, though some have extra keys that extend the range by half a step, such as high F# or low A (rare).
You may notice that the keys you play with your pinkies (especially your left pinky) changed shape over the years to improve the leverage that operates low keys like low B, C#, and Bb. All major manufacturers made improvements, but Selmer’s “balanced action” keywork was especially ergonomic.
Then, in 1967m Yamaha borrowed Selmer’s keywork designs for their YAS21 and YTS21 student horns (which were also sold under the Vito name). And virtually every saxophone designed since then incorporates those key shapes.
So it’s popular for saxophone snobs (most of whom have never played professionally) to claim that saxes without “balanced-action”-inspired features are virtually impossible to play, or for beginners to learn on.
The hard truth is that saxophone became the most popular wind instrument for jazz, rock and pop decades before those improvements. Early and mid-century keywork have never discouraged or hampered the playing of ONE determined student or professional.
What About Key Signatures?
This is one place where tenor has a slight advantage over alto. Most saxophones are pitched differently from instruments like piano and guitar. Tenor sax, like trumpet and clarinet, is a “Bb” instrument, which means that when you play a C on those instruments, it’s actually playing a Bb on the piano. In practical terms, this means that, if you’re playing along with a rock, pop, or worship band that uses popular guitar keys like G, D, and A, you’ll always have two more sharps than the other instruments. Advanced sax players usually don’t struggle until the songs are pitched in E (=F# – 6 sharps), or B (=C# – SEVEN sharps).
Alto players have it worse. When you play a C on an alto, it’s the same as an Eb on piano. Consequently they always have three more sharps than the piano or guitar. So if the song is in A, you’ll have 6 sharps to contend with.
A number of worship leader friends pitch everything in B, because it suits their vocal range or that’s the key on the demo recording. Tell them that if they can do that on an acoustic guitar without a capo to go for it!
Many sax players, including myself, have attempted to neutralize this issue by bring a “C melody” or “C soprano.” These instruments are set in the same key as piano and guitar. So if the song is in A, you play in A. downside is that these instruments have narrower bores, so they can’t deliver the tones you’re used to with tenors or altos. The C melody, in fact, was designed so that its tone would blend in with an orchestra. I found that playing the one I owned (a professional pre-war Buescher) was a lot like playing bass clarinet.
So if your goal is to learn saxophone this month and start playing in a guitar-based band next month, you might want to start on tenor to avoid at least one extra sharp per song. IMHO, of course. Better yet, give yourself time to really learn whatever saxophone you start with, and then you can make informed choices.
If you’re considering learning saxophone, and you’re not going to be joining a band or worship team next week, your best bet is a used post-1935 name-brand Alto Sax that was built in the United States, France, or Japan, as long as it is playable or can be made playable without a massive effort.
While writing this article (July, 2022), I saw one of the early Yamaha-built Vitos for $80 (they usually run around $225 in this area). The Yamaha-branded YAS-21s tend to cost a little more, since beginners confuse those with better instruments Yamaha made later.
I’ve seen many Buescher Aristocrats in the $200-$300 range. Mine cost about $200, plus about $100 for a local saxophone technician to adjust and make minor repairs.
Bundies and Conn “Shooting Stars” go for a little less in the same condition.
Within a year, inflation will drive such costs up, but hopefully this gives you some idea.
In the meantime, I’ve seen countless cheapo Chinese saxes like Lazarro, Mendini/Cecilio, etc. come on the used market with irreparable issues just because of poor materials and construction. Yes, you can get a shiny new horn for $225-$350, but unless you plan to keep it in a glass case and admire it from a distance, you can do far, far better in the used market.
Your mileage will vary, of course. . . . .
Best of luck, please use the “contact page” or comment below. (Constructive criticism and alternative views are welcome. Haters and trolls, not so much.)