I recently had the good fortune to buy a new alto sax. Well I say buy, I was actually trading/exchanging my beloved Yanagisawa s880 soprano sax for an alto. As my soprano was in good nick (though 15 years old) the plan was to trade it (hopefully) for something equally good 2nd hand, or pay a bit extra for a brand new sax.
Why was I getting rid of my soprano though? Well, I never really had the time to play it properly, and the soprano sax, let me tell you, is not the sort of instrument you can just occasionally have a blow on: it needs serious dedication. The intonation is a pain to get right, and it is very difficult not to make a sound like a squeezed duck. Even one of my favourite saxophonists, Branford Marsalis, in my opinion has certain duck-like qualities in his soprano sound, so what chance do I have to make the instrument sound good? Unless you play it all the time, it can seriously hurt your jaw, as the pressure you have to apply to get to the high notes is quite extreme.
So anyway, should I get a new sax or a second hand one, and how much would I get for my soprano? Well, saxophones are a bit like 2nd hand cars, there is little point in buying a new one, as a well maintained second hand sax gives you much, much better value for money, and horns last a very, very long time: dents, scratches, pads: all can be fixed and repaired (unless you decided to drive over your sax with a 2nd hand car, then it will only be good for hanging on the wall ;-).
But where to start? I stumbled across a very quirky sax repair shop just down the road from me in Hove (that’s on the English South Coast). The guy who runs it, Rupert Noble, is quite a character: deeply passiontae and highly knowledgeable about horns (here is Rupert with some off his many vintage saxes).
You won’t find a single new horn in his shop, but many vintage ones and many others that are currently being repaired. Whilst I was in his workshop a very happy succesion of musicians came and went to have a chat, a cup of tea, try out some horns, and have broken ones repaired or serviced. Someone should write a book about this place. To say it has character is an understatmenet. Anyway, moving on, I got to try out (i.e. submit poor Rupert to my very rusty sax playing) some vintage, basic Yamaha altos, an old Toneking (Keilwerth), SML (Strasser-Marigaux), vintage Yanagisawa (though they were sold under a different name in the US) and a Selmer Cigar Cutter (a.k.a. Pea Shooter, Super). The Yamahas were very easy to blow, but lacked a little character, but are highly recommended for beginners as the tone production was simple and easy. The three others were all different, each with their own personality. I was going to have to come back for a second try to decided which one I might want to purchase.
A day later I headed up to London to check out some brand new horns, just for comparison, and some nearly new ones. A Selmer Mark VII (Circia 1981), new Yanagisawa A901 and various new Yamaha Models.
The difference between the nearly new/new and vintage saxes was indescribable. The vintage saxes at Rupert’s shop had warmth, character and sheer class, whereas the new ones felt like playing a piece of plastic. Now the sax isn’t my first instrument but even I could tell these differences immediately. The contrast between the Selmer Mark VII (circa 1981) and The Selmer Cigar Cutter (circa 1930), was especially interesting to note. Here were two saxes form the same maker, one sounded like a playground toy (Mark VII), the other like a work of art (Cigar Cutter). Yet the Mark VII was substantially more expensive. The only very slight downside was that the Cigar Cutter had its lacquer coming off – in fact it looked as though it had been re-lacquered at some point in its life, and this was now coming off. But to anyone contemplating buying a vintage sax: this does not matter one bit. In fact some argue that saxes sound better with the lacquer removed. If need be you can have the whole sax stripped of its lacquer or even have it subsequently re-lacquered: but if the sound is great, don’t mess with it.
Amongst sax players it is a well known fact that Selmer seem to have stopped making good saxes some time in the 70s. The theories as to why this may be abound (just check out various internet forums on this), but logic tells me that more and more machines were used to finish the products, rather than using expensive craftsmen, corners and quality of materials were cut in production, etc, and suddenly you have a less superior horn.
So in the end it was the Selmer Cigar Cutter I went for. It seems to have layers and layers of sound in it, and suited my more soft sound on the sax very well. After all, my hero Paul Desmond played a Selmer Alto, though a Super Balanced Action (circa 1951), so a model 20 years younger. Here is my new pride and joy:
The reason why that particular version of Selmers altos were nick-named Cigar Cutters or Pea Shooter is due to the design of the octave mechanism (see picture). Their official seris name is “Super”. The Super series ran from 1931 to 1935 and was followed by the Balanced Action Series.
So anyone contemplating buying a vintage sax: go for it, as long as you can try it out first (never buy any instrument without trying it out first) and buy it from a reputable shop.
Oh and by the way, playing an alto or tenor is a million times easier than paying the soprano.
Hope that was useful :-).