Today we’re continuing the blog series on Equipment Choices. This post is about my saxophones and why I’ve chosen them. I have the full listing of my saxes and setups over at this page, so instead of listing them all here, let me talk about them in general terms, about why I like them, and some of the things maybe I don’t like so much. Maybe someday I’ll do in-depth reviews of each of them, but for now, this post will have to do.

By far there is one main reason why I own all four of these saxophones: I like my horns to be really free blowing. Now, I actually like a lot of resistance – but I like to get my resistance from the mouthpiece/reed combination and not the saxophone itself. Resistant sax setups generally …

  • are more closed at the tip
  • have bigger chambers
  • require harder reeds

… and that pretty much sums up my preferences. I plan to cover why I like these kinds of setups in a later post, but for now, just accept that I like a resistant setup and a free-blowing axe. 

The most free-blowing horns I’ve played are the old Conns (especially the 6M, which I would love to own someday), the old Bueschers, and among current production instruments, the Keilwerth. Now, let me be the first to admit, there are about a billion new brands of saxophones on the market now that I simply have never played. I wish I had time to check them all out, but I just don’t. For the record, I am in no way disparaging all of these new saxophones. Some of them are probably awesome, and I truly wish I had time to play them all.

Other reasons I like these horns: I feel they are all full of big, fat tone. Some people say they are “stuffy.” Well, call it “stuffy” if you like. Yes, if you bring your mouthpiece over from your Mark VI, these horns are going to sound darker, fuller, and quieter. But you can still peel the paint with any of my horns if you really want to – you’re just going to need a more aggressive setup to do so. If you take your setup off your Mark VI and put it on my Chu alto, you’re going to wonder why your tone isn’t projecting. That’s not a fault of the horn. It’s your fault for putting the wrong mouthpiece on my horn!  😉

But this brings up another point. Overall these horns are very mouthpiece friendly. That is to say, I have put some pretty aggressive mouthpieces on these horns, and they still play great. I remember vividly putting an early Guardala “King R&B” alto piece (man, I really wish I hadn’t sold that one) on my Chu alto, and not only did it play great, but it was well in tune. This should have been the mismatch of the century, and I was fully expecting it to be a disaster. But it wasn’t. I loved it! The horn was, of course, designed to play with a short, big chambered mouthpiece, but that Guardala was the exact opposite – almost a “no-chamber” mouthpiece! But it was great if you wanted to play some smooth jazz or play in a rock band. I’ve found similar adaptability in my tenor and bari. My Conn soprano is the exception. It really hates a small or medium chamber mouthpiece. I can’t play it in tune for the life of me unless the chamber is pretty massive. I’m not sure why this horn is so picky, but if you’re looking for a versatile soprano that is good for classical and pop/rock, this one’s probably not for you.

Let’s talk about the key work. I have had plenty of folks play my old horns and say something like “I could never get used to this key work.” So far I’ve been pretty good at holding my tongue in such situations. 😛 Really people … you have seen the Charlie Parker and the Sigurd Rascher videos, right? I firmly believe that the key work on these horns is not a limitation on your technique in any way. If you don’t believe me, then go check out this recording of the Mana Quartet. Go ahead, I can wait… 

Welcome back. If they can play like that on old Bueschers, then you simply cannot say that key work on your old Buescher is holding you back. Look, the keywork on these old horns has both advantages and disadvantages. I have never had any problem with this, but in the interest of full disclosure, here is my love/hate list of key work stuff, so you can decide for yourself if you can deal with it or not. 

  • Left pinky keys: generally harder to use on old saxes, with some exceptions. (My soprano is awesome though!)
  • Articulated G#: often missing from older horns, and if added, can make the pinky C# really difficult to press. (There are workarounds, but they require somebody that is very knowledgeable in modifying the old horns, and this work can get expensive too.)
  • Alternate G# in the right hand: I like it and it has gotten me out of a bind in the Creston, but you won’t find it on newer horns.
  • Alternate E-flat in the right hand: I like it, occasionally useful, not found on newer horns. 
  • High F# key: not found on the old horns. I miss not having this key on my three Conns. I wish they all had it!
  • Front E/F altissimo key in left hand: not present on some older horns, especially Buescher. I can’t live without this key. It was already on my bari/alto/tenor but I had it added to my soprano. 
  • Bari sax Low A: not found on the older horns. I prefer the sound of the low B-flat bari myself. A few older Conns are low A, but newer baris are superior to the early low A bari saxes, in my opinion. 
  • Thumb rest: Most older horns have the thumb rest fixed to the body. Modern adjustable thumb rests feel great and can really help you avoid/minimize hand/wrist pain. I miss them. I had one installed on my soprano, because it originally came with that crazy thumb ring that was driving me crazy!

Again, there is nothing in the list that’s a deal breaker for me. Maybe it is for you. That’s okay. 

Here are some other miscellaneous things to consider about some of the older horns that may or may not put you off:

  • Some techs don’t know how to work on them, or even refuse to work on them.
  • In some cases (especially the octave mechanism) many of them are complicated and difficult to repair/adjust.
  • There are very few parts available for them. 
  • They can be quite a bit cheaper than buying a new horn of similar quality. 
  • They were completely handmade, so there can be considerable variability in playing characteristics from one horn to the next, even in the same brand and vintage.  
  • Many band directors will refuse to let a student play them in band. (One such director insisted such a horn couldn’t possibly be played in tune with all the other “modern” saxes.)
  • Many are silver plated, so you might have to polish it every year or so if you don’t want it to turn that ugly grey tarnish color (or keep silver strips in the case with the horn). 
  • Micro-tuner neck: I have this on the alto and I love it and use it constantly. They are often stuck and won’t turn. Then it’s just dead weight to carry around unless you can find someone who can free it up without destroying it. 
  • Miscellaneous adjustment screws: often missing on the old horns, I’ve had some added, and wish I had more available on my older horns.

Many of those items were maintenance oriented, so I feel I should mention: my Keilwerth tenor requires way less maintenance than my older horns. I almost never have problems with it. It is just rock solid. If my Chu alto got smashed tomorrow, I would be seriously considering a Keilwerth to replace it because of the dependability I’ve enjoyed with my tenor. 

Since the Keilwerth is my one “modern” sax, let me just talk about a few other details, in no particular order.

  • The pearls are rounded on the sides, and do not sit down in a metal cup with sharp edges, and I really like the way this feels under the fingers. 
  • The bis key is rounded nicely and allows me to slide the left hand first finger easily on and off the key – something I do a lot. 
  • The keywork is heavier and clunkier than something like a good Mark VI. This is something I don’t notice any more, but it bothered me at first. I’ve lightened some of the springs under the right hand, and although I occasionally get a little bit of bouncing out of those keys, the compromise is worth it to me.  
  • It has a really nice system for easily adjusting the height of the left hand palm keys.
  • It’s heavy. If you don’t want a heavy tenor, don’t get a Keilwerth!

Rolled tone holes. They are on all my saxes except my bari. I wish I had them on the bari. Why? First, all my saxes with rolled tone holes seem to stay in adjustment longer. I don’t understand it, but the pads just don’t leak as often. They don’t stick as much either. (Don’t ask me why; they just don’t!) Lastly, it’s easier for me to play jazz and improvise moving lines with a more gentle kind of attack on the notes when my sax has rolled tone holes. Think of the difference between Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley improvising a solo. It sounds almost like Griffin is attacking each note, while Mobley’s notes fit together more gently. For me, it’s easier to achieve this kind of Mobley-like legato quality to the line when I’m playing on rolled tone holes. Again, I don’t know why, but I know it’s true. 

Tuning. I touched on this earlier, so I want to be completely clear about this – my older horns, and even my Keilwerth, are harder to play in tune than some of the other modern horns I’ve played, like Yamaha and Yanagisawa. For me, this is not a deal breaker. All saxophones will play some notes out of tune unless the player is constantly making tuning adjustments while playing. There’s no reason why anyone with a decent ear can’t play the older horns in tune. This is one of those downsides which everyone plays up, but to me has turned out to be a non-issue entirely. That said, I’ve done a fair amount of work on my horns to help with the worst tuning issues. I’m talking about adding crescents to tone holes and working with key heights. This is not done with the idea of eliminating pitch problems with the horns – just trying to mitigate them so I don’t have to work quite so hard to keep the notes in tune. 

Now I’m going to venture into some controversial stuff here. I personally feel that these tuning issues in older horns are mainly due to the bore design. Modern manufacturers have significantly altered the bore of saxophones compared to saxes of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s (or earlier) in part to simplify manufacturing and reduce expenses, but also in part to help mitigate tuning issues. (This is not the only thing they do to mitigate tuning issues, but it’s one of them.) These bore changes, in my opinion, change the sound of the horn, and while the newer horns play better in tune, they do so by sacrificing some tonal homogeneity, free-blowing qualities, and bigness/fatness of tone. In other words, you can make a sax more in tune with itself, but as you continue down that road fixing pitch issues, you are also introducing new problems into the sax – namely:

  • More stuffy notes that don’t have the same tone as the notes around them
  • More blowing resistance
  • A sound quality that is less deep, less full, and shifts the balance of overtones upward toward the higher partials, de-emphasizing the lower ones 

Do I have a spectrogram to prove any of this? No. I have my ears, my experience playing and testing horns, and I’ve had a lot of lengthy conversations with people who have built careers around working on vintage horns, while at the same time staying extremely familiar with modern horn design and manufacturing. Does this mean you can’t sound great on a modern sax? Absolutely not! There are some players who sound amazing while playing on a $500 horn that rolled off the assembly line yesterday. Again, I’m just trying to help you understand why I play what I play. I don’t mind if you have different priorities than me. 

Well this post has gone on long enough. I hope this post has been helpful to you in thinking about horns, and what might work best for you. One of these days I hope I can get some pictures posted that will show some of the unique and interesting features of these horns. As always, your opinions, thoughts and questions are always appreciated.