What is the Best Vintage Saxophone for Me?
by Pete Hales
This is an extremely difficult question to answer. There are many good reasons to
get a vintage horn and some extremely good reasons NOT to get a vintage horn.
I discuss several of these below.
I am working on a companion article to this called, "The Perfect Sax". It'll be ready fairly soon!
Why You SHOULDN’T Buy Vintage
Let's start by talking about the reasons you shouldn't go vintage.
Reason #1: You're a Beginner
I strongly suggest that if you are a beginner or an intermediate player,
don't get a vintage horn, get a Yamaha 52/475. These have extraordinarily good intonation and tone, as well as
having very decent keywork (they also have nice, strong cases). A Selmer Bundy II
(or 300 series or 1244 series or whatever Selmer calls them this week) or Keilwerth ST 90 is the best choice for a "you can't kill it if you run it over
with a steamroller" student horn. If you need to save some bucks on a
student horn, a Yamaha 23 or Allegro is the best choice.
There are several reasons for this statement:
- Some school band instructors "require" their students to have Yamaha or Selmer horns. RANT: IMHO, this is a ridiculous requirement,
even though it's quite common: if I had a student that walked in with, say, a Selmer Balanced Action, I wouldn't tell him he has to sell his horn and buy a
YAS-23 (this scenario has happened to me more than once).
- For a beginner, it is "safer" to lease a
student/intermediate model horn and then apply the lease fee to the purchase
price of a horn. My first daughter, a nine-year-old, has already switched
from cello to violin to piano. If I had bought one of each, I'd be a very
- The best reason for a beginner not to buy a vintage horn is
that the teacher wants to ensure that the student himself is the problem, not
the horn. Vintage horns can have odd intonation tendencies and most need
extreme adjustment if you purchase them "as is". These challenges, if not
overcome, can be a frightening experience for the teacher and an unpleasant
one for the student.
Reason #2: Parts & Repair
It'd be a really bad thing for a person right before a gig to find out that
he's got a broken key on his 1965 SML Gold Medal tenor. That's not a part
that your local repair shop will have in stock and it isn't one they're
likely to get. If you break a part on a rare vintage horn, you've essentially
got the choices of: try to find a "parts horn" on eBay that's the
same model as the horn you have, have the part remanufactured or buy a
Some very good vintage horns are very inexpensive. If you
have the opportunity to buy two vintage horns of the same model AND same
year, even if one is unplayable but has all parts intact (and it's not too
expensive), I strongly recommend that you buy both.
Some vintage horns are quite plentiful and parts are
(relatively) easily accessible in the US.
These horns include:
- 1920-ish Conn altos and tenors and most
- 1920-ish Bueschers alto and tenors, some 1940/1950 model Aristocrats
- Selmer Mark VI and VII (parts widely available worldwide)
Parts for most other vintage horns are uncommon, at best.
Some parts, such as necks, can be remanufactured and purchased from a couple of places, but originals are difficult,
if not impossible, to find.
Not only are parts sometimes hard to find, sometimes a
vintage saxophone repairman is hard to find -- and a vintage sax repairman
with the right parts is even harder to find. What if your repairman doesn't
have Buescher snap-in pads or screw-in gold-plated Norton springs? A good
repairman might try to order these parts, but some will destroy the snap-in
assembly and use modern pads and/or replace your Norton springs with standard
Reason #3: Handmade Construction
Most horns made prior to 1970 (and some thereafter) are largely handmade.
This necessarily means that the intonation and "feel" will vary
from horn to horn.
Reason #4: Stencils and poor models
Not all vintage horns are glorious. A very large percentage of
"vintage" horns being sold at eBay are stencils (models made by a
major manufacturer for a storefront, which would then literally take a
stencil and engrave a design on the bell). Most American-made stencils are
made with older tooling, poorer craftsmanship, lower quality material and
poorer quality control. This is not to say ALL American stencils are bad:
some play wonderfully, but it's difficult to tell which ones are great just
by looking at them.
Reason #5: Pitch
Many horns manufactured from 1880 to 1950 (or so) were available in high
pitch. "Low Pitch" or "Concert Pitch" refers to the pitch
that most orchestras tune to, "Concert A" (equivalent to 440
hertz). For high pitch horns, however, Concert A climbs up to 457 hertz:
that's almost a quarter step difference and not something you can "lip
up". Horns produced prior to 1880 were available in a wide variety of
pitches and most should be considered only as collector's horns, not playable
instruments. In any event, horns that are not low pitch, A=440 hertz, will
not play in tune with a modern ensemble.
Reason #6: Relacquered Horns
Relacquering involves removing the original lacquer on a horn with lacquer
remover or with a buffing machine and then spraying or baking on a new coat
of lacquer, sometimes after being buffed again. The problem is that
relacquering with mechanical methods will remove metal and will affect sound,
intonation and value. Relacquering will always make the sax's engraving dull,
too. A relacquered horn can be extremely difficult to detect and it's really
not fun to find out the supposedly minty 1962 Selmer Mark VI you paid $4000 for
is now worth $2000 or less because it's relacquered.
Reason #7: Keywork
Most modern keywork is patterned after the Selmer Balanced Action.
However, the keywork on most vintage horns is what the manufacturer thinks is best and this can mean that it's unergonomic and difficult-to-use. Keyed
ranges may extend only from low C to altissimo Eb, or might not have front altissimo F keys. Some horns even lack some chromatic keys. Really old
horns don't even have an automatic octave key!
Why You SHOULD Buy Vintage
There are an awful lot of reasons presented above on why
not to go vintage, but what about some reasons why?
Reason #1: Cost
Even though the cost of maintaining a vintage horn may be high, a professional
vintage horn is generally extremely inexpensive in comparison to a modern
horn and can give you equivalent, if not better value. For instance, I
recently priced the Selmer Super 80 Series III altos: around $3500 US. I
play classical, mainly, so I checked the market for a good vintage horn that
is known as a good classical instrument. I found a badly dented, but intact
Buescher "Big B" alto for $100. The cost of repairing and replating the horn
totaled slightly less than $1000. Even though the "market value" of a
perfect "Big B" is only around $1200, for less than the maximum value of the
horn, I could have one of the best classical horns ever made for less than
half the cost of a new pro horn.
!!! Caveat Emptor !!!
The best deals on saxophones are found on eBay, without question. However, most of
these horns are offered without warranty or trial period. If you are
unwilling to accept the risks of possibly getting a junk horn that plays
horrendously out of tune, even after hundreds of dollars of repair, I
strongly suggest going to a well-respected vintage horn dealership that has a
trial period and a good reputation (like vintagesax.com,
worldwidesax.com, www.saxquest.com, etc.) and then try out
the horn in whatever setting you will be most often using it. Use a tuner to
check intonation -- even if you think you've got the world's best ear. Play
scales, arpeggios, exercises, etc. Get a good feel for the horn over its
entire range. Spend at least an hour with the horn. If possible, have a
couple horns available and compare them with each other. Do note that some
mouthpieces just don't "work" with vintage horns. Use a mouthpiece from the
era the horn was built in, if you can, or use a modern large-chamber
Reason #2: Sound/"Character"
While it's arguable that one saxophone sounds different than another, you
don't see hundreds of messages claiming that a Selmer Bundy and a Selmer Mark
VI sound the same. In the opinion of many, vintage horns have a much richer
and/or more complex sound than any modern horn. This may be due to saxophone
bores that were designed to have large amounts of air put through them for
an era where microphones weren't that common, different brass formulae or
design variations introduced by a manufacturing process that depended more on
people than computer design or assembly.
Reason #3: Artistry
The saxophone as visual art is almost completely dead. While you can still
get some horns custom engraved, it's extremely rare to find a horn as
elaborate as, say, the Conn New Wonder Virtuoso
Deluxe engraved horns. It's a definite plus to have a horn that looks as
good as it sounds.
Reason #4: Keywork
While it's my opinion that the "Selmer-Style" key layout is probably the most
ergonomic and efficient, my opinion is not the only one. Some people love
the keywork of the old Buescher 400 "Top Hat" models. Some people like the
additional keywork found on the Holton Rudy Wiedoeft models. Some people
just want the G# trill key and forked Eb fingering that was found on most
horns from 1914 to the 1940's. Some people would rather have a double-octave
So, Which Vintage Horn Should I Get?: The Best Saxophones
IMHO, the best saxophone is the one that can best suit the
player. If the player plays mainly classical music, a King Super 20, for
instance, would be a poor choice as a main horn.
In 2000, I started a thread on the SOTW Forum regarding a "Vintage
Saxophone Shootout": a thread that tried to define what is the best horn
and mouthpiece combination for each style of music. I post some of the
Classical Music, Dark Tone
True-Tone Best years/finish/mouthpiece: mid to late 1920's. Gold plate. Sigurd Rascher mouthpiece.
Advantages: extreme evenness in tone and intonation. Easy blowing. Played by
most major classical players at one point or another. Relatively inexpensive
($1000 US or so for an alto on eBay). Can easily be used for occasional small
Disadvantages: "vintage" keywork (i.e. not like a Selmer) that may
be a little slow. Altissimo keywork extends only to F. Considered to have a
Runners up: Buffet S1 (Prestige,
especially) or early Buescher
Small Ensemble Music, Dark Tone
Buffet SuperDynaction Best years/finish/mouthpiece: 1960's. (Sparkle) lacquer. Selmer C* or LT hard-rubber mouthpiece.
Advantages: dark tone that's somewhat bright, depending on mouthpiece choice,
but not overly so. Decent range. Relatively inexpensive ($1500 US or so for a
lacquer alto on eBay). Can easily be used for occasional classical and jazz
work, too. Dynaction model is similar.
Disadvantages: "vintage" keywork, although very quick. Altissimo
keywork extends only to F. Considered not to have a "cutting"
sound. Some natural intonation problems (i.e. endemic to the horn). Strap
hook and thumbrest are in odd positions compared to other horns. Only tenors
and altos are plentiful.
Runner up: Selmer Mark VI
Big Band Music, Full Sound
Best years/finish/mouthpiece: early 1940's. Lacquer. Otto Link mouthpiece.
Advantages: big sound with this setup. Rolled tone holes to "prolong pad
life." Connqueror (26/30M) models available as a step up. Very popular.
Disadvantages: IMO, a boomy sound that's hard to control. Somewhat hard to
keep in tune. If body tube is damaged, tone holes are difficult to repair
(or, it's difficult to find a repairman that's worked with them).
"Vintage" keywork. Can be expensive for good examples ($2000+).
Runner up: Conn New Wonder ("Chu
Jazz Music, Bright Sound King Super 20 or Super
20 Silver-Sonic Eastlake horns. Lacquer. Berg Larsen mouthpiece.
Advantages: beautiful, bright sound. Mostly "modern" keywork. It's THE jazz horn.
Disadvantages: Quite expensive for good examples ($3000+). Hard to control for other styles of music.
Runners up: Martin Magna or Committee
R&B Music, "Smoky" SoundKohlert 55
or 57. Best years/finish/mouthpiece: mid to late 1950's. Lacquer. Otto Link mouthpiece.
Advantages: most people who try them say these are the best horns around.
Rolled tone holes. Some Keilwerth design. Cheap when you find them ($500 or
Disadvantages: "vintage" keywork. Difficult to find.
(Note: I've never played these horns, so I only recommend them through
Runners up: Martin Magna or Committee
All Around Best HornSelmer Mark VI. Lacquer. Best years/finish/mouthpiece: early 1960's. Selmer
Advantages: can be played well for any kind of music. Good tone, excellent
key layout, decent intonation.
Disadvantages: some intonation problems endemic to the horn. Expensive
($3000+ for a decent model).
Runners Up: SML "Rev. D" or Selmer Super Balanced Action
There are a bunch of excellent vintage horns that were not
mentioned in the Vintage Saxophone Shootout, possibly because they were
produced in rather small numbers. I list a few below:
horns ("The New King" and "Toneking" models, specifically, for big
band and jazz music)
- Dolnet and Couesnon horns (for small ensemble
- "Leblanc System" horns (for small ensemble and classical music)
Also, GENERALLY, the model introduced right before or right after the ones listed above are also extremely good. For example, the SML
"Gold Medal" horns are some of the best ever made, while not all of them have as good a feature set as the "Rev. D" models.
Finally, please remember that these horns are not necessarily the most collectible horns, but are good playing horns, as listed
by other folks.
Your mileage may vary.