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SOTW columnist

Pete Hales
Pete Hales

Pete's SOTW articles:empty.gif
SML: The Ongoing Story
A Day in the Life of a Saxophone Historian
What is the Best Vintage Saxophone for Me?
Stencils and "Second Line" Models
Designing The Perfect Saxophone
Vintage Saxophones Revisited:
A tour of the early history of the saxophone a CD Review
So Low: Music for Large Saxophones a CD Review
Prose and CONNversations
Jazz standards featuring the Conn-O-Sax By Rob Verdi
a CD Review


Saxophone Books for Sale:

Sue Terry Practice Like the Pros by Sue Terry
UKBuy this from amazon.co.uk
Larry Teal Art of Saxophone Playing by Larry Teal
UKBuy this from amazon.co.uk
Absolute Beginners Absolute Beginners:
Alto Saxophone
The Complete Saxophone Player Book 1 by Raphael Ravenscroft
The Rough Guide to Saxophone:
The Essential Tipbook
by Hugo Pinksterboer
Blues Saxophone:
An In-Depth Look at the Styles of the Masters with CD (Audio)
by Dennis Taylor
The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone by Richard Ingham
Masters of Jazz Saxophone : The Story of the Players and Their Music by Gelly, Dave
Jimmy Dorsey Saxophone Method: A School of Rhythmic Saxophone Playing by Arnold, Jay
Mel Bay Presents Jazz Saxophone Licks, Phrases and Patterns by Berle, Arnie
Technique of the Saxophone: Chord Studies by Viola, Joseph


Selected Jazz Improvisation Books for Sale:

Thinking in Jazz
Thinking in Jazz:

The Infinite Art of Improvisation by Paul F. Berliner
Jazz Improv: How to Play It and Teach It by Jimmy Amadie
Improvising Jazz by Jerry Coker
Jazz Piano & Harmony : An Advanced Guide (w/CD) by John M. Ferrara
Tonal and Rhythmic Principles : Jazz Improvisation by John Mehegan
Thinking in Jazz
Vol. 3, The II/V7/I Progression: A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation (Book & CD Set)
Jamey Aebersold Play-A-Long Series
Jazz Improvisation by David Baker
Modern Jazz Piano : A Study in Harmony by Brian Waite

Sheet MusicSelect Sheet Music from 4000 sax titles


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 poor man.
  • 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 different horn.

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 6/10/12M models
  • 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 blue-steel springs.

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 mouthpiece.

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 key!

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 winners below:

Classical Music, Dark Tone

Buescher 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 ensemble work.
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 "quiet" sound.

Runners up: Buffet S1 (Prestige, especially) or early Buescher Aristocrat models.

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

Conn 6/10/12M. 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 Berry")

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" Sound

Kohlert 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 less)
Disadvantages: "vintage" keywork. Difficult to find.
(Note: I've never played these horns, so I only recommend them through second-hand experience.)

Runners up: Martin Magna or Committee

All Around Best Horn

Selmer Mark VI. Lacquer. Best years/finish/mouthpiece: early 1960's. Selmer C* mouthpiece.
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:

- Keilwerth horns ("The New King" and "Toneking" models, specifically, for big band and jazz music)
- Dolnet and Couesnon horns (for small ensemble music)
- "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.
Pete Hales

.. .
Created: November 16, 2003
Update: January 31, 2015

© 2003-2015 Harri Rautiainen
and respective authors

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SOTW Articles by Pete Hales
SML: The Ongoing Story
A Day in the Life of a Saxophone Historian
What is the Best Vintage Saxophone for Me?
Stencils and "Second Line" Models
Designing The Perfect Saxophone

Related SOTW Resources
Guide to the Purchase of Vintage Saxophones
Vintage Sax: to buy or not to buy? SOTW Forum
Conn History
King History
SOTW Forum > Sax Makes and Models

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