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A Late Bloomer's Trip in Toyland

by Jim Glass

I've been toying with flying down to visit Kessler's shop after a great purchase of an Antigua Winds 590BC soprano sax last year. So I wrote Dave and asked him if I could try out some dream saxophones and he said, sure come on down. Since it was my wife and my 30th wedding anniversary, I decided to visit Las Vegas and swing by this saxophone Mecca called Kessler & Sons Music.

I was a Saturday morning as I approached the shop. The temperature was over 110 degrees but the shop was hopping with a lot of customers. As I walked in the door a clerk immediately approached and then scurried off to find Dave. I met Dave and his father Chuck and got a tour of the work benches and staff.

Chuck Kessler, Steve Dawson, and Dave Kessler

Then we got to business. Dave laid out some really sweet axes, a Selmer Ref 54, a B&S Medusa, a Yanagisawa A9937, a Yanagisawa A991, and a Yamaha 62 (they don't make these anymore but Dave had one).

I pulled out my equipment. I brought my favorite mouthpiece an Otto Link Tone Edge #5 and a metal Selmer Jazz #6. I had my reed case, my favorite neck strap, a Korg tuner, and my camera. I started to play. I checked the tuning first. I had always had issues with the Selmer saxophones (it's probably more about an intermediate like me than the horn) but with the Selmer Ref 54 I found the first Selmer I could grow to love. Next I did complete chromatic scale, overtones, and then some Charlie Parker from the Omnibook. I got to tell you, I was in hog heaven. 45 minutes later, I selected the Yamaha 62 as the horn I would buy.

It wasn't about the fit or finish, if money had been no object I would have probably taken the Selmer or the high-end Yanagisawa. But I just didn't think I sounded $2000 or more better on the top of the line horns than I did on the Yamaha 62.

That's when Dave brought in the Kessler Custom alto saxophone. I hooked it up and started checking the intonation. I was not as impressed as I had been with some of the other saxophones, but then I am just an intermediate player. And my buddy who purchased a Kessler Custom baritone saxophone had no intonation problems at all. But the sax had a good sound, one that I could use next week in the jazz ensemble. Then Dave put an acoustical adapter (Kessler Tone Booster) into the cork end of the neck. For about an inch it reduces the taper so that your air pressure is more centered. All of a sudden, any intonation problems I thought I had were gone. And the sound was as good as any horn I had tried today.

I purchased the Kessler Custom for my backup horn and my wife's primary alto saxophone for $700. That makes four horns that I or my buddies have purchased from Dave in the last two years. My friends and I are talking up these horns to other late bloomers who are starting out again. Let's get to know a little more about Kessler & Sons Music.

1. How and when did Kessler & Sons Music get started?

We opened in July of 1989. My father had been working for the main music store, Mahonney's Professional Music and Drum Shop, for about the previous 10 years as their main woodwind repair technician. Originally, my father had approached the owner of the store about essentially taking over just the flute side of the business. Basically, opening his own little flute shop inside their shop. Primarily at the time, this store was a Yamaha store. My father wanted to bring in other brands and proposed the store sell him Yamaha stuff at like 10% over cost. They "graciously" declined this offer and combined with other reasons/factors, he decided to open his own shop.

With a small loan from his mother, he opened up our small shop with the main idea of doing repairs, a little retail sales, and some instrument rentals. He dealt only with band instruments, nothing else.

It was definitely an upward battle since when he opened, he had to compete against two very established stores (had been in Vegas for about 20 years each) and he did not have a huge major name like Yamaha in his shop.

He approached this task by making every instrument he sold automatically 30% off of retail, which at the time, was unheard of here in Las Vegas.

2. Who is the most famous musician or band that you have worked with?

That's tough. We have worked with quite a few. Some of the more regulars are Sam Butera, Paul Taylor, Chicago (the band) and have worked on horns for Tower of Power, Everette Harp, Eddie "Lock Jaw" Davis, Charles MacPherson, Dona Menza. There are more that I'm sure I'm leaving out, but there are a few.

We recently started seeing Brandon Fields in our shop. Monster player. We haven't done any work on his horns yet, he was in getting a few Kessler Custom NY Short Shank mouthpieces.

I think my favorite days are the ones when we get true professional players in my shop. Its nice to be able to sit and chat with these guys and also, getting a free concert isn't too bad either!

3. Community bands, semi-professional bands, and SOTW are seeing a boom in the number of baby boomers coming back to music and playing the sax. What kind of questions do you ask a returning player when they are picking a new instrument?

Primarily, what the price range they want to stay in. Many adult players will stick with it because they are the ones investing in it... not a child who will change their mind frequently. Many adult players also say that if they are going to do this, why go with something basic, why not get something they enjoy because, hey, it's their money. So I don't want to pull out something that will offend them because it is student but I also do not want to pull out something that is 2 times their intended price.

Also add the fact that these days, people can get a great performing horn for low money (like with my Solist or Kessler Custom line), and no matter what their price range, they can get exceptional performance in their budget.

However, I let them guide me as to what they had in mind prior to coming in or calling. 90% have already done some research and have based an opinion off of that. So I let them tell me where they stand and I will either support the information they have already learned or if I find it flawed (I hate when customers come in and only want to try Yamaha... ugh), then I will do my best to help educate them from my standpoint but then let them make the choice.

4. There are also a number of adults starting to play the sax for the first time. When they come to your shop what do you recommend to them (buy, rent first)?

Most of the time, I recommend they rent for 1-3 months to make sure that they want to do it. I recommend purchasing sooner then later because it will save them money in the long run.

5. What interesting trends have you seen in the saxophone manufacturing industry in the last five years?

The driving trend in the last few years is the advent of inexpensive horn with huge quality improvements. China, Taiwan and all of Asia are making huge strides. China is the scariest. Here is a country that can put out product so ridiculously cheap, but combine that with improved quality and the whole economic dynamics of instruments change instantly. I do not foresee them making beyond student and intermediate levels because I think that as a political/capital system, they lack the patience and desire to truly make something to an artisans standpoint like Selmer Paris or Yanagisawa... but American made student instruments will face an even tougher time in the next 3-5 years with the rate of improvement.

6. What changes do you hope to see in saxophone design in the near future?

I do not see any huge design innovation to be honest. I think the innovation that we will see is the price/quality ratio will become better.

7. What is currently the best selling sax in your shop? How has that changed in the last few years?

Well it had been the Antigua Sopranos. Now, it is my Kessler Custom line. Both of these are because of the topics already mentioned of price for performance. Soprano is a boutique business. But the market desperately needs a great playing low cost offering. That is what the Antigua gave. It has opened up the soprano market by offering quality for a good price. My Kessler Custom line has done the same thing. There have been some recent forum posts comparing my horns to Yamaha Custom Z and Yanagisawa saxes. But my horn is 1/4 the cost. Sax players love this.

Prior to that, I would say that the Yanagisawa line was my best seller and again, I believe for the same reasons, just not as drastic. With the price/performance ratio that someone can get out of the basic Yanagisawa 901 series is absolutely unmatched in the other offerings from the "Big 4"... including the rest of the Yanagisawa line. Plus, the 901 series is for the most part, priced like an intermediate sax but the horn is by no means intermediate.

Price for Performance is what drives the sax market today, not name.

8. You often help beginners and intermediate players pick a mouthpiece. When I bought my Antiqua Winds 590BC last year you selected a Morgan Protone and it is the best soprano sax mouthpiece I have tried to date. What do you consider when making this recommendation?

Once again, it's a case of price for performance. While I personally am not what I would publicly call a "sax player" (although many assume I am because of my knowledge), I have several sax players on staff. First, there's my father. Then there's our mouthpiece technician and repairman, Steve Dawson, who is an outstanding saxophonist. His night gig is playing baritone sax for Wayne Newton.

One thing that we pride ourselves in is looking for great performance at a low cost because when you find it, it is really easy to sell and let the product speak for itself. However, there is some resistance to that by some of the older mentality teachers who base everything on what they "know" from their own experience. Since they play on a Meyer 5M alto mouthpiece, they recommend that ALL of their students play on a Meyer 5M alto mouthpiece. What these teachers and their students do not realize is that the teacher has a New York Meyer 5M which is NOTHING like a current Meyer 5M. But the teacher "knows" best... I guess.

Morgan makes some fantastic mouthpieces. He knows like I do that Price for Performance is what drives sales. His mouthpieces, all of them, offer some of the best of that ratio. Hand faced student mouthpieces will absolutely outplay a pressed out of the mold mouthpiece. It does not take much effort to make a good playing inexpensive mouthpiece, but you have to want to spend that little extra time and you have to have the right people doing it. Mass production has caused mouthpiece inadequacies.

So basically, we play them, we evaluate them and then we consider their price.

9. Two of my buddies and I have bought saxes from you and we love them. One of them bought your new Kessler baritone sax. Do you get many returns from people who buy new saxes from you? And if not, what do you attribute this to (your inspection process)?

I would say we have a very low return rate due to a few things, one knowledge and experience. When we assist in the decision as to which sax to purchase, we are giving the customer professional opinions, not just reading some stats on a computer screen from a call center based in middle America... you talk to someone who knows what they are talking about and personally has a vested interest in making sure that you are happy. You talk to someone whose name is "on the door" or in the case of the net, whose name is on every page of the site.

We make sure that you are getting a product that in our opinion will be exactly what you are looking for because we know what we are looking for when we are evaluating products.

Also, there's our setup. We do not ship anything without first going over it. The customer is happier with the instrument because right out of the box, it plays. They are less likely to return the instrument because combined with our recommendation process, the customer has a horn that is what they we need and that plays right away.

Of course we have our share of returns but 99.9% of the time, the customers are very satisfied with our service and I would say that 85% of them still end up making their final purchase with us (the other 15% may be to a used instrument that they found or maybe they were trying mine out next to something that they got somewhere else on evaluation).

We strive for satisfaction. We want everyone to be 100% satisfied with our service regardless of whether they keep the instrument we sent to them or not.
Created: September 11, 2005.
Update: February 3, 2007
©2005-7, HarriRautiainen and respectiveauthors

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