Buying a vintage saxophone
So you’ve been tempted by some vintage horns you’ve seen for sale but you’re worried about parting with lots of cash for something that could turn out to be a heap of junk right?
It’s quite easy to speak to your local sax dealer and get solid advice on brand new horns, but when you’re in someones house having a look at his ‘super rare and expensive Selmer saxophone’ and you don’t know what you’re looking at it becomes a little bit trickier.
So the question on your mind might be:
How should I shop for an old sax?
But what you should really be asking yourself is ‘Why do I want to buy a vintage saxophone?’
First thing you need to understand is that not all old horns sound good, some sound terrible in fact! And a lot of them just sound ok. But of course there have been a few coveted models of vintage saxophone that have been highlighted by players everywhere as being distinctively wonderful due to their natural tonal characteristics - and that’s why you want one right? So the first thing to do is make sure you’re shopping for a horn that will get you the sound you want and you can do this by researching the setup of your heroes. Here’s some good information to get you started: https://reverb.com/uk/news/10-most-important-saxophone-models-and-their-players
The best way to know what you want of course is to try as many horns as you possibly can so that you know what works well for you. Just because your teacher sounds killer on a Beuscher 400 doesn’t mean you will.
So what sound are you looking for? Is it the meaty Conn with it’s huge bore and unrivalled projection? the smoky Martin with all the character and sophistication that it’s aesthetics suggests? Or maybe the all time classic Selmer MkVI.
Don’t buy a saxophone just because it’s old, that’s like buying a car just because it’s red.
“You can’t go wrong with a Selmer Mark VI though right?” - Wrong!
It is a common misconception that all Selmer MkVI saxophones are awesome, some….if not most are, yes, but this isn’t to say that there aren’t some write off MkVIs out there that are being flogged for top dollar purely on the name. You have to remember that the production of the MKVI lasted two decades and included a wide range of design variation, it was constantly being tweaked (sometimes in the wrong direction) which means that there are good examples and bad examples. A good MkVII will outplay a mediocre MkVI any day and will save you a bunch of cash…….……yup, I just said that folks.
So whatever you decide to shop for, try and do it for tone and not for vanity!
Purchasing an old secondhand saxophone is not as straightforward as choosing a new Yamaha or Yanagisawa sax. A new Yamaha 62 alto sax will be a great horn no matter where you buy it from, but not the case with even the biggest names in vintage saxophones, they can be a bit ‘hit and miss’.
So you’ve got scoured all the second hand websites and found an old relic you think you might like, you’ve driven to a residential estate on the outskirts of Bristol and you’ve got a saxophone in your hands, what do you do now?
Blow an open C#
This will give you an idea of the inherent tone of the instrument, disregarding any regulation issues. If blowing this note doesn't make a few hairs stand on end, you’re probably not in for the treat you expected.
Check for any body damage, make sure the body is straight and true, if the body is warped it could cost more than the horn is worth to make it right.
Check the tone holes for any unevenness, any irregularities on the tone holes will affect their ability to create a good seal.
Check the pads, are the tone hole rings positioned centrally on the pads? If not, something could be wrong, it may have sustained some damage.
Check for any play (looseness, ability to wiggle) between the pillars and also on any long rods. Loose and rattling keyword can potentially be a sign / cause of leaks.
Check the neck to see if it’s had any repairs? The most common issues are that it's been bent down and distorted. Make sure it is round and even. Patches soldered onto the neck are obvious signs of a repair where the neck has been split.
Check the pads, are they hard and dry? Crusty and rotten? If they look like they need changing…chances are they do.
Check for broken springs, these should be pretty obvious, but also check for rust on the existing springs, a really rusty spring could snap at any moment!
Check the bow (bottom) of the instrument to see if there’s any damage, a big dent on the bottom of the sax can suggest it’s been dropped quite badly and therefore could be an indicator of problems further up the horn.
Does the crook fit nice and snug into the body of the saxophone? If not it could cause intonation issues, or it might not be the original crook!
So once you’ve had a good look through the instrument and you’re happy that it’s the real deal in good condition, play it, and not just for a few minutes, I mean really put it through it’s paces. If you can, take it home with you and play it in a familiar environment where you are accustomed to the acoustics. Play long notes and ballads to check the tone, and play through your most technically demanding exercises to make sure the unfamiliar keywork isn’t holding you back in any way. Sometimes you’ll need some time to get used to a horn and work out if it’s right for you, but sometimes (and you’ll know when it happens) you start playing a saxophone and you just know it’s the one.
To browse our range of saxophones & mouthpieces, come and visit our showroom at 19 Zetland Rd, Brisol, BS6 7AH or call us on 0117 907 0493