Is it Worth Buying a “Pro” Model Saxophone? – Part I

Professional SaxophoneThis article is part one of a two-part interview series with Matt Stohrer on what it is that makes a saxophone a true “pro” model.  

With his relentless passion for all things saxophone, Matt Stohrer is a fountainhead of in-depth knowledge when it comes to the repairing, selling, and trading of saxophones.

After servicing some of New York’s best and brightest saxophone stars with his repair and sales outfit in New York City, Matt opted for a slower and more serene way of life in North Carolina, where he continues running a successful business and further mastering his craft.

In this special interview, Matt shares his insights on the mysterious topic of what makes a saxophone a true “pro” model and what you get for the extra dollars you’ll be shelling out to buy a product labeled as “professional.”

The Interview

Doron Orenstein: When it comes to the new horns being built these days, generally speaking, do you believe that for most people, the pro horns are going to actually sound better than the student horns, or is this simply a case of marketing?

Matthew Stohrer: It completely depends.

Say we have a perfect selection of student horns of good quality along with professional horns of good quality. In this case, the student horns will be almost as good as the professional horns, probably so much so that there will be a few people who choose as a matter of taste the student horn over the professional one. These people will be in the minority, but the reason behind this is that a well-built student horn should be almost as good! However, this is not often the actual choice before the consumer.

Let’s see why.

A perfect example of a good “student” horn is the original Bundy. The story goes like this: Buescher Band Instrument Company was a company in the USA who made professional saxophones, among them the Buescher Aristocrat in the 1930s, which was used by famed alto sax player Johnny Hodges.

Matt Stohrer

Matt Stohrer

Later on in the 60s, Buescher was bought out by Selmer USA, who took the tooling for the Buescher Aristocrat, cheapened the design a bit, and called it a Bundy. The Bundy I (not the Bundy II) is basically a slightly cheapened professional horn! They have the same bore, the same neck, almost the same keywork, made in the same factory under a new name, and when in proper working shape, basically the same beautiful tone.

This horn will sound excellent, and its only limitation is its label! But unfortunately, this instrument is not made anymore. Another example of this type is the Martin Indiana – also an extremely well-built horn that plays great – and is also not made anymore.

A perfect example of a bad “student” horn is a hypothetical saxophone, one which I will not name, but I will tell you how it was made.

“Eastern Horn Co.” in East Asia decides they want to sell a cheap saxophone. They hire local labor, many of whom have never played saxophone, and train them each to carry out specific parts of the saxophone manufacturing process over and over and over. They buy a modern Yamaha, and they take measurements, copying the instrument. They do a fairly decent job on the surface, but many things are overlooked. In the end, a saxophone is made that plays ok, looks very much like a nice saxophone, but has many foundational issues with regards to its construction – from its internal bore to its mechanism – that are ill-made, built with cheap materials, or perhaps even made incorrectly from the start.

Several examples of this instrument are constructed as well as the factory can manage and taken to a trade show. At the trade show, a well-known US company which we’ll refer to here as “Music Business People Ltd.” sees the saxophone, likes it, and decides to have Eastern Horn Co. build them a large number of saxophones.

Quantities and options are ordered, and Music Business People Ltd. sends Eastern Horn Co. its logo and artwork to be stitched on the case and engraved on the saxophone. Then, when the saxophone is being built by Eastern Horn Co., the saxophone is then engraved “Music Business People Ltd.” (called “stenciling”), which in this case happens to be a well-known brand. The horns are shipped to the US and sold by Music Business People Ltd. for close to $1,000 . Its brand and its price combine to make the purchaser think the instrument is a good instrument, when in fact it has built-in weaknesses and errors in construction and will probably only last a few years before it breaks down or becomes so troublesome to play that the student quits.

This horn is made today, and unfortunately in recent years this type of instrument has become the status quo for student instruments. These instruments can be found at all price points, from the aforementioned example to the $250 eBay specials. Some of them are so bad, that many repairmen will not even work on them. This horn is limited from day one, and it is quite unlikely to sound as good as a properly made saxophone.

I have, in fact, seen this part of the industry first-hand, as I was a “consultant” to a saxophone factory in East Asia (where I recommended many changes, some of which percolated into a large segment of the student market in the past couple of years). Some of what they made was surprisingly good, some of it surprisingly bad, with basic errors in design being carried through to the finished product and shipped and sold across the world. This was years ago, and it was an eye-opening experience for me on many levels.

In fact, many of the student saxophones out there today come from about a dozen of the most prolific factories, and many “brands” you see stateside are in fact the same horn, just with different engraving.

Unfortunately, marketing combined with a majority of consumers who are uneducated (through no fault of their own, as information on this subject is limited, hence my long-winded responses) about saxophones make for a market that is at best difficult to navigate and at worst ripe for hyperbole and sometimes outright lies.

There are dozens of student saxophones that are simply garbage – I wouldn’t play them if they were given to me. Most of the time these are the cheapest of the cheap models and can be avoided simply by avoiding unknown brands at extremely low prices.

Other times, horns are marketed as professional, given a gold plating, and sold as “designed by xxxx”, and consciously portrayed as better than they are. I have had the unhappy experience several times of informing someone that the $2,000 “pro horn” they bought is in fact a student model and suffers from many built-in flaws and limitations that would be very costly to fix.

How can the consumer avoid such an experience? By doing business with honest people who will tell you the origins of their instrument, or sticking with a known manufacturer. Notice I didn’t say brand!

For a peek behind the curtain of this part of the industry and to see what we repairmen see when we service a poorly made instrument, read my friend Curt Altarac’s article Turning a Cheap Imported Instrument into a Finely Crafted Machine.

For my take on why there exists so much mediocrity in consumer goods and services, read The Unprofitable Valley or: Why So Much Stuff Is Mediocre.

To read part two in this series, hop on over here.

For more information on his repair services as well as saxophone sales, see Matthew’s website at StohrerMusic.com.

Photo by Martin Barland