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

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

If you haven’t done so already, check out part I to get the full scoop.

DO: In your opinion, what makes a saxophone truly a “pro” horn as opposed to a student model?

MS: There’s what it should be, and what it is.

What it should be is quality, quality, quality. Quality begets potential, ergonomics, intonation, tone.

What it is is a label.

There is usually a reason something is cheap. There is sometimes a reason something is expensive.

An example of an expensive modern professional saxophone that is as high quality as it gets and is worth every penny would be Yanagisawa. Read my factory tour report here to see what goes in to making a quality professional saxophone in modern times: Yanagisawa Factory Tour.

DO: Who are some of the manufacturers out there today whose pro models are truly superior to that manufacturers lower priced offerings?

MS: Well, not many manufacturers actually make a full line these days. Sure, you can buy a student model that has a well-known brand name on it, but that student model was built in a factory in East Asia that was contracted by the company and had very little (if anything at all) to do with the well-known company’s higher offerings.

If you want to get a taste of the ins and outs of naming, use a search engine to figure out what the difference is between “Selmer USA” and “Selmer Paris”.

Matt Stoher

Matt Stohrer

Yamaha is really the only manufacturer making a full line now. Their student model, the 23, is an excellent saxophone. It will last indefinitely and plays very well in tune. In order to be a “student” saxophone, Yamaha has taken the correct approach: the 23 is heavily inspired by a former professional model, has been stripped of all bells and whistles, has plastic finger touches instead of mother-of-pearl finger touches, has a simplified mechanism and uses lower-quality (but still good!) materials to cut manufacturing costs, and are built in a largely automated way but still to very high standards. It feels fine under the fingers but not amazing, sounds very good and has excellent intonation, and should last indefinitely with proper care. Yamaha’s top of the line models, the 875 and the Custom Z, have all the bells and whistles, real pearls, top-of-the-line materials, and are largely hand-finished. They feel better under the fingers, they have a more complex tone, they look beautiful, feel solid, and will last indefinitely. However, the 23 is not limited by its “student” designation. It is a very GOOD horn, simply not the best possible in every way that Yamaha can make it.

Other than Yamaha, nobody is making a full line from student to professional themselves. Among the more known manufacturers, it is commonly the case that the professional horns are built in the “real” factory, the student horns are outsourced and stenciled like I described. Even Yamaha student horns are not built in Japan anymore, but unlike almost everyone else they are built at factories owned by Yamaha. For a while they were building the YAS-23 in the USA, now it is in China. Almost every other student saxophone built today is a stencil of some sort, including many “professional” brands.

DO: So if you were in the market for student saxophone, what would you do?

MS: If I’m buying a new student saxophone today, I’m talking to a trusted saxophone expert about my specific budget and needs and then following their advice.  We’ve been over the minuses of the status quo, but the positive is that there are so many options today that there is certainly something that will fit my budget and requirements and make me happy.  This is by FAR the best way to search for a student saxophone today.  There are true bargains out there if you know how to find them, and with a little diligence you really can find a great horn for the money.

If I am unable to speak to an expert, then my hands are tied I’m getting a new Yamaha 23.  Expensive, but results are guaranteed.
If I’m buying a student saxophone from any era and I’ve got a good relationship with a skilled and honest repairman, I’m getting a Martin Indiana or Bundy I (or late Buescher Aristocrat, basically the same thing) and having it fixed up.  I actually learned on post-buyout Buescher Aristocrat, which later became the Bundy I.
But, if I’m trying to make my dollars go farthest, I’m buying a vintage professional saxophone like a pre-buyout Buescher Aristocrat or a pre-war Conn 6M (alto only, the tenor version called the Conn 10M is expensive) or Martin Committee III and having it fixed up.  I’ll end up with a great horn that is a joy to play that will hold its value or even appreciate over time.

DO: At what point in a saxophonist’s musical development would you recommend a professional-level instrument?

MS:  As soon as it is possible.  If the student can take care of a professional saxophone and afford it, there are no drawbacks, only advantages.  The horn will be easier to play, feel better under the fingers, and hold its value should the student decide not to continue learning.  The investment up front is larger, but over a long enough time span the cost is much much lower.  Consider: if a student buys a professional horn and sticks with it, well ok- they are done.  If a student buys a professional horn and decides to switch instruments or quit, the horn will hold its value and particularly if bought used in the first place and kept in good condition the horn will hold value and possibly even appreciate.  If a student buys a student horn and sticks with it, they will eventually want to buy a professional horn anyways.  If a student buys a student horn and switches or quits, the horn will have lost a large portion of its value.

The only reason outside of the obvious (and important!) budget concerns that it would be advantageous to start with a student instrument is in the case of a very well made student instrument like a Yamaha YAS-23 or YAS-21 or a Vito Japan (just a relabeled Yamaha) or an older Bundy I, Martin Indiana, or something durable and well-built like that (again, ask your expert!).  The reason being that in the case that the student buys such an instrument and sticks with it, they can keep the student horn as their backup for the rest of their life (to be used when the pro horn is in the shop, or used for marching band and rough gigs like bars, outdoors, etc.), as the quality of such an instrument will make it last indefinitely with proper care.

DO: Assuming that budget is not an issue, for someone new to the instrument, would you say that a professional-quality saxophone will accelerate their musical progress?

MS: Most likely, in the same way that a race car driver would learn more quickly in a Ferrari than in a Toyota Corolla.  The concepts are the same, they both go A to B, but one has less built-in limitations than the other.  On the flip side, a really good race car driver could drive the hell out of a Corolla.  The most important thing is practice, practice, practice.

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

Photo by Martin Barland