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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

Category: Best of the Blog, Best Saxophone Tips and Techniques

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About the Author

I've been playing the sax since the late 80's, but my musical journey has run quite the gamut. The musical rap sheet includes tours with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and reggae master Half Pint, center stage at the L.A. Music Center, cozy cafes, raucous night clubs, gear-drenched studios, and the pinnacle of any musician's career - playing weddings in New Jersey! (duh). There's a lot of other stuff too, but you should be reading these blog posts and leaving comments instead. Now off you go!

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Comments (19)

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  1. Ericdano says:

    I generally agree with all his comments. Except the Yamaha stuff. I love the 23s. Great student horns. But for $40 more (via wwbw.com) they have the intermediate 475 models which seem dull. I’ve had a number of students who have rented these from a local store, and they seem to fall apart way more than the 23s. And then we get back to the pricing thing again. Why have your student and intermediate models so close in price and then have the pro horns a lot higher? I think Yamaha would be wiser to get the 23 line down into the lower $1000 range rather than having them be right next to the intermediate line in price. Or just kill off one of the lines.

    • matt stohrer says:

      Eric,

      Thanks for reading!

      I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, or if the 475 replaced the 23 eventually or if they melded into a new model. Definitely a weird situation to have them priced so close. The gap used to be a bit wider, but it continues to close.

      Interesting fact: in some markets, the 475 model is called the 32 model.

      There is a definite difference in ergonomics between the two models- the 23 has rather simpler and more durable keywork design, while the 475 is basically a modern professional-style mechanism with many ergonomic improvements but (IMHO) not as durable.

  2. I generally agree with all his comments. Interesting fact:

  3. Ray Beatty says:

    I purchased a Buffet 400 bari about a year ago and it has been a very good playing horn.
    Can you give me any insights on the quality and construction of this instrument?
    After reading some articles on the best sax website I’m beginning to wonder what to expect from Chinese made horns.

  4. matt stohrer says:

    Ray,

    Glad you are enjoying your horn!

    I have not had experience with the 400 series horns in a while. My shop in NYC was directly below the Buffet showroom, so we got to see them when they were prototyping, but since the Buffet showroom was right there we didn’t end up doing much artist setup work like we might have otherwise. I also know since then (like most manufacturers) they have been working to improve their product.

    My advice would be to take your particular horn (since they can vary from one to the next off the assembly line anyways) to a trusted repairman or three and ask their opinion.

    I know its not a silver bullet answer, but there rarely are in this business. Nothing beats hoofing it to a knowledgeable guy you trust and putting it in his hands.

    Hope this helps!

  5. ted says:

    my inglish is bad ,P.Muriats horns are exilent for students and semipro not pro i play the 76 it has medium tone and ok respond and are not expensive

    • bubba says:

      I actually know quite a few professional players that use P. Mauriat exclusively in the CO area. We have one of the few authorized retailers in the general area, and it really has contributed to a widespread adoption of P. Mauriat around here.

      I would definitely agree that it is what works best for the player- but definitely don’t discount some of the lesser known brands. If you do your research you can find great deals on good horns. For example, I play on a Phil Barone Classic. Not a well known brand in the sax manufacturing game, but his horns play with excellent response and action, and a tone that has something wonderful that I can’t place my finger on. It worked wonderful for me, and it was new at under 2k! Cheap, high quality horns are around if you can do the research and avoid buying in to the name hype. :)

  6. TenorMoxie says:

    All of these fine words about the Martin Indiana are making me wish I’d appreciated mine more! The ergos weren’t so great (no complaint, since they were all I knew) and the octave vent switching mechanism was difficult to keep in good working order, but it had a nice sound, nice blowing, and the chief-and-arrows bell engraving was cool. Learning on one of those gave me the freedom to choose my next horn based on the sound I wanted undeterred by non-modern keywork.

    I think another wrinkle in the whole student horn thing is that there are very different requirements for different students. School band horns go through hell and hands that are still growing could put ergos at a premium. The ergos, finicky octave mechanism, and delicate chromatic Bb of the Indiana could be deal breakers in a band class situation.

    • Like any horn, the Martin should definitely be treated delicately, since in a school band situation it’s subject to the same perils that any horn would be subject to. But sure, if this horn is less physically intuitive to play than some of the newer models, that’s definitely something to consider seriously, especially for a beginner.  

  7. I wanted undeterred by non-modern keywork.

  8. ted says:

    the p.muriat makes exilent horns for the student like the 55swing jx and leebravoo 76.86 ul and many others

    • Yeah, I actually got to try some pro model P. Mauriat’s at NAMM this past weekend. Great horns, and I imagine that Mauriat’s high level of quality extends down into the more inexpensive instruments as well.

      Thanks for sharing that!

  9. fabion says:

    have you had an opportunity to play a cannonball sax yet. I am thinking about purchasing the raven model.I have been playing for over 22 years and play each sunday during service and some outside gigs.

  10. George says:

    What do you think about Firebird and LA
    Sax big lip????

  11. Will says:

    Would you pleas verify what the differences between the bundy 2’s and bundy 1’s are? Because I am a high school tenor player, who owns a bundy 2, but it seems to always have a problem, such as my low notes won’t come out, unrelenting squeaks, etc. I was just wondering if there is any hope of salvaging it? P.s I plan to major in sax performance, so I plan to upgrad anyway. I have heard great things about the s80 series 2 and 3. What sax would you personally recommend?

    • Hey Will! Unfortunately I’m not aware of the differences between the two Bundy’s. I’m not sure if Matt’s following this discussion, but hopefully he wouldn’t mind you contacting him through his web site, since he could almost definitely answer your question. His site is http://stohrermusic.com.

      Wish I could be of more help, best of luck!

  12. Chris says:

    Hi Matt, I have a 1959 selmer mark 6. It has a very small amount of verdigris here and there, not nearly as much as i’ve seen on some other horns, but in hard to reach places like inside some of the tone holes, and into the bell, also some reddish brown at the bottom of the bow. Is this a risk of corrosion, and should I get it professionally cleaned? I had it overhauled awhile back and wasn’t that thrilled, it wasn’t cleaned that well, and I havent been as kind as I should have. Just really love the horn and want it to last! If so, whats the best way to have it cleaned? I hear some ways are too abraisive for the brass. Do you recommend anyone in nyc area for that and also overhauls? Thanks, -Chris.

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