I first heard about Penella saxophones by reading a few comments about them on SaxOnTheWeb.net. After I finished reading the comments, I wanted to find out more information and ended up going to their Facebook page to do some more research. On the Facebook page, I was able to find a few videos of musicians test playing some Penella saxophones, David Binney being one of those players (see video below).
Recently, I had a chance to meet with one of the reps for Penella saxophones, Ken Hawkins, who allowed me to test play some Penella tenor saxophones in various finishes. While speaking with Ken, I also had the opportunity to speak with owner and saxophone repair man, Luke Penella to discuss what makes his line of saxophones unique from the many new saxophones coming out on the market.
The Penella saxophone is available in four different finishes. The four finishes are as follows:
- Matte Finish-brass matte finish.
- Tribeca-Brass finish, no lacquer.
- Kensington-is a matte silver finish with a silver plated inner-bell.
- Vanguard-is a matte silver finish with silver keys.
The Penella saxophone was one of the better-built Taiwanese horns I have tried thus far. I felt overall that the construction was good, but there is room for some improvements which Luke recognizes and is constantly working to improve his line of horns. I test played the various finishes and found that from horn to horn the Penella saxophones played similar and were consistent. Luke told me that they use a proprietary metal, pisoni pads, and metal resonators on each horn and he sets up up each one in his shop to make sure every saxophone checks out to his standards.
Tone & Response
I found that while demoing the Penella Matte, Kensington, Tribeca, and Vanguard finishes for tenor saxophone that the action was consistent from horn to horn, but the various finishes had some effect on the overall sound. The Tribeca model had probably the darkest and fattest sound compared to the Vanguard, which I found to be more edgy and focused. I found the Kensington to lean more towards the brighter side which may be attributed to the silver plated inner bell. Finally, the matte finish, I would say, is in-between the darkness of the Tribeca and the edginess of the Vanguard. I thought each model responded well throughout the entire range of the horn and I found very little resistance. The Penella saxophone reminded me more of a Keilwerth or old Conn in terms of a bigger, more spread sound which can be attributed to the bigger bell and bore.
Each Penella saxophone is setup up by Luke Penella to your preference, so the action can be different from horn to horn based on what you prefer. The Penella saxophone action was similar to the feel and layout of a Mark VI. The upper stack palm key positioning on the Penella saxophones reminded me of the TM Custom line of saxophones. The Penella saxophone felt comfortable playing all the way down to low Bb but my own preference would have been for there to be some additional cork on the low Bb key for additional support.
I have found on many new Taiwanese saxophones that the upper stack can sometimes play on the sharper side. However, this is not necessarily due to the fact that the horn is not well regulated. Rather, I noticed that the tone holes are larger in the upper stack, and I am not used to the upper stack playing with less resistance, unlike my Mark VI tenor which does have some resistance in that area.
In addition, I believe that with some adjustments by Luke to your preference, this situation could be corrected if it should occur. When I was working throughout my overtone exercises, I found the Penella saxophone to perform well overall and I believe this can be attributed to Luke taking the time to setup each horn when he gets them in his shop.
My initial impression of the Penella saxophones was they share some characteristics with the Eastman 52nd street tenor in terms of the double arms on the low C and B keys in addition to the oversized bell.
Since so many Taiwanese saxophones look and use many of the same parts, it is in the overall setup and attention to detail from saxophone to saxophone that I believe sets the various brands apart.
After speaking further with Luke, he explained: “We do not slap our name on the horn and send it out; each horn is set up by me with the option for a custom set up for every player, which includes the adjustment of spring tension, key height adjustment and key modification. I have been an instrument maker for the past ten years for Burkart flutes, Haynes flutes and Jeff Weissman. The build, or stringing/soldering is at the highest quality. Some clients I work with include Antonio Hart, Mitch Frohman, Hubert laws, David Mann and Robert Dick. Some musicians who are currently playing our line are Robert Martin on the matte finish Penella saxophone and Jeff Ponders who plays on the Vanguard model. Finally, we use proprietary metals for our saxophones as well as our own designs on the bore and scale separate our horns from other manufacturers.”
My recommendation is if you can meet up with Luke or Ken, definitely check out the Penella tenor, alto, and soprano saxophone and see how it compares to your current setup.
David Binney playing a Penella soprano saxophone