For years, I’ve said that students shouldn’t get a vintage horn. There’s just too much that can go wrong with vintage. However, when you’re ready to graduate to a better instrument, you’ll see that the cheapest horn on the market marketed as “pro” is a Taiwanese-made Cannonball for around $1500 and “intermediate” horns aren’t much cheaper. I was pretty sure I could take $1000 or so and get a really good vintage pro horn, throw $400 at it to get it close to good mechanical shape and end up with a horn any pro would love to have. The below horns are the results of my experiment.
Please note that most of the pictures in the below post aren’t necessarily of horns that sold in the “around $1000” range. Hey, $1000 might buy you a great horn, but not necessarily a pretty horn — and I want pretty horns on this blog. However, you need to remember: you’re not playing the shiny. If shiny = a great horn, almost any nickel-plated horn would be a great horn. If the prices are the same, I’d much rather have a Yamaha 855 that’s scratched up over a brand spankin’ new Yamaha 23.
The prices listed below are from closed eBay ads in April and early May 2013. The entries are in order of my preference. YMMV. No warranties expressed or implied, etc.
Yamaha’s second professional model was the YAS-62. The 62 has undergone a lot of changes since its introduction in 1980: the plain 62, 62C, 62E, 62II and the current 62III (introduced in 2013). There are a lot of structural differences between the 61 and 62, but the differences between the various 62 models aren’t as apparent, especially the biggest difference: neck design. The biggest difference for buyers is that because of the 62III introduction, the original 62s are quite inexpensive.
Yamaha’s first professional sax, after the purchase of Nippon Gakki, was the YAS-61. It’s an absolutely excellent instrument. Most folks say that the horn sounds a bit darker than the YAS-62 models, but the 61 and 62 share the same extremely good intonation. These horns have hovered in the $1000 to $1500 range for several years now and I find it surprising that there aren’t more folks that own them.
Further Notes ...
The 880 Series Yanagisawas are considered by most to be the start of the best Yanagisawa professional models. My experience with Yanagisawa is only with Vito-stenciled baritone saxophones from the 6-series (appx. 1966-1978) and, while those horns looked virtually identical to a Selmer Mark VI, they didn’t play like them. However, in the successive years, Yanagisawa has become known as having the sopranos and sopraninos of any manufacturer ever and some really kewl looking, extremely expensive horns, like their solid silver 9937 and 992 Pink Gold (PG) horns.
Older Keilwerths have become one of the best buys on eBay, but you have to be careful because they had several models. Newer Keilwerths are incredibly good horns with a very good tone, good intonation and very decent keywork. They also look stunning, which is always a nice plus.
The model immediately previous to the H-Couf Superbas was this beautiful model with a plastic “angel wing” keyguard. These horns play quite well, have good intonation and great tone. The keywork isn’t quite as advanced as on the Superbas, but not bad.
Further Notes ...
The following horns were/are not made by Keilwerth and are not considered professional quality instruments:
* Keilwerth ST90
* Keilwerth EX90 model
* Amati Tonekings,
* Dörfler & Jörka instruments
* The H-Couf Royalist instruments
* The H-Couf 3100/3200.
In other words, if you want to buy a horn you think is a Keilwerth and it doesn’t have that “angel wing” Plexiglas keyguard, you might want to ask someone before you buy it.
Below are the specific Keilwerth model names (and a couple stencil names), in order of top model to bottom model in the serial number range I’m talking about. This is based on research by Helen @ Bassic-Sax.info and me:
* H-Couf Superba I
* Toneking Exclusive (Sometimes engraved “Toneking Exklusive” or “Toneking EX.”)
* Toneking Special (The horn pictured above.)
* Toneking (You want Tonekings made prior to 1970/sn 63751. From appx. 1970 to 1980, the Toneking was marketed as an “intermediate” model.)
* H-Couf Superba II
* New King Special (I’m fairly sure that the Conn DJH Modified 108M and 110M are these.)
* New King (Also note there are numerous stencils of these, like the Armstrong Heritage, King Tempo, and Bundy Special.)
The H-Coufs rank a little higher than their non-H-Couf brethren because the neck design on the H-Coufs was done by Armstrong and Helen says they’re better-made necks.
In other words, there are quite a few things to keep in mind when looking at a Keilwerth. At the very least, you could always pick up a Bundy Special as a backup for very little cash.
A lot of folks forget that Julius Keilwerth had brothers who also made instruments. Max Keilwerth was the gentleman that formed Hohner’s saxophone operations. The horn has been described to me as very “Keilwerth-like.” To me, that means controlled power.
Further Notes ...
I have been hyping the Buffet Dynaction and SuperDynaction (a.k.a. “SDA”) for many years. I owned a Dynaction for a few years and people that owned several high-end Selmers loved playing my horn. Buffet also made stencils of the Dynaction and SDA (the Olds Opera is probably the most recognizable), too. Look for late-model SuperDynactions, too. These horns have the same patented keywork as Buffet’s successor to this horn, the S1.
Further Notes ...
The successor to the SuperDynaction is the S1. These are also extremely good horns for a decent price (about $1500), but note that only horns that have an “A” in the serial number are supposed to play at A=440hz. The other S1s are set at A=442hz. If you don’t have that good of an ear for intonation, it’s definitely something to be aware of.
Finally, the S2 was NOT marketed as a professional model. It’s an intermediate horn that is actually called an “Evette S2” in some markets. Buffet’s last professional horn that they made was the S3. Those horns are still over $2000, used.
This is a horn I’ve mentioned here a couple of times. Let me use a quote from Stephen Howard: “Well, I blew barely five notes on it and wouldn’t have been at all surprised if a gospel choir had appeared out of nowhere behind me and began to sing in exquisite and glorious harmony. This little alto just oozes soul.”
Further Notes ...
I have two concerns: the keywork isn’t exactly modern, which can trip some folks up, and the horns have rolled tone holes, which can be a problem if they’re warped or otherwise not level. The horns made post 1950 (around s/n 10000) seem to be the best.
There have been a couple of iterations of the Leblanc System saxophone, but one thing didn’t change: exceptional intonation. Yes, sometimes the extra keywork is fun to play with, but it’s a secondary thing — until it breaks. It’s a bit challenging to keep the keywork going smoothly, even on the Leblanc horns that had significntly less interesting keywork, like the Duke models (I used one for a brief time in the 1980s). The tone on these horns is also quite lovely and pure, so the combination of tone and intonation generally win out.
The Vito name has a problem: it’s mainly associated with cheap student horns. That’s a bit unfair. It depends on the serial number range and the stamp indicating where the horn was made. It’s my opinion that there really is no difference between the “Made in France” Vito model 35/135 and the Leblanc System horns. I think that the Vitos were just assembled in the US and were intended for the US audience.
Further Notes ...
I mentioned the Vito “made in” game. Vito altos and tenors stamped “Made in Japan” are Yamaha student models. Vito baritones stamped “Made in Japan” are Yanagisawa intermediate horns. Vitos stamped “Made in USA” or “Kenosha, Wisconsin” are made by Vito, USA and most are studentish quality. The exception to this last rule is possibly the rarely-seen Vito Special.
I did a thought experiment with these horns, once: if I bought a semi-beat “Big B” for $100 and decided to have it restored just like the above picture, I’d be out about $1600. These horns have an incredibly tight, richly focused tone and great intonation. The main problem I have with them is that I find the keywork to be less than fantastic, especially the G#/C#/B/Bb cluster. The main reason I don’t have a problem recommending this horn — when completely restored, of course — is because some high school instructors tell you that you can have your choice of two models of sax: a Bundy or a Yamaha. The Aristocrat shares a lot of the look and feel of a Bundy, so here’s a 4x better horn that you can convince someone that is an “early Bundy.”
The biggest surprise for me, when researching price ranges, was that these Aristocrats, which are older than the “Big B” models, are actually more expensive. The reason why is because there’s a mythical thing that some older saxophones are supposed to have — even A. Sax’s instruments when he made them: a parabolic bore. The existence of such a thing hasn’t been conclusively proven, so it’s not something you need to care about. Just worry about how the horn plays. If you compare this horn to the “Big B,” you’ll see some cosmetic changes and that’s probably it. These horns have the same Snap-On pads and same Norton gold-plated screws. Same excellent intonation and tone.
I’m a little wary about including these horns, because these horns can be fairly difficult to control. Additionally, before I played a Conn 30M Connqueror — that’s a 10M Artist (Bb tenor) body with different keywork, and silver-plated touchpieces — I had never met a Conn I liked. Anyhow, the specific ones you want have the “VIII” neck and rolled tone holes. Later horns aren’t bad, but have fewer features.
I was surprised that I could put the Martin Committee (that’s it’s official name; most folks now call it a “Committee III” to reduce confusion) on this list, because these horns were in very high demand — and priced like it — a few years back. You’d buy one of these horns for the tone and tone alone. Or the pretty. The engraving is simple, but quite striking. Unfortunately, Martin’s lacquer wasn’t the best and it’s extremely difficult to find a Committee with original lacquer that’s in good shape.
The Martin Handcraft Committee II is reputed to have the best balance between tone and intonation of any Martin model. They’re also relatively common and are a bit cheaper than the Committee “III.” You might also decide you like the engraving better, too.
Further Notes ...
There are also two horns “associated” with Martin that bear a look: the Olds Super, which was made by Martin or by folks who had made horns for Martin, and the Reynolds Contempora (not to be confused with the SML-made Reynolds Contempora), which is mainly a Committee III … until you see the octave key mechanism, which is basically the same as the Olds Super’s. Unfortunately, these two models aren’t very common.
One of the most famous saxophones ever available was the King Super 20. The Super 20, however, is a moderately redesigned Zephyr Special. In a very specific serial number range, it’s pretty hard to tell the Super 20, Zephyr Special and Zephyr apart. The horns are also priced really, really nicely.
Further Notes ...
Second, the Zephyr that had the most and best features was produced during a specific serial number range: 275xxx to 305xxx (1945/6 to 1949/50). I wrote a rather in-depth article on this in the past, so I’m not going to repeat myself, but the upthrust really is that there probably weren’t that many bore differences between the Super 20 and Zephyr at that time. The unfortunate thing is that horns in this serial number range are getting quite scarce.
Some Zephyrs also had sterling necks and bells, regardless of whether they were stamped “Zephyr Special” or not. The interesting thing, to me, is that this doesn’t add too much additional cost to the horn — again, provided it’s not stamped “Zephyr Special” — and probably improves the tone, especially on the low end.
The above picture is actually from an eBay ad that closed in 2013. The horn needs an overhaul — the ad mentioned this — but it sold for only $710. From a dealer. Using my standard rule-of-thumb that says that the total cost needs to be lower than $1400, you could get a really good overhaul from a really good tech for $690.
There are a few horns on my watch list, but have a few too many caveats and/or are just too hard to find:
Don’t worry terribly much about the name plastered on the bell. You want a Beaugnier with right-side bell keys. There are a large variety of these and a boatload of high-quality stencils. Check out this article for more.
There’s no major reason not to recommend these horns. The main problem is that there is such a small supply of Beauginer-badged horns that it makes finding one and determining the value extremely difficult. Beaugnier is much better known as the company that made the “Made in France”-stamped Vitos and Noblets — and there are a lot of these. Note that on some of those horns, though, the keywork can be a little difficult to work with and the odd Leblanc-patented mechanisms can slip out of adjustment easily.
Kohlert horns post WWII, up to and through some 57 models, can be a very good choice. However, at some point soon after the introduction of the 57 model, Kohlert’s quality took a big nose-dive. This is because they were trying to work on several stencil contracts that were not exactly financially viable. This makes me a bit wary about recommending “any” 57. However, I can say that some folks have compared the 57 favorably with the Selmer Mark VI. That’s pretty good company.
Another French that’s still relatively unknown. The Royal Jazz versions (pictured) of these horns have additional keywork and a microtuner neck. However, I don’t recommend you buy one. Why? Dolnet horns made up to approximately 1970, when they introduced the M70 model, were available in high pitch. That’s not bad, in and of itself, but Dolnet didn’t mark the horns high pitch. So, without play-testing the horn with an electronic tuner, you’re not going to be able to tell if the horn’s high pitch or low pitch. Additionally, I’ve heard that these horns are difficult to work on, so any repair might cost a tad more.
The major problem I have with Pierret is that I’m a bit unsure what their top-line model was. After WWII, they seem to have had the Standard, Artist(e), Super Artist(e) and (Artiste) Competition. The defining factors seem to have been the microtuner neck, engraving and additional keywork. The problem is, when you look at some of their catalogs, the Super Artist(e) is described with more flowery language than the Competition and it has more features, but the Competition is reviewed as a really good horn. So, while YMMV as to which is the top model, these horns are definitely worth a shot — if you get a chance to play-test one. I would also stay away from Pierret stencils, like the Olds Parisian and Olds Parisian Ambassador, as I’ve heard comments of poor construction on these horns.
I’ve read a bit about the modern incarnation of B&S models (appx. 1991 to 2005). There are essentially two professional “series” of horns: the 2001 (and 2001 “IV”), which includes the B&S 2001, Medusa, Dave Guardala New York, Codera, and some Alloras and the 2006, which includes the LA Sax Chicago Jazz Series and Antoine Courtois models. While most reviews mention that the horns look very Keilwerth-like, overall, they also mention tone is somewhat “warm” (which some people don’t like) and that they’re fairly resistant to play. This being said, these late B&S horns, particularly the Chicago Jazz Series, are quite pretty — although I’ve heard a bit about how the finish wears easily — and they do have a small, but vocal fan base. (There are also a few folks that would mention that you should also take a look at the the B&S “gold label” and “blue” label horns.)
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