- If you’re a beginner, you shouldn’t be reading this. Ask your teacher for advice (better yet, tell him to get a horn for you) or buy the best used Yamaha you can afford, but budget $300 for repairs.
- You really need to know a lot of stuff to purchase a good used instrument and get a good deal. Don’t say that you weren’t warned.
- This is a joint article, where Helen provided most of the original content, Gandalfe put in a couple comments, and I (Pete) made the article a lot longer: we all mentioned things that we should expand on. So I did :).
- For this article, speaking of expanding, I’ve used an add-on called “Symple_Toggle.” See the “+” signs and big rectangular boxes? Click to see some more information from us. (Note that not all entries have additional data. Yet.)
- Neither Helen nor I (Pete) like the idea of a beginner buying a vintage horn. While I think there are a few exceptions to this “rule” (check out my article that lists some exceptions), by and large, a beginner is better off buying a modern horn recommended by his teacher (check out the WF article on this).
- Note that certain schools, colleges, and universities require you to buy a specific make/model instrument. Helen has an excellent article on this topic.
Do I really need all this information just to buy a used saxophone?
Yes, yes you do. Remember: there’s nothing wrong with asking if you can get your tech to look it over. This is especially true if you are buying an instrument worth thousands of dollars.
Thousands of dollars or not, buying a saxophone is always a very personal decision, and represents an outlay of your personal savings. Our hope is that this article gives you some helpful tools that you will be able to use when you go out and try some used horns.
(Mainly for vintage horns, ask) Is the horn high pitch?
There is a current European orchestral standard of A=442hz and there was a German standard of A=435hz (sometimes written as “870”) that was used immediately before and during WWII. Because the A=442 and A=435 intonation standards aren’t that far off Low Pitch (A=440), they can be fairly easily played with other Low Pitch horns, provided you have a decent enough ear.
Do you have pictures of the horn that you can send me?
Is there a model name engraved or stamped on the horn?
What does all the engraving on the bell say?
What's the serial number?
Does the horn have a case and is the case original?
Does the case smell?
What kind of finish does the horn have?
Gold plated horns are silver plated first, because gold does not adhere to brass. So, one way you can tell a gold plated horn from a lacquered one is to look for some silver poking through the finish.
There was also a finish called “Perma-Gold.” This finish was available on SML and Selmer Adolphe Sax models and it’s really hard to tell PermaGold from regular gold, unless you can see it flaking like lacquer.
To tell silver plate from nickel plate, look for tarnish. Silver plate will tarnish a brownish or purplish black. Nickel generally tarnishes “dull,” like an American nickel that’s been in circulation for awhile, or whitish.
Look for spots of greenish rust. If the horn is rusted through in spots, you’re looking at spending a lot in repairs.
Silver, gold, and nickel plated horns can generally be cleaned with a non-tarnishing, non-abrasive cleaner designed for whichever metal. This can mean that an almost completely black silver plated horn can be cleaned up to look like new.
Saxophones can have patches of red peeking through. This is called “Red Rot” or “de-zincification.” According to the link, this isn’t something that can be fixed. However, this doesn’t immediately = an unplayable horn. I played an 80- or more-year-old bare-brass horn that had extensive patches of red.
There are a lot of opinions on if the material a saxophone is made of and/or the finish a saxophone has affects the horn’s tone in any way. If you are of the opinion that the finish really doesn’t matter, that can work to your advantage. As an example, there’s a very common rumor that silver plated Mark VIs are more “stuffy,” so you shouldn’t get one. I’m more than happy to keep that rumor going because that might mean I can get a silver plated VI for less than a lacquer one.
Is the finish original?
There are two basic ways of relacquering a saxophone. The first way uses a variety of mechanical means to strip the lacquer, which can cause loss of metal and/or damage to the tone holes. The second way uses a chemical process to strip the lacquer, which won’t cause as much damage. However, relacquered saxophones are not original and should be valued less than an original horn in the same condition. A lot of folks won’t buy a relacquered horn, so, if you can play-test it and it’s to your liking, you might be able to get a bit of a bargain.
You can spot a relacquer by looking for engraving that has been smoothed over and doesn’t look very crisp. You might also find traces of polishing compound on the horn. It’s a reddish paste. Look around the keyguards and toneholes for this.
There were colored enamels available on Buescher and Conn saxophones — and possibly some of their stencils — in the 1920s. These finishes are extremely uncommon.
Colored lacquers were available as early as the 1960s, so if you find a blue lacquer Selmer Mark VI, it might be the original finish.
Does the horn have all original parts?
Is the horn in playing condition?
Does the horn play in tune?
What kind of damage has the horn had in the past?
How many dents does the horn have and where are they?
When was the horn serviced last?
Who serviced the horn?
What was done during that service?
Does it have a neck?
Is the neck original?
Is the neck damaged, or was it damaged in past?
Are there any dents that go into the inside of the neck?
Body Tube, Bow, & Bell:
Is it straight?
Is it smooth?
Is it round?
Are there any dents in the body tube?
Are the dents 5 mm wide or less?
Where are the dents located?
Minor dings and dents on the left side of the bow are pretty normal as players bump the horn into chairs, etc, and usually don’t interfere with the tone.
Are any posts pushed in?
Is there a bump inside the bell opposite to where the bell to body brace is?
Is there a dent on the body tube where the bell to body tube attaches?
Is there any evidence of repaired damage on the body tube?
Any soldering repairs? Are they well done?
What kind of tone holes does it have, drawn or soldered?
Move the hinge tubes up and down and side to side.
NB: Vintage Keilwerths are especially prone to wear in this area and, because of their rolled tone holes, repairs are tricky. A really good sax tech is your best bet when faced with this kind of repair.
What condition are they in?
Are they soft?
What kind of resonators do they have in them?
Are the pads and resos matching or is there a hodge-podge of different kinds on the horn?
What to take along when testing horns:
The mouthpiece that you normally use
A good selection of reeds
Plumbing tape (in case the cork is too small)
Pad of paper & pen to take notes
Questions you should be asking yourself:
Do you like the tone?
Do you like, or can you live with the saxophone's ergos?
Can you see yourself playing this horn for a few years?
Does it meet your needs?
For example, are you buying a vintage horn for university, when you should be buying a new one instead? Or are you buying a high pitch horn when you in fact planning on playing current music with others?
This is one of those topics where you initially think there isn’t much to it, but on further reflection ….
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to say something like, “If it sounds really good, buy it,” but you do need to be aware that there are other considerations. For me, for instance, I’d sacrifice a bit of “fantastic tone” for better intonation. I also have some problems with my left hand little finger, so the G#/C#/B/Bb cluster is important for me to test thoroughly. I’m also mainly a bari player. I’ve decided I do need that low A, so that’s a consideration. The overall weight, especially for bari and lower, can be really important for some folks.
I was listening to the, “Still Untitled: the Adam Savage Project” — that’s Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame. He used to be a sax player and he was making an analogy about something tool related. I’m going to quote from memory, “Buy the best saxophone you can afford. Buy a quality instrument that you feel you can live with for your entire life. It’ll make your life easier and you’ll want to play more.”