Vintage saxophones

Vintage Saxophones To Now: The Saxophone's Evolution

Author: Garrett Becker Published on: November 16, 2020
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Selmer Mark VI, Conn 10M, Buescher Top Hat & Cane, Yamaha Purple Logo. The saxophone industry has seen its fair share of popular models throughout the decades, and the previously stated names are just a few in the history of top tier saxes. 

Ask any college student, and even many high school students at that, which model of sax is their dream horn and you’ll find that the most common answer is split between either a) the Selmer Mark VI, or b) the Selmer Super Balanced Action. 

Those must be some very well made instruments then, one would think, however even the most hardcore Selmer fanboy would have to agree that, while it has become a mythical horn that can elevate your sound and playing, you can still find saxes of those models that play like the worst beginners horn.

Why have they been put on such a pedestal even with such quality control issues and why have no other vintage saxophone models made such an impression in the psyche of the sax world? This article will dive into just that through study of the various popular models of saxophones from the pre-Selmer '30s, up to our current post-Mark VI timeline in order to see if there are truly other options out there for a vintage sax shopper, or if they should stay with the saxophone zeitgeist dominating Selmer. 

Early Saxophone Excellence

I’ll spare you the details of how the saxophone originally came to be; if you’re interested you can read our article on how the saxophone was invented. However, to understand how we’ve reached the point where almost every new saxophone made looks and sounds practically the same, we have to reach way back in time to when the saxophone was really starting to stretch its legs and reach a whole new level of popularity. *Cue the point in the movie when there is a fadeaway to the past*

Conn: New Wonder, M Series

It’s the 1920’s and with all of the new big bands popping up across the country, there is more of a demand for saxophones than ever before. Enter Conn with their first breakthrough model, the New Wonder. Now dubbed the Chu Berry, for Leon “Chu” Berry, who incidentally played a later model than what most would consider a true New Wonder, these horns were designed around a newer, lower tuning than ever before. 

Due to the recent, at the time, effort to standardize western music tuning to A=440, these saxophones had a sweet sound and were built solid; something most of the horns in this article have in common. 

In contrast to how most companies design and market their horn lines, Conn chose to add incremental upgrades over the course of a few years, eventually leading up to the official release of the fully updated version with all of the changes being called The M series. 

The M series a great improvement, the company using years of development to perfect its product. These improvements included: rolled toe holes, repositioned low-B and Bb keys on the inside of the bell rather than one in and one out, and an enlarged pinky spatula for ease of mobility. 

With so many improvements, and also musicians such as Benny Carter, Dexter Gordon, Gerry Mulligan, and even Charlie Parker(the Bird himself!) using them on worldwide tours, these horns sold like hotcakes. 

Buescher Aristocrat and 400 AKA “Top Hat and Cane”

After the success of the Conn sax lines, who would be the next to take up the mantle in saxophone advancement? Well, who better than a former Conn employee, one Ferdinand “Gus” Buescher. 

Buecher would take everything he had learned at Conn, and add his own personal flair to it. One could see these flairs in the design of their first notable model, the Buescher Aristocrat.

The Aristocrat had an enlarged G# key, stronger and more protective “I” beam keyguards that replaced the older style wire keyguards. There were also left side B and Bb keys, screw-in gold-plated key springs were introduced, and finally, they decked the whole horn out in art-deco style engravings. 

Players of these horns included: Sonny Rollins, Sigurd Rascher, Johnny Hodges, Sidney Bechet, Ike Quebec.

After his success with his Aristocrat model, he still wanted to fine-tune his design and truly make a saxophone that would be vaunted as the premier horn to buy. He would slowly make adjustments to the Aristocrat over a period of years until at last he felt that he had exactly what he wanted. This horn would be the Buescher 400 “Top Hat and Cane”.

The 400 had a multitude of updates and design improvements over the Aristocrat. First and foremost was the changed sound. Unlike the ‘Crat, this new horn would not as easily fit into the classical setting. It had a wider bell end that helped it to amp up its projection, which the jazz crowd loved, however, this meant that it was harder to tone down the sizzle in order to fit in with an orchestra setting. This however was never a big issue as the saxophone never really had a big break into the classical realm, now almost 100 years later this is still the case. 

Aside from the big bell, the Top Hat was fitted with an underslung neck octave key on the neck, and keys that fit a bit better in your hands than the Aristocrat. They were also able to lighten the horn a bit by moving the low B and Bb to the right and slightly inside of the bell, enabling them to confidently do away with the keyguards for those notes. 

Although not really any change to the functional design, he also changed the engraving to be special for the 400 and this included having an image of a top hat and cane on the bell, leading to players giving it the nickname of the “top Hat and Cane”

Players of these Buescher saxophones included Lee Allen, Charlie Parker, and in the modern era Tivon Pennicot. 

The Pinky Problem

Selmer and solving the pinky problem

Selmer. One of the most well known, if not THE most well-known saxophone manufacturer in the music world. Able to take control of the market and change it forever, they had a long list of top-tier musicians that played on their horns including John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Paul Desmond, Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon, and on and on. 

But how did these horns become so popular? In order to understand that we have to go back to their breakout models. 

Selmer: Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action, Mark VI

Selmer had already had a great reputation for producing solid horns since its establishment in 1885. However, in the '30s Conn was still the name to beat, and Selmer would have a plan for just how to accomplish that.

Their first big design advancement was to start fixing the clunky design of the left pinky key table. This table had been noticeably bothersome for some time: the keys jutted out at an odd angle that required you to push your pinky from left to right, instead of a more natural up and down.

This saxophone took the right-hand low B notes that Conn had just started doing, and used it as inspiration. Selmer would finish their bell design at a 14-degree angle to the left. This allowed for the pinky table on the Balanced Action to be less angled and give the player more of an up and down action rather than the left and right action. 

This might not sound like much, but go try out any horn with the old pinky configuration back to back with a new horn and you will most definitely notice just how much more natural the newer horn feels on your left hand.

Their next offering, the Super Action (now known as the Super Balanced Action), offset the right-hand keywork which, while not as big a deal as the left-hand pink button, was still a problem. 

Known as their second most popular sax, this was where the company really started turning heads. Notable players of this sax include: Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster

Along with the newly offset right hand, they also elongated the bell, hermetically sealed the bow and bell rather than soldered them (making for easier servicing), and modified neck proportions.

This horn is still highly sought after today and for good reason, these horns were comfortable to play, sounded amazing, had very light and fast action, and were some of the easiest saxes to fix in their era. 

Notable players of these horns are: John Coltrane, Joshua Redman, Ravi Coltrane, Mark Turner 

Mark VI. Among many saxophonists, this is the peak of saxophone design. Debuting in 1954, Selmer’s Mark VI took the concepts they had been working on with the Balanced Action and Super Action and created a horn that would become the base of all modern horns to come. 

Using a more elegant left-hand pinky table, they were able to create the smoothest and most comfortable action that totally eliminated the left to right motion that was so inefficient with the pinky action of competitors’ horns. 

They also used a small-bore on the neck and body that had multiple reasons for being. 1) To give a strong core sound. 2) Helped with intonation problems. 3) Made the horn feel tight and compact beneath your fingers, helping aid in fast movements (crucial in the Bebop/Post -Bop Era)

With the introduction of the Mark VI, a musician could go out and get a saxophone that was well made, easy to fix, sounded great, and laid almost effortlessly beneath their fingers. It was truly everything you would want in a sax all in one horn, an effort that was previously hard to find.

Players included: John Coltrane, Chris Potter, Dexter Gordon, Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Danny Janklow, Miguel Zenon, the list goes on and on...

Post Mark VI

King: Super 20

While Selmer was sowing great success with their innovative designs, what would the competitors do? They would of course be forced to try their own versions of the Selmer designs. 

One such competitor was King.

The H.N. White Company had been making instruments since 1893, starting with trombones, then eventually working their way over to saxes by 1916. They had enjoyed some good years of success with their King, Voll-True, and Zephyr models. However, they would become most known for their saxophone, the Super 20.

Having come out in 1946, the Super 20 was a great seller and included some interesting options that other makers didn’t offer, such as a 3 ring strap hook, and the signature silver neck had a socket style mouthpiece receptor which was supposed to help with better sealing and also an underslung octave key, serving to give it a distinctive look at the time. 

After the innovations shown at Selmer, King would eventually add a Selmer-style left-hand key table to better compete in the market however with their design based largely off of their Zephyr sax design from years earlier, they were on of the few competitors who actually was competing well with Selmer without taking to many design cues straight from the Selmer horns.

While not the most versatile, the Super 20 was a heavy hitter in the Jazz and R&B/Funk genres due to their bright sound and supremely strong projection abilities.

Notable Players include Charlie Parker, Lenny Pickett, James Moody, Mark Gross, Yusef Lateef, Johnny Griffin.

Keilwerth: SX90R

Ever see that lone black and silver saxophone in the sax section of a professional group? Yup, that’s a Keilwerth. The SX90R is one of the first saxophones to take all of the design cues from the Mark VI, pinky key table, offset keys, detachable bell, etc., and then put their own twist on it. 

Keilwerth has been around since 1925, they were able to stay in business without making too many large splashes until the release of the Sx90R in 1989.

To start off, they decided to beef up the build of their saxophone compared to competitors’, opting for a bigger bore diameter in order to give in a rounder sound, as well as help intonation. This means that the horn feels quite a bit larger in your hands, however, it isn’t unpleasant.

They also added in adjustable palm keys meaning that if you have trouble reaching around the D, Eb, and E natural keys or if they’re too low for you, then you can simply adjust them to the perfect height.

Finally, they added a dedicated G# key arm that is there solely to make sure that the key never gets stuck down as it often does at the start of a practice. And to they’re credit these design cues have seemed to last the test of time as they haven’t really altered their saxophone much at all even all the way in 2020

The SX90R, besides having a terrible name in my opinion, has a dedicated cult following and is versatile enough that it has made its way into the classical setting as well as jazz and R&B. The one issue with these horns is that they can be quite heavy with all of the added weight due to the new additions and added bore size. 

Notable players include Kirk Whalum, David Leibman, Ernie Watts, James Moody, Ron Blake.

New Frontrunner

Yamaha: Purple Logo, Custom Series

The comparable new kid on the block, Yamaha arrived on the scene in 1967 and set about trying to establish themselves as trustworthy and known for high quality builds. This was Obtained fairly early on with their first pro model horn the YAS-62. 

This early era of 62, mainly from the late 70’s to early '90s and has since come to be known as the “Purple Logo” since Yamaha was using a cheap paint-on purple logo on the necks of their saxes at that time.

With its great ergonomics and ease of blowing, the Purple Logo was basically just Yamaha’s attempt at copying Selmer’s Mark VI design. Although there was nothing really new to what Yamaha had done, the simple fact that it was done exceptionally well was enough to earn respect and praise in the sax community from then on.

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They followed the success of the 62 up with the release of their Custom series of horns in 2003. Two models were released; they were the Custom Z and EX.  

Trying to make each horn more focused on different things, the Z was the jazz/commercial music-focused instrument, while the EX was more classically oriented. 

With the major design changes being subtle touches like bore size and key placement, these horns are able to be extremely locked in on intonation and are considered the new standard that most other big companies are looking to emulate. 

Notable players include Alex Han and Jeff Coffin.

In Summation

The saxophone industry has made leaps and bounds in technologies over the last century, and it looks set to keep leaping well into the next. Although the Selmer template has largely been in use the past 50 years, it wouldn’t have been possible to get there without other companies like Conn, King, and Buescher, as well as many others, helping to spur forth advancements of their own and to keep trying to fight for the most well thought out and high-quality saxophone on the market. If you're interested in any of these vintage saxophones, check out our buyer's guide on purchasing used saxophones.

With the ideas from newer brands like Yamaha, and the continued exploration by Selmer, Keilwerth, and the like, who knows what might change to make the next big splash in the sax world.

Photo by samchills | CC BY

Garrett Becker

Garrett Becker

I am a freelance woodwinds session player with a degree in Jazz Studies from CSU Northridge. I am fortunate to have played and recorded with various artists such as: NIKI, 88Rising, Tommy Mora, Melissa Manchester, and Barbera Morrison; as well as go on multiple tours and residencies on Oahu, Hawaii. Primarily a saxophonist by trade, I have also extensively studied and played flute and clarinet. Always looking forward, my most recent exploits have included starting my own home studio for remote recording sessions, writing my own original music, and joining a great sonora band.