by Paul D. Race
If you’re just getting into saxophones, you’ll come across dozens of little catch phrases and unusual terms. I won’t pretend that we’ll catch them all, but this is an attempt to help you with the most common.
400: A Buescher saxophone that followed the Aristocrat and was arguably the best pro horn they made. One version, which had a top had and cane engraved on the bell is considered especially desirable.. The 400 was effectively discontinued soon after Selmer bought out Buescher in 1963. Note: In the last few decades, Conn-Selmer has named some of its Asian-made horns after classic Buescher horns. Don’t be fooled. (For a detailed review of a 400, click here.)
Altissimo: Using the saxophone’s natural tendancy to jump up a half octave to play notes above the saxophone’s “normal” range. Different players on different saxophones find different fingerings helpful for this, so we don’t provide “one proven way” to do this here, only to point out it can be done. Some folks consider a sax’s ability to play altissimo when you actually mean to and to avoid playing altissimo when you don’t want to a sign of a good horn. That said, few saxophones have, technically, been designed to do this, so the fact that one horn does it better than another may be more about design considerations than quality per se.
Alto: In families of band instruments, an Alto is usually a horn that is pitched a fifth below the “soprano” member of the family. Thus the Alto clarinet is tuned to Eb, a fifth lower than the “standard” Bb clarinet. The Eb Alto saxophone is the most popular member of the saxophone family. It’s tuned a fifth below the Bb Soprano saxophone, which, ironically, is much rarer. In the history of saxophone development, innovations and upgrades tend to be applied to Eb Altos first. Eb Alto saxophones tend to have a brighter tone than Bb Tenor saxes, even when playing the same note. They are very popular in jazz, light jazz, and pop. One “gotcha” when you’re looking at vintage horns is the fact that some folks like to distinguish C Melody horns (pitched a third down from the Eb Alto) by the shape of the neck. An “Alto” C Melody is simply a C Melody that has a neck shaped like the shape of an Eb Alto sax. So if someone posts a vintage “Alto” make certain it’s actually the horn you’re looking for.
Aristocrat: A Buescher professional upgrade that included several improvements over their True-Tone models, including experiments with bore diameter and bell size. But the ost obvious change is moving both the low B and Bb pad to the same side of the bell (an upgrade that was copied to Buescher’s student line Elkhart). Some folks claim that the Aristocrat hit its “peak” with the horns that had a big “B” in the name on the bell, since after that Buescher’s engineers seemed to be focusing on the next pro horn, the Buescher 400. . Like the King Zephyr, the Aristocrat continued to be made after its more expensive replacement came out, leading to the later Aristocrats being positioned as “intermediate” horns. After Selmer took over Buescher in 1963, the Aristocrat was reissued as the Selmer Signet, which Selmer also positioned as an “intermediate” horn. My guess is that the Signet would have been more popular if it had retained the name Aristocrat. Conn-Selmer (the current version of what used to be called Selmer USA) must agree, because in the last few decades, they’ve has named some of their Asian-made Mark VI copies “Aristocrats.” Don’t be fooled - these have virtually nothing in common with the Buescher-engined horns.
Asia: Where all of the world’s student horns are made today. In the 1970s, Yamaha threw US and European manufacturers a “curve-ball” by making high-quality student horns in their Japanese factory. Later manufacturing moved to Taiwan (and I’ve since seen certain Chinese-made horns that have unmistakable Yamaha tooling). Several European and American companies offshored their saxophone manufacturing to Taiwan in the 1980s and to China a decade or two later. In my experience, Japanese-made saxes are the most consistent, with post-1980 name-brand Taiwanese horns being a close second. Initial reviews of Chinese-made “name brand” saxophones were pretty bad, but the European and American companies seem to have improved the quality control and more recent horns seem to be better. That said, there are also a number of factories that hash together horns from third-rate materials and sell them dirt cheap, especially through Internet importers. Since all of these horns are labeled “Instructor-approved” or “professional,” a lot of US buyers have been fooled into buying these pieces for their kids. They’re the ones you see on eBay that have a reserve of $300 and seldom get bid up more than $75.
Many writers say “Asia” to avoid singling out China as the producer of the worst saxophones ever made (especially since some Chinese-made horns have improved significantly), but if the trends toward seeking ever cheaper labor continue, that honor may transfer to Cambodia or Myanmar in the future.
Baffle: The inside “roof” of the mouthpiece across from the reed. If the baffle is close to the reed, it’s called a “high baffle” (go figure) and the sound will be brighter. Beginner mouthpieces have “low baffles” that produce a darker tone.
Balanced Action: An engineering innovation, pioneered by Selmer, that moved the low B and Bb pads to the right side of the bell. This simplified the mechanism and made those keys easier to play. Also refers to the first Selmer saxophones to incorporate that change, released in 1935. Yamaha put balanced action engineering on its student saxophones in 1967, and all saxophones engineered since have followed suit.
Beak - the part of the mouthpiece that goes into the mouth
Bell: The part that most folks think the sound comes out of. It’s shaped like the opening of a cornucopia.
Bore - on the mouthpiece, the interior, tube-shaped part of the mouthpiece that screws over the neck cork. On the saxophone itself, the diameter of the tube. Some vintage saxophones have narrower bores than modern saxophones, making them a little quieter and darker in tone.
Bow: The U-shaped part that connects the bell to the body.
Buescher - properly pronounced “bisher,” this was one of the U.S.’s biggest and most influential saxophone manufacturers for nearly seventy years. By 1940, Buescher had produced millions of saxophones under the “True-Tone” name, and nearly as many saxophone “stencils” for other companies like Wurlitzer and Lyon and Healy who didn’t have the resources to build their own saxophones. When Buescher introduced their improved models, the Aristocrat and 400, they continued to keep the True-Tone line alive making “Elkhart” student horns (with some Aristocrat-era improvements). Buescher was bought out by Selmer in 1963. At that point, the True-Tone/Elkhart line began manufacturing “Selmer Bundy” horns, and the Aristocrat line began making “Selmer Signet” horns. Sadly, Buescher’s greatest saxophone engineering achievement, the 400, was discontinued. Note: In the last few decades, Conn-Selmer has named some of its Asian-made horns after classic Buescher horns. Don’t be fooled.
Buffet - A French manufacturer that was bought out by Evette & Shaeffer before the golden age of saxophones. Products have been labeled Buffet, Buffet-Crampon and Evette & Shaeffer. A few very early Buffet stencils have reportedly been spotted with Carl Fischer, H.N. White and even Conn engraved on the bell. Buffet kept improving its saxophones over the years, with their better models, the Dynaction and Super Dynaction being considered desirable among vintage horns. Some modern Buffet horns resemble Keilwerth enough to be attributed to that manufacturer. Others seem to be made, at least partially, in Asia.
Buffing: Using repeated motion, usually with a mechanical device to “shine up” a saxophone, almost always a mistake. Most silver-plated vintage horns had a “satin” sheen, except on the bell and keys, but many folks who try to restore those horns try to buff them up to a good shine. They never get a good shine - the satin finish doesn’t adapt to that. But they often wear the thin silverplate right off the horn and damage the brass so much that the horn can never be completely restored.
Bundy: At least four separate lines of saxes have been given this name. In pre-WWII horns, this name was used for two or three lines named in honor of a Selmer employee George M. Bundy.
In 1963, when Selmer bought out Buescher, the former Buescher factory changed the name of their student line horns from “Elkhart” to “Bundy.”
In the early 1970s, Yamaha’s YAS-21s began crowding Bundy horns out of the student market, largely because they included ergonomic improvements that first appeared, ironically, out on Selmer’s pro horns. So Selmer employee Ralph Morgan engineered the Bundy II to include those same features, plus more solid posts, to improve durability.
In spite of a lot of “brand bigotry” towards them by people who now own better horns, both the Buesher-engineered and Morgan-engineered Bundies can produce great music once they’ve been regulated by a skilled technician and equipped with an upgraded mouthpiece. And they’re both better than the vast majority of “student horns” coming out of China today. Unfortunately the vast majority of them were so beat up by the time their student owners quit or graduated high school that finding Bundies worth restoring for a fair price can be difficult.
The Bundy name now seems to be a “house brand” of Woodwind and Brasswind, the mail-order band instrument wing of Musician’s Friend and Guitar Center.
C Melody: A line of saxophones which started becoming popular about 1900 among folks who wanted to play saxophone in the home. Like a flute, a “C” on a C Melody is the same note as a “C” on a piano. In the days when most new songs found their way into many homes in the form of Piano-Vocal sheet music, C Melody horns enabled amateur sax players to look over the piano player’s shoulder and play the melody line without transposing. C Melodies are pitched one note higher than Bb tenors, but they traditionally have a much narrower bore so they play more quietly. That is also helpful in home playing, but makes them almost useless in swing orchestras or rock bands. In Australia and New Zealand, all C Melodies are called “C Tenors,” because of the overlapping ranges. In North America, a C Melody may be called a “C Tenor” if it has a crook in the neck like a Bb Tenor, or a “C Alto” if its neck looks like the neck of an Eb Alto. This confusion causes a lot of eBay and Craig’s List sellers to mislabel, not only C Melodies, but also vintage Eb Altos and Bb Tenors. But all C Melodies are in the same pitch. Hundreds of vintage C Melodies are usually on the market at any given time, and the horns that were built by Buescher, Conn, and Martin can usually be restored to playability (replace the mouthpiece, though.). If you want a new C Melody, you might check out those from Aquilasax. Don’t be put off by the fact that the owner calls these “C Tenors,” after local usage. They’re made in China, but unlike the $500 boat anchors showing up on eBay these days, there is strict quality control. See our article on C Melody Saxophones for more information. I have additional information about C Melodies in my article on my Buescher-built Selmer New York horn.
C Soprano: A relatively rare line of soprano saxophones that are pitched one step higher than the standard Bb Soprano sax. Like the C Melody, they allow you to play along with piano sheet music (or lead sheets) without transposing. But unlike the C Melody, even the best C sopranos ever made are a bear to play in tune. They also have a much narrower bore than Bb Sopranos, so their tone is quite different. Most C Sopranos you’ll come across are vintage horns in difficult-to-repair conditon. If you want to consider modern versions with modern ergonomics, look at the relatively inexpensive series from Aquilasax or the much more expensive series from International Woodwind. Both are made in China under carefully supervised conditions, so quality control is much better than the Soprano sax “lampstands” that are currently showing up on eBay for less than $500. I have more comments about C Sopranos in an article about a Martin C Soprano I owned for many years.
Chamber: The interior of the mouthpiece adjacent to the reed.
Cleveland: A subsidiary of H.N. White, which made their saxophones in a separate factory. King Cleveland saxophones would be considered student line horns, although they’re better built that many “student” saxophones coming out of Asia today.
Chu Berry: Early Jazz musician Leon Brown (nicknamed “Chu Berry”) sometimes played a late “transitional” tenor model of a Conn New Wonder II saxophone that included features that weren’t standard until the Conn 10M (one of the “naked lady” Conns). Based on the same logic that later led wannabe guitarists to assume they could play like Jimmie Page if they had a Les Paul guitar, most people who sell Conn New Wonder II horns on eBay (even altos, which Brown didn’t play) call them “Chu Berry” horns. Some even call any Conn made between 1910 and the “naked lady” series a “Chu Berry.” However only one out of a thousand horns that are so called actually have the exact same feature set that Leon Brown’s horn had. That said, the New Wonder II and the transitional saxophones that led to the 10M were all very nice horns, possibly the best horns made in their respective generations. Properly restored, repadded, and regulated, with appropriate mouthpieces, they will play very well. Just understand that the moniker “Chu Berry” is being used loosely to the New Wonder II and a range of transitional horns that followed it, not to a specific “magical” model. (Since I posted this, I saw New Wonder (I) soprano being advertised as a “Chu Berry” sax, so buyer beware.)
Cigar Cutter: A series of Selmer (Paris) saxophones made in 1931 and 1932, so called because the unusual shape of the octave key mechanism reminded players of the old devices for nipping the ends of cigars. These precede the ergonomic upgrades of the Balanced Action series - in fact some of their engineering is close to late Buescher True-Tone designs. They are contemporary with Conn’s transitional “New Wonder II” horns - I think that deciding between the two would be a Ford/Chevy debate in which the “cigar cutter” would mostly have an edge among Selmer fans.
Conn: A US company that made all kinds of wind instruments. At the beginning of the golden era of saxophone manufacturing (c1915-1931), they introduced the New Wonder, followed by the improved New Wonder II, which went through many minor revisions during its lifespan, eventually reemerging as the 10M/30M “Naked Lady” series, the best saxophones they made. In 1969, Conn was bought out by a textbook publishing company that ran Conn’s musical instrument business right into the ground. Conn moved, shrank, and lost its reputation for quality. Later models such as the “Shooting Star” were only student horns positioned more or less against the Selmer Bundy. After changing hands, many more times, the Conn name was finally linked with the name Selmer (which had gone through similar changes). Today, “Conn-Selmer” saxes, often labeled “Selmer US” are made in Asia.
Couturier: An Indiana-based company that was eventually bought out by Lyon & Healy, then Holton. Because many earlier Couturier saxes have beveled tone holes, they may be mistakenly attributed to Martin. To make it even more complicated, some have the Mercedes-style low C guard, so they occasionally get mistaken for Conns. A few late-1920s Couturier saxes are reputed to have Couturier-style bodies and Holton-style key-work.
Facing: The part of the mouthpiece that is angled to give the reed room to vibrate. A “shallow” facing indicates a low angle, suitable for a beginner horn. The length of the facing also affects the way the reed vibrates.
E-Flat (Eb) Alto: See “Alto.”
Elkhart: The United States’ center of wind instrument production from the late 1800s to the early 1970s. Also, a musical instrument company that existed 1923 and 1927, when the company merged with Buescher. Before 1923 other companies made a few individual models called “Elkhart,” that bear no relationship to the Elkhart company or to Buescher. Sometime well after 1927, Buescher issued a series of “Elkhart” branded student-line saxophones using mostly late True-Tone engineering. In 1964, Selmer bought out Beuscher, and used the same line (and most of the same engineering) to produce the Bundy (I).
Ergonomics: In saxophones, refers chiefly to attempts to make keys easier to reach and press. In the mid-20th century, most ergonomic advances were made by companies like Selmer and Conn who had already given their pro-line horns the best intonation, tone, volume, and durability possible and were looking for some other advantage to offer. Some of the improvements, once developed, were pretty easy to copy, which is why virtually all saxophones made today incorporate the most obvious ergonomic improvements developed in the Selmer “Balanced Action” through Mark VI saxophone series. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to reshape and reangle keys than it is to make horns that sound good. So the very low end of the market is glutted with $400 Selmer ”copies” that include those ergonomic improvements but which will never play in tune or survive more than a couple years’ service (just like every $200 violin claims to be an accurate copy of a Stradivarius). For details, se our article on Saxophone Ergonomics.
G# Key Cluster: The keys played by the little finger of the left hand, labeled “left pinky keys” in the picture. So called because the top key plays the G#. In vintage saxophones, this set of keys was frequently redesigned to make it easier to play. Selmer eventually addressed this issue by moving the pads for two of the keys in the cluster (low B and Bb) to the right side of the bell, which simplified the leverage and made the old solutions obsolete. Since Yamaha followed suit in 1967, all new saxophones have followed Selmer’s example. This helps in dating saxophones that look “vintage” but are just “used” incidences of horns that are still being made today. For details, see our article on Saxophone Ergonomics.
Guard: The heavy wire or stamped-sheet brass protectors over the pads, especially low C, B, and Bb.
Handcraft: The first three iterations of Martin Low Pitch saxophones. The word Handcraft is engraved on the bell near the Martin name. Beveled, soldered-on tone holes are the most obvious characteristic. Later Martin and Indiana student horns were based on this design.
“High-Pitch”: The oldest saxophones were made to play along with orchestras that tuned a tad higher than modern orchestras. Some orchestras in Britain played as high as “A452”, which means that when an A above middle C is played, the reed, string, or brass player’s lips vibrate at 452 times a second. European saxophones weren’t called “high pitch” in their day. They were just called “saxophones.” In the early 1900s, most orchestras and marching bands in the United States started tuning a bit lower (A440). You could theoretically “tune” a European saxophone to play in A440 by pulling the mouthpiece out, but from that point on, the horn would be out of tune with itself, requiring a lot of “lipping” on the part of the player to play in tune. Saxophone makers like Martin, King (White), Conn, and Buescher responded by issuing “Low Pitch” (A440) horns that often included many other upgrades. But the old “high-pitch” horns didn’t just disappear - in fact they were still made for niche markets as late as 1926, and some A442 horns were made even later. If you’re looking for a saxophone made before 1930, see if it has an L or the words “Low Pitch” near the serial number. If there is no L or “Low Pitch,” it just might be a high pitch horn. That said, after 1930, Low Pitch was so prevalent that companies stopped labeling their horns as such.
“Horn”: A nickname for saxophones. Yes, my music professors insisted that a wind instrument wasn’t a horn unless it had a cup-shaped mouthpiece that you pursed your lips to play, like a trombone or trumpet. But in modern usage, “horn sections” usually include at least one saxophone. Besides it’s easier to say “horn” than “saxophone.” It’s also easier to say “horns” than “saxes.” If that wording keeps you from enjoying or using the information from this site, my apologies.
Indiana: A band instrument company that Martin bought out. However, they left the factory open for a time, making at saxophones with a number of Martin improvements, including soldered-on, beveled tone holes. I have seen Indiana saxophones that were identical to Martins of the same period. So if you’re looking for a vintage Martin horn, you may find an Indiana that fits the bill. But pay attention to the details before you make any assumptions about a particular horn.
Instructor-Approved: As of 2014, this is a code phrase used by eBay sellers importing the cheapest possible pieces of junk to indicate that it is their next-to-the-bottom-of-the-line horn (and that’s saying something.) The same horns with some meaningless upgrade feature, such as fancier engraving, are labeled “professional.” Both classes of horns (as well as the ones that aren’t even “instructor-approved”) are made of a brittle alloy with almost no copper content - so dropping a horn in the case can cause pieces to break off. And those aren’t the worst problem with these horns.
Intermediate Saxophone: A saxophone that is supposedly better than a student sax but not quite on a par with the current line of true professional horns. This used to be a “code word” for saxophone lines that were “professional” when they came out (like the Buescher Aristocrat and King Zephyr) and which continued to be made after even better professional models were introduced. The Zephyr and Aristocrat (later relabeled the Selmer Signet) were kept on as “upgrade” models for advanced students or part-time musicians looking to replace their starter horns. As of 2014, though, the word “intermediate” is often used to describe saxophones that are still as well-engineered and built as the US and Japanese-made student horns of the 1970s and 1980s. In other words, they’re not pro-oriented saxophone designs that have been superceded, but beginner-oriented saxophone designs that have retained their quality while many student lines have gone down in quality. With the right mouthpieces, a restored Selmer Bundy II or Yamaha/Vito YAS-21 (both student horns in their day) will play better and last longer than most new “intermediate” horns you’ll see advertised. Do your homework.
Intonation: Refers to how well a horn is in tune with itself once it has been tuned to some external standard such as a piano or digital tuner. No saxophone has perfect intonation, but some are much better than others. It is possible for professional sax player to play instruments with poor intonation well, because they have gotten used to making a thousand tiny adjustments a minute to how much or how little pressure they put on the reed. But pros prefer not to use horns that take a whole lot of work to keep in tune across the horns’ range. Worse yet, a horn that takes a lot of work for a pro to play in tune across its range will be disastrous in the hands of a lesser player. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to solder keys and posts onto a brass tube than it is to make certain that every inch of that tube and every tone hole soldered to or drawn from it is exactly the size, shape, and place where it ought to be. That’s why a $400 imported horn might technically have all the right parts and never play “in tune” across the scale for anyone but a pro with a very good ear. For more information, see our article on Saxophone Tuning and Intonation.
Keilwerth: A German manufacturer whose saxophones came into the US largely as “stencils,” engraved for other companies. If you come across a Keilwerth-made vintage horn, chances are you’ll find it competes favorably with US-made horns of the same era. A company that owns the brand name Keilwerth has had horns made in Asia under that name, but they are Selmer Paris/Yamaha copies, not heirs of the original European design.
Keys: The metal parts that make the pads open or shut on the horn. Some folks call the part you push the “key,” some folks call the part that holds the pad the “key.” In the case of the D, E, F, G, A, and B key, they’re the same, since your fingers operate the pads directly. In other cases, the parts you push are connected to the pads by long levers and sometimes by a series of rods and levers.
King: A series of saxophones made by H.N. White. King horns are largely identifiable by deep pad holders that are shaped like shallow cones. King’s student lines include the Cleveland, which was made in a different factory and tended to ignore ergonomic updates that applied to their better lines. King’s upgraded lines include the Zephyr and the Super 20.
Lacquer: A semi-clear varnish-like coating that replaced plating during the Depression and has dominated student horn finishes since World War II. During the 40s and 50s, plated horns were considered “old fashioned,” so many vintage horns that needed repadded were lacquered at the same time. This causes confusion among resellers who don’t know saxophones and often mislabel a 1920s-vintage horn as only a few years old. Lacquer doesn’t need to be polished like silverplate, so a lacquered horn that is not scratched is actually lower maintenance than a silverplated horn. But once lacquer is scratched deeply, it is much more likely to allow corrosion to start in the scratches, If you have a scratched-up lacquered horn, find a polish that you can use to provide a tiny moisture barrier in the scratches.
Ligature: The clamp that holds the reed in place.
Lipping: Applying more or less pressure on the reed to bring it up or down in pitch respectively (often called “lipping up” and “lipping down.” Every note on every saxophone requires a slight difference in pressure to play in tune - that’s the nature of the beast. A “pro” with a good ear, learns his or her horn’s quirks and adapts a thousands times a minute without even thinking about it. At a bare minimum, beginning and intermediate players should be able to tell if notes they are sustaining are in tune, and make adjustments before the audience starts visibly wincing.
Low Pitch: In the early 1900s, orchestras and bands in the United States started tuning a tad lower than they used to. Manufacturers like Conn, Martin, Buescher, and King (White) responded, not only by redesigning their horns to play in tune at the new standard, but also by including several other improvements as well. A “Low Pitch” horn typically has an L or the words “Low Pitch” near the serial number, thought by about 1930, that seemed to be superfluous.
Mark VI: The saxophone that all other saxophones want to be when they grow up. Just kidding. The Paris-built successor to the Selmer Super Balanced Action, and by many accounts the best horn you could by anywhere in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Mark VI altos and tenors were eventually displaced by the Mark VII, which some people dislike because of what they perceive as unnecessary key modifications. Both Mark VI and Mark VII have “legendary” status that supposedly justifies very high prices, even for damaged or worn out instruments.
Martin: A musical instrument company that for many years competed favorably with larger players Conn and Buescher (no relationship to E.F. Martin guitars). Vintage Martin saxophones are usually identifiable by beveled, soldered-on tone holes, a very round tear-drop shaped octave key button, and wide rectangular G# keys (except for the “typewriter” model that experimented with pearls on all of the left pinky keys). Like its competitors, Martin continually introduced improved horns until the 1960s. Unfortunately an attempted merger with Blessing and Reynolds in 1961 never really worked out; in 1964, Martin was bought out by Wurlitzer. In 1971 the factory closed. Leblanc owns the rights to the Martin name and occasionally makes an instrument labled as a Martin; however the legacy of Martin engineering has disappeared.
Mouthpiece: The part you blow into. Our article on Upgrading Saxophone Mouthpieces describes the components.
Nail File: The G# key on the Conn New Wonder II had a hash pattern intended to make it easier to push without your pinky sliding. People focus on this, not because the feature itself was life-changing, but because it helps to identify the model and approximate year of the horn. See our article on Saxophone Ergonomics for examples of other ergonomic “milestones” that collectors use to identify horns.
Naked Lady: A series of Conn professional horns that were upgrades to the New Wonder II line, starting in the early to mid 1930s. Called “Artist” or “Standard,” they received the nickname because the engraving showed the outline of a woman’s face and bust. The 6M (alto) and 10M (tenor) included several ergonomic upgrades that Conn had been experimenting with throughout a “transitional” period. Except for the rolled tone holes, which were discontinued in 1948, the engineering for this series was the basis for Conn’s professional saxophones until they were discontinued. (For a review of an early 10M, click here.)
Neck: The part that connects the mouthpiece to the body of the horn. It will have a loop-shaped lever with a pad on one end - that’s the octave key lever and pad.
New Wonder: A line of Conn saxophones developed around 1916. “High pitch” horns were no longer in demand, so when Conn reengineered their “Low Pitch” saxophones for the burgeoning school and marching band markets, they added several improvements.
The New Wonder II was an early 1920s upgrade to the alto and tenor lines that offered additional improvements. Because saxophonist “Chu Berry” sometimes favored a Conn “transitional” tenor based largely on New Wonder II engineering, some collectors and vendors call ALL New Wonder II horns (even altos) “Chu Berrys.” But, as a “transitional” model, his horn reportedly had features that most New Wonder IIs never had. That said, the New Wonder II tends to be a more desirable horn than the New Wonder (I). One sign of New Wonder II horns is a hash pattern on the “G#” key, so sometimes you’ll hear folks bragging about a “nail file” Conn.
Pads: The little leather-covered disks that create a seal against a tone hole when you close the key.
Palm Keys: Levers you push with the base of your forefinger or the base of other fingers.
Pan American: A musical instrument company that Conn bought out and continued to operate. Consequently, Pan American saxophones are often labeled as “Conn stencils.” However there are engineering differences beyond the lack of rolled tone holes.
Pants Guard: In the days when most low B and Bb pads were located on the left side of the bell (from the player’s point of view), some horns included extra bracing between the bell and the body, presumably to keep the levers attached to those keys from getting bent up or snagged on clothing. Now that most saxes have those pads on the right side of the bell, most horns have a strip of stamped sheet metal to protect the rods that would otherwise be exposed to belt buckles, careless handling, etc.
Pearl: The “mother of pearl” (or plastic) buttons that your fingertips rest on to play the D, E, F, G, A, and B keys and a couple alternates. Some early horns had no pearls at all, just small round saucer-shaped surfaces molded into the keys. If you see a “pearl-less” sax that is newer than 1920, it may have been a transitional or “bargain” model.
Plating: A thin metal coating that covers the brass and slows corrosion. Most early twentieth-century horns were silver plated. Those early horns need to be polished occasionally just like silverplated serving dishes, so it’s common for vintage horns to look a little “dingy” until they’re polished up. Ironically, plating went “out of style” during the Depression when the less expensive lacquering took over, and thousands of horns that started out plating had their plating stripped and replaced with lacquer, a purely cosmetic, and sometimes regrettable “improvement.”
A few years ago, certain manufacturers of pro horns began offering plating as an option for pros in search of a particular look or tone. Sadly, a few fly-by-night import copycats have started plating $300 saxophones and selling the result to unwitting newbies for $700-$1000. Plating a piece of junk with silver or even gold does not keep it from being junk.
Posts: The little pieces that are shaped like chess pawns which attach keys, levers, and rods to the horn.
Practice: The difference between a saxophone player and a person who blows notes on a saxophone. Frankly, practice makes far more difference between good and bad performances than any of the other terms described on the page. When you come across a “brand bigot” who refuses to play a horn without such-and-such a feature, you’ve probably encountered a wannabe who would rather throw money than time at the problem. I’m glad if you can afford an $8000 horn that seldom gets out of the house (or case), but don’t be slamming other folks’ vintage eyesores. Lots of those can play rings around your “mint” collectible because their owners aren’t afraid of a little hard work.
Professional Saxophone: On eBay, this means that a cheap imported piece of junk has slightly fancier engraving than all the other pieces of junk that the same vendor is advertising as “instructor-approved.” To experienced sax players, however, a true professional saxophone is made to higher standards, incorporates more features, and has better quality control than the “student” or “intermediate” saxophones. Before about 1932, “pro” saxes were made on the same lines as all other saxophones but would have added custom features such as gold plating. By 1935, however, most manufacturers had a new line of higher priced horns targeted to professionals, while they continued to produce lines based on earlier engineering for the student market. Once all manufacturers started attempting to clone the Selmer Mark VI (from 1967 on), distinctions that set “professional” horns above student and so-called intermediate horns include hand-manufacturing to very strict tolerances, high-quality brass, designs that improve durability and simplify maintenance, and professional testing and adjustment before they leave the factory.
Rail: The slender edge of the mouthpiece along the window, typically the most delicate part of the mouthpiece. When you buy a used mouthpiece, any scratches or dings on the rails means that it may react unpredictably on certain notes.
Ramp - the lower part of the chamber that helps transition between the window and the bore.
Reed: A bit of milled and shaved bamboo that vibrates when you attach it to a mouthpiece and blow across it. Reeds come in various strenths. People who are just starting might use a softer reed, like a #2. People who need to blend in, say with an orchestra, might use a slightly firmer reed, like a 2 1/2. People who need to project for, say night clubs or dance halls, might use heavier reeds, say 3 1/2 and up. In addition, if you migrate to a mouthpiece with an open facing, you might temporarily go to a softer reed than you were using before until you’re used to the new mouthpiece. Conversely, sax players stuck with a mouthpiece that is more closed than they’re used to might put a heavier reed on it than they usually play so they don’t overblow it so easily.
Reference Model: A Selmer professional saxophone that is - depending on how you look at it - a “tribute” or a “throwback” to the Selmer Mark VI, produced largely because Yanagasaw’s Mark VI clones were gaining a better reputation than the Selmer Series I, II, and III, Selmer’s top of the line horns which contained “improvements” over the Mark VI that not everybody liked. If you are tempted to pay some obscene amount for a vintage Mark VI of unknown history and condition, look at the Reference model or Yanagasaw’s Mark VI clones first - you may be pleasantly surprised at how much better a new model built to Mark VI specs plays than a real Mark VI that has been to hell and back.
Registration: Tweaking that a technician does, including making certain that each pad is closing at the right angle to the tone hole and that keys which close multiple pads, close them all at exactly the same time. A properly registered horn will be less prone to squeaks and easier on the fingers. Most student horns are either not registered at all before they’re shipped or knocked out of registration by the time they get to the store, which is one reason some well-engineered student horns have gotten worse reputations than they might deserve.
Relaquering: Attempting to restore the finish of a horn that was originally lacquered. This may be attempted with a desirable horn that looks really bad. However it almost always affects the tone of the horn, and almost never matches the original color, so many purists would rather leave the lacquer looking bad or have it removed entirely and commit to polishing the thing frequently to reduce corrosion. Sometimes this term is used to describe lacquering a horn that was originally silverplated. One sign that a horn was relacquered is that engravings lose their distinctive edge. In “worst cases,” details of the engraving disappears - I’ve even seen serial number that were half missing. That said, if a relacquered horn sounds and looks good to you, don’t let the lacquer be the factor that keeps you from purchasing the thing.
Repadding: A horn is disassembled and cleaned and all new pads are installed. Reputable repadders will use high-quality resonator pads, clean the horn, and replace any springs, corks, or bumpers that need to be replaced. In the late 1930s and 1940s, it was common for saxophones to be relacquered at the same time, which is why you occasionally see a 1920s classic that was originally silver-plated sporting a nice shiny coat of new-looking lacquer.
Replating: Attempting to restore the finish (usually silver) of a vintage horn. This process might be used on a desirable collector’s item to restore its appearance. Because it doesn’t improve the tone, an owner gigging with a horn that was originally plated, probably won’t bother.
Resonator: Metal or plastic disks attached to the pad to reflect sound back into the horn.
Rod: Long metal cylinders that transfer key motion from one part of the horn to another.
Screws: Obviously, there a lot of different kinds of screws on a saxophone. Some go into the ends of rods and are very long. Set Screws are used on some saxophones to make fine adjustments such as forcing down the adjacent pad when you play the G key. Some Conns have used Set Screws that helped keep the rod screws in place.
Selmer: A woodwind manufacturing company that was headquartered in Paris for most of its lifespan. For many decades, Selmer focused on building and improving its top-line horns in Paris. These “Selmer Paris” horns included the Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action, Mark VI, Mark VII, and several subsequent issues that were less well received, including a “Reference” model that restores several features of the Mark VI. Before 1963, Selmer did not make any saxophones in the U.S., instead contracting with companies like Buescher to produce “Selmer New York” “stencils.” In Europe, Selmer contracted with companies like Keilwerth to make their second-tier “Selmer Major” saxophones (which are nice, but rare horns). In 1963, Selmer bought out Buescher and the Buescher factory began turning out Bundy and Signet saxes (reissued versions of the Buescher Elkhart and Aristocrat, respectively). In the mid-1970s, competition from Yamaha forced Selmer to redesign the Bundy and eventually drop the Signet line. US production of student Selmer horns eventually stopped, and Selmer US assets wound up changing hands. Nowadays “Conn-Selmer” imports student-line Selmer-branded saxophones from Asia. Selmer Paris, operating as a distinct unit, continues to make professional Eb Sopranino, Bb Soprano, Eb Alto and Bb Tenor horns.
Signet: A Buescher-engineered US-made woodwind line that Selmer introduced after buying out Buescher in 1963. The Signet line was positioned as “intermediate,” between the Bundy and the French made Mark VIs and Mark VIIs. Considering that the Signet was essentially a “Big B” Arisocrat without the B, that seemed like a reasonable approach. Later, when the Bundy was reengineered, Selmer produced an upgraded Bundy II that they labeled “Signet.” However the horn wasn’t that much better than the Bundy II. By that time, student horns had improved to the point where “intermediate” horns were in less demand, and the Signet line was discontinued.
Shank - the part of the mouthpiece that screws onto the cork. On a baritone or bass sax, the term may refer to part of the metal neck that connects the mouthpiece to the horn.
Shooting Star - A series of Conn student horns largely based on Pan American engineering. Though the official name for most of this series was “Director,” the horns received the nickname “Shooting Star” because of the engraving. The earliest “Shooting Stars” could be considered lacquered Pan Americans (a cheaper line Conn offered to dealers who couldn’t offer Conn-brand horns in “protected” territories). As such, they’re playable examples of a classic - if not professional - vintage horn design. The factory was moved to Mexico in 1971, however, and the horn’s reputation went downhill fast. A lot of these were made, and some are still playable, even good horns. But if you’re considering a Shooting Star, expect it to be priced as a second-tier instrument, avoid anything stamped “Made in Mexico,” and get your hands on it before you lay out more money than you can afford to throw away.
Silverplate - a very thin layer of silver that was applied to early saxophones to help keep the brass from corroding. Unfortunately, a silverplated horn needs to be touched up with silver polish occasionally to remove tarnish. By the mid 1930s, lacquer had replaced silverplate on most saxophones. If it is not scratched, lacquer is lower maintenance. However, if a lacquered horn is scratched up, it will corrode much more quickly than a silverplated horn in similar conditon, which is one reason why there are more restorable vintage silverplate horns than restorable vintage lacquered horns today, even though the silverplated horns are older.
Snap-On Pads: Also called “Snap-In Pads,” a kind of pad usually found on vintage Buescher saxophones that have little snap posts inside the pad holder and matching snap inserts on the back of each pad. You don’t glue these pads in, which allows them to self-adjust. This also made repadding a little easier. However, snap-n pads are more expensive than the $30 imported pad sets that some repair people like to use, so many horns that were manufactured this way nevertheless have had the snap pieces removed.
Spatula Keys: The right and left hand pinky keys, so called because you press a relatively broad flat area.
Springs: Little steel rods or pins that hold the pads in their default position when you’re not playing the key.
Stencil: A saxophone made by one company, but labeled for another. You encounter these most often in vintage horns before 1930. Most stencils are of less interest to collectors than the “name brand” equivalent, but many of them have the same, or nearly the same features and quality, so they may represent a good value for players seeking out a particular vintage horn. See our article on stencil saxophones for more information.
Student Saxophone: Technically, an Eb Alto or Bb tenor saxophone good enough for a student to learn on and well-built enough to last through several years of normal use, including four years of marching band, without needing major work. This rules out Eb Baritones (too large and expensive) and Sopranos (impossible for beginners unless you drop $2500 or more on the sax.) It also rules out the vast majority of so-called student horns coming out of China today.
If you’re looking for a saxophone for a student, check out our articles on Evaluating Used Saxophones and Vintage Student Saxes for more information.
Super 20: King’s best saxophone, a professional instrument that was the contemporary and (many would say) equivalent quality as the Buescher400, and Selmer Balanced Action, and Conn Connstellation. Like its contemporaries, the Super 20 had many improvements over its predecessors, but most of those were “lost” to posterity when the Selmer Balanced Action’s ergonomics became standard. (For a detailed review of a late Super 20, click here).
Super Balanced Action: A line of Selmer saxophones made in the 1940s and 1950s that added improvements to their Balanced Action line. To many collectors, the SBA is equivalent to the Mark VI in quality.
Table - the flat area that the base of the reed lays against. Sometimes used to refer to that whole side of the mouthpiece, including the rails. A warped table ruins a mouthpiece.
Tip - the end of the mouthpiece where the reed comes the farthest from the rail.
Throat - the transition between the chamber and the bore. Sometimes used to refer to the whole bore.
Tone Holes: Holes in the saxophone’s body that can be opened or closed with pads. Different manufacturers have made these different ways:
- Soldered tone holes: A hole was cut in the horn’s body, and a short tube with the appropriate curve cut into one end was soldered to the body. This was especially common in very early saxophones. Many saxophones that have drawn tone holes, still have one or two soldered tone holes near the top.
- Drawn tone holes: The material for the “tube” is actually part of the body that has been pulled into shape, using heat, pressure, and special tubes. This was traditionally more labor-intensive than soldering, so was sometimes considered a sign of a better horn.
- Rolled tone holes: On most vintage Conns, the tone holes were not only drawn, they wrapped back around to create a sort of smooth lip for pads to hit. This was very labor-intensive, and helped keep several Conn models on the “professional” list even after they were superseded by models with other features.
- Beveled tone holes: Martin and Couturier used soldered tone holes, but beveled the edges so that they would seal more precisely against the pad. This made the horns heavier than Conns, but purportedly gave them a richer tone that some players liked.
Transitional Saxophone: Between 1922 and 1925, Conn began following up their c1916 “New Wonder” horns with a series of altos and tenors called the New Wonder II, which include several improvements. But they kept experimenting, changing the size and shape of keys, the location of the lowest pads, and other changes that are more difficult to see. At the end of this period, the “naked lady” 6M (alto, c1931) and 10M (tenor, c1934) series appeared, but most of those horns’ features were tested out first on what Conn collectors call “transitionals.” It’s possible to find “transitionals” that are almost exactly New Wonder IIs, and transitionals that are almost identical to 6Ms. All are good horns, but not all are the same, so if you’re shopping for certain features (like the “naked lady”-style left pinky keys) you’ll have to pay attention. Incidentally, some people call all Conn transitional altos and tenors “Chu Berry” but that’s a misnomer in 999 out of a thousand cases.
Trill Keys: Keys that you don’t ordinarily play, but can use when you need to go back and forth quickly between fingerings that are awkward to switch. Most saxophones, for example have an F# trill key between the right hand pearl and palm keys. Sometimes first-tier saxes included extra trill keys that.
True Tone: The Buescher line that was developed in the early 1900s, about the same time as the Conn New Wonder (1). Most True Tones had a distinctive triangular logo under the thumb rest, a distinctive bow guard, and the “man-in-the-moon” neck brace. During the peak popularity of saxophones, Buescher made many thousands of True Tone “stencils” under other brand names, always missing the True Tone logo, and usually missing the distinctive neck brace and bow guard. True Tone engineering influenced the later Buescher Aristocrat, as well as the 400 and the first-generation Selmer Bundy and Signet horns. However Buescher also kept some of the original True Tone machining active until 1963, making horns like their student-line “stencil” Elkhart.
Tuning: This word has no meaning in the context of saxophones. Just kidding. Technically it means that when you play a note on the saxophone, the reed will vibrate at the same frequency as the corresponding note on some other instrument (like a piano) or a digital tuner. Because Bb tenor is in a different key than piano, a C on the piano will correspond to a Bb on the saxophone. Most middle school and high school band directors are satisfied to get the horn tuned to one note. But saxophone players can play any note - even on a tuned horn with good intonation - in or out of tune by applying more or less pressure on the reed (“lipping up” or “lipping down). For that reason every saxophone player eventually needs to develop a good sense of pitch and the ability to adjust “on the fly” to each note he or she plays, just like a trombone or violin player. A horn with good intonation will require less adjustment than a horn with bad intonation. But a good sax player can play even a pretty dismal horn “in tune” and a poor sax play can play a $6000 horn out of tune. For more information, see our article on Saxophone Tuning and Intonation.
Typewriter: An early Martin Handcraft low-pitch saxophone that had round pearls for all of the left-hand pinky keys. Click here for a photo. The experiment was short-lived.
Vito: The woodwind brand of the LeBlanc musicial instrument company. To my knowledge, LeBlanc never made their own saxophones, but always contracted with other companies to make “stencils.” Vito saxes before 1967 are stencils of various European brands. Most of them are rare in North America, but if you have a chance to try one out, go for it. LeBlanc didn’t commission junk. In the 1960s, LeBlanc commissioned Yamaha to make the next generation Vito saxophones in Japan. The horns, issued in 1967, incorporated many improvements, including some that Selmer had applied to their professional horns (such as the Mark VI) but neglected to apply to their student horns. The Yamaha/Vito YAS-21 (alto) and YTS-21 (tenor) saxophones were so well received that all new saxophones engineered since include the same improvements. They also established Yamaha as a world-class band instrument manufacturer. Vito horns have experienced changes since, and manufacturing was moved to Taiwan later. (For all I know it may be in China now.) But, like I said, Vito doesn’t commission junk.
Wash: A chemical process that changes the color of the brass. Many silverplated horns have a “gold wash” in the bell. It’s not as thick as a plating, so be careful not to polish it too much - you’ll scrub it right off. A “bright wash” is a chemical process that helps protect brass that is unlacquered or unplated. So called because it affects the color of the horn, it slows corrosion a bit - some folks who want to avoid relacquering or replating a desirable horn use this as substitute.
Window: The part of the mouthpiece that is open and allows air to enter. It is surrounded by rails on three sides and the table on the fourth.
Yamaha: A Japanese motorcycle company that got into the musical instrument business. In the late 1960s, Yamaha started making “student-line” saxophones that included both Yamaha-unique upgrades and ergonomic features previously seen only on Selmer Paris’ “pro-line” horns (with a few Keilwerth exceptions). The jump in quality caused a worldwide reset in saxophone designs, and nearly ever saxophone designed since has included similar Selmer Paris features. The first-generation YAS-21 and YTS-21 altos and tenors (and their Vito counterparts) were easily identified by a single guard that wrapped from the low C key all the way to the low Bb key. (For a long review of the YAS-21, click here.) Yamaha’s later YAS-23 and YTS-23 went to Selmer Paris-style separate guards. Yamaha has made upgrade horns as well. However used equipment vendors like to call Yamaha’s student-line horns “intermediate” because they’re so much better made than most Asian “student” saxophones being made today.
Yanagasawa: A Japanese company that makes saxophones largely by hand, the way they used to be made in Elkhart and still are made in Paris. Conn-Selmer promotes “Yani’s” “pro” horns with the implication that the Selmer Paris (Series II, Series III, and Reference) are even more “pro.”
Zephyr: A 1935 professional upgrade line of King horns, displaced as King’s “pro” horn when the Super 20 came out in 1945, but continued until 1975. Along with the Buescher Aristocrat, which was also continued after its much more expensive replacement came out, the later Zephyrs began to be promoted as “intermediate” horns.
Saxophone.org’s Saxophone Buyer’s Guide page has some good tips, especially if you’re looking for a pro or classic horn.
Other articles you may find helpful include:
Another resource, the Horns in My Life articles describe various saxophones (and one flute) with which I’ve made a personal connection over the last 45 years. Some folks who’ve had similar horns will find it a helpful resource. Others will just like to reminisce along with me. On the other hand, if you come across one of these horns while you’re shopping for a saxophone and want to know more about it, you may find one or more of the articles helpful.
The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.
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