School of The Rock


Horns in my Life:

80s Lafayette Bb Soprano

by Paul D. Race

This is my second soprano, and it cost me even less than the first one.  If you’ve read up on my experience with the vintage Martin C soprano, you’ll know that my first soprano was a former basket case that has taken a lot of work and practice to be useful for me. And it still takes a lot of effort to play in tune.

I seldom play professionally these days.  In fact I may go months on end without ever taking a horn outside of the house.  So when I say that years went by while I wondered if I’d have more luck with a better soprano than my Martin C, it’s not something I worried about every day, or even every year. 

Still, I started playing tenor at church a couple years ago, and that got me wondering if I would benefit from having a more playable soprano, probably a Bb.  If nothing else, it would have a wider bore and be closer to my altos than the Martin C.  Again, this interest was essentially academic, as I already have more instruments than my gigging patterns really justify.

Then the planets aligned, so to speak.  In the fall of 2012, Shelia and I were lafayette_600hat a huge annual flea market (the “Extravaganza”) in the Clark County, Ohio fairgrounds, when I saw an unusual instrument case in one of the vendors’ booths.  With the vendor’s permission, I opened it, to reveal an off-brand straight Bb soprano with unusual wear patterns and several missing pearls.  Most of the pads seemed sound, though, and there was little sign that it had been played much at all.

The mouthpiece was an injection-molded cheapy that had obviously come with the horn.

Most unusual, every surface where a careless kid would hold the thing to carry it had been corroded by sweaty hands.  So, despite the vendor’s claim that his daughter had bought it to play jazz, the horn had been marched around extensively, but not played much at all. Ordinarily that would be a “red flag,” since marching band is brutal on saxophones of all sizes.  But the horn showed no other signs of abuse, or even of  much use.  

Lafayette was Sears’ brand name for any wind instrument that passed through their stores and catalog, no matter what factory it was made in. (Just as the name Silvertone used to go on guitars made by Harmony and a dozen other manufacturers.)  In the 1980s, the last time I checked, Sears had been selling Lafayette sopranos for $299, so that gave me a maximum price point of the thing.  In 2011, with the unusual wear and vague provenance, it might be worth, say, $150 (though not to me). 

He was asking $100 and I talked him down to $80.

This was my second soprano, so I had some idea what to expect, especially with the $5 mouthpiece.  The horn felt a little more “open” than my C soprano, and it could be coaxed into something like a sax tone, but the intonation was off and a couple pads needed reset.  I took it to Loren, the woodwind repairman at Kinkaids Music in Springfield. He tweaked it enough to produce tones all the way up and down, but playing in tune still required herculean “lipping” both up and down. Incidentally, Loren included a note that said that the instrument was such low quality that he couldn’t guarantee his work.  (He said it nicer than that, of course.)

Still, when I got it back, the thing showed promise in certain ranges.

I found a Selmer C* (pronounced “C star”) mouthpiece for it at a good price, and was rewarded with easier playing, better tone, and better intonation.  No, it doesn’t play like a professional horn, but it does play, and I can make it sound consistently like people expect a soprano saxophone to sound (something I’ll never do on my C soprano).

The C* mouthpiece was hard to get on and off over the cork - in fact I tore the cork up with it.  So I had Loren recork it for me and do a bit of other work. He didn’t say anything else negative about the quality of the horn this time - maybe he realized that with the C* it was actually a musical instrument.

Since the last update, the horn is playable and sounds good enough that I can play it publicly without humiliating myself.   However, I don’t have that many opportunities to play soprano, so I won’t brag on it too much until I’ve used it in more settings.

More about Lafayette Saxophones

Don’t rush right out and buy one.  Lafayette is to saxophones what Silvertone is to guitars - Sears’ name for musical instruments that they sold through the catalog, no matter where they were made.  By the late 1990s, “Lafayette” horns were all being made in China, and let’s just say that quality control wasn’t exactly a priority. 

Looking around the internet, especially the sax forums, which tend to be run by professional repairmen, most of the critiques sound something like Monty Python’s “Run away! Run away!”  But each responder is describing a different instrument.  Some are one-piece.  Many are two-piece with a straight and curved neck you can choose between.  Mine is a two-piece with a straight neck only (I know the curved neck hasn’t been lost because I’ve come across exactly the same model in other folks’ possession, and it’s always had just one, straight neck.)

In addition, mine has a sort of 1970-ish key design. Though the country of origin isn’t marked on mine, I’m going to guess Japan, based on the age and quality of work. Many of the Lafayette sopranos that critics have been slamming on the internet have a more modern key design that seems characteristic of the cheapest Chinese knockoffs. 

By the way, the serial numbers on Lafayettes are useless for determining age or source - every factory that was requisitioned to make these started somewhere different.    

Some folks would say I was lucky to get a playable instance of a much-vilified horn for a no-brainer price.  Agreed, the price was a no-brainer, but I knew enough about saxophones to recognize that the thing had barely been played and was structurally sound.  If it had needed a repad, for example, I would not have offered $80.  I would have had another $150-200 into it, and it would have been no bargain at all. 

In other words, unless you’ve been playing saxophone for forty years, if you are looking at ANY used soprano, be sure you have a technician look at it for you, or that you have return privileges.  

Bb Sopranos VS C Sopranos

I have a long version of this in my article about my Martin C soprano, but it’s targeted to folks who are looking specifically at Cs.  If you don’t actually need a C, say because you are good at transposition or improvisation, or because the folks you play for always have music in your key, you’ll find a lot more to choose from in the Bb world.

We can probably thank Kenny G for that, and for the flood of $300-1200 import Bb sopranos horns that started arriving here in the mid-1980s.  Sure that’s a mixed blessing - many of those horns were so flimsy that they have literally bent out of playable shape since then.  But the last time C sopranos were popular was nearly a century ago, and you don’t want to know what most of those survivors look like.

If you are coming over from clarinet, you might be equally comfortable on a C, since its narrow bore is more like you’re used to.  But if you are already a sax player, the Bb will sound and feel more like a sax than most Cs, especially if you have a good horn and a good mouthpiece. 


I haven’t played this much out of the house, because there aren’t many opportunities.  However I plan to keep it in my “stable,” at least until I get good enough on it to be able to tell whether an upgrade would really do me any good. 

In the meantime, if you come across a playable soprano for a price you think is fair, and you appreciate it for what it is, have fun!

Enjoy your music!

Paul Race

Here are write-ups on other horns I’ve loved.

The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.

Other Articles you may find helpful include:

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