School of The Rock


Shopping for Saxophones

by Paul D. Race

When I started this site, I wasn’t even thinking about saxophones.  But a few recent experiences have got me thinking about the horns I’ve owned, and that’s led to reader questions about horns they should consider buying for their own use or for their kids’.

The short version is that if your kid is wanting to play in school band or if you want to play in a community band or orchestra, you should buy an Eb Alto or a Bb Tenor. I’m a Bb Tenor player who learned a great deal about music because of the kinds of parts that Tenor players usually get.  But Bb Tenor is a pretty big horn for a little kid starting out.  And Eb Alto has a few advantages.  One of them is that it is the “main” instrument in the saxophone series, the way Bb “soprano” clarinet is the main instrument of the clarinet series.  which means that if your student decide to go on and study music, say, he or she will probably have to become proficient on an Eb Alto sooner or later.   All the fingerings are the same, so it’s a question of adapting, not learning, but it’s a consideration for some people.

If you are considering a tenor for your child, go to a music store and hang a tenor saxophone on your kid in playing position. If it looks like the thing is in danger of eating your child whole, opt for the Eb Alto. 

The other saxophones don’t enter into this picture at all.  Our article Which Saxophone is Better goes into details about why this is so.  It also explains what the other kinds of saxophones are good for.  They’re good for quite a lot, just not for beginning students.

Whether to buy used or new is another question, one that depends on whether you have access to a good sax player who can help advise you and a good sax repair person who can make a used horn playable.

Vintage Saxophones for Beginners?

Your kid will probably want a brand new shiny horn that looks like everyone else’s horns.  What if you have access to a vintage horn that is playable or can be made playable without a huge investment?  You should know that - aside from key placements that make modern horns easier for little fingers to play, most name-brand saxophones made between 1914 and 1975 are more durable than most of the horns being made in China today (even by “name brand” companies).

That said, you have no business choosing and restoring a pre-1975 sax for your kid unless you have a sax-playing friend who can help you pick out a good one.  And access to a repair person you can trust to get “down and dirty” with the horn. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, you might wind up with a $200 “project horn” that will take $600 worth of work to turn into a $400 horn.

Our article on Evaluating Vintage Saxophones has more hints about pre-1975 saxophones.

Used “Modern” (Post-1975) Saxophones

In the mid-1970s, Japanese manufacturer triggered a revolution in student saxophones by applying several “pro” features to their new line, many of which came into this country as “Vito” saxes.  By about 1980, everyone had followed suit to stay competitive.  Since then, most redesigns of student horns have been fairly minor, which is the only major difference between student name-brand horns from 1980 and 2014 is usually the wear and tear.

If you’re looking for an Eb or Bb student horn, you’re “in luck.” Since 1980, millions of kids have started saxophone, played it until it was paid for, then gave up.  (Your kid won’t do that, of course!)  If the horn was stored properly, it will usually only take $50 to $100 to make playable again.  Of course you need a sax playing friend to help you make that decision, but it could save you thousands.  The downside is that there are a lot of vendors (especially on the internet) who will lie to you about the history of a horn to sell you something that could be a bad investment.  That’s why you need to read our article Evaluating Used Saxophones if you are considering this path.

Whatever you do, avoid the $300 “professional, instructor-approved” no-name saxophones presently flooding eBay and Amazon.  There are too many brand names to list them all, and new brand names appear every twenty minutes.  In fact, you can have your own brand name if you track down one of the factories and order more than ten horns at a time.  The big problem is that they use cheaper brass than real manufacturers do - less copper and more of what we used to call “pot metal.”  Some of these play okay out of the box but literally start falling apart within a few months.

Other Resources

Articles you may find helpful include:

Saxophone Discussion Forum

We recently started a discussion forum where readers ask me questions about saxophones - mostly about vintatge horns - and I post my answers.  In most cases, the readers have e-mailed me and I’ve copied their questions to the forum (with their names left out, of course)..  However, you are free to sign up and post your questions or correct me about something or give me your input.  

To see the questions and answers that have been posted so far, click here.

To sign up for the School Of the Rock discussion forums, including the Saxophone forum, click here.

My Own Experiences

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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