Shopping for Soprano Saxophones
by Paul D. Race
This is a supplement to our articles on Evaluating Used Saxophones, Evaluating Vintage Saxophones, and Shopping for Saxophones, focusing on the issues that make shopping for Soprano saxophone different from shopping for other kinds of saxes.
First of all we need to define our terms.
- Soprano saxophones are pitched at least a half octave above Alto saxophones. Most of them are pitched in Bb, the same key as a soprano clarinet, one octave above tenor saxophone. Most Bb soprano saxophones are straight, like clarinets, although a few were curved like tiny alto saxes.
- Before 1930, a few “C sopranos” were made. These are pitched a step higher than Bb soprano. Like flute, the note they play is the same note as on the piano score. This made them and their big brothers, the C Melody saxes, useful in homes that had a piano or pump organ. Almost all C sopranos are straight. Although they are only a step higher than Bb sopranos, the narrow bore makes them sound reedier, a little like an oboe. They are harder to play than Bb sopranos, and much rarer. Relatively few were made before 1930, and almost none have been made since 1930.
- Even smaller are the “Sopranino” saxes. Most of them are pitched in Eb, an octave higher than alto sax. A few were pitched in F, although those are extremely rare. Sopraninos are harder to play than C or Bb sopranos. They tend to have very specific concert or symphonic uses. For example there’s a long Sopranino sax solo in Ravel’s Bolero. But so few people own Sopraninos now, that part is usually taken by a Bb soprano sax.
All of the text below refers to Bb Sopranos. The bits about vintage and cheap Chines horns also refer to C sopranos, although, again, they’re much rarer in both circumstances.
What is Special About Shopping for Soprano Saxophones?
A century ago, pulpit-thumpers used to complain that the saxophone was the “devil’s instrument.” When it comes to the soprano saxophone, they were right.
Why is that? Soprano saxophones are harder to play, they’re much harder to play well, and it’s much harder to find one that even can play well.
In other words, if this is going to be your first saxophone, buy something else. Also, if you’re not comfortable with having to practice for many hours before you sound good on the thing, buy something else.
- Soprano saxophones take much more air pressure to play smoothly than larger saxes - it’s something most people have to work up to. Even after many hours of practice, playing my C soprano can be an “aerobic” exercise, something is seldom true on my larger saxes. That said, if you’re used to oboe or Eb sopranino clarinet, you’re probably in good shape to move to soprano sax.
- Soprano saxophones take more control to play in tune - all saxes require the player to make constant tiny adjustments (called “lipping up” and “lipping down”) to bring each note into tune. Because of the high pressure and small reed, it’s harder to make those adjustments as precisely on a soprano as on larger saxes.
- Soprano saxophones are harder to build well - Intonation refers to the ability of an instrument to play every note in tune, once it’s been tuned to some external source such as a piano or digital tuner. No saxophone has perfect intonation, but saxes that have “poor intonation” require herculean measures to play “in tune.” Unfortunately, it’s much harder to build decent intonation into a smaller saxophone than a bigger one.
That’s why the historical saxophone manufacturers (like Buescher, Conn, Selmer, Martin, King, and even Yamaha) never built a “student” soprano. The common wisdom was that any soprano that could be made cheaply enough to be marketed as a “student” sax would not be worth getting out of the case. They were right. To a large extent, they’re still right.
Kenny G Creates a Market for Soprano Wannabees
After Kenny G (who started on Alto) brought sopranos to national attention, a number of manufacturers - especially in Italy - saw an opportunity that the historical saxophone manufacturers had no intention of filling - providing $500-1000 lampstands, er, “student” soprano saxes to Kenny G wannabees.
As a longtime tenor player I wanted to try one. But I had too many friends who bought these with the best of intentions and never made the adjustment. Was it the horn, or lack of the determination it takes to learn to play the soprano well? In most cases, I’d say both - an instrument that a very experienced player could have played fell into the hands of an “enthusiast” who soon lost his or her enthusiasm when they realized just how hard the thing would be to play, much less to play well.
Still, the market kept growing at the lower end. By the mid-1980s, it was possible to order a $300 Taiwanese soprano saxophone from Sears Roebuck. (I almost bought one at the time, but cash was tight. I did buy an ancient C soprano “wall-hanger” from a friend’s music store and pay him to repad it. Ironically, I came across a 1970s Sears soprano about 2012 and have it in my arsenal now. )
A certain amount of the post-1970 lampstands fell into the hands of folks who knew what were doing and were willing to invest in better mouthpieces, a serious “going-over” by a qualified repair person, and many hours of practice. But most of them were purchased by people who thought learning them looked like “fun,” and the lampstands soon found their way to closets, attics, basements, garage sales, pawn shops, and landfills.
New Manufacturers Get Into the Market
By the early 2000s, a number of saxophone manufacturers emerged that had never owned factories outside of Taiwan or China. Lacking the history of the historical North American and European manufacturers, they rushed in where “wise men feared to tread,” bringing out a bunch of new “student” and “intermediate” soprano saxes.
Most of these saxes were made with the same quality of materials and labor as the altos and tenors that, frankly, were meeting the needs of thousands of school students. The only problem is that a soprano has to be made better than an equivalent alto to play as well.
Where are We Now?
As a result of these waves of imports, most of which produced only a few sopranos that were playable out of the box, soprano saxophone shoppers now face the following choices:
- Shop for a new or used professional saxophone. If you see a new “professional saxophone” for under $1000, trust me it’s a lampstand. If you see a Selmer or Yanagisawa soprano that OTHER people are calling professional, you’re in pretty good shape. Of course this might require a second mortgage on your house. But this way, once you’ve had your repair person look it over and tweak it, if you are still having trouble getting music out of it, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing it’s you and not the saxophone.
- Find a vintage soprano that has all the pieces and pay to restore it. Most vintage sopranos are first-generation Low Pitch horns, such as Martin Handcraft, Conn New Wonder, and Buescher True-Tone. They are ergonomically awkward compared to modern sopranos, and they often lack features like a high F key that we take for granted today. But if you can scrounge a vintage soprano for a couple hundred and get it cleaned up and restored to playable condition for a few hundred more, you’ll have a horn that will outplay and outlast most modern under-$1500 (MSRP) lampstands. See our article on Evaluating Vintage Saxophones for more information on the challenges you’ll face if you go this route.
- Navigate the “used import” market. For this, you pretty much need to get your hands on the horn to know if it’s worth playing, much less worth paying for. If you’re not a very experienced player, take a friend along who is. One of the problems with the used import market is that the quality of even “reputable” lines has been a roller coaster, due to a series of factory moves in search of cheaper labor.
Notice that I didn’t list “buy a new student or intermediate” soprano. Like a new car, a new “name-brand” saxophone loses 40% or more of its value when it gets into private hands. (Sax brands that are mostly sold through mail order lose up to 60% of their value when they leave the loading dock.)
Used Imports May Surprise You - Also notice that I didn’t say “avoid student or intermediate sopranos altogether.” One upside of poor quality control is that sometimes good ones get through. Plus the roller coaster of sax quality during a series of moves has its peaks as well as its dips. You just have to get your hand on the horn to know if it was one of the good ones or one of the bad ones.
Used Imports Are Usually in Pretty Good Shape - Unlike used altos and tenors - many of which were playable enough to sustain years of abuse by band students - most used sopranos show relatively little wear. They were purchased on a whim, or sometimes even as a gift, tried out a few times, then locked away until the owner needed money. In some cases, the horn really was unplayable. In other cases, the horn had potential, but the owner lacked the determination to adjust to or learn to play it. The only way to know which is which is to get your hands on the horn.
How Do You Know if it’s You or the Horn?
This is the big question facing would-be soprano saxophone players today. Some folks complain that I make too much of this, that any experience sax player can make the adjustment in a couple weeks’ hard work. That may be true for the $4000 horns. But I know folks who’ve worked hard on playable mid-range sopranos for months and never quite “got it.”
Buying a cheap one to see if you’ll “get the hang of it” won’t help either, any more than buying your kid a $35 “cheese-slicer” guitar will tell you whether or not he’d ever learn on a real instrument.
If you can borrow or rent a soprano that you know is playable, so you can get used to the feel before you go shopping, that would be great. Of if a soprano-playing friend can come along when you’re looking at used horns to make certain you’re looking at playable specimens, that would be at least help.
If none of the above fit your circumstances, and you have no way of “trying out” soprano saxophone without buying one, consider starting out by buying a professional soprano mouthpiece (I recommend Selmer C*). That way as you go from one horn to the next, at least you’re comparing apples to apples - many folks get discouraged from playable horns because of the cheap mouthpiece most of them are packaged with. No, I’m not necessarily saying to go to the music store and pay $200 for a mouthpiece on spec. But I’ve been lucky to get two Selmer C* soprano mouthpieces for about $70 apiece on eBay. If you wind up getting a saxophone that has a mouthpiece you like better, you can always put the C* back on the market later.
Buy new reeds, too. Consider getting at least a few that are a half-point lighter than what you’re playing on alto. If you’re totally new to saxophone, start with #2 reeds. For most experienced reed players, 2.5 is a good starting point. Just buy a few to start out, though; you may decide you need heavier reeds once you’ve made the adjustment.
What about Prices?
Everything else on our evaluating and shopping pages comes into play during the search. I’d especially recommend watching the used market a while, and making a note of what possible candidates actually sell for, not what folks are asking. (Always check the “used” box during your search so you’re not distracted by $300 lampstands.)
That said, the used market has price cycles - sometimes it seems that all the horns you think are worth checking out are over $800, then a month later you might see the same horns for $400. Patience is a virtue.
When you’re shopping, be sure to look at shipping costs - some folks want $50 to ship a soprano across the county - others will ship for free. And mentally add $100-150 to the cost of each horn to compensate for the fact that you’ll be taking it to your repair person for tweaking as soon as it’s in your possession. If it needs a repad, add $400. The repad may not cost that much, but it may uncover other issues.
What About Brands?
Brand-wise, I won’t be much help - I’ve seen both great and unplayable examples of some models, depending on where in the “factory-movement” cycle the horn was built. So if I say “Consider such-and-such,” I could be steering you toward the wrong horn. It should be a real brand, though, the newer the better. Google the brand name if you’re not sure. If you learn that a new horn of that brand costs $900 or less, $100 might be too much to spend on the thing. And don’t be fooled by glowing reviews of their altos and tenors and assume they apply to their sopranos. They don’t. Again, a soprano has to be built better than the equivalent alto to play as well.
When You Get It
I know you’ll want to try it out. Wipe it off first, just to make certain it’s not covered with germs or greasy fingerprints.
Clean the mouthpiece with warm soapy water (not scalding - that will damage hard rubber mouthpieces), moisten a new reed, and try the thing out. If you can get notes out of it at all. that’s a good start. If you can get from low C to high C and it seems reasonably in pitch across the range, better. If you have no trouble getting from low Bb to high F, great!
If the horn won’t play a scale or you can’t get to the lowest notes, look for places where springs are popped out of place or missing altogether. Also look for pads that are brittle. Those are things your repair person can handle easily.
You’re going to take it to your repair person anyway. If you can’t get music out of the thing period, or if the intonation is so bad that you can’t play it remotely in tune, see if you can get five minutes of your repair person’s time very soon. If it turns out that the thing really is unplayable (and the seller misrepresented it), you need to know now rather than later.
When You Get It Back from the Shop
Finally, you have a horn that you have a reasonable expectation of playing eventually. Don’t kill yourself trying to get all the notes all the time, or jumping into four-hour gigs. Do what you can with it for a few minutes every day, building up your ability to maintain the kind of pressure you have to produce. Eventually you’ll be able to hit the extreme notes without extreme effort. Better yet, you’ll be able to play the notes in the middle more expressively every day.
If, after several weeks, you’re still “not getting it,” take it back to your repair person - perhaps he or she could still tweak something. This time make sure you take your mouthpiece and maybe try a new soprano in the store - if you still suck, it might be you, not your horn.
On the other hand, if you’ve gotten to the point where you can make real music on the thing consistently, and you want to try out better sopranos to see if they’ll make a difference that corresponds with the uptick in cost, at least you’ll have a basis for comparision - something you didn’t have when you started out.
I hope I haven’t scared you off of soprano saxophone altogether. But I do hope I’ve steered you around the most common mistake, namely, starting out on a horn you have reason to lack confidence in and never being quite sure whether you’re struggling because of the horn or because you still haven’t built up your “chops” on the thing yet.
As I reported in our article on brand bigots, I like to hang onto an instrument until I’ve learned every thing I can with it. And based on the limited amount of time I have to practice or play either of my sopranos, I have hardly started to “outgrow” them yet. You may be inclined to try something at the higher end. But hopefully you’ll make better choices than most of the “lampstand” buyers I’ve come across.
Other articles you may find helpful include:
Saxophone.org’s Saxophone Buyer’s Guide page has some good tips, especially if you’re looking for a pro or classic horn.
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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