School of The Rock

 

Vintage Professional Saxophone Timeline

by Paul D. Race

This article is an attempt to help vintage saxophone shoppers compare apples to apples when presented with various vintage brands and models.  Many sellers present any old saxophone they’ve come across as a rare, highly desirable piece, worth thousands in any condition.  The truth is that, while there is a market for any vintage horn that can be restored to playability, not all vintage horns are created equal.

The Low Pitch Revolution (approximately 1914-1920)

If you’re read our other articles, you’ll remember that we tend to count the beginning of “vintage” saxophones from the early 1900s, when most of the major manufacturers shifted emphasis from manufacturing “high-pitched” horns to making “low-pitched horns” in the correct pitch for 20th- century American orchestras and bands.  During that shift, several other improvements were often included.  Patented updates such as those Conn and Buescher made in 1914 and Martin made in 1918 mark the beginning of the new age of saxophone development. 

Identification tips - Most of the first-generation low-pitch horns have two defining characteristics:

  • The words “Low Pitch” near the thumb rest, usually accompanied by a patent year from 1914 or later.
  • The low B and Bb pads are on opposite sides of the bell.

An Era of Continuous Incremental Improvement (approximately 1920-1931)

For the next fifteen years, the saxophone market exploded, leading to constant tweaking as each manufacturer tried to demonstrate some advantage over the other.  Some manufacturers, like Buescher, “snuck in” their upgrades without fanfare - so later models have improvements over the earlier ones.  Other manufacturers, like Martin, renamed their line of saxophones every time they tweaked  things.

Identification Tips: During this time, the low B and Bb pads started sitting next to each other on the left side of the bell (from the player’s point of view).  Some brands made this migration slower than the others, but by WWII, all US brands and most Euro brands had made it (Selmer Balanced Action being the exception, with the B and Bb pads migrating to the right side of the bell).

An Era of Transition (Approximately 1930-1941)

After the Great Depression started and the demand for saxophones fell off, there was still a battle to make the best professional saxophone.  For a time, incremental improvements  crept into the first- and second-generation low pitch horns.  Those experiments culminated in a period (1932-1935) during which every major manufacturer introduced models that were significant upgrades, all of which are still in demand today (some more than others):

  • Buescher Aristocrat
  • Conn Artist 6M & 10M (“Naked Lady”)
  • Martin Handcraft Committee
  • King Zephyr
  • Selmer Balanced Action

Identification Tips:  With the exception of the Selmer Balanced Action, most of these horns have the low B and Bb pads on the left side of the bell (from the player’s perspective).  If someone advertises one of these models and those pads are both on the right side of the bell, they are post-1976 models and may not even be made in the US factory.

This Means War (Approximately 1941-1970)

Even World War II didn’t put an end to the ongoing battle for saxophone supremacy.  Though many manufacturers diverted resources to military contracts, their engineers were working overtime.  The years from 1945-1957 saw an explosion of new designs, arguably producing the best saxophones ever built in America and Europe (and some would say anywhere).

This explosion produced, among other lines, Selmer’s Mark VI, which was the culmination of Selmer’s two-decade drive to play the best-sounding, most playable saxophone ever.  It certainly sounded great and played easy, and won a lot of “converts” from the start. 

Today, Selmer fans like to claim that the Selmer Mark VI was the only pro horn worth buying from the moment of its introduction (1954) .  But it wasn’t.  In fact, between 1954 and 1963, you could buy four other US-built horns that were still giving Selmer “a run for the money”

  • Buescher 400
  • Martin’s Committee “The Martin”
  • Conn Connstellation
  • King Super 20

Identification tips:  The last three on this list were incremental improvements over their improved pre-war horns and still have the low B and Bb pads on the left side of the bell (from the player’s perspective).  The Buescher 400 has the pads on the inside” of the bell - directly across from the right hand.  Some people call this the top of the bell.  If someone advertises a 400 and those pads are on the left side of the horn, it’s an Aristocrat.  If they’re both on the right side of the horn, it’s an asian-made Selmer.

Except for the Buescher 400, which was discontinued when Selmer bought out Buescher in 1963, the other three lines continued until other market forces that had nothing to do with Selmer drove them out of the professional saxophone business.

The Selmer Mark VI, Mark VII, and subsequent horns continued to keep the low B and Bb pads on the right side of the bell. A few European manufacturers followed suit, but that was typically a European-only design until 1967, and few US manfacturers ever followed suit.

The Market Falters  (Approximately 1971-1975)

Yamaha upset the “cash cow” American student saxophone market in 1967 when they introduced a line of well-made student horns that incorporated many of Selmer’s “professional” features.  The Yamaha/Vito YAS-21s cut deeply into the bottom line of American manufacturers.  With their student lines losing market share, none of them had the bankroll required to keep “pushing the envelope” of their flagship models.  By about 1972, only one US manufacturer - King - was still making professional horns, and King began tapering off in 1975.

Worse yet - for Selmer - the next generation of Japanese horns, made by companies like Yanagasawa, were better copies of Selmer’s vaunted Mark VI than Selmer’s own Mark VII and Series I and II.  Many semi-professionals began looking to Japan for quality saxophones.

Ironically, Selmer redesigned their Bundy to imitate Yamaha’s imitation of the Mark VI, but the damage had been done.  The Bundy II only lasted a few years.  (Although I think it could have competed much better if Selmer hadn’t been so determined to “save money” on cheap mouthpieces.) 

Identification Tips -  Except for the Mark VI and a few European models, Pre-Yamaha YAS/YTS-21 horns still have the low B and Bb pads on the left side of the horn.  When those pads migrated to the right side of the horn, that usually represents a total break with the past for those lines. And, frankly, everything distinctive about the brands that made that migration was lost in the process. 

A Huge Break With the Past

The revolution in student horn engineering that Yamaha effected in 1967 not only forced Selmer to redesign the classic Buescher-designed Bundy student saxes.  It also forced anyone who wanted to stay in the saxophone business to follow Yamaha’s lead in imitating Selmer.  (Yes, I know that that’s complicated, but life is like that, and anyone who tells you differently is selling something.)

That’s one reason why many folks put the closing of the “vintage saxophone era” about 1975 (when King, the last independent U.S. saxophone manufacturer, was bought out). 

Sadly, this means that we’ll never see where Martin, Conn, Buescher, or King engineering would have gone next.  But within the saxophone community, there is still a lot of respect for the best, and second-best horn that each of those companies made.

Identification Tips - Since about 1980, all saxophones have borrowed from the Selmer Mark VI key configurations and almost all horns except for the Mark VII and a few other Mark VI followers in Europe have been made in Asia. 

Conn moved its manufacturing operations to the Mexican border, including a number of Mexican-made horns.  Selmer’s US operations and Conn’s eventually were bought by the same holding company, and all manufacturing moved to Asia.  White, makers of King, died a slow death, and you can occasionally find King-branded Asian horns that have no relationship to the great domed-keypad Kings of the past.    

In an interesting aside, a Conn Baritone owner recently added this note about his post-1980 Conn, which seems to be Keilwerth-manufactured:

    In the 1980s Keilwerth stencils were sold under the Conn name. My  baritone is a 122M DJH Modified low-A. It is identifiably a Keilwerth  (esp. by post design), but it has pearl keytouch with more "traditional" Conn dimensions/design.

    My horn is engraved with the iconic naked lady design and with the words "DJH Modified". Whether they were made in the US or in West Germany is  debated (the H. Kouf stencils were stamped as made in W. Germany for  Armstrong, but not the Conns).

Both Conn-Selmer and King seem to have disavowed all of the horns made in this era.  If you come across a Conn that is marked DJH modified, it is a Keilwerth horn, which is (or djh_modified_conn_108mapproaches, depending on who you talk to) a professional horn. 

The photo to the right shows the bell of the very elusive Conn 108M, a rare Keilwerth-built Conn with rolled tone rings.  This one would be considered a professional horn by just about anybody’s standards. 

Conns and Kings from this era keep turning up on eBay, usually from sellers who don’t know saxophones at all and price them all as high-demand vintage horns.  If you see DJH on the horn, consider that is a far better horn than the Mexican made horn..  

The only non-Keilwerth Conns from this era seemed to be in the Bundy II class, sturdy, capable of good music with the right mouthpiece, but not exactly pro.   That said, if you come across a non-Keilwerth Conn from this era in very good shape for a low price, and you like the feel and tone, go for it.  But don’t assume you’re getting a “real” Conn or King.  (If you have one of these and you want to provide more details about it please contact me - I’d like to know more - like who actually manufactured them for Conn and King.)

Conn/Selmer have reintroduced old Selmer and Buescher names recently.  They reintroduced the Bundy as an unremarkable Chinese horn, then apparently sold the trademark to a music instrument distribution company.  They have also horns named “Buescher Aristocrats,” also Asian-made horns of indeterminate value.  I wish they would reissue the actual Aristocrat or the 400; they would still compete with most horns made today, for sound at least.

Conn/Selmer’s migration to Asia was imitated by several European companies, owners of classic brand names.  If you see a Keilwerth with the low B and Bb pads on the right side of the bell, it may be a nice enough horn, but look for the place of manufacture.  It may have no relationship to the great classic Keilwerths of the past.

In addition,  a number of “American” companies that have never owned a saxophone factory in the US have started their own brand names.  A few, like Cannonball, have strict quality standards for their Asian-made horns, and inspectors in the US to make certain that schlock doesn’t get through.   Some claim to be “assembled in the USA,” but there’s reason to believe that this claim is limited to making sure the neck goes where it’s supposed to.  Your mileage will vary.  The point is, with the exception of Paris-made Selmers, when someone claims that they have a “vintage” horn, and the low B and Bb keys are on the right side of the bell, all they really have is an old Asian copy of Selmer’s Mark VI, no matter what brand name they throw at you.  Now some of those are great old horns, like my Yamaha/Vito YAS21.  But vintage in any meaningful sense?  I think not? 

Confused?

Musicians’ respect for the fine engineering of mid-century horns has caused a number of vendors to think we’ll spend any amount for any old thing, especially if they make exaggerated claims about it.  It is true that almost any sax listed on this page, restored to good playing condition will outplay and outlast any $2000 (MSRP) sax being made today.  But that doesn’t mean they’re all worth thousands of dollars.  Here’s our attempt to help you sort things out.

As you scroll down the list below, you’re generally going up in features, desirability, ergonomics, tone, and - unfortunately - price.  But the chart should demonstrate that, say, a King Zephyr is roughly in the same league as a Buescher Aristocrat, a King Super 20 is roughly in the same league as a Buescher 400, and so on.  Within each era, of course, there is a lot of room for personal preference - you might prefer the Martin’s tone, or the sexy G# key cluster arrangement of the Conn or whatever.  But when you get to that point, you’re largely down to a Ford/Chevy/Dodge discussion between products of approximately equal quality.

Note: Much of the information on this illustration, especially dates and model names, came from the Saxpics.com site.   For your convenience, we provide a number of links to specific pages on that site in the discussion of specific models below.

vintage_sax_table_600

To download an 8.5”x11” PDF of the above chart, right-click on the chart and select “Save target as” or your browser’s equivalent phrase.

In most cases the last few horns listed in each column are the most desirable for that line.

My chart doesn’t go past 1998 (when the last recorded King Super 20 was manufactured), because the market had long since changed from one of continuous and clever innovation to one of nearly-invisible variations among Mark VI clones.  Frankly, it’s more fun to compare instruments that feel and play differently from each other than to recommend one Mark VI clone over another because of things like the percentage of copper, the shape of the octave key, or - sillier yet - the color of the lacquer.

Why Aren’t Stencils Listed?

If you’ve been looking at pre-1930 vintage saxes, you’ve probably come across stencils, horns that the “big guys,” especially Buescher and Martin, built for other companies with other brand names engraved on the bell.  They don’t enter into this discussion because nearly all stencil lines were discontinued before the “pro” upgrades we’re describing in this article began. Yes, there are some great stencils out there, but if someone is trying to price-gouge you on a 1920s stencil by claiming it’s the same as 1940s professional horn, walk away. (If you need more information on stencil saxophones, check out our article on the subject.)

Why Aren’t Student Horns Listed?

Because manufacturers deliberately avoided upgrading their student horns so students would outgrow them and have a reason to upgrade later.  All student line horns by Conn, Buescher, Martin, King, and Selmer (previous to 1975) were based on designs that more-or-less “froze” about 1932. 

So you may find a pre-1970s student horn that plays well and sounds good.   In fact, once they are restored to playability most vintage student horns will still outperform and outlast the most “student horns” being made today.  But they won’t give advanced players the playability and tone that the more “highly-evolved” horns will.  (That said, if you’re considering a vintage-era student horn, you might find our article on Vintage Student Saxohones helpful.)

What About Sopraninos, Sopranos, C Melodies, Baritones, and Bases?

In the 1914-1930 era, saxophones were so popular that many different sizes found markets, including Eb Sopranino, C Sopranos, Bb Sopranos, Eb Altos, C Melodies, Bb Tenors, Eb Baritones and Bb Bases.  Some of the more popular lines, such as the Buescher True-Tone, made them all.  (For examples, check out the photos in Saxophone.org’s True-Tone photo page.)  However, by the time most of the improvements described on this page began in earnest, the saxophone-only bands had gone out of style, the Great Depression had started, and the (mostly home) market for C Sopranos and C Melodies had evaporated.  That left Eb Altos as the biggest sellers, followed by Bb Tenors, then Eb Baritones as a distant third, and Bb Sopranos as a very distant fourth. Eb Sopranino, Bb Bass saxes, and concert-pitched saxophones virtually disappeared.

Because of this shift, most of the innovations described were tested on the Eb Alto first, then applied to the Bb Tenor.  Often Eb Baritones “skipped a generation” - manufacturers would wait until the lines needed a lot of updates, then apply the innovations of the last two or three cycles of Alto and Tenor upgrades to the Baritones all at once.  Bb Sopranos got even less respect.  The result was that if you needed a Bb Soprano or some other (by then) relatively rare pitch, the manufacturer would blow the dust off the old molds, apply the current finish and engraving, and give you the next serial number the factory was ready to assign.  So it might look like a 1955 horn, but it might be 95% based on 1935 engineering.

In other words, while everything we are saying about innovation applies to Eb Altos and Bb Tenors, Eb Baritones often trailed by a cycle or two, and Bb Sopranos usually trailed by multiple cycles.

Are All Pro Horns From the Same Era Equal?

Of course not.  But they are “comparable.”  At each stage there probably a single “best” horn, if you’re looking at some single metric, like projection or intonation or ergonomics.  But some players would rather have the smoothest key action.  Some would rather have a brighter tone, and so on.  Once you have a horn that plays smoothly and produces good tones, other preferences take over.

If you look at the chart, you’ll see that there was an explosion of new professional horn designs between 1932 and 1935.  Another explosion occurred just after World War II (although Buescher’s 400 was introduced just before Pearl Harbor and basically went on “hold” for four years, giving the competition’s engineers four years to catch up).  In both eras of radical upgrades, professional players who didn’t mind paying the cost of a small car for their next horn had their choice of a much larger variety of truly innovative instruments than we have today. 

Unfortunately for vintage horn shoppers, most of the top-of-the-line horns were made in relatively small quantities, and too many of them have been worn out, abused, lost, or even discarded. 

Unless you live in LA or Brooklyn, if you want a first-tier horn from either of those eras, you probably won’t have the luxury of deciding among several well-restored examples of each that you can get your hands on and see if there really is a “no-brainer” quality difference, as some would claim, between one of those lines and the other.  More likely you’ll have to choose from several examples of horns from different years in all kinds of conditions and price ranges.  And you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth, say, spending an extra $2000 to get a “fully-restored” Selmer Balanced Action or an extra $1000 to restore a beat-up Conn “Naked Lady” when you’ve come across a relatively inexpensive, good-condition late-model Buescher Aristocrat that - with $100 worth of tweaking, will give you the tone, intonation, and volume you need for 99% of your purposes.

In other words, the differences between the condition and price of the horns you actually have access to may outweigh any perceived quality differences among professional horn brands of the same era. By the way, don’t ask me.  I’m fickle.  I “connect” with any horn I can get a good sound out of without Herculean effort.  They all have specific advantages that appealed/appeal to specific players - otherwise they would not have found as many buyers as they did “back in the day.”

What About Anecdotal “Evidence”

When you start shopping for a vintage pro horn, you’ll run into a lot of opinions, usually from people who’ve had their hands on one or two examples of a given model, and therefore feel qualified to make global pronouncements about every horn of that model (or brand) ever made.  Ironically, most of the most vehement complaints about specific vintage saxophone models are actually addressing the kinds of issues an experienced musician could “fix” with a change of mouthpiece, or reed stiffness, or even by embouchure adjustment.  The rest, in my experience, could be “fixed” by a $50-100 trip to a qualified repair person for tweaking and registration.

Warning: Personal Example Ahead:  In my “arsenal” is a Buescher-built C Melody  that, played with the original mouthpiece, has all the tone and expression of someone going “der der der” into a mailing tube.  I could go online and complain that all Buescher C Melodies (or all Buescher True-Tones, or even all Bueschers) sound like crap.

Or I could experiment with different mouthpieces and learn that with my Selmer C* tenor mouthpiece screwed on until it bumps up against the octave key, it is a completely different horn with good intonation, easy blowing, and a lot of possibilities. 

When a self-proclaimed internet “expert” reports that “I tried a such-and-such once and it was garbage,” remember that one person’s momentary experience with one horn of undetermined condition using an unidentified mouthpiece and unstated reed stiffness doesn’t really tell you everything you need to know about a horn.

I may be slow, but before I pronounced such judgment on a horn that was popular in its day, I would want to spend real time with it, learning its strengths and weaknesses, maybe trying different mouthpieces, different kinds of music, etc.  I’d also want to make certain that the horn’s “failings” weren’t due to something as reparable as a brittle octave key pad or a weak spring under the G# key. 

Taking such considerations into account, I find that I am delightfully surprised by most vintage name-brand horns I try. Each brings something different “to the table.” For the folks who are disappointed by most vintage horns they try, I have three words: “Get out more.”  For “brand bigots” who continuously dump on horns that thousands of other folks have used to make great music, I have three words: “Get a life.” 

What About Extreme Ranges?

Since I started this article, I’ve noticed a lot of online complaints by folks that it’s hard to play low Bb on most of the best classic horns.  Anyone who started saxophone after 1980, and most people who started after 1975 grew up with the “balanced action” engineering that Selmer invented in 1935 and Yamaha applied to their student horns in 1967, revolutionizing the saxophone industry.  This redesign makes low B a little easier to play and low Bb noticeably easier.  Unfortunately, that means that these youngsters (compared to me) never got used to reaching their pinky around the low B key to hit the low Bb key the six or seven times in a typical evening that they need to hit it.  To listen to some folks, that’s all the reason they need to write off several remarkable horns.

I grew up on Buescher-engineered horns that have the infamous “wraparound” Bb key, and I don’t recall ever having a problem hitting it when I needed to.  In fact I’ve had nerve damage in my left hand since 2010, and play mostly by muscle memory, but I still have no trouble hitting it.  Can I adjust when I go to one of my “balanced action” saxes?  Yes.  I can even adjust when I pick up a Martin “Typewriter” Handcraft Master, which had arguably the worst left pinky key arrangement ever developed.  It’s not because I’m an amazing player (I’m not).  It’s because when I have trouble getting good music out of a horn that lots of folks before me have gotten great music out of, I assume that I’m the problem, not the horn, and I think its more useful in the long run to learn than to whine.

There are also complaints about saxophones that “lack” a “front F#” key, which has never been considered a standard feature on saxophones.  If you’re a sax student, you’ll never see sheet music with a note higher than high F.  In fact, most professional sax players seldom play that note, unless they’re used to playing in the altissimo range anyway. But, if you listen to certain internet “experts,” that single feature is more important than great tone, great durability, great intonation, and all of the other things that make classic saxophones so delightful to play.  How often do you really need to hit that note anyway?     (Btw, I have sopranos for that, or altissimo in a pinch.)

In my humble opinion, if your only “takeaway” from a classic vintage saxophone is that the Bb button is hard to reach or the F# is “missing,” you should probably leave it alone, so it’s available to people who can appreciate it.

What about “Common Wisdom”?

In case the above paragraphs haven’t made me enough enemies, let me bring up the fact that you can’t always believe everything you read on the internet.  When I first started researching vintage saxophones, I “leaned” a lot of things, that, after further research and experience, just aren’t true.  For example, contrary to several vendor’s assertions, the first-generation Selmer Bundies were not “Buescher Aristocrats in disguise.”  Nor are they “dumbed down” Aristocrats, as many collectors insist.  Rather, they are restenciled Buescher Elkharts, which were, in turn, Buescher True Tones with a few Aristocrat-era upgrades, such as the low B and Bb keys moved to the left side of the bell.  By the way, both Elkharts and first-gen Bundies that are set up right are fun, playable, useful horns that are better than most $2000 (MSRP) horns being made to day.  They’re just not pro horns, or even “dumbed down” from pro horns.

Much more common than the kind of brand confusion described above are claims that such and such a range of serial numbers are better than some other range of serial numbers.  For example, internet vendors automatically price “5-digit” Selmer Mark VIs higher than “6-digit” horns because, apparently, some of the fairy dust wore off when the serial number stamper “rolled over.”

Some of those claims are valid.  For example, the quality of Conn’s “Shooting Star” Director student line went off a cliff around serial number #8342000 because they moved the factory to Mexico and started substituting cheaper labor and materials.  But today, due to the different levels of neglect, care, or abuse that vintage horns have suffered, the differences between any two horns of the same model are likely to outweigh the difference between one run of that model and the next.   40-60 years on on there are bigger issues separating one Mark VI from the next than serial number ranges.

What About Price Gouging?

What is a horn worth?  Whatever a buyer is willing to pay for that specific horn at the moment of sale.  But some vendors look for any excuse to inflate prices, and the less a vendor knows about saxophones, the more likely he or she is to have unrealistic expectations.  Every relic found in an attic of a condemned house seems to represent a new car, or at least a Caribbean cruise.

Pricing on the “legendary” Mark VIs goes to extremes.  As of this writing, one is listed on eBay for $12,000 “buy now.”  It’s on its third listing.  One in the greater Cincinnati area has been listed on Craig’s List for $5,000.  It has been there for almost six months, relisted every three or four days in case some potential buyer missed it.  (If you’re reading this, no, I didn’t miss it; I’m just not stupid.)  In the meantime, a brand new Yanagisawa equivalent pro horn (and I DO mean equivalent - they are great horns) is available online from $4000-$8000, depending on finish and features.  If you absolutely have to have a Selmer, you can purchase a brand new Selmer Paris Reference 54 model, nearly identical to the Mark VI in all things people write, gripe, or rave about, online for about $6500. So why would you pay $5000-$12,000 for a forty-to-sixty-year-old horn with unknown history and condition? Bragging rights. Yes. That’s what I said. 

The sad part is that price-gouging vendors connect with suck-, er, buyers often enough to sustain the myth that every Mark VI is a gold mine and/or worth a king’s ransom to get your hands on. 

Frankly if I had a horn that was really worth $12,000, I’d be afraid to take it out of the house!  I certainly wouldn’t expose it to 99% of the places I play.  Nor would I list it in my “tagline” whenever I post on internet forums. 

The danger in publishing articles that point out that there are several brands and models of vintage pro horns worth examining is that vendors will see this list and start raising the prices on everything I list as well. In fact, eBay prices on all of the first tier-horns I listed here jumped significantly the first month that this article was online.  After a few weeks, they seemed to level out, though.

But to me, the risk of contributing to the inflation of internet saxophone prices is worth giving folks who want to make music on a vintage pro saxophone access to real information and no just unsupported opinions and urban legends.

The Short List(s)

Now the I’ve shared every possible caveat, it’s time to present the “short list” of horns that were not only groundbreaking in their day, but which still hold their own with “professional” horns today.   Initally when I wrote this article, I linked each model to a description on Saxpics.com.  That site has a lot of great information, including descriptions, photos and serial numbers/date cross-reference lists.  Unfortunately the way that site is built, every time certain pages are updated, the URLs for a whole lot of other pages change and all the links break. So I’ve relinked some of the models, but if the models you’re interested in don’t have direct links, just go to Saxpics.com and click on “Manufacturers” in the menu bar.

The Top-Tier Vintage Pro Horns:

The following horns represent the peak of each manufacturer’s design effort.  They all sold well until other issues (like corporate takeovers) caused their manufacturers to discontinue them.  You’ll also notice that they’re the last horns listed for most manufacturers.

  • Buescher: 400
  • Conn: Conquerer and Constellation (Actually, a Conquerer is mostly an upscale “Artist” from the previous generation, but it’s a great horn that deserves to be near the top of the list)
  • Martin: Committee “The Martin” (Be careful of this one, there are other “Committee” models. Look for serial numbers above 150,000.) Also the Magna (try this one before you buy it, though - according to Saxpics.com, the low Bb key is almost unplayable.
  • King: Super 20Saxpics.com recommends horns made before 1975 (about #511XXX).  I don’t have enough experience with King to disagree.
  • Selmer:  Mark VI.  Also consider Super Balanced Action and Reference, which are very similar.  By the way, the Mark VII and the Super Action 80 series are also top-notch, professional horns with great tone and ergonomics and a wide range of expression.  Most griping about them seems to stem from the fact that they aren’t Mark VIs.  (Would you like some cheese to go with that whine?)
  • Buffet:  You don’t come across many of these in North America, but according to Saxpics.com, the Super Dynaction and “S”-series gave the Mark VI a run for the money in Europe.  They are certainly the first non-Selmer company to borrow several Selmer Balanced Action-era improvements.

The “Second-Tier” Vintage Pro Horns

The “A list” horns above didn’t spring out of “nowhere.”  Every one was the result of finding a lot of innovations that worked on the previous generation of pro saxophones.  If you can’t find “A list” horn that’s worth what the vendors are asking, take a look at these horns - every one of which was “top-tier” when it was introduced.

  • Buescher: Aristocrat
  • Conn: Artist “Naked Lady” series (including 6M, 10M)
  • Martin: Handcraft Committee I and II
  • King: Zephyr (especially the Zephyr Special and after serial #240XXX.  Some sources believe the quality begins to go down about #305XXX)
  • Selmer: Balanced Action, a horn that was a quantum leap ahead for Selmer.  It still tends to be overpriced because it’s relatively rare and has several features that made the Mark VI desirable.  The Super Balanced Action was in between the Balanced Action and Mark VI is also a very desirable horn.
  • Buffet:  Again, you don’t come across many of these in North America, but the SA and Dynaction models were revolutionary and first-tier in their day.

Note: Both the Aristocrat and the Zephyr continued to be manufactured after their “replacements” came out (the 400 and the Super 20 respectively).  Many internet “experts” claim that from that point on that those lines became the “student horns” of their respective manufacturers. But both companies already had student lines - the Buescher Elkhart and the King Cleveland.  It’s more likely that the exceptionally-well-engineered 400 and Super 20 cost so much more than the Aristocrat and Zephyr, that there continued to be a high demand for the “older” professional models. Though the name “intermediate” may have been applied, neither horn descended into the “student horn” category, although there are those who claim that the quality fell off a little in the last few years of manufacture.  This is a case where hands-on experience with the specific horn you’re considering will be much more helpful than other folks’ opinions.

The “Third-Tier” Vintage Pro Horns

Before the 1932-1935 explosion of innovative pro horns, there were a lot of minor innovations, even to lines like the Buescher True-Tone and Conn New Wonder II that kept the same model names and numbers.  So I have to give “honorable mention” to a few horns that, would not necessarily be considered “pro” horns today but which, in their day, showed a predisposition to innovation and improvement, including testing and gradual adoption of features that would become standard on the next generation (what I call “Second-Tier” above).

To me, the three horns especially worth considering from this era are:

  • Conn:Transitional” models.  About 1930, Conn began testing various potential upgrades on its New Wonder II series horns.  Note: Jazz musician Leon Brown “Chu” Berry played a late-model Conn transitional tenor, with most of the features of the later 10M, though most internet vendors call any New Wonder II horn a “Chu Berry” and jack up the asking price accordingly.
  • Selmer: Super Series, a solid, well-engineered horn.  It included a few runs with a unique octave key mechanism that gave some - but not all - “Selmer Super Series” (“SSS”) saxophones the nickname “cigar cutters.”  
  • Buffet:  The Buffet-Powell, manufactured during the transitional era, is actually a sort of “detour” in engineering, and not a predecessor to the upgraded “SA” model.  But it’s a great, clever horn in its own right. Again, you don’t come across many of these in North America.  You will want to try it before you buy it - its a little “different,” with unusual features like two octave key pads on the neck. 

In the meantime, the Buescher True-Tones were going through gradually improvement, so a 1929-1931 horn will have improved G# cluster keys and other improvements that you won’t see on the earlier horns, though the B and Bb bell keys remained on opposite sides of the bell right up until Buescher introduced the Aristocrat and converted the True-Tone line to making Elkhart student-line horns. 

On the other hand, the Martin Handcraft Imperial, Standard, and Special are not universally recommended, and very few folks will recommend the transitional King Voll-True saxes.  Don’t order one over the internet, but if you have a chance to try one out, go for it - a few of the later ones were supposed to be pretty good.

What about Older Horns?

You’ll remember that I’m a sucker for any well-built saxophone that can be restored to playability and played in tune.  In fact I have and frequently gig with two first-generation low-pitch horns.  So you won’t catch me “dissing” any horn on the table above.  That said, there was no real difference between “professional” and “student” horns before about 1930.  Yes, a “pro” might order a horn with a high F or front F# key, or gold plating, or better pads.  But that horn would be made on the same line as the “run-of-the-mill” horns.  Another way to look at it might be that ALL the horns listed on this page were pro horns in their day. 

And yes, there are Ford/Chevy/Dodge-style differences of opinion about which of those horns was better.  Live with it.

Conclusion

Although I’ve listed about 44 different horns and attempted to give you tools for navigating among your choices, you’ll probably only have access to about a quarter of these when you are actually ready to make a choice.  Don’t fixate on something that is unavailable to you - otherwise you’ll wind up being one of those suck- er, people who pay $6000 sight-unseen for  something that everybody claims that you have to have, then realizing that your old horn better suits your playing style. Or that you’ve been sold a “pig in a poke.”

Remember, within each tier, the differences in condition and personal preferences are as important as any perceived overall quality difference between one make and the next.  And you might find that you actually prefer some less expensive model over one of the highly-vaunted but overpriced first-tier horns.

Finally, unless you can get your hands on it and maybe talk to your sax repair person about the potential cost of any needed repairs, don’t spend any more money on a vintage horn than you can afford to lose outright.  If you have a horn that serves most of your needs, keep it in good repair, accomplish everything you can on it, and wait for the right deal.

Other Resources

As mentioned before, Saxpics.com has a lot of great information on all of the horns we discuss.  If you’re looking at a particular horn and wondering if it’s the same one you’ve heard about online, check out the photos for that model on Saxpics.com’s photo pages.  

The Saxophone Corner’s Great Vintage Saxophones page provides additional details about the various lines of saxophones.   

Saxophone.org’s Saxophone Buyer’s Guide page has many good tips, especially if you’re looking for a pro or classic horn.

Other School Of The Rock 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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