Vintage Student Saxophones
by Paul D. Race
Readers will know that we’ve spent a lot of time trying to help vintage horn shoppers find appropriate horns for appropriate cash outlays. Because vintage professional horns draw so much attention and sometimes seem to demand so much investment, we completed a big article to help readers evaluate the pros and cons of various vintage pro horns from different manufacturers and from different eras.
But for every question we see about some desirable vintage horn, we see at least one question from someone who’s thinking about paying too much money for a far less desirable student horn, because some vendor claimed that it was “almost as good.” So this article, which will be much briefer, will cover some of the histories and some of the “gotcha’s” of buying vintage student horns.
By the way, we’re going to skip ahead briefly to answer the two most frequently asked questions about vintage student horns:
- No, the Selmer Bundy is not a Buescher Aristocrat in disguise (or a “dumbed-down” Aristocrat). The first-generation Bundy is based on the Buescher Elkhart. That was a student line based on 1914 True-Tone engineering with the low B and Bb pads moved to the same side of the horn. The Bundy II is a Bundy with ergonomic and construction improvements that were mandated by marketplace changes. By the way, the current “Bundy” has no relation at all to Selmer or Buescher - it’s a Chinese imitator of a Japanese imitator of the Selmer Mark VI, one of hundreds of similar Chinese brands, though hopefully better built than many.
- No, the Conn Director (“Shooting Star”) is not a valuable vintage horn related to Conn’s top-tier pro saxes of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. It is based on Conn’s old student-line Pan American horns, which were built to entirely different specs. Worse yet, quite a few were built in Mexico with poorly-trained workers and poorer-quality materials (see below).
With those bits of widely-published misinformation out of the way, let’s take a look a the history of “student” horns between 1914 and 1990, as a way of explaining why some are worth acquiring and some might be worth avoiding unless you know what you’re doing.
Note: All of the content of this page is cobbled together from multiple sources, including eyewitness accounts, hands-on experience, manufacturer histories, etc. That said, manufacturers have a way of glossing over details that would detract from their current “story,” and even experts make mistakes, or unintentionally repeat misinformation from other sources where there are gaps in their own knowledge. So while the content is true to the best of my knowledge, I want to hear about any corrections, additions, or clarifications, you can provide. And if - in spite of the relatively low cost of most used and vintage student saxophones - you’re making a decision that is going to cost you “real money,” be sure to “get a second opinion” about any content that would bear on your decision.
What is “Vintage” in this Context?
Though many saxophones were made in the 1800s, for our purposes, I count the beginning of the vintage era from the time US sax manufacturers started focusing on “low pitch” (A=440) horns for the US market. About the same time, most US manufacturers developed a new line of horns to compete for the growing marching band, concert band, saxophone-only band, and home markets. I would put the beginning cutoff for Conn and Buescher with their 1914 patents, and the beginning for Martin with their 1918 patents.
Those first-generation Low Pitch horns were the “common ancestors” for 95% of the saxophones that came out of U.S. factories before 1975, “student,” “intermediate,” and “professional” alike. But before about 1930, there was no real distinction between “student” and “pro” horns, except that “pros” and “wannabees” could order horns with more features and nicer plating - they all came off the same lines.
What Did Students Use Between 1914 and 1930?
Students whose parents could afford it bought horns from Buescher, Martin, Conn, King and a few other manufacturers that came and went. At the extreme low end were a few off-off brand saxophones which have survived in such low numbers as to make them not worth cataloging. In the middle were Pan American and “stencils.”
Pan American was a company that Conn bought and kept operating with Pan American’s original tooling for two main reasons:
- Conn wanted a low-price sax that would help keep new manufacturers from sneaking in at a lower price point than their “name brand” horns.
- Conn wanted a brand they could sell to second-tier stores in areas with “protected territories.” For most of the 1800s and 1900s, if a music store signed an agreement to sell a top-tier brand (like Conn), the manufacturer would sign a contract agreeing not to sell the same line to any other music stores within, say, a 50-mile radius. But since Pan American was clearly a different product, they could be sold to other stores in the same area. Again, this not only made Conn money but helped crowd out the real competition.
Stencils were horns that the “big guys,” built for other companies with other brand names engraved on the bell. These included first-tier horns built for legitimate musical instrument companies like Wurlitzer that couldn’t afford to build saxophone factories in America. They also included horns for Sears & Roebuck or big music stores to sell as “their own brand,” as well as a few “discount” brands whose horns usually had fewer features. Like the Pan American, the discount stencils offered both lower prices and the ability to channel non-brand-name product through protected territories. (See our article on stencils for more information).
With the exception of the Pan American, which Conn operated as a separate student line, there’s no real reason to talk about “student” saxophones before about 1930.
First-Generation Pro Horns Appear
Throughout the 1930s, manufacturers like Buescher, Conn and Martin continually tweaked their horns looking for some advantage over their peers. This led to the first “breakaway” pro horn designs between 1932 and 1935. Buescher produced the Aristocrat. Conn produced the Artist (“Naked Lady”), King produced the Zephyr, Martin introduced the first Committee, and - across the ocean - Selmer introduced the Balanced Action.
The True Value of “Pro” Horns
The upgrade horns attracted the attention of popular musicians, who sometimes gave input into the horns’ designs and won endorsement deals in return, not unlike pro athletes today. Even though the average kid couldn’t afford the same model as the pro was playing, he or she could afford to buy the same brand. So the “flagship” horns showed a profit, but the real benefit was how they affected student horn sales - and that’s where the real money was.
Where the Money Was
By about 1933, school bands were now the only remaining the “cash cows” of the saxophone business, and that market was more cost-conscious than the pro market targeted by these upgrades. Pan American was golden, of course, since its business model was already clearly defined. How could Martin, King, and Buescher continue to serve the student market while “pushing the envelope” at the high end?
- Martin and King followed the example of Conn’s Pan American, which continued to use a separate factory to make horns based on early-1900s engineering.
- Martin had already bought out the Indiana musical instrument company. So it was no great hardship to use that plant to make a line that could continue to compete at the low end: “Indiana,” sometimes labeled “Martin Indiana.” Many Indiana saxophones are nearly indistinguishable from the Martins of a generation or two earlier.
- When King’s owners introduced the Zephyr, they started making the “King Cleveland” student line, based on their earlier models. Like the Pan American, and Indiana, that line continued to be somewhat insulated from engineering changes that occurred after 1930.
- Selmer continued to use stencils for their student horns, though, after about 1935, most of their stencils came from European companies like Keilwerth (these are very nice horns by the way).
- Buescher chose to keep their student line entirely “in-house.” While the new Aristocraft line was busy turning out first-tier saxophones, Buescher kept the old True-Tone line busy making student horns. Eventually these were labeled “Elkhart,” after their location and after the name of a company that Buescher had merged with in 1927. The Elkhart did borrow a few improvements from Aristocrat engineering, however. Most obvious is moving both the low B and Bb pads to the left side of the bell, with corresponding updates to the G# key cluster. This has led to the common, but erroneous complaint that the Elkhart, and the first generation Selmer Bundy (which was a relabeled Elkhart) were “dumbed” down Aristocrats. No, they were “updated” True-Tones.
Frozen in Time
From the point that student and pro lines split off, innovation on the student lines largely ceased. True, the markets drove a few improvements to ergonomics. But for the most part, the same manufacturers who were innovating furiously in the “pro” arena deliberately avoided upgrading their student horns. That way, students would “outgrow” them and have a reason to upgrade later. By 1963, all student line horns by Conn, Buescher, Martin, and King, were based on designs that more-or-less “froze” by 1932. In 1963, Selmer joined that club by buying out Buescher and reissuing the Buescher Elkhart as the “Selmer Bundy.”
For that reason, all U.S.-built student saxophones made before 1980 have essentially the same engineering, tone, and intonation as their vintage ancestors. If you want a vintage Martin, but can’t find one in decent condition, pick up an Indiana. If you want to experience the “feel” of blowing a True-Tone, but don’t like the ones you have access to , check out an Elkhart or first-generation Bundy.
Here’s one place that pattern breaks: If you want to find a post-war student horn that will show you what Pan Americans were like, track down a Conn Director “Shooting Star,” preferably one built before 1971 (the year their factory moved to Mexico, with disastrous results). Despite what dozens of internet vendors will tell you, except for some pre-1930 stencils, Conn never made a student line saxophone based on Conn engineering. For the Director, they simply tweaked and renamed Pan American-engineered horns.
This habit of keeping student lines stagnant is the main reason that the market for vintage student saxophones is relatively “weak.” No US-made student horn brings anything important “to the table” that you can’t find in earlier, and often better-built vintage horns.
Does that mean that there’s no point shopping for vintage student saxes? Quite the reverse - The weak market means that you can sometimes find vintage-engineered horns at garage-sale prices. Just be sure you know what you’re looking at.
The End of US Sax Manufacturing
By the mid-1960s, the major musical instrument manufacturers began facing challenges they didn’t recognize in time, because band classes (and instrument sales) were still growing. But the Baby Boom was slowing down, meaning that within a few years, there would be fewer kids around to enroll in band, even if they wanted to. On top of that, there was new competition for young families’ attention and dollars, including year-round kids’ sports teams, television, and guitar lessons. Could the manufacturers have survived such demographic and cultural shifts if they had recognized them in time? Perhaps. But there was one shift they brought on themselves by habit of exploiting their student horn lines without ever bothering to reinvest in them.
Unfortunately for the big, established players, there was no international law against new saxophone manufacturers entering the market, nor was there any law forcing such upstarts to follow the “big guys’” example and ignore most of the major saxophone engineering developments of the last forty years. In military or football terms, the major manufacturers had left their flank exposed.
This critical error came to light in the 1960s, after LeBlanc, a European manufacturer who never made their own saxophones, contracted with Yamaha to start making student “Vito” saxophones in Japan.
Engineering a great new horn “from scratch” isn’t that more expensive than engineering a mediocre new horn, so Yamaha’s engineers went right to the most popular horns on the planet (the Selmer Mark VI) to see what they could learn. Plus they used newly available technologies to build reliability, ease-of-use, and durability into the horns. The results, released in 1967, were the YAS-21 Alto and the YTS-21 Tenor. From the first boatload, the new horns became known for having better tone, better intonation, and better durability than all of the “name brand” student horns put together. Frankly, I especially like that first generation, with the huge wraparound guards going all the way from the C# pad to the Bb pad.
By themselves, the Yamaha/Vito horns would probably not have crippled the U.S. saxophone manufacturing industry, but the combination of those horns and other market forces created a “perfect storm.
By 1975, Conn, Martin, and King had all been bought out. Worse yet, Conn’s manufacturing had moved to Mexico in 1971, and their pro horns were permanently discontinued. Selmer redesigned the Bundy to incorporate many of the same improvements shown on the Yamaha/Vito horns, but within a few years, the Bundy II was considered an “also-ran,” and Selmer discontinued it (about 1983, as far as I can tell).
Conn’s Last Gasp
As a rather strange footnote, in the 1980s and 1990s, Conn’s new owner, UMI, produced a number of “modern” US-built saxophones labeled for Conn and King (and maybe Artley). The “Conns” included the 20M, 21M, and 22M (not to be confused with the 1920s’ sopraninos with the same model numbers). None of these showed any particular evidence of Conn or Pan American engineering. The “Kings” reused model numbers that King had used for their own horns, such as 600 and 613, but lacked the domed pad cups.
Some sources say that after closing the Mexico plant, UMI moved saxophone manufacturing to its Nogales, Arizona plant. Others say that they moved it back to Elkhart, Indiana. Wherever these were made, the 1980s-1990s Conn and King saxophones are new designs, unrelated to historical Conn, King, or Pan American engineering. That said, some folks think they’re solid and useful; others are less complimentary. If you come across any of these, look for “Made in USA” under the serial number - a few folks claim that the earliest ones were made in Mexico, and it’s possible that some were subsequently built in China.
One reader reports that he had a 1980s Conn Baritone with unmistakable Keilwerth engineering:
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 approaches, 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.)
Looking to “the East”
Since 1967, student sax manufacturing has become increasingly homogenous and increasingly Asian. Most student horns have become shameless imitations of the Mark VI, although different companies like to pretend that some feature, like a different octave button shape or cool lacquer color gives them an advantage over their peers. At the same time, horn lines that started in Japan moved to Taiwan, and eventually to China. During the 1980s and 1990s, a steady stream of US and European manufacturers moved student horn manufacturing to Taiwan and then to China, creating a roller-coaster-ride of quality issues during each of those moves. For example, a modern Keilwerth horn may be great or terrible, depending on how recently the factory had moved when that horn was built.
Indigenouse Chinese Saxophone Manufacturing Begins
In the tradition of many other products whose manufacturing moved to China, when the first set of tooling wore out, instead of being melted down, it found its way to “cottage industries” that kidded it along and started making something that looked a lot like saxophones to sell under independent brand names. What the decrepit tooling lacked in precision, Chinese handworkers have made up for in their ability to force things together long enough to survive container shipment across the Pacific and a few weeks or months of actual use before they start to fall apart. Cheap “brass” with very low copper content plays a part in the fragility of these things as well. In 2014, when you see a new $200-$600 “professional” or “instructor approved” saxophone online, that’s what you’re looking at. When you see a $150 “almost new” saxophone on Craig’s List with “only” two or three broken parts, that’s what you’re looking at.
That said, I would not be surprised if, within ten years, the indigenous Chinese sax manufacturers are making horns worth buying. And a number of European-, American-, or Internationally-owned companies that have privately contracted with Chinese factories have been successful in enforcing enough quality control to partially restore their brands’ reputations. That said, don’t expect significant innovation from any of these companies, except in cosmetics.
Bundy’s Last Gasp
In a stunning irony, as of early 2014, Conn-Selmer seems to have sold the Bundy name to Woodwind and Brasswind (the band instrument wing of Musicians’ Friend). And the “Bundies” that WW&BW are having made in China seem to be imitations of the Yamaha saxes that put the original Bundies out of business back in 1967, wraparound low key guard and all! Go figure. Like the 1980s and 1990s Conns and Kings, these horns bear no relationship to the once-popular Selmer lines. I’d probably have more hope for these if they didn’t claim to be “instructor-approved,” like all of the substandard off-off-brands coming out of China today.
Where Does “Vintage” End and “Used” Begin?
Before the Yamaha/Vito’s YAS and YTS-21s, the various US and European saxophone brands showed diversity and often innovation that made one model noticeably different from the rest. After the Yamaha/Vito introduction, there was a rush to imitate the Mark VI, with the result that innovation was largely abandoned. Within the student market it essentially was abandoned.
Frankly, when I see a 35-year-old Asian Mark VI imitation that is virtually identical to the Mark VI imitations that are flooding out of Asia today, I can not think of it as a vintage horn in any meaningful sense. It’s used. It might even be a good used horn - there are many such. But vintage? Hardly.
One way to think about it might be to trace the “family tree” of the most popular US-built student horns that could be considered vintage in any meaningful sense.
- True-Tone >>> Elkhart >>> Bundy >>> Bundy II
- Martin Low Pitch >>> Indiana
- King >>> King Cleveland
- Pan American >>> Conn Director (“Shooting Star”)
Notice that I didn’t include the 80s and 90s Conns and Kings. I would, however, be tempted to include the Yamaha/Vito YAS-21 and YTS-21 in the list of “vintage student horns.” Unlike the “follow-up” YAS-23 and YTS-23 models, they are no longer made. And they include unique features that Yamaha eventually abandoned, like those cool wraparound low key guards.
Another way to look at it: unless the horn was built in Europe, if the low B and Bb pads are both on the right side of the bell (from the player’s perspective), it is probably not a vintage horn.
Which one is better? Except for the Mexican-built Conns, all of the horns in the above list have the potential to produce great music, with proper adjustment, with the right mouthpiece and in the right hands.
In my youth, I thought that a lot of these horns lacked tone and intonation. Now that I’ve tried a number of them with a good mouthpiece and experienced embouchure, I am no longer willing to write any of these off (I even know folks who’ve picked up decent Mexican Conns).
What are they worth? In 2014, in my humble opinion, not one horn on this list is worth over $600 even if it’s in perfect, like new condition. $300-ish in playable condition. $200-ish if it can be made playable with minor adjustment and maybe a few pads. $100-ish if it needs a repad, un-denting, or other serious work. (Obviously, if you’re reading this ten years from now, you’ll have to adjust for inflation.)
Why so harsh? (After all, even a $900 used saxophone that is playable is nearly a thousand dollars cheaper than a new equivalent.) But these horns’ “low pitch” ancestors are worth about what I quoted in the above paragraph, and - unlike the “student lines” - they’re officially “collectors’ items” that will likely increase in value more over time than the student horns listed on this page.
But don’t despair - with the exception of some Mexican Conns, every horn on this page, if restored to playability, will still outplay and outlast any MSRP $1500 horn on the market today.
Most importantly, make your final decision based on the horn you have in your hands - as you can see by the spotty history, most of these lines had their ups and downs in terms of quality. And almost all student horns have been abused to some extent, many badly. Considering the sheer numbers that have been produced, owner abuse and neglect are the only ways to explain the fact that there aren’t a lot more playable student horns on the market.
Frankly, the main reasons to buy an old horn that started out as a student horn are:
- You have or are a student and want to get a good, playable starter horn without investing the value of a good used car.
- You have a decent horn, but you want one you can leave at church or drag to parties or roadhouse gigs without fear of a major expense if it gets busted up or stolen.
- You have a decent alto but you want to double on tenor or vice versa, so you want a playable horn with decent tone and intonation, but you won’t necessarily be taking it to Carnegie Hall.
I’m in category #2. I have a decent alto and tenor, but get tired of being paranoid whenever I drag them out of the house for something unpaid or low-paid where the PA system (if any) sucks anyway, and I’m likely to be the only person playing in tune. A couple years ago, I chose a Yamaha/Vito YAS-21 for my backup alto and have been delighted with it. That said, as a longtime Buescher player, I’ve tried first-generation Alto Bundies that would do what I needed them to do (with a Selmer C* or better mouthpiece and a trip to my repair guy). That’s not to rule out dozens of other models worth considering, most of which are listed on this page. I don’t have a party/roadhouse tenor yet, but I haven’t “needed” one as often, and tenors take up a lot more room.
At the same time, I’ve seen lots of used and vintage saxophones of all kinds that started out as decent horns but are train wrecks now, and the damage isn’t always obvious to the uninitiated.
If you’re shopping for a used or vintage horn of any kind, be sure to read our articles on those subjects, and - unless you’re a very experienced player yourself - take along someone who knows what he or she is looking at.
Again, I learned something new almost ever day I was working on this article, so I’m hardly the expert yet. If you want to correct, add, criticize or otherwise contribute to this discussion, please contact me; I’ll be very glad to hear from you.
Saxophone.org’s Saxophone Buyer’s Guide page has some 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.
All material, illustrations, and content of this web site are copyrighted © 2011-2014 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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