To successfully buy a vintage or professional saxophone,
- Buy a physically clean/undamaged example of the saxophone you want.
- Buy from a reputable source with a clearly stated return policy.
- Take some time to research makes and models beforehand (start below).
- Until the saxophone is overhauled well, you are playing the overhaul, not the horn.
At their most vital and reduced, you can generally say that:
- Conns are widely agreed to have the biggest tone of any saxophone, bar none- if you try one vintage horn, try a good Conn, probably a 10M tenor. The best and most desirable Conns were made from 1921 to mid 1942, with wartime and then postwar selling slightly lower. All the rolled tone holes Conns up to 1948 are quite good, though repairmen prefer the prewar. The ergonomics can be challenging for some people, but are very fast once you get used to them. Enjoying a surge in popularity currently as people realize what incredible saxophones they are, and supplies are limited. Condition is very important due to rolled toneholes and various design decisions including tiny pivot screw locking screws quickly becoming difficult to repair if damaged. There are a variety of finish options and ultra-deluxe sub-models that make Conn a very interesting rabbit hole for collectors. The most commonly sought after models are the New Wonder, New Wonder II, and M-series (4M soprano, 6M alto, 26M deluxe alto, 8M C-melody, 10M tenor, 30M deluxe tenor, 12M baritone, 14M bass). My current selection of Conns is here.
- Selmers from ~1931-1970s are probably the best all-arounders. Not a 10 out of 10 in every category, but at least a solid 8 in every single one. Versatile, reliable instruments with sublime keywork design (Balanced Action and later) that is copied to this day, and therefore most repairers have some experience with something similar in design, if not an actual Selmer, and this means livable repair work is easier to come by than for many other vintage saxophones. Popular and numerous and highly valued, therefore a somewhat fraught market. Extremely important to buy from a reputable source. The Super/Radio Improved, Balanced Action, Super (Balanced) Action, and Mark VI are the most sought-after models, but the Mark VII and Super Action 80 series are also competent and excellent saxophones worthy of investigation. Overall, very forgiving of mediocre repair work due to their incredible design. My current selection of Selmers is here.
- Kings (built by H.N. White) from 1930s-1960s have a special and undeniable zing to their sound and are notably beautiful. Soundwise, think Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker. The earlier ones- Zephyr and Zephyr Special and the first series Super 20- can be challenging ergonomically for some, while the Super 20 Series 1a, Series 2, and Series 3-4 are all relatively modern ergonomically while retaining the signature King zing. The Super 20 is a fantastic instrument, if complex mechanically and somewhat difficult to get put right repairwise the first time. Condition is especially important and original finish is particularly desired on Kings, as the thick-walled brazed toneholes and nickel-tubed keywork present difficult repair challenges when previously buffed. My current selection of Kings is here.
- SMLs (Strasser-Marigaux-Lemaire) are a beautiful combination of the big fat tone of a Conn with the round “French” style tone of a Selmer- and have a similar blend of styles with regards to keywork. Built exceptionally well. The best are the “Rev. D” and “Gold Medal” models from the 1950s-1960s+, although the earlier models (Rev. B and Rev. C) have their adherents for their huge tone. Ergonomics can feel weird at first but most people get along fine. The rolled toneholes are delicate, and physical damage can be hard to correct on these instruments. Look for a clean original finish example. My current selection of SMLs is here.
- Buffet also made saxophones! The Dynaction and Super Dynaction and S-1 of the 1950s through the 1970s are well built French professional saxophones, who will always be the kid brother to Selmer but can be found for a relative bargain- when they show up at all! Only about 20,000 saxophones of the models that we recommend were made in total- and a few thousand more if you include the earlier “SA” models, which can also be good players but are a little less refined design-wise. The sound is great, very full and deep French style when set up well, and the build quality is excellent. Ergonomics are not a challenge for most people. Excellent mechanical design. The copper S-3 is a very unique and interesting instrument, but can be hard to repair if the body is damaged. My current selection of Buffets is here.
- Buescher was a prolific American maker whose Snap-On pad system is a complication, but not one that cannot be dealt with honorably by a competent repairer. The best horns were made between the 1920s and the 1950s, and among these are the Rascher school favorites of the True Tone, New Aristocrat, and Aristocrat. The sound of the True Tone and various Aristocrat models is rich, dark, and can also be powerful although they are not typically thought of that way. Good for classical or jazz. The 400 model is a powerful and uniquely designed instrument that has particularly gorgeous engraving in the desirable “Top Hat and Cane” version, and is frequently used for fusion or rock music. Later bought by Selmer and model names continued while quality was cheapened to student level, the serial numbers that are from the era you want are from about 150,000 to about 350,000. My current selection of Bueschers is here.
- Martin made professional saxophones of note between the 1920s and the 1960s. The most highly regarded model is the “The Martin”, aka the “Committee III”, such as Art Pepper played. The sound is dark and woody with plenty of power. Extremely well built, but their soft soldered toneholes can sometimes present a challenge repair-wise if they have been damaged or if corrosion is present. The Martin Handcraft soprano of the 1920s is probably one of the best vintage sopranos, but is somewhat rare. Durable with exquisite craftsmanship but unforgiving of poor repair work. My current selection of Martins is here.
- Yamaha is an extremely well built and straightforward reliable saxophone. The professional models are made in Japan, while the worthy student models have at various points been made in the USA, Japan, and now China. The professional instruments from the 1980s until present day are highly regarded and are among the best built professional saxophones of the modern era. The tone is middle of the road, and while to some not particularly interesting, these horns simply will not let you down. The Toyota of saxophones. Hard to go wrong. My current selection of Yamahas is here.
- Yanagisawa is another extremely well built straightforward saxophone made in Japan with Selmer-style keywork. Yanagisawa only makes professional saxophones, and builds various and legion sub-models with neck and bodies built partially or completely of brass, bronze, and sterling silver- they even have made saxophone bodies from 14k gold. The instruments from the 1980s until present day are highly regarded and are the best built professional saxophones of the modern era. Hard to beat a 880, 900, or 990 series for value, craftsmanship, and durability with just a bit more artistry in the build than a Yamaha. The Lexus of saxophones. My current selection of Yanagisawas is here.
- Keilwerth has been making saxophones since the 1920s and remains in business to this day, although the best regarded are from the 1950s forward. Maker of numerous stencil instruments, the true rolled tone hole Keilwerths of the 1950s-early 2000s are the most desirable, with the Couf Superba (a stencil of the Tone King series IV from the 1970s-80s) being a well-known example of the best a Keilwerth has to offer- a fat, meaty, powerful tone with modern style ergonomics that retains a unique flavor and heritage. My current selection of Keilwerths is here.
- Holton doesn’t usually register in the company mentioned above, but the 232 and 234 (Stratodyne) models will hold their own and more. Outliers in the Holton world, the 232 and 234 are excellent all-around saxophones with good craftsmanship and modern ergonomics that represent a superb value if you can find one. The 234 is the best one, and one resides in my personal collection. My current selection of Holtons is here.
- Modern east Asian imports- the names are myriad, but the originating factories are not. They will not last hundreds of years like the saxophones above but are sometimes more straightforward to acquire. Most come from the same few places in China, Vietnam, and Taiwan. They can represent good values, but a holistic and informed view is quite difficult as the marketing speak is opaque, the supply chain is hidden and changes all the time, and intentions are hard to know. Best bet, if you are dead set of one of these, is to buy from a very reputable dealer because their word is all you have to go on as far as quality, source, etc.
This is a straightforward, no frills guide aimed at giving you a quick grip on the essentials and basics of buying a professional saxophone today. Rather than a full education, this represents a solid platform from which to begin thinking and learning about saxophones. There is clearly a lot more to learn if desired (and many ways to do so!), many lesser-known and less popular makes and models that are missing, and some of it could be argued as various degrees of opinion. But it is my best effort to tell you what I have learned over time through experience and by talking to thousands of other people about their experiences and is a genuine representation of what I believe to be true and useful.