Evaluating a Used Saxophone for Purchase
This is a video I made, but in case you can’t watch it, I have provided the script below. I ad-libbed quite a few additional things for the video and obviously illustrated the things I talked about, so I would encourage you to watch it if you can, but if not the text below will still be useful to you.
Hi, my name is Matt Stohrer and I repair saxophones for a living. Today, I’d like to talk to you about what to look for when purchasing a saxophone. Since I primarily deal with vintage and collectible professional saxophones, that is what I will be talking about, but if you are in the market for a saxophone purchase of any kind there will be at least some information here that is useful to you. A lot of this will also be useful if you just got a saxophone back from an overhaul.
Now between this video you are about watch and the complementary videos and articles that I have linked to in the description, you can plan on spending maybe 2 hours learning this stuff, but it will pay you back big time. So set aside some time, get your horn out to follow along, and let’s improve your relationship with the saxophone.
First things first: if you are purchasing a saxophone at a distance, say from an online dealer such as myself (though I am a small fry in that world), the three things the dealer MUST have are 1. An impeccable or nearly impeccable reputation. Obviously there are cranks in the world, and I’ve dealt with a few (including someone who called me up for website help and got agitated that I was actually a saxophone repairman and not a web developer and tried to leave me bad reviews on Yelp), so one negative review is not necessarily the end of the world. But if you find a trend in reviews of a business, they tend to be worth paying attention to. 2. A clearly defined return policy. It is acceptable in my book for the customer to be expected to pay for shipping- otherwise sellers would be doing an awful lot of what basically amounts to free rentals- but a full refund of the purchase price of the instrument itself should be available if you find the horn just isn’t for you. 3. Excellent, numerous & clear photos with a detailed and full description of the saxophone in question.
At this point, it is probably becoming clear that I am not a fan of the layman purchasing instruments from non-professional sellers. Even for someone like myself, that is a minefield, and I’ve lost my shirt more than once in the past. Buying from a dealer carries a premium of course, but it is not without reason. An honest dealer absorbs all of those hits for you. Of course you can get lucky, but I’ve been in the position of informing someone they made a bad purchase much more often than the opposite.
Once you get the instrument, you should take photos as you unbox it in case there is damage- and there shouldn’t be, packing a saxophone well enough to ship is saxophone sales 101 these days. Inspect the packaging closely. It should have come packed first inside its case very securely, with padding added wherever necessary so that nothing can move around inside the case. Then it should be boxed inside a sturdy box with a couple inches of clearance and packed tightly inside the box. When a well-packed saxophone is picked up, you can shake the box and nothing moves. A poorly packed saxophone is simply negligence, and should give you pause, even if the horn didn’t suffer any damage as a result. Assuming all is well, you should play the horn and if possible- if at all possible- take it for an inspection to your local repairer, or more than one local repairer if you can. And trust your gut. It should *look* right. If you find yourself making excuses, just remember, “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt.”
Your inspection of the saxophone should begin with the overall condition. Does it match the description? Is the finish truly original if it was stated as such? Are there past repairs or damage that was not described, perhaps in the one area that wasn’t shown in photos? Are all parts present and original? Look closely. If anything in your inspection reveals a difference between the description and reality, that means that either the seller didn’t know (which means you are dealing with someone who doesn’t know a ton about saxophones, which is meaningful) or that the seller neglected to pass on information they had at their disposal, which is also meaningful.
So on to specifics. First thing I typically look at is the finish. What does the finish look like? Is it truly original, if it was stated to be so? Of course, being able to discern what is truly original finish and what is not is difficult, and will be the subject of a video all of its own later on. But when in doubt, get several opinions. And obviously a refinish at some point in the past does not necessarily mean that the horn isn’t a good one- it just needs to be known and priced accordingly. Is it clean? Are there signs of corrosion? How worn is it, and where is it worn? Is it worn in a way that suggests damage- like maybe a lacquerless spot in a ring around the neck tenon indicating it has been resoldered in the past and then cleaned up, or is it from honest use like scratches on the back body of the horn where it rubbed against someones leg during playing, or lacquer wear on the palm key touchpieces, or wear in the lacquer from where it rested in the case? Honest wear is not a bad thing, especially when combined with a horn that is in otherwise good physical condition. It means the horn got played but was well taken care of, which is an indicator that someone loved it in the past, which- and this might just be an emotional decision on my part, but I feel like it is a good thing. Speaking of wear, it is a good thing to inspect the pearls. How worn are they? The front F- if it is a pearled key- usually provides a good reference point if you are unsure what shape the pearls should be, as it is a key that is touched less than the others. Heavily worn pearls or lots of replaced pearls can mean either someone with particularly corrosive personal chemistry played it in the past (which could be problematic or not) or it means it really got played a lot, which then means the keywork got worn, which could have been fixed by a good mechanical overhaul or it could mean you’ve got a can of worms on your hands.
Now check out the keywork. Do all keys move freely? Move them slowly throughout their range of motion to detect any binding that might be indicative of damage. Is there lost motion in the adjustments? For instance, if you slowly depress the B key, does it move the C# key at the same time without any delay? Does the A key do the same thing? Also check the lower stack for the same thing. If there is lost motion, that can be indicative of a shortcoming or problem with the overhaul, especially if it is in the upper or lower stack. A little bit of lost motion in the octave mechanism between the neck and the body is expected and necessary. Are the keys noisy? If so, that is a problem, though it could be as simple as a piece of adjustment material that is too thin or hard, or it could be an indicator of major mechanical wear. Next, look for play in the keywork. Are the keys tight? Do they move in any way except the way they are supposed to in playing? Coming from the factory they are typically not perfect, but they should be close. Coming off a full mechanical overhaul by someone who knows what they are doing, there should be no play in the keywork whatsoever, like in this key here. Don’t apply too much force; you don’t want to bend the key.
Here we see a key with play in the mechanism. For a very good visual that will show you what exactly this can mean mechanically, please see the link in the description to Stephen Howard’s article called “Testing the Action.”
To understand yet more about why this can be important, see my video about mechanical fit and the G#/bis adjustment, linked below in the description. More than a minimal amount of play in the mechanism would be a pretty sure indicator that you’ve likely got over a thousand dollars of mechanical rebuild ahead of you to get the horn playing like it can- and if you are curious why this can cost so much, see how involved fixing one side of a pivot key can be by watching the video linked in the description below called “Advanced Saxophone Repair Topic: PIvot Receiver Bushing and Post Washer”. You can also check for signs of previous mechanical work, like we are looking at here on my personal horn, a King Zephyr Special. Swedging marks- which are from pliers or collets used to squeeze the hinge tube down around the rod to tighten the fit and lengthen the hinge tube between posts- are nearly unavoidable since the act of mechanically refitting the key involves a large amount of force, and whether or not your horn sports these distinctive marks and in what severity can tell you about how badly worn it was in the past and/or how well the mechanical work was done. You can also see the link below in the description for an article on my website called “Understand Key Fitting” that shows some up-close details of the mechanical rebuild work that is typically hidden once the horn is assembled.
How about the pads and adjustment materials? If you were expecting the horn to arrive playing, do they give you a nice pop as shown in the pop test video, linked in the description below? Do they look clean and well done and homogenous? A lack of uniformity can be a mark of sloppy repairs, or of layers of past repairs of different ages. How do the pad seats look? They should be even all the way around, and not too deep. If the horn came with pad clamps, leave them off for a while to see if they were hiding any problems by squeezing the pads to overcome leaks. How does it feel under the fingers? Spongy, gummy, or soft are indicative of an underlying problem, even if the horn plays well. It means that either pads aren’t sealing as well as they should be, or that adjustment materials are not done right, or that materials choice was poor, or that the quality of the materials is poor or all of the above. Watch out for extremely stiff spring tensions, which can hide poor pad and adjustment work- this is especially common in new saxophones, where they are counting on your to squeeze your way past poor pad seal. And how do those springs feel? They should be snappy, not too light and not too stiff, and even throughout. Moving keys through their range of motion, the resistance should stay the same and not increase noticeably as you close the key. If the resistance of a spring changes throughout the range of motion of a key, that means either the spring design is poor (usually too short a spring) or the springing work was not done well or both. Inspect the springs themselves. Springs don’t need to be shiny or beautiful to work well, and they can last a very long time, but they shouldn’t be rusty. They also shouldn’t have sharp kinks in them, but instead the springing bend should be even and nicely curved. Again, check for uniformity. Non-uniform springs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that at some point someone worked on the horn who didn’t care enough to make the new springs match, and taken together with other clues this might be meaningful.
Now check the neck tenon connection. What does the tenon look like? Is it scarred up, dirty, is it ridged or does it have deep scratches? It should be smooth and have an even finish, and the fit should be precise and smooth, not too tight and definitely not too loose. Neck fit is extremely important, and more often than not this joint is leaking. I am becoming convinced that neck fit in particular is one of the most important aspects of the physical condition of the saxophone, and the difference between a well-fit, leak-free neck and a mediocre fit – even if leak-free- neck tenon connection is the difference between an average horn and one that really sings. To get this tested for air-tightness, you or your repairer will need to have the appropriate neck isolator leak testing tool. Get. This. Checked. Out. Its not a dealbreaker by any means to have a leaky neck tenon as they often came this way from the factory, but you will be amazed by the difference a good neck tenon fit makes. However, it is a difficult and precise procedure that not every repairer is asked to do often, and getting it done well is the only way to go.
How about key heights? Do they seem uniform and even? Do they ridiculously high or ridiculously low? Key heights have a lot to do with response and intonation, and while some horns with some setups and some players are fairly forgiving, correct key heights- which while slightly variable are usually within a narrow range- are needed for the horn to play like it should.
And look at the toneholes. Are they uniform and even? Can you spot damage anywhere? If you can see file marks, that is a bad sign. Tonehole leveling is something not to be undertaken lightly, but unfortunately it seems to be something that is done indiscriminately and with improper tooling much too often- and done will with proper tools, there will not be any visible marks left.
Check for a body bend. This is much more common than you’d think, and most people who have a body bend don’t notice it unless it is severe. Sight down the inside of the bore- not the outside, where keys will distract and fool your eye- and tilt it back and forth to see if any of the walls curve away from you. Again, not a dealbreaker since its so common and often difficult to repair perfectly once bent, but if it was supposed to have just been overhauled and it still has a sizable body bend either it got damaged in transit or it was overlooked.
When you look inside the body, look for stripes or spots of burnished metal. These are marks from dent removal tools. This is totally fine to see assuming you know there were dents removed in the past, but can be informative to inspect. If you see an awful lot of these marks, this means the horn has really been worked over at some point. Of course, the body should be circular in cross-section. You can also look down the bore to see small dents that might be easy to miss from the outside, especially those that are hidden under posts. If a post has been knocked into the body, this is a problem that needs fixed.
You can also look for these internal dentwork marks when you inspect the neck. The main thing I look for in a neck is whether it was pulled down in the past, which is a fairly common type of damage to see. It can be repaired well and not be a big deal, or if it was a severe pulldown or if it was repaired poorly that should devalue the instrument quite a bit as the neck is no longer the original internal dimensions. Symmetrical wear lines on either side of the neck are probably from the lacquer crackling when the neck was pulled down, although since the neck gets handled a lot it could be honest wear. Check the neck angle against an undamaged reference if at all possible, and look closely to see that the cross-section is indeed a circle and not ovaled out.
And of course, play the thing. It doesn’t matter if its pristine if you don’t like it, and it doesn’t matter if a horn needs a lot of work if you are in love with it. But the more you know, the better.
This is a lot of what I look for when I am evaluating a saxophone, and I hope you found it helpful, useful, and informative. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments below or you can email me or even call me. Thanks for watching.
Stephen Howard, Testing the Action: http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/HandyHints/ActionTest.htm
Key Fit and the G#/bis Adjustment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sfb5kj9vKig
Understanding Key Fitting: Hinge Tube and Post Facing: http://www.stohrermusic.com/2014/01/understanding-key-fitting-hinge-tube-and-post-facing/
Advanced Saxophone Repair Topic: Pivot Receiver Bushing and Post Washer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glpez2GRwX8