Handmade in Wherever
A saxophone should be clear about its origin.
article rant is directed at new or inexperienced players who haven’t been around the saxophone scene very long. It is also just like, my opinion, man.
One of the repeating questions I get from new saxophone consumers is a variation on the following:
“I’ve been looking at the (insert name) saxophone, do you know if they are handmade here or if they are made in China? Here is a link to their website.”
They’ve got a link to the website, and they still can’t tell who made the saxophone they are considering purchasing ?- that is a silly situation. And it is not the consumer’s fault! Some (not all!) of these instrument sellers are at best reluctant to outright state that they got their saxophone from China, and some even actively obfuscate origin, with photos of the saxophone near workbenches or being subjected to a torch.
Here is the deal: No, they were not handmade, unless you mean in China, Taiwan, or Vietnam. And if the seller is not up front about that, avoid them.
Even when the seller refuses to admit it directly, we know these saxophones are not made by the seller the same way people who know about computers know that Dell doesn’t make the chips. Making an entire saxophone from scratch is difficult and expensive, and only a few places in the world make them from scratch, and only about 6-7 places (depending on how you count) make professional quality saxophones from scratch in any volume: Yamaha, Yanagisawa, Rampone & Cazzani, Benedikt Eppelsheim, Keilwerth, Selmer. And this list is several names smaller than it was even 10 years ago 🙁
I mean just look at the partners involved in the lowest volume saxophone builder in that list: Benedikt Eppelsheim Partner List
Click the links. Take a few minutes, look around. This article will wait for you.
See all that? That is an enormous amount of specialized knowledge represented there, and an enormous amount of tooling. If you added it all up, you’ve probably got several thousand years of experience and several million dollars of tooling. That enterprise took years to establish, and had to grow naturally. Likely first as a repair business, gradually growing to customization and making parts until eventually a whole instrument appeared, with new instruments being added over the years until a full range of products had been developed- the same way Selmer did it. It didn’t just show up on Facebook one day with a new saxophone. That is- simply put- impossible.
This is what a small saxophone factory looks like: Rampone & Cazzani
This is what a large saxophone factory looks like: Yamaha
Here is what an assembly-only facility looks like: Selmer Elkhart Plant 1954
Wow, lots of stuff going on there. Even for the assembly-only stuff going on in Elkhart. So then what about these constantly appearing new “makers”, do you think it is possible that they have suddenly built operations like the ones above? Of course not. They are selling saxophones that were made by the same few places in China, Taiwan, or Vietnam. Often a single factory in China will be represented by many different trading companies, who in turn have many different clients in the West, meaning that there will be dozens or hundreds of different “brands” over here that are basically the same instrument! In fact, anybody with enough money (and that bar is constantly lowering) can ask a factory over there to put their name and engraving design on a horn, build a website, and then sell “custom” “professional” or literally whatever they want to say saxophones. If you’ve got a little bit of extra money, you can ask for specific features (e.g. Hey I like the bronze body on this one, but can we use the Abalone pearls from this one? How about if we made 50 sterling necks, what would that run me?). People have been doing this for years now, but now the bar has been lowered both monetarily and communications wise and if you have a couple grand you can buy a bunch of horns to sell yourself. Click this link and see just how easy and cheap it is: Alibaba- Search Saxophone, China
Of course, some E. Asian imported horns are of a much higher quality than others. And as of this writing, some retailers do value-add, like for instance the well-built E. Asian sourced horns sold by Tenor Madness, which undergo a considerable amount of setup (basically an overhaul, as I understand it). Or P. Mauriat, which is another well-built Taiwanese brand that has an established dealer network, parts availability, a warranty, etc. (and yes that basic stuff is quite notable in the import saxophone business). Chateau is an often well-made Vietnamese brand whose star is rising; I actually visited the factory in 2008. And of course there are others. And I don’t even have a problem with the idea of relatively cheap imported horn that doesn’t have a ton of value-add in it, as long as it is priced commensurate with its value and its origin is clear so the consumer knows what they are buying. There is definitely a space in the market for a cheap horn that lasts a few years and can be bought new without any hassle- with the understanding that it in fact is a cheap horn, that it actually doesn’t cost much, that the quality of the build is not the best, and that it is compared to a truly professional quality instrument essentially a throwaway item (although if you are searching for a cheap good student sax, I recommend a used Yamaha YAS or YTS 23 and taking to a reputable repairer to get it fixed up if it needs it).
But that isn’t how a large segment of the market currently operates. There are a ton of “custom” and “premium” and what-have-you saxophones with premium prices and claims to professional quality that just aren’t professional quality instruments. And not only is this wrong on the face of it- as in it is morally wrong to exploit a gap in consumer knowledge for profit- but it is long-term damaging to the saxophone world. What kid starting out is going to get a second chance when his parents blow $2500 on a saxophone with a wholesale price of $250 that fails after a couple years and is not easily repairable? How comfortable will they feel buying another saxophone- ever? As seems to be a near-universal human failure, short-term profits come at the expense of the long-term big picture.
So if you are going to buy a saxophone that is handmade in wherever, ask them to prove it.