First things first: DO NOT LEARN TO REPAIR ON A GREAT SAXOPHONE. The great saxophones of today and in particular yesteryear are singular and irreplaceable, and properly cared for will last for 200-300 years. This means they belong mostly to future generations, since the majority of their useful life lays ahead of them. We are stewards of these instruments, not owners, and you owe it to the future generations yet to come to err on the side of preservation, always.
That said, neither the high end or the low end of the saxophone world is appropriate for learning repair. On the high end, you risk (more like guarantee, actually) doing long-term damage to an irreplaceable instrument. On the low end, there will be so many flaws and shortcuts taken in manufacturing that you won’t have a solid foundation to stand on, and you’ll never know whether you did a repair the right way since everything else is still wrong. You can’t fix what wasn’t built right in the first place.
In my opinion, the perfect saxophones for learning to repair are student horns from the 1940s through the 1970s, made in America. They are “student” models but the quality is better than a lot of today’s import “professional” horns. These can be found for a few hundred dollars apiece in most cases, and are available in alto and tenor. Some example makes and models that would be good:
My personal favorites:
• King Cleveland, serials 45,000 to 700,000 or so. Models vary. These are durable, well built, comfortable, and sound great.
• Martin Indiana, any serial as far as I am aware. The ones that are based on the Martin Committee are best though. These are also durable, well built, comfortable, and sound great. They sport soft-soldered toneholes, which IF they need repair can be a challenge (but you are here to learn, right?).
And the rest:
• Post-buyout Buescher or Bundy I (same basic thing, except you might have to deal with snaps if you get one labeled Buescher)
• Conn Pan-American (these are highly variable- some are extremely nice Conn 6M stencils, some are truly awful, so do your research)
• The Vito Kenosha horns are alright too but they have a byzantine history to figure out to know you are getting one of the good ones.
• and the Yamaha 23 of the 1980s-1990s is also a good bet price-wise and quality-wise.
You also don’t want to learn on a baritone or soprano- baritones are usually really beat up, sopranos are a bit harder to work on in general, and neither sopranos or baritones really exist in the mid-level mid-century stuff as described above so are therefore more expensive.
You want a clean horn. Not refinished, not wrapped around a tree, not left in a flood. All original parts need to be present. All parts need to move freely. The idea is to keep the variables to a minimum. By purchasing a mid-century American made student horn, you are keeping the quality variables down- the horn is built right to begin with. This point is lost if you buy one that has been heavily damaged. Buying one that is unmolested with original pads is great if possible. Freshly overhauled- especially at a bargain price by an unknown repairer- is usually worse for your purposes than one that has 60 year old pads, believe it or not. You might even want to take your newly purchased learning horn to a local repairer to get anything major straightened out (body bend, frozen keys, pulled down neck, bad neck fit etc.) before you get started- I would certainly recommend it.
This might take you a few weeks of trolling ebay and forums and craigslist and pawn shops and so forth to find one. They were sold to students originally, after all. But the wait will be worth it to find a clean one so you can learn on something that isn’t a can of worms.
Just remember: reduce the variables. You wouldn’t drag a rustbucket Fiat out of a barn to start learn to repair cars- you’d change the oil on a Toyota. And then when that went right, maybe you’d change the spark plugs. And then if that went ok, maybe move on to the brakes. One step at a time, stepwise, carefully, slowly, checking that you did it correctly before moving on. If you do a repair procedure with 5 steps and it comes out wrong, you’ve got 5 places to look for the error. If you do a procedure with 50 steps… you get the idea.
And once you get one of these working, you can donate it or loan it out or play on it! They all play great when fixed up, and assuming you do a good job on the repairs, they beat the pants off of any student horn being made today.
I recommend keeping one of these first horns around as your testbed. Got another horn that needs a post resoldered? Better to unsolder and resolder one (or more) on your testbed first. The less you can be doing something for the first time on anything else, the better.
When you’ve got a bunch of the above type of horns under your belt and you are less likely to damage the horns you are working on and you are looking for your first professional horns upon which to work, you can try:
• Martin Handcraft and their stencils
• Buescher True Tone and their stencils
• Couf Superba II
• Yamaha 52
• early Yanagisawas (pre-800 series)
• 1950s-1960s Conns
• King Voll-True
• Beaugnier stencils (there are a ton)
These are fine saxophones in every respect, but are not nearly as valued as their close relatives (with whom they often share many design features) and can be found for relatively cheap, and often would languish unrepaired due to to the unprofitability of doing so as a professional/business- so pick one up and bring it back to life and you’ve not only learned something and come away with a great saxophone, but you’ve done the world a favor by doing so.
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