(updated Nov 18th, 2014)
When looking for a baritone saxophone there are a huge number of factors to consider. The following are the factors that I consider the most important, and my thoughts concerning each one.
I have no stake in your eventual decision to buy an instrument, and the only thing I have to give is my opinion. Everything I’ve said here is based on my experience playing, practicing, researching and talking to other musicians about these horns, but there are obviously going to be exceptions.
Here’s what is most important:
How a horn sounds and if it works for you. It doesn’t matter if you are playing a lead pipe with popsicle stick on the end of it, as long as it sounds and feels good to you.
New or Vintage?
In this author’s opinion, the new horns today are not up to snuff compared to older ones. This is especially true of the baritones. They are far too often neglected or not even produced at all by newer companies. Selmer has been constantly behind in their baritone models since at least the 70’s — there was no Mark VII produced because they were so behind they eventually just started putting out the new model as Series I’s. Borgani makes great horns, but their baritone has been “coming soon” for about 5 years now. There may be good new horns out there today, but the majority are not great and they certainly don’t compare to those of yesteryear. And perhaps the companies aren’t to be blamed. There simply is not a large enough market for professional quality baritones to justify producing great horns. That being said there are a huge number of new horn manufacturers starting up shop, it is my hope that with time, practice and research the new horns produced will someday rival any made before.
There are some upsides to a new horn:
- Won’t need repair work as often — parts will be much easier to replace
- Likely to be sturdier
- They’ll be cleaner, and look “nicer” (although some new horns also offer a sort of “vintage” look, if you prefer that)
- Almost all new horns are made with Low A’s — often encouraged by band directors, used in rock bands, and marching bands/
- Easier to find, and can be ordered
- Much brighter sound in general — subject to brand and model.
- Intonation is likely to be more accurate, and smoother keywork
- More consistent from one horn to the next
… and there are definitely some downsides to a new horn:
- The Sound! this is debatable, but I firmly believe the newer horns’ sounds are often thinner and never as rich as most older horns. Although with the new resurgence of modern horn manufacturing, I have great optimism that newer horns will continue to improve.
- New horns can be much heavier
- Poorer craftsmanship — can’t be helped, as it is simply not cost effective or even possible to hand-craft horns anymore
- Much harder to find models without a Low A
- Fewer choices in bore dimensions. Most modern saxophones’ inside dimensions are modeled after Selmer’s so fans of the Vintage Conn/King/Martin sound will be at a loss.
- Fewer model options for each brand than altos or tenors
- Less unique, and less chance of finding that one horn that really stands out and speaks!
I won’t even attempt to list all of the companies now manufacturing new baritones as there are new ones seemingly all the time. However a few to check out: Selmer, Yanigasawa, Yamaha, P Mauriat, Cannonball, MAC Sax, the list goes on..
For vintage horns there are 4 common major brands to consider: Conn, King, Selmer and Martin, with Conn and Selmer leading the pack. Over the years and through many mergers and buyouts Selmer and Conn are now one company. There are some very decent Bueshcer horns for great prices out there too.
Martin Baritones are relatively cheap, well made and sound pretty good. An excellent choice for someone looking for a nice older horn without the outrageous price tag. They can be heavy due to their soldered tone holes and construction.
King Baritones are relatively cheap as well and sound very nice. King saxophones generally are a bit brighter and years ago were the standard among “rock” saxophonists in the early days.
There are many great lesser known horns out there as well, low Bb Bueschers are beautiful horns and Couf (made by Keilwerth) produced good baritones in the ’70s. Artists such as Glenn Wilson and Tim Price have played them.
There is a pronounced difference between “American” style horns and “French” horns. Selmers being the predominant French-made horn, and Kings, Conn’s and Martin’s being American. The American horns have a different bore shape and size, and sometimes a larger bell. They generally have a broader larger sound as opposed to a narrow more focused sound. Most modern and new horn manufacturers base their designs on the French style.
Selmer Baritones. The Selmer Mark VI is probably the most sought after model of saxophone ever made. There is certainly a large demand for Selmer baritones as well. The best models to look out for are the Balanced Action and Mark VI. Ronnie Cuber, Claire Daly, Howard Johnson, Pepper Adams, and plenty more have all used Selmer baritones. Selmers in general have a very focused sound and excellent key work. If you are looking for a vintage horn with a Low A, Selmer is probably the way to go since they have been making them since the 50’s or so. Keep in mind that most modern/new horns emulate the bore shape and size of Selmer’s Mark VI.
The Conn. It seems to me that more great baritone players have chosen Conn than any other. A short list includes: Harry Carney, Gerry Mulligan, Scott Robinson, Gary Smulyan, Hamiett Bluiett, Dana Colley and others. Perhaps this is due to Conn’s deep beefy sound that goes hand in hand with the lower register. The key work is a little more awkward than Selmer’s (often no articulated G# key), but if the Conn sound is what you are going after, the time it takes to adjust to the keys will be well worth the huge sound. Generally the best Conns are those made before the factory was moved to Mexico in the late 50’s. The classic Conn baritone model is the 12m “Naked Lady” or “Lady Face”. These nicknames refer to the engraving of a female figure on the bell of the horn. Conns before 1960 are mostly low Bb horns. Some Conn’s also feature a zinc neckstrap ‘ring’ which does not wear down like most rings. Be wary as some of the later Conn’s after the factory was moved are generally lesser instruments, sometimes identifiable by the nickel (silver looking) keys. Also, older Conn’s have rolled tone holes, although there is a period in the 50’s before the move where they produced fine horns without rolled tone holes as well.
Low A or Low Bb?
PERSONAL OPINION BELOW:
Some swear by low A horns and some swear against them. The way I see it, everyone who uses a Low A essentially just wants that extra note. I have not come across too many players that play a Low A because of the way it sounds. I don’t think the Low Bb players dislike having an extra note, they are simply not willing to sacrifice anything for it. The Low A definitely weakens the power of the low end of the horn. From a business perspective one could argue that you need a low A for when Broadway shows, recording sessions (jingles) or big band charts call for it. Personally, I’d rather have the entire range of the horn sound better, than be able to hit another note ( Click here to read how to make an extension for your low Bb horn!). That being said, I do have a Low A baritone in the closet should I ever need it.
The Low A horn is not a bad idea in theory. However, they don’t seem well thought out. When designing a Low A horn the bell is generally just extended and another tone hole is drilled. If you look at any saxophone the opening at the neck is the smallest in diameter and the bell is the largest. Small to big. When they add a Low A they stop expanding the size of the tube so that the diameter at the Bb tone hole is the same as that at the Low A tone hole. Not that I blame them, to make a bell large enough to be in correct proportion it would have to be huge. But that doesn’t nullify the fact that the bell on Low A horns is just not big enough to account for all of the notes. To build a Low A horn you must design it from the neck down! Modern Low A baritones don’t resemble any of the other saxophones, just as straight soprano’s do not. the shape of the horn, bore dimensions, and bell size all vastly affect the sound of the entire instrument.
Low end aside, the extra hunk of metal on the end of the bell affects the resonance, timbre, and overall sound of the rest of the horn. Everyone claims you need a Low A baritone to play in a big band. This seems ironic to me, as it is much easier to punch the low end of the horn and support a section without the extra tubing!
Kenny Berger made the following comment, which I found helpful in explaining the issue:
“The sax, being a conical stopped pipe, has certain built-in acoustic properties. One is that the bell(lowest) note tends to be bright and full in quality and tune, if anything on the high side while the next note up (traditionally B natural), tends to be the darkest, most resistant note and tends to tune on the low side.
Needless to say, these aspects also effect the notes that fall within the overtones of these notes.
Add the low A and all these basic acoustic properties are thrown totally out of whack( is there any worse feeling than trying to get a good sound on low Bb on a low A horn). Plus I have run across some low A horns where the low A is flat!
Serial numbers are usually located on the bottom end of the horn on the back, just few inches lower than the thumb rest. Occasionally the serial number will be placed as well or only on the bell. There are often lists of a company’s serial numbers that can tell you what year a horn was manufactured.
There are some fanatics out there, usually Selmer Mark VI fans, that look for a horn based primarily on the serial number. Serial numbers will tell you the year the horn was made. The theory is that certain years produced better horns, perhaps because of better materials, better craftsman, economy etc. This is a decent theory, and for the most part the “good” serial number range horns may tend to be really great. However, this does not mean that an occasional terrible horn was not produced during the good years, or that an incredible horn was not produced in the years that don’t fall in the “good” serial number range. You can use these numbers as guidelines, buy my experience has told me that you just need to find as many horns as you can that fit your needs and try them all as much as you can. You may find you like the way the horns in the off years sound better than those in the prime years. A horn from the golden period may have been abused and poorly repaired as well, leading to a poorly functioning horn.
There are three common materials saxophones are made from (with many variations): Brass, Silver, and Gold. If fact they are all made of brass, but are sometimes plated with gold and/or silver. A straight brass horn, usually with lacquer, is by far the most common. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, and sometimes other metals. Over the years the ratios and components have changed greatly. New horns tend to have more zinc, giving them a brighter sound (and more weight, zinc is dense!). French brass has long been considered of the best quality. Brass is used for instruments because of the way it resonates as well as because it is an extremely soft metal and is very malleable.
Silver plated saxophones are not uncommon, however they are not generally solid silver. It is usually a brass body that has been plated in silver making these horns slightly heavier. A horn with silver plating will definitely have a slightly different tone, timbre and sound. Opinions vary as to exactly what the difference is. Gold plated horns are even less common. Gold is a heavy metal and plating a horn will make it even heavier. Gold tends to darken the sound of an instrument. Gold or silver plated horns are often more expensive than lacquered horns. Also, because gold does not bond well directly to brass gold plated horns will actually have a thin silver plating on top of the brass and below the gold, making them even heavier.
Sometimes people will find a vintage horn where some or most of the lacquer is worn off. In an attempt to “restore” the horn they will have it relacquered. This is not always a great idea and can ruin an otherwise excellent horn. The instrument companies are forced to change the composition of their lacquer every year due to new laws. Needless to say the lacquers used today are very different than those used years ago. And regardless of whether they are better or worse, they are not suited to the compositions of older horns. The method used to relacquer a horn is also a problem. It often involves dipping the horn in acid, or excessive buffing to remove all old lacquer. This can thin out the metal and greatly affect the sound and response of the horn. Relacquered horns are of lower value than the same horn that has incomplete or no lacquer. There are a few ways to tell if a horn has been relacquered. First of all, if a horn is more than 10 years old and has all or even most of the lacquer that is unusual. Also the engraving on the bell will be more shallow and less defined than it would otherwise be. If the horn is recently relacquered there may be a red dust residue left around the posts and keys.
The price of a horn largely depends on where you get it. Horns tend to be far more expensive in New York City, although most things are. More and more horns are sold over the Internet. This drives the prices of more inexpensive horns down, while sending the most sought after horns’ prices spiraling skyward. An eBay buy is always a bit of a risk unless you thoroughly do your research and don’t expect too much. There are some sites that have actual stores as well that are great. USAHorn.com has an excellent site, great horns, and a physical store you can visit as well.
I heard about a Low A mark VI baritone recently selling for $12,000 — this seems ridiculous. I would suggest never paying more than $7,000 for a baritone, and even than it would have to be the most amazing horn I had ever played to rate that price. A great Conn should run no more than $3,500 or so, and most other brands should be even less. Low A baritone’s also can cost more depending on make and age.
There are plenty of places to go find more information about every kind of horn imaginable. USAHorn.com just launched a new site which is pretty amazing, and has an incredible amount of information. You can take a look at it here: