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New vs. Used saxophones

 

This is a big decision when it comes to buying a saxophone. A lot of newcomers to the instrument don't even think about used saxophones as an option. If you are on a limited budget, or are not afraid of the research and legwork involved with a used saxophone, that may be the way to go. I will go over some of the pros and cons of each decision tohelp you decide which choice is best for you.

The New Saxophone

Pros of buying a new saxophone:

A new sax has special appeal. You know this saxophone is completely ready to play and has no wear or tear on it at all. The lacquer or plating is perfect and and the pads are new. You know that it has the most modern mechanism available and utilizes all of the modern production techniques. The new saxophone also offers support from the factory and/or the music store where you purchased it. This new saxophone also holds it's value fairly well for the first few months of ownership.

 

Sometimes you can even get a new saxophone at a very good price. There is also a significant psychological effect of knowing that this is a NEW saxophone. For younger or beginning students, that can be a big deal. When you are first starting out, it's not the sound of the saxophone that matters, it's how it looks.

 

Cons of buying a new saxophone:

Buying a new saxophone can be very expensive. New horns can cost up to 10 times as much as their used counterparts (not necessarily the same manufacturer and model, but a comparable professional horn). Also, there are a lot more used horns available for purchase than new horns. If you want a new professional model, you must understand that there are less than a dozen true professional manufacturers out there. Another problem found on many horns is a lack of consistency in quality of manufacture. With mass production, the artistic nature of producing a musical instrument is often lost. Companies which used to put a lot of time and effort toward craftsmanship have abandoned this approach for the sake of quantity. This is not to say that all horns produced today are shoddy, it is just a fact of modern business that quantity sometimes compromises quality.

Pros of buying a used saxophone:

A used saxophone is the most cost-effective option. With literally thousands of choices, a used horn can usually be found in your desired quality and price range. Also, the materials and craftsmanship of older used horns is usually superb. Older (vintage) saxophones usually have a great deal more engraving and frills than any other kind of horn. They are more likely to be plated (instead of lacquered) and have much stiffer brass.

Used horns are also easy to find. Most music stores offer a good selection of used horns, and there are plenty of stores nationwide that specialize in classic pro horns. Also there is a wide variety of sites on the Internet where literally hundreds of old saxophones are bought and sold daily. The on-line auction site ebay is a great place to find a used horn, as are other saxophone specific shops on-line which you could find online. Vintage horns also have a special mystique about them. That 1930 Conn alto was probably part of some swinging big band sax section back in the 40's. That Selmer tenor may have been played at Birdland in the 50's. Often the history of these horns is lost, but the fascination with them seems to live on from one generation of players to the next. I always wonder how the lacquer got worn off the inside of the bell on my alto...

Cons of buying a used saxophone:

The hardest part of buying a used saxophone is knowing what it is worth and what kind of condition it is in. Hopefully after reading this guide, you will be better equipped to determine these important facts. Without this vital information, the person selling this used horn has a great advantage over you. And, unfortunately, many people will try to take advantage of you if you don't know what you are doing. Buying horns over the Internet poses another level of complexity since you are relying on a written description or electronic photographs.

This raises another possible complication of buying a used horn from a private party (and sometimes even music stores). Usually a horn is not going to be in perfect condition when you go to look at it. If the horn looks perfect and plays perfect, that is exceedingly rare. Most of the time, the horn has been sitting for a period of time (usually years) and will leak fairly badly. This horn may also have some minor rod or key damage that keeps it from playing properly. In these all-too-common cases, you must try to determine if you can get a good enough idea about the horn to decide if you want to buy it. This is yet another case of where having someone along to try it is a good idea. Obviously when purchasing over the Internet, this tactile examination is often omitted. That is why it is especially important to only purchase from reputable dealers or people who have clearly documented the positivesand negatives. I never trust an Internet add or auction that doesn't explicitly detail damage, preferably with pictures. (For more information, see section 9, "Purchasing a horn on-line".)

There is another aspect to buying a used horn that is extremely important. Sometimes the horn you are looking at has been stolen from someone. I once had most of my horns stolen from my car (a matched set of gold-plated King soprano and alto from 1930, a solid-silver flute, Buffet clarinet, and Buescher True Tone bari). After a month, they turned up in a pawn shop where they were all (except for the bari) pawned for $100! These horns were stolen in a small town, so the police actually had time to look for them. Most players are not so lucky. Please, for the sake of fellow musicians, resist the temptation to buy that Mark VI for $100. Call the police to check the serial numbers to see if it was stolen. Somewhere there is a player who has lost their dearest posession, and would never be able to thank you enough if it was returned. Some possible warning signs for stolen horns are:

  • Filed down or missing serial number
  • A case that has a school's name painted on the outside
  • Unrealistically low price for condition and model (especially Selmer!!)
  • Strange behavior by the selling party
  • Someone who is not a sax player selling a pro horn that looks recently played
  • Someone who knows nothing about saxophones or the sax they have
  • Someone who will only show the sax outside their home or business
  • Someone who is too anxious to sell the horn

When buying or selling a horn, always try to find a way to confirm someone's physical address or phone number before completing the transaction. I recently was told a story by someone who sold a Mark VI tenor to a buyer who gave him a bogus cashier's check, ID and business card. The unwitting seller (who met the buyer in person) was unable to confirm the information until after the horn was in the thief's possession. He was stuck with no horn, no money and no hope of finding the person.

I can't emphasize enough how traumatic it is when your instrument is stolen. In my case, it was multiple instruments, and there was no way they could ever be replaced. The story of how my bari was finally recovered bears telling in this section.

While I was in college, I bought and sold saxophones to help pay for tuition. I had signs all over the small town advertising that I was looking for saxophones. A year after my horns were stolen and all but one returned, I got a call from a guy who said he had a bari that he wanted to sell. After asking a few questions, I immediately knew it was my Buescher True Tone that was stolen the year before. Apparently the thief never put 2 and 2 together to figure out that it was originally my horn. I went to check the horn out and played dumb. He was asking $100, and I made a counter offer of $50 which he accepted. I told him I was going to the bank to get the money. He reluctantly agreed. I called the police and they sent a plain clothes officer who purchased the stolen bari for $50, then arrested the guy. I testified in court and he was sent to prison (he had prior arrests for theft and assault). The bari had been mistreated badly while in the thief's possession. Apparently his little sister played it in pep band that whole year.

This story is a classic example of the usual life cycle of a stolen horn. If I had been someone else looking at the horn, I could have easily bought it for $50 and no one would have been the wiser. Meanwhile there would be a player somewhere really distraught over the ordeal. What I did was the right thing. If you suspect a horn may be stolen, report it to the police. Always.

Hopefully by now you know better what kind of horn you are looking for. As you continue, you can narrow your focus to a specific model or brand and then start looking.

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