The Saxophone Family

I bought a cheap sax from eBay...

So What!

This is a simple cautionary tale from a guy who thought he'd picked up a bargain!

In May 2007, I commenced a quest to rekindle a long lost hobby... playing the Sax.

My son had recently started getting guitar lessons at the excellent Get Sorted project in Rotherham, and on one of my trips to take him to his lesson, a member of the team had asked if I wanted to join their "adult group", which met to play on a monday night. All very informal I was informed!

In my day, I loved playing, and for a long time (from the age of 16), played in a local band. Although we were never destined to make the big time, we used to make a fair bit of beer money playing private functions like summer balls and weddings. The band was a 6 piece soul band... singer, guitar, bass, drums, plus me on sax and an old school friend who played keyboards and trumpet.

At the time, I had a beautiful Conn 6M Underslung "Lady Face" Eb Alto, an outstanding Yanagisawa curved Bb soprano and a battered old Beuscher Aristocrat Bb Tenor. The tenor was my staple horn, and it had seen a lot of service; very much a Gig Sax! In some respects, I was often scared to get the Conn or my Yani out for fear of them getting damaged at a gig. I had Otto Link Super Tonemaster mouthpieces for the Conn (5* lay) and the Beuscher (8* lay). I hated being "hard wired" so had also invested in an AKG C419 and a B9 battery clip, which ran into a Samson single diversity radio pack. I note the C419 is still available today (though upgraded and now the C519), even though I bought mine in 1991!

Work commitments meant that I left the band in 1997 and later sold all my gear EXCEPT for the 8* Otto Link Super Tonemaster. Aside from being called in to play a couple of times after leaving (most notably on New Years Eve, Dec 31st 1999!) I had not played since '97 when I left.

I didn't originally regret selling up, but in recent times I've begun to feel like I perhaps made a mistake. Getting asked if I wanted to play again got me yearning, as much for a hobby as anything else. I've spent the last 7 years since 2000 working my n**s off getting my business up and running successfully, and perhaps now was the time to start living a life again!

So, I needed a sax, but at the same time wasn't sure whether I'd still have the blow in me... which led to me making the daftest decision of my life!

Hunting on ebay

Come on, we've all done it... turned to ebay on our quest for a bargain.

So, here's me, all fired up, but with a nagging at the back of my head not to spend too much. Look for a bargain I tell myself over and over again.

Example listing:

Cheap Blue SaxBb Tenor Saxophone Finished in a double coating of stunning deep blue lacquer.
XXXXXX saxophones are famous for their effortless light action, good even intonation and rich deep vintage sound.
Features:

XXXXXX saxophones have all the features of top professional models;
  • Single piece annealed bell
  • FREE pad saver
  • Drawn neck, body and tone holes
  • Fully ribbed construction
  • Each saxophone security marked
  • Premium leather pads
  • Leather bound solid wood luxury sturdy snug fit case that not only looks good, but also protects your instrument
  • Nickel tone reflectors
  • Front F#
  • Mixture of blue steel and stainless steel springs give XXXXXX's a truly unique even action
  • Machined tapered pivot screws
  • High G as standard on all straight soprano models
  • Natural cork & pressed felt used throughout
  • Subtle engraving on the bell creating an understated classy designer appearance
  • Coloured saxophones have brass inner so they sound just as good as the brass models
  • All instruments fully set up & tested before dispatch
  • No reserve auction items include our 2 Year Warranty
The price of "new" saxophones soon begins to surprise me. In the dim and distant past, I seem to remember a reasonable student horn being about £500. My Beuscher, second hand, set me back about £300 and it was by no means a great horn. So, finding horns on ebay for £200 and under somewhat took me by surprise.

I'm not unused to the fact that many products have become cheaper over the past 20 years... and I'm also not unused to the amount of tat that masquerades as reasonable product across huge sections of the retail market... but the low price of saxophones just seemed daft.

I then start to see that some of these very same saxes are sold via auction listings and often go for under £100! I read the feedback and almost everyone seems mightily pleased with their investments.
I do a bit of research, and find (and read) this page over at sax.co.uk which talks about cheap saxes and the influx of cheap Chinese made saxes flooding in through sites like ebay.

So now I have a problem. The logical part of my mind is telling me to not buy one of these saxes. It'll just be a waste of money. But the trusting side of my mind is saying it's worth of go... surely, all these feedback's can't be wrong... just how bad could it be... the sound is determined more by the player than the sax... the sound is determined more by the mouthpiece than the sax... the Beuscher was no great horn, it can't be any worse than that... and so on...

So, the trusting side of my brain wins out...

7 days later, I have "won" an auction for a "Bently Jet Series V Blue Tenor Saxophone". What's more, I've won it for just £150 plus about £15 delivery... BARGAIN!

OK, so I would have preferred a black one, but hey, who's complaining... a brand new sax, case, strap, mouthpiece etc all for under £200!!! I'm feeling very pleased with myself. Even if it's not a very good horn, the money I've paid for it I am really not going to be disappointed.

So, my sax arrives...

Within a few minutes, the cardboard and bubblewrap is off and the sax is out of its case.

So the case is a bit flimsy and isn't really strong enough to carry the weight of the sax... the case flexes dramatically as you lift it up by its handle... for what it cost, I'm not complaining...

A close look at the keywork and everything looks fine. It even "feels" reasonably positive across most of the key range... at this price I can live with a floppy key...

Mouthpiece out of the case... hmm, best chuck that straight in the bin... it's awful! But what do I care, I still have my Otto Link Super Tonemaster... the daddy! So out it comes.

The seller has kindly sent me a reed to get me going... I' m not sure whether it was meant to get me going doing some decking out in the garden but it only just passes as a reed. I'm a little out of touch with playing so not being able to get a sensible note on this reed doesn't really surprise me. Fortunately, I have a *very* old Rico plasticover still in the box with my Link mouthpiece. Sadly it has a 5mm crack down it, but it'll still blow, so I pop it on and the sax springs to life.

Now, I will be the first to accept that I'm out of practise. I'll also be the first to accept that an 8* Super tonemaster is a very aggressive mouthpiece that takes a lot of lung power. But I sounded dreadful. Given my own limitations and the mouthpiece, plus the terrible state of the reed I'm trying to blow, I put the sax away, go online and order some new reeds. This pretty sax can wait til I have the right tools (new reeds) and can have a good old blow to get rid of my cobwebs.

I'm a strong believer in the ebay feedback system and will not abuse it. Was the instrument what it claimed to be in the listing? Yes. Did the instrucment have all the features claimed in the listing? Yes. Was it as per the listing? Yes. Did everything listed as being included come with it? Yes. Did it arrive safely and in a reasonable time after the auction end? Yes. Did the seller deserve positive feedback? Based on the above... Yes.

And so my positive feedback was left.

New Reeds and an hour (or three) blowing...

So, sax.co.uk have delivered my new (box of) reeds. I opted for 1/2 strength less than I used to blow because I'm out of practise and generally not as fit as I used to be.

I'm in the house on my own, out comes the blue horn...

New reed at the ready, lined up on the link mouthpiece exactly as I used to do...

OK, who invited the goose into my garden...

Wait on, that's no goose, it's me on this sax...

Line the reed up again on the mouthpiece and have another go...

Seems a lot harder to blow than I remember, but then again I'm not fit any more...

Eventually, I start to get the feel for it back and I'm starting to get quite a reasonable sound...

You know what, this horn isn't that bad after all... for the money!

I carried on having a blow for a few days and each day, my fingers and mouth loosened up a little more... before making the trip to play with the band at Get Sorted...

The session with the band beckons...

Right, I've a had a few days now. It is all coming back to me (it's just like riding a bicycle... you never forget) and I'm ready to go have a laugh with a group of like minded adults who just want to have a jam...

So, the next band session comes round and off I go...

These are really nice people... Lots of different abilities, some good players and some only just setting out learning. So, the Beatles isn't my particular favourite type of music, but at least we all know the tune and, even if our music reading is a little rusty, we can busk it!

I've not played from a score since I was 17 (over 20 years ago) but I can still read music and play to it. My pitch is also pretty good and I can spot a duff note a mile off.
So, I know I'm not playing (many) wrong notes, but why does it sound so bad? Yes, my colleagues are novices, and tuning across the entire band isn;t exactly excellent, but someone playing my line is all over the place.
Give it 10 minutes and get me and the sax warmed up...
Nothing changes and if anything, intonation gets worse...
Is it me?
YES!

Can I really have become such a terrible player in the past 7 years of not playing? I guess it is possible, but with a few hours back under the belt before heading off down to play with the group, I would have expected most of my cobwebs to have gone, certainly enough for me to feel comfortable in amongst a group less experienced (and new) players.

What struck me the most was that after an hour of trying to keep this horn in tune with the rest of the group, I was knackered! Intonation between keys is not wildly out, but it is out enough to make it noticeable, so you tune up or down with your mouth. I am used to an old battered sax (the Beuscher) which needed tuning up in the low ranges and down in the top but this thing needed work up and down all over the rage with no particular consistency. One note was up, the next down... It began to strike me that this sax was nothing more than pretty looking scrap metal shaped like a saxophone.

Confined to the cupboard under the stairs...

So that is it. The sax went back in its (crap) case and went into the cupboard under the stairs.

I will likely never play it again...

I can't even give it away because I wouldn't want anyone else to suffer...

In short, it was the biggest waste of £150 ever and I sorely regret letting the trusting side of my brain win.

Has it put me off starting up again?... YES... For now... BUT

When the time comes to try again, I will not be so foolish as to believe that "It can't be that bad"... it is!

When the time comes to buy again, I will visit a specialist who can advise me about what is best/right for my budget and best/right for my skills... then I'd spend a more reasonable sum and not be disappointed.

Other people's thoughts

I've since been online looking up information and feedback on the horn I bought.

What I have found makes interesting reading. It seems people are willing to buy and accept these horns AND shout about it. Moreover, they will shout down someone who dares to suggest that they aren't very good!

Some people believe these saxes to be great but then qualify the statement with "for the money...". Indeed I keep seeing it being stressed that the price is the key fact that we should consider before passing comment.

Yes, I guess price of the instrument is a key factor... I guess that if I look at it in purely financial terms, did I get my moneys worth? Yes, I suppose I did. It plays (albeit badly). It looks like a sax. I just cannot get any pleasure out of playing it.

An update; March 2010

Nearly three years on and as per my earlier ascertation, the sax has lived in it's crap case, albeit beneath my bed since the outing to Get Sorted.

So, it's the end of January 2010 and the weather is awful. One saturday I get a call from the trumpet player from the band I used to play with (The Vehicle) asking if I fancy a bit of a laugh, only a local school is organising a Haiti earthquake charity gig and wants the old "The Vehicle" to re-form and play some of the old stuff in "the barn" at the Rockingham Arms in Wentworth (Nr Sheffield). The deadline is a week the following friday!!! It turns out they havne't played together as the old band for several years, though most of the old members have been playing or performing in other bands in the meantime. What the heck says I!

As it happens, Simon (the trumpet player) bought a vintage Conn 10M tenor whilst we were still all together, in an attempt to learn sax so I asked whether he still had it and, a condition of me returning to play would be that I'd need to borrow it for the gig!

So, the following Monday evening, we all assemble at the rehearsal room... our original singer (Dave) and guitarist (Sergio "Podge"), Simon (Trumpet) and a drummer (Frank) who played with us in our first band. I then met for the first time, Mark who played bass with the guys after I left and later formed Steel City Soul and JT, a very talented drummer but who for the pruposes of this gig would take on keyboards (on which he is also very talented!).

Simon has remembered the Conn 10M so out it comes, a joy to behold. I have a quick blow to loosen my fingers and immediately feel at home, it blows like a dream. Just to check, I'd dragged the blue beast from beneath the bed, dusted it off and taken it with me, so dragged it out of it's case and gave it a similar blow. It is exactly as a remembered... awful, hopeless tuning and the lower register is difficult to blow freely.

4 hours later, we've rattled through about 75 minutes worth of the old material... it's weird because so much of it just comes back as though I've been playing it for years! Indeed I reckon Mark thinks I've been fibbing about how much I've played over the past 10 years!

The following Sunday, we have a further rehearsal to run through the set... no problems at all. The following friday, the gig is upon us!

To be honest, I reckon we put on a better performance than many bands that practise for months and months, but my overriding memory is just how easy the Conn 10M is to play.

So, at least now, I know that the goose was that awful cheap saxophone from ebay and not me!

I have been looking around for a suitable 10M to buy ever since!

An update; April 2012

Following that first gig back with the old band, I started tentatively looking for a Conn 10M to buy. A little bit of research revealed that the sax our trumpet player owns was not, in fact, a 10M but it's short term predecessor, the "New Wonder Transitional", as although it shared some of the later 10M's keywork and the elaborate "Lady Face" engraving, it was not actually stamped 10M and had some non 10M keywork too, like split bell keys.

Checking out the serial number on an american website revealed the body as being made in 1933, but historical delving seems to suggest that a number of horns were made with mixed keywork, and engraved later (after launch of the 10M) at the point of sale. This was one of them.

So, my quest to find another had taken a solemn turn. The chances of finding one seemed slim at best, but I persevered.

Over the following months, we played together for gigs on another couple of occassions, and each time the Conn "Tranny" played a dream. This further hardened my resolve to locate one the same, no matter what it cost and no matter how long it took... I had the silver one to borrow whenever I wanted anyway!

Well, the gods must have been smiling down on me as, despite a number of 10M's popping up for sale (one of which I came awfully close to buying), a genuine "tranny" popped up in the summer of 2011. Like Simon's, it was listed as a 10M Lady Face, but the different keywork was mentioned and the seller even said he'd struggled to pinpoint exactly what it was. So, I dropped him a line to explain my position and enquire about the serial number. Low and behold, the serial was within 100 of Simon's silver one (likely made just a few weeks apart). Indeed, from what I could see from photos of this one, the only difference was that this was lacquered.

The seller seemed keen to sell to someone who knew exactly what it was, and was so determined to get such a specific sax that the deal was struck and off I popped down to London with my Link mouthpiece a week later.

Well, what can I say... awesome! Having been recently overhauled/serviced, this example was, in many respects, better than the borrowed one. So easy to blow, really easy to control and the sound was so rich and powerful... It became mine.

So, I popped in to sax.co.uk and (having rung ahead a few days before to ensure they had it in stock) tried my new horn with the special "vintage" edition of the Otto Link mouthpiece, in the same tip and lay as my existing piece. Blew both mine and the vintage piece against each other and the vintage just made this sax really come to life... really expressive but with no lack of power, big sound, mellow sound, whatever I wanted of it, this mouthpiece seemed to deliver, so I bought it.

I used to run a radio mic setup in the old days, so was also tempted by those... and subsequently got the AKG C519 with Perception wireless kit... so now, I'm pretty much kitted out.

The first time I took MY sax to a rehearsal with the guys, I even got a comment about how good the tone of this setup was... something I never got on the borrowed one, so all in all, my investment and patience has paid off.

My next quest, having started to play with a new band is to find a Conn Crossbar Baritone. There's a bari player in the new lineup who has one... he let me have a quick blow and I'm smitten!
After I've found one, I'll then turn my quest to finding a 6M underslung from the late 40's early 50's and, possibly even a Conn curly soprano! Who knows ;-)

If you have a Conn Crossbar Baritone Sax for sale and would be interested in parting with it, please drop me a line at me@siwatts.co.uk and we'll talk!


Further update: June 2012

The quest for a Conn Crossbar baritone sax proved simpler than I anticipated.
A chance landing on a sax forum posting from 2 years ago revealed a comment about Howarth's of London havig not one but two Crossbars for sale! I checked their website which, sure enough, had two listed, however they seemed to be priced a little steeply compared to what I'd heard market value to be... indeed, one of the comments about them on the forum had been that they were overpriced.

I tentatively rang to enquire a little more about them and was told that several people had been, had a blow and loved them but were unwilling to part with the price quoted. At this stage, the bari player in the new band had just been sacked (because he was rather unreliable) but another guy (with a real heap of junk sax) had been brought in, so I let the idea go. Two weeks later and the new bari player has also been sacked (it turns out he can only play from scores and not by ear, but as a result, he couldn't tell when his scores were wrong!). So now I've got a conundrum... Do I take a trip down to London, shell out an over the odds price for a bari sax when I've only ever had a quick blow on one here and there before on the off chance that I can cut the mustard and switch to bari in the new band (after all Tenor players are ten-a-penny! [as our bass player told me on several occassions]). I check with the guys whether they'd be willing to at least give me a go "if" I did fall in love with one of the two baris and I get an affirmative so off I head. Fortunately, I had to go down to London anyway to collect my son from Uni at the end of the summer terms so I've already an excuse for the trip.

I'd rung ahead to Howarths to tell them I'd be coming, which day etc and that I'd need a full kit out IF I chose to buy.

Well, the guys at Howarths were great. It turned out that both crossbars were private sales, just through the shop.

So Conn Crossbar #1 is a 1931 (from serial number) re-laquered "Transitional" and is NOT stamped 12M, and #2 is a 1936 lacquered stamped 12M. Visually, the 1931 looks in better condition, aside from a couple of knocks/repairs and somehow, the setup feels a little free'er in my hands.

I was allowed as much time as I wanted downstairs to blow both horns. Initially, I couldn't detect much difference in tone though I played the 1931 first and the 1936 one felt a little better when I first blew it. Switching back to the 31 revealed it was much easier playing, rock solid right though the range with really good intonation and I put the initial better feeling down to me needing to warm up and not being a bari player. The 36 required that little more effort as the setup was that little bit firmer. I'd been lent my favourite mouthpiece (on tenor) to have a go on (I kind of figured it best to go with something familiar bearing in mind this was going to be my serious blow on a bari!) in the form of the trusty Otto Link SuperTonemaster, again in an 8* lay. At the same time, they also lent me another metal piece to have a blow on but, having tried both, the Link just felt more familiar and easy to blow.

I chopped and changed between the two and confirmed for myself that the '31 was the one that would be making the trip back with me! So, I'm now the proud owner of another Conn Transitional... this time a Bari.

The excellent news is that, as this sax is so easy to blow, I've settled in to my new role as Bari player within the band and I honestly wish I'd bought one years ago! I haven't played my tenor since! The band has a new Tenor player (very good he is!) whom I don't think quite believed I'd only just bought the crossbar and prior to that had never played bari before (aside from the odd blow here and there).

If I get chance, I'll photograph both of these heavenly instruments and post them here. Not cheap ( though a pittance compared to vintage Selmers which I personally don't like) but worth every penny!

As mentioned before, perhaps the next quest will be to match my 1933 Conn Transitional Tenor and 1931 Conn Transitional Crossbar with an appropriate 6M alto and a 4M curly soprano... Not to play, just to complete the collection!

Final update: October 2013

The new band is now gigging.

As promised, the other guys in the band gave me a chance to get used to the new beast and since, I've pretty much left the tenor untouched. It did get an outing with the original band earlier on in the year when we [again] reformed to do the local beer and music festival (http://www.magnarealale.co.uk ) but otherwise I am now a hardened Bari player.

I've stuck with the Otto Link STM 8* and after toying with a stand mounted AKG P2 mic, have reverted to using the AKG C519ML clip on and perception radio kit which works pretty well on the bari. The only modifications I've made to the mic rig being the addition of a B29L battery pack and a second AKG mic: C516L which is now aimed to pick up the mid register area. Had to fabricate a plexiglas panel to mount the battery pack, radio pack and second mic, but it works well and the sound now is considerably more even across the register. With just the 519, the mid registers were a little lacking but I understand Bari's are difficult beasts to mic up with radio gear.

I've not yet bought a 6M, nor a 4M. I dare say, if the right one(s) crop up, I'd still like to omplete the collection, but for now they're on the back burner.

A Further update: December 2014

I've continued tweaking my setup!!!

One of the big issues I've found whilst playing is that my hearing is damaged. Obviously several years of playing have taken their toll. I can hear my sax perfectly whilstever it's just me playing, but as soon as drums and backline kick in, I'm unable to adequately hear me!

I tried a dedicated floor monitor but it just made the cacophony of on-stage noise worse. So, I decided to try using in-ear monitors. I picked up a Shure PSM200 setup, routed my mic(s) through one channel and took a vanilla front of house mix into the second, giving me control to get the right amount extra of me over the main mix. Initially it was great. However, I quickly became disorientated and started to feel isolated from the rest of the band... in turn removing one of the earbuds so I felt part of stage. Gradually, I've found that with just one ear-bud in, I don't need the main mix in ear as I can already get that from stage, so ended up routing just my sax mics into the in-ears.

Seems daft though... wireless transmiter from sax into a wireless transmitter back to me!

So I started looking for a simpler setup, one which meant I could tap off my sax mics before the signal even leaves "me".

At the same time, I have chucked in the AKG PW45 wireless kit in favour of a digital wireless system from Line6. Whilst I was at it, I decided to have another look at my mics. I've always liked the simplicity and performance of the AKG micromics and had, until recently been using two; a clip on C519L on the bell plus a C516L mounted to a plexiglas panel I fabricated which straps over the bell tonehole cages. The C516L is identical to the C519 except for its mounting; it mounts to a railed shoeplate which needs screwing/glueing to a flat surface. C516 is marketed for accordians and suchlike. I was never really happy with the C516 mount so have ditched it in favour of a second C519 which neatly clips onto the Conn's bell brace (the "crossbar") and can easily be aimed where I want it. Indeed, it tucks in so nicely, very few people would realise it is even there!

I've needed to make up special cables to rig it all together but this is how I now mic up my baritone;

AKG C519L x2
in to
AKG B29L mini mixer / battery pack
in to
Rolls PM55P Personal Monitor Mixer » in-ears
in to
Line6 TBP12 digital instrument beltpack transmitter
transmits to
Line6 XD-V75 receiver

I've done our first gig with the new setup and, I reckon I've got it nailed now! Well, at least until I fancy tweaking again!

Update: June 2017

Fate has a habit of kicking you in the nuts! What is it about bands and the politics of playing in one?

You've just got the band tight as a camels proverbial in a sandstorm and suddenly egos erupt and before you know it, it seems like the world is collapsing.
Our 7 piece band withered to a 5 piece following the departure first of a bass player, followed not too long after by the keyboard player. The difficult politics also meant we lost our girl singer leaving just four of us (male singer, guitar drums and me) looking for a new bass player at the minimum.

Some soul searching later and we've morphed from being almost 100% Northern Soul into something a little more varied, retaining a good deal of the Northern Soul stuff we'd been so good at, but adding in some Motown, R'n'B and even a little funk.

I've returned to my Tenor and now play both tenor and bari across our new set.

This, in turn, brought new problems... two saxes meant attempting a very nifty changeover, but the mixer wouldn't be set up for the sounds of both the Conn beasts through a single mic.
Solution: a second wireless kit and route into 2 channels, one set up for Tenor, the second for Bari
I've ditched in-ears altogether. The new bass player is far more tame on stage so all the problems I was having hearing myself are gone!
I have also dropped to using just the single C519L on my bari. The second definitely adds to the sound quality but in most scenarios is a little overkill.
The only new toy in the rig is a TC Helicon Voicetone D1 doubler pedal which I run my tenor through in Octave Up mode for some sections of some songs... giving the impression of a trumpet blowing over the top of me!

Haven't yet bought a 6M or a 4M... who knows when!
Please don't be fooled by these cheap horns.

Youngsters who are setting out learning are far more likely to want to carry on playing if the playing experience is a pleasurable one.

Some budget horns *may* be better than others.

Buy or rent a decent horn OR look for something second hand, but do so through a proper music shop where there is a sax player on hand.