“How much does it cost to purchase a saxophone?” I get this question frequently as I have been advising parents and students for the last 40 years regarding instrument purchases. The answer is…..it depends! Just like buying a car or a house, price, inventory and utility are the primary factors to consider. Is the student a beginner? Or an intermediate player looking to step up from a student model instrument? A budding professional or a serious student heading off to college looking for a top of the line instrument to use for the next 5 to 10 years? How much do you want to spend? Do you prefer new or used? Let’s examine the three basic scenarios and give you a framework to help you decide how to proceed.
1. Saxophone beginner with little to no experience: This may be the easiest of the various situations. One option is to buy a new student model saxophone, and generally this type of student is looking for an alto or tenor sax.
A brand new Yamaha Advantage student model saxophone is my first choice here. You can purchase them from a local store that is a Yamaha dealer, for instance West Valley Music in Mountain View, CA. You can also buy them from a reputable online retailer like Woodwind and Brasswind, who I’ve done a lot of business with over the years; they are honest and fair regarding pricing and inventory. In general I prefer silver instruments; I believe the Yamaha's are nickel plated with silver keys. That being said the regular models, with their brass finishes, are quite good instruments. These horns are durable, relatively cheap, and have great resale value. Be advised there are many other makes and models of student model instruments out there. I don’t generally recommend them, I think they are inferior to the Yamaha in many respects. If you are patient and diligent it’s possible to find these instruments used for great prices, look for an original owner selling it, and anything 10 years old or less should work out just fine. Often you have to put a few hundred dollars into a used instrument but if you grab it at a good price this can save you a lot of money. Of course be sure to have a good repair person do the work and be sure to ask if they warranty their work and for how long.
Price points for new and used Yamaha saxophones will vary by condition and age, but generally a used horn can be found for $750 to $1,000 and new they run about $2000. These horns have great resale value and can often be sold at sixty to seventy five percent of what you paid for them.
WARNING: DO NOT BUY A SAXOPHONE AT COSTCO
Without going into detail, nothing about the saxophones I've seen at Costco, or that a student has brought in to a lesson, are worth spending a penny on. These are typically poorly made knockoffs made in a variety of foreign countries. The brass is mixed with a lot of aluminum, making the key work and body very prone to denting and bending. Just DON'T. BUY. A. SAXOPHONE. AT. COSTCO.
Saxophone intermediate level player looking to step up to a slightly better horn: Yamaha makes intermediate level instruments that are excellent. Their professional model #62’s, while a bit older in style, are good step up instruments as well. Yanagisawa makes good intermediate instruments too. Again I do prefer silver horns as they seem to have a slightly sweeter and warmer sound. Both of these can be found used after some digging for nice discounts. I am not afraid to buy instruments off eBay but I do understand that people may not be comfortable with this. Look for good condition horns, you can generally tell by the pictures. An experienced teacher can be very helpful at this stage, don’t be afraid to consult one if you feel the need to. Again there are other makes and models out there, you will find them in various music stores. Cannonball is one, Selmer makes these types of horns, Vito is another, and then there will be lesser off brand instruments out there. Again you might find one of these that works for you, but in general I don’t recommend them to most students. Resale value of these can be an issue as they can be much harder to sell when the time comes. They can also have awkward key positions and some are made of lesser quality materials. I would suggest you stay away from older instruments like the old Conn or Beuscher instruments made prior to 1950.
Price points for new and used Intermediate horns again will vary, but expect to spend $1500 to $3000 for something of this variety.
WARNING: COUNTERFEIT SAXOPHONES ARE EVERYWHERE THESE DAYS. Be sure to do some research when purchasing instruments from used, Amazon or overseas sources. Check out model numbers and ask where the instruments were made. Fake model numbers and tell tale signs of bogus instruments can tip you off to counterfeit instruments. If you find a Yamaha saxophone at half of what WWBW sells it for brand new BEWARE.
Saxophone aspiring music college student or adult intermediate to advanced and professionals: The industry standard for saxophones has been the Selmer Mark VI for a long time now. Here is a chart that gives you some details regarding Selmer Saxophones and their serial number ranges:
You can see the Mark VI serial numbers start at 55,000 and go up to about 230,000. Be advised, at any serial number point the instruments vary a great deal, and there are also “long bow, medium bow and short bow” considerations that effect intonation. Here is an article that explains how bow length works:
With Mark VI horns you can expect to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 depending on condition and serial number. There is no guarantee that any instrument will suit you as well, so it’s a bit of a gamble at times. Vintage saxophones take skill to evaluate and some guts and determination to find one that suits you. Talk to the best players you can find, send out some emails to various people. It's a vast and deep ocean, and beware, you can get burned.
Earlier Selmer Balanced Action and Super Balanced Action (SBA) horns are also popular with certain players for various reasons. It’s very difficult in my experience to find a Mark VI or Balanced/SBA that plays really well in tune. Generally Selmer’s go sharper the higher you ascend into the left hand second register notes. A good repairman can modify certain things to help this out, but it's not something that's easily overcome. I know many professionals that have switched to Yamaha for this very reason, although you do sacrifice some tone quality and to me the Yamaha's have more resistance, so they don't blow as freely as a Mark VI. That being said I have owned and enjoyed playing Yamaha Custom saxophones in the past.
I personally play a Selmer Silver Long Bow 104,XXX Mark VI alto saxophone. I find the pitch and sound on this instrument to be the very best that I’ve ever played. Your results may vary depending on how you play, what reed/mouthpiece combination you use, and how your horn is set up. I also play a 150,XXX with a 77,XXX neck on my Mark VI tenor saxophone. The older neck really made the difference with this instrument, it really plays great with this neck. I had some custom work done on the neck and had it silver plated. That is the tenor sax you see pictured at the top of this blog post.
As a reaction to the inconsistent pitch tendencies of Selmer horns a couple of manufacturers have developed instruments with improved intonation. Notably Yamaha with both the model #62 and various Custom lines, and Yanagisawa 992’s with their different options. I do love the Yanagisawa 992 bronze bell curved soprano I play, the pitch and sound are outstanding.
Curved sopranos, as opposed to straight sopranos, are very interesting. While not for everyone, I have found that they sound better behind a microphone and are generally a more comfortable instrument to play for long periods of time. Sopranos are notoriously hard to play in tune, so be very careful when deciding what to buy. Beware that the Yamaha #62 sopranos, usually the older ones, have a very big flaw in that the open middle C# can be quite flat, making the transition to the middle D sound quite awful. They have been correcting this for years but in my experience they haven’t yet solved this, although the Custom sopranos seemed to have improved this flaw.
It’s never easy deciding what instrument to purchase. Price point, durability, reliability, resale value, condition, reed/mouthpiece choice and the style of music all are important factors to consider when choosing an instrument. Over time your playing will evolve, and you may find that the instrument you have been playing for 20 years is no longer adequate for your uses. That has happened to me several times now over 50 years of saxophone playing. If you can consult with a good private teacher and/or accomplished professional player you can gain some insight, but be sure you understand everyone is different and that there is no one way of playing the saxophone and no perfect instrument, they all have their flaws and you will find you have to work around them one way or another.