Chris Moller’s Beginner’s Guide to Vintage Saxophones

Vintage saxophones can be a far better value than the professional instruments being manufactured today. If you are not looking for the best looking saxophone but want a durable, unique and great sounding sax, vintage saxophones have a lot to offer. You can have a more unique sound and a better quality instrument if you are willing to look around and find the right vintage saxophone.

There is, however, one thing every player should understand about older instruments. When purchasing a vintage sax you are purchasing a sax that has been repaired many times. This means the sax only plays as well as the last repair. Many players think that newer saxophones sound better, feel better or have better intonation when this is not necessarily the case. A true mechanical overhaul on a vintage sax can be very expensive sometimes costing more than the sax is worth (not as much as a new professional sax though). Because of this, many vintage saxophones are not repaired correctly. Any sax that has not been repaired correctly will represent itself poorly but vintage saxophones might have been repaired incorrectly for decades. Make sure a trained technician that is familiar with vintage saxophones has properly repaired your instrument.

For the purpose of this article I am going to separate vintage saxophones into their country of origin. The best vintage saxophones were made in France, U.S.A. and Germany.  There are many great saxophones I have left out because they are really rare or not recommended for someone first getting in to vintage saxophones.

France

Selmer

Selmer made many great saxophones and they are still making some of the highest quality saxophones today. The Selmer Mark VI is the most famous vintage sax and for good reason. It is commonly referred to as the best sax ever built. While I don’t make this claim they are certainly worth what people are paying for them. These saxophones were made from 1954 to 1974. Many of the Selmers made before the Mark VI are very sought after as well such as the “Cigar Cutter”, the Balanced Action and (my favorite) the Super Balanced Action. After Selmer ended production of the Mark VI in 1974 they replaced it with the Mark VII. Most players consider the Mark VII to be a step down but these are still very nice playing instruments. Selmer saxophones are known for their great ergonomics, smooth sound and they are very versatile.

Strasser-Marigaux

SML (Strasser-Marigaux) saxophones were made from 1935 to 1981 and are excellent horns. SML saxophone models are difficult to describe but they were all great. The best-known SML sax was the Gold Metal. Many of the SML saxophones were made for other companies. These are called stencil instruments. King stenciled some SML saxophones from 1960 to 1980. These were called the King Marigaux and are the most common SML I see in America. They were made from 1960 to 1980. You really can’t go wrong if you find a saxophone with SML or Marigaux engraved on it. They have a smooth sound similar to the Mark VI and the ergonomics is almost as good.

Buffet

Buffet made three saxophones that are a professional level vintage horn. These are the Super Dynaction, the S1 and the Prestige. All of theses saxophones have a full, complex sound. Mostly considered classical saxophones they have a dark tone and superb intonation. I wouldn’t be afraid of using them for rock, blues or jazz though. Your mouthpiece set-up and different resonators can brighten the tone if this is what you are looking for.

U.S.A

Conn

Conn was the first company to begin manufacturing saxophones in the U.S.A. starting in 1889. One of the earliest Conn saxophones to look for is the Conn New Wonder and New Wonder Series II (also called Chu Berry) saxophone. These are really early vintage saxophones being made in the early 1900’s. The New Wonder saxophones are most recognizable by their “micro tuner” necks and rolled tone holes. Conn began making the M series in about 1934. This is widely considered the best era for Conn saxophones. They are famous for their engraving on the bell that gave them their nickname “Naked Lady”. Most of these had rolled tone holes and they are all very sought after. The altos to look for are the Conn 6M, the 26M and the 28M. The tenors were called the Conn 10M and the 30M and the baritones were called the 12M. It is important to know that odd number models are high pitch models (A=457) and should be marked high pitch or H.P. These will not play in tune with modern instruments and should be left to collectors. These old Conn saxophones are known for their very large sound. If you are going to really push your sax to play over a band (Full song) an “M” series Conn might be your perfect axe.

King

King is best known for their Voll True, Zephyr, Super 20 and Marigaux (discussed earlier) saxophones. The Voll True (and Voll True II) saxes were among the first saxophones King made in America. They are good saxophones but not particularly sought after. They are not known for great intonation. I wouldn’t recommend someone new to vintage horns paying the money to have one of these saxophones restored. The Zephyr is a much-improved saxophone. These were made from about 1936 to 1945. The Zephyr Special was a step up from the other Zephyrs and almost the same instrument as the Super 20. The King Super 20 was introduced after WWII and is known as the best saxophone King made. They have a “socket” neck receiver allowing the tightening of the neck and the sealing of the neck to become two separate actions. Some had sterling silver necks, some even had sterling silver bells, some had engraving on the key cups and so on. They looked great, played great and were well built.

Martin

Martin saxophones were made from about 1900 to 1960. I really like the older Martin Handcrafts. One the best tenors I’ve ever played and worked on was a Martin Handcraft Standard tenor. She had a really dirty tone that expanded greatly when pushed. These older Martins vary greatly. Martin is best known for their soldered tone holes and heavy construction. Identifying Martin saxophone models can be difficult but all were good and some were exquisite. The Martin sax that is most sought after has “The Martin Alto” or “The Martin Tenor” engraved on the bell. This is a beautiful sax with very fancy “art deco” key guards, elaborate engraving and a unique neck receiver design. As with all Martins these saxophones are heavy, durable and have a great strong dark complex vintage tone.

Buescher

Buescher saxophones were made from 1894 to the mid 1960s. Buescher is best known for their snap-in pad system and gold plated Norton “screw-in” springs. The models worth mentioning are the True Tone, the Aristocrat and the Buescher 400. The True Tone is a very nice playing instrument and it is fairly easy to find. They have a nice vintage sound and are well built. The Aristocrats and New Aristocrats are also all very nice playing saxes. The ones to look for have a big “B” engraved above the Buescher emblem on the bell. By far the most sought after Buescher saxophone is the Buescher 400 also known as the “Top Hat and Cane” because of the engraving on the bell. These saxophones were tough, had great intonation, were beautiful, had a great vintage sound and played the altissimo (notes above the normal sax range) easily. Unfortunately, Selmer purchased the Buescher Company in 1963. Buescher still made pro saxophones for a while after Selmer owned the company but the horns were slowly cheapened and eventually became Selmer’s student line called Bundy.

Germany

Keilwerth

Keilwerth started making saxophones around 1925 and still makes great saxes today for the Leblanc company. Keilwerth made many stencil instruments and so it is very difficult to explain all the Keilwerth models. Some of the most popular pro Keilwerth stencils in America are the King Tempo, the Armstrong H. Couf and the Conn DJH Modified. The Armstrong H. Couf is the common vintage Keilwerth I see in America. The Couf models were the Royalist, the Superba I and the Superba II. The Superba I is the top line H. Couf and the most sought after. You can easily identify these by their rolled tone holes. They also made stencils for other German companies and Amati (a Czech republic company).

Antique Saxophones

For the purpose of this site I am calling saxophones made before 1935 or so antique saxophones. These instruments often have extremely rusted steels and springs, very crude key fitting, worn out neck receivers, awkward ergonomics and they aren’t even worth a whole lot. The advantage is a unique tambour that cannot be matched by any modern sax.  Spending a lot more money than your sax will be worth to restore it to proper playability should be done with great scrutiny. For this reason choosing the right technician for this job is extremely important. The skills, tools, talent, experience and desire to repair these instruments are very rare and this is one of my specialties. I usually have examples that have been mechanically overhauled already that you are welcome to try. These instruments may be under appreciated but they are not junk. When repaired correctly they are a dream to play.