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So where should you be spending your money? Simple - at the place which makes the most difference in your playing - the mouthpiece. I'll talk about what to look for in terms of saxophones in a minute, but lets start by talking about why getting a good mouthpiece is so much more important than getting a good saxophone.
If you think about it for a moment, it makes sense to get a good mouthpiece. After all, the mouthpiece is the part of the saxophone that generates the sound. If you don't have a good mouthpiece, you won't make a sound, even on a $6000 top of the line professional saxophone. If you do have a good mouthpiece, you can start off on the right foot (so to speak - try not to put yours in your mouth!). My usual recommendation is to purchase a Selmer C* mouthpiece, or perhaps a Yamaha Custom Mouthpiece (4C or 5C). These mouthpieces are what the pros use - and they are relatively inexpensive. A brand new Selmer or Yamaha Custom mouthpiece will set you back around $100 (Canadian) for an Alto model, or about $150 for a Tenor mouthpiece. The standard student mouthpieces which companies ship with student model instruments cost about $20-40. That's not a huge increase in price for the increase in quality that you will get by upgrading. (These are "classical" mouthpieces - but I recommend them even for wannabe jazz players to begin with. Jazz mouthpieces can be harder to control. Build up your chops on these, then move onto a good quality jazz mouthpiece, like a Meyer #5.)
The best part about spending that kind of money on the mouthpiece is that it will work just fine for the rest of your life, provided that you take care of it properly. Better yet, you will always have a consistent yardstick by which to measure different saxophones. Since the mouthpiece stays the same each time you try a new horn, then presumably, any differences that you feel or hear while playing are actually going to be the saxophone, not the mouthpiece. This can be very important since a poor quality mouthpiece can make a very nice saxophone sound absolutely horrible.
One more thing - even if you are not looking to buy a saxophone right now - say you are renting, or borrowing from school, or a friend, there are many advantages to purchasing your own mouthpiece. Right at the top of the list is the fact that you really don't want to catch anybody else's cooties! Many diseases can be transmitted via saliva. Think about that next time you play on someone else's instrument... So, by spending a few dollars now, you can sound a whole lot better, as well as improve your health!
OK. Now, you want to go and buy a saxophone, you walk into the shop, and there are 15
different options to choose from. What should you do? Buy the best quality saxophone you can
afford. Here's the reason. If you buy a new student model, the resale price after a couple of
years will be between 50-75% of what you paid for the instrument. If you buy an intermediate
model instrument, you will likely be able to sell it for 85-110% of its original value after a couple
of years. If you buy a pro horn, it will actually APPRECIATE in value. (My Alto, for example, has increased about 60% over its pre-tax purchasing cost. That is about a 7.5% increase per year - WAY
better than what you could have made in a GIC over the same time period, given the low interest
rates of the last few years. If you can afford it, in the long run you can almost play for free if you
are a savvy consumer.
If you don't have a lot of cash handy, look into rent-to-own options. Most good stores will have
some sort of equitable system in place. Also, buying a good quality, well maintained used
instrument at any level will ensure that you get the most value for your dollar- often you can
resell later on at a much higher profit. (And we starving musicians all love profit...!)
Please note that the following are recommendations based entirely on my own experience. I
have not been paid to endorse any of the following products, nor am I related in any way to any
of the companies mentioned. Use this information at your own risk.
What brands and types are good to buy?
Almost without exception, there are two major players in the North American saxophone market.
The big guns are Selmer and Yamaha. Yamaha in particular has made huge gains in the
market over the last few years.
Good Student Models
Good Intermediate Models
Good Professional Models
A Final word about Certain Professional Models
There are a number of manufactures right now who are producing a lower-end professional
saxophone which retails for about 1/3 to 1/2 of the top of the line Selmer or Yamaha models.
Some of these manufacturers include Winston, Cannonball, USA Horn, and others. SOME of
these saxophones are really a terrific buy for the money. Others are not. In my experience,
MOST manufacturers at this price level have much poorer quality control than the "biggies". A
couple of years ago I test played three Alto Saxes from one of these manufacturers (with
successive serial numbers) and I found that the first one was absolutely superb. The second was
OK, but had some serious pitch problems, and the third suffered both mechanical and pitch
difficulties. Buyer beware! Test play these manufacture's instruments carefully. You can get a
great deal, if you make sure you check the instruments over very, very carefully.
In my experience, these manufacturers do not make their instruments as consistently as Yamaha
or Selmer. They also tend to market to Jazz players, so the general tone of the instrument is quite
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If you don't have a lot of cash handy, look into rent-to-own options. Most good stores will have some sort of equitable system in place. Also, buying a good quality, well maintained used instrument at any level will ensure that you get the most value for your dollar- often you can resell later on at a much higher profit. (And we starving musicians all love profit...!)
Please note that the following are recommendations based entirely on my own experience. I have not been paid to endorse any of the following products, nor am I related in any way to any of the companies mentioned. Use this information at your own risk.