Whether you want to start learning to play the saxophone or need to change your current instrument but can’t or won’t invest in purchasing a new one, there are many things you need to take into consideration if you decide to go for a used saxophone.
From the brand of the instrument, its appearance, and mechanics, to its overall performance, here are 15 things that experts and sax players recommend keeping in mind before deciding if a used saxophone is worth it or not.
1. Brands to avoid
Brands that have bad reviews when buying a new instrument should not be your first choice when buying a used saxophone. Lookout for these red flags:
Good quality instruments are expensive because they use the best materials and mechanics to ensure long-lasting results, so brands that have unrealistically low prices are not worth it. For example, Schill, Monique, and Helmke saxophone brands are made with poor quality material resulting in inconsistent intonation and they fall apart quickly.
Poor craftsmanship can lead to faulty mechanisms and inferior intonation. In this category, we can include few of the cheap German, French and Chinese brands.
2. Age of the horn - is old really gold?
Well made saxophones can last for a long time, so if a used saxophone has been properly treated and cared for, its age is irrelevant. Keep in mind that a sax should always be serviced and checked by a well-prepared repair person.
There’s also the common belief among saxophonists that an older saxophone sounds better based on tarnish or design differences, but there’s no real evidence to back up this belief.
3. Refurbished saxophones
The problem with a refurbished instrument is that there’s no guarantee that the process was done correctly, and this could impact the sax’s performance. Also, refurbishing a used saxophone means that it was previously damaged and misused and this is likely to compromise its overall quality and performance.
If you want to identify if the secondhand saxophone was refurbished look for details such as an overly shiny look or obvious differences in the appearance of its sections.
4. Re-Finished saxophones
The process of re-Finishing a used sax means stripping the metal and re-lacquering it, and the risk of not doing it right can lead to a weakened metal that negatively impacts the sound of the instrument.
Some techs suggest that this makes no difference to the performance of the sax and there are people who can do a really good job of re-finishing, but the truth is that before deciding on a re-finished sax you should try it first and hear how it sounds.
To identify a re-finished used Saxophone look out for blurred engravings and serial numbers, coloration differences and extremely shiny finish.
5. Bad odor - why to avoid it!
Saxophones are wind instruments, therefore when you play it you blow air and saliva into it, so you need to keep a strict hygiene regime to avoid getting it smelly and prevent bacteria and fungi.
So, if you are looking for a secondhand saxophone and it has an unpleasant odor it may mean that it has not been cleaned properly and that important parts are contaminated.
You can fix it by replacing the corroded parts, like the reed and mouthpiece, and if what you perceive is a musty odor on the case you can get it cleaned out.
6. Mechanics - are the parts of the sax working
When trying out a used saxophone take the time to test the different parts individually so you can identify any issue with its mechanics. Examine the instrument’s assembly, check that the rods are not bendable or loose, look out for air leaks from pads that won’t seal properly or from a broken or missing neck cork.
Keys can also get stuck, and dents can appear because of how malleable the saxophone’s metal is.
Some of these issues can be easily solved by yourself, but others will require to be dealt with by a specialist.
7. Serial number - can you see the serial number, and why is it important
The serial number is usually located underneath the thumb rest, contains mostly numbers and its purpose is stating the brand, model, location, and year the sax was made. In other words, the saxophone’s serial number is its ID card and should be visible.
If while checking out a secondhand saxophone you notice that the serial number shows signs of intentional scratching or it’s rubbed out, you might be dealing with a stolen instrument. So you need to definitely watch out for this!
8. Dents - where to look for them and why are they bad
Brass, the metal from which saxes are made from, is a relatively soft and malleable material, so even if you are careful these kinds of instruments are susceptible to getting dents. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it will affect the sound if you get it treated by a skilled repairman on time.
Dents can disrupt the sound’s pattern therefore showing issues with tone, intonation, or pitch.
A dent near the bell or those not wider than 5mm would likely be considered a blemish, but dents on the tone holes, neck or closer to the mouthpiece will likely affect the sound.
9. Green discoloration - why is it bad
Saxophones are made from brass, an alloy metal composed of copper and zinc, and when copper oxidizes it causes green spots or “verdigris”. This is like rust that occurs from the contact with acids, chloride, salts, gasses in the environment and moisture.
This “issue” may just affect the aesthetics of the saxophone and it’s generally harmless unless it is affecting a tone hole rim, tone hole chimney or the leather pad. Verdigris makes leather lose strength and suppleness compromising the sealing.
Green spots can be removed with brass polish, products used to treat copper patina or with an ultrasonic cleaner which removes the corrosion with vibrations. If green spots are left untreated the oxidation will slowly cover the entire instrument.
Nevertheless, if you are thinking of buying a secondhand saxophone with extensive green discoloration consult it first with a technician.
10. Soldering - visible soldering bad or good, why
Soldering means melting metal to bond it with other metal pieces, like glue. To do it right, this process requires excellent skills from the sax tech because it may compromise the seal and cause leaking.
Also, if the pieces did not bond well, they can even fall off and a poor soldering job leaves the instrument with a splotchy looking finish.
So, visible soldering is neither good nor bad, it just depends on the skill of the person who made them.
11. Intonation - why intonation has to be checked
The sole purpose of a musical instrument, including a saxophone, is to produce a satisfying musical experience, and intonation affects tone quality. Subconsciously we are constantly tracking intonation in music and issues such as the mouthpiece’s placement can negatively impact the result.
Too soft or too old reeds can also affect the intonation in the high register, the same way ligature placement may impact the upper register.
If you are going to buy a saxophone, bringing a tuner with you when checking out a secondhand sax could help you detect intonation issues.
12. Compare to a newer sax
Comparing a used saxophone to a newer quality sax helps you identify if every component is working properly or not. It also aids in exposing possible signs of refurbishment and/or refinishing of the secondhand sax.
Especially if this is your first time buying a saxophone, and you are not sure what to look for, comparing both instruments can give you a visual checklist of what it should look like.
As with every decision process, there are always pros and cons about getting yourself a used sax, so anything that helps make this decision smoother is a plus.
13. Solid build and not bent
Any misalignment of a sax, including bends, may impact the sound it produces affecting its intonation. Good news is that this may be fixed by a technician.
If the instrument is bent, it can cause the keys to jam or misalign the tone holes. But, the performance of a sax depends on the adjustment of the mechanism, not the straightness of the sax.
Take into consideration that if you decide to have a bent sax straightened there’s the risk of stretching the metal and this may result in slightly oval tone holes, and this may become a different problem on its own.
14. Sound - how should a sued saxophone sound?
The way the sax sounds to you it’s what really matters. Imperfections can usually be corrected or may not even be important, but the way the instrument makes you feel is what really drives you to decide.
You can bring someone who knows how a sax should sound, like a sax player or a tech, to get their opinion on the sound with objectivity, because your opinion can be biased by a lot of aspects such as its appearance or price tag.
Remember you are making an investment and should always get your money’s worth.
15. Price - how much cheaper should a sax be when it's older?
The best reason for buying a used Saxophone is the price. If the instrument is in good condition, regardless of how old it is or the skill level you want, you will for sure get a better deal.
The average quality saxophone price starts at around $800.00 – $2,700.00 for a beginner, $2000.00 – $3,000.00 for intermediate and $3,000.00 or more for pro-level.
Used saxophones for sale on the internet can be found at half the price, and in some cases lower.
If you are buying in a pro shop, it will be a bit pricier, but you will have more options and can try them out beforehand.