Grouping Soprano Sax designs by Style
Soprano saxes come in all flavors and it’s a good idea to have a feeling for each. It helps to be able to put the styles on some kind of scale or continuum. The following is the way I tend to organize the different “flavors”.
I divide up the soprano saxophone world into groups:
- French style
- American vintage style
- German style
- Italian style
- Asian style
Here is what those groupings mean to me:
- French style: more refined, often smaller, sound. Small to Medium sized bore, light, modest resistance, somewhat brighter tone
- American vintage style: bigger bore, typically free blowing, bigger, more garrulous tone
- German style: Similar in many ways to the American vintage, better keywork, perhaps slightly more focused sound than the American vintage, resonant, typically a heavy horn, somewhat darker tone
- Italian style: Closer to the American vintage than the German style, larger bore, big sound, resonant and textured sound, somewhat darker tone
- Asian style: smaller bore, smaller sound, focused, less textured than the other groups, modest to a bit more resistance, somewhat brighter tone.
This is About Design Style, Not Country of Origin
The thing to remember is that these groups often do NOT signify the origin of the horn at all. There are “French style” horns made by Yamaha. There are ‘German style” horns made by Yanagisawa. There are “American vintage” style” horns made in the Czech Republic and in China.
A few years ago, I attended the largest US music convention and played over 85 different soprano saxophones in 3 days. They were all the most current and new models. I did this after having owned more than 35 sopranos in the prior 7 years and after having played soprano as my main instrument for 25 years. So, I had a solid basis for trying to categorize the different designs.
What I learned is that I had a preference for certain kinds of designs and that other designs were less interesting to me as a player at that time. I say ‘at that time” because I have come to some other conclusions since then but that is another story which I will speak about later.
I found I preferred horns with larger bores and a deeper, darker tone. For the most part, that precluded the French style horns. Let me say this, though: I own a Selmer III soprano, a thoroughly French-style horn, and I think it is a fabulous instrument, perhaps one of the best ever designed. But I do not perform on it ever, as the sound does not interest me. However, it is the most in-tune soprano I have ever played, which speaks to the expertise that resides inside the Selmer Company.
Another “French style” soprano that is amazing but does not ‘speak” to me is the Yamaha 82 Series (and the earlier 62 as well). I call it the “slickest” horn I’ve ever played, as the design is like a sports car. It is quick, with an elegant, refined sound. It is every bit as good as the Selmer III, perhaps with a little more “fire in the belly” in terms of sound yet still elegant and reserved.
Now, I’ve mentioned Yamaha and I want you to know that not all Yamaha sopranos land in my “French style” category. Far from it. Their 475 soprano falls in my American Vintage and/or German style categories, which are similar. Much of their line falls in-between the French and American styles, to my ear.
Yanagisawa makes a very French-style 9930 soprano but also made the S800, which is truly American Vintage, although it is made in the image of the legendary Selmer Mk VI in terms of looks and keywork. However, the bore is larger and the sound is nothing like most Mk VI sopranos. Their other models mostly seem more Asian to me, but the 902 is an exception. It seems more between French and german in style. So, the brand name isn’t the determining factor; it is feel and sound.
German style horns mostly come out of Germany or the Czech Republic and environs. They include Keilwerth, true Amati, B&S, Kohlert and a few other horns made in these same factories. Many are underrated. The vintage ones lack modern keywork but have big, robust sound and are typically quite free blowing. The names can be misleading, as some newer models of Amati and Kohler are just Asian clones. The brand name, in essence, means little.
The Italian style horns are really Italian: Borgani, and Rampone & Cazzanni are the best known. Their modern horns are excellent, their vintage horns more adventurous in terms of design, intonation and keywork. Their hallmark, though, is larger bore, bigger sound, lots of texture and an overall darker tone, similar to the German style in many ways.
The Asian style is a bit of a catch-all, as there are so many virtually unknown designs coming from Asia now. They vary from very good to awful; well-constructed to cheap and fragile; real instruments to instrument-shaped objects. It takes a good eye and ear, and a good deal of experience to judge these horns.
So, what good is this kind of categorization?
Well, as you play more and more sopranos, you can begin to identify those characteristics you believe you prefer or you think you do not like. It can give you a kind of “map” for locating horn designs and models that “speak” to you more easily than other designs.
But it will also allow you to go and find a certain kind of horn when a change comes over you and your preferences. It can and usually does happen as we mature as players.
NEXT: Play testing a soprano