Whether you’re looking to buy your first saxophone, or simply to upgrade your current horn, we’re going to take you through 10 of the best saxophone brands from around the world.
From the top end of the market, to the more ‘economic’ options, this article will help with the decision-making process!
#1 All-Round Choice
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Choosing a saxophone is a tricky business.
It can be a big investment, and there are countless makes and models to choose from.
As with most products out there on the market – from cars, to handbags, to computers – saxophone brands vary hugely in terms of their profiles, price points and target audiences.
There are famous companies that have been around for decades, and newer makes who are just getting started.
World famous brands and boutique, family-run firms. High end makers of hand-made instruments, and those who are catering for a lower budget, with saxophones for beginners.
Whatever your skill set and however much you’d like to spend (within reason), there’s a great saxophone out there for you.
In this article we’ll introduce you to 10 top saxophone brands from around the world and take a look at the history and reputations of these companies, as well as some of the best models they currently offer.
Proving that saxophone manufacturing is truly an international business, there are seven countries represented, in terms of where the companies are based!
Saxophone brands don’t come more prestigious than Selmer.
A true family business, the legendary French company has been making woodwind instruments since 1885, and current president Jérôme Selmer is the great-grandson of original founder Henri.
The French company made its first saxophone in 1922, going on to create historic models like the ‘Cigar Cutter’, the Balanced Action, the Super Balanced Action and the Mark VI.
The Mark VI, in particular, is the most iconic saxophone of all time and has been the horn of choice for all manner of legendary players: Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Michael Brecker, John Coltrane, Phil Woods and many others.
As you’d expect with a brand that has historically been regarded as ‘the best of the best’ when it comes to saxophones, Selmer products don’t come cheap.
Available in a variety of lacquer finishes, the Selmer Reference horns are two of their current flagship models: the Reference 36 takes inspiration from the 1936 Selmer Balanced Action, while the Reference 54 is a modern take on the legendary 1954 Selmer Mark VI.
Great sound! A modern take on the legendary 1954 Selmer Mark VI; a real piece of modern-vintage history.
Both attempt to recreate the ‘special’ feel of a vintage saxophone whilst offering the reliability and ergonomic design of a modern horn – you can read our comparison here.
Selmer Paris produces some of the more expensive instruments on the market, but that’s in part because over 80% of each saxophone is still produced by hand (including all the engraving) in one of the oldest factories of its kind in Mantes-la-Ville, to the west of Paris.
The Yamaha Corporation has put its name to all manner of products, from motorbikes to sporting goods to audio equipment.
The Japanese company also makes a selection of musical instruments: it is the biggest manufacturer of pianos in the world and also produces woodwind instruments, drums, brass instruments and keyboards.
Yamaha might not have the name prestige of Selmer in the saxophone world, but in recent years they have gained a reputation for producing extremely well-made horns that offer excellent value for money.
And, unlike Selmer Paris, which focuses on professional-level horns, Yamaha also makes student and intermediate level alto and tenor saxophones.
#1 Student Model
Widely recognised as being the best student level saxophones on the market
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The 480 is Yamaha’s intermediate instrument.
Perfect for the advancing saxophone student, this is again considered one of the best in its price range, and is available in a range of finishes, including silver plated lacquer.
The Yamaha Custom has been Yamaha’s top-of-the-range series since 2002.
The free-blowing, wider-bored Custom Z is a particularly great saxophone for playing jazz, while the Custom EX is considered to be more of a classical saxophone.
These are highly rated instruments: alto sax great Phil Woods converted to a Custom Z later in life, having played a Selmer Mark VI for many years previously.
A small family business based in Japan, Yanagisawa as a company dates back to 1894, when it started as a woodwind repair business.
The company began producing saxophones in 1951, and is now established as one of the top three manufacturers in the world, alongside Selmer and Yamaha.
Yanagisawa tends to focus on selling a relatively streamlined selection of products.
Since 2014 it has produced the WO Series, which is split into the ‘professional’ WO1 models and the slightly more expensive ‘elite’ WO10 models.
The brand does not manufacture student or intermediate level horns, but its professional-standard saxophones offer great value for money and are considerably cheaper than top-of-the-range saxophones elsewhere on the market.
They produce a rich, warm sound and boast extremely smooth ergonomics. Each saxophone comes with a high quality ebonite mouthpiece.
Well known Yanagisawa endorsers include J.D. Allen, Gary Bartz and Lakecia Benjamin from the jazz world, and Jess Gillam and Christina Leonard from the classical sphere.
Elkhart is one of a number of brands – along with King, Vincent Bach and (in the USA) Selmer Paris – that is distributed by the American company Conn-Selmer.
Originally based in Elkhart, Indiana, it now focuses on producing saxophones for the student market and makes its products in Taiwan.
The Elkhart 100 Series is an excellent budget option. A cheap saxophone compared to many others here, it’s well-regarded by teachers around the world and has been bought in bulk by countless schools and music services.
They are well built and, when comparing to other student horns such as the Yamaha YAS-280, extremely affordable as far as saxophones go.
Elkhart also offers the SXAD Deluxe, a more high-end student alto saxophone, and the SXB-WB, an intermediate level baritone saxophone.
P. Mauriat saxophones are a relatively recent arrival to the industry, but the Taiwanese brand has become a real success story since it first started making waves in the sax world in the mid 2000s with its excellent value intermediate and professional level horns.
One of P. Mauriat’s selling points is the fact that it offers the option of rolled tone holes on its professional alto and tenor saxophones.
This means that the tone holes are fully extruded from the brass, rather than being soldered on separately, and aims to provide superior pad fit and resonance.
All saxophones are hand-hammered from French brass, and many come with a distinctive vintage-style unlacquered finish as standard.
Their beautiful ‘black pearl’ tenor sax looks great whilst their 66R tenor saxophone range in particular is a flagship product for the company and has come to be regarded as something of a modern classic.
Meanwhile the Le Bravo is an excellent intermediate saxophone: with a solid nickel silver neck, it has a punchy, more contemporary tone that makes it an ideal saxophone for jazz.
The brand’s baritone saxophones are also well regarded and, for the doubling saxophonist who wants to own a baritone at a mid-level budget, Mauriat could be the perfect option.
P. Mauriat endorsees include high profile American jazz musicians James Carter and Marcus Strickland.
Julius Keilwerth started building saxophones in his native Germany along with his brother Max in 1925.
The brand began with a focus on the European concert hall tradition, but in 1986 hired saxophonist Peter Ponzol as a consultant to help build instruments for the jazz market.
Within a few years the SX90R range was proving popular, with the likes of Branford Marsalis, David Liebman and Courtney Pine opting for Keilwerth horns.
The Keilwerth Shadow is something of an icon: made in Germany, it has distinctive black nickel plating for a rather dramatic look.
Keilwerths are known for having ergonomics that feel somewhat different to most modern saxophones, and the inclusion of adjustable left-hand palm keys is rather unusual.
The hand engraving is ornate and covers both the bell and the neck of the horn. This is certainly a saxophone for the high level player searching for something a little different to the norm.
Keilwerth produce some of the best soprano saxophones and this highly acclaimed range includes a David Liebman signature model that was designed with input from the saxophonist.
In spite of its name, the modern American company’s Conn-Selmer saxophones have little to do with the products made by the two illustrious brands ‘Conn’ and ‘Selmer’ – although Conn-Selmer does distribute Selmer Paris’ products in the US.
Conn was arguably the major manufacturer of the first half of the 20th Century, with famous saxophone players including Charlie Parker and Lester Young opting for legendary models like the 10M, whilst Selmer Paris, as we’ve already discussed, is probably the world’s most distinguished saxophone brand.
Despite this, Conn-Selmer has established itself as a major player in the saxophone world in its own right since its formation in 2003. With production now largely moved to China, it is the largest manufacturer of band and orchestral instruments in the United States.
The brand’s intermediate level saxophones, for the advancing student or budget-conscious professional player, have particularly impressed reviewers and dealers.
The ‘Premiere’ PAS380V comes in a stylish unlacquered finish, with some reviewers comparing it to classic (and much more expensive) vintage Selmers. It also comes with a high quality Rosseau ebonite mouthpiece.
Other Conn-Selmer models include the LaVie and Liberty ranges.
In 1996, Sheryl and Tevis Laukat founded Cannonball Musical Instruments in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the company has 25 employees.
Cannonball saxophones are built in factories in Taiwan, before being shipped to the Utah headquarters, where they are “acoustically hand customised” and extensively tested.
The brand’s signature range is the Big Bell Stone Series.
Each saxophone comes adorned with various semi-precious natural stones and two necks: a standard one and Cannonball’s patented silver-plated FAT Neck, which has the octave key on the underside of the crook and is inspired by the design of the King Super 20, a classic vintage saxophone of yesteryear.
Smooth jazz star Gerald Albright uses the FAT Neck on his own Gerald Albright Signature Series alto, which he helped design.
This special model is hand engraved by artisans in Salt Lake City, with black Italian leather pads completing the elegant look.
In terms of price, Cannonball are, roughly, in a similar category to P. Mauriat, in that they are professional saxophones at the more affordable end of the spectrum.
Borgani is a family-run company that was founded in Marcerato, central Italy in 1872 by Augusto Borgani.
The current president, Orfeo Borgani, has been in place since 1983 and is the fourth generation of the family to head up the company.
Borgani makes high end alto, tenor and both straight and ‘half-curved’ soprano saxophones. Each instrument is available in a range of materials, including a 24K gold-based alloy and the particularly popular silver-plated model, each of which provides its own distinct tonal qualities.
When choosing a new saxophone, it’s often useful to see what your favourite players preferred.
With the Borgani, they have tenor sax great Joe Lovano as a brand ambassador: helped design his own signature Borgani model, which is made from Pearl Silver alloy and has Gold 24k keys.
“It’s a really beautiful instrument and gives me such a warm, brilliant sound, with a dynamic range, beyond my wildest expectations. These newer horns are made like an older horn with handmade, hand-pounded brass but with modern mechanisms.” – Joe Lovano
Other endorsing artists include Will Vinson, Jimmy Greene and Tim Garland.
Borgani is not stocked as widely as other brands on this list, so you may need to search carefully to find a dealer if you’d like to try one out.
Beginner saxophones by British company Trevor James are manufactured in Taiwan, but designed and finished in Lenham, England.
Trevor James’ The Horn Classic has been acclaimed as an excellent student saxophone since the brand’s emergence in the early 1990s. It was revamped as the Classic II in 2012.
Priced approximately at the midway point above the Elkhart 100 Series and below the Yamaha 280, it has won three UK Music Industry Association awards, and is an extremely solid choice for a beginner saxophone that will last some time.
Whilst still primarily known for entry level saxophones, Trevor James has more recently started producing well-received professional horns.
The TJ Signature is hand built in England, with the RAW and RAW XS offering unlacquered finishes in different shades.
Trevor James’ top model is the AS Autograph tenor, a limited edition collaboration with British ECM artist Andy Shepherd.
One review described it as “quite simply the most playable, sweet sounding sax that has ever landed on the Jazzwise test bench”.
Trevor James also now produces the SR range, a series of competitively-priced intermediate saxophones.
That’s it: 10 top saxophone brands from around the world!
We hope this helps you with your instrument-buying research, and feel free to check out our saxophone homepage for ideas on mouthpieces, reeds and other sax specifics.
We’ve also put together an in-depth look at the different types of saxophones available today (hint: there are 10!)
Have any questions? You’ll find the comments box just below…
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!