When it comes to buying a saxophone for jazz, or even just upgrading your current horn, there’s an enormous choice out there.
Do you buy a vintage classic, steeped in jazz history, or a brand new saxophone built with precise modern manufacturing methods?
There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of ‘best saxophone for jazz’ as it’s personal to each individual player, but there are some important considerations (which we’ll take you through in this guide) as well as some industry leaders that can’t be ignored.
We’ve included some examples of the instruments chosen by the jazz greats, so keep an eye out for the preferred saxophone of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond and more. If you want to dive into that in more detail, we’ve published an in-depth look at the horns, mouthpieces and reeds of 10 of the best jazz saxophonists of all time.
We’ve included a range of prices but, as with most things, you get what you pay for.
That said, some models offer greater value for money than others, and you shouldn’t expect to see a huge difference in your playing if you purchase an expensive instrument or mouthpiece. Equally, if you heard a world-class saxophonist play a student horn, they wouldn’t suddenly sound terrible!
About the saxophone
Designed in the early 1840s by the Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax, the saxophone was initially thought of as something of a novelty instrument, before the development of the formal French classical school in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Parallel to this was the growth of the instrument as a voice in American dance band music and jazz, and it is with this style that the saxophone is most commonly associated now.
One of the more versatile members of the woodwind family (despite being made of brass), it can be heard in jazz groups, big bands, military bands, orchestras, classical chamber ensembles, pop groups and many other settings.
Its use of a single reed is similar to that of a clarinet, and many players ‘double’ on both instruments.
The saxophone itself is of course the most expensive part of your instrument set up.
While reeds and perhaps even mouthpieces may come and go, you’ll hopefully spend many hours over a number of years with your saxophone, so it’s worth doing your research, taking your time and choosing a good one.
Unlike some mouthpieces and reeds, saxophones don’t tend to be designed with a specific genre in mind: a decent horn should be useable in any musical situation, although there are makes and models that have been particularly favoured by players of certain styles.
How to choose a saxophone for jazz
Once again, it is important to take your time and ideally you should try out a range of options.
Saxophones are generally categorised as ‘student’, ‘intermediate’ or ‘professional’ and broadly speaking, as with most things, you get what you pay for.
That said, some models offer greater value for money than others, and you shouldn’t expect to see a huge difference in your playing if you purchase an expensive instrument. Equally, if you heard a world-class saxophonist play a student horn, they wouldn’t suddenly sound terrible!
Things to consider when testing out a new saxophone include:
- Does the build quality feel good?
- Does it produce a nice, well-rounded tone?
- Does it play evenly across the whole register?
- How is the intonation?
It’s also worth reading reviews and guides online, and seeking the advice of professional players. It’s often possible to take a saxophone on trial before making a decision on whether or not you buy it, so it could be really useful to play it for an extended period yourself and also seek a second opinion if possible.
There are, of course, some advantages to buying a brand new saxophone, but looking at second hand options could provide the chance to grab a bargain.
Many professional players opt for vintage saxophones, usually for their perceived natural tonal quality, and perhaps a sense of character and history.
Historic models that are particularly sought after include the Conn M Series, the Beuscher 400, the Selmer Balanced Action and the Selmer Mark VI, perhaps the most famous saxophone ever.
However, the quality of vintage instruments can vary widely and they can be trickier to maintain.
The keywork on pre-Mark VI instruments tends to feel considerably different, so beginner and intermediate saxophonists would probably be well advised to stick with a solid modern horn.
So, with that in mind, here are 5 of the best saxophones for jazz being manufactured and widely available today.
Five of the best saxophones for jazz
Selmer Paris Reference 54
Perhaps the most well known manufacturer of high quality saxophones, Henri Selmer founded the company in Paris in 1885.
The Reference 54 is a modern take on the arguably the greatest sax of all time, the Selmer Mark VI, which began production in 1954 and was played by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond and many other greats.
A matte lacquered finish gives this an ‘antique’ look and its warm, focused sound is informed by the great horns of the past, but various elements are redesigned for the modern player, including smoother keywork.
As the most expensive instrument on this list, it certainly doesn’t come cheap, but this could be an excellent alternative to a vintage saxophone: it is arguably both more reliable to maintain and more ergonomic to play.
A Reference 36 model is based on the 1936 Selmer Balanced Action.
- Reasonable pricing
- Great sound and playing feel
- Engraved bell
- Drawn tone holes, ribbed mounting
- Leather pads
Yamaha 82Z Custom
Whilst they may not have the name prestige of a brand like Selmer, Yamaha are known for making excellent quality saxophones at a considerably lower price.
The Custom has been their top-of-the-range series since 2002, and the free-blowing, wider-bored Custom Z is particularly well suited to jazz (while the Custom EX is considered to be more of a classical saxophone).
Available in a range of lacquered finishes, Phil Woods began playing one of these later in life, having played a Selmer Mark VI for many years previously. Yamaha also make very well regarded student and intermediate saxophones.
Mauriat Le Bravo
Mauriat are a relatively new name to the saxophone world, but have swiftly established a reputation for products – hand-hammered with French brass in Taiwan – that compare favourably to more established brands.
The Le Bravo is an intermediate instrument: ideal for advancing students, but also suitable for professionals on a budget. With a stylish satin gold lacquer finish and a solid nickel silver neck, it has a punchy, more contemporary tone that makes it an ideal saxophone for jazz.
Mauriat also offer a number of more expensive professional saxophones, including the popular vintage-inspired PMX range.
- No engraving
- Neck: Nickel-silver Brass
- Finish:Matte/Glossy Gold Lacquer
- Body: rose brass
- Pads: Pisoni
A small family business based in Japan, Yanagisawa are known for making extremely reliable professional-level saxophones of the highest quality.
With a rich, warm sound, they are endorsed by a number of big names in the jazz, classical and pop worlds. This model is an upgrade on the 992 model, having received several considered tweaks to improve how it plays on an ergonomic level.
If (like us) you’re fascinated by the Japanese jazz scene, check out this interview with James Catchpole of the Tokyo Jazz Site.
Rampone and Cazzani R1 Jazz
Rampone and Cazzani is a small family business that has been hand crafting instruments in a village in the Italian Alps for almost 200 years. The R1 saxophone range is made specifically with jazz in mind using big bore geometry, and offers a number of customisable options. The elaborately engraved body is available in a variety of different metals, each of which has specific tonal characteristics. Rampone and Cazzani are much less well known than other brands on this list, but this could be a great option for those looking for something different; a modern horn with real personality.
So that’s it: 5 of the best saxophones for jazz. I hope it’s provided you with some good additional insight into your choices and let us know in the comments section if you have recommendations to add yourself.
If you’re looking for recommendations and tips on mouthpieces and reeds, too, head over to our saxophone homepage here.
Last update on 2020-08-08 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API