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If you’ve been searching for a cheap instrument and stumbled across the idea of a plastic saxophone, you’re not alone!

In this article we’re going to dive into the history of this unusual alternative to a regular brass sax, some famous players who performed on one and whether it’s a viable option for a beginner student today. 

It’s a logical idea if you’re on a tight budget or not sure you will stick with learning an instrument: switch out the metallic body of a saxophone for some cheap, cheap plastic!

We should start by pointing out one thing though: if you’re serious about starting to learn the saxophone, a plastic one would be a pretty unorthodox place to start.

Considering how affordable a ‘regular’ beginner alto saxophone is these days, our best advice is to stick with that.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not some interesting jazz saxophone history to check out on the topic, so stay tuned if you want to learn a little more…

plastic saxophones

Grafton Plastic Saxophones

The history of the plastic sax started back in 1950 when London-based company Grafton unveiled their plastic (acrylic) instrument.

Injection moulded & cream-coloured, these plastic instruments were only sold commercially for around 10 years, meaning that they are very rare today.

Their brittle nature and the difficulty to source spare parts meant they didn’t really catch on, but they did succeed in being an affordable option, selling for around half the price of a regular sax.

Due mainly to difficulties with manufacturing, the company focused on the smaller alto saxophone model ahead of the other types of sax, which is why two of the most famous examples of jazz legends using this brand are both altoists….

Charlie Parker

Alto saxophone legend Charlie Parker is famous for playing a plastic Grafton during his career.

A bebop genius with a tragic personal life of drink and drugs, this choice was purely financial: he allegedly pawned his regular instrument just before a concert and bought the cheaper plastic sax as a replacement.

But despite the lower quality of these acrylic instruments, his ability shone through. He ensured the Grafton’s place in jazz history by using it on the Jazz at Massey Hall concert – known by some as “the greatest jazz concert ever” – a couple of years before his death.

You can see Charlie Parker’s plastic saxophone today at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.

Ornette Coleman

Surprisingly for such a rare instrument, a second legendary alto player – Ornette Coleman – used a plastic saxophone early on in his career.

His pioneering of free jazz in the 1950s centred around unorthodox techniques both with his playing and improvising and, whilst the plastic Grafton saxophone was apparently a financial choice initially, it played it’s role in his groundbreaking sound-world.

Whilst many were turned off by the often harsh tone of the instrument, Ornette embraced it.

Such was his affinity to the instrument that he was, before switching to a regular saxophone, known as “the man with the plastic horn” – something reiterated many years later by his return to the instrument.

Modern Cheap Plastic Saxophones

As you might have imagined, modern manufacturing methods have advanced considerably since the 1950s.

So, you could be forgiven for thinking that now, well into the 21st century, you could find yourself a super cheap saxophone in this material.

But whilst various companies have attempted to do this – perhaps most notably the Thai company Vibrato who announced “The World’s First Polycarbonate Alto Saxophone” in the early 2010s – it hasn’t really taken off.

The reason?

Well-known saxophone brands can now make beginner saxophones in the traditional brass material for a fraction of the price before!

So whilst you probably won’t find that a plastic saxophone is the right one to get you started, there are a ton of great beginner instruments  out there for every budget!

Plastic saxophone reeds

It may not be popular with many traditionalists, but  saxophone reed manufacturers turned their attention to plastic in the quest for a more durable and consistent reed.

And any saxophonist who’s worked their way through a box of reeds to find only one they like, can probably sympathise with this idea, at least.

These synthetic reeds are made to mimic their wooden (cane) counterparts as closely as possible whilst remaining free from damage or degradation due to humidity or little knocks and scrapes.

They might not be overtaking the traditional reed in popularity any time soon – and we’d still recommend a tradition cane reed for beginners – but there some brands, such as Légère, who produce some high quality products.

Légère, based out of Canada, sell a range of synthetic reeds depending on the type of player and the type of sound:

  • American Cut
    “the reed speaks with total ease while giving players just the right amount of tonal edge. It is effortlessly free-blowing, colorful, and loaded with personality”
  • Signatures
    “thinner and stiffer than a traditional cane reed, making them easy to play and wonderfully smooth. They produce a pristine, centered sound with colorful overtones”
  • Classics
    “Extremely durable. The thicker tip makes it ideal for projecting and providing a full, rich, and percussive sound”
  • Studio Cut
    “a more responsive reed without the overtones of the Signature. The softer material increases projection and ease of play”

Whilst many professional saxophonists prefer to stick with the traditional wood cane reeds that have served the jazz legends before them so well, these plastic offerings are an interesting offering and worth trying out if you’re curious about the difference in sound and durability that they could provide.

Thanks for stopping by!

We’re guessing you didn’t find exactly what you were looking for – a cheap plastic saxophone – but hopefully you enjoyed the trip through a very niche part of saxophone history and can check out our beginners guide to playing saxophone – along with some low-cost recommendations – here.

 

Matt Fripp
Matt Fripp

International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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