Why Buy? - An Intermediate Sax
by Michael Leopold Weber
We here at sax.co.uk often find ourselves speaking most about one end of the saxophone spectrum or the other. We discuss the very best saxophones for beginners, whether that be our own range of Sakkusu’s, industry staples like the Yamaha YAS-280 or new and emerging models such as Jean-Paul USA AS-400. We wax lyrical about professional models from the likes of Yanagisawa, Selmer Paris and Rampone & Cazzani (that last one might just be me…). But there is a middle ground in the saxophone market. One that doesn’t get spoken about all that often: the intermediate horn. Let me run you through what an intermediate sax is, why they’re worth your attention and some of our very favourite saxes in that bracket.
What is an Intermediate Sax?
An intermediate sax is a very simple concept on paper. These are horns that have improved ergonomics (how it feels under the fingers to play), better parts and are designed to be more robust and longer-lasting than our beginner counterparts. Let us look at the Yamaha YAS-480 for example. The model up from the student base model 280 has improved keyguards, uses a higher quality brass, nicer key touches (though still synthetic) and feels like a much more robust instrument to handle. This jump in quality will be felt in the tone as well. The YAS-480 will have a much more complicated colour palette compared to its younger sibling - with a competent player being able to express more nuanced sonic structures thanks to the denser brass quality.
What makes the YAS-480 an intermediate horn? Where it’s made. The 480s are made in the same factory as the 280 in Indonesia. Whereas Yamaha’s entry-level professional horn, the YAS-62, is made in Japan. Side by side, the 62 and the 480 are very similar looking horns. But the quality jump in production makes a massive difference in the horns overall tone and, much more substantially, the longevity of life.
The YAS-62 is assembled with a lot more care and attention, hand-finished and fully checked before leaving the Shizuoka factories on their way to their final locations. The horns made in Indonesia simply do not have that level of care and attention. This, alongside the cheaper labour costs in Indonesia compared to Japan, allows the YAS-480 to use better quality parts whilst keeping the prices lower. The knock-on effect is that a 480 will need servicing and looking after more often than its Japanese counterpart. Couple this with the Japanese horns having mother of pearl key touches, a nicer quality case and better accessories included, it’s clear that Yamama and other companies who produce horns in the intermediate range want a clear distinction between these models and their professional range.
Why Buy An Intermediate Sax?
This all begs the question then: why bother with an intermediate sax? Well, this all depends on who you are, your financial situation and your needs for the horn. If you are a student who is looking to move on from your student saxophone and taking your playing very seriously, or a hobbyist wanting to get a horn that will comfortably last a lifetime or just want something with that extra va-va-voom - ignore intermediate saxophones and push your savings a little further to get a professional horn. You might need to save for a little longer but trust me - it’ll be worth it in the long run.
However, that doesn’t mean the intermediate sax is redundant. Far from it, in fact.
If you are a hobbyist or a player who enjoys playing the sax, wants something better quality than a student horn but do not want to break the bank, intermediate saxophones are perfect. They’ll give you a marked jump in overall quality across the board whilst also not panicking about carrying around an expensive horn to local gigs. If you’re a sax player in a local rock ‘n roll band playing your local, buying a solid silver Yanagisawa might be a touch overkill (though please do not let me discourage you, you do you, my fine saxophone friend!)
Similarly, if you are a pro player or someone who travels often for gigs, work or general lifestyle, you might not want to be carting your 5-digit MK-VI on a Ryanair flight. Having an intermediate horn can offer peace of mind that, if the worst was to happen on your travels, the horn can be fixed easily at your final destination with generic parts for a fraction of what independent repair people would charge for a professional or vintage horn. An intermediate sax with a good quality mouthpiece will absolutely give you the quality in sound and performance you would need for any gig. Sure, it might not have the right patina or gravitas that a vintage Selmer might, but a squashed Selmer has even less.
Finally, the intermediate market can offer some wild and whacky options for those looking for something a bit different. Saxophones with unique lacquers or blended metals can often be found more plentifully than in the professional market where us sax players have grown old, cynical and boring. If you or your kid is starting to really kick on with your saxophone playing and want something that’ll really stand out, the intermediate market might have the things for you.
Our Favourite Intermediate Saxophones
As mentioned throughout the article, the Yamaha YAS-480 offers players the perfect middle ground between the student aimed 280 and their entry-level pro-horn the 62. Sure, this horn isn’t the most inventive in terms of looks or mechanical innovation, but the YAS-480 is a workhorse of a horn. The tone is rich, clean and consistent from top to bottom, perfect for those players who lean toward a smoother tone or dabble in classical playing. With the right mouthpiece, you can give this thing real kick if you prefer a more aggressive rock ‘n roll sound. The YAS-480 is a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none. However, when a horn performs this consistently across many playing types, there’s nothing wrong with doing everything alright.
This horn is an absolute favourite among all of us here at sax.co.uk, and it’s really not hard to see why. It’s gorgeous! I mean, sure, it looks like it has been left in a field for the better part of 100 years but that’s exactly why it looks so good! The Conn-Selmer leans a lot more into the American school of saxophone making, in that the overall bore is wider and the bell is a lot more flared. This means that air has more space to travel through the horn, allowing for a deeper, more mellow tone. Couple this with the horns unlacquered finish which allows the brass to fully vibrate and you have yourself a horn full of character both visually and sonically. This horn will definitely have a lot more fight in it than the much more precise Yamaha models, but learning where the horn wants to fly sharp or flat is part of the joys of playing the sax. If you want an instrument that’s always in tune, play the oboe. If you want a horn with soul, get a Conn-Selmer!
Mauriat horns have always offered a unique twist to what a saxophone has to look like. Their intermediate horn, the Le Bravo, has been a favourite of ours for quite a while thanks to its sturdiness and delightful satin lacquer finish. But their newest horn, the Grand Dreams, is an absolute powerhouse priced in the intermediate range.
Right from the off, the cognac lacquer looks almost edible. So incredibly decadent and luxurious - an absolutely delightful horn to look at. But beyond this, the ergonomics, assembly and overall finish are at the standard of their professional models. Where the difference lies is in the tone. Their flagship models, like the PMXA 67R value a massive tonal spread and a deeply complex and unique tonal complexity over control and balance. The Grand Dreams actually narrows this scope, producing a horn that is much more manageable for an intermediate player whilst also having a tonal complexity some other horns lack.
The Grand Dreams does sit right at the top of the intermediate price range, so the only thing worth considering here is whether you plunge for the Grand Dreams, an intermediate/pro hybrid or push up an extra few hundred to a much more established pro horn.
Whatever you decide to do, whether shopping on our website or visiting us in London, when looking to upgrade your horn, do consider the intermediate sax. There are bargains to be had.