Throughout our time here at Sax.co.uk, we get asked many different questions about many different products. One of the most common questions we get is “does it really make a difference?”. This can be a hard question to answer sometimes without in depth analysis, so I figured I’d channel my inner Louis Theroux and investigate! So here we go with Part 1: Saxophone Material.
Wait, aren’t all saxes made from brass?
It all depends on what level of horn you are looking at. If you are looking at entry level or intermediate horns, then yes pretty much all of them are made from brass. Once we cross the threshold into professional horns, the scope of materials that can be used to produce saxophones expands astronomically! For this reason, we will stick to pro horns for this blog.
What difference can material really make?
Well, in theory, a whole load. The type of material you use when producing a saxophone should influence the Timbre, Resonance, Resistance and ultimately, Cost. Let’s break these down and explore these areas more:
Timbre: The timbre of an instrument is, fundamentally, the shape of the sound. This is how the tone, pitch, colours and overall sound quality mix together to form the voice of the horn. The core timbre of the saxophone will always stay the same, regardless of the material, the saxophone will always sound like a saxophone. However, the smaller nuances, such as the tonal colours, should be affected by the type of material used.
Resonance: The resonance is all about how the sound travels through the horn. The density of the material is key to resonance here. The denser the material, the more tightly packed the molecules are (someone got an A in GCSE Science… 8 years ago…), the slower the vibrations will take to get through the material and, ultimately, the darker and fuller the sound. A material that is lighter with less resonance, should respond faster and sit a bit brighter.
Resistance: This is all to do with how the saxophone feels to play. We quantify this feeling into two key terms, Free-Blowing and Resistant. With a Free-Blowing horn, the sound will feel instantly responsive with less effort. When you put a little bit of air through the horn, the sound should be snappy and responsive, however the sound you produce will sound slightly shallow, and lacking colour. With a more Resistant horn, the response will not be quite as instantaneous, and will be a harder blow (you can literally feel this resistance in the back of your throat) however the colours and textures of the sound will be a lot more complex. In most cases, manufacturing will have more on an effect on resistance, but the density of material can influence this also.
Cost: This might seem obvious, because it is. The more expensive and precious the material used, the more the horn will cost you.
What materials are we talking about here?
You can make a saxophone out of pretty much anything if you try hard enough! For example, during the early 20th Century Grafton were making very popular acrylic saxophones (notable players such as Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman were playing such horns), but the acrylic wasn’t particularly hardy, so Grafton unfortunately do not produce horns anymore (if you are interested in seeing one though, both our stores have one to look and marvel at). On a top-level horn, we’re only going to care about metal construction. So, what will be looking out for is Brass, Red Brass, Silver Plate, Bronze, Nickel Silver and Solid Silver.
You will find that most of the horns here at Sax.co.uk will be made from Brass. It is the go-to and favourite material for instrument makers due to its flexibility tonally, being malleable and easy to manoeuvre but still very robust. Brass can be pushed in many directions tonally, and gives players flexibility in style, aesthetic and performance. The majority of the horns here at Sax.co.uk are Brass body, and then lacquered accordingly (does lacquer make a difference I hear you ask? Well good news I’m covering that too!)
The quality of the Brass mix and the construction of the horn will greatly affect the tonal performance and cost of the horn, with the balance of zinc to copper affecting the resonance, timbre and cost of the horn. Typically, student brass horns will be made from the lesser copper mixed brass, known as “yellow” brass, whilst higher quality brass with a higher copper content will be referred to as “gold” brass (I explain this further in the next section about “red” brass, yes there is another type of brass, I know, it’s mental). Brass doesn’t have quite as distinctive tonal colours as some of the other materials we will be looking at today, this means that the player can have a lot more creative control over the tone produced but might lack a warmth found from denser materials.
Selmer Paris Series III Soprano
Eastman 52nd Street Alto
Selmer Reference 54 Tenor
Yanagisawa BWO1 Baritone
Now, Red Brass and Gold Brass are different, albeit not dramatically. Prepare yourselves gang because we’re going into the weeds with this one. The difference is all in the mix of alloys and make Brass. Traditional instrument brass is typically referred to as either “yellow” or “gold” brass. This refers to the amount of copper compared to zinc (I did warn you). “yellow” brass consists of anywhere between 50-70% copper percentage, and will have a tighter, brighter timbre. Yellow brass is also cheaper to manufacture so is most common place in student horns. “Gold” brass has a higher copper content, around 70-80%.
The extra copper content lets the material resonate more freely, allowing for a broad, rich tone. “Gold” brass is what most professional horns are made from. Red brass has a copper content of around 85%. The colour of the horn can be affected by the amount of copper, but typically the colour will still be very brassy. Red Brass will be the most innately resonate of the brasses, therefor giving a rich colour pallet. There will be less flexibility in this tone, and the horn will certainly want to colour your tone, potentially in a way that doesn’t suit your style/preference.
Rampone & Cazzani R1 Jazz OT Alto
Rampone & Cazzani R1 Jazz OT Tenor
You may be looking at this next section thinking: “Silver plate is a finish choice, not a material!” At first, I thought the exact same thing, but after some much needed sleuthing, I can confirm that there is a sizable difference between Silver Plate and Lacquer. With Silver Plate, the silver is bonded to the brass in the construction by electroplating the silver onto the brass. This means that the silver becomes a part of the metal, rather then being merely applied on top.
Treating the metal in anyway will affect the way the metal responds and performs, and the opinions on how silver plate affects tonal response vary. The consensus here at Sax.co.uk is that when you add silver plating to brass, you’re adding weight to the horn, and when you add weight you are making the metal resonate slower, giving a mellower, richer response to the sound. This weight will make the horn a little more resistant, again giving more tonal complexity but making the horn a more resistant. It’s also worth noting that silver plate does need a little extra care aesthetically if you want to keep the horn looking military bright (though I believe silver plate always looks best when tarnished).
Yamaha YTS-82ZS Tenor
Selmer Series III Silver Plate Alto
Rampone & Cazzani R1 Jazz AG Soprano
Bronze is our most popular non-brass metal choice for a saxophone here at Sax.co.uk. Much like Brass, the main player is going to be the copper content, but this time the next most potent alloy is tin. This produces a denser material with significantly higher resonance than Brass. This resonance will give you a horn full of warmth, colour and complexity (fun fact, pretty much all professional bells and cymbals are produced from bronze rather then brass… okay not so fun but interesting! … okay maybe not interesting).
The density of bronze is going to give you plenty of resistance when playing, as well as physical weight, so a bronze body saxophone will be harder work. The pay-off is in the warmth and resonance that the horn produces, giving tons of depth and a slightly darker edge to your tone. Bronze, therefore, has proven to be a very popular material in the higher pitched saxophones, such as soprano, and in Baritones. The cost of the horn will spike with bronze, and we are moving further into precious metal territory, plus Bronze is a heavier material.
Yanagisawa SWO20 Soprano
Yanagisawa BWO20 Baritone
Nickel Silver is an odd and interesting material. Though the name might suggest it has elements of silver within the alloy, it does not. In any way. It isn’t related to silver at all and in fact is an off-set of brass. Nickel Silver is incredibly dense, and has huge resonance, but not in the same way that Bronze or Solid Silver will respond. What the heavier inclusion of Nickel will give you is brightness. In spades. These horns absolutely pop and give a big response aurally.
Tonally, this boldness gives the horn an aggressive edge, perfect for a soloist or someone interested in those big rock and roll/funky noise! Resistance wise, the horns are pretty free-blowing, especially for a material so heavy. This again will serve to further the boldness of the tone, giving the player plenty of edge and projection. These horns are not for the feint hearted. They will be noticeably heavier then brass models, and certainly louder. If you are looking to sit back or blend, the horns pure aggression might not be suitable. It is also worth noting that Nickel is an allergen. Although all the Nickel Silver horns we stock are lacquered, if you do have a Nickel allergy it might still be worth avoiding.
Keilwerth SX90R Shadow Alto
Keilwerth SX90R Shadow Tenor
The final material we will be deep diving will be Solid Silver. Silver is the only material on this list that isn’t a part of the Brass family and has inherently unique characteristics that make it a very special material for musical instruments. Solid Silver is extremely dense and soft, so has the highest point of resonance on this list. What this gives you is a thick, full sound that has tons of warmth across the whole spectrum. This warmth is most present at the bottom end, where the sound gets this big presence that absolutely fills the space.
Throughout the Mids and Trebles, the tone gets this real sense of direction and focus, lasering in on a tone to make that note a real spectacle. The tone produced isn’t as piercing, making solid silver fantastic for ensemble work, especially in a Classical capacity where Saxophone tones can come across as a bit harsh, but Solid Silver will need a little more pushing for more electric work. As Solid Silver is very dense, there is a fair amount of resistance when playing. This bite gives the player more tonal ranges to explore but could feel a bit too hard work for some players. The other concern with Solid Silver is that it is a very soft metal. Brass is by no means a hard metal, but Solid Silver will not like being knocked about. Being so expensive as well, it isn’t the kind of horn you want to be taking with you to a rowdy pub gig.
Yanagisawa AWO37 Alto
Yanagisawa TWO37 Tenor
Mixed Metal Saxophones
Who says your horn must only be made from one material? If you are looking for something unique, mixed metals might just be what to go! To make a saxophone, the separate components of the saxophone (neck, bow and bell) must be made individually, then subsequently put together. With Mixed Metal horns, at least one, but potentially all three components will be made from different materials, making for a both visually striking horn as well as a unique horn tonally. When the metals are mixed, the horn will respond differently at different junctions.
What this achieves is a rich blend of resonances that respond complexly with each other. The typical metals that are mixed are Brass, Bronze and Solid Silver, each bringing to the table a wide range of responses and tones, making for a spectacle aurally. This does have the offset of these horns being rather expensive, as the materials being used are more precious. But if you are looking for a one-of-a-kind aural experience, Mixed Metals are certainly worth considering!
Rampone & Cazzani Two Voices Saxello
Yanagisawa AWO32 Alto
Yanagisawa B9930 Baritone
Though we have ran through some of the key materials used in the construction of the Saxophone, there are many other materials that are a bit more specialist out there being used. Copper (Rampone & Cazzani R1 Jazz SC Tenor) is a rare material to use within musical instrument construction as its resonance is non-existent. Because Copper doesn’t resonate at all, it is assumed that the tonal response would be rather dead, however quite the opposite is true. Though the Copper horns I have played are full of poke and aggression, there is a sense of depth to the tone that feels very similar in response to Bronze instruments. Copper is certainly a material to consider if you are a player looking for something truly different.
The other consideration is that of Gold Plated (Yamaha YAS-875EXGP Alto). Much like Silver Plate, Gold Plate is typically electroplated onto Gold Brass on the construction of the material, intrinsically effecting the tonal response of the material. Gold Plate is fundamentally Silver Plate turned up to 11. The weight added to the material lets that metal resonate a lot slower, giving a big full tonal response. Gold Plated horns are meaty, rich, and quite expensive. For a fantastic clip of George Shelby showing us how Gold Plate horns respond (as well as schooling me on the art of being good…) follow the link here.
Both Copper and Gold Plate offer players the opportunity to get a horn with a unique aesthetic and tonal response. However, they are a lot rarer and not stocked regularly at Sax.co.uk. It is worth contacting us if this is the direction you are looking to go in!
Verdict – Does It make a difference?
Well, the cop-up, nonsense answer is that it is all subjective to the player and listener, and that is true! For myself, there is quite a marked difference between certain materials and less between others. For example, I feel there is a stark difference between Solid Silver and Brass instruments. The Solid Silver feels much richer and warmer, whilst the Brass has more poke and direction to the tone. Compare this to the differences between Silver Plate and Red Brass, where the tonal responses and colours are very similar. Much like everything in life however, the best way to find out if there is a difference for you is to come into store, say hello and try them out for yourself. It is very likely your dream horn is sitting here waiting for you already.
*All pie charts throughout this blog are examples, and not 100% accurate denominations for each material and manufacturer. The blends vary between manufacturers and are typically kept secret (kind of like the KFC recipe for Saxophones).