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Does it make a difference? Part 2 – Lacquer

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 2: Lacquer.

What is Lacquer?

The first point we need to address is what actually is Lacquer? Well, simply put, lacquer is paint that is applied onto a material, for the purpose of keeping the material underneath from tarnishing or making the material new and exciting colours. The purpose of the lacquer, and the type of lacquer you use, varies depending on what you are looking to lacquer. With guitars for example, there are more variations on which lacquer you can use and what mad colours you can make. There isn’t quite as much variation in the saxophone however, as the main purpose of the lacquer here is to stop the base material from tarnishing.

The most common material used to make saxophones is Brass (there are other materials you can use which will also affect the performance of the horn, click here to check out the many options you have!) Brass quickly tarnishes and forms a patina, which protects the material from corroding, when exposed to the air and oils in your skin. Manufacturers choose to apply a lacquer to therefor keep the brass looking shiny and golden (though there are some absolutely mad finished available if you are looking for something a little more unique).

How could Lacquer make a difference?

When you apply anything to a material, it will affect the way this material responds. So, when applying a lacquer to a saxophone, we should hear a difference in the tonal response to the horn. In theory, when applying a lacquer, you are stopping the base material resonating as freely. This should have the effect of focusing the sound, making each note sing clearly and precisely, without as much spread (spread is where the overtones around a note can be heard a little more clearly). When the lacquer is thinner or not present, this should have the effect of letting the base material resonate more freely, allowing for a more spread and rounded sound. Again for this blog post, I will be focusing more on professional horns as the nuances will be more prominent on a pro horn, but all these examples apply to student and intermediate saxophones!

Why do some finishes cost more than others?

As we will discover, the different types of lacquer out in the wild have different methods of application, and this will affect how the saxophone is priced. For example, an unlacquered saxophone is typically harder to produce, as the manufacturer will want to keep the material from tarnishing before getting it to you. Some manufacturers, such as Yanagisawa and Yamaha, will then buff their unlacquered horns to the point of shininess also. This will both give the customer the opportunity to see the development of the patina first hand, as well as make our lives incredibly difficult when they come into store, as they look IDENTICAL to lacquered horns (we start doing mad things like seeing if we can smell the lacquer… it’s an odd job really). This means that, though a model of a saxophone might be the same, the finish applied will affect the cost.

Are there different types of Lacquer?

There are many lacquer types out there, depending on what you use as the base component. In saxophone world though, manufacturers are very secretive about the type of lacquer they use (manufacturers don’t want to be giving away the secret recipe or make my blogging life easy). For this reason I am not going to go into very technical specifics, and instead break lacquer types into four groups, standard, colourful, water based and un-lacquered.

Standard Lacquer

Standard lacquer is going to be our most common lacquer type here at Sax.co.uk. Standard lacquer is kind of an umbrella term to signify when the lacquer is used for the preservation and enhancement of the base material, so can come under the terms “clear” and “gold” lacquer. The thickness of the lacquer varies depending on the manufacturer, but typically the lacquer isn’t applied very thickly. This means that over time the lacquer will wear, leading to a patina forming on certain patches of the horn that are regularly handled (though this affect doesn’t typically materialise for a matter of decades). The tonal response therefore has the expected focus, especially on the upper register, but when the metal is resonating slower on the lower register, the aural response feels very full and spread. Visually, it has desired effect of giving the saxophone that classic golden colour. Not the most unique looking instrument but very clean and professional, perfect for classical players and players who prefer that pristine look. If you are looking for consistency over the horn standard lacquer horns are the way to go. This lacquer also lends itself well to classical playing, as the tonal response has more focus and consistency across the registers, more accurately sounding the notes being aimed for. The drawback is that the saxophone will have a less unique tonal and visual identity, blending into the landscape of golden shiny saxophones, which to some players might not be as inspiring.

Sax.co.uk Favourites:

Yamaha YSS-82Z Soprano Saxophone

Yanagisawa AWO1 Alto Saxophone

Yanagisawa TWO20 Tenor Saxophone

Yamaha YBS-62E Baritone Saxophone

Colourful Lacquer

The core components of the lacquer are the same as clear lacquer saxophones, but dialled up to 11 (or dialled up to Chris Potter? Is that the Jazz version of that saying? I don’t know…) As the name implies, the lacquer applied to the material to protect it is colourful. These colours can range from black, blue, vintified, purple, cognac and even pink! What this gives you is an unique looking saxophone that will stand out from the pack. To create the desired effect with a colourful lacquer, the manufacturer typically has to either hand apply the lacquer (which can be a very expensive process) or apply the lacquer on thicker. This will affect the horns tonal response, as the lacquer will let the underlying material resonate even less. This will focus the sound even more, producing a big and punchy sound from the get go. The flipside is that you might lack the overtones and warmth around the edges of the tone, producing a slightly more one-dimensional sound. You will also typically find that, aesthetically, colourful lacquers hold their colour for a longer period than any other lacquer type due to the thickness and application method, which is a plus or a negative depending on how vintage you like your sax to look.

Sax.co.uk Favourites:

P. Mauriat System 76 DK Soprano Saxophone

Selmer Paris SA80 Series II Black Lacquer Alto

Yamaha 82Z Atelier Umber Tenor Saxophone

P.Mauriat Le Bravo Baritone Saxophone

Water-based Lacquer

Here’s something a little more specialist, and applies mainly to Selmer Paris gold lacquer saxophones. Water-based lacquer, as the name implies, uses water rather than a thicker agent such as acrylic as the base of the paint, meaning that you get the same protective elements found in our standard lacquer, but not as heavy on the material itself. What this gives you is the best of both worlds between lacquered and unlacquered, as you get both the aesthetic of a lacquered saxophone married with the tonal response of an unlacquered horn. Now this does also swing the other way in that the tonal response isn’t as free as an unlacquered horn and, over time, the lacquer wears far quicker than an acrylic based lacquer. This will result in patches of patina forming around spots regularly touched by the hand, such as the neck and bell. This might not be the choice for someone looking to maintain that brilliant shiny finish (though I must say, vintage selmers with this worn lacquer look absolutely stunning). Water-based lacquer does offer players a flexibility and utility not found by any other option, and is fully worth exploring!

Sax.co.uk Favourites:

Selmer Paris SA80 Series II Gold Lacquer Soprano

Selmer Paris Reference 54 Honey Gold Alto Saxophone

Selmer Paris Reference 36 Gold Lacquer Tenor 

Selmer Paris Series III Gold Lacquer Baritone

Unlacquered

Our final, and possibly most popular option, is unlacquered. As the name implies, there is no lacquer applied to the material at all. As stated above some manufacturers will buff the material shiny, or apply an oil to the material to show off some of the fancy engraving, but there is no effort to treat the material for tarnishing. Aurally, this means the material has complete freedom of movement for resonance. This will give the tone a fullness on the fringes of the note playing, really filling the space and giving the bottom end especially a real presence. Aesthetically the material will tarnish and tarnish quite quickly. This will give the saxophone a real vintage appeal, the envy of all jazzers out there. The flip side to this is that maintaining cleanliness on an unlacquered horn can be slightly harder work. Players can typically get complacent with the upkeep as the horn will never look ‘clean’, this is a habit that you simply cannot afford to get into for the health and well being of the saxophone. Other aesthetic details such as the soldering of the rods and tubes are more prominent as there isn’t a lacquer there to cover the blemishes, so if you are looking for a visually pristine horn unlacquered is not the way to go. Aurally the sound will not have as much focus and poke, due to the resonance of the material, so might not be ideal for the more focused or classically minded musician.

Sax.co.uk Favourites:

Eastman 52nd Street Unlacquered Soprano 

Rampone and Cazzani OT Alto Saxophone

Signature Custom RAW XS Tenor Saxophone

Conn-Selmer Premiere PTS 380V Baritone

Verdict

This is quite a tricky subject to cover, as there are so many mitigating circumstances, such as the brand of saxophone and the lacquering technique, that it’s very hard to get a clear result as to whether the type of lacquer is having an effect on the sound. The obvious differences can be heard between lacquered and unlacquered saxophones. The unlacquered horns do have a more spread tone, which can be felt nearer the bottom register whilst the lacquered saxophones feel more focused and direct.

However, this difference isn’t night and day. When put to a blind test, it was really difficult to tell the difference between lacquered and unlacquered saxophones, and pretty much impossible between the different lacquer types. Each manufacturer has a different lacquering technique, and I feel this technique is evocative of the saxophone as a whole. Yamaha’s are focused and punchy, and apply a thicker lacquer. Selmer’s are spread and luxurious, and apply a thinner lacquer. Rampone & Cazzani’s are characterful and weighty and apply no lacquer at all.

The best advice I could possibly give you is to, obviously, come into store and try them. But also ask yourself what sound and aesthetic you are going for, and see which brand fits you, before descending into lacquer madness like myself.