There are many good instruments to choose from. Generally, instruments are classed as student, intermediate or professional – with prices that reflect! Getting the best saxophone you can afford is an obvious goal. It is NOT necessary to have a pro horn to learn how to play the instrument – and play it well. In fact, for at least your first year of study, you will not be skilled enough to reap the benefits of improved tone and intonation provided by a pro horn. Pro horns are much more expensive, made of better materials and to more exacting standards and tolerances. There are excellent saxophones made by Selmer and Yamaha (EXCELLENT intermediate instruments). I prefer Selmer saxophones – I play a Mark VI tenor from 1966, and a Super Action 80 Alto of more recent vintage.
The most important thing for a student is to have a saxophone in good repair. Any type of instrument in good repair will provide much better service than a great horn in bad shape. Generally, music stores pay about one half of the suggested retail price. Do not pay suggested retail for a horn. 20 – 30% is about a standard discount – but try to do better and don’t be afraid to pay a little more at a store with a good reputation for service.
Some people will consider renting or buying to own an option. Just make sure you consider the full cost of interest or payments to buy the saxophone.
In recent years there have been an influx of cheap Chinese instruments. Its best to avoid these.
I advise extreme caution when buying used or new instruments online from auctions, classifieds, or from part time independant dealers of used horns. Unfortunately there are many unscrupulous people can and do mislead even the most well informed buyer. There is tremendous hype regarding vintage instruments, especially early model Selmers. DON’T buy an old Selmer just because it is a Mark VI or a Balanced Action. There are many things that could be wrong with it, some which make the horn nearly worthless; it might even be stolen. My advice is to stay away from any situation where you are purchasing a saxophone sight unseen and have no guarantee or return policy.
One more thing to mention — due to variance in the manufacturing process horns of the same model and even sequential serial numbers will all play differently! A wise saxophone buyer knows to try several horns until he finds the one that plays the best. If you aren’t a skilled saxophonist yet, bring someone with you.
Should I get an alto, soprano, tenor or baritone saxophone?
This is entirely up to you; small children do better with alto, as their fingers fit the keys better. Alto is probably an easier horn to start on, with baritone and soprano presenting their own challenges which make them quite a bit more difficult to learn on – Baritone is BIG for a young child, and soprano is generally tougher to play in tune. I recommend to find a music store that has been in business a long time. You will probably pay a bit more in the short term, but you will develop a relationship that can last a life time.
If you are going to buy a used saxophone, I suggest you insist on the options to return the instrument if it proves unsatisfactory. Have someone knowledgeable check it out for you.
There are excellent buys available for a used saxophone. Don’t worry about the lacquer (how shiny it is).
Are there many dents? Do the keys rattle when you finger them?
Look down the inside of the bore (inside the saxophone with the neck off) – does it look like a perfect cone, or does it seem to veer off to one side? (if so, it was probably dropped, not a good bet to buy).
Look at the pads, are they supple or dried out and tough?
These are general suggestions – some saxophones for the right price are well worth fixing up!