The invention of the saxophone in 1840 by Adolphe Sax, an instrument maker from Belgium, changed musical history. He wanted to create something new. Something that took the best qualities of brass instruments and combined it with the best from the woodwind. His saxophone was the result.
One of the Great Instruments
Along with the Violin, it has become one of the great instruments. Crossing genres effortlessly, it has enhanced every musical style there is. It can be classical, and then in a breath, blow some rock and roll. And then, in the next breath, play a mournful solo that tears your heart out.
It is one of the great jazz instruments as well. Names like Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and more recently Michael Brecker, along with the great Charlie Parker, roll off the tongue. Saxophonists all. As we said, one of the great instruments. But are they all the same? Let’s find out as we examine the Best Saxophone Brands.
Choosing Your Instrument
Not an easy job. They are not cheap to buy, and there are a lot to choose from. There are the established world-famous names, the Japanese who entered the market in the 60s, and the later, newer companies.
What Does “Best” Mean?
Best for what? The very best, up to $30,000, or the best brand for a starter? The best budget instrument or just the best manufacturer for a mid-range sax? I am going to look at a range of the best manufacturers that will cater to all requirements. Let’s start with a Japanese company, but not who some might think is the obvious one.
This small Japanese company is no multinational conglomerate. They are still a family business that creates exceptional saxophones. They were first established as far back as 1894. In those days, they were set up to repair woodwind instruments.
The arrival of their Saxophone
In 1951 they started to manufacture Saxophones, and it didn’t take them long to establish themselves. Utilizing all their knowledge about woodwind instruments, they applied that to making the Sax.
They succeeded in no short measure and are now recognized as one of the “Big Three” with Selmer from France and, of course, Yamaha.
Limited product range
Yanagisawa has never been a company to mass-produce their instruments. Preferring to manufacture a limited range but with real quality. This streamlining of their product range has added to their value and to the mystique that surrounds them.
The WO series
This range is split into the WO1 for the professionals and the rather more elite and expensive WO10 models. These might be considered Yanagisawa’s top-of-the-range saxophones, but the price point is very competitive. You will see they are much cheaper than other saxophones of similar quality. That makes them great value for money.
Each sax comes with a mouthpiece made from high-quality ebonite. Cost-effective and very sought after, but it is the sound they are most known for. A very warm and rich sound with a smooth playing action justifies their reputation as one of the best.
Yanagisawa does not manufacture beginner or student-level saxophones. A superb example of their elite WO10 Alto range is the Yanagisawa AWO10 Alto Saxophone.
Quite a new manufacturer and another from the Far East. These saxophones are made in Taiwan and have built quite a reputation for themselves. They began producing saxophones and trumpets in the 2000s and are now a much-respected brand. They make horns for intermediate and professional level players.
The Quality of the Build
Mauriat has always prided themselves on the quality of their instruments. They are all made from French brass and hand-hammered. This gives them a very distinctive authentic vintage look that is unlacquered.
In the design of their professional-level instruments, they offer the option of having tone holes that are rolled. Instead of being soldered on at the end of the manufacture, they are extruded from the brass body. The idea is that they will provide a better fit for the pads and thus a more resonant sound.
For those players who are improving and want to upgrade their instrument, P. Mauriat manufactures an intermediate range. This range is known as Le Bravo.
It is well-built with a neck made from solid nickel. It has a very punchy sound that makes it ideal for jazz players. The Le Bravo range comes with its own case and a mouthpiece. And a further nice touch to the design is the Abalone key touches.
If you haven’t heard of P. Mauriat before, they are certainly worth a look. Their Tenor Sax from the intermediate LeBravo range, the Mauriat Lebravo 200T Tenor Sax, is a great option.
Mendini by Cecilio
Let’s move away now from the mid-range saxophones and look at some of the best budget range saxophones. As I said in the opening, when you are discussing the best saxophone brands, you must include the best at every level. The Mendini instruments offer a good cost-effective alternative.
Not in the class of saxophones that cost ten times the price, but you wouldn’t expect that. Or at least I hope you wouldn’t. For those on a budget or those taking their first steps, these instruments fulfill a great function.
Who are they?
Mendini is a budget range of instruments and part of the Cecilio instrument manufacturing group. They are well-known amongst beginners and produce a wide range of orchestral instruments. The saxophone is just one of an extensive product range.
They were founded in 2004 and have an administrative base in California. All the instruments are made in China and shipped to the HQ., where they are checked.
They don’t try to compete with the “big boys.” Focusing instead on producing a decent, playable instrument at a cost-effective price. If you are a beginner or someone thinking about starting to play, this is a good option. If you are a Pro or a high-level intermediate player, time to move on.
The horns they make are first and foremost affordable, but they have some nice design features. Most have a gold-lacquered body and ribbed construction. Most of them have leather pads which makes them durable.
The good news for the beginner is that Mendini usually provides a package of essential goodies to get you started. This often includes a case, mouthpiece, reeds, neck strap, and cleaning materials. Some of these are not the best. As an example, the neck strap isn’t padded. But they are sufficient in the initial phase for a beginner.
This is a sax that will be suitable for a beginner up to Improver level. It might therefore last a few years if it is taken care of. A good example of what they offer is the Mendini by Cecilio Gold Lacquer B Flat Tenor Saxophone package.
We will deviate here to bring you this range of Saxophones. They go under the title of Glory, which is a shame as the name doesn’t give a good first impression. Also, they aren’t a manufacturer in their own right, and I think they are probably a part of Amazon’s supply program. I do know they are outsourced and made in China.
A very budget range
I have included this company as they provide a very cost-effective product. There will be some who will want to buy the cheapest saxophone that is playable. This could be one of them.
Designed for teaching
That it would appear is the sole function of this saxophone. And it is therefore going to be good for music schools as well as individuals. To be fair, though, if you buy one as an individual, it won’t be too long before you might want to upgrade.
Price and Quality
You won’t find a saxophone too much cheaper than this. But having said that, the quality of the work is acceptable. Not great, of course, and there may be some teething problems. As a first instrument, it will do the job. It is a sax you will be able to get a sound out of straight from the box.
They are quite well-made with a nice finish and are delivered with a case, mouthpiece, reeds, and a cleaning kit. It isn’t going to be perfect, as I have said. But it is offered at an insane price for a working instrument. The Glory Professional Alto Eb Saxophone is an example of what they produce.
Two German brothers, Julius and Max, started building their saxophones in 1925. Originally designed for the concert halls of Europe, they gained favor with a variety of musicians due to the distinctive sound.
The range of instruments was given a boost in the 80s as the emphasis turned to the jazz market. Whilst the more conservative European model provided them with a firm base, it was the jazz market that pushed them into people’s consciousness. Especially true when you get players like Courtney Pine choosing to play them.
They weren’t happy with just producing great-sounding instruments; they also wanted them to make a statement. Their Keilwerth Shadow is a saxophone that does just that. It has a very distinctive black nickel plating. This gives it a rather dramatic and, in some ways, a ‘dark’ look.
Their hand-engraved work on these saxophones is ornate and is seen on the neck of the horn and the bell. It adds a classy look to an already classy instrument. As a result, it’s one of the most unique saxophones you can buy.
They play a little differently…
They are known for playing differently from some other manufacturers’ models. The left-hand palm keys are a good example of how they are designed with changes. But the overall feel of the instrument is that it is something special.
An instrument that is designed for the improving intermediate player up to the pro. It is not a cheap option, but then quality rarely is. The instruments are still made in Germany, such as the excellent Keilwerth SX90R Shadow Alto Saxophone.
From Keilwerth, we stay with the serious end of the market to take a look at Yamaha. A member of the “big three,” they are undoubtedly one of the best saxophone brands. Not surprising, really. Founded in 1887 in Japan, they have become an iconic manufacturer in a range of products. But let’s just stick to music.
They are the biggest manufacturer of pianos in the world, many of which are seen in some of the great concert halls. They manufacture woodwind instruments and, of course, are well-known for the quality of their drums.
Also, they make some great electric basses and guitars and, of course, exceptional acoustic guitars. And should we need to bother to mention their keyboards and synthesizers? Used by many of the greatest bands at one time or another. Here is a manufacturer that knows what they are doing.
But they are different to some
Whereas a lot of the high-end manufacturers concentrate solely on the higher end, Yamaha does not. They produce a range of instruments across the board, from the Pros right down to the Starter. And they are all quality and all well-made. Students can therefore get the Yamaha quality at a very early period in their development.
Simply the Best
That is how the Yamaha YAS-280 Alto and the YTS-280 Tenor saxes have been described. The best student saxophones in the world. They will cost you quite a bit more than some other starter instruments. But they are worth every penny because of their quality.
The higher levels
The 480 is Yamaha’s intermediate-level instrument, which again is perfect for the developing student. And again is thought of as one of the best in its range.
Then you move on to the Yamaha Custom range. Their high-end top-of-the-range model since 2002 is where it gets really serious.
Jazz And The Classics
The wider-bored Custom Z designs are saxophones for freestyling jazz musicians. The Custom EX is designed for a more classical style of playing.
Today Yamaha is a force to be reckoned with in the world of the saxophone. They have a reputation for making quality instruments that, whilst they can be expensive, are excellent value for money.
They have cemented their position as one of the top three for a reason. Buy one of their saxophones, and it’s not only a great instrument but an investment. For example, the Student level Alto sax I just mentioned, the Yamaha YAS-280 Saxophones Student Alto Saxophone. And one from the Pro Custom Z series, the Yamaha YAS-82Z Custom Z Series Alto Saxophone.
If we are talking about Saxophone manufacturers, then they don’t come more prestigious or have more history than Selmer Paris. Set up in 1885 by Henri Selmer for manufacturing woodwind instruments, it was and still is a family-run business. They are located in Mantes-la-Ville, 48 km to the west of the capital.
Since making their first saxophone in 1922, they have gone from strength to strength. And some of their instruments have become written in saxophone folklore. The ‘Cigar Cutter’, and the 1936 Balanced Action, followed by the Super Balanced Action, all brought excellence to their range. But there was one that became a legend.
The Mark V1
First produced in 1954 and manufactured until 1981, it has been called one of the best saxophones ever. It had some serious adherents. Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and John Coltrane all played it. And in later years, Michael Brecker.
You can hear the Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone played by Brecker playing the solo on “Still Crazy after all these Years” by Paul Simon. When you have a group of players of that caliber choosing your instrument, you know you have something special.
The range has changed, but the quality hasn’t diminished. The latest flagship Selmer Paris saxophones are the Reference series. This series is inspired by the legends of the past.
The 1936 Selmer Balanced Action being behind the Reference 36 sax. And the legend itself, the 1954 Selmer Mark VI the driving force behind the Reference 54. They both try to revisit those game-changing instruments whilst using the latest techniques in the building process.
Still in the mix as well, the Super Action 80 Series II, described as, quote, “without doubt the world’s most popular professional alto saxophone.”
Of course, you would expect that a company with this pedigree doesn’t make cheap instruments. Therefore, they are quite expensive. They don’t make a starter or even intermediate instruments. So what you buy is the finest they have to offer.
But in Paris, over eighty percent of each of the instruments are hand-made. Quality and workmanship at their highest, as can be seen on the Selmer Paris Reference 54 Tenor Saxophone.
Looking for a Great Saxophone or Sax Accessories?
We can help you find what you need, so check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Yamaha Saxophones, the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best Selmer Saxophones, the Best Soprano Saxophones, and the Best Beginner Saxophones you can buy in 2021.
Also, have a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Saxophone Neck Straps and the Best Alto Sax Mouthpieces currently available. And don’t forget our comprehensive YAMAHA YAS-280 Saxophone Review and our Yamaha YAS-23 Standard Eb Alto Saxophone Review for more great instruments.
What are the Best Saxophone Brands?
I have tried to include what might be considered the best sax brands for every level. Some, of course, are cost-effective and lack the qualities of even the mid-range instruments. But for a complete beginner who doesn’t want to spend too much, they are fine.
But as we go through the list, there is some real quality there. Some of it is expensive, but you would expect that. On the other hand, you are buying an instrument with an extraordinary history and a bright future. And as we said at the very start, it is one of the great instruments.
Until next time, let the music play.