Like all wind instruments, saxophones come in a variety of price points depending on reputation, quality of craftsmanship, construction materials, and construction methods.
While it is impossible to pinpoint the best of the best amid this constellation of options, there are a few alto saxophones that tend to rise to the top of most lists.
Choosing from among these superlatives becomes a nuanced affair for the discerning saxophonist, with the final decision resting with the musician’s particular needs and playing context.
|Yamaha YAS-82ZII SaxophoneCheck Price on Amazon.com||Yanagisawa A-992 Saxophone
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|Yanagisawa WO20 Saxophone
A jazz artist, for example, may seek the instrument that produces the smokiest sound available. Contrastingly, the classical musician is always interested in the fluidity of the saxophone’s keying action. Moving quickly and precisely through a series of notes is the top priority.
The best alto saxophones listed below represent a large swath of the available options. Each sax, like the individual operating the sax, offers a complex series of markers that delineate its specific sound and action from its competitors.
In the end, a great saxophonist will always want to try a great saxophone to see if its superlatives also imply its compatibility with performer and playing context.
When selecting a top-end instrument, the musician is best served by concentrating on the brands with the best recommendations from noted performers or the most storied histories. Most saxophonists contend that the “Cadillac” brands include Yamaha, Yanagisawa, Cannonball, and of course, Selmer.
While Selmer instruments tend to receive the default label, “Best of the Best,” the other contenders offer similar quality and reputations. A careful look at all these brands reveal 7 gems that stand among the finest saxophones in the land.
As most musicians know, Yamaha produces fantastic instruments from across the symphonic band family.
Yamaha Saxophones, appreciated for being beautiful horns at an affordable price, are especially noteworthy for their precisely machined keys and fittings.
Yamaha YAS-82ZII Custom Z Alto Saxophone
Under the Yamaha name, the Custom Z instrument stands out. With lightning fast action, a complex tone color, and a remarkable ebony appearance, the “Z” is both gorgeous sounding and gorgeous looking.
A versatile instrument, the Z is often heard in the concert hall, the jazz combo, or on the marching band field.
Yanagisawa instruments continue to dazzle the woodwind world with innovative bronze usage. The bronze affords the classical artist excellent response, warm sound, and an amazing dynamic range.
In the Yanagisawa line, several favorites standout. Recognized for its airtight design and marvelous intonation, the A-992 Bronze is a favorite of soloists.
Yanagisawa A-992 Saxophone
The A-992’s upgraded cousin, the Yanagisawa WO20, is prized for its luscious, dark tone as well as its deft key action. Discerning saxophonists love both of these Yanagisawa models.
Yanagisawa WO20 Saxophone
The Cannonball Saxophone Company is obviously the “new kid on the block.” Founded in 1996 by instrumentalists Sheryl and Tevis Laukat, Cannonball features handcrafted instruments that are often specially designed to meet the playing attributes of the artist making the order.
In the professional series of saxes, the “Big Bell” saxophone features two necks, blue steel springs, leather/felt keypads, and of course the signature “big bell.”
Acoustically tweaked by one of musicians on the staff, the Big Bells never leave the manufacturing facility without taking a few laps around classical and jazz literature.
Cannonball’s Gerald Albright series is prized for its stunning appearance and soulful sound. Under the supervision of the master himself, the Albrights receive vigorous testing to insure uniform quality and a flawless appearance. Both Cannonballs tend be at the top of the price chart. Only elite players place these instruments in their collection.
No discussion of saxophone superlatives is complete without consideration of several Selmer models. The French manufacture, in the business since the late 19th Century, boasts an impressive list of saxophonists on its list of artists who play or played Selmer.
Claude Delangle, Marcel Mule, Frederick Hemke, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, Zoot Sims, and Herschel Evans are among the A-Listers who preferred a Selmer to its competitors.
The Mark VI and VII, while no longer in production, are among the greatest alto models of all time. In a word, the Mark instruments are smooth.
With a flawless key design, airtight fittings, and a wonderful appearance, the VI and VII are highly prized in both symphonic and jazz settings.
Among the newer, available models, Reference 36 and Reference 54 Firebird create a sound much like the legendary Mark VI.
With an immensely warm tone, and a dark finish, Selmer References are the instruments of choice for Jazz musicians.
|Check Price on Amazon.com||Selmer Mark Vi Alto Saxophone|
|Check Price on Amazon.com||Selmer Paris Reference 36 Tenor Saxophone|
|Selmer Paris Reference 54 Tenor Saxophone|
A word about manufacturing sites. While all Selmers are marvelous, most saxophonists insist that a model manufactured in Paris will always be superior to the same model when it is constructed in the United States.
While this may be more of a comment about the mystique of Parisian instruments than a literal truth, it is worth consideration.
In addition to the primo instruments listed above, it is always appropriate to consider the benefits of owning an instrument produced by Jupiter, Keilwerth, Martin, and Vito.
These four manufactures offer the midlevel musician a fabulous instruments at a palatable price.
The Jupiter CXL and Keilwerth SX90R are definitely worth some research and consideration. With the price point savings, the intermediate saxophonist may be in a position to buy two or more instruments that enhance the versatility of the artist.
The saxophone market is big and dynamic. Because of constantly changing economic conditions, instrument demand, and fluctuations in saxophone features in modern music literature, saxophone companies often merge, scale back production offerings, or altogether fold.
That said, several companies continue to flourish financially while also churning-out some marvelous instruments. Yamaha, Yanagisawa, Cannonball, and Selmer remain at the top of every list. At the end of the day, though, it is hard to go wrong with Selmer.
From its most basic instruments all the way up to the References, Selmer offers the discerning instrumentalist the highest standards of craftsmanship, tone quality, and versatility with every instrument it manufactures. It is a good idea to have a few instruments in the studio, so long as one of them is a Selmer.
Happy playing and we hope you found the best alto saxophone for you!