An “instrument” is a tool, and that applies to musical instruments. What I’ve been taught and come to realize is that a musical instrument is a tool to send a message in the form of sound. Other people, like construction workers, artists, and engineers, require “top of the line” equipment in order to make a high quality product.
Does the same principle apply to musical instruments? Kind of.
As most people know, instruments generally come in three levels: beginner (or student), intermediate, and professional. I am a saxophone player, so many of the examples I will use will deal with saxophones, but the ideas are the same for all instruments.
I recently read a post online that beginner level instruments may be considered “budget” instruments. They provide a potentially decent instrument for a relatively low cost, depending on the manufacturer. Many people think that they need a pro instrument to sound good, but that is not true. In fact, a well constructed beginner instrument should sound almost as good as a professional level instrument.
Key phrase: well constructed. Assuming all of the mechanics of the instrument are of good quality, a student horn should sound almost as good as a professional horn to the average listener.
My advice to people with a beginner horn thinking about upgrading: buy a high quality mouthpiece and send your horn into the shop to get it adjusted and fine-tuned. This will be a lot less expensive than buying an entirely different instrument. For classical saxophone players, two of the best mouthpieces are Selmer C* and Vandoren Optimum. I own both of these and they are very good. I played the C* for 3 years in high school, and it served me well. After high school, before I started college, I got a Vandoren Optimum mouthpiece, and I prefer it to the C*. But that is just me – if you’re in the market for a new mouthpiece try both of these (maybe more) and pick out which one suits you best. Anatomically, we are all different, so the different dimensions and shape of mouthpieces will affect our sound differently. If a professional takes their mouthpiece and reed and slaps it onto a student level horn, they will sound almost as good (assuming the horn is in good shape).
More on mouthpieces: the C*s are generally more expensive, costing around $150-180. The Optimums are slightly cheaper, around $110-120. Professional mouthpieces are made out of hard rubber, which is more durable than the plastic that cheap mouthpieces are made out of. If a cheap plastic mouthpiece is dropped on a hard surface, it will likely break. This has happened to me and my friends before in high school marching band. Rubber mouthpieces are tougher, but they still might chip if dropped. If my Optimum fell and broke, I would probably cry.
The reason to send your horn into the shop is mostly to fix leaky pads. A leaky pad does not completely cover the tone hole, and it causes one or more notes to be out of tune and unresponsive. This problem is very common and is often present in instruments bought from third party sellers (not a music store, as they usually inspect their instruments before they sell them). To fix a leaky pad, the technician will bend the key, float the pad (which is melting the glue attaching it to they key and moving it around), or replace the pad. Pads can become leaky due to physical trauma, absorbing too much liquid (such as playing outside in the rain during marching band), or old age.
Intermediate instruments are constructed better than their student level counterparts, and they may exhibit some features found on professional instruments. The intonation is usually better and the instrument may be made out of higher quality material. They are usually more visually appealing, too. The price is between the beginner and professional levels, but sometimes leaning closer to the professional instruments. In that case, depending on your needs and level of playing, it may be best to just purchase a pro horn.
Professional horns are made out of the highest quality materials, have the best intonation, play the best, sound the best, are the most durable, and the prettiest. Some pro instruments are mostly or entirely hand-made. Be prepared to drop a lot of money for a new professional instrument. Used instruments at this level are not as common as used beginner horns because a player who is willing to buy a pro horn will use it forever or want to keep it.
I have owned saxophones of these three levels. My first alto was a Vito student model, my intermediate saxophone was a Yamaha 575 Allegro, and my professional instruments are Yamaha 875EX alto saxophone and a Yamaha 675 soprano saxophone. I am very much a fan of Yamaha saxophones.
When purchasing any saxophone, it is recommended sticking to the “big four” manufacturers: Selmer, Yamaha, Yanisigawa, or Keilwerth. At the college level and professional level, probably ninety percent of saxophone players will use either Selmer or Yamaha.
Cost-wise, a professional alto saxophone will cost between $4000-6000. Selmer saxophones are the most expensive, but many players believe the extra cost is worth it for a true high quality horn. Yamaha is the only manufacturer to produce the entire spectrum of beginner through professional saxophones.
So, should you buy a professional instrument? Is the extra cost worth it for an amazing instrument?
For most people, the answer is no. For the average high school band student, they will not benefit from a professional horn. An intermediate horn will likely be more than sufficient for almost every high school musician. However, for college level music students and professionals I believe is it important to have a professional horn.
Like I said earlier, the most cost-effective thing you can buy for your instrument is a high quality mouthpiece and a tune-up.
For saxophones and clarinets – how much does a good ligature help? In my opinion, a good ligature affects the feel more than the tone of the instrument. The material of the ligature can affect the feel, such as a metal ligature or a leather ligature. I played on an Rovner inverted leather ligature for years and it feels more muted than the metal ligature I have now. For saxophone, good ligatures include Vandoren Optimum, Vandoren M/O, Rovner, Rico Olegature (jazz), and Francois Louis (jazz).
One other point of discussion: how does the plating of an instrument affect the sound?
High level instruments will likely come in a variety of colors and finishes. Most gold colored instruments do not have gold in them – the lacquer is just gold colored. Black lacquer is also common, and the sound is nearly identical to gold lacquer. Some instruments are silver, which means they are likely silver plated. This boosts the price of the horn, and it may affect the sound, sounding a bit brighter to some listeners. Some instruments (especially jazz instruments) may have no lacquer, just bare brass. This sounds the brightest to many listeners, and brightness is a desirable sound quality when playing jazz. Finally, we have the gold plated finish. True gold plated instruments are not very common anymore because it is incredibly expensive to gold plate a horn. On saxophones, prepare to spend an additional ten thousand dollars or more to buy a gold plated horn. The gold plating makes instruments sound darker and more muted. However, they do not sound $10,000 better than gold lacquered instruments.
Some ligature manufacturers (ahem, Vandoren) claim that a gold plated ligature makes you sound better. I think this is ridiculous. Gold plated ligatures are about twice as expensive as normal ligatures, and I am not convinced that gold plated ligatures do anything but cost more.
In conclusion – a high quality instrument is worthwhile for some people, but a good mouthpiece and tune-up is more cost-effective for the player with a beginner horn. They should start there. However, the best way to be better is to practice efficiently.
If you are interested in my saxophone setup, read more about it here.