The Vintage Yanagisawa Saxophone Page
A Brief History
Yanagisawa has been making quality saxophones since the introduction of their first model the T-3 in 1954. They have strived to make each model better than the last. Their first few models showed that they were very influenced by the vintage American horns of the 1940’s and 1950’s as well as the Selmer Super Balanced Action and Mark VI. As their designs progressed they began to innovate with unique features such as the introduction in 1985 of the world’s first detachable neck soprano. Today, they build around 8,000 saxophones a year available in a variety of finishes and body compositions ranging from standard Brass to Bronze to Silver which allow for a variety of tonal shadings. Their top of the line horns have robust features such as double arms for the bell keys.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s Yanagisawa provided horns to a variety of distributors in the United States who stenciled a variety of names on them. Some of the most common would be Whitehall, Dorado, Astro, Carot, and Artist. Additionally, the Buescher “Super 400″ sopranos are stencils of the S-6. Leblanc took over the distribution of Yanagisawa in the U.S. in the 1970’s and stenciled horns with the names of Martin (after purchasing Martin) and Vito (the VSP models and the Vito sopranos stamped Japan on them). Around the time of the introduction of the 800/880 series of horns Yanagisawa began putting their name on the horns that came to the U.S. market via Leblanc.
In 1966 the A-4 and T-4 (1966-1975) were introduced. The 4 series shared many design elements with the 5 series. According to Leblanc the 4 series was the entry level pro model while the 5 series represented their top of the line horn ala todays 99x series. The 4 series of horns have a very centered tone and shows a major amount of influence from the Selmer Mark VI without being a true copy. It has a similar bore as well as many keywork and design elements that evoke the memory of the VI. The left pinky table is of a different design but shows selmer influence as well but differs from the 5 series horns. It is a non-floating mechanism that appears to be “selmer” like but on steroids as it is quite a bit larger than your standard modern left pinky table.
In 1965 the A-5 (1965-1975) was introduced, the T-5 (1966-1975) tenor was released in 1966. The 5 series represented their top of the line horn ala todays 99x series. These horns were all hand made. The A-5 series of horns have a very centered tone and shows a major amount of influence from the Selmer Mark VI without being a true copy. It has a similar bore as well as many keywork and design elements that evoke the memory of the VI. The left pinky table is of a different design but shows selmer influence as well. It is a non-floating mechanism that bridges “vintage” and “selmer”. The horn has light action and an even response thoughout the register. The right hand palm key placement (specifically high D) is a little lower than it should be and does not hit my hand where I would prefer. These horns evolved over time and late in the run they have very similar keywork to the A-6/T-6 series of horns.
The first Yanagisawa soprano. This horn is a very good copy of the Selmer Mark VI soprano. It has the same slightly awkward palm keys as the VI soprano and plays much the same. These horns have a couple of advantages over the VI. First, they are much more consistent. VI sopranos vary greatly in performance. The second advantage is that they are considerably cheaper than a VI soprano. The horns that Yanagisawa produced after this handle much better and have even better tone and response.
The A-6 and T-6 models appear to have been influenced by the Selmer Mark VI design to the point that many people consider these horns to be really nice copies. The models that I have played have a slightly different core to the tone than a Selmer Mark VI but I was pleased with how good they sounded. They also seem to be well made.
The 500 series was Yanagisawa’s attempt to produce a beginner/intermediate horn. These were only available in alto and tenor. The series was introduced in the mid to late 1970’s and continued into the mid 1980’s. The typical way of identifying one of these is to look for the stainless steel springs used on the horn rather than the blued springs used on the higher end models of this time period.
Here’s one for the record books – in 1980 Yanagisawa made 50 horns labeled A-600. Here’s the quote from the fax that Chris in the U.K. received from them, “Please be informed that your Alto Sax #03803437 was made by us, Yanagisawa Wind Instruments Co. Ltd, Tokyo, Japan in April of 1980, and its model number is A-600. A-600 model were made only 50 pieces, and it is a standard model like A-901. Only the material of G key bar is different and is made with German Silver but not brass.” I also have documentation from a Yanagisawa catalog of a SN-600. The 600 series sopranino was later revised and improved as the SN-800.
In 1978 Yanagisawa began placing their name on their U.S. exported product with the advent of the 800 and 880 series of horns. There are still examples of stencils from this line of horn especially from Martin and Vito (specifically VSP’s). This new line featured a total redesign of their line rather than an incremental change. The 880 models typically have underslung necks and double arms on the low bell keys.
These horns are the logical next step after the 6 series. Again, the design shows that the Selmer Mark VI was the horn they were trying to emulate. These horns are a further refinement to the 6 series.
A further refinement of the 800/880 series of horns. These horns feel more like a Selmer than the modern Selmer’s. They’re very comfortable to play and have a wonderful core to the tone while remaining a flexible horn. The Bari’s and the Soprano’s are the brightest stars in the line. The difference between the 900/990 and the 901/991 models comes down to tone hole placement which was modified slightly on the 901/991 to improve intonation.
S981 versus S991 Sopranos
A common question that gets asked is what is the difference between the S981 and S991 sopranos. The main difference is that the S991 is keyed to high G. Otherwise the horns appear to be identical.
Model Numbers Through The Years
There appears to be a fair bit of overlap between the 4 series, 5 series and 6 series horns. I’m still collecting data on all of these horns to further refine the years of production. Some people have questioned why the short run for the 6 series horns. I haven’t been able to verify this to be a fact but some people contend that Selmer sued Yanagisawa over the 6 series horns because they were too much like the Mark VI.
1953-1965 T-3 – top tenor
1956-1965 A-3 – top alto
1965-1975 A-5/T-5 – top alto and tenor
1966-1975 A-4/T-4 – lesser pro alto and tenor
1966-1978 B-6 – Baritone (including Low A)
1968-1978 S-6 – Soprano
1968-1978 SN-600 – Sopranino
1970-1978 A-6/T-6 – top alto and tenor
1977-1984 500 Series horns – intermediate horns
1980 600 Series horns (probably altos only)
1978-1990 800/880 Series horns
1990-1998 900/900u/990/990u Series horns
1998-present 901/991/902/992/ Series horns
1972 – 12729030
1973 – 12731254
1974 – 12745400
1975 – 12753382
1976 – 12764553
1977 – 12775790
1978 – 12781317
1979 – 12791801
1980 – 00102143
1981 – 00106981
1982 – 00111892
1983 – 00117142
1984 – 00122663
1985 – 00128485
1986 – 00134903
1987 – 00141658
1988 – 00148774
1989 – 00156006
1990 – 00162968
1991 – 00170073
1992 – 00177116
1993 – 00184318
1994 – 00189050
1995 – 00197400
1996 – 00205400
1997 – 00213000
1998 – 00219500
1999 – 00228250
2000 – 00235000
In 1971 it appears that the serial number format is 17111xx. The format during the 1960’s appears to start with a 0 and the second and third digits indicate the year of manufacture.
I have also seen serial numbers start with 2, 3, and 4. The key indicator of age prior to 1980 is that the second and third (or sometimes third and fourth) numbers denote the year the horn was made. Further identification is possible by looking at the engraving and the design of the chromatic F sharp key.
What Should I Buy?
I get asked regularly about the quality of vintage Yanagisawa’s. While each horn has it’s own individual personality I will try to give my general advice. Remember that it’s possible to find great playing student horns and lousy playing pro horns. Again, these are just my opinions. Form your own and make your own decisions.
Personally, I prefer the horns that from the 6 series and after. Generally speaking the quality of the horns continues to improve each generation and as a result the modern day horns are better made and have a lot more options available such as Bronze, Brass, or Sterling Silver (and let’s not forget Pink Gold) horns.
The 6 series horns are a bit more inconsistent in quality than the 8xx or 9xx horns. The Bari’s range from decent to great depending on the example. The 6 series soprano is better than most Mark VI sopranos I’ve played. The altos and tenors can be very nice playing. I played a bare brass T-6 a few years ago that blew me away. I’ve also played a couple that were fine pro horns but weren’t memorable.
The 8xx series horns have a nice compact and centered tone. Some people feel they’re a bit on the polite side. I have a 800 bari and I really love the way it plays. In fact I prefer it over just about any other bari I’ve played.
The 9xx horns are in some ways nicer than any of the horns that came before from Yani. The key touches and ergonomics are very comfortable and the Bronze horns have a great dark tone. They also offer Sterling Silver horns that are really expensive but look amazing. Yanagisawa is a company that seems to take great pride in improving it’s product and the 9xx series of horns are a testament to that philosophy.
So in the end, play as many horns as you can and buy the one that helps you get to the sound that is in your head. If you’re a funk bari player you are probably not going to like the 800 bari no matter how dirty of a mouthpiece you put on it. Get a Keilwerth (I own a couple of these as well). Enjoy the hunt for the perfect horn – or at least the perfect horn for you.