If like me you’re looking for a new tenor at the moment, you’re probably asking yourself this question – what is the best tenor saxophone?
I’ve been testing these two beautiful tenor saxophones – a vintage Selmer Super-Balanced Action from 1949, and it’s modern version – the Selmer Reference 36. Of these two, which is the best tenor saxophone?
I’ve been playing my Dave Guardala Tenor since 1993, and it’s done thousands of shows, but now I’m ready for a change. One of my Sax School members, Martin, has a great collection of saxophones and he’s lent these to me to test.
Let’s look at these saxophones more closely.
Selmer Super Balanced Action
This is a classic vintage saxophone. I’ve never really been into vintage saxophones, but the build quality of this instrument is incredible. Selmer made this model between 1948 and 1953, and this particular saxophone was made in 1949 – which means it’s over 70 years old! This one plays really well, but there are some things about it which feel different to a modern horn.
Selmer Reference 36
This is Selmer’s modern take on the Super Balanced Action. It’s a brand new saxophone which you can buy today. It tries to capture the sound of the SBA but with a modern mechanism (though it still doesn’t have things like the high F#). It feels quite similar under my fingers.
As you would expect, the keyword on the modern saxophone is better. It’s smoother under the fingers and you can move quickly between the notes. Everything is very positive when you’re playing.
With the SBA I find I need to really think when I’m playing something fast. The keys don’t find quite as natural and this causes a bit of lumpiness in my playing. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so many years playing modern horns, but I would need to spend quite a bit of time getting familiar with this horn to be able to play it smoothly.
I love the sound of the SBA, especially in the lower register. It’s a sweet, fat, warm sound right up into the altissimo range. The sound reminds me of Ben Webster, or Lester Young. But if I push it I can also get a really contemporary sound too so this horn does everything!
The Reference 36 also has a lovely warm sound but it definitely sounds like a modern horn.
On the SBA the altissimo is fantastic and just pops straight out. Similarly, I don’t really need to think about overtones – they just work.
The Reference 36 is great too in both the altissimo and overtones.
I find altissimo easier on both these Selmers than on my own Dave Guardala, and also easier than some Yanagisawa saxophones I’ve been testing.
Unsurprisingly, the intonation on the modern Reference 36 was pretty consistent even up into the altissimo.
With the vintage SBA there are a couple of notes that were out of tune so I really had to work on those. If I played this saxophone for a few hours I could work around it but it’s something to bear in mind if you’re considering a vintage saxophone.
I’m going to test both saxophones with 4 pieces of music in 4 different styles. You can find all these songs inside Sax School.
- Ben Webster – I Got it Bad
- Wilton Felder – Street Life solo
- Sam Butera – Buona Sera solo
- Rimsky-Korsakov – Flight of the Bumblebee
Have a listen – which do you prefer?
Best Tenor Saxophone – My Choice
I love both these saxophones but if I had to choose the best tenor saxophone for me, it would be the Reference 36 because of the combination of both the mechanism and the sound – though I’d love the have the Selmer SBA in my collection!
I’ll be testing more saxophones over the coming weeks so watch out for more reviews!
If you want to find out more about learning saxophone, check out Sax School at www.mcgillmusic.com.