If you do not know how to play saxophone/clarinet, you may be at a disadvantage when purchasing a horn, especially a used one. They are not all the same; each has a unique set of intonation and timbre problems. The best way to purchase one is to bring someone who knows how to play it and have them try it out. If you are a player yourself, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and not try a horn out as thoroughly as possible. You could purchase a vintage instrument in seemingly beautiful condition for a good price, just to find out a week later the bell is physically cracked on the inside seam. This could lead to unsightly (and expensive) repairs.
Always, always test the instrument. A new/used sax/clarinet that looks great, and is reasonably priced may look like a great deal. Even a quick play on it could make things seem basically okay. Pull out your tuner! Some have experienced the horn playing almost a quarter tone sharp on some notes, and quite flat on others (even with adjustments and different mouthpieces, no combination seems to affect the intonation of the horn). If a used instrument looks very “unplayed”, it could be a warning sign. Some “closet” horns out there are great instruments, but keep in mind that ugly horns can play just as good or better. How do you think they got so ugly?
For players, when you go for a “test drive”, always pack the following essential items:
•Mouthpieces (preferably jazz, classical, and medium models)
•Cork grease (this is a MUST)
•Lots of different strength reeds
For non-players, you should try and examine the horn as closely as possible. If it is a used horn, spend at least 10 minutes just examining the body for damage. If you have a friend along who plays the instrument, make them test every note against a tuner, and play loud and soft. Also, try a chromatic scale slowly from the lowest to the highest notes so you can check for leaking pads. An advanced “trick” is to play the overtones of Bb, B, C and D and compare them to their fingered counterparts. There will be timbral differences, but on a great horn, there will not be a change in the intonation. Also test close multiphonics to see how the acoustics of the horn react.
When it comes to being prepared to check out an instrument, you can never have enough stuff with you to try them out. If you are going to look at a used alto saxophone, and have mouthpieces for soprano, baritone and tenor, bring them along. You never know when the person you are dealing with might have some mint condition sopranos, tenors, or even a few sopraninos. The moral of the story is to always be prepared. You never know what you may find when going to look at an instrument.
One final tip — always bring a small container of rubbing alcohol or some other safe anti-bacterial substance if you don’t have your own mouthpiece. There are some really gross mouthpieces out there, and if a gross mouthpiece is all that’s holding you back from playing that mint condition, gold-plated, 1944 Selmer Super Balanced Action, chances are you’ll risk playing on an unsanitary mouthpiece just to try the horn. Don’t. Your health is more important, so bring along some anti-germ stuff. Remember to always practice safe sax (or clarinet)!