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Is my Selmer era Buescher Aristocrat a good saxophone?
(What is a ‘student saxophone’, anyway?)
Q.  I just bought a Buescher Aristocrat saxophone and would like to ask a question. I’ve heard that after Buescher came out with the 400 (Top Hat & Cane) the Aristocrat became a student model – True of False? Mine is 66-67 (481xxx). Thanks very much for your awesome site! Kevin.

A. That statement is both true and false. Without belaboring the point, the Aristocrat reverted to a less complicated design upon introduction of the 400 Top Hat model. Starting after the Big B and continuing until after Selmer bought the company, the Ari mechanical design was merely a 1920s True Tone with the low Bb moved left. The body tube changed a number of times, but these simpler mechanics remained the constant. Even the first Selmer Bundy models were this simplified Ari design. Don’t be fooled by the few Aristocrats you might see with the 400′s ‘back bell’ low B/Bb tone hole locations: Aside from that one feature from the 400 the remaining (and bulk of) keywork on those saxophones is pure late 1920s True Tone. It’s anyone’s guess what Selmer/Buescher was up to on that maneuver. My bet is it was a marketing gimmick designed to visually associate a simple saxophone mechanism (and ‘simple’ is NOT always a bad thing) with the vaunted Top Hat 400′s complex & slick keywork.

The arguable part of the answer to your question comes with defining exactly what a ‘student’ model is…and there is NO standard definition. Therein lies the rub. The concept of ‘student’, intermediate’ and ‘pro’ saxophone models is purely a marketing notion. It relates almost exclusively to a set of price points – NOT the qualities of any particular saxophone. If a saxophone has an efficient mechanical design, a well conceived body tube (to allow superior sound, response & intonation characteristics), AND is made in a quality manner, you will have a fine musical instrument as a result of this caring design & building process. Obscure saxophones like the Kohlert, Buffet SDA or SML are continually being discovered and elevated by the vintage sax marketplace to price levels that are reflective of their true worth as music machines. Before this ‘enlightened discovery’ some would try to tell you that these models were not ‘professional’ grade saxophones. That is pure, unadulterated bunk, of course. Conversely (and unfortunately), huge marketing organizations such as Yamaha hype mediocre, over-priced instruments to fool the weaker of minds into thinking they are getting a good saxophone by virtue of paying a certain price. The point: Forget the marketeers’ labels. If a sax feels, sounds and plays well in your hands that’s all you need to know about it.

I would not allow the fact that my post war Buescher Ari was a simpler design than its pre war namesake to color my opinion of the music it makes. In fact, the True Tone design of the late 1920s was one of our truly great vintage saxophones (listen to Dr. Sigurd Rascher play his if you have doubts). The more modern Ari design built upon that base and even improved it in marginal ways. Even the Aris of the Selmer-Buescher era can be fine instruments if care is taken to set them up correctly. Since we all can’t play Top Hats and Conquerors these somewhat lesser (but still very capable) vintage saxes serve a useful purpose in the vintage saxophone population. They give you a great vintage sound and excellent, dependable mechanics — often at a bargain price. What more can one ask?

Additional Comments
All the great American saxophone builders adopted this same philosophy as Buescher, proliferating their older, tried & true saxophone designs for decades after newer models has superseded them. The Conn ‘Chu Berry’ design was made as Pan American, stencil saxes and later (in the 1950s & 60s) as second line branded Conn saxophones like the 16M. Even the ‘shooting stars’ Conns and ‘Mexi-Conns’ are essentially a Chu Berry with two left bell tone holes. All the makers used this philosophy for their stencils saxes, plus second line branded horns: Martin had its ‘Indiana’, and King made the Zephyr for over fifty years.

With Buescher it’s a bit more complicated since the Selmer entrée confuses things a bit, but if we concentrate on saxophone design features rather than names & labels the mysteries are merely superficial. Beginning in the late 1950s the 400 was gradually simplified along with the Aristocrat, until the two models basically became the same horn — mechanically, anyway. Then Selmer introduced a set of new names for them — Signet (the 400) and Bundy (the Aristocrat) — and these labels (for the same two saxophones) endured for several more years. Eventually, of course, new designs were introduced under the old familiar names (more marketeering), so at some point we’re truly dealing with different saxophones.

Selmer gradually hybridized their proprietary features (octave mechanisms, front mounted low note linkage, tilted bells) into the Buescher/Selmer USA lines (which was their right as owners of the company and its brands). At this point the main beef we have with the Selmer USA/Buescher horns is a de-emphasis of quality in deference to lowering manufacturing costs — not that lowering costs is a bad thing, per se. Conn made a brand on the concept during the depression years. But Conn lowered costs in a way that made their saxophones more dependable and easier to work on — not merely for the purpose of increasing profits or building a product that marketeers can sell at a given market price point. Like I said, look at a saxophone’s features and the clouds of confusion over model names and marketeers’ labels will begin to part for you.

If you’ve ever heard the surviving Chu Berry recordings you know that the sax he was playing is definitely professional grade. So ask yourself this question as the acid test about what ‘class’ a saxophone falls into: Is a mechanically identical saxophone to the one Chu played any less of a musical instrument simply by virtue of having been made half a century later? Put another way: Is the small block Chevy engine that powers today’s Corvette an outdated boat anchor merely because this same basic engine design was first introduced by GM in 1955? What better product recommendation can we have than a product design that has stood the ravages of time and still keeps on going?

If the rule regarding ‘cooking wine’ is never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink with the same dinner, then why would we ever put our beginning players into cheaply made saxophones — often built by skill-less laborers in third world countries who have never even heard a saxophone played — that carry a ‘student’, or even ‘intermediate’ model label? Get your child (or yourself) an affordable vintage sax of lesser pedigree and have a competent saxophone tech put it into top playing condition. You will have the best saxophone possible in any given price range, and you will find that if you go to sell it there will be a clamor to buy the horn from you. Contrast that to the total lack of a secondary market in these oriental wonder-saxes (designed by someone who once saw a picture of Germany and built by illiterate idiots in Bangladesh) if you need a reality check …

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