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Saxophone Construction Materials
Q.  I’m looking to buy a new alto sax. I have played every single brand out there and I like the Yanagisawa A-9930 Sax the best. The only problem is that this sax is solid sterling silver (not silver plated brass, it’s actually made of silver). My concern is that over time, won’t the inside of the sax become tarnished? This would effect the sound eventually, wouldn’t it? I’m afraid to buy this sax because it is new, and hasn’t had years of players playing/testing it. Do you think silver saxes are a good idea, or should I stick with the brass ones? Thanks for your time, Mark …

A. Even the great vintage silver plated saxes have some silver inside them – especially necks & bells – and depending on whether & how well the builder shielded the inner body tube during the plating process, there may be some silver inside there, too. Brass reacts to corrosive forces much more severely than silver, so I wouldn’t be too worried about the comparison on that factor. The main things that coat the inside of a sax over time are from the stuff dissolved in (or carried by) your saliva & to a lesser extent from moisture you put through the horn vaporized in your breath – and all that stuff is ambivalent about the material it finds inside your horn. A piece of your cheeseburger will stick to silver or brass — or even a plastic Grafton — with equal vigor. Air borne sulfur causes tarnish, so any coating that prevents air from reaching the metal surface will retard tarnish – even if it’s the crud from the sticky BBQ ribs you devoured on break. Bottom line: both brass & silver tarnish & corrode, and of the two, brass gets the nastiest.
The real issues with solid silver sax parts are rigidity & malleability. In English, will the part hold its shape and not suffer unduly by warping or denting from the normal stresses an instrument is subjected to in normal use? A sax maker can do things to address these stress issues in at least a couple of ways. One is by manipulating the silver alloy used to form the sax. Another is through construction reinforcement, such as mounting keywork on plates or ribs instead of directly to the body metal. The keywork, of course, will never be solid silver. It will be either plated brass or better, solid nickel silver alloy, which has a great, tarnish resistant look, plus is more rigid than brass. 

I’m sure Yanagisawa thoroughly considered all the design implications of using solid silver parts as well as anyone could, so I would not be afraid of their solid silver horns from either a conceptual or a design standpoint. Since the sax that came out on top in your play test was the solid silver Yani, it would seem that there’s no problem from a performance standpoint either. We still like the vintage saxes better, but if you gotta’ go new you can’t do any better than a Yani … and we don’t get paid for saying it …

Additional Comments
Our article on the Yanagisawa plant might be of interest in conjunction with this question. At the bottom of Page one we discuss Yanagisawa’s  pioneering approach to saxophone materials.

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