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Yanagisawa A-500 alto saxophone

Yanagisawa A-500 alto sax reviewsOrigin: Japan
Guide price: £1500 (in good condition)
Weight: 2.34kg
Date of manufacture: 1989 (Serial range: 00156xxx)
Date reviewed: September 2018

A right little beauty

Following on from the mystery of the Yanagisawa S6 soprano, we now have another 'Not really sure what it is' horn in the shape of an alto.
Fortunately (for me) this one took rather less research before I was able to nail a model number to it - helped in part by some distinctive telltale features and some pertinent information from the owner about the date of purchase, and the price paid. And by bringing all these details together I'm able to say with certainty that what we have here is a (very) late example of an A-500.

The word on the street - or at least the internet - is that the 500 series was built as an intermediate-quality horn...which is to say that it's a step up from a beginner's horn, but doesn't quite have the gravitas of a full-blown professional model.
I'm not terribly convinced by this, given my (as yet unconfirmed) suspicions that the S6 is so strikingly similar to the S800 - which may mean that the A-500 is an 'intermediate' horn in name only.
And price. Scouring through my collection of old price lists I found one from John Myatt in 1984 that listed the retail price at £599. Now, you could run that figure through one of the many "How much is a pound/dollar from 1984 worth now?" engines on the web and come up with an modern-day value - or you could just look a little further down the price list to see what else was selling at around that price. And thus we find a Yamaha YAS32 with a retail price of £618. Bingo!
This, more than anything else, tells you precisely where the horn was aimed in the marketplace - but it doesn't tell you whether you're merely getting value for money...or rather more than you bargained for. To find that out we're going to have to pop it up on the bench and take it apart to see how well it's built, and then put it back together and see how well it works.

The construction is single pillar (post to body). The pillar bases are of a reasonable size and, on the whole, quite neatly fitted - with just a couple showing some slightly careless soldering.
Yanagisawa A-500 bell braceThe bell section is detachable via a bottom bow clamp and a rather substantial two-point bell brace - which in turn is mounted on equally hefty stays.
I've seen it suggested that this bell brace is adjustable. It's not - and no bell brace is. The seat of the bell key pads relies wholly on a set position of the bell brace. If it moves even a fraction, the pad seat will be lost. The two brace screws should be snugged up tightly - no more, no less.
It's a decent design - the brace is large and meaty enough to shrug off the usual knocks and dings, and the body stay is offset to the side of the main body tube...thus helping to minimise a catastrophic bend to the body in the event of the horn taking a proper tumble.
There's a 15/8 sling ring fitted, which is smaller than I like to see - but more than adequate on a horn of this size and weight.

The toneholes are all plain drawn and were quite level, save for the lowest four - which only required a light dressing to bring them back to spec. It's impossible to say whether they were like this from new because of the age of the horn and the likelihood that the bell section has copped a few light whacks over the years. None of them exhibited any burrs, which suggests that some time had been spent on finishing them after they'd been drawn from the body.

The horn sports an adjustable plastic thumb hook, a textured flat plastic thumb rest and plastic bell key bumper felt adjusters - along with a plastic key barrel guide for the top E/F# keys. These are all indicative of cost-cutting - and although, on the face of it, that sounds like a bad thing, it may yet mean that the money has been spent where it matters the most.
There's yet one other 'plastic' part - and if you don't already know about it I'm willing to bet you'll never be able to guess where it is...
Yanagisawa A-500 palm key pillarsU-channel pillars or cradles have been used for the palm and side keys. Although these are cheap to make (and fit) they're not a cost-cutting feature unique to the A-500, and can be found on some of Yanagisawa's rather grander models.
I have little love for them - they look tacky and the lack of meat on the threaded side means that the pivot screws have less than half the contact area afforded by a standard pillar.
Note the texturing on the thumb rest. I haven't made up my mind as to whether I like this feature or not. In theory it's a good thing because it provides some grip when things get a bit sweaty - but on the flip side it tends to resist against your thumb sliding back and forth. And then it wears off...which leaves you with a half-textured/half-smooth thumb rest - which is neither one thing or the other.

Yanagisawa A-500 side key pillarsSticking with pillars, there's just a single one for the bell keys - albeit with a very substantial base - and a rather curious arrangement on the side key stack.
The side Bb upper pillar (top) is a very chunky affair - and you might suggest that it's this size because of all the gubbins on the top...namely the guides for the top E and F# key barrels. And sure, the flat and wide profile of the pillar seems very sensible...but look at the base. It's huge - way bigger than is necessary, given that the pillar doesn't actually have to do an awful lot. You might also suggest that the large base provides a means of spreading the load in the event of the E/F# barrels taking a whack - but there's a lot of metalwork around this area anyway, and the force of any such impact will be spread over a wide area.
So it seems like a bit of overkill.
Now look at the side Bb lower pillar( bottom). It's a '4-ganger' - four heads mounted on a single pillar. It's what you might call 'fully loaded'.
This pillar is the most vulnerable of the pair - it stands alone, with very little surrounding metalwork to spread the force of an impact. Indeed, in the event of a horn hitting the deck it's a near certainty that this one (along with the top F# upper pillar at the top of the horn) will get pushed into the body. It's such a common point of impact damage that I even have special tool dedicated to lifting it up (not, it has to be said, that it's much good). And all that's supporting it is a standard base. If you grip the top of the pillar and give it a wiggle, you can actually see the body flexing beneath it.
Naturally it's only a problem if you drop the horn - and it's not likely to be any better or worse than any other horn - it's just that if you're going to go to all the trouble to make an especially beefy pillar, it would make more sense to put it where it's really needed. And it seems that Yanagisawa agreed - at least in part - because on the 900 series horns the lower pillar base was changed to a slightly larger oval.

Note the point screws - they're of the parallel type, and rather stubby at that. The big disadvantage of this type of point/pivot screw is that it's not easy to take up the free play in the keys as and when they wear. With that said I was pleased to note that the key barrels have been accurately drilled - and because this horn hasn't seen much use the action was still quite tight.
Note too the stainless steel springs. You might be tempted to whip these out and replace them with blued steel ones - but that would be a mistake. The horn is designed to accommodate the slightly larger diameter of stainless springs, and replacing them with similarly-sized blued steel springs would result in the horn being rather oversprung. You can tweak that, but why bother...the stainless springs are plenty good enough and will likely last forever.

Yanagisawa A-500 lower stackOn to the keywork, and the first thing that needs to be said is that the fit and finish of the keys was really rather good. There was a touch of free play in the palm and side keys, but no more than I'd expect to see on any horn that's had a moderate amount of use without any ongoing lubrication. The main stacks (which are lubricated with grease) were spot on, and probably as good as the day the horn rolled off the production line.
As is typical with Yanagisawa horns, there are no adjusters on the main stack - though you do get the usual trio for the G#/Bis Bb/low C#. Although I consider this to be something of an inconvenience I'm at least pleased to be able to say that the regulation corks are all made from thin composite cork that's been neatly fitted. Indeed, the rest of the cork/felt work is equally neat and sensible.

Yanagisawa A-500 side keyAlso sensible is the use of simple fork and pin connectors on the side Bb and C keys.
In this case the forks are of the enclosed type with some provision for adjustment courtesy of a slit on the outside of the fork (lower right in the photo on the left).
There's no advantage of this design over plain forks other than it looks a bit neater and maybe there's less chance of catching your sleeves on them.
Note the plastic key guide for the top E/F# key barrels.
It does the job but I think it's fair to say it's a bit on the flimsy side, so I really can't say how well it'd stand up to a whack. With that said I've yet to come across a broken one - and if I did I very much suspect that the design is the same as the metal ones used on the 900 and WO series of finding a replacement shouldn't be a problem, and it's not exactly a critical part anyway.

And while we're back on the subject of plastic parts, it's now time to reveal the mystery plastic part - and you'll find it on the tilting bell key table.
It's the low Bb touchpiece.
Why make it out of plastic? I guess the most obvious answer is the cost. It's a relatively large and complex part which would be expensive to make and time-consuming to finish - and as it isn't subject to a great deal of stress in use and is well supported on its key arm, plastic (it melts when poked with a hot pin) seems like an ideal material.
My one concern is that this is quite an exposed key, and the first to cop a whack if the horn falls on its left side. If it breaks there's probably zero chance of finding a replacement these days.
Yanagisawa A-500 bell key tableWith that said I suspect it wouldn't be too hard to adapt a touchpiece off a 900 series to fit (just guessing here) - and if the worst came to the worst there's always the very modern option of having one 3D printed. Just make sure you pick up all the bits if you ever break one of these keys so that you have a pattern to work/measure from.
Another suggestion for the use of plastic is that it makes the table lighter. This it does, but not realistically by any amount that'll make much of a difference given the overall weight of the whole key. It's also been suggested that this key has been made out of die-cast or 'pot' metal at some point in the past - though I'm more than happy to accept that this may just be a rumour.

And how d'you spot a plastic Bb touchpiece? Well, you could try tapping it with the shaft of a screwdriver and comparing it to the sound made when you tapped the G# touchpiece - but the comparison is slightly skewed by the fact that the plastic piece is metal plated (what with, I'm not sure...but probably nickel).
You could take it off - by removing its pivot screw, as visible in the lower centre of the shot - and feel the weight of it. You might think you'd need to be experienced in gauging the weight of key parts, but I think you'll find that this is one of those things that feels a great deal lighter than it looks.
But perhaps the easiest way is to get the horn in the right light. If you look closely at the shot (and your screen colour is set right) you can just about make out a difference in the tint of the Bb touchpiece compared to the rest of the keys on the table. It's just a tiny bit lighter, and under certain lights perhaps just a hint more bronzey.
Either way, the takeaway message here is to mind you're careful not to bash this key around given that it won't take a great deal of punishment and won't be easy to replace.

Yanagisawa A-500 octave mechThere's an excellent swivelling octave mech fitted. Nothing much to say about this other than it's well made with no apparent slop and works as swiftly and quietly as you'd expect.
The only minor grumble is that the touchpiece, though shaped, isn't profiled on the leading edge - as per the 900 series horns. If that sort of thing bothers you (and why not) it's an easy enough job to remove the key and file/sand a bevel on it. Or you can ask your repairer to do it for you...and it'll be a beer-money job.
A quick word about the lacquer. It's good.
This horn hasn't seen a great deal of use, admittedly, but it isn't always use that causes lacquer to deteriorate. In fact it's often likely to suffer more in storage than it is from use. Either way it's held up pretty well on this example, with few if any signs of flux bleed.

That about wraps the keywork up other than to say the horn comes with a decent set of pads fitted (complete with burgundy plastic reflectors/resonators) and a set of proper mother-of-pearl touches - which are flat (or as near as makes no odds) rather than the more common concave type.
Yanagisawa A-500 side F# keyAnd there's just one other detail that's worthy of note to those who are concerned about such things, and that's the shape of the side or chromatic F# and top F# touchpieces.
As far as I can tell this pair of keys went through three design changes over the horn's run. One variation had both touchpieces matching the shape and orientation of the side Bb/C keys. Another variation changed the shape of just the top F# touchpiece to the design shown in the shot - and then (possibly finally) the chromatic F# touch was canted round at an angle (again, as shown).
This - and probably a number of other keywork tweaks - is typical of pre-900 series Yanagisawas, which is what sometimes makes it tricky to pin a model number down. I'm at least thankful that they didn't 'do an S6' - and change a keywork feature...and then change it back some years later.
Still, at least it shows they're willing to tweak the design of a horn down the years, which is surely something to be appreciated.

Unfortunately the horn didn't have its original case, but from what I've seen it would have been a fairly typical box-style case with proper catches fitted. Nothing to complain about there.

Under the fingers the first thing that hits you is the feel of the flat key pearls. They just make a horn feel more nimble. I'm sure there are reasons why a concave pearl is a better bet (wet fingers are less inclined to slip off), but there's just something about the feel of flat pearls...though I fully accept that it might just be because they're different.
The factory setup was a bit on the stiff side. Not overly so, just a little heavy. With a good quality action like this there's really no need to up the spring tension, and backing them off paid significant dividends. And because the spring are stainless steel you can pretty much keep bending them until the cows come home. Just like the old Yamaha 23, it's a tweaker's dream.
And just like the 23 it's a very light horn, weighing in at just 40 grams (1 1/2 ounces) more than the 23...and the venerable Selmer MkVI. That's certainly something to bear in mind if you're at all worried about the weight of a horn around your neck.
My one and only niggle relating to the action was the design and placement of the front top F touchpiece - what with it being a round pearl. It works fine if you lift your finger off the B and reach up for it, but if you prefer to roll your finger backwards you're going to be out of luck. Some tweaking will help, but ultimately it's never going to be as slick as a teardrop-shaped touchpiece.

Yanagisawa A-500 crookBlowing the A-500 was a delight. It's a very lively horn, very eager and very easy to blow. This is usually the mark of a bright horn - and while, tonewise, it certainly leans towards to that camp, there's enough going on in the low and midrange to balance it out. The low end has plenty of slap and pop, and the top end just about hangs on to a touch of silkiness until you push it hard...whereupon it gets nicely gritty.
When you first pick the horn up there's very much a sense of 'what you see is what you get' with the tone - but as you spend more time playing it you find it's got that 'onion' thing going on. You know...layers. There's a balance about it that isn't set in stone - all it takes is a quick tweak of your embouchure and suddenly it seems as if the whole dynamic of the horn has shifted.
I've always felt this quality marks a great horn out from a merely good one, and it perhaps explains why so many players consider the A-500 to be a rather better horn than its original asking price suggested.

How come it's so good then? Maybe Yanagisawa were being a bit provocative. There are a number of 'cheapening' features on the horn - such as the plastic Bb touchpiece, the plastic bumper adjusters, thumb hook and thumb rest - and maybe, just maybe, they took a hit on their margins in order to muscle in on an otherwise lucrative sector of the market. I can't be sure, but the build quality and the playability of this horn seems extraordinarily generous for the asking price back in the day.
Granted, it's not perfect - I noticed a little pinching of the tone on the top C, and it has a hint (just a hint, mind) of some deadening on the low B...but to be honest you really have to go looking for it. And hey, what horn doesn't have its foibles? Players who feel that the A-500 was heavily influenced by the Selmer MkVI will perhaps recognise these 'tonal trademarks'...

It was clearly pitched to compete with the Yamaha 32 - which, as you may know, is just a cheapened version of a 62 (same body tube). But I feel they slightly overdid it and ended up with a horn that comfortably exceeded its market position. And as such I'm going to nail my colours to the mast and say that it's nearly (if not at least) as good as the old Yamaha 62. Not the same, mind you - it has a rather more relaxed tone - but easily its equal in terms of how it's built and, arguably, how it plays.
And as such it comes highly recommended if you're in the market for a good quality used horn that won't break the bank.

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