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Chinese bass saxophone - vintage style

Chinese bass saxophone (Conn type)Origin: China
Guide price: £2,500 +
Weight: 10kg (approx)
Date of manufacture: 2012
Date reviewed: February 2014

A modern take on a vintage bass, at a knockdown price

Whatever your opinions on the merits (or otherwise) of ultra-cheap horns, I don't think anyone can deny that where the genre really wins out is in the manufacture of 'esoteric' instruments. These are the seldom-used big (and small) boys; the horns you might need for just a couple of gigs a year, or that you simply fancy having a go on. Typically they're very expensive, and very few people have the sort of disposable income that allows them to purchase such instruments - and so the chance to be able to own one without having to take out a second mortgage is an understandably appealing prospect.
Perhaps the first woodwind instrument that benefited from this approach was the soprano sax. Its relatively small size makes it an ideal candidate for travelling, but few players could previously justify the purchase on the grounds of how much use it would (or wouldn't) get on gigs. Likewise the alto flute, and the alto/bass clarinet - again, fun instruments to play but not often found as a main instrument.
Going smaller carries a few caveats - the smaller the instrument, the greater the need for precision in build quality - but going larger usually means you can get away with a few rough edges here and there. But there's 'a few'...and then there's 'too many'...

The bass sax is perhaps the epitome of the price/desire relationship. Everyone wants one, hardly anyone can afford one. Until now.
Behold, the ultra-cheap Chinese bass saxophone.
This huge beastie will set you back nigh on three grand - which is a snip when you consider that a Selmer bass will cost in the region of thirteen grand. But even so, three grand is still a fair old chunk of money, so is it worth it? Let's see...

I should point out at the start that I'm not going to name any names in this review. To do would would be slightly unfair because the place where this example was bought is no longer selling this particular model. Also, there are (as far as I have been able to tell) just two designs on the market - and it appears that there are a number of factories that produce one or other of these models. Getting a good or a bad example depends on which factory produced it - and that's not often something the general public gets to know. So this review will focus on what you might get, and should give you some idea of what to watch out for should you find yourself tempted by a cheap Chinese bass sax. As with all saxes from that part of the world, visually similarity gives no indication as to quality. Two horns may well look identical, but close up they could be worlds apart in build quality - and will play quite differently to each other.

It's also important to decide which design to go for. There are pros on cons on both sides. The vintage design should give you more of that classic bass tone - but at the cost of an action that's rather Heath Robinson in its approach. The modern design will provide a slicker action, but at the cost of the richness of tone. The tuning is also likely to be more precise on the modern variant. If you're unsure as to how to tell the models apart, take a look at the bell keys. The vintage design has opposing key cups - the modern design has them all on one side of the bell. The top bow is another giveaway; the vintage tube is longer, with a short riser to the crook - the modern tube is shorter, with a longer riser up to the crook.

The example is based (loosely) around that of either a vintage Conn or a Buescher bass - perhaps with elements of both, plus a few extras here and there. As I don't have a long white beard or own a bow tie, I freely admit to not being an expert when it comes to vintage basses.
One of the extras is a detachable bell and top bow. On vintage horns these are usually soldered, which makes dismantling the body for major repairs a bit more complex. Detachable body tubes are a real boon on larger saxes due to the increased likelihood that they'll get bashed into tables, chairs and fellow players in the horn section - and the fact that when they (eventually) get dropped, the extra weight usually means the damage is rather more severe than might be seen on an alto or a tenor.
Unfortunately they've placed the top bow clamp at the top end of the crook tube, and it would really make more sense of have it at the top of the main body tube. You could argue that removing the bell section would allow access to the body tube from the bottom - but you're more likely to need to get at the top end of the tube...and taking the bell off a horn of this size is no small job.
You could also argue that the crook tube is just as likely to get damaged, and that making it detachable will make it a lot easier when it comes to removing dents. This is true - so it's probably six of one and half a dozen of the other...a situation that could be resolved by putting a clamp on both ends of the top bow.

Another 'mod con' is the fitment of not one but two bell to body braces (both detachable). This makes sense, given the sheer mass and width of the bell; the additional brace will help to stiffen the bell against all but the most extreme knocks. There's another pair of braces, (again, detachable) for the crook tube, and, finally, a fixed brace that spans the receiver u-bend. All reassuringly sturdy.
Chinese bass sax bottom bow jointSimilarly, the tube clamps are suitably beefy - though the bell clamp isn't that well aligned. There's a fair old taper between the tube at the end of the bottom bow and that of the main body tube, but the clamp looks like it's been designed to fit a straight tube. As it's a two-piece clamp, it tends to skew when tightened up.
And it needs to be tight, because the joint between the body tube and the bottom bow is a proper mess.

As you can see, it looks rather like someone had at it with a hammer and a pair of pliers - the end of the body tube is all battered, beaten and irregular. You can forget any notion of a sliding fit - and as you can see, some attempt has been made to make the joint airtight by wrapping it in plastic tape. I'm not even sure why it got into this state. I would assume than when making the body tube they'd make it a little longer than necessary so as to be able to square off the ends nice and neatly. It looks like this tube came in a touch too someone's taken a hammer to the end to squash the metal out a bit so as to make up the length.
Even after a fair bit of fettling it still needed a large quantity of epoxy glue to ensure a secure, airtight joint. It would almost be worth doing away with the clamp and simply soldering the joint up.

The tone holes needed some work. To be fair, this instrument had suffered quite a knock in transit - which resulted in some severe damage to a few of the tone holes. However, I found warps on tone holes that could not have been affected by the impact. They weren't that bad, but on a horn like this you need all the help you can get - so it definitely pays to have them levelled.

Chinese bass sax key stopThe general standard of the pillars and fittings isn't too bad, and on the whole they're neatly soldered in place. However, there are a couple of places in which the assembly looks a bit 'ad hoc'. For example, this photo shows a key stop; rather than have the foot of a key contact the body (buffered by a piece of cork or felt), it butts up instead against a block fitted to the body.
It's a slightly old-fashioned way of doing things, but is still sometimes used when space is at a premium and a long key foot would foul on other keys. As such you're more likely to see one on smaller instruments.
I wouldn't mark the instrument down for using block stops (though it does mean it's a bit more of a faff when it comes to adjusting the key's buffering cork), but I can certainly have a pop at the way in which it's implemented - which in this case is a lump of unfinished square-section brass that's been plonked onto a pillar base. For sure, it'll do the job - but it's as rough as guts.
Finishing up the body there's an adjustable thumb hook, triple sling rings (to accommodate players who like the play the bass upright as well as those who prefer to throw it across their front) and a full set of adjustable bell key guards - as well as a guard for the side low F# key cup.

The body had a few nasty surprises, but the keywork ranks as a triple X rated horror. You might think this would be down to over-thin metal and weak, bendy keys - but you'd be wrong. Sloppy build quality perhaps? Nope, not really. Bad design and layout then? Again, not really.
No, it's a lot worse than that - it's that the rod screws are all 2.73mm in diameter...which is well within the normal range of rod screw sizes you'd find on saxes - but the key barrels are all drilled out to take a 2.9mm diameter rod screw. That almost a .2mm discrepancy, and while it doesn't sound like a lot on paper I can assure you that in practice it makes a world of difference. The resultant gap between the rod and the barrel wall is that which you'd find on a very worn action - and that brings with it a whole host of problems.
Chinese bass saxophone upper stackFor standalone keys (such as the palm keys) it merely means that they wobble a bit on the pivots. This makes them noisy in use, and it also means that the pad seat is unreliable. It's not too much of a problem given that it's a single key working on its own, but it's certainly not ideal. Where things get really nasty is on the main stacks. Here you'll typically have two or three (or more) keys working in tandem - so as you press one key down it'll take up the excess play...and then pass it on to the next key along the line...and so on. In simple terms it's like doubling or tripling the wear.
So that's pretty bad - but it gets worse, because not only are the barrels oversized, so too are the pivot holes in the pillars - by exactly the same amount. It quite one thing when the keys are able to wobble about on their pivots, but it's a whole 'nother heap of problems when the pivots themselves are able to move.
And then it gets worse again, because every repairer knows that the larger and longer a key is, the more prone it will be to flexing. It's hardly an issue on, say, a soprano...and rarely one on an alto...but you might have to deal with it on a tenor. By the time you get to baritone saxes it's really something you have to take into account when setting up the action. Compromises may have to be made and sometimes you have to sacrifice a little precision for the sake of practicality.
When dealing with a bass sax the problem is even more evident - so much so that not only will key barrels flex and bend, but so too will key arms (this is what makes the action on many bass saxes feel rather soft and squidgy). When you chuck that lot onto the steaming pile of crud that's a loose action, it's a recipe for a real stinker of a disaster. You can see in the photo of the upper stack how long the key arms are - and note too that T-bar link beneath the touchpiece arms, which adds yet another layer of flex to the action.
You might also notice that there's no front top F lever fitted (and neither does this horn have a top F#).

There's no way around these problems other than to ensure the action is as snug as possible on its pivots, and that they in turn fit snugly into the pillars - which means that every rod screw on this bass had to be upgraded.
While the existing rod screws were undersized, a 2.9mm rod fitted perfectly - so no additional drilling/reaming was required - but here's the rub; I said there was no way around these problems, but the manufacturers had come up with an 'ingenious' solution, which was to put a slight bend in every key...and to knock the pillars slightly out of line with each other. It's a clever trick, because the misalignment gives the appearance of well-fitting pivots - it's only when you give the keys a bit of a jiggle, or actually try to play the instrument, that it all goes wrong.

Things aren't much better on the point screw front as they're of the parallel type - and this, combined with the key flex, means that the best that can be said of them is that they hold the keys on.

Chinese bass saxophone spatulasThe key layout isn't too bad, considering the horn is based on a vintage design. Most of the keys fall nicely under the fingers, but I found the palm keys were set a little too far back around the body for my liking...but these can be bent to preference.
The feel isn't up to much, even after the improvement to the pivot screws. Many Chinese horns have quite stiff keys (contrary to popular expectations), so it's not that the metal was bending, rather it's simply down to the sheer size of the keys. Flex is inevitable, and the vintage design really doesn't help matters. This really shows up when going for the bell notes. The spatulas are crude but functional, but boy are they springy...players with narrow fingers might want to take care they don't get their finger caught between the plates (though the rollers should help a little).
You get used to it after a while, though - and if you're coming to this instrument from a vintage baritone you probably won't even notice it.

Chinese bass sax F linkIn some places there's a curious mix of the old and the new, which this photo demonstrates.
In the foreground you can see a link from the F key to the Aux. F key cup. This is known as an F# helper arm, and its purpose is to beef up the closing force applied to the Aux. F key cup when the F is brought down - something that's particularly useful when the bells keys are in use and the articulated G# key cup is applying an upward force via its link arm (bottom left in the photo). It's a feature that's quite common on modern horns - however, it's an idea that seldom works in practice because the helper arm itself flexes...and on an instrument of this size it's a complete and utter waste of time.
Contrast that with the lever arm for the low Bb key cup, as seen in the centre rear of the photo. This is definitely old school.

The octave key mechanism is also old school - and with levers working upon levers it looks more like a fairground or a carpet loom in action than a piece of a saxophone. With the original rod screws fitted it hardly worked at all, but once they'd been upgraded it turned out to be quite reasonable. I'm almost tempted to call it slick...but that might be going a little too far.

The case is of the zippered variety, and it's absolutely enormous. I very much dislike zippered cases - because the zips break and can't easily be fixed - and the longer the zip, the more chances there are of it failing. A big case like this is a proper pain...but one that won't fasten up is going to be a real bind.
It's worth taking the weight of the horn in its case into consideration. I'm by no means the fittest specimen out there, but I'm also not feeble - but this bass managed to put me down twice. Once when getting the horn out of the car, and once when putting it in. And I don't mean just a bit of a twinge...we're talking 'Oh my God, I can't walk!' Seriously - each episode put me off my feet for days at a time.

There's plenty of space in the case for all your bits and bobs, though you'd be wise to avoid filling them up - as it will add yet more weight.
One concession to weight appears to be the spike - which attaches to the horn via a couple of lugs on the front of the bell. It seems to be made of carbon fibre...or at least something that looks remarkably like it. It surely can't be plastic, or it would simply fold up under the considerable weight of the horn.

Tonewise there are one or two 'issues'.
There are what I'd call severe problems with note production on mid C and D (low D is a bit muffled too). Mid C hardly speaks at all - though I'm told that this isn't uncommon on vintage basses, to the point where many players prefer to use the side C.
I did some fiddling with venting but nothing made that much of a difference - though I did note that a good mid C could be had by pressing the Bis Bb key down on its own. Unlike a modern horn, the Bis Bb key is linked to the Aux. C (the small key cup above the top B key) - so it might be possible to mod the keywork, but with all those levers floating about underneath the top stack touchpieces I doubt it would be a five-minute job.
I also noted that mid D improves considerably if you don't press the octave key down...

Elsewhere the horn does just fine. Where the tone is good it's very good, with the rich, deep, sonorous tone you'd expect from a vintage bass (as opposed to the more 'uber-baritone' sound that modern basses lean towards). It's surprisingly agile and melodic.
The tuning is a little approximate in places, but the bigger the horn the more latitude you have for lipping notes in. Playing the bass for the first time will probably throw up a few nasties, but with a bit of time and practice there shouldn't be too many problems in finding the right 'spot' for each note...and once that's done it becomes automatic, as with any horn. If all else fails you (or your repairer) could always try mucking about with crescents in the tone holes, which can sometimes help to improve the pitch stability of 'wild' horns.

You might also find that spending some time selecting the right mouthpiece will help matters. I found I got better results with my Yamaha 4C baritone piece than I did with my stalwart Link 5* - and with a proper bass sax piece you could probably improve things a bit more. Needless to say, the piece supplied with the horn wasn't up to much...though it worked.

I think the bottom line on this horn is that it's really not that good - at least 'out of the box'. It's essentially a bass in kit form - it comes ready-assembled, but you'll need to take it apart and address the severe problems with the action. If you can find an example that doesn't have the rod screw problem then so much the better. After that you'll be left with an instrument that works, but that still has issues with the tone in certain places. It may be possible to work around them, or get used to them in time - but that involves some work on the player's part.
Ultimately it boils down to economics. This bass will set you about around two and a half grand. A quick peek on ebay shows a completed auction for a Buescher stencil bass in good working order that went for £2,700. By the time you'd paid out to have the action on the Chinese bass upgraded you'd have been quids in by going for the stencil horn. And you'd have got a better horn.
There's also the 'other' Chinese bass - which is a more modern design, and which might be more of working proposition.

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