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Sequoia Lemon soprano saxophone

Sequoia Lemon soprano sax reviewOrigin: Taiwan
Guide price: £1800(?)
Weight: 1.41kg
Date of manufacture: 2014
Date reviewed: June 2019

Well, is it?

On the bench today we have another not-quite-boutique horn.
Not quite? Well, the proper definition of a boutique horn is one that's built by one company and rebadged and sold by another. It's very similar to a stencil horn, with the major difference being that the manufacturer only builds horns for other companies and doesn't retail its instruments under its own name. It's a slightly simplistic overview of the genre, but I'm sure you get the gist.
What it means is that just about anyone can set themselves up as a 'manufacturer', buy a bunch of horns from one of many companies who build the things, whack a brand name on them and offer them up for sale to the general public.
For the most part this is about as far as most boutique resellers go. They buy an off-the-peg model and rebadge it. In some cases there are options available, which allow the reseller to customise the horn to some degree so as to make it distinct from all the other sellers who're running with the same horns. These options are typically cosmetic in nature (various finishes) but can extend to changes in detailing (guards, braces etc.) - but the body and keywork remains pretty much standard. If you're prepared to buy enough horns, or you're willing to spend a bit more money, the manufacturers will take on more advanced customisation work - and if you want to go one step further they'll even build a horn to your own specifications. It makes no difference to them, provided you're willing to foot the bill at the end of the day.

This raises a (vaguely) interesting philosophical question; If you have someone build you - and only you - a horn to a unique specification, is it still a boutique horn?
It's a tricky one. There are those who will argue that if you're rebadging horns that you don't build yourself then yes, you're selling boutique or stencil horns. Equally there are those who argue that if you're having horns built to your own acoustic design then you're simply subcontracting the manufacture, and thus can't be considered a boutique retailer.

Sequoia, I suspect, would consider themselves to fall in to the last category. The company is owned and run by two repairers, and - according to the website blurb- they had a 'concept' of how a horn should play and feel. They found a manufacturer they could work with and set about having a range of horns built to their own specifications.
At least in terms of the bodies, anyway. The keywork is largely stock - and this makes sense. It costs an awful lot of money to have custom keywork made, and it's far more sensible to take off-the-shelf keys and adapt them to fit (if necessary).

In terms of the marketplace it rather blurs the boundaries between the definition of a boutique and a stencil horn, but it also raises the prospect of being able to buy a distinctive horn at a very favourable price. It also helps to move the market away from what I suppose you could consider to be 'safe horns'. You know, not too bright, not too dark - just sort of middling I suppose.
Then again it also carries with it a certain amount of risk. There's a very good reason why the 'Big Four' are the big four - and why slightly smaller companies are constantly snapping at their heels. They have design experience, and the sort of financial clout that allows them to spend quite a lot of time and money in research and development.
But you know what they say - a good little 'un will always beat a bad big 'un...and maybe, just maybe, sometimes you get lucky.

But that's enough of the overview - let's dive onto the workbench and see what's what...

Sequoia Lemon soprano top G toneholeThe construction is semi-ribbed, which is to say that some pillars are mounted on long plates (the main stacks), some are grouped on smaller plates, and the remainder are fitted individually. Most of the individual pillars have suitably large bases bar the few that have small bases due to space constraints. It's a two-piece body with a detachable crook, of which three are provided with the horn. It's keyed to top G.
Being a soprano there's not much scope for body features - you get an adjustable metal thumb hook, a flat plastic thumb rest and quite a large sling ring (17/11mm). This is impressive, if rather overkill, and I've seen far smaller rings on much larger horns.

The toneholes are all plain drawn, bar the top G - which is soldered on. It looks like it's soft soldered, which may lead to problems with selective galvanic corrosion in the (distant) future. However, it seems to be a very hard kind of soft perhaps it won't be an issue. In any event, it's such a small tonehole that having it unsoldered, cleaned and resoldered will likely cost beer money - so I wouldn't be at all concerned about it.
Note that gap beneath the pillar behind the tonehole. I wasn't too happy about that. It's quite an exposed pillar and will be prone to taking a knock if the horn is put down a little carelessly onto a hard table. That said, it was the only example of mean soldering I found on the horn - all the other pillars and fittings (bar one, as we'll shortly see) looked just fine.

Sequoia Lemon soprano G toneholeThe toneholes were pretty level on the whole - not perfect but well within expectations, and better than average. Just a couple at the top end required a little levelling - the G (as shown) was rather bad, as was the A.
Technical geeks might suggest that a wobbly G tonehole is down to the horn having copped a whack, as it's usually the tonehole that's most affected by a bend in the body - but the bore looked as straight as a die, and the warps didn't really fit the profile of a bent body tube. And the warps on the A tonehole didn't match the profile of those on the G. It seemed rather odd...

And while we're here, I wasn't very impressed with the soldering around the rather beefy compound bell key pillar.
The soldering on the rest of the horn is just fine - all neat and tidy - but someone's made a right pig's ear on this fitting. The colour of the solder looked a little odd (it's rather bright), and I wondered whether it might be remnants of a coat of plating - but it wouldn't make any sense at all to plate a horn and then remove it. I guess it's just down to the soldering alloy that was used (lead-free, possibly/probably/maybe?).
I did wonder whether it might be deliberate. I've seen this sort of thing before - lots of patently untidy solderwork that's been left 'as is' in order to give the horn a kind of "I've been round the block a few times" look...but it's been spread throughout the horn and not in just one spot. Still looks rubbish, mind.
It also occurred to me that this pillar might have been removed after manufacture, and prior to sale. You only have to look at all the other pillars and fittings in all the other photos to see that there's very little evidence of any solder showing at all. Perhaps this and the warped toneholes matches up? Maybe the horn copped a whack in the warehouse and had to be repaired? I couldn't see any evidence to suggest as much, and the owner hadn't had any repairs carried out, so it'll have to remain a mystery.

The fit of the crooks was pretty good. Just one needed a tweak, but that's par for the course after five years of use.
I'm pleased they got this part right, as the crook joint is often the source of leaks that can be very hard to detect. They seldom stop the horn dead in its tracks, but lead to a gradual loss of response and precision over a period of time - and the less surface area that you have to play with, the more likely that leaks will develop. As you can imagine, a crook joint on a soprano is particularly susceptible to this problem.

Sequoia Lemon soprano  auxiliary B toneholeThe finish of the toneholes was fine - all smooth, neat and for one. The finish on the Auxiliary B was appalling, with a full set of splendid grooves from a file on display.
It has to be said, of all the toneholes that you least want a rough finish on, the Aux.B on a soprano tops the bill. It's such a tiny wee pad, and there's (hopefully) very little downward force on the pad such that the slightest anomaly in the pad seat is going to result in a leak.
All the other toneholes were fine - so I really have no idea why this one slipped through the quality control net.

A quick word about the finish before we move onto the action.
It's a bare brass finish with lacquered keys. Bare finishes are popular these days, which means my email inbox is peppered with queries from players who've bought such horns and are now wondering why they're turning green. Now, I quite like a bare brass finish (I have such a horn myself) - and while it can look quite cool it can sometimes turn out to be something of a liability. If you're a 'dry' player - which is to say that you don't tend to end a gig by tipping half a pint of water out of the bell - you'll probably be fine. If you're a wet player you're going to have to be quite fastidious about cleaning the horn on a regular basis.
Being a wet or a dry player has nothing to do with proficiency (at least once you're past the beginner stage), it's just the way you being left or right handed. If your current horns are covered in water marks, a bare brass horn is perhaps not the wisest choice.

Sequoia Lemon soprano B key playThe action was rather loose, and in some places severely so. It's usually pretty easy to spot when this is down to fair wear and tear rather than manufacturing defects, and one of the big giveaways is when there's a substantial difference in the play on the main stack keys - given that wear and tear will happen more or less equally along the stack.
Another telltale sign is to look at the ends of the key barrels. Worn keys will have smooth faces on the barrel ends - poorly-built keys will still show file marks, and sometimes burrs too.
By far the worst two keys were the top B and the low E, and you can see the extent of the play in these two animated gifs. Ideally you'd want no free play at all, of course - but if there's ever place where you really, absolutely, unquestionably don't want it, it's in the top stack of a soprano. The keys and pads are quite small, which tends to magnify the effects of any play. A key barrel on an alto or a tenor that's oversized by, say, 0.2mm may lead to a given pad leaking across 10% of its surface (typically at the rear of the pad) - but that same discrepancy on a smaller key will lead to a much larger leak....say 25%. Similarly, the discrepancy between two keys that are regulated with each other will also increase.

Sequoia Lemon soprano E key playWith this much play on the top B key there wasn't a hope in hell of getting the B and the Aux.B key above it to close at the same time - and what with the play on the rest of the stack you're looking at a group of keys that's never going to work properly no matter how hard you try to compensate for the play. The only way around it is to use a gorilla grip when playing the horn. Or have it fixed, naturally.

The play on the low E is just as severe - and while it will still have a notable effect on the feel and responsiveness of the lower notes, it won't be quite as dramatic as that on the upper stack.
One way to at least partially counter the effects of a sloppy action is to set the spring tension super high (blued steel, on this horn). This works in two ways: it 'preloads' the action by forcing the key barrels against the pivot screws, and it causes the player to have to press harder on the keys. Guess what the action felt like on this horn. Yup.
You might suggest that this horn's five years old, and who knows how much use it's been subjected to - and yes, a certain amount of the free play is going to be down to wear and tear. But how d'you explain the significantly worse B and E keys? Maybe the owner's spent the last five years doing nothing much else but trilling on the B and the E? I somehow doubt it.

The point screws are of the pseudo variety and, on the whole, were quite well fitted to the keys. One or two showed some free play - which I'd put down to wear - but the play on the bell keys was rather more the point where I was able to show the client how the low B and Bb keys were lifting at the rear of the pad as the play got taken up by the springs. Had proper point screws been used it would have been a simple matter of tightening the up to take up the play, but since that wasn't the case it was down to swedging the barrel ends to make the points a better fit.
Incidentally, it appears that while the point screws are made of plain steel, the rod (or hinge) screws are stainless. This is a very worthwhile feature and means that there's a lot less chance of finding yourself scuppered by a rusted-in screw at some point down the years.

Sequoia Lemon soprano  lower stack adjustersThere's a full set of regulation adjusters and I was particularly impressed with the design of the adjuster on the lower stack.
I mean, c'mon, just look at 'em - they're lovely aren't they? The key feet terminate in a round block and the foot of the adjusters sit atop the blocks. It's beautifully done and provides a large surface area for the regulation point, which means compression of the buffers is less likely to be an issue over time. Top marks there.

Not quite so many marks for the regulation adjuster on the top stack. They're fine (and very welcome indeed) but look at how long the bar is that extends under the Bis Bb to the adjustment point on the A.
Sequoia Lemon soprano  top stack adjustersIt might look like the bar is hefty enough but there's always the spectre of key flex to take into account - and a bar that long is going to flex. Oh, it won't be by much, to be sure, but even a tiny amount will show up in the integrity of the pad seat on the Aux.B key. A smarter design would be to move the supporting arm (seen in the centre of the shot, just down from the uppermost adjuster) to a point just below the Bis Bb cup arm. This would leave a much shorter distance between the arm and the A key adjuster, and make for a much stiffer setup.
And on another whingey note, the key feet on the top stack are all plain and straight - it would have been a nice touch to have duplicated the round feet that feature on the lower stack. Might have have added a tenner to the cost of the horn, but it would have been worth it.

Sequoia Lemon soprano low Eb padI wasn't very impressed with the padding. The pads themselves aren't too bad - they're not the best quality but they're adequate enough - but the fitting left a lot to be desired...particularly some glue.
Here's the low Eb, and you can see it's practically 'dry'. Never mind "A li'l dab'll do ya", this pad's barely seen a lick of a passing stick of glue. I was about to reset this pad and had inserted a pick down the side of the key cup so that it would be in place when I heated the pad to soften the glue. That's when I saw the pad move. It was already loose in the key cup.

Sequoia Lemon soprano low C padThe low C doesn't fare much better, though you can see there's a cursory smear of glue in the key cup...but not enough to contact the backing of the pad.
However, there's plenty of glue that's been used to glue the rather large shim in place.
It's the same old story up and down the horn - insufficient glue and/or large shims - which makes servicing a bit of a nightmare because you simply can't reset a pad with any degree of reliability (or even at all) if there's no glue behind the pad. So you have to take them out, pop some glue on then refit and reset the pads. Essentially a repad, without the cost of new pads. Your wallet won't appreciate it.
The use of shims is somewhat controversial; there are repairers who insist it's unacceptable, and there are those who feel it's of little or no consequence. I tend to feel that it's an acceptable method when all other alternatives have been exhausted. This might include varying the thickness of the pad, manipulating the angle of the key cup, adjusting the position of the pillars, floating the pads on a deep bed of glue etc. The point is that it's a means of ensuring a decent pad seat on an instrument that either hasn't been built very well or has suffered significant damage (or poor repairs) down the years. If you're having to use shims at the production stage, then something's wrong with the geometry of the keywork and really needs to be corrected.
It's pretty much standard practice on many a cheap horn, and when you're buying a horn for just a few hundred pounds you have to expect that a few corners will be cut at the factory. But as the price of the horn rises so too does the expectation that such practices will be less and less necessary - and at this price point I don't think it's unreasonable to say that it's a complete no-no.

Some of the key alignment was off in places too - and while this is rather more of an aesthetic issue it can have a bearing on the reliability of the pad seat depending on how far over the key cup is canted in relation to the tonehole.
In extreme cases it can cause very real problems, as seen here on the top E key.
Sequoia Lemon soprano top E padThe rear of the pad is so close to the edge of the tonehole that there's barely any of the pad to cover it - and so there was a rather large leak right at the top of the body tube. This is never good. This is another issue that should have been caught in the manufacturing stage.
The fix for this was to bend the key arm to better align the cup with the tonehole. This wasn't at all difficult to do because the keywork is rather on the soft side.

Sequoia Lemon soprano bell key tableThere's a standard tilting bell key table mounted on a curved compound pillar, with additional support coming from the rear G# pillar. We've seen the pillar itself earlier, and I'm more than satisfied that it seems to be robustly built - and should easily cope with the sort of light to moderate knocks that a soprano is likely to receive in its normal working life.

Wrapping up the package you get a semi-soft box style case (with the dreaded zipped fastener) which has plenty of storage space for all your reeds and other gubbins, plus dedicated storage slots for the crooks and a mouthpiece.

In the hands the horn feels quite comfortable, though it soon becomes apparent that there a degree of heft to it. At 1.41kg it has to be the heaviest soprano I've ever seen. No wonder they put a massive sling ring on it.|
If you're in the habit of using a sling I doubt the extra weight will make a difference - but to those players (like me) who prefer a head-up, horn straight out playing position, the weight could well prove to be an issue on a long gig.
There's really little else to say about the feel other than it improved massively (and I mean massively) once the action issues had been sorted and the ridiculously strong springs had been slackened off. It's all laid out in the modern fashion, and I doubt anyone will have any real problems aside from the usual ones that crop up on any horn (palm/side key placement)...and these are easy enough to tweak anyway.
I liked the feel of the only very slightly concave key pearls (plastic) coupled with the slightly domed Bis Bb. For fans of pearls all round you'll be pleased to hear that both the G# and the side/chromatic F# feature oval pearls on the touchpieces.

Sequoia Lemon soprano crooksWhen it came to playing the horn I was expecting great things. The website is liberally peppered with 'inspirational' quotes. You know the sort of thing...lots of phrases that contain words like 'heart', 'soul' and 'artistry'.
It also informed me that "The body of the instrument is left unlacquered, while the annealing is different than in the other models. This gives a fuller and warmer sound." - and that the silverplated model has ""increased projection and brightness, due to the silver plating and thicker walls".
I raised an eyebrow. Then another - and if I had a third one I'd have raised that too. But as I'm not triple-browed I settled for having a little chuckle about "different annealing" while popping a mouthpiece on the horn to give it a blow.

Tonewise it's a rather resistant blow, and as such there's a kind of 'thickness' to the sound that (purely coincidentally) seems to complement the weight of the horn. It's not stuffy by any means, but there's a sense that each note has a touch of rounding off around the edges. This is especially noticeable at very low volumes, where the tone becomes almost husky at times - especially down the lower end. In this respect it has a sort of Mauriat-like quality inasmuch as there's a distinct shift in the presentation as the volume drops off. That could be a good or a bad thing depending on how you like to play.
It's not a shouty horn, and even when you play it at full tilt it hangs on to its rounded approach - which, for me, kept pushing the repertoire towards smoky 3am bluesy ballads. You know what I mean, something like "One More For My Baby (And One More For The Road).
Oh sure, you can push it hard and it'll do the job, but it takes a lot more effort to maintain it than on a horn with a bit more cut and punch dialled in as standard. It is, however, quite even across the range - so you won't have to rein in any harshness up at the top end. All-in-all it's a bit of a tonal curiosity. It's not quite what I'd call warm and it's definitely not bright - and neither is it middle-of-the-road. It's sort of lazy, weighty, a bit husky and very easy on the ear.
The Sequoia is supplied with two crooks - a straight and a curved one. This example had an additional straight bronze one.

I tried them all in turn and found that the curved brass one really wasn't my favourite. It seems to dull things down somewhat, and the huskiness became muddy. It was also a rather stiffer blow. The straight brass one was very nice - easily my pick of the bunch. It gave the tone a bit of a lift and sharpened up the roundness a little, and was the least resistant of the three.
The bronze one was quite close in response to the straight brass but seemed to make it slightly harder to achieve almost the same sound. So if you're expecting it to add a rosy bronze-tinted glow to the tone you're going to be disappointed because the tonal changes won't be down to any voodoo regarding the material they're made from, rather it'll be down to the simple and boring fact that the internal dimensions of the crooks will all be ever so slightly different from each other. Which means that the crooks you end up with are likely to be entirely different in response to these ones, so it's really down to pot luck.

Sequoia Lemon soprano bellSo - thumbs up/thumbs down?
I'm in two minds about this horn. On the one hand it's undeniably a unique soprano; its relaxed and measured approach sets it aside from the majority of the competition, and in that respect it has an ace up its sleeve.
It's not without its tonal foibles (what horn isn't?) but they serve to distinguish the horn rather than detract from it. As such I can see that prospective buyers might fall into two categories; those who don't care for it at all, and those who absolutely love it. I don't think it's the sort of horn that you'd be ambivalent about.
But, as you know, I'm all about the nuts and bolts - the build quality, the prospect of the action staying in regulation and the pads holding a seal. If the mechanics aren't up to scratch you're quite literally wasting your breath. The wobbly keys were a big disappointment, and the padding left a lot to be desired. The toneholes could be better and some attention to detail in the soldering department wouldn't go amiss. And it's damn heavy for a soprano.
We need, however, some perspective - and that comes in the form of the asking price. It was no mean feat tracking down a price for this horn, and even now I can't be sure it's wholly accurate. The Sequoia isn't what you'd call 'widely available' - in fact it seems to be limited to a mere handful of dealers, most of whom seem to work on an appointments only basis. In some ways it's reminiscent of Cannonball's marketing technique - which works on the principle that if you're interested enough, you'll make the effort to find one.
The only price I managed to nail down was one of £1800. At this price it's slap-bang in competition with the Yamaha 475 (MkII). This is a formidable horn, and even if you're not taken with its neutral and precise presentation it's a given that the build quality is commensurate with the cost of the horn. There's also the Bauhaus M2, which offers a very different tonal approach to the Yamaha. And then there's nothing much else of note aside from a handful of Mauriats - and they don't do so well on the build quality front either - until you get to around two and half grand, at which point the Eastman and the Yanagisawa become available.
On that basis it could get a thumbs up - but with the caveat that you may well have to spend another hundred quid having your repairer go over the finer (and not so finer) details. But here's the rub; if you factor in an independent setup, you might just as well consider the Mauriat Le Bravo...or the 76 if you wanted to spend a bit more. And I daresay many of you are thinking that a used soprano with a £100 service wouldn't be a bad bet either. And you'd be right.

Because of this horn's distinctive tonal approach I'm loathe to knock it down, but I just can't ignore the build issues - so I'm going to say that if those issues were resolved it'd be a very nice horn at a very fair price that would likely suit players who prefer a more vintage presentation rather than a contemporary one. The rest is up to you...and Sequoia.

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Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2019