"Mel Martin, My Visit To The Yanagisawa Factory In Japan"

By Mel Martin.

Reprinted from The Saxophone Journal, Volume 16, Number 4, January/February 1992

During my visit to Tokyo with the Benny Carter Orchestra in 1991, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Yanagisawa saxophone factory. Saxophone Journal editor Dave Gibson had given me the name and number of Mr. K. Sakurai, who is the manager of international trade. When I called, he most graciously agreed to come to our hotel which was a considerable distance from the factory, and personally take us there. I have developed considerable interest in Yanagisawa saxes over the years, as I was aware that they were one of the only companies in the world who manufactures a curved soprano worth considering. I had seen a number of their instruments and was aware that their straight sopranos, with the interchangeable necks, had become very popular, and in fact, I had been recommending them to students and other professionals. I was anxious to go directly to the source to see where these fine horns actually came from. Our lead alto saxophonist Bill Green and I met Mr. Sakurai in the lobby of our hotel and proceeded to make the journey to the Itabashi area of Tokyo. On our way to the factory, we discussed saxophones in general and the curved soprano in particular. Upon our arrival, I was rather amazed to find myself in what appeared to be a residential part of town as opposed to an industrial area. In fact, the factory was located in a group of apartment buildings in a one block area. Mr. Sakurai explained that they would have long ago moved to a warehouse but that kind of space is extremely hard to find in Tokyo, one of the most condensed and crowded cities I've ever been to.

We entered the facility and were seated in a relaxed office area and served some tea. We were able to browse through catalogues while Mr. Sakurai enlightened us on recent developments and new models. Yanagisawa only makes saxophones and mouthpieces which truly sets them apart from other manufacturers. The history of the company goes back to 1893, when the Yanagisawa Wind Instrument Company was established as one of the few wind instrument repair-makers in Japan. In 1954 they completed their first saxophone, which was a tenor model T-3, and was said to have been bought by an American soldier at the Komaki Music Store. The first alto was produced in 1956. During the 1960's they redeveloped their tenors and altos and in 1967 released their first baritone. In 1969 they released their first soprano, and in 1972 they developed their first sterling silver alto saxophone and first sopranino, which they gave to Sonny Rollins. In 1973 they began producing ebonite and metal hand-made mouthpieces. 1978 brought the development of their current 800 series of saxes. The other seminal dates were 1979 when they developed the prototype for their curved soprano and 1985 when they began to produce sopranos with interchangeable necks, both straight and semi-curved.

In my conversation with Mr. Sakurai, I asked him about the overriding philosophy of the company. He replied that their goal was to gradually keep improving the quality and versatility of their products. Many times instrument manufacturers tend to sacrifice the former for the latter in the name of progress. This does not appear to be the case with the Yanagisawa company. By concentrating only on saxophones, they do not appear to be spreading their resources too thin. They are very sincere in trying to improve their products and maintain a certain consistency. I have had the opportunity to use several of their saxophones and find them to be truly consistent performers of extremely high quality. I am currently using their new curved soprano and silversonic alto and tenor saxophones. I have also used the baritone in professional situations.


While at the factory, Bill Green and I had the opportunity to test a number of very interesting instruments. They let us try the original curved soprano model and compare it with the newest prototype which features redesigned palm keys and redesigned low note keys and spatula, although the model I am currently playing only has the redesigned palm keys. I also tried a silver plated sopranino. We were able to sample the different neck options which included a sterling silver neck pipe. We had a lengthy discussion of why they were supplying the new model with only a semi-curved neck as opposed to the fully curved neck of the original model. Mr. Sakurai explained that a player had tried the semi-curved neck on the curved soprano and felt that the intonation was better. I explained to him that players like myself enjoy the curved soprano because it essentially handles like any other saxophone and that using a semi-curved neck defeats this purpose. I also pointed out that the intonation was so good compared to the old 1920's vintage curved sopranos that perhaps they should supply it with two necks as they do with their straight sopranos. I would also be very interested in a silver fully-curved neck as I felt that this option offers a higher quality of tone production. When I told him that I expected to be getting a Yanagisawa curved soprano when I returned home, he generously offered to give me a fully curved neck which was a good thing as I was told by the distributor that he gets a couple of calls each week from players looking for these necks. Hopefully this situation will be rectified soon. They offer the silver along with gold plated necks in their other saxes and, in fact, I was able to play a tenor that had a silver neck and silver body that was, indeed, quite fantastic. They also offer a silver bell option.

Their mouthpieces, by the way, are also of a very high quality. They offer a complete line and the mouthpieces that come with the instruments are usually quite satisfactory. I must also comment that the instruments are extremely consistent as I have had many opportunities to try them at The House Of Woodwinds in Oakland, California where I regularly teach and recommend these instruments to students. This can only be due to the quality control and consistent production methods employed in their manufacture.

Touring the production facility was very enlightening. They begin with selection from their brass stock and hand fit the machined keys to each individual instrument which assures an exact fit and precise alignment. As the instruments progress down the line, they are tested and examined by the workers at each stage of construction and all parts are contained in a carrier all the way to it's completion. At the end, they are thoroughly tested and adjusted before they are packed and sent out to their various distributors.

In the U.S. and Canada, they are distributed by the G. Leblanc Corporation and in France by SML. Mr. Sakurai explained that the majority of their sales are to the classical field throughout the world. This was very surprising to me as I would assume that there is a greater demand from the jazz and pop markets. The instruments and my feeling is that they should offer more options such as the above mentioned necks and, perhaps, the option of oversized metal resonators. One factor with the company is that they seek and heed the advice of professionals throughout the world which is the best thing that they could do in developing and maintaining their position as a leading and innovative manufacturer of quality saxophones and mouthpieces.

Mr. Sakurai accompanied us back to our hotel and we agreed to keep in touch and I hope that I will be able to return in the near future. It is my feeling that Yanagisawa has the potential ability to be one of the true leaders in the saxophone field and it was a great pleasure to visit their factory and discuss the very important issues concerning saxophonists of every persuasion in the still growing development of our extraordinarily unique instrument.

Anyone wishing more information about the Yanagisawa saxophone can, of course, contact the Leblanc Company in the United States, or write directly to the factory in Japan at Yanagisawa Wind Instruments Co., Ltd., 29-5, Azusawa 2-Chome, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo 174, Japan, telephone 033966-9501.

Evaluation of the Yanagisawa Bronze 992 Alto and Tenor saxophones

The most striking feature of the new Yanagisawa 992 Bronze model saxophone series is it's stunning appearance. With it's high percentage of copper alloy, there is a polished reddish tint to the horn that is quite beautiful to behold. The keys are laguered regular brass alloy so there is a subtle two-tone hue to the instruments. However, looks are not only what these fine instruments are about. The sound is quite unique as well. Copper is a well known alloy that has been in much demand by classical players looking for a darker, fuller tonal component. Certain older horns have, at various times, contained higher percentages of copper for just this purpose. The Yanagisawa 992 carries on and extends this tradition. All Yanagisawa instruments share certain traits: quality and consistent workmanship, an excellent modern scale, a refined tonal quality high in character and excellent key ergonomics that are easily adapted to by students and pros of all ages. With the addition of the bronze 992, Yanagisawa has established the widest possible variety of saxophones in the world. No other company manufactures horns with so many important options. These differences are much more than mere cosmetics. They have utilized a wide variety of materials and finishes to achieve this remarkable feat.

I had a chance to play the bronze 992 saxophones at some length as well as compare them directly with other Yanagisawa models and other brand horns. The 992 horns had a darker more resonant sound compared to the clear laquered brass horns. There was also somewhat more resistance. I noticed that they used large metal resonators so they projected the sound outward quite well and would not be considered at all "dull" in quality. The term that others used was "mellow" concerning the perceived tone quality. In direct comparison with the silversonic line, they were actually somewhat brighter as the solid silver horns convey an even more resonant tone with a wider dynamic level. I believe the black laquered horns convey an even darker timbre but not the resonant quality I found in the bronze horns. There seems to be a solid, resonant core that is similar to some older saxophones but yet maintains the modern standards of today's saxophones. I particularly liked the alto because I prefer a darker alto which regular alto players might not favor over pure brass horns which have more of a "ding" in their sound. That's why bells are made out of pure brass alloy, for maximum "ring". There is always a tradeoff with differing materials. The tradeoff in adding more copper is less "ding" but more tonal depth and resonance. This is often an appealing tradeoff for many players. The silver horns are even more of a tradeoff as they have even less "ding" but a far wider dynamic range and tonal characteristics.

In direct comparison with Selmer and Keilworth brands the differences were even starker as these horns have their own trademark "sound" and musical values. Obviously, I favor the entire Yanagisawa line over any other brand. The only horn that compares favorably to the bronze (and silver Yanagisawa) is an old (1930) Selmer "cigar cutter" tenor which I own and was my choice before switching to Yanagisawa. Co-incidentally, it appears to contain a high degree of copper and is an extremely resonant horn. Neither the new Selmer nor Keilworth had the character of any Yanagisawa . Nor does the Yamaha. They all are well manufactured instruments with good intonation but they do not inspire one to play music the way the Yanagisawa line does. Between the wide variety of materials and tonal characteristics and the extremely user-friendly mechanics of the instruments, Yanagisawa horns just seem to become invisible and the music becomes the most important force. This is the hallmark of any great musical instrument. The other option of being able to choose different necks is a valuable added plus to the line, widening even further the tonal possibilities.

In conclusion, Yanagisawa horns will be appreciated by discerning players everywhere for their overriding workmanship, tonal flexibility, friendly ergonomics and competitive pricing.


Here is an unsolicited endorsement from Tony Trahan:

Date: Sat, 19 Feb 2000 18:20:51 -0700
To: Mel Martin
From: Tony Trahan 
Subject: Thanks for the great advice!

In August I was confused about which Yani Alto Sax to get. You steered me
straight to the Bronze. Man, what a sax! I now also have a Bronze tenor.
The expressiveness on these instruments is tremendous. They sound like what
I've always wanted in any saxophone. They sound wonderful on classical and
jazz music.

The amazing thing about these Bronze saxes is that, if you blow softer,
they get darker, and if you blow louder, they get brighter. That's exactly
what I've always wanted in a sax.

I thank you friend, for your wisdom and Gemini courage to go where our
fellow jazz musicians seem to fear to tread.

Keep pushing those boundaries of ignorance, and shedding light on a
certainly better instrument to play and have fun with, while creating our
personal musical expression.

I have 11 of my sax students now playing Yani's. They are really happy
campers. They're also moving up to first chair, being praised for their
good tone, among other things.

Thanks again. I'll stay in touch. Please write anytime.

Tony Trahan