Yamaha Saxophones stormed the 2003 NAMM Show with some beautiful new Saxes, accessories and some prototype advancements soon to be released.
Although I am a Yamaha Sax Artist, this was my first opportunity to see and play the New Custom Z Saxes. The Winter NAMM was held in Anaheim, CA., January 16-19, 2003. “NAMM” stands for National Association of Music Merchants. This was a very exciting show for Saxophone Players!!
Yamaha has completed the Custom Z Alto Sax and Custom Z Tenor Sax. I believe a Soprano Custom Z will be next, but it is only rumored and has no date for release so it could be a couple of years out. I did put my two-cents in with Hiroshi Nakajima, Yamaha Product Development Manager for Yamaha Woodwind Instruments. Hiroshi is the MAN. For the record, I requested a YAS-62R Sop, one piece with the bent neck, 62's lighter keys, and all the new Z technology from there. You can ask for anything you want... right??
What's NEW on the Custom Z?
Design, Sound and Feel. It is a whole new beast. I really wish Yamaha had just called this a NEW SAX. I think the reference to the 62 in relation to the Custom 875’s serves to confuse rather than explain. I understand the Yamaha literature now, after playing the new Z with my background playing both 62’s and Custom 875’s. I’d like to focus on what I experienced playing these next-generation Saxophones, and not spend too much time attempting to explain the relationships to the Z’s parents and Grandparents. Yamaha has taken all they learned from previous Saxophone Design and blended it with some new stuff they discovered while experimenting with some great new ideas. They are the ONLY Company that had both technicians and designers at NAMM to gather feedback from great Sax Players regarding both production equipment and prototypes for future development.
SO… Yamaha took all the best old and new stuff and made a NEW SAX that is really cool. Yamaha is really trying to make Saxes that Sax Players will love.
The new Z Sax is re designed for SOUND and it sounds GREAT! Yamaha had a number of different Z’s to try. For Alto’s, they had lacquered, unlacquered, Silver and Gold plated Saxes to try. My favorites where the unlacquered and Gold plated. I think the Silver Plate was the real bomb but it was snatched up by Eric Marienthal so fast I never got to try it. Eric loved it, and I did get to hear him on it and he sound amazing on it. I did play a new 875EX Alto that was Silver plated and it was a very nice horn also. The 875EX is a Custom 875 with the new bell support ring, 2 point for better vibration, changes in key work from the Z, but with the 875 body with the original metals. It sounds just like an 875 but feels a bit better and sounds louder and blows freer.
The Gold plated Z Alto has a dark yet full sound. The feel is great on these horns. They have perfect key placement, spring tension and travel distance. Most people agree that new horns feel great, but in relationship to the other saxes I played at NAMM, the Yamaha Saxes killed the competitors. The only other Company with a great feel was Yanigisawa. All the other Companies lacked in 1 to all 3 of these categories for feel. The sound of the Gold Plate was the darkest Z (for me), but the formula gets crazy when you start trying different necks.
Yamaha Custom Z Saxes ship with the new G1 neck. Now this was my first time playing the G1 Neck also. It’s a real trip. The G1 blows so free. It feels like there is no resistance and out comes a big-ol sound. For me, it would take some getting used to. My Alto is an 875 Black with a Silver M1 Neck. The G1 neck is very focused with great volume flexibility, but lacked in the extreme tone variation I found in my M1 Neck.
Now, for those who have never tried a different neck on their Sax, this will sound strange. I loved the Gold plated Alto Z, but had to hear it with all the necks Yamaha brought. Yamaha makes 3 different models of Necks; the M1 was the shipped Neck on 875’s; the F1 was an option; the G1 is the latest in Yamaha neck development. With Saxes in different finishes, the 3 Necks come in even more options. I played the Silver plated, Gold plated and unlacquered necks on each Saxophone. Hiroshi and Lutley also brought Necks they where experimenting with. The models where the same but they also had Baked (don’t remember the term, but they bake them for hours) Necks in different models with some different platings to try. Every one of these necks has different qualities and sound. It was a total trip. If it does not sound confusing yet, just imagine all the possible combinations of horns and necks with the human element added in for fun. WOW! The Gold plated Z with the Gold G1 Neck was great, but change it to a Baked unlacquered or Silver plated neck and WOW!
If I was buying an Alto off the show, I would have got the Gold plate with the G1 neck it came with. If you read the history of my Sax choices with Necks and Mouthpieces, you will see this proven approach. I would spend some time getting acquainted with the new Sax before further customizing the accessories to my desired sound. When you have this many variables, it is hard to feel confident changing everything unless you’re just rich and can but it all; I do things in stages.
The other Alto Sax at the show that everyone loved was the Unlacquered Custom Z. I remember Brass players in college stripping the lacquer for better sound and have played some great old horns with no lacquer left that blew real free. This Saxophone was wonderful; so easy to play with the G1 neck (provided), and so flexible to accommodate any tonal preference with neck options. This Sax also screamed right out of the box; from a whisper to an 18-wheeler, from sub-tones to blasts; this Z is flexible, feels amazing and sounds great. The only note here is lacquer is used to protect the Brass from tarnishing, and this sax will have a 50-year-old look in the next 18 months. Rich kids will want a shiny new sax and the many dudes out there that use the sax just to get chicks and stroke their ego- the pretty ones will get more chicks so get the lacquered Z. I don’t understand it because I play Black 875’s, but my least favorite new Z was the Black Lacquered Alto. This is a major case for these Saxes being a NEW SAX; I did not care for the Silver Plated and Gold Plated 875’s when I purchased my Black Alto and was convinced I was going to love the Black Custom Z. When I mentioned this to the tech he said, “Well, this is a whole new beast.”
The Silver Tenor and Unlacquered Tenor was a toss up as Greg’s Pick; no
Gold Plated Tenor to try. The Silver Tenor was the first to get swiped off the show by a Chicago Sax stud – Frank Coltnola. But I did get to play it 2 days before he grabbed it. Did not care for the Black and standard lacquer for Tenor either with the Silver sounding soooo good.
The Necks for Tenor Saxes were many. I loved the G1 Necks but again feel it would take some getting used to. They are really free and focused in sound. You really can’t over blow the G1 and they do have a huge dynamic range. I think it was the M1 Silver I liked best on the Silver Tenor because it had a more familiar resistance for me and a great sound. The Silver Custom Z with the stock Silver G1 Neck would be my choice if I were buying off the show.
Other interesting developments…
Yamaha is experimenting with new thumb rests. They had 12 prototypes at the show and are trying to narrow it down to 3 for consumers. I was totally surprised to find a thumb rest would affect the sound. I did not try different thumb rests with the new Z’s, but did try 3 on my Saxes I brought in for the comparison. The first thumb rest on my Tenor was a weird experience. It made the tip of my finger buzz and that was surprising. It made immediate sense that the thumb rest could alter the sound just from all the vibration it experienced when playing. I loved the Brass with Gold Plating thumb rest and found it to be the only new Yamaha thing I wanted right then. The Silver gave me too much of a buzz in the sound and the solid Brass did not change the sound enough to be noticed.
The thumb rest was less impressive on the Alto and everyone there at the Yamaha booth said the original plastic rest was best for me. The point is… the good players that checked them out all noticed a big difference when changing the thumb rests, and again; tech and designer were there to make notes on those results for future release. Hiroshi told me they would be redesigning it a bit for comfort and sending some new ones for me to try in the next few months. I was told that the thumb rest on the Custom V Clarinet was designed for sound, with the rest they now ship creating the greatest ease of play and resonance for the Clarinet. Dumb old me just thought they were to hold the instrument. I was also told the new, harder metal they chose for the screws and rods on the Custom V opened up the sound and freed up some resistance.
All of this to say, many exciting discoveries are now finding their way into the new designs on Yamaha Woodwinds. The Metal in the Custom Z is a new mix and lighter by weight with a fuller sound. I believe the research into the material used for the rods in the Custom Clarinet found its way into the new Z Saxophones. The Alto and Bass Flutes use a Brass/Silver blend that vibrates and sounds huge. I heard they where now experimenting with different metal combinations for C Flutes and had some very interesting prototypes.
Yamaha is in the very forefront of Research and Development for wind instruments in this new century and this years NAMM 2003 was the first totally exciting year for Wind Music in a very long time. 80+ % of what is cool was at Yamaha this year.
Other thing worth mentioning…
I Played the LA Sax Straight Tenor for about 2 hours and found it to be very interesting and a huge crowd pleaser. The main reason I wanted it was the response from people passing by. “What in the hell is that?” seemed to be the #1 response.
The human element
Although all these new enhancements are exciting and change the sound in different ways, it is harder to decide which is for you. I did not buy anything from the NAMM Show but did order the thumb rest for my Tenor. For me, I found that much of what works for me is relative to who I am and what equipment I have already invested nearly 30 Years of time on. I still love my Saxes as listed in my Gear list, but would have bought a few things if I was rich. The part of the sound that comes from you is still the main variable. I sounded like me on everything I played and at that point it comes to choice. I still hold to Sax Family Values and say that playing instruments in a Family makes a lot of sense. Some cheap saxes suck, but when you get to the pro horns, It really is background and choice.
Other saxes that played good? The Yanigisawa Bari and Yani Soprano were very nice. The Chicago Horns are Gaurdala’s old Sax and I liked them too. The new Selmer reference Saxes are OK. The LA Sax straight Tenor and straight Alto had huge cool factor going on and I would have got one of each to work with just because so many people thought they looked bizarre. The Alto was something I had played before but the Tenor was just a freak of nature. It was very cool, but hard to hear with the bell on my shoes, you could not sit and play it and my right hand was cramped from playing it so I would have to see about holding it a different way to feel better about it.
Other cool NAMM showings...
A company from Greece had wood necks and wood mouthpieces out and they really change the sound too. I did not find a mouthpiece I liked to compare with mine but did play a neck or two and would have bought one for possible studio application if they did not cost 1500.00 or so.
For the flutist, there are lots of wood head joints and wood flutes being made. I love Nestor Torres on a wood head joint but did not have the time to see if it could be useful for me and really did not sound that great on it. The wood flutes have a very different sound, more ethnic, but very interesting. Of course Yamaha did not have its wood flute or Alto or Bass Flutes out because they are always on back order. My favorite Alto Flute this year "that was there" was the Gemeinhardt Alto Flute; very even pitched, no weird middle c-c# and a full sound in the low register.
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