Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Buying Saxophones On Ebay – Part 1

On any given day there are hundreds of saxophones listed on Ebay, from cheap poorly made pieces that won’t play in tune, to fine vintage horns, and a lot in between. One advantage is that most people wouldn’t find such a vast selection in their local music store. The disadvantages are obvious and are counterintuitive to all that a prospective buyer looks for when shopping for a saxophone. You can’t actually try it before you buy it. You can’t feel the weight, the balance, the spring tension of the keys, the ergonomics of the way it fits your hands. You can’t smell it or feel the finish of the silver plate or the lacquer. You can’t play it and see if it leaks or how responsive it is, how it works with your mouthpiece, or hear what it sounds like. Buyers of saxophones on Ebay forego all of the normal things crucial to determining what the horn is like. All they have to go on is the description and some images.

The description of the sax, based upon the words and level of knowledge of the seller, and in essence their reputation, which is supposedly supported by their feedback rating, is the first point to consider. You can tell a lot by what the seller has to say about the sax offered. And how they describe it should tell you if they are knowledgeable or are clueless about their sax and saxes in general.

One sax up for auction was described as “missing a few of the baffles”, (pads, we can assume, is what they meant), “with mouthpiece but no end piece”, (neck, but no mouthpiece, luckily shown in the images), “a few dents, but in good condition for it’s age”, (again, the images displayed a battered horn, deep pitting, with the low Eb key guard and the entire low C# key missing). It was clear that the seller knew nothing about saxophones, and furthermore, had made no attempt to learn anything about the instrument or how it worked before listing it.

On the other side of the spectrum, are the savvy sellers who have a sax that they describe as being a desirable instrument, excellent in condition and playability, and at the same time, provide images that are either non-descript, too small to verify what we are told or dark, blurry, images that only serve to raise questions, which are often answered with as little detail or not at all. A Conn 10M Tenor had a raving description of the history and reputation of the horn, with references to the tone and famous players who use one, but had no details about the actual condition of the horn. When pressed with several questions, the seller admitted that “the sax may have been re-lacquered, might have a bell from a different horn, and would probably need some adjustment or work after shipping”. In fact the Conn 10m tenor with a early 50’s serial number, had a bell from a 60’s sax with engraving barely visible, due to some very aggressive refinishing technique, obvious even in the poor quality images. The seller further commented, in a private message, “the only difference rolled tone holes make, is to drive up the price”.

Although Ebay’s feedback is supposed to provide the potential buyer with an idea of the seller’s character, how many bidders actually look at the feedback and see what the seller has offered previously? One seller, offering an alto sax had a very good feedback rating that was almost entirely gained by auctioning baby clothes and Chick-Filet discount coupons. (Who knew coupons were even worth the listing fees? And, who the hell goes on Ebay looking for food coupons? And who eats that crap anyway?)

The point here is that if you must use Ebay to find your next saxophone, at least try and get it from someone who: 1. Knows enough about saxes to provide an accurate description. 2. Provides many large and detailed images. 3. Will allow you to return it, if you are not pleased with either the way it plays or sounds. Among the hundreds of sax offerings on Ebay, very few with meet these three conditions. Even if the seller provides an audio or video recording of the sax in action, that doesn’t mean the horn will work for you. Remember, we all play and sound unique. If we were lucky enough to be able to try John Coltrane’s Selmer or Dexter Gordon’s Conn, we would not sound like them. Even if we had their exact mouthpiece, we still would not have their sound. Each player’s sound comes from how that person approaches the sax, and what works for one, will either produce different results or not work at all for the next player. So, why are people buying all those saxes on Ebay? And how do we, as potential buyers, know if a sax is worth the Buy It Now price, the winning bid price or even what previous instruments have sold for? Sounds like were going to need a part 2 on this topic.