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Saxophones Return visit to Roberto Buttus and Sequoia Saxophones

David Roach

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I’ve been meaning to post about my return to Roberto Buttus’ workshop in Friuli, Italy ever since I visited in November. @aldevis and I travelled together and spent much time playing the new saxes there, comparing necks and mouthpieces – a great trip! Roberto was his usual generous and hospitable self, and it was great to see the people at his workshop again, particularly Cristina the workshop manager and Nino the machinist. The last time I was there was in 2016 when I bought my current saxes and I am pleased to report that the genuine kindness and warmth of the Buttus crew was the same as ever.

My reasons for visiting were of course partly social, but also to check out the new versions of the Sequoia horns. He and his team have been working hard on the new instruments: I demonstrated the new RB1 Alto at Howarth’s last summer along with the original Sequoia Soprano and Tenor, but now the RB2 Alto is also entering production and a prototype RB1 Tenor was there for Aldevis and me to play.

The RB series has some very interesting improvements from the original Sequoia instruments. I consider the earlier instruments to be very finely made conventional saxes; the RBs however are an innovation. Visually, the two changes that really stand out on the RBs are the neck tenon mechanism and the body to bow joint – two historically problematic junctions on the saxophone. I wish I had taken pictures of them which might have been easier to understand!

The conventional neck tenon mechanism works by laterally compressing what is hopefully a well machined tenon into the receiver by tightening a screw. Roberto’s new mechanism works by means of a threaded circular ferrule around the tenon that compresses the neck onto the body vertically by means of a complimentary thread on the receiver. It took me a little while to get used to locking the ferrule down correctly, but once understood, the mechanism and the thought behind it seemed patently excellent. The bow joint works similarly, and rather than the usual collar with lateral tightening screws, two rings tightened by vertical screws achieve a compression of the body to the bow. Both these innovative mechanisms are extremely light-weight and I hardly noticed any difference in weight between my original Alto and the RBs, or between the original Tenor and the prototype RB tenor.

The difference between the RB1 and RB2 Altos is one of bore dimensions. Simply put, the RB1 (which I prefer) is loosely similar in intonation curve to the Selmer Series 2 Alto, and the RB2 is closer to the Series 3. (I must come clean and say that despite quite liking the Selmer Series 3 Soprano and Tenor, I have always hated the Series 3 Alto and do not understand it’s tuning curve at all, although some excellent classical players sound good on it).

Subjectively, the experience of playing the new RB instruments is one of greatly increased clarity and evenness: of a strong unified voice throughout, without ever becoming over-focused (which would be my criticism of some modern instruments). I like to approach playing wind instruments in a way that is open, connected, and involves as little messing around as possible – the feeling that the air leaves the body unhindered and that the embouchure is merely a visible extension of the diaphragm, surrounding the mouthpiece and reed optimally and allowing the breath to do its best job. Of course this takes time to achieve to any level, but the RB1 instruments get me closer to this ideal than I have before experienced.

Objectively – i.e. at a physical distance - when listening to Aldevis play both the RB tenor and the original Sequoia, there is an evenness to the instrument is that is very apparent and a luminosity to the sound of the RB which is unique and the result of superb attention to detail.

There are also many changes to the materials and methods of construction Roberto uses that I didn’t really take on board so I cannot comment on them - I’m more inclined to comment on the playability of an instrument.

I helped to demonstrate Roberto’s instruments at Howarth last summer, and I am pleased to report that the ‘RB1’ Alto is now stocked at Howarth along with the standard Soprano and Tenor. I encourage anyone to go along and try these saxes, they are excellent and priced very favourably – in fact I believe they are under-priced for what they are and are a very good deal indeed.

I hasten to add that I paid for my Sequoia instruments and beyond some excellent food and wine, I paid for my recent trip to Italy myself. Although I endorse Roberto’s instruments wholeheartedly, I play them out of choice and I am writing this without renumeration.
 
I also had a secondary motive for visiting Roberto. I took my Selmer Series 3 tenor to him as I had been frustrated by its intermittent response since I bought it back in 2014. I had taken it to many of my trusted techs in London who achieved good results, but which were always temporary.

After close inspection the following problems were diagnosed:
  • There were many rods - almost all in fact – that were loose in the barrels of the keys which could be rocked laterally (and sometimes vertically) meaning that the pads’ connection to the tone holes was never consistent. Evidently this is a universally common fault with many makes of saxophone. I suppose this could be construed as deliberate on Selmer’s behalf to achieve fast assembly. It follows that a rod that is undersized and loose in the key barrel is easier to manufacture and slot in at speed than one that is perfectly straight and perfectly fitting. Simple but depressing fact.
  • The bell brace did not fit at all well. When the upper of the two screws on the body side was removed the whole brace sprang out of alignment with the receiving socket, meaning that when screwed into place a huge tension was created between the body and the bell. (I had particularly noticed a glitch in the low D and a fuzziness in the middle D beyond what is normal).
Roberto achieved repairs to these issues in record time as I was only there for 3 days. Under usual conditions he would re-pad the entire instrument after making those repairs, but unfortunately there was no time to do so. Despite this, the difference to my tenor is utterly amazing. For the very first time I feel that I understand exactly what Selmer’s designers must have intended. The instrument has become easy to play from top to bottom with increased depth, warmth, evenness and better intonation; moreover, the Selmer has started to present itself in clear comparison to Roberto’s instruments, as an entirely different character which had previously been obscured by poor assembly.

Whilst I am overjoyed to have my tenor playing so very much better, I am at the same time saddened by my perception that Selmer still cut corners as a matter of course: I hear reports of professionals who have bought even the Supreme saxophones who have all the same issues as I did, and it seems to me that still to have to pay c.£9000 for a vaunted saxophone, which then needs probably £1000 of work to fix, is almost immoral. Frankly, despite being a ‘Selmer Artist’ the likelihood that I will buy another Selmer instrument in this life is very slim, but if I did, I would have to build in the cost of travelling to someone like Roberto Buttus, leaving it with him for a couple of weeks, paying for the overhaul and the return travel, etc etc.

Roberto tells me that he gets a bit of push back from some of the major manufacturers and their reps because, simply by putting their instruments into proper working order, he reveals the shortcomings of their production: this is sad but not unexpected. Also that he somewhat resents the time he spends making badly assembled instruments play well, also understandable. It’s not a wonder that players have been turning to Yanagisawa and Yamaha for the last 40 years or so, when purchasing one of those instruments pretty much guarantees one that works as it should.
 
...intonation curve...
That's a really good way to visualise the intonation ups and downs across the instrument; seeing the variation as linked, rather than individual steps

I'm pleased that Roberto and Cristina and Nino are still going strong. They were so helpful and welcoming when I visited and we have exchanged Xmas wishes since

As for the hardware... I tried Aldevis' Sequoia Lemon Tenor a good while ago and its sound and feel in my paws had me planning a trip to Friuli

I'm glad that Roberto's innovative and creative approach is paying dividends. I agree that Sequoia saxes are utterly good value
 
Part of the fun is visiting the workshop.
It is surrounded by wineries!

Also one soprano is never enough (albeit your 62 is just marvellous)

A visit would be wonderful - what about a Cafe Saxophone coach trip ?

I wonder whether they have any intention of making a baritone - I guess that would be a very significant investment with probably a much smaller market. One baritone is never enough either.

Rhys
 
A visit would be wonderful - what about a Cafe Saxophone coach trip ?

I wonder whether they have any intention of making a baritone - I guess that would be a very significant investment with probably a much smaller market. One baritone is never enough either.

Rhys

They have a intermediate baritone that is absolutely great, but there is a waiting list and they don't ship.
They developed an upgrade for existing baritones, but never got into production (something to do with the left pinky)
 

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