Friday, December 17, 2010

Throwdown: Yamaha's Custom EX Tenor Saxophone vs. Selmer's Reference 36 Tenor Saxophone

Last week I wrote that Yamaha's Custom Z tenor sax was similar to the Selmer Mark VI at least in the focused, warm yet punchy sound it produces. If the Custom Z reminds me of the Mark VI, Yamaha's Custom EX reminds of Selmer's Super Balanced Action even more so.

Yamaha Custom EX Tenor
I've also recently play tested a Selmer Reference 36 Tenor, which is Selmer's modern horn "built in the spirit" of their original 1936 Balanced Action (similar to the SBA in feel and tone), so I thought it would be remiss if I didn't comppare the Custom EX and the Reference 36 for all of you looking to get a saxophone similar to the SBA without paying anywhere from $6,000 (Ebay) to $14,000 (Roberto's in NYC).

For those of you who are feeling out of the loop Selmer's SBA (Super Balanced Action) is their model that came after the 1936 Balanced Action and before the 1954 Mark VI.  Both the Mark VI and SBA are two of the most coveted saxophone models of all time. For those of you who are in the loop, here is a lesser know fact for you. The SBAs were actually labeled Super Action and not Super Balanced Action by Selmer.  Despite the 'Balanced' of the previous model being formally changed to 'Super' as the new line launched, Super Balanced Action is the name most of the sax community uses today.

Before I get started I should mention that I originally played the Custom EX with its Custom G3 neck, which was good, but the EX played even better with the Custom G1 neck I borrowed from the nearby Custom Z.  I believe you can get the best results out of the EX with the Custom G1 neck, and I'll go into the details on the necks later.


The Custom EX's tone is similar to an SBA.  The tone is big and a little spread.  There are plenty of deep overtones present in the tone also similar to the SBA.  I believe the SBA has a little more core or meat to the tone than the EX, but there is a marked similarity between the two.

The Reference 36 tone reminds me more of a Mark VI than an SBA or the earlier Balanced Action.  It has a big focused tone and sounds less spread than an SBA.  The Reference 36 tone has plenty of core or meat to it.  Its tone reminds me a lot of Yamaha's Custom Z which I reviewed last week.

Response and Feel

Selmer Reference 36 Tenor
The Custom EX really shines in the feel of blowing through the horn.  It is very free blowing and has very little back pressure.  Its not quite as free blowing as my SBA but it comes closer than most modern horns I've played. This means the Custom EX requires more air support and focus, much like a vintage horn, to maintain a supported tone as you move from note to note.  A horn with more back pressure or resistance requires less air support and focus for quick response from note to note, one of the advantages and what some consider to be a crutch of most modern horns.  That crutch can also be a disadvantage because it often results in a less malleable tone.  The free blowing feel of the Custom EX does require the added air support and focus, but it also adds a greater flexibility and range of color to the tone.

A quick note on the Yamaha necks - The main reason I prefered the Custom G1 neck over the Custom G3 neck is because it provided a nice balance between a free blowing feel and quick response while moving up and down the horn.  The G3 neck didn't respond quite as quickly.  The
G1 neck also provided a little more core to the sound.

Selmer's Reference 36 seems to take the more modern approach.  It feels less free blowing than an SBA, your average Mark VI and the Custom EX.  This results in a quick and easy response while moving from note to note, again similar to the Custom Z I reviewed last week. Though it comes closer than many modern horns it doesn't really recreate the feel of blowing through a vintage horn like a Mark VI, SBA or Balanced Action.

Conclusion:  In my opinion, Yamaha's Custom EX comes closer than Selmer's Reference 36 to feeling and sounding like the SBA or Balanced Action tenors of yesteryear. Saxes vary even within models, so take this conclusion with a grain of salt and try them for yourself!


  1. How did you feel about the weight and ergonomics of each horns compared to your SBA? I was shocked by how every key seemed to fall under my fingers naturally and how light weight the SBA I tried was.

  2. I don't know if I mentioned, it but they feel like any yamaha, which is pretty similar to any modern horn. Basically, bigger and heavier than an SBA or even Mark VI

  3. Thanks for the reply! Feel is important IMO. Response and tone are fine but you don't want the horn to get in the way...