One unique feature of the Yamaha company is that they make a whole variety of different levels of instruments. While many companies only make a student and a pro model, Yamaha offers a whole plethora of options at every price point to help musicians find the best instrument for their budget. While this may seem confusing to the average saxophonist looking for an instrument, they actually use a numbering system which makes ‘deciphering the Yamaha code’ quite simple. So let me explain the numbering system.
Yamaha instruments have a model number which consists of letters followed by numbers. For example, the famous “Yamaha 62” has the model number YTS-62 for tenor sax. The letters designate the instrument: YTS is short for Yamaha Tenor Saxophone. So if the model is YAS-62 we know we have a Yamaha Alto Sax. This lettering system goes for all instruments. So YCL is Yamaha Clarinet, YFL is Yamaha Flute, YTR is Yamaha Trumpet, etc. The digits designate the model series for that instrument. So YTS-62 is “62” model for tenor sax. HERE’S THE IMPORTANT PART: The key to the digits is the first digit; so there may be two digits (YTS-62) or three digits (YTS-875) or even four digits (YTR-2320). The amount of digits is not important, but the first digit designates the level of the instrument. Remember this and you will quickly understand what level of instrument you are looking at. Here is a simplified breakdown, based on my understanding:
SERIES IS REPRESENTED BY FIRST DIGIT:
SERIES 1: Absolute lowest level most price conscious model available, usually with corners being cut on finish (lacquer) pearls (none), etc. Often only available from dealers who have repair departments (you can guess why). Relatively rare
SERIES 2: Basic entry level student model instrument: 23, 26, 200AD, etc.
SERIES 3: Step-up student model. Basically a glorified student model, with a few extras like lacquered keys, etc.
SERIES 4: Intermediate level instrument, 475, 480, etc.
SERIES 5: Intermediate level instrument, 52, 580AL, etc.
SERIES 6: Original professional level designation (61, 62); now used to designate an ‘entry level professional model’ such as the current production of the 62 or the 650 clarinet. Current 6 series instruments are designed to play like pro instruments but with some budget minded decisions in production (plastic pearls, etc.)
SERIES 7: A 6 Series professional model with some improvements. I haven’t seen any 7 series saxes but they make them in other instruments such as flutes. In trumpets a 7 Series is really a 6 Series but in silver.
SERIES 8: Designates the top end “Custom” models, such as the Custom Z (82) and Custom EX (875). Or the Xeno trumpets (8335, etc.) These instruments are constructed to be the most high-end possible with no budget-minded corner cutting. (Note that Yamaha abandons this numbering system for their Custom clarinets. But for comparison across instruments types you can consider Custom clarinets as 8 or 9 series level instruments.)
SERIES 9: Again I haven’t seen 9 series in saxes but these would be higher-end Custom instruments, with more specialized features. You can find them in flutes and trumpets, etc.
So once we know the series of instrument the rest of the digits designate which exact model within that level of instrument we have. Sometimes the number will indicate the age of the model (older student altos were YAS-21 or YAS-23, newer ones will show YAS-26, for example). Sometimes the number will indicate that it is a model intended for an international market (i.e., outside the U.S.), and sometimes it will indicate specific features (in flutes for example they can indicate silver over silver plate, inline or offset G, B foot, split-E, etc.). But again, regardless of the number of digits and what exact digits we find, the first digit will indicate the basic level of the instrument.
STUDENT MODELS: First digit is 1,2 or 3
INTERMEDIATE MODELS: First digit is 4 or 5
ENTRY LEVEL PROFESSIONAL MODELS: First digit is 6 or 7
CUSTOM LEVEL PROFESSIONAL MODELS: First digit is 8 or 9
FINAL WORD: Yamaha is a Japanese company so originally all instruments were made in Japan. As they have grown over the years they have expanded factories to other places such as China and Indonesia. Instruments not made in Japan should indicate where they were made. It is my contention that Japanese factory instruments are best, but it can be assumed that the non-Japanese factory instruments should see improvement over time. Their Custom level instruments are all built in Japan (as far as I know). Some of the older student level instruments built in Japan should be considered superior to newer student level instruments built elsewhere (assuming they are still in good condition—not a given due to the age of some of these instruments). Also note that the very early 21 series saxes don't hold up well and should be avoided. By the time they began producing the 23 the design was far superior and you can find some real nice playing student horns from this period if they have been maintained well. Also note that Yamaha made some stencil saxes for Vito during this period so you can find some Vito altos and tenors that are really 23's. They won't say Yamaha anywhere on the instrument but they will say Japan on them. They will look identical to the 23's except for the Vito engraving, a V-shaped cutout on the bell brace, and more yellow in the lacquer.
Hope this helps! Please note that this is my understanding of Yamaha instruments based on my experience as a repair technician. I didn’t actually do any extensive research on the subject before writing this blog entry. Hopefully in time I will research the subject further and expand this into a full-blown article to be posted in my articles section at a later date. But for now it should get you on your way to understanding Yamaha a little better.
In my next post I will share my thoughts on Yamaha’s professional-level saxophones.