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Yamaha Sax :: Sax Reviews :: Yamaha Custom Z un-Lacquered Review

Yamaha Custom Z - UnLacquered

Yamaha Custom Z Alto Saxophone Review

by SAXBOY Greg Vail

I have been playing a Yamaha Custom 875 Black Lacquer since they came out. My Alto was purchased right off the Yamaha World Tour when Yamaha took all the latest models of Saxophones and options around the world to show off their wares. I fell in love and left that day with my 875 Alto and a Silver M1 Neck for my new Sax.

Recently I had the misfortune of an accident and repair that took a long time to get complete. I acquired an un-lacquered Z Alto and got to play it for about 3 months.

Unlacquered Z Test

The un-Lacquered Z is a very easy blowing horn. I found the response to be immediate and the resistance to be too light for me with the supplied G1 Neck. I tried my M1 Silver Neck on the Z and found that the pair worked well for me.

The Z feels 'easy'; easy to blow and easy to play. The low register is extremely easy to play at low volume and sub tones. The bowl seems to be a bit smaller than my 875 and the lower notes are easier than I have ever seen on any other saxophone.

My primary mouthpieces are a Guardala Gold Plated Traditional Bebop and an old NY Meyer 6M, both very sought after mouthpieces. The Guardala was a bit thinner sounding but kinder to the altissimo register. I also use plastic cover Rico reeds which do add some brightness, but help with the altissimo range.

The Meyer seemed to be better suited for this saxophone. The Meyer still had plenty of presence but was not too bright. The lows were solid, the altissimo notes seem limited (I only took it to high D and had times that the altissimo was a bit squirrelly at times) and the overall tone was more centered and compact, while maintaining it's overall volume. I liked this combination best. I think the Guardala over powered the Z, but it was louder and the Altissimo screamed.

The other thing I tried was using a Java Jazz 3 cane reed. This took the sound much more dark and reedy sounding. It sounded like the old school alto sound I love listening to, and I did use this combination on a few "Jazz Gigs" and had a great time with it.

It was 3 months later, and I finally got my 875 back. When I first played the 875, it felt way too resistant and the low register felt like it was still out of adjustment it was so hard to play. I took both saxes with me for an adjustment and that was when I learned about the resistance differences and the bowl diameter was pointed out to me. The repairman suggested I needed to play the 875 for a week and just get used to it again.

I did not touch the Custom Z for 2 weeks and found the 875 come back into play for me again. I then compared the 2 and realized that the easier blowing Z had just made me lazy because I barely needed to support to get a great sound. I ended up staying with the 875 and letting the Z go. My 875 has a darker sound, more resistance and sounded better to me.

This is a good time to remind you about the basic disclaimer here at Sax Reviews. I have certain things I like after years of playing hundreds of different saxophones. For instance, I like a thicker sound that is often associated with resistance and a fat core sound. I like being able to blow really hard and have the sax stay in control. I like playing really high and search for good overtones with a solid center to these overtones so I can play an assortment of altissimo fingerings and still have the notes sound.

For me, the un-Lacquered Z was too easy (not enough resistence) and bright. For someone with a really dark sound looking to develop a more modern sound, the un-Lacquered Z would be great! The key work and ergonomics on these Custom Yamaha's are amazing. They feel great! They respond great too. They have a great overtone series and full overtone spread in the sound. If you have problems blowing or supporting an alto, this one would be great for you. You would get more out of the bell with less effort overall.

Just a couple of other notes regarding the finish. This sax looked very used at the end of the 3 months I played it. If you like a pretty sax, stay away from the un-Lacquered Z. Lacquer is placed over the brass to protect it from tarnish and wear. The lacquer will also stiffen the vibration of the brass a bit because it is a layer over the stuff that is supposed to be vibrating to get the sound. Some people prefer the sound of lacquered saxes, it is a choice we now have. In the old days, precious metals were used to protect the brass. It is important to remember that Lacquer is for protection first, not tone. For this very reason, Yamaha has explored bare brass instruments, starting with brass (French Horns and Trumpets) and now Saxophones. If you don't care how it looks in a year or so and are looking for a great big sound, then give the Yamaha unlacquered Z a try.

Pitch issues?

I see forum posts and articles claiming the Yamaha Z is very out of tune. Often times the necks are brought into question because most the sax world knows Yamaha had a bad batch of necks released with the very first Custom Tenor Saxes released in the Z line. These G1 necks were made too short and played very sharp in the upper register. Although I never got to play a defective neck, I was told the pitch went at least 50 cents off by the top palm keys. The pitch was very wrong!

Officially, Yamaha stated that the defective necks were on Tenor Z Saxophones released and shipped at the time of the first shipment of Z Tenors. Yamaha immediately replaced any neck that was in question and this problem is now yesterdays news.

The Pitch Issues I see now have to do with 2 things - Mouthpiece combination with the sax, and basic technique.

The Mouthpiece issue

I did not try this sax out with a wide variety of mouthpieces, but I have heard that long shank mouthpieces can have pitch issues. My Meyer is a short shank MP and plays dead on. The Guardala was really solid too, so I don't have any direct experience with that problem. I have read that the neck and mouthpiece combination seemed be troublesome to few people. I have heard of Sax Players changing Mouthpieces or Necks to resolve the conflict between the two with good results. Again - this is only hearsay because I have not had this problem nor have any first hand experience dealing with someone that did.

What I know is, the un-Lacquered Z I played for 3 months was a Yamaha reject, returned to Yamaha because it was "totally out of tune, playing 30 cents flat" no matter what this sax player dude tried. I popped a mouthpiece on it and it played perfectly in tune. Not knowing what MPC and reeds this sax player was using, I would guess he had a bad match for this sax or really needed to learn how to play the saxophone correctly.

What's the conclusion of all of this?

The Yamaha Custom Z Alto is a great little alto for the right person. It was not for me but I really enjoyed having one to play for a few months. Nice job Yamaha, again.

What about other finishes? The Sliver Yamaha Custom Z I had for a month was really amazing! See my Yamaha Custom Z Silver Plate Review here.


Sax Test Date May, June and July 2006.


I wanted to post a video from a DVD Live Gospel Concert I received recently. The clip shows the un-Lacquered Custom Z Alto Saxophone in a live setting, AT clip on mic, thru my little effects rack and ending on the DVD. This is a really good chance to hear this Alto Z where I am not using some real expensive mic, or shaping or altering the tone at all for presentations sake. This is a clip on; not considered the best way to record sax audio. I love my Audio Technica clip and think it has the best sound of the clip ons out there, but it is still a clip!

This is also live. Obviously live implies unedidted in any way. No pitch correction, multipal takes to fix a bad phrase, edits to fix a bad note or remove an undesirable something. It's the real deal; 100% and the clip says it all.

This little Z Alto was a great sax! It played with great response thru the registers, centered intonation and great sound. But, since the clip is the point, I'll shut up and you listen to it yourself.

Yamaha Custom Z Alto Video

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