School of The Rock


Horns in my Life:

1970s Vito Alto

by Paul D. Race

From the summer of 1978 to the spring of 1979, I worked in a short-lived music store in Huber Heights, Ohio. When I took the job, I had been earning minimum wage in Radio Shack, so I figured that, even though I’d still be, technically, earning minimum wage, at least I could get the music gear I wanted cheap.  Nothing worked out the way I expected, though. For example, I consistently outsold the other two in-store salesmen put together, and I should have been rolling in commissions, but I was still making so little money that I couldn’t even afford wholesale guitar strings.  Not to mention the owner “forgetting” to send our paychecks on time as often as not.  So it wasn’t long before I was back at Radio Shack.  In fact, it wasn’t long after that before the store closed.

While I was at the store, one of our jobs was cleaning up the returned rental band instruments.  I could get notes out of all the wind instruments, and had a good eye for details like fingerprints, scratches, and bent rods so that work usually fell to me, especially the woodwinds.  Selmer Bundy and Gemeinhardt flutes, Selmer Bundy saxes and clarinets, Conn Director saxes and brass, and so on. I got pretty familiar with all the standard lines.  I’d check the horn for obvious damage, play it a bit to make certain there weren’t any problems, wipe it down, make certain the requisite accessories were in the case, vacuum out and deodorize the case and move on to the next one. 

One day a horn I had never seen came across my work table - a Vito alto saxophone.  Testing it out, I was surprised to discover that it had a full, open tone, more like an intermediate horn than the Bundies and Directors I was used to.  And it had the kind of ergonomic key layouts that I had heretofore seen only on Selmer Balanced Action and Mark VI horns.  The octave key mechanism on the neck had a big wide area with the Vito logo on it, not unlike the Selmer Mark VI’s trademark S.  No, the horn didn’t play like a pro horn, but it blew as easily and sounded almost as good as the Buescher-designed Signet Alto I had used my first year of college.  And the keys were easier to play.  To me, this reset the standard for student horns.  (To read an article by another “old-timer describing his first encounter with these, click here.)

Not that it mattered much at the time - the music store was heavily into the standard American brands, Conn and Selmer.  I wasn’t in the market for an alto, anyway, and if I was I couldn’t have afforded it on the music-store wage.  The Vito went out on a rental and I never saw it again. . 

Thirty-odd years later, I decided that I needed an alto I could drag around to jams, freebie gigs, etc., without having to risk damaging an expensive horn. I remembered the old Vito and started reading up on them.  Turns out that Vito was the saxophone line of LeBlanc, who made a very nice clarinet, but didn’t have the resources to make a competitive starter sax.  After a few years of contracting with other manufacturers to produce saxes labeled for Vito, LeBlanc had contacted Yamaha, and the rest is history. 

Yamaha designed their line of starter svito_alto2axes to include as many features from the Balanced Action and Mark VI as they could include without raising the price.  For example, it doesn’t cost an more to tilt the right pinky keys than it does to put them on straight, so they added that.  It does cost more to mount the rod assemblies on separate plates (“ribs”) instead of directly on the horn body (improving structural integrity), so they didn’t do that.  They added any number of other less obvious improvements, though.

The Yamaha YAS-21 reset the standard for student horns literally, and the Vito sax I had seen in the 1970s was made on the same line, using the same parts. 

So while I shopping for a backup alto, the Yamaha-built Vito stayed near the top of my list. Eventually I found a one-owner 1980s Japanese Vito that still had soft leather on most of the pads and no signs of abuse.  It cost me $200, plus $35 to get a couple pads replaced and other minor adjustments.  (Thanks again to Loren at Kinkaids Music in Springfield, Ohio!)

It came with the stock Yamaha mouthpiece, which, by the way is much better than the stock mouthpieces that came with my Selmer Signets.   I replaced that with a Selmer C* mouthpiece that I got on eBay for about $45.  The resulting horn has a bright, open tone, and good intonation throughout.  I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to a kid starting out, but it plays and sounds good enough, that I wouldn’t hesitate to take it to most of the places I play, either.

Like the Yamaha YAS-21, the early Yamaha-manufactured Vitos are most obvious from the wraparound pad guard, which they eventually dropped in favor of a Selmer Mark VII configuration .  I don’t know enough about the non-Yamaha Vitos to comment on them, though I’ve run into people who’ve picked up sixties-era Vitos and been pleased. 

In December, 2013, I gave it the “acid test” - I played it outside for the Salvation Army.  You can see where a $1000-3000 horn would be a bad choice.  I practiced up on my carols.  The one night I was able to do it, the horn projected nicely outside, and I was able to give it the expression I wanted.  For an account of that experience, please check out the Family Christmas Online article Give a Toot: Busking for a Good Cause

I’ve played better midrange horns and top-of-the line horns.  But this suits my needs, and if I get mugged while I’m busking for the Salvation Army, or it gets stolen off its stand at church, I’m not out a fortune.

If you come across a 30-year old Yamaha alto or Yamaha-made Vito for a price you think is fair, and it’s playable or could be made playable with a little work, try it with a professional mouthpiece. I think you’ll be favorably surprised.

Enjoy your music!

Paul Race

Upate for 2015 - The Vito has now gone to a good home. The Salvation Army folks are so busy that they feel like they’re better off not trying to work around my schedule.  That’s fine; I miss it but I certainly understand.  That said, any future Alto work I do will be inside, and my Mark VII will do fine for that.  The Vito went to a family who had several band members and a youngster who wanted to start on sax.  So they pretty much knew what they were looking at, and I’m sure they’ll be happy with it.

Here are write-ups on other horns I’ve loved.

The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.

Other Articles you may find helpful include:

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