November 9, 2004
Most overrated musical instrument: without a question, for me it has to be the saxophone.
First off is how corny the thing's origins are. While Adolphe Sax's motivations aren't clear...maybe he was worried about some weird clarinet "overblowing octaves" things, maybe he was just looking to let woodwind players make as much damn noise as the brass...the indisputable fact is he named the stupid things after himself. If I were to make a whole new instrument I hope I could come with a better name than "Kirkaphone". It's just self-aggrandizing egotism, is what it is. (And of course, the instrument always gets abbreviated to "playing sax". That's like saying you're "playing Jones" or what not.) And the guy's almost supernatural ability to tick off other instrument manufacturers made the instrument a pariah for years, and that's why it's not a part of classical music from the 1800s. Or maybe those composers just knew something that later music guys forgot.
Second off is just the playing of the Sax, especially for beginner players. I hate instruments with reeds, they're always cracking and the players are always running out, or having to work to keep 'em damp. Any instrument where you're supposed to keep part of it moist doesn't seem like a good instrument to me. Plus...well, I was a brass player, and I'm kind of grateful that the mouthpieces for those instruments are concave. Freudian symbolism aside, it's kind of nice to not be required to place part of the instrument IN your actual body. And speaking of beginning players...man, no instrument sounds as bad in the hands of a novice as a sax can. That squeaking and squawking was the bane of my middle school Wind Ensemble years.
Then there's the music that is made with saxes. They say that the saxophone is one of the most expressive instruments, capable of providing a huge variety of moods and sounds and that's why the jazz guys dug it so much, why it's almost like the human voice almost and blah blah blah, but really, there's only two types that you run into: the brash, honking stuff, and the smooth, corners-free "Kenny G" crap. I guess the honking stuff is ok, I'm as amused by a good round of Yakety Sax as the next guy, but that Smooth Jazz crap is really the stuff that aesthetic crimes against humanity are made of.
And, finally, while on the topic of aesthetic crimes...why the hell is Saxophone the only instrument culturally linked to coolness that's not an electric guitar? They're right up there with "throw on a pair of sunglasses" in terms of hackneyed visual signifiers of "cool". Sometimes I can't believe that my political allegiance to Clinton survived him playing saxophone with sunglasses on on national television--for a guy so in touch with the Black community that he put his office in Harlem, he is as corny as all get out. Plus, the way saxophone players feel compelled to duck and bob around during any solos they might have, flapping their elbows like they're doing the funky chicken...man, it's a nightmare. How they still manage to culturally read as "hip" is beyond me. Not to mention that retarded pun "Sax Appeal" that always seems to rear its ugly head.
Now, fair disclosure: my opinion might be biased by the bitterness of years of playing tuba. The only thing lower down on the cultural totem pole than the tuba players might be the accordionists. And yet, years after I stopped playing I had to confess that the reputation is not completely undeserved: they aren't a good sounding instrument by themselves. If you can hear a tuba do anything besides providing a general "bass" foundation, you're probably regretting it. Unless it's Dixieland. Dixieland is kind of fun. So maybe I'm jealous of all the attention the saxophones got, but still; Saxophones are completely, completely overrated.