Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Saxophone Review: Conn 6M Alto Saxophone

The very first saxophone I ever played on was the Conn 6M that my father handed down to me, just like the one pictured here.  It was the saxophone I learned on, and is the saxophone I continue making music with.  I know I'm biased and sentimental about it, but I think it's one of the greatest saxes on the planet.  However the reasons for that go beyond sentimentality.  It was and is one of the greatest saxophones ever made, along with its big brothers the 10M tenor and 12M baritone. Among the greats that used these instruments were Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Harry Carney and Gerry Mulligan.  The photo of Benny Carter on my tribute blog shows him with a Conn 26M.  When I first met Benny, I showed him my Conn, and he said, "oh yeah, that is a great horn".  When I studied with Lee Konitz, though his primary horn was a Selmer Balanced Action, he also had a 6M which he used on a couple of his recordings. 

C.G. Conn was once one of the largest and most respected manufacturers of brass and woodwind instruments in the world, with its headquarters and factory in Elkhart Indiana.  Their vintage brass and wind instruments are still valued among players and collectors today.  The first saxophone ever built in America was built by Gus Buescher in 1888, when he was a foreman for Conn.  He would later leave Conn and start the Buescher instrument company also headquartered in Elkhart, and  build a line of great saxophones of his own.  Johnny Hodges played Bueschers, most notably the Aristocrat and later the 400, as did Sonny Rollins early on.  The Conn company also at one time employed Henry Martin who later started the Martin Instrument company, builder of many fine saxophones and trumpets.  Miles Davis played Martin trumpets, and Art Pepper played a Martin alto sax.  The companies these men started made Elkhart the brass and woodwind capital of the US.

Conn introduced many innovations in manufacturing brass and woodwind instruments, and until the second world war changed the scope of American musical instrument manufacture, and everything else, Conn was always at the leading edge of its development.  As the first manufacturer of quality brass and woodwinds in America, they would also be its first casualty when manufacturing quality instruments in the US changed from domestic to foreign.  Today, Conn is under the corporate umbrella of Conn-Selmer, which is under the corporate umbrella of Steinway & Sons, the makers of the most famous pianos in the world.  Today however, and since the 1960's, Conn saxophones have been relegated to a second class position as a maker of student saxophones.  I can't help thinking that Selmer had so much to do with this.  After all, for many years, Conn was the thorn in its side for supremacy in the saxophone world.

In the 1920's, Conn issued a series of saxophones called the New Wonder, which featured finishes in gold, silver and also featured elaborate and beautiful engravings.  Their Virtuoso Deluxe series was engraved on every inch of the horn and had genuine pearl on every single key touch.   On top of the physical beauty of these horns, they also had the most gorgeous tone of almost any saxophone I've ever heard.  The New Wonder was soon unofficially labeled the "Chu Berry", after Leon "Chu" Berry, a tenor saxophonist who played with Fletcher Henderson and later with Benny Carter and used this model. He was known for a big sound, and the Chu Berry models are famous for having an immense sound.  Chu Berry was never an official designation, but it has stuck to this day, referring to the Conn New Wonder models produced between 1925 to 1930, though he eventually played the Transitional model up until his death.  The horn also introduced a unique feature that was not found on any other horn, though for what would turn out to be a good reason.  It featured a microtuner on the neck, a mechanism that in theory allowed the player to adjust the mouthpiece to the correct pitch without having to adjust the mouthpiece itself. It worked to a degree, but after some use would loosen up and become rather useless.  The microtuner was eventually discontinued around 1953.

After 1930, Conn began a transition from the Chu Berry to the M series.  Conn saxophones also featured rolled tone holes, which meant that the lip of the tone hole was rolled into a rounded edge, which in my experience meant a tighter seal and less wear on the pads than conventional flat tone holes.  This also meant more time between pad replacement, which is expensive. 

What made the M series different from the New Wonder models was first, the bell keys (low B to Bb) were both on one side of the bell, where previously they were split, meaning B was on one side and Bb was on the other.  As the horn made its transformation formally to the M series, the left pinky spatula was enlarged and the octave key was changed to an underslung key rather than on top.  This meant that one could remove the neck without damaging the key, but it also made the mechanism simpler and less prone to wear.  Finally, the engraving showed a woman nude from the breasts up.  On some custom models, it was a full nude.  These became known as the "Naked Lady" models, and are the most sought after of all Conn saxophones, along with the Chu Berry models.  Conn also made the 26M alto and 30M tenors, which were 6M and 10M saxophones with refined mechanisms and more elaborate engravings, which featured the innovative permajust system, which helped keep the saxophone keys in better adjustment.  In fact, it can be safely said that it was these innovations that eventually pushed Selmer into redesigning their saxophones and then defining the design of saxophones forever.

At the time the M series was finalized, it featured innovative keywork for its time.  Many players today would find the ergonomics of the horn uncomfortable, but most of these players have only played on Selmers or other modern horns, all built on the Selmer platform.  As for me, I find the ergonomics of the horn very comfortable.  To be sure, the simpler keywork means sometimes pressing harder on some keys because rather than a pivoting motion, it squeezes down directly using a heavy spring, most notably on the spatula keys.  Also, the spatula keys on an M series horn are positioned far left, whereas a Selmer, or even a Conn 26M or 30M have these keys postioned further right for a more natural hand position.  However to me, the configuration of the spatula keys of a Conn make it much easier to play chromatics.  The Bb wraps around the C# and low B keys, so I can make a straight line across the keys when playing chromatics.  On a Selmer or other modern horns, I always have to move down for the low Bb.  Not really a big deal, but I'm only showing that even Selmer made compromises in its design.  It is not perfect.  What is?

However, I want to get to the meat of the subject of any horn, and that is the SOUND!!!  To me, I personally do not care about whether or not the ergonomics of a saxophone is better than another, or its value as a collector's item is more than another, I care about the SOUND!!  I am a player, not a collector.  I don't give a damn about ergonomics, serial numbers, mouthpieces, or other bullshit that so many people get caught up in.  In the end, it's all about the SOUND!!!  If you have chosen your horn for any other reason than this, then maybe you should reevaluate why you are playing.  The lessons I learned from my father and my teachers was that it's always about the SOUND!!!  I can't emphasize this enough.

The sound is where the Conn  really stands above all the rest.  The sound is big.  This despite the fact that the circumference of the bell is smaller than the bells of modern horns. The sound is rich and deep.  The sound is soulful.  Furthermore, the sound has breadth and depth that few horns I've played can equal.  In fact, until recently, I haven't played any sax that even comes close.  Not even the vaunted Mark VI.  However, lately, there are a couple of new sax manufacturers that have taken a hint from these great old horns and constructed some new horns based on these.  I will write reviews of these later.  However, the Conn 6M, and its big brothers will always hold their own against any of the horns that have come along since.  The Conn has the kind of tone that can span many styles and generations.  It is a horn that can play whatever I want, from swing to bebop, to funk to soul, and so much more.  If I was given the choice of only owning one saxophone, this would be it.

So there it is.  If I was asked what the best saxophone ever made was, my answer would be the Conn M series.  For all those who would say the Mark VI, you're entitled to your opinion, and you wouldn't be wrong, it is certainly the sax that set the standard for saxophones since.  For me, the Conn is still worth looking into when you are checking out vintage horns.   I know a few players who will play nothing else. In fact, I have a friend who swore by his Yanigasawa until he managed to get hold of a 6M.  He told me that while it took him a little while to get used to the mechanism, his sound became stronger yet smoother and "sexier".  He said that a woman he had been interested in for some time finally came up to him and commented that his sound was different and she liked it.  Looks like the "lady" brought him some luck,

In the end, it's still all about the SOUND!!!


  1. You have a VERY special 6M. It must sound great! If you've played any non-RTH 6Ms, like my '49 naked lady, how does their sound stack up with your 6M and others whose sound you like, e.g., Buffet 400? When you've played any classical on any 6Ms (which ones, please) did it seem well suited or would you suggest trying a Buffet DA, SDA or something else? Price is an important consideration, or a Buffet 400 would be included per your review.

  2. I've played a few non-RTH 6M's and 10M's, and I still liked the sound. However, I must say that the 6M my father gave me was special. Nevertheless, I find the Conn M series still strong through the mid fifties. After that I'm not sure.

    However, I find the Conn 6M's along with the 26M's very consistent as far as sound goes. They all have a deep center, and you can spread out with them. They all seem to play classical pretty well with the right mouthpiece, but I definitely think that the silver-plated gold bell ones are better suited for that. When it comes to classical music, I still think the New Wonder or Virtuoso Deluxe models are better for that. The M series was made for jazz and blues. Buffet DA and SSDA are excellent horns for classical and jazz. Like the 400, they handle both styles well. Buffet is underrated and under appreciated.

    The Buffet 400 was a surprise to me. I intend to get hold of one of them. On August 23rd, the Buffet Showroom in NYC is having a Saxophone Day, and I will be trying all of their horns and deciding whether I will take either the matte finish or gold lacquer one. I feel that with the right set up and with more playing time invested in it, it will become a horn to be reckoned with. My Conn is still king, but the 400 I played for my review was a truly outstanding horn. I still want it for my second horn. This way I have one modern, one vintage.

    The Selmers have always been a big disappointment to me. Lots of hype and lots of avid supporters, and yet I never found them to be special. Good yes, of course. I just never found one that played like my 6M, and that Buffet 400 was as good as any of them. I think they are very good saxes, just overrated. For the prices they command, I want to hear totally amazing out of this world. Just my opinion. In the end, it all comes from the player anyway.

    Thanks for your response, and if you have any other comments, suggestions, opinions, questions, you're welcome. Thank you!

  3. I was recently given a Conn new wonder alto . It needs to be repadded . I plan to use it as my second horn ( my main horn is a yamaha custom Z ).Should I replace those pads with Conn pads or something else ?

  4. The Conn resopads have been the standard pads used on them. I will tell you this. When you have that horn repadded, I guarantee that when you blow into it, you will be tempted to make it your main horn, only wishing that it had Yamaha's keywork, which has always been among the best.

  5. hey - thanks for this post! i`m currently on the market for a new alto - i have a 20M alto. pushing down harder on the keys for me often means that the keys feel slower... maybe i am just dainty!

  6. The main complaint about vintage American saxophones like the Conn is about the mechanics. In general, older mechanics are simpler and not as refined as modern horns. However, if you can find a good tech who has a love and respect for old vintage horns, he/she can make the action much easier. It's not true that you can't play fast on old horns. Listen to Charlie Parker. The most modern horn he played was a King Super 20, but most of his best recordings were done on beat up old horns.

  7. I purchased a Conn 6M from www.Music-Oldtimer.com awhile back, and it was the best alto I've ever played on, and I've played lot's of altos. I really like the key action and the tone is deep and warm. No modern horn sounds like this 6M and I have never played on a alto that sounded that way before with a sound that big. Never trouble with mechanics on my Lady.

  8. I recently played a 6M and was floored by the speed of the action. I have a Buffet S1 alto that has been everything I needed for the past 25 years but the speed of the keywork on that 6m left me dreaming of that kind of action. I am in the process of acquiring/arranging a playtest of a 26M , can I expect that the keywork will also have the same lightning fast action as the 6m I played ( assuming it is set up well)?

    How do you think the Buffet 400 compares with the old Buffet S1 ? ( maybe ill ask this in the buffet 400 review questions section.).

    Thanks for the great read.

  9. I can tell you that if you were are player that was accustomed to modern saxophones but wanted a vintage horn for whatever reason, the 26M would be excellent. It is essentially a 6M but with more elaborate engraving and improved ergonomics, meaning that the left hand pinky cluster was moved forward allowing for a more natural position for the left hand. This design preceded the introduction of the Selmer Balanced Action by a year. I personally prefer this key arrangement to that of the more modern horns all based on the Selmer design. For starters, G# is a longer lever, which corresponds to the length of the pinky, and Bb wraps around to B so you can play chromatics in straight line from C# to Bb without having to shift the pinky down. The 26M and 30M tenor also feature the permadjust action, unique to these Conns, which used screw adjusters instead of felt and cork adjusters which eventually would wear down or fall off. This kept keys adjusted and regulated for longer periods of time. Then there is the sound. I have played literally hundreds of horns, and nothing sounds like these old Conns at full blast.

    As for a comparison of the S1 to the 400, they are different horns for sure. The S1, and its successors are refined horns, very well made and with keywork that was ahead of the pack. However, Buffet did not make the 400 to be a more economic S series, but a modern horn that would be a work horse at an affordable price, because new French made Buffets are not cheap, though the older models are rather under appreciated, which makes them a good choice when looking for a great vintage horn at an economical price.

  10. Hi, this is Rocky Gordon from the Facebook group, Saxophonists. I have a Conn 6M VIII, and it's the best alto saxophone ever played by me. The intonation is phenomenal, and beats a Mark VI. The sound is bigger, and beats a Mark VI. The Selmer Mark VI is a great horn, and the die hards refuse to give it up to the Conn. But after purchasing a 6M on eBay, then having it completely overhauled, then hearing other 6Ms owned by other cats, there is NO OTHER horn that can do what this horn can do. One other thing. The VIII neck is referenced to the guy at table 8 who took great pride in his necks. They are reputed to be the best.

  11. Thanks for your comments Rocky. I have to agree about the 6M. Nothing beats it. I have tried a few modern horns lately that can come pretty close, but the 6M is still something very special. It just seems to have that perfect balance of sound and mechanics, along with quality of construction that makes this horn legendary.

  12. As a 6M owner, I fully agree.

    I acquired one last year, and spent a month overhauling it.
    It came out with a fantastic sound, so rich and soulful.
    This is a horn that can really cry, but it also like a wild horse, that takes its master to control. It can be a little mischievous, jumping octaves sometimes. It sort of has a real personality. But a big sound over the whole register.

    I bought a Martin Handcraft at the same time, because it was cheap and recently overhauled. About 10 years older than the Conn, but in a very good shape. It also has a beautiful tone, more soft, but not the 'bite' of the 6M.


  13. Enjoyed your writeup. Being the non-playing father of a sax player, I decided to look for a horn to take apart and learn how they actually function to assist in assessing potential repairs. I came across an interesting find and took on a restoration project. I invite you to view my restoration project photo gallery. Any comments to help me fill in the holes regarding the likely history of this horn would be appreciated.


  14. I found my 6M in my grandparents' attic about 1967. It is really a nice sounding horn. Its lowest notes are a little sharp, and mid range throat tones of B, C,C# are noticeably
    flat. I hear that can be better, but am trying to find out how to change that. Any suggestions and if it is simply to just "find a tech", I am near Baltimore, and wouldn't know who really knows what they are doing on these. Any good suggestions on how to help my intonation?
    (Using a Meyer 5 medium mouthpiece.) Jim

  15. I have the absolute pleasure of owing a 6m V111 lady face conn
    it has been in use since 1938 .It has soul that other saxes don't .I also own a USA Selmer 162 great for lead in Big Band Playing but lacks Soul.I am a pro muso from Australia