Monday, January 17, 2011

Great Vintage Saxophones Part Two

In part two, I'll discuss saxophones made by other prominent American brands, as well as Selmer, and a couple you may or may not know about.


The very first saxophone made in the United States was built by Gus Buescher (properly pronounced Bisher) in 1888 when he was a foreman for Conn.  In 1894 Gus Buescher left Conn to start his own company, The Buescher Band Instrument Company.  For many years, Buescher saxophones, as well as their other brass and wind instruments, competed well with Conn, Martin, King and Selmer.  Buescher saxophones are noted for their rich and smooth sound.  Sigurd Rascher, the well known classical saxophonist, author and teacher played a Buescher Tru-Tone throughout his playing career, and in jazz, Johnny Hodges sweet and soaring tone was played on a series of Bueschers, most notably an Aristocrat and a 400.  Sonny Rollins also played a Buescher Aristocrat tenor early on such recordings as "The Bridge".  Later on, Selmer bought the company and that ended their production of high quality professional horns. 

The style and mechanisms of the Buescher are similar to those of Conn, so I never had a problem playing them.  In fact, in terms of sound, vintage Bueschers are among the best saxophones out there as far as I'm concerned.  Here are some of my favorite models.


The Buescher Tru-Tone production run was from the mid-twenties until about 1930 or so, when they made the transition to the Aristocrat models.  Sigurd Rascher used a gold-plated model throughout his musical career, and his followers use them as well.  They have a full, rich tone that lends itself to classical and orchestral music.  However, I found that it can play a blues with just as much authority.  
Sigurd Rascher with the full line of Buescher Tru-Tones from sopranino to contrabass

Gold-plated Tru-Tone alto saxophone, favored by Sigurd Rascher


The Aristocrat followed the Tru-Tone, and it not only gained a following among legit players, but also in jazz, most notably Johnny Hodges and Sonny Rollins.  It had some similarities to the Conn M series, minus rolled tone holes, and whereas the "Naked Lady" of the Conn M series could be bawdy, the Aristocrat seemed a bit more refined.  Though the model run was from the early 30's to the late fifties, the models with the "Big B" engraving are considered to be the best of the bunch.
Big B Alto similar to what Johnny Hodges played
Big B tenor similar to the one played by Sonny Rollins

The 400

At the end of WWII Buescher commemorated it with the production of the 400 line.  Its model run continued until the 1970's, but the best and most sought-after models are the first and second series, with a Top Hat and Cane engraving.  It also featured bell keys that were positioned to the rear of the bell, rather than to the left side like other American saxophones, or to the right like Selmer.  The bell flare was also larger than any other saxophone, the prototype to many modern saxophones today.  It also sported an underslung octave key similar to the King Super 20.  Johnny Hodges had a custom-made model with more elaborate engraving on the bell and neck. 
Johnny Hodges with his Buescher 400 THC alto
Buescher 400 THC tenor

The 400 series has one of the smoothest, fullest tones of any saxophone I've played.  I'll go so far as to say it has one of the sexiest tones of any saxophone I've ever played. 


King saxophones, as well as their other brass and wind instruments were manufactured by the H.N. White Company of Cleveland, Ohio.  Later on, they moved production to Eastlake, Ohio, but it is the King Cleveland made saxophones which are considered the best.  Though they made saxophones early on, it wasn't until they made the King Zephyr in the 1930's that they made any saxophones of consequence.  The Zephyr and the Super 20 are saxophones with big, bright sounds that are considered the epitome of a modern jazz sound.  The Super 20, which followed the Zephyr and which was basically a Zephyr with an improved mechanism and ergonomics is still one of the most popular vintage saxophones, with a market value second only to the Selmer Mark VI and Balanced and Super Balanced Action saxophones.  Zephyr Specials and early Super 20's have elaborate engraving on the bell and keys, and pearls riveted to the key touches.  They also featured an underslung octave key.  Later models would use the standard top octave key.  The most popular and the most sought-after are the SilverSonic models, with sterling silver neck and bell.  The Super 20 was not only used by notable jazz players like Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, James Moody and Yusef Lateef, but by many rock, blues and r&b bands of the 50's and 60's.  In the 1980's, King tried to market a Super 21 model, and several prototypes were made, but the market wasn't there so it was discontinued.
King Zephyr Special tenor saxophone
King Zephyr Special alto saxophone
Cannonball Adderley with his King Super 20 alto saxophone
King Super 20 SilverSonic tenor saxophone
King Super 21, which never took off


The Martin company was first founded in Chicago in the 1860's, but when a fire destroyed the factory, John Henry Martin moved to Elkhart, Indiana where he became a foreman for Conn.  In 1904 he once again opened his own factory in Elkhart.  Martin saxophones are sought-after collectibles, but very underrated in the vintage market, which is good for the buyer.  They are top quality vintage horns that can be had for a bargain.  Martin saxophones feature soldered tone holes, which add weight and resonance to the tone.  The tone holes on Martin saxes until the Committee II are beveled.  All Martin saxes that I've played have a rich, dark sound, great for jazz or blues.  The most popular and sought-after of the Martin saxes is the Committee III line, which simply had "The Martin" with either Alto, Tenor or Baritone engraved on the bell.  Other interesting features of the horn are improved ergonomics and an adjustable thumb-hook which moves up and down rather than side to side, which I find to be a much more practical idea than standard thumb-hooks.  They also have beautiful engraving.  In the late 50's Martin released the Magna, which was basically a standard "The Martin" with sterling silver keys, and a cross on the bell, which I guess was employed to keep vampires away when you soloed.  Art Pepper, Tex Benecke and Louis Jordan played Martin saxophones. 
"The Martin Alto"
"The Martin" Magna tenor saxophone


Selmer is simply the most popular saxophone on the planet, there is no doubt about that.  Selmer set the standard for ergonomic design when the Balanced Action was introduced in 1936.  In the 1940's the Super  Balanced Action set the bar further, and then with the Mark VI, created the most sought-after vintage saxophone on the market. 
Selmer Super Balanced Action alto saxophone

Just about every major player in the world is using or has used a Selmer Mark VI at some point.  It has been called the greatest saxophone ever made, the Rolls-Royce of saxophones.  The reason for its success is due to the balance of its ergonomics and sound.  It has a homogenous, slightly dark tone, that can however be shaped by the player, making it a very versatile horn, and balanced with its key ergonomics, made it the most popular saxophone, the most sought after ever made.  Its design is now pretty much standard for all modern horns made by manufacturers around the world.  Its homogenous but flexible tone lends itself to studio and ensemble work, and just about every jazz player seems to have one.  It was designed partly by Marcel Mule, the eminent classical saxophonist.  Yet it was never embraced by the classical players to the extant it has with jazz and rock players.  Now in my experience, I've played literally hundreds of Mark VI's, and there are large inconsistencies from one to another in terms of tone quality, as most saxophones are anyway. However, when you find one that sounds and feels right, you really can't go wrong. 
Selmer Mark VI alto saxophone
Selmer Mark VI with low A


Those of you who read my review of the Buffet 400 line already know the company's history, so I won't go into it here.   What I will go into is that of all manufacturers making saxophones today, Buffet has been at it the longest, building them since 1866, only 20 years after Adolphe Sax patented his invention.  They make what are probably the most popular clarinets in the world.  However, for some reason, their saxophones never achieved the recognition or respect of some other makers.  This is odd considering that they made and continue to make some of the best saxophones on the market.  In fact, the Dynaction, Super Dynaction and S-1 models are said to have even smoother key work than a Selmer, excellent build quality and beautiful complex tone.  Perhaps the reason they never caught on is because they have considered more of a classical instrument than a jazz sax.  The fact that they are undervalued in the marketplace means that if you want a fabulous saxophone with great ergonomics, key work and above all sound without breaking the bank as you would for a Mark VI, then you really should be on the lookout for these.  I think a little recognition and respect is due these saxophones. 
Buffet Super Dynaction tenor saxophone
Buffet S-1 alto saxophone.  The copper bell and body give it a nice warm and complex tone

There are a few other vintage horns which I tried from smaller companies like SML, Dolnet and Cuesnon.  However, I haven't played enough of them to make a fair evaluation like I have the other horns I discussed.  However, a Cuesnon alto called the Monopole came into the shop and is being sold at a student sax price.  I've been playing it and I am surprised and delighted.  It seems to combine design elements of both Conn and Selmer.  The tone is light and airy, good for those Desmondesque type solos.  In any case, this horn plays and sounds nice, and is had for a real bargain.  
Cuesnon Monopole alto saxophone
This makes me want to look more into the less known brands and play their horns.  There are no doubt some hidden treasures buried somewhere.  For the more adventurous players who are looking for a unique sax and sound, I recommend the horns I've discussed, and be willing to look outside the box.  There are gems hidden in them thar hills.

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