Thursday, April 21, 2016

Vintage Saxophone Restoration, Repair and Adjustment

My father, Erik Gailitis, playing a rare Conn 10M with microtuner neck in Germany, 1946.  Many musicians have argued that it's a Keilwerth copy of a Conn, but my father only played Conns, and at that time, the European market for American saxophones was bigger than for Selmer or other European makers, so some rarer and more interesting models found their way overseas.

There are a number of saxophone players, myself included, who have a fondness for vintage saxophones, particularly vintage American saxophones like Conn, Buescher, Martin and King.  Lately I've written articles on the virtues of modern horns, and why I now think they are better overall.  Yet, there is still something to be said for a vintage saxophone.  I could give you a blindfold test and most of the time you really wouldn't be able to tell the difference tone-wise between an old horn and a new one.  Ergonomics and key action are superior on new horns, so that is why I've been advocating them.  Just the same, I still love playing my old Conn 6M,  there is just something about it that goes beyond mere nostalgia.  It is a well played instrument.  My father played it for years before me, and I've been playing it over 50 years, with a four year interruption in the 60's.  

The biggest complaint about vintage American horns or Selmer before the Balanced Action was introduced, is the ergonomics and key action.  Certainly the mechanics were simpler, with fewer posts, and the left hand pinky clusters on old horns used a direct downward pressure against a heavy spring as opposed to a pivoting motion like modern horns.  Also the placement of the keys were different.  However, I have found that when a vintage horn is restored, repaired or adjusted by a technician who loves and understands vintage saxophones, then even an old "clunky" horn will play smoothly, just as they did back in the days when they were new.  My tech makes the action of my old Conn as slick and fast as any modern horn I've played, and I'm used to the key layout, so there is no problem.

If you're one of those players that have fallen in love with a vintage horn, but are not thrilled with the key action or ergonomics, it is important that you take it to a technician who is experienced and loves working on old saxophones.  They will make all the difference in whether you love or hate your horn.  I don't know too many technicians these days who really know how to adjust an old mechanism for a modern player and make it feel as smooth and light as a modern sax.  The purpose of this article is to recommend four that I know personally that will take your vintage horn and make it better, and then you won't complain about the key action as you revel in the gorgeous sound of your old horn.

In New York City, there are several that I would highly recommend.  If you live in or around New York City, or are planning to come here at some point and bring your vintage saxophone with you and find yourself needing an adjustment or repair, these are the people to see.  I won't recommend one over another because they all do excellent work and it's just a matter of contacting them, talking to them, and then seeing for yourself if you want to have your work done by them.  However, it's my opinion that you won't go wrong no matter who you choose.  

John Leadbetter/JL Woodwind Repair

John Leadbetter is the youngest and newest technician here.  He started out as an apprentice repairman at the Sam Ash Manhattan store when I was working in sales at the woodwind, brass and orchestral store.  I was in charge of maintaining the appearance of the saxophone dept., and one of my duties besides keeping the area neat and orderly, and the displays nicely arranged, was to always make sure the horns were "gig ready", meaning in the correct state of repair so when they were sold, they could play right away.  That was also necessary because we often did short term rentals for Broadway musicians and classical concert musicians who needed a different instrument than their normal one for a particular gig.  Also, all the new and used horns that came into the store had to be adjusted before they could be put out, and if a customer was buying, the repair shop would go over it and make sure it was in playing order before they took it out of the shop. 

There was a point after John began working there, that I began to notice that when a vintage horn, like an old Conn, Martin, Buescher or King would come down from the shop to be put on display, I would always play it first before putting it on the wall.  There were several repairmen in the shop, and they each worked on the horns.  However, there were always some vintage horns that looked and played better than the others.  It wasn't the horn itself, as there were identical models that didn't play as well.  Then there were those that played outstandingly.  I would take the horn upstairs and ask who worked on this.  For every vintage horn that looked and played better than the others, I found out it was John who was working on them.  Some of these horns required a complete overhaul, and John's work was meticulous.  Before reassembling the horn, he would clean it and polish it, and would look as close as possible and sometimes exactly as the horn would look when it was brand new.  John worked there for a couple more years after I left, but then left to strike out on his own and open his own shop in the West Village of New York.  In the short time he's been in business, he's already gained a solid reputation as a skilled repairman.  He understands vintage horns, and all horns, and will do a great job making it play like new.  I know from playing the horns he's worked on that when you get your horn back, it will be like butter.

Here is the link to his website:

Perry Ritter

Perry Ritter has been repairing woodwinds in New York City now for about 35 years now.  I know several players who have their woodwind instruments worked on by him, and they all swear by him.  Here is the link to his website

Bill Singer

Bill Singer has been repairing saxophones in New York for over 40 years, and one of my friends and a great player, Ellery Eskelin, who only plays vintage tenors (he owns a Conn Gold Plated New Wonder, A Conn 10M, and a Beuscher Aristocrat) has his horns worked on by him.  Here is a video showing when Bill restored Ellery's Buescher Aristocrat.

Here is the link to Bill Singer's website

Remember, if you have a vintage horn, the right technician can make the difference in whether it will play like it should, or play like an old clunker.

No comments:

Post a Comment