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Pete Hales
Pete Hales

Pete "Saxpics" Hales is the former Moderator of the Sax on the Web Forum, a current columnist for Sax on the Web and is the webmaster and creator of the Vintage Saxophone Gallery website.

Pete's SOTW articles:
SML: The Ongoing Story
A Day in the Life of a Saxophone Historian
Fun with Vintage Saxophones
What is the Best Vintage Saxophone for Me?
Stencils and "Second Line" Models

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Designing The Perfect Saxophone

Article I: The Body and Finish

by Peter Hales

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There was a great thread introduced on the SOTW Forum awhile back: what features would you want on the ultimate horn?  Well, I decided to take that thread and run with it and wondered if any horns actually had any or all of the features discussed – and wondered if those features that haven’t been introduced, could be.

Now, this is a collection of articles is about acoustic saxophones.  The Softwinds Synthophone, a wind controller built around your choice of a Yamaha 25 or Selmer Super 80, meets or exceeds many of the feature sets discussed on the SOTW Forum, but is usually discarded as a valid choice – mainly because a wind controller is only as good as the tone generator connected to it and many folks claim that they can tell the difference between a saxophone sample and a real saxophone.

One of the main ideas behind A. Sax’s design was that the material used in the composition of the horn don’t seriously impact the sound: the bore is what really determines the sound.  While this is generally true – and is proven by the existence of the Grafton Acrylic Alto – most sax players do note that there does seem to be a difference in sound based on what material is used in the horn’s composition (and some folks do dispute the characterizations below):

  • Brass: 95% (or greater) of saxophones use brass as their main component.
  • Sterling Silver: very bright, “bell like” sound.
  • Bronze: a warm sound; a compromise between copper and brass.
  • Plastic: the only example is the Grafton.  I’m told the sound can be a little “reedy”.
  • Copper: a very mellow sound.

Saxophones usually then have a finish applied:

  • Gold Plate: makes the horn sound darker.  Do note that gold does not adhere to brass, thus gold plated horns must first be plated with something that gold will stick to: silver.
  • Copper Plate: makes the horn sound “warmer”(generally found on “cheap” horns, at the moment, like the Monique or Winston).
  • Silver Plate: makes the horn sound brighter.
  • Nickel Plate: makes the horn sound a bit brighter, but not as much as silver plate.   This plating was historically used on horns that were a “step up” from bare brass or lacquer and is now available in various colors.
  • Enamel: not used on modern instruments.  According to the folks I know that own horns with an enamel finish, this finish does not impact the sound of the underlying finish, which is generally silver or bare brass.
  • Lacquer: “deadens” the sound somewhat, according to some.

There are no studies or posts that indicate the kind or color of lacquer used makes much of an impact on your sound and most posters note that the heavier the plating, the greater the effect.

I tend to discount the fact that the material used in the composition of the horn or the finish used seriously impacts the horn’s sound, either for the listener or the performer.  There is plenty of evidence to suggest, however, that gold plated horns produced in the early 20th century were made with a bit more care and were subjected to higher quality control and thus are better instruments.  These horns were generally custom-order instruments, and some were essentially custom designed instruments, as in the case of the Conn Virtuoso Deluxe-finished horns.

There are a few suggested improvements and additions to the above, in the SOTW Forum thread:

  • Solid gold or platinum horns
  • Interchangeable bells
  • Lighter horns, possibly through using a plastic composite or resin
  • Sturdier horns through the use of stronger metals, like titanium

According to a repairman I talked with, saxophones could be made with a newer kind of plastic that’s much more durable than what was used in the Grafton Acrylic Alto.  This material is also somewhat cheaper than brass, but the cost of researching and developing a design that people would find acceptable might be fairly high.  There’s also the problem of durability: there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence that Charlie Parker wore out three of the Grafton horns in just a couple years!

Could a saxophone be made out of titanium, platinum, or some other material to make the horn more durable?  Most definitely, but these metals are quite expensive and may add undesirable components to the sound (more metallic, perhaps).  My knowledge of metalworking is limited, so I can’t tell you if any of these materials are even good choices to make a horn out of, in terms of manufacture or durability: titanium may be too rigid to make a horn out of and platinum may be too soft.  They’re definitely too expensive.

Adding a bell made from a different material, as with the King Silver-Sonic, where a sterling silver bell is added to a brass body, also makes somewhat of a difference to the sound of the horn, but, because the saxophone is not a “closed pipe” instrument like a trumpet, the silver bell significantly affects only C# and lower.

Finally, bells actually are interchangeable and have been for quite some time.  Selmer essentially made the procedure of removing the bell easier on the Super Balanced Action with the introduction of the “fluidtight” seal for the connection between body and bow (and later improved on the Super 80) rather than using a solder, but its purpose was to make removal of the bell easier so you could bang out dents.  While it is possible to fairly easily replace a bell on any saxophone, even if the joints must be de-soldered, performing such an operation to try to seriously impact your horn’s tone isn’t that good a trade-off between results and the time and money it would take to do this, especially considering you’re significantly affecting only four or so notes.

The greatest modifications that a player can make to his sound is through mouthpiece choice and/or adding a custom-made neck.  Not only can you use a wide variety of materials for either of these, but you can also get different “bore” sizes for each.

The greatest change to the overall sound, though, would come from modifying the shape and design of the entire bore of the saxophone. 

Today, the market for a horn that is really good for one “style” of music is now quite small.  Most people prefer to get a horn that is very good for “all around” use and, because of this, very few manufacturers now advertise their horns specifically for jazz or classical, etc. or are designing horns this way.  This might give you another reason to look into the vintage market where the horns have a bit more character and these “characters” are fairly well known.  For instance, the short, stubby bore of the Conn New Wonder gives you a wide-open powerful sound perfect for jazz or big-band music, while the slimmer parabolic bore of the Buescher True Tone gives you better intonation and a darker sound perfect for classical music.

So, when a person asks me what kind of vintage horn would be best for him, I tend to ask him to describe the sound he wants and what features are important.  For example, if he wants a horn that …

  • Has excellent intonation
  • Is has dark a sound as possible
  • Is good for classical music
  • Has exceptional keywork

… then the combination of these desired features suggests that the best horn would be the Buffet S1 series horns, probably the copper-bodied Prestige with a large-chamber mouthpiece.  If he can get a wooden neck or a gold-plated neck, so much the better.

Thus concludes a fairly breezy tour of the saxophone’s body and design.  Next time, I plan to talk about various techniques used to improve saxophone intonation.

Created: January 19, 2004.
Update: December 17, 2007
© 1996 - 2007, Harri Rautiainen and respective authors
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