Designing The Perfect Saxophone
Article I: The Body and Finish
by Peter Hales
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.
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
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):
95% (or greater) of saxophones use brass as their main component.
- Sterling Silver: very bright, “bell like” sound.
a warm sound; a compromise between copper and brass.
the only example is the Grafton. I’m told the sound can be a little “reedy”.
a very mellow sound.
Saxophones usually then have a finish applied:
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.
Plate: makes the horn sound “warmer”(generally found on “cheap” horns,
at the moment, like the Monique or Winston).
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.
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.
“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
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
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
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.