SML: The Ongoing Story
by Peter Hales
My association with SML horns began almost three years ago when someone sent me an e-mail and said, "I found this nice looking SML alto, but it doesn't say 'Gold Medal' on the bell. Do you know what model it is and how much it's worth?"
I didn't know anything about these horns except for the article from Fred Cicetti on Sax on the Web (SOTW), so I wrote back and said that I'd have to do some research.
Thus began a journey that's not quite finished.
I started by essentially polling the SOTW message boards and the rec.musicmakers.saxophone and alt.music.saxophone newsgroups. There was a wealth of information, but it wasn't categorized. No one even had a firm idea of when the first SML's were produced.
Through lots of trial and error, research, people sending me anecdotes & pictures and browsing eBay, I had been able to answer my e-mailer's question and much, much more.
- The information provided by Fred Cicetti is
probably the most correct for the origin of the SML saxophone: SML was founded on January 12, 1935 by a group of businessmen headed by Charles Strasser, a businessman who was born in Switzerland;
Marigaux, an instrument maker who trained at Buffet-Crampon and Lemaire, a clarinet maker. Saxophone production probably started in or slightly after 1935.
- SML's demise is definitely exaggerated. The last SML Gold Medal saxophone (officially) did roll off the assembly line in 1981 and the last King Marigaux rolled out of the King warehouse about 1986, but SML is still successfully selling medium-voice
double reeds and have finally posted a new website.
- SML produced, at their highest maximum, 500 horns a year, though 100 to 400 was more common, according to an SML spokesman.
(These numbers are off by at least a bit, because an average of 250 horns per year is well short of the around 27000 horns produced in SML's almost 50 years of producing saxophones.)
- The newest development in the SML world is that it appears that the Heimer Instrument Company has purchased the SML Gold Medal tooling and is now producing student-quality instruments with it.
- An official serial number chart is not yet available, but I have expanded a bit on Fred Cicetti's original work. Please e-mail me at [email protected] with more confirmed-date horns or an official serial number chart from SML.
- For further information, please see SML's history link in Wikipedia.
Saxophone Model Information
The majority of SML models do have model names, but most of these models changed so significantly over the time the were manufactured or were "custom" models that had a production run of one horn, it was necessary to break down the horns produced by SML into categories with similar
characteristics. I call these "Revisions."
Below is a quick run-down of all of the SML models. Names in quotes ("") are made up for the sake of classification, only. They are not official model names from SML.
The Revisions are also fluid: they are updated when new serial number information becomes available and upon the receipt of new pictures. This chart was "tweaked" slightly on 02/09/02, folding in new information about the Rev. D, Gold Medal "Mk. I" and Standard horns.
- "Rev. A" Models (s/n 0 to 46xx and prototypes). These are the original SML horns and are relatively typical of most saxophones of the early 1930's: they have cumbersome keywork, left-hand bell keys, "rat trap" wire keyguards, etc.
I am of the opinion that SML gave model names to each series of their altos (and some tenors) in this serial number range. It could be that SML just had different teams of craftsmen working on different horns and each team decided to name their horns something different, similar to how the original Martin Handcraft horns are all slightly different depending on the craftsm(e)n that worked on the horn and generally have that craftsman's name engraved on the horn.
Each of the Rev. A horns that I've seen has slightly different keywork and probably has slightly different bore size.
- "Rev. B" Models (s/n: 46xx to 6xxx). These horns were the first to have right-hand bell keys. Rolled tone holes were available on some models. The odd "naming convention" introduced with the Rev. A continues for some horns.
- Coleman Hawkins Models (s/n: 3xxx? to 6xxx?).
- These horns were designed for one of SML's best spokesmen, Coleman Hawkins, and were available in at least two versions: one patterned after the Rev. A. horns and one after the Rev. B.
- Each model featured elaborate engraving, including "Coleman Hawkins" in big letters.
- The Coleman Hawkins models have rolled tone holes and a slightly oversized bell, standard.
- Super or "Transitional" Models (s/n 55xx to 73xx).
- There were at least three different versions of this model, but all have the name "Super" engraved on their bells.
- These horns quickly evolved from essentially a Rev B horn (i.e. with "rat trap" keyguards, wire bell-to-body brace, "normal" sized bell) to essentially a Rev.
C horn (sheet-metal keyguards, "T" bell-to-body brace, etc.). It's the "missing link" of the SML models!
- The most major improvement that the Supers introduced is probably the G#/C#/B/Bb cluster that became standard on all SML models until the end of their production run.
- "Rev. C" Models (s/n 73xx to 83xx). The Rev. C horns are the final evolution of the Super and have essentially the same "look and feel" that would last until the end of the SML production run. These models also introduced adjustment screws for various key heights (around s/n 78xx).
- "Rev. D" Models (s/n 83xx to 156xx). These are essentially the final evolution of the Rev. C models: all horns had set-screw adjustments for the upper and lower stack (as well as adjustable-height felts for the bell keys) that continued throughout the Gold Medal era. There are also slight engraving differences between these and the Rev. C horns.
- Gold Medal "Mk I" (s/n 156xx to 202xx).
- This is essentially the highest evolution of the SML saxophone and had all of the "22 Features" -- at least, up until s/n 18xxx, when some of those features started disappearing.
- The name "Gold Medal" actually comes from the fact that these horns won a gold medal at the International Music Festival at The Hague (Holland) back in the 50's.
- The Gold Medal altos were actually introduced at almost exactly s/n 15000. The tenor, etc. Gold Medal models were introduced around s/n 156xx.
- Gold Medal "Mk II" and King Marigaux (s/n 202xx to 27xxx). These are the final SML horns. They are actually a "cheapening" of the SML line: they don't have rolled tone holes, they don't have adjustable-height felts for the bell keys and the engraving is far less elaborate, e.g. bell-lip engraving was not available and models with only the SML logo engraved on the bell are common.
- Standard Models (s/n 46xx to 202xx). These horns were the non-professional professional line (similar to the Yamaha 62 compared to a Custom 875). They generally lacked some of the "pro line" features -- most notably rolled tone
holes. They also had different engraving (all, however are engraved "Standard"), but otherwise had essentially the same "look" as the other "pro line" SML's.
It is probable that the Standard horns were made with tooling from earlier models of SML. For example, Standard models with a Rev. B serial number (e.g. 509x) have Rev. A features, including left hand bell keys.
SML made a large amount of stencils for such a small company (at least six; the most famous and numerous being the King Marigaux).
The nice thing about any SML stencil is that they are not cheaply made versions of their pro models, nor are they made with older
tooling: they are well made pro horns that only seem to lack one feature: rolled tone holes.
- King Lemaire. This horn is actually not a King or an SML, but was made in Czechoslovakia in the 1970's and early 1980's for King. It is a student/intermediate horn produced along the lines of the King 613. It was quite probably produced by Amati or Kohlert.
The SML horns are all extremely high quality, have exceptional intonation and have a beautiful tone -- even the Standard models. The Rev. D and Gold Medal horns have done well in my surveys of players for "the best all-around horn", coming in second to only the Selmer Mark VI.
SML horns are terribly undervalued at this point (altos of any model consistently sell for under $1000 US on eBay) and stencils pop up regularly at even lower prices. This makes SML one of the best buys in the vintage saxophone world -- if you can find one.
If you have any additional SML pictures, catalogs or miscellaneous information you may want to post in SOTW Forum's SML group, or feel free to drop a line at SOTW Admin.