- I believe the split-key layout (the oldest for horns keyed to low Bb, I believe) came about because the first saxes were keyed only to low B. The low B pad was on the left and directly actuated. For some reason, which I don't know, when makers started lengthening the bell and keying to low B, they often made the added key on the right with an intermediate linkage. I would want to study carefully some instruments by the same maker with and without the low Bb to make a theory on why they chose the right-side indirect location rather than just putting it on the left and directly actuated.
- there has long been a belief that having the bell keys on the left (inside) causes a few notes sometimes to be muffled by contact with the clothing.
- for old-style left hand little finger keys, bringing the bell keys to the right (outside) requires an intermediate linkage which is more parts and things to go out of adjustment.
- The simplest setup to regulate is the one without those intermediate linkages. At least in theory, there is a "more positive feel" to it as well. So that's why by the 1930s or so a lot of saxes with the old style little finger keys had both bell keys on the left (Selmer mod. 22 thru Super; Conn 6M/10M, Martin Committee, Buescher Aristocrat). I have seen ads where this layout was touted as "more positive action" in comparison with the older split-bell-key layout.
- Around 1935 there were several horns that went to the right side bell keys with intermediate linkage (Conn 12M, King Zephyr tenor/alto, Buescher 400), and the Selmer Balanced Action was introduced with the direction of swing of the little finger keys reversed, and the bell keys directly actuated and on the right side. I don't know whether the Selmer came first and all the others reacted by offering a layout that superficially resembled the Selmer. Or, maybe that was just a fad at the time and Selmer chose to completely revamp the mechanism to effect it rather than introducing an intermediate mechanism. Whatever it was, the Balanced Action layout took over the market and today basically every production saxophone uses a mechanism that's a knockoff of the Selmer BA/Mark 6 setup.
- There are some curious anomalies as well: for example the King Zephyr baritone kept its split-bell-key layout to the end, which may have been in the 50s sometime, well after the Super 20 had been introduced with an indirect right-side layout; the Conn 12M went to two right-side indirect keys when the 10M and 6M went to left side keys; the 12M interestingly enough also has an intermediate linkage on low C# which gives it a very smooth low effort low C# action compared to other old baritones; Dolnet kept the old style LH keys but the bell keys on the right with an intermediate linkage; King Super 20 started out with an old style LH but midway through they completely changed the LH little finger layout to the new style, pivoted on the other side, bell keys still on the right but now direct; Selmer retained an old-style layout on soprano right through the Mark 6 which - since there was no mark 7 soprano - stayed in production till something like 1980; and Yanagisawa's soprano were copies of the Selmer Mark 6 soprano for a very long time.
Good question. I don't know the answer but turf3's reply is a good one. I don't believe King was unique in keeping the left-side bell keys. Many makers did the same. After all, it's expensive to change design and manufacturing.
I think Holton may have been the first to move the bell keys to the right with their Rudy Wiedoeft model. Curved sopranos seem to be last saxophones still built with left-side bell keys.
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