Tech Topics: 
Interesting Questions . . .
Flex-Lite at work in alto body ...



Back to Q&A Topic Directory




1. High Pitch or Low Pitch?
Q.  HELLO BEAR! I AM A SAX PLAYER AND MORE RECENTLY A COLLECTOR OF VINTAGE SAXES. I HAVE ACQUIRED A FEW BEAUTIES. I APPRECIATE, AND BROWSE YOUR WEBSITE OFTEN. I HAVE ASKED YOU A FEW QUESTIONS RE: VINTAGE SAXES OVER THE PAST  COUPLE YEARS. YOUR RESPONSES TO MY QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN VERY MUCH APPRECIATED! I HAVE ANOTHER FOR YOU. I HAVE RUN ACROSS AN OPPORTUNITY TO PURCHASE A PRISTINE VINTAGE CONN CURVED SOPRANO SAX. THE FELLOW SELLING THE SAX LIVES A COUPLE HUNDRED MILES AWAY, AND DOES NOT KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE INTERNET. HE SENT ME SOME PHOTOS OF THE SAX (RECENTLY OVERHAULED). IT LOOKS BEAUTIFUL. HOWEVER ON QUIZZING HIM ABOUT THINGS LIKE ROLLED TONE HOLES, SERIAL #, ETC. , IT SEEMS LIKE THIS COULD BE A HIGH PITCH INSTRUMENT. HE SAID THERE WAS NO L BELOW THE SERIAL #, BUT WHAT APPEARED TO BE THE ROMAN NUMERAL  II . I ASSUME THIS IS ACTUALLY AN H. I HAVE NOT SEEN A PHOTO OF THE SERIAL # AREA. THE SERIAL # IS 33XXX, WHICH PUTS THE SAX AT ABOUT 1915. ARE ALL LOW PITCHED VINTAGE CONNS MARKED WITH AN L, AND ALL THE LESS COMMON  HIGH PITCH SAXES, MARKED WITH AN H ? ARE THE HIGH PITCHED SAXES PLAYABLE AT ALL WITH TODAY’S MODERN INSTRUMENTS? IS THERE ANY VALUE IN THIS SAX OTHER THAN TO ADMIRE IT?  IF IT IS A HIGH PITCH SAX, WHAT WOULD BE ITS GENERAL VALUE COMPARED TO A LOW PITCHED SAX IN SIMILAR CONDITION? THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR TIME AND MUCH APPRECIATED ADVICE! SINCERLEY……..BOB …


A. I would hesitate to say that ALL high pitch saxes were so marked, but it was the industry practice to mark instruments up until the early 1930′s when high pitch instruments were no longer regularly offered. While it is possible to tune some high pitch saxes a half step sharp (tenor to B or alto to E) using a long shank mpc and reach some degree of a standard, you still would have to transpose written parts in order to play with other modern instruments. If you’re playing jazz, of course, things are more manageable — and you can actually end up playing in easier keys. Since most of us have already adjusted to manage with the guitar players’ favorites of concert E and A, even that facility is of minimal benefit. Not all high pitch saxes will work this way because some older instruments will just not function unless the air column enters from the mpc almost dead on their design tuning point. This is especially true when trying to use modern mpcs on very old saxes. You cannot tell about a particular instrument until you try the experiment.

The ‘II’ mark sounds suspiciously like a mis struck ‘H’, but the acid test is the tube length of the instrument. It’s a bit tricky with the curvies, but ask the gentleman to perform a measurement for you. Have him measure from the bottom of the bow (directly below the Bb key guard) to the tip of the neck (without mpc). If the sax isn’t a fixed neck instrument he will have to put the neck on it, of course. The measurement should be taken in a single plane, meaning it does not follow any of the instrument’s curves. This measurement should return very nearly 17.5 inches for a Conn low pitch Bb curved soprano, if done correctly. I suspect a high pitch horn will measure at least an inch shorter, perhaps closer to 2 inches shorter.

Valuations are tricky because with the very old or very late high pitch saxes you get into some rare collectibles, but in general I would value them somewhat less than low pitch instruments. If you’re buying a sax to play with modern instruments as your primary purpose I wouldn’t think you’d want the high pitch sax at all. Hope that helps ….

Additional Comments
Prior to about 1910 the A440 standard to which modern musical instruments are tuned did not exist. The instruments produced before A440 became standard were tuned to a pitch that, in saxophones, at least, is approximately one semi tone (half step) above a modern sax. That is why the modern saxophone is designated Low Pitch and the others designated High Pitch. Since tube length determines pitch, these High Pitch saxophones are, by definition, shorter in total tube length than their modern counterparts. In general, the tube length of High Pitch saxophones is about 10% less than for their modern, Low Pitch counterparts. Until the early 1930s some of the USA sax builders still offered High Pitch instruments as part of their regular line. In fact, we have a Conn ‘Chu Berry’ tenor that was produced in 1929. It was certainly one of the last, though Conn still had an array of model numbers that included High Pitch saxes up into the ‘M’ or ‘Naked Lady’ run. Not long ago a late 1920s Conn High Pitch alto showed up on eBay. During the period when both High and Low pitch instruments were commonly produced by the instrument makers, it was necessary to mark each instrument as to what pitch it was tuned. Fewer and fewer high pitch saxophones were produced as time went by, and in the 1930s the high pitch models became completely obsolete. When it was no longer possible to buy a new high pitch sax, the need to mark each instrument was no more, and the manufacturers stopped marking the Low Pitch instruments at that time. There were not many of these High Pitch horns made in the later years, but there obviously were some, so it pays to be certain unless you are a collector of the obscure (such as yours truly). There are still some applications for high pitch instruments today, found in chamber orchestras (mainly in Europe) and in the historic events reenactment bands. If you get stuck with one of these oddball horns you might want to be fitted for a J. P. Sousa replica uniform…or your powdered wig. For what it’s worth, out HP tenor plays and sounds great.
2. Dual Octave Buttons & General Discussion of ‘High Pitch’ Saxophones


Q.  Thanks for your website – lots of good info. I have a trumpet playing friend in a big band I play in who pulled out his grandfathers Conn Soprano and asked if I was interested in buying it (serial number 3517 – built in 1904, I’m told). I live in small town with one repair shop. I had our local sax lady look it over and fix a few leaks. She thinks the horn is in pretty good shape, but agreed it was harder to play than other sopranos she’s played. The horn has a beautiful sound, but takes more air than my Keilwerth  tenor. I still can’t hit anything below a D, and am a little slow in adjusting to the two octave keys. I am curious about a few things: 1)  I’d like to know a little more about the two octave keys (I’ve never seen that before); 2) Will I ever be able to get notes out below that D?; and, 3) I know you don’t like to answer this question, but I’ve searched in vain to find some sort of value on this horn. I may want to buy it from my friend — and he asked me to offer a price. In the very least, I’d like to give him some idea of its value. Is there some place I might look to find a value, considering that you don’t see these horns for sale very often? Having never played a soprano before, I don’t know whether they are all hard to play, or whether — for the little I use a sop — I might be better served by buying a cheap new horn. Thanks for your thoughts, Bryan.

A. In all probability that is a high pitch instrument, meaning it is not tuned so it will perform with our modern instruments that are tuned to A=440. We have a Q&A article on this subject [this one] if you would like to read about tuning standards in more detail. There is also an article in Q&A on determining saxophone types that covers how to sniff out when a sax is the undesirable (in terms of playability in modern musical performances) ‘high pitch’ tuning.

There are collectors that will buy the antique saxophones — where ‘antique’ is distinguished from ‘vintage’ by the instrument’s playability in terms of modern musical performances. The market in these older saxophones is quite thin, and the collector demand is both sporadic & generally weak. This lack of a fluid market makes for some trouble if you are seeking to initiate a transaction. Whether buying or selling, the first person to act is at a distinct disadvantage. If you are familiar with thinly traded investments you know what I mean: Your bid/ask relationship has a very wide gap. You overpay if you seek to buy, and you are immediately ‘under water’ when you seek to sell. At any given time a sax like the one we are discussing could sell on eBay for a couple hundred dollars — or a thousand…and it could also just sit bid-less. It all depends on the right pair of eyeballs seeing the item listing. The one thing you can count on is a long shelf time, so dealers tend to avoid antique saxophones altogether.

If you are familiar with a modern saxophone’s two-vent (they can have more) automatic octave mechanism you know that your G key interacts with the two octave vents so that your body (lower) vent is open from G# down to D, and the neck (top) vent is open from A on up. You use your two octave buttons in the same way. You just do it manually. In an automatic octave mechanism you will note that one octave vent seals shut when the other is open. When an octave mechanism does not do this it is ‘out of synchronization’, a condition that must be corrected in order to avoid unpredictable results. Likewise, you only want one of your two manual octave vents open at a time.

Any sax of good design should be able to play its entire range easily when it is in proper playing condition. If your sax has been to the tech and still won’t play the low notes then a complete repair job was NOT done. That could happen for a number of reasons, ranging from lack of experience on these antique saxophone mechanisms, to not wanting to run you up a huge bill, to plain old incompetence. As an aside, with vintage and antique saxes we find that techs sometimes do not take them seriously, seeking to get them off their bench as quickly as they can. I view this unprofessional behavior as a subdivision of incompetence. In the end, not knowing and not caring produce equally unsatisfactory results. You can assure your older saxophone gets the tech work it deserves by sending it to one of the web’s several dedicated vintage sax specialists, CS among them. We love our work, vintage saxophones, and — for the most part — you folks that play ‘em. We would do this as a hobby if it wasn’t a paying proposition … :)

You should be able to get some kind of light into a straight soprano in order to see leaks in the lower stack & larger low pads. If the horn plays down to D it’s a good bet there is a leak at D, Eb or Db. If there’s a fork Eb mechanism you need to look there first. An octave vent leak or a leak at one of the other small high pads can also cause a sax to be generally hard to blow, and progressively harder to blow as you descend toward the lowest notes. Not all techs have a leak light that will reach into the upper crannies of a soprano sax, so it may be that your tech simply didn’t see a leak up high. The last significant possibility is that you have a leak (or leaks) in your soldered tone hole joints. Tone hole leaks are especially hard to spot unless you have a strong light that you use in total darkness. The good news about tone hole joint leaks is that small ones can be sealed with ordinary clear fingernail polish [you folks that play old Martin's will know of which I speak]. You might want to bone up on our leak light article in the tech section, too. There are many lights that will work as a sax leak light. Just be careful about any light that operates off your full house current. We don’t want you frying yourself from a broken bulb or wiring short, my friend. 

P.S.: Avoid the cheap new horns altogether. Save your money & get a decent vintage sop. You’ll be able to get your money back anytime from a vintage sop, but you can’t even give those ‘disposable’ saxes away. That should tell you all you need to know … 

3. Past & Current Musical Applications for ‘High Pitch’ Saxophones


Q.  I would like to ask you a question about the “High Pitch” Conn 197xxx saxophones. I have one of these saxes and I would like to know how high the A  pitch really is on these instruments? My instrument is in perfect condition (I had it recently overhauled), but I have realized that it cannot be played under normal circumstances. I mean, in a group with other musicians it is really much too high. How can this instrument be used nowadays, and how was it used in the twenties? Thanks a lot in advance. Best wishes, Roberto… (France)

A. Good questions, Roberto. The ‘High Pitch’ nomenclature is misleading in that it suggest there might have been a different standard in effect than our modern A=440. That is not the case. In fact, there were no pitch standards in effect anywhere in the world until the post WWI period. The attempts at establishing the A=440 as a manufacturing standard for pitch was begun by the American instrument makers around 1910, so ‘Low Pitch’ saxophones will all be A=440. The non-standard instruments – labeled ‘High Pitch” – varied in their actual tuning from one manufacturer to another. The differences were of a slight enough nature that groups of non-standard instruments could be tuned to play together, but they were NOT built to any one pitch. I’ve seen charts that supposedly depicted the various pitches used by manufacturers to build ‘High Pitch’ instruments, but they are based on observation as opposed to any specific reference materials. The records simply do not exist to tell us what exact individual pitch specs different manufacturers used.

As you know, saxophones are capable of variable tuning, so even an observed pitch determination will be somewhat arbitrary in nature. Many electronic tuners are capable of calibration to different pitch specs for A, so your best bet to determine the range of pitches that produce successful
inter-note tuning on your high pitch saxophone is to experiment with your mouthpiece position relative to differing tuner values for A. I’ll give you a hint as to where to start that’s based on my own experiences, though: Begin your testing at about a half tone sharp.

Using a long shank modern mouthpiece it is possible to tune tenors to B, altos to E and C-Melodies to Db, then transpose your music charts accordingly. Since the increments between notes on even a high pitch saxophone are standard you can play with other instruments – albeit in some rather odd keys (under normal conditions). By contrast, our more complicated keys are transformed from challenging into mundane. This phenomenon can be useful in playing with guitars in the rock/blues genre, where many bands routinely perform numbers in concert E or A. Of course competent saxophonists manage in whatever key is required by the performance.

As to how these non-standard pitch instruments were used in the post WWI era, you must start with the realization that in 1910 an A=440 instrument was an oddity. The A=440 standard was adopted by the American music industry in 1927, if memory serves me correctly (at any rate, it was much later than one would guess). By that time most of the instruments made in the USA were of the ‘Low Pitch’ type, but there were still large numbers of non standard instruments in use. So the answer to your question about how high pitch saxophones were used in the 1920s is that they were bought so the player could easily conform to a group performance of other non-standard pitch instruments. Since the A=440 standard was not adopted uniformly throughout the world there remained pockets of non-standard instruments in use in various world locations for long after many countries had adopted the Low Pitch standard. There is anecdotal evidence of this reality from the proportionally larger numbers of ‘High Pitch’ saxophones that surface in places like Australia and New Zealand. There were still high pitch models listed in the Conn catalog as late as 1938.

Of course the tuning/transposing scenario will work in reverse – modifying your tuning & keys to use a Low Pitch saxophone with a group of High Pitch instruments – so the standard & non-standard crowds have always been able to ‘get along’. It’s just that until A=440 instruments became a substantial portion of the musical instrument population a new instrument buyer was faced with somewhat of a quandary about which tuning standard would serve them best in their musical performances. You can imagine that this worldwide adaptation period was rather stressful on musicians. To visualize the effect just think about moving to a land where your primary language isn’t used for normal communication. Now imagine the impact if a new world language had to be adopted by everyone on the planet – and not necessarily a language that anyone regularly used. As with all things worthwhile to mankind, the suffering of others paves the way to peace, progress and prosperity… :-)

Additional Comments
There are still applications for high pitch instruments, including historic re-enactment groups (Sousa Bands, Civil War Battles) and in European chamber music. Some high pitch instruments are still being made in obscure locations. In India and China, for instance, copies of saxophones of the original Adolphe Sax design are still made. They occasionally show up on eBay as new saxophones…and according to one Indian seller that I questioned, are still being played in local bands. This gentleman didn’t realize the music world had left his product behind — almost a century ago!



Back to Q&A Topic Directory

go see the taxman


CyberSax.com reserves all rights as regards the content of this website, including graphics, pictures and descriptions of the instruments that appear on any of our pages. Our content may not be copied, reproduced or otherwise used without our express written consent. Email your questions or requests to the attention of our webmaster.