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Saxophone Design Issues/Comparisons
Q.  I think your Martin [138xxx Committee II alto] is a gorgeous instrument. Great pictures, too.  I am an adult beginner, having played for about 1.5 years after switching from cello.  Best decision I ever made — love the sax.  My teacher has me playing everything from classical to jazz, so I need an all-around instrument.  In addition, my wife would probably appreciate an instrument with a sweeter rather than a louder sound.  Would an instrument like the Martin fit this description?  Last, I am somewhat nervous about having to re-learn the pinky keys, or having to compensate for quirky intonation.  Any advice? Thanks, Dan …

A. In truth, all the top pedigree vintage saxophones have a large overlap in terms of the tones they can produce. To get a desired sound or effect, sax players learn about how the many different mouthpiece chamber designs, reed & tip opening selection, and most of all, your player inputs into the instrument, affect your sound output. I’m sure there are parallels with the cello, perhaps the type of strings or material of which they are made, bow design & materials, or grip & pressure on the strings with both bow & fingers correlate roughly to the things we do as saxophone players to call out the sounds we desire our instruments to produce. I’m just guessing about the cello, though, so please don’t be too critical if I said something silly … :-)

Given that there is so much overlap among the great vintage saxophones, there are also areas at either extreme of musical performance & sound generation spectra where individual instrument designs exceed the norms. So if we say a Martin is sweet & soft, what we mean is that in the extreme, it will play more sweetly (or perhaps more softly in an easier fashion) than say, a King Super 20 or a Conn ‘M’ series equipped and played in exactly the same manner. That’s not to say that in most musical applications that the Martin, Conn or King could not be made to sound more or less the same. Each of these classic vintage sax makers have their followings, of course, and all are quite worthy of their fan loyalty. That’s the long way of saying that you really can’t go wrong with any great vintage sax of good pedigree that you buy from a reliable source.

I would say that if you have the ear-to-motor skill coordination to play the cello that you’ll have little trouble with saxual intonation. IMO, much too much emphasis is placed on the ‘I’ word in the stuff you read on the web about vintage saxophones. While it’s true that modern metal forming techniques and computer design calculations are far more precise than the sax building processes employed during the USA’s vintage sax era, any good pedigree vintage sax can be set up to play acceptably in tune with itself by an experienced sax tech – at least by one that loves these instruments and takes the due care needed in the setup process. That’s my job here at CS, and I can assure you I am a stickler over what goes out of here under our shipping label … :-)

With some experience & practice, your ear & embrochure will quickly master the same saxual coordination that allowed your ear & fingers to play a cello in tune – not that a sax you get from CS will require any Herculean efforts on your part. If you got it, you got. If you don’t, you never will – and new Yanagisawa or pre war Comm II won’t matter a bit in the end analysis. 

I’m not sure where your comment about ‘relearning the pinky keys’ is coming from. I can’t make any comparisons since I didn’t spot what you are playing now in your message, but the Comm II pinky spatula is as well designed (did you know that the ‘Committee’ models were the result of deliberations by the then saxual experts of the day?) and as smooth working as any you will find on a modern saxophone. Much is made of the Selmer ‘balanced action’ pinky cluster that permeates the modern saxophone design world, but us old techs that have studied & worked on all the designs know that the leverage & mechanical efficiency of the left hand low B/Bb saxophones is NOT either mechanically or musically inferior. And I’ll share another secret, my friend: I will charge you a lot more for the privilege of working on your slick looking ‘balanced action’ saxophone than on an old Martin, Conn or Buescher with two left bell tone holes. All those rods that have to run down the front of your ‘modern’ saxophone are a mechanical mess when you have to get into a horn’s guts. Adjustments that would be simple on a Martin can be nightmarish on the so called ‘modern’ instrument designs that feature the balanced action style pinky linkage. The guy who coined that phrase, “Keep it simple, stupid,” sure knew the skinny on saxophone design.

Anyway, if you appreciate your instruments and the music they make equally as art (like moi), these pre war art deco classics like the Martin Committee II alto we’ve been discussing have it all over all but a few of the modern saxual marvels – and at a fraction of the cost. IMO, some of the finest saxophones in the world were made between the onset of our Great Depression and the start of WWII. The real shame is that so few were made due to the circumstances of the era – and even fewer survive in their original glory.

Additional Comments
Compare the simplicity of the dual left bell hole pinky linkage to that of a ‘balanced action’ style saxophone for yourself. Especially on the smaller saxophones, the balanced action linkage can be maddening to work with. Even on a tenor you often have to pull low B & Bb just to get to the low Db pad or mechanism to make a small setup adjustment …

If you have an eye for mechanical things it’s obvious that the Selmer mechanism offers no greater leverage to securely close the low B & Bb pads than this Martin. The one significant advantage to the VI in these pix is that the low Db is a two part assembly, resulting in more efficient springing. Please note, however, that the two part low Db can be achieved apart from adopting the entire Selmer ‘balanced action’ left pinky linkage scheme. Note how clean & accessible all the stack pads are on this Martin. Then compare the virtually hidden Selmer G & G# pad cups & the obstructed C/A cup (ever needed to do the dollar bill trick on a sticking Mark VI G# pad?). The Selmer lower stack cups are fairly clean (discounting the fact that there are three (3) extra posts adding clutter to the area), but that is achieved at the expense of shifting the lower stack tone holes about 25 degrees to the right so they no longer align with the upper stack. This shift to the player’s position forces the sax body left in your hands, which Selmer dealt with in turn by curving their bells back to the right. The first Selmer saxophones (the one’s we actually call ‘Balanced Action’ models) with this type pinky linkage did not have these last two modifications, and they are an absolute nightmare to work on. So if you thought that the cool bell tilt and the right shifted lower stack were Selmer developments that created a good bit of the Mark VI ‘mystique’ — well, forget it. These two modifications were a forced design change in order to keep the world’s sax techs from storming Paris as a lynch mob. And guess who paid for the extra cost these changes added to your Selmer saxophone in order to keep the vaunted Mark VI & Super Balanced Action models from being boycotted en masse by us sax techs? Hmmm? Yup, and every time you take your ‘balanced action’ sax to a tech you get the privilege of paying that extra tab all over again …

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