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What’s up with these Bronze saxophones?
Q.  I have a chance to buy a Yani 902 – bronze, no ribs (posts soldered directly to the body).  In your experience, does the bronze body hold up? Also, is
the no ribs deal structurally sound? Thanks, Burt.

A. Interesting question about the bronze vs. brass thing. As you may know, these early alloys are half brothers, sharing copper as their ‘mother’ metal. Bronze, the older brother, is the marriage of copper & tin (or sometimes arsenic), where the younger bro, brass, is the offspring of copper & zinc. From history we know that brass was developed around the time of the Roman & Classical Greek civilizations as a higher strength alternative to bronze (bronze was probably discovered by accident in the cooking fires of cavemen). Without getting into metallurgy too deeply, classical bronze is as much as 95% copper, while brass has always been closer to 75% in total copper content. In other words, classical bronze was mainly copper, though the magic of alloying does often add more to a mix than its mere proportions indicate.

Classical bronze is stronger than copper alone, but is not as workable by cold techniques as is brass. You have to either cast bronze or work it blacksmith style, either of which adds to cost and complexity of your production facilities. Instrument makers have traditionally worked in small shops using mostly hand tools to ply their trade. In this working environment brass is the nearly perfect medium. Fact is, other than bells, classical bronze is rarely seen in musical instruments because it is so hard to work with cold – not even taking its inferior strength (vs. brass) into consideration. So I just told you that saxophones cannot be made of bronze, right? Not classical bronze, anyway.

Recently – at least in terms of the history of man and metals – new alloys have been developed that have modified the workability properties of ‘bronze’ so that a metal of this name (if you’re not real picky about accuracy) can be used more like brass. Technically, this is NOT really bronze in the classic sense, but more a marriage of brass & bronze — with an iron & phosphorus kicker. This new alloy was patented by Olin Corp as ‘phosphoric bronze’, and is the stuff that saxophones CAN be made of. This new alloy contains more copper than traditional brass (85%), plus 10% zinc (real bronze has none), 2% each tin & iron, and a trace of phosphorus. A little more zinc & the metal would qualify as brass. Take away the zinc and you’d (almost) have bronze, except that iron won’t dance at the party without the zinc and the phosphorus.

Is calling this new metal ‘bronze’ without the qualifying ‘phosphoric’ legit? The Olin Corp patents would indicate not. Is using an alloy that is ‘almost’ brass & calling it bronze a gimmick? You decide. Does this new alloy provide a distinction with a difference in your saxophone, or is it simply a marketing ploy? Hmmm. Is the phosphoric bronze as durable as brass in a saxophone? Too soon to tell, but you can study the properties of the metal further at this link, then make up your own mind.

Do saxophones need ‘ribs’ in order to be durable? The shout of all the wonderful old Conns & Bueschers, magnificent King Zephs & Super 20s, and velvety sounding Martin saxophones that are still making music after 40 to 90 years is a resounding, “NO”. In fact, I get an endless stream of newer Selmers offered as trades against the rib-less vintage classics. To be honest, I really don’t know what purpose ribs actually serve. I know what they say about ‘flexing’ in your keywork, but unless your act involves WWF moves I can’t get my feeble old mind around what piece of music requires one to apply effort sufficient to bend any part of a well made saxophone. To my mind, ribs are something the builders CAN do, not something they SHOULD do. It’s a distinction without a difference…
Additional Comments
Since writing this response to Burt several months ago I have been pondering this question of saxophone ribs. To be sure, this is in the realm of unintentional consequences, but a ribbed design could provide some protection against stress bends in the larger saxes. These stress bends are caused by playing pressures over long time spans. Most vintage baris have a stress bend, and many tenors develop them, as well. Why do stress bends occur? Well, picture the strap ring on your sax as a fulcrum (as in a teeter-totter) and your hand positions as riders on your playground. As we play we are constantly exerting force with both our thumbs against the saxophone, but the sax strap ring won’t allow us to push the instrument away from our bodies. The resulting stress must be absorbed by the sax body tube, and since the upper body is much smaller (read: weaker) this is the area most susceptible to bending. If dripping water can wear away stone over enough time, then it’s easy to understand how constant forces exerted against your sax body will eventually bend it. The jury is still out on this issue of ribs helping a stress bend tendency, though. These ribs are isolated and have gaps between them, so ribs may well simply transfer the stress to another area of your saxophone. In another forty or fifty years we can look at the modern ribbed saxophone marvels to see how they’ve held up. Meantime, saxophone ribs alone wouldn’t convince me to choose one horn over another … :-)

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