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Disposable Saxophones
Q.  What a great website you have.  Maybe you can help me with a problem.  I bought a cheap soprano lately, probably a mistake, but I bought it to just play around with in the office.  The problem I’m having is it plays flat on the more open keys, e.g., A, B, C, C#.  When keying for lower B, C and C#  and using the octave key it is fine.  When keying B, C, C#, etc., using B1, C2, C# open, respectively,  it is noticeably flat — a full half step.  I have checked the pad opening heights and they seem to be fine and level, with sufficient opening.  One thing noticeable is the tone holes on the upper end seem to have a large amount of taper from body to hole opening.  Would improper taper/hole diameter have this type of influence?  Any advice or theories you may have would be appreciated. Thank you and best regards, John …

A. Unless someone has pioneered a new design, tone holes are a cylindrical shape, and positioned so that the centerline of the tone hole cylinder intersects the centerline of the body tube bore. This is a precise requirement, dictating skilled craftsmen operating precision machinery to close tolerances and specifications to meet it. No Kentucky windage allowed …

Tone hole walls are as straight as is possible to make them, even on designs that have treatments at the rim such as Conn, Martin Keilwerth & SML. Where beveled (Martin) or rolled (Conn) rims have been used, these special rim treatments are formed to the outside of the tone hole itself, such that there is no interference with venting when the pad is open. The multi part operation of forming tone holes includes a number of critical steps:

  • locating the hole centerline on the formed body tube
  • cutting a slit for the forming ball to be attached to a pulling device
  • placing a form inside the sax body that precisely locates & holds the pulling ball
  • attaching the ball to the pulling device
  • precisely positioning the sax body relative to the pulling device
  • pulling the rough tone hole
  • forming the tone hole edge & righting it to the proper alignment with the sax body centerline using presses fitted with precision dies & tooling
  • cutting the tone holes rim to the correct, uniform height & leveling the rim relative to the sax body 

Though each step is critical, It would seem to me that the next to last step may be what went awry on your instrument (at least that much), and I would question the size & placement of the tone holes as well. I would say the latter might be necessary for several notes in succession to be a half tone flat, but then I’ve not had the opportunity – happily, I might add – to study the effects of a few scattered, malformed tone holes.

There are lots of junk horns on the market today, and the sops seem to take up more than their proportionate share of the duds. I feel for you, my friend, but I have no constructive advice short of trashing that horn & getting a good vintage soprano to enjoy. Knowing what you do about the sax it would be my opinion that it is unethical to sell it & pass on your heartache to someone else. This is the time to take it like a man  … :-(

Additional Comments
The basic rule is that if you don’t know, don’t take a chance. There is just too much junk on the market today. If you cannot tell who made a saxophone, where and have a reasonable idea of when, there is good reason for pause. If you buy a sax like that it needs to be dirt cheap, and you should test play it extensively before you buy it. If at all possible have it checked by a tech you trust, as well. A good tech can tell you if there’s the possibility that minor damage or play wear might render a shoddily made instrument unrepairable. 

You can’t go by familiar older names anymore either, cuz a lot of them have been sold or licensed. Alpine & Kohlert, once excellent Keilwerth stencils, are today suspect, Oriental junk. Likewise, the once proud French name of Evette & Schaeffer, made for many years by Buffet, are now made in obscure places. European sounding names like Heimer are actually selected purposely by firms in the People’s Republic of China (Communist China, often abbreviated ‘PRC’) because they lull potential buyers into thinking these instruments are built where there is an age old tradition of craftsmanship and quality in musical instruments. Recognize that there are insidious forces at work selling inferior saxophones in today’s new horn market to the uninitiated or greedy buyer. If it looks too good to be true … well, you know the rest …

Beware of weasel word descriptions & claims like ‘designed in France’ or ‘built in Europe’ that mean absolutely nothing, but are intended to vaguely suggest some element of quality. If someone dodges the question “Who made this saxophone and were was it made?” don’t just walk away — run like heck. There are saxophones sold by distributors today that don’ have a mark, name or number anywhere on them. They are generic in any sense of the term. That’s fine for canned green beans, but for musical instruments? You don’t need that sort of nausea — and it’s hard enough for your kids to learn a tedious new skill on a good saxophone … see that they get a fair chance. The best way to help rid the market of this disingenuous junk is for everyone to ignore it. When there’s no quick profit for the opportunists anymore the junk will go away.

You may also want to visit our write up on the infamous ‘MexiConn’.

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