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17 Jul


I often hear it said that the very first saxophones, the ones actually made by Adolphe Sax himself, are very similar to the ones we use today. Well, I think the word “similar” is very appropriate. The early saxophones are in many ways like modern instrument, but they are also quite different in many ways. If you can play a modern saxophone, you can certainly play an early one, but you will be surprised at the differences. Over my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to play a half dozen examples of instruments made by Adolphe Sax. They were in various states of repair and restoration (all being, of course, over a hundred and fifty years old), but the well maintained ones actually played quite well. They all showed an extremely pronounced favoritism for large chambered mouthpieces, and the scale was somewhat inconsistent. That being said, the biggest hurdle I found was the mechanism, and this is where much of the evolution has taken place over the years. It’a probably best that we take a brief look at the beginnings of the saxophone, as the origins certainly had a major influence on the direction the evolution of the instrument took over the years.

Nobody really knows when Adolphe Sax built the very first saxophone. We do have a reliable report from composer Hector Berlioz, who was a close friend of Sax, of a bass saxophone in the key of C which was demonstrated to him in 1840. Sax was still living in Brussels at the time, and moved to Paris and showed his new invention at the Paris Industrial Exhibition in 1844. Sax filed for a patent in 1846 for an entire family of saxophones, including a sopranino in Eb, a sopranino in F, a soprano in Bb, a soprano in C, an alto in Eb, an alto in F, a tenor in Bb, a tenor in C, an Eb baritone, a Bb bass, a C bass, an Eb contrabass, and contrabass in F. It is worth pointing out that just because a patent drawing was filed does not mean that the instrument was actually built! An important part of the early design concept was that instruments for orchestral use were to be keyed in C and F, while instruments for military bands (a very significant market at the time) were to be keyed in Bb and Eb. Another important part of the original design concept were that by using a conical bore rather than a cylindrical bore, the saxophone would overblow an octave rather than the twelfth produced by an overblown clarinet. This allows the same fingerings to be used in two octaves. The early saxophones had two, and later three, separate octave keys to facilitate going from the lower octave (the fundamental) to the second octave (the first overtone). Needless to say, a very significant amount of coordination and agility was required of the player’s left thumb! The early saxophones were keyed from low B to high F. The basic layout of the main stack keys was based on oboe and second octave clarinet keywork, and is essentially the same system that is in use today.

There were some significant differences from modern saxophones, and these differences created some fairly significant limitations. The note Bb required the use of a “side key” operated by the right hand (no “one and one” or bis), and the G# key could not be held down when playing notes using the lower stack. There were no chromatic keys for F# or C, and there were no rollers on any of the key touches. More than anything else, the keywork did not operate nearly as smoothly as that found on modern saxophones. It is important to keep in mind that several of the earliest saxophones were bass or baritone horns, so the larger keywork made the problems worse. It was felt by composers of the time that saxophones would be forever limited in their ability to execute technically difficult passages such as arpeggios, so the early examples were often relegated to the “bass section” where rapid technique was rarely required.

It is believed that this prejudice by composers of the day spurned Adolphe Sax to produce more altos, tenors, and sopranos, which would be easier to play due to their smaller size. In 1846, the first saxophone school opens, with bassoonist Jean-Francois-Barthelemy-Cokken as the instructor. At the same time, the French military decided to change the basic pitch of their instruments, requiring the replacement of much of the existing inventory, creating a substantial business opportunity for Adolphe Sax. The manufacturing techniques of Adolphe Sax at his facility at Rue St. George in Paris (actually little more than a shed at first) were unique for their day in that Adolphe Sax insisted on overseeing the workmen producing each component rather than having the parts produced by outside craftsmen and then assembled at his facility. This may have been a contributing factor to the first bankruptcy of Adolphe Sax in 1856.

In spite of this financial setback, Adolphe Sax continued to manufacture and promote the saxophone, and in 1858 he was appointed Professor of Saxophone at the Paris Conservatory, a most important position. Interestingly, he taught that the his saxophones had a four octave range, even though they were only keyed from low B up to high F. There are no known copies of the altissimo fingerings he employed in existence today. As the saxophone gained greater acceptance by the composers of the day, more instruments were demanded.

In 1866, the original patent granted to Adolphe Sax expired, and other companies quickly jumped into saxophone manufacturing, notably Buffet which had been previously producing Sax licensed saxophones, and the Millereau Company, which began producing a saxophone with a side key for producing a chromatic F#. In 1868, Pierre-Louis Gautrot patented a new system for saxophone pads which promised “leak proof” operation. Leaking pads had been a significant problem up to this point, and Gautrot’s system, while not perfect, was a great leap forward. Even though he was unquestionably a genius at instrument design and manufacturing, by his own admission he was a total failure at business matters and declared bankruptcy for the second time in 1873. The Goumas company introduced a new saxophone fingering system which was based upon the Bohem fingering system for clarinets in 1875. Goumas became a significant producer of saxophones.

In 1881, Adolphe Sax extended his original patent with some significant innovations. The new patent called for the extension of the saxophone bell in order to produce the notes Bb and A, as well as the addition of yet another octave key (now a total of four!) n2to allow the production of the notes F# and G as a part of the “normal range” of the saxophone. By 1885, the saxophone was becoming known in the United States, and the first American made saxophone was produced at the C. G. Conn factory in Elkhart, Indiana by none other than Gus Buescher, who was the foreman of the Conn plant. Buescher constructed his saxophone (an alto in Eb) using original Adolphe Sax patent drawings. Conn did not begin regular saxophone production until 1888. Gus Buescher left Conn to form his own company in 1890.


In 1886, L’Association Des Ouvriers invents a right hand trill key for the note C, and in 1887, Evette and Shaeffer began offering substantial improvements to the mechanism, including an articulated G# key which allowed the key touch to be held down while the right hand keys were operated, a low Bb key, an improved side F#, and a Bb “bis” key. The multiple octave keys used on the first saxophones were inconvenient to say the least. In 1888, Lecomte invents (drum roll, please!) the automatic octave key, which greatly reduced the technical difficulty of many passages. In addition to this wonderous advance, Lecomte also saw the wisdom of adding rollers to the Eb and C keys! With these improvements, the saxophone had finally reached a configuration that eliminated many of the technical hurdles, and with a few minor tweaks here and there, such as the forked Eb key and the G# trill key, it would remain in the same basic configuration through then 1930’s. There were a couple of interesting experiments which reached production, although they were commercial failures.

The Evette and Shaeffer company offered their wonderfully complex “Apogee” system in the very early 1900’s as an alternative way finger the lowest (low C, low B, and low Bb) notes using three levers mounted above the right hand stack keys. The Buffet-Powell saxophone added extra keys to the neck in hope of improving intonation, and for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, decided to hang the keys of the lower stack in a fashion that it reversed from the usual practice.

 1931 saw the introduction by the Leblanc company of a completely new way of looking at things. Here’s a quote from the Leblanc catalog which sums up the general idea: “The Leblanc saxophone — created by Messrs. Georges and Leon Leblanc and acoustician Charles Houvenaghel — is constructed according to the Boehm system, which is: ‘Any note being emitted, all the notes below it should have their holes of emission open when the instrument is at rest.’” These horns take everything a couple steps further, though.  Again, let me quote from that Leblanc article: “The heart of the Leblanc (Paris) System saxophone is a special coupling mechanism which enables the player to lower the pitch in the left hand key bank one semitone by depressing the first, second or third finger of the right hand.” These instruments are marvels of complexity, but no saxophone, before or since, can match their pitch, response, or even scale. Unfortunately, they were far too expensive to produce, and players were hesitant to learn new fingerings, in spite of the advantages.b Only a few of these magnificent instruments were made between 1931 and 1936.

 The Selmer company introduced the first really modern saxophone, the Balanced Action model, in 1936. All currently produced saxophones can trace their linage back to this model. The Balanced Action offered extremely significant improvements. Heres how Selmer explained it in their catalog: Notice the simplified low-tone key leverages. Now the Bb, B, C# and G# work straight up and down, just as they do on a clarinet. The usual saxophone has more than 15 leverages — “Balanced-Action” eliminates these differences. Now you can play just as fast in the extreme lower register as you can in any other part of the scale; note the extreme simplicity of the new mechanism. Fewer parts are used; action is more direct. Low tones speak more surely with “Balanced Action” because the shorter direct leverages make pads cover quickly and seal perfectly. Look at the back view of the new “Balanced-Action” Selmer. There are no moving parts next to your body. Nothing to catch in the clothing. No tone holes are muffled by the clothing. Long delicate low-tone key rods are completely protected from damage. Note the special shock-absorbing ring between the body of the sax and the bell. Permits freer vibration of bell and resists bell shocks without denting body of the instrument. These were pretty strong claims, but apparently Selmer was able to deliver what they promised and the Balanced Action, which was produced from 1935 – 1946), set new standards.  The next major advance came, once again, from Selmer with the introduction of the Mark Six model in 1954. Selmer specified nineteen improvements, and through this model, set the standard for saxophone design up through the present day. Although there have been improvements in saxophone acoustics, almost all modern mechanisms are essentially variations of the Mark Six. Their catalog says it best:  Since the Mark Six, there have been a few (but not many) innovations in keywork, such as altissimo octave keys, high G keys, and upper stack speaker keys. That being said, there is no question that saxophone keywork design has become quite standardized, and will most likely remain so for the forseeable future.

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