Horns in my Life:
1918 Martin C Soprano
by Paul D. Race
It’s no exaggeration to say that by the late 1980s I had wanted a soprano saxophone most of my life. I was held back by two things:
- The fear that I wouldn’t be able to adjust to a smaller instrument than my trustworthy tenors (somewhat based on my aborted experience with an alto in college), and
- The cost of anything that didn’t suck. Mark VI sopranos were about $2500 at the time, and they never went on the used market.
By then I was playing my Buescher-designed Signet tenor with a C* mouthpiece and getting a pretty good tone and volume out of it. So I knew it was possible to play a second-tier tenor well enough to compete with a lot of guys who owned much more expensive horns. But everybody I knew who had a second- or third- tier soprano sounded like a dying gosling or a deflating bagpipe.
By the way, even though Kenny G had risen to popularity in the preceding few years, wanting a soprano sax didn’t mean I was a Kenny G fan any more than playing tenor meant that I was, say, a Boots Randolph fan. By then I had my own style on the tenor and wasn’t interested in (or probably capable of) sounding like anyone else on any instrument. I just thought it would be nice if I could bring a “lighter touch” to some songs than my tenor could bring.
But when several companies started importing Asian-made, off-brand sopranos in the $500-$1000 range, a number of wind-playing friends who were Kenny G fans ran out and bought them and proceeded to embarrass themselves for months before they gave them up. Did they lack the chops? Or did the horns have intrinsically bad intonation (as more than one pro told me)? Or were they simply using the wrong mouthpieces, something that had messed me up in the past? I was the young father of two and in no position to spend a weeks’ wages or two to discover for myself.
Then, in Dayton Band music store buying guitar strings, I was looking through the store’s collection of tarnished obsolete instruments - double-bell euphoniums and the like, and I noticed that what I had taken for a metal clarinet was actually an old Martin C soprano, black with tarnish. I asked the store owner/chief repairman Bob Daugherty if he’d be interested in selling the sax. Assuming I wanted it to make a lamp out of it or something, he offered it to me for $150 (in 1987 dollars). I thought it was worth a try. So I bought it, brought it home and cleaned it up - no small task. It still had the original pads and springs and a slight ding in the bell, but no parts were missing. A few weeks later I brought it back in and asked Bob what he would charge to repad it and replace any springs that were past use. $150.
While Bob was working on my horn, he complained that it was impossible to get the intonation right in certain ranges. He blamed the very soft brass that Martin used. I have no reason to question his judgment because a: he’s worked miracles on other horns for me and my friends and b: two subsequent guys worked on it with no more success than Bob had.
When Bob was done with it and I picked it up, he said, “You know, if you’d asked me to fix this up and then sell it to you, I’d have charged you a lot more than $300.” I know. Thanks, Bob.
In the intervening years, I have taken it to several jams where a soprano was more appropriate than a tenor, but I generally spent a few weeks practicing before each session - the horn was playable only if I kept in serious practice on it. Lipping up and down to play one of these in tune across its whole range almost deserves to be an Olympic event.
Also, I couldn’t switch off between saxes very well. If I put it on a floor-level stand while I played my tenor or alto, the soft brass would literally shrink enough in the cooler air by the floor to knock the horn out of tune until I blew on it enough to warm it up again.
I used to live near a nationally-renowned mouthpiece expert, and I asked him if I should change mouthpieces. Instead of coming up with one for me, he refaced the one I had and opened up the inside a bit. It was better but the horn remained less than “friendly” for me.
Friends who played C soprano told me that things would only get worse if I tried Bb mouthpieces on the thing. And, I can’t really tell if a mouthpiece is going to work on a horn for the long run until I’ve owned it longer than the return period on the things. Upgrade mouthpieces cost “real money,” and this was a “hobby horn.”
Some time later, I got a used Selmer C* mouthpiece for a Bb soprano. Since I had the mouthpiece in my possession now, I thought I’d try it on the Martin C soprano. Would it outperform the “original” mouthpiece that my friend had customized for me? To get the horn remotely in tune, I wound up pushing the C* mouthpiece all the way up against the octave key mechanism. (Thank goodness the horn didn’t have a microtuner.) But the intonation and tone were both better than with the “vintage” original mouthpiece (a lesson for those of you considering dropping $300 on an 80-year-old mouthpiece because it’s “vintage”).
Since then, I’ve found a C* mouthpiece for this horn. Since it still has to go all the way to the octave to play in anything concert pitch, I may need to take 1/4” off the back end of the mouthpiece in case I ever wind up playing with someone tuned a few cents sharp.
Though my Bb soprano is still a tad easier to play, and I don’t “need” a C soprano, it does have a unique sound. In fact, I’ve thought about using it to play the oboe parts in the church worship “orchestra” (one of the uses that was advertised back in the 1920s). It also sounds good playing the pipe parts in Irish music. Don’t laugh.
About C Sopranos
When Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone, he envisioned a family of orchestral instruments that would include a C soprano, an F alto, a C tenor, and an F baritone. He also wanted them to blend with the orchestra, so the narrow-bored instruments he made sound more like Alto and Bass clarinets than they do modern saxophones.
The sax hit its stride, not in the orchestra but in marching, brass, and jazz bands. To meet that market, the manufacturers made horns with larger bores and brighter tones. They also made the soprano and tenor sax Bb instruments, like a trumpet and clarinet, so arranging would be easier. The alto and baritone sax became Eb instruments, because it was traditional to place different-pitched instruments in the same family a half-octave apart. So the standard saxophone tunings for well over a century have been Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb Tenor and Eb baritone.
But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, mandolins, parlor guitars, pianos, and banjos were finding their ways to millions of homes in America. As the saxophone increased in popularity, families started bringing them home as well. To their chagrin, they discovered that the Eb and Bb saxophone players couldn’t play along with the mandolin, guitar, piano or banjo, unless at least one of the musicians knew how to transpose (play music in a different key than it is written).
So the manufacturers started making saxes in the key of C. The vast majority of these were what is now called “C Melody” saxophones. They are pitched one step higher than tenors, but they were designed using mostly alto parts. This gives them a relatively narrow bore compared to the length of the instrument - in fact the bells are smaller than modern alto bells. By today’s standards, their tone tends to be dark and muted. But in 1914, that was considered a feature - you could play a C melody saxophone in the same parlor as, say, a mandolin player, and folks could hear both instruments, something that isn’t easy to do with modern saxes. (For more information on C Melody saxophones, check out our article “Shopping for C Melody Saxes.”
Although over a hundred thousand of the alto/tenor-style C melodies were manufactured, only a relative handful of C sopranos were made. These had a sweeter and - in some cases- reedier tone and about the same range as an oboe. In fact, a few wind players in orchestras without oboe players bought them so they could play the oboe solos.
At that time, marching band music occasionally featured oboe sections as well. Manufacturers apparently recommended using C soprano saxophones instead - they were easier to learn and arguably easier to play while marching.
Still, the smaller the sax, the harder it is to play in tune. C sopranos were hard for anyone but experienced players to play well, and there were intonation problems even on the best horns. Eventually the Great Depression forced manufacturers to cut back on the number of different lines they could keep open, and the C soprano followed the F Mezzo into obscurity.
Most of the surviving C sopranos were made by two or three manufacturers, even though you can still find several different brands on the bell. As an example, Martin, the company that made mine, also made an identical model labeled for Lyon and Healy.
Conn made a couple different models, including the C Wonder, which has a bunch of engraving and nice features, as well at least one “student line.” Conn’s C sopranos have a relatively good reputation, but I seriously doubt they merit the $1500+ prices some folks are asking for them. One friend is fairly satisfied with his refurbished “Pan American.” That’s a “discount” line that Conn made in their own factories to keep the lines busy and keep competitors from “sneaking” into the market with lower cost horns.
I don’t know anyone else who plays a Martin C soprano. So I can’t say definitively that you’ll be satisfied or dissatisfied with a Martin C if you come across one and get it into playing condition. Mine’s a part of my “family” now, and I’m used to its glitches after all these years. What can I say?
C Sopranos VS Bb Sopranos
As a rule, the bores of 1900-1930 C sopranos are noticeably narrower than the bores of modern Bb sopranos. If you think you’re going to sound like Kenny G on one, think again. In the upper ranges, you’re more likely to sound like you’re playing a metal clarinet. Yes, I will make several people angry by posting this. But I can sound very authentic on “Hava Nagila.”
Now, you may be interested in a C soprano because you’re playing in a situation where the only music available is in the key of C, and you’d rather not transpose. Examples include church praise bands, string bands, Dixieland Banjo clubs, Celtic jams (don’t laugh), and the like. If that’s a huge consideration, and you don’t have access to a restorable vintage horn and a repairperson you would trust with your life, I’d take a look at Aquilasax’s C sopranos, specifically their better model, which isn’t that that much more than their cheaper version. Based on reviews, when you get the horn, it may need minor tweaking by someone who knows what he or she is doing. But you’re more likely to get a playable horn than if you buy a “restored” vintage horn from someone you don’t know. I would not “invest” in one of the $300 “professional, instructor-approved” Chinese horns, unless you are a fan of frustration or in need of an expensive lamp base.
If you don’t need a C horn because you transpose fine, or you improvise everything anyway, or because you’re playing in a situation where you have the right music, you might consider a Bb soprano. It’s a lot easier to find one that’s affordable that is also playable or can be made playable, and the tone will be closer to what most people expect from a soprano sax.
Short version - if a Bb soprano would serve most or all of your needs for a soprano saxophone, don’t go to extraordinary lengths or expense to get a C horn.
On the other hand, I have fun with mine in settings where the sound of a C soprano is more appropriate than the sound of a Bb. Its reedy sound suits some forms of Celtic and World music more than you might think.
If you come across a vintage C soprano for a price you think is fair, check to make certain it is “Low Pitch” (Conns have an L under the serial number; most others are spelled out). Then if you get it, and you appreciate it for what it is, have fun!
Enjoy your music!
Update for 2015: The Martin C soprano has gone to a better player. A pastor who plays in his church praise team drove up a couple hours to try it out. He’s played Bb soprano extensively, and he had no trouble taking right to it. He says he is playing it in his church band now with a more open mouthpiece than either of mine, and the intonation is great. This is clearly a case of a musician who knew how to get what he needed out of a horn.
I guess the takeaway is, if you’re used to Bb soprano or clarinet, it won’t be as big a jump for you as it was for me. I’m glad it’s being put to good use.
Here are write-ups on other horns I’ve loved.
The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.
Other Articles you may find helpful include:
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