Horns in my Life:
1920s Selmer New York C Melody
by Paul D. Race
Though I started playing my Bb tenor in concert, rock and jazz bands over forty years ago, I’ve also been playing it in church services off and on for about 35 years. Most of those years, the church was doing music in keys that a sax player who mostly improvised could easily play along with. For example, if the song is in C, a tenor player would play in D and an alto player would play in A. But lately, we’ve been doing more and more songs in keys like B, which puts a Tenor sax in C# (seven sharps) and an Alto sax in G# (eight sharps) . Even players who can survive such keys don’t always do their best work in them.
A number of praise band players in other churches have bought C melody saxes because it’s easier than transposing or improvising. That’s not my problem - in fact the sax parts published for most praise choruses are so bad that if they started requiring me to use the sheet music I wouldn’t play at all. (For more information about playing saxophone in a worship setting, see our article “Saxophones in Church?”) But for the “fun of it,” with the growing number of songs in B (C# on my Tenor), I thought I’d look into what it would take to get a trustworthy C Melody.
I already owned a C soprano saxophone, but it had a certain sound that doesn’t suit 90% of what we do in church, at least when I play it.
20 years ago every pawn shop in the area had several C melodies that they had taken in a half-century before. I’d looked at a few of those just out of general interest (at the time, my alto and tenor were all I ever needed). As a rule, the silverplate was black and the pads were white, meaning that the pads were original and 40-60 years overdue for replacement. Every case was a smelly write-off. The big problem was that the pawn shops all wanted $500-600 for these unplayable antiques, the same price they were asking for 10-year-old, playable altos and tenors. But at least I could get my hands on the instrument and determine if it would be possible to restore it to playing condition without exceptional costs.
A few years ago, when I got the idea of trying to find a restorable C melody for myself, I went back to those pawn shops, only to discover that the old C melodies had all disappeared. For all I know they were sold for scrap when the cost of copper went up. (For more information about vintage C Melodies, check out our article “Shopping for C Melody Saxes.”)
Nowadays, the only place I can find these is on eBay or Craigs List. So, still not having decided to buy one, I started looking at the eBay listings. In 2013, for $100-150 you could get a basket case that was probably not repairable. For $150-250 you could get an old unrestored one that might or might not be repairable. For $800-2000 you could get one that - according to the vendor - was completely restored and “like new.” (For information about the risks of shopping for a vintage horn, check out our article “Evaluating Vintage Saxophones.”)
Again, if I could have gotten my hands on them, I would have known whether the $100 horn was really a basket case, or whether the $800 one was really restored. But in the absence of a hands’ on experience or a “no-brainer,” all I felt comfortable doing was researching.
Brands and Stencils
Through other research, I learned that Conn, Buescher, and Martin made most of the C melodies, even the ones with other brand names engraved on the bell, like Lyon and Healy or Wurlitzer. Today folks use the term “stencils” to describe early-20th-century horns that were made by one company but labeled for another. The manufacturers generally left off some feature that made their horns especially desirable or identifiable, and sometimes had less quality control. But stencil orders kept the factories humming when orders for their name-brand horns were down. And the stencil marketplace helped keep ”upstart” manufacturers from trying to get into the market at a lower price point.
At the same time, several of the companies whose names commonly popped up on stencils - most notable Lyon and Healy - were real music instrument companies. They just didn’t have the resources to make saxophones in quantity at an affordable price price point. But they made sure that their suppliers delivered quality products.
So most Lyon and Healys, for example, were carbon copies of the equivalent Buescher True-Tone, except that they lacked the triangular True-Tone icon under the thumb rest, and most of them lacked the fancy “man-in-the-moon” neck brace. Purists will probably have a few other differences to list, but these are the only consistent differences I’ve seen for myself.
Sadly, a number of less-reputable or ignorant eBay vendors use confusion about stencil horns to declare that any old piece of questionable origin was really identical to a desirable piece like a Conn New Wonder II (which has a good reputation among the available models). As far as I can tell, some of the manufacturers who ordered stencil horns changed suppliers every few years, so you can’t even always assume that a particular stencil was made by a particular company. (For more information about stencil saxophones, check out our article “What is a Stencil Saxophone?”).
In other words, claiming that an off-brand vintage sax was really made by Conn, Martin, or Buescher just to inflate its presumed value is all too common.
This is one reason I find the sites with a lot of photographs so helpful - I can compare the listed stencil to a site with lots of photos and decide if the thing was really made by Conn, Buescher, or Martin, as the ad claims.
In a few cases, the false claims are just ignorance - claiming that a Buescher stencil was made by Conn or vice versa is inaccurate, but since both Buesher and Conn had decent reputations, the value would be about the same either way.
The point is, if you go shopping for one of these, don’t assume that a vendor’s claim that their instrument was really made by such-and-such manufacturer is necessarily true.
What I Found
In the case of my Selmer “New York” C melody, the vendor claimed that it was made in a Selmer plant. That was patently untrue - Selmer didn’t have a plant in the US until they bought out Buescher in 1963. But the vendor was a bass guitar player passing on what he’d been told. The fact that he had taken a dozen good photos of the thing was his way of making sure any intelligent buyer would know exactly what he or she was getting, so I forgave him for his ignorance.
The internet experts I could find all claimed that all Selmer New Yorks were stencil horns (true). They also claimed that all Selmer New Yorks were really made by Conn (untrue). The eBay vendor’s photos showed an instrument that was identical to the Lyon and Healy equivalent in every point except the name on the bell (and the aftermarket lacquer job). Lyon and Healy was one of Buescher’s most popular and dependable stencils, incorporating almost all the features of their name-brand True-Tone horns. So this was promising.
Even at that, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting until I held it in my hands, but the ability to examine it from every angle and compare every detail to online photos of several different Lyon and Healy and Buescher True-Tone equivalents cemented my opinion. This horn, probably made in the 1920s, was originally identical to the most common variation of the Lyon and Healy horns.
A Twist on the Usual Provenance
The vendor also claimed that the horn was made in the 1930s and that the original lacquer was 95% intact. I’ve seen a lot of conflicting information about serial numbers on these - a lot of folks assume that they were made by Conn, so they use Conn serial number ranges to judge the age of the horn, almost always coming to the wrong conclusion. I won’t swear to the age - it could be as late as the early 1930s, I suppose, though few C melodies were made after 1931. But there was no question that the lacquer was a redo. In this case, it was obvious to me from the photographs.
That didn’t bother me as much as it would have bothered some people. Many saxophone purists claim that the tone of a horn is affected by its finish, which is why you see 60-year-old classic horns with all the original lacquer rubbed off and no attempt to relacquer the thing because the new lacquer might affect the tone. 99% of the people who restore C melodies attempt to shine up the original metal finish, but where it’s worn down to the brass, they let it go, since:
- It would be prohibitively expensive to re-plate, and
- Lacquering could affect the tone and potentially diminish any collectors’ value (which is meaningless for most of these horns anyway, since only a handful of people actually collect them.)
But here, as far as I could tell was a 1920s-era Buescher stencil that had been disassembled, relacquered and repadded in recent history, then seldom, if ever played since.
The truth is that it is very rare for C melodies to get this much attention, unless the horn has sentimental value to someone in the family. It’s quite the anomaly - a $200 off-brand stencil that had some $400-600 worth of work put into it and then was never played.
An Accidental Purchase
Lots of folks would have been put off by the lacquer - it just “isn’t done.” But I’ve already owned three vintage silver-plated horns, and cleaned up others for people, so I know what kind of maintenance they require, especially if the plating has had a chance to get really bad. And by now I had owned six laquered horns, some of which had great tone. So having a lacquered horn that started off plated didn’t frighten me.
None of this would have convinced me to bid on the thing if it was VERY expensive, of course. But I put in a low-ball offer ten days before the end of the auction, just as a way to keep an eye on it. And I won. Go figure.
In My Hands
The vendor sent it Federal Express overland, instead of USPS, so I got it pretty fast. I didn’t know what to expect, so I tried to test it out under a number of conditions.
Once I realized that this was a Lyon and Healy (Buescher stencil), I knew that a review of this horn would apply to a third or more of the available C melodies on the market at any given time, so I’ve spent a little time describing what what I’ve discovered since I had the thing in my hands.
I bought a bunch of new reeds and tried my tenor’s Selmer S-80 C*, my alto’s Selmer S-80 C*, and the mouthpiece that came with the horn.
As far as I could tell, the cork had never had a mouthpiece shoved on it before. But I greased it up thoroughly and got started. After all, I didn’t want to start sanding the cork down before I knew what mouthpiece I’d be using on the thing.
The tenor mouthpiece didn’t go on far enough to put the instrument quite in tune, but far enough to test - I thought. It sounded dark as long as I played “tight,” but when I backed off and just blew like I might for a 50’s rock solo, the horn had more edge.
The alto C* barely went onto the end of the neck. In this case, it wasn’t just that the cork diameter was too thick, the neck of the horn itself was almost as big as the opening of the mouthpiece. Also, when I pulled it out far enough to play in tune, I was half afraid it was going to fall off. It sounded brighter than the tenor mouthpiece, but I didn’t feel like it was really an option.
The mouthpiece that came with the horn was unmarked except for a C on the top near the neck hole. My tenor reed was about a half-inch too long, but a little extra reed sticking out of the bottom of the ligature never hurt anybody. (I’ve been told that bass clarinet reeds are the right length.) After some research, I have determined that this mouthpiece is the same mouthpiece that came with contemporary Lyon and Healy and Buescher True-Tone C melodies.
So after forcing it onto the cork, I felt that the old C mouthpiece gave me the best sound of the three. Though the tone was still dark by, say, tenor sax standards, I could brighten it by going to a more focused, Alto-style embouchure. No matter how I played, though, there was a “restricted” or stuffy feeling to it, like the “back pressure” you get when you play a bass clarinet.
A couple days later, after the first layer of cork grease had become so absorbed into the cork that it seemed dry again, I sanded the cork down far enough so that the stock mouthpiece could go on without a huge effort. It played a little better, but I still had the sense of too much back pressure. I asked Steve of Aquilasax if his mouthpiece would help with that and he said that there was no point experimenting with mouthpieces unless I had resonator pads on the horn. Well, someone else had just repadded it without resonator pads, and I’m not in a position to start over.
In the meantime, I checked on the Internet to see what other folks were using on similar horns to improve the tone and reduce the back pressure. Several experts claim that they get a better sound and less apparent “back pressure” with a modern mouthpiece. All of the mouthpiece manufacturers told me that their product could solve the problem. But nobody in the greater Dayton Ohio area sells aftermarket professional C Melody mouthpieces, and I didn’t want to order a non-refundable $250 custom mouthpiece on “spec.”
After several attempts to find something else I could afford to try, I got the horn out again and tried both the Tenor C* and the original C mouthpiece. This time I used a reed that was “broken in.” Since I had filed the neck cork down a little, I could push the Tenor mouthpiece on much farther. To get it anywhere close to tune, I had to screw the Tenor mouthpiece so far in that it bumped up against the neck bracing. But In that position it sounded way better than the original mouthpiece and was way more comfortable to play. Even the sense of back pressure seemed to be reduced, although it was still there.
I’m thinking that the ability to screw the mouthpiece on almost as far as it needed to be was part of it. But how much of the difference was due to using a “broken-in” reed?
Ironically, the “broken in” reed made the C mouthpiece feel even “stuffier” than it had before. I’m thinking that part of the cause is a “beginner”-oriented shallow tip opening. If I was going to stick with the C mouthpiece I’d have to have it refaced or use heavier reeds, or both. But my experiment with the tenor C* had proven that I could do better.
So I bid on a slightly used Selmer S-80 C* tenor mouthpiece on eBay and won the bid. I’ll practice with it a while before I decide if I need to cut the last 3/8” inch off of it to get the tuning flexibility I need. And the new Meyer $250 might have been a better choice. But I’ll only go so far on spec.
(Some folks claim that the Aquilasax C melody mouthpieces do the job. But Aquilasax wouldn’t answer my questions about their mouthpieces so ordering a $70 used mouthpiece I knew would work seemed more sensible than ordering a non-returnable $70 mouthpiece I couldn’t test out first.)
Yes, if I was ever in any danger of playing this horn professionally, I’d track down and try out the advertised “pro” mouthpieces for the thing. But this is a hobby horn, and I have a budget.
By the way, if you’ve been reading my articles, you know that the Selmer S-80 C* is sort of my “go to” mouthpiece when I need to replace something totally unsuitable on a horn. I am well aware that for some horns in some situations a C**, or D, or E, or F is more suitable, and that other brands have applications, too. But starting out with a C* on a horn that is new to me gives me a baseline to learn what I need to know about the horn before I start experimenting with other mouthpieces.
Bore and Bell:
Although C melody saxes are technically only one step higher than a tenor, folks often describe them as “stretched-out altos” because the bore is more like an alto bore. In fact the bell is even narrower than modern alto bells.
It is hard to get loud, especially with the original mouthpiece. With my other saxes, I can whisper or scream as I need to. This one goes between a whisper and a volume that would be considered mezzo-forte on most instruments. Trying to force the instrument to play at louder volumes still results in a feeling of back pressure, like the bass clarinet I played my junior year of high school. If you’re planning on playing where you’ll be miked or where you don’t want to disturb the neighbors, this may not be a problem for you. But to me it limits my range of expression.
Tone and Tune:
Tone and intonation were good, surprisingly good for a vintage stencil, really. This was even more apparent after I filed the cork down far enough to get the tenor C* on all the way.
Certain notes can still be dark unless I make a point of putting some “edge” on them. With a little more practice, I could probably play with consistent tone across the range of the horn, though - the same way sax players get used to lipping certain notes up or down once you’re acquainted with a horn.
Size and Shape
I like to play standing, with the horn out away from my body, but the way this one is balanced, it took a lot of pressure on my right thumb to accomplish that. My thumb was sore in a few minutes - the same thumb I use to hold my tenor and altos in the same position for hours on end. I’m sure I’d get used to it, though.
On the other hand, the smaller size makes it easier to move around in or out of the case than a tenor. If you tend to play tiny, crowded stages where you’re having to navigate around the congas or something to get on and off, this is as easy to move around as an alto. In the case, it’s actually smaller than an alto in two out of three dimensions and smaller than an tenor in all dimensions.
- Selmer New York/Lyon and Healy/Buescher case dimensions: 27”x10.5”x6”
- Typical alto case: 25" x 12" x 7"
- Typical tenor case: 32"W x 12"H x 7"D
In fact, I could make a case (no pun intended) for using this as a “travel tenor.” The case takes up a lot less room in my trunk than my tenor, and would be an acceptable carry-on size on at least some airlines.
Difference Between “Alto” and “Tenor” C Melody
If you’re in school band, there’s a big difference between alto and tenor sax. Alto is pitched in Eb, almost half an octave about tenor, which is pitched in Bb.
But when you see ads for C melodies, you may see them called “C Melody Alto” or “C Melody Tenor.” What’s the difference? The shape of the neck. The C melodies that have a single bend look more like an Eb alto sax than a tenor sax, so they call them C Melody Altos. These include most Conns, including the ones with the best reputations. The C melodies have a crook in the neck look more like a Bb tenor sax, so they call them C Melody Tenors. Buescher/Lyon and Healy fall into this category. Unlike saxophones in the Eb/Bb world, the C melodies all play in the same key, and they all sound more or less the same. The only reason that they get named differently is that one kind looks more like an alto and one kind looks more like a tenor.
There is one other difference that may or may not be important to you, but annoys some people. The horns with the crooks, like my Selmer/Buescher horn, are made to play close to your body - in fact my horn is most comfortable when I play it leaning on my hip. The horns with the alto-style necks, like most Conns are made to be played out away from the body, like jazz players hold their altos. So if you’re an alto player used to holding the horn out away from you, you really may be more comfortable playing an “alto-necked” C melody. If you’re a tenor player who never got in the habit of holding the horn out, the “tenor-necked” C melody may seem more comfortable to you.
Reasons to Own a C Melody
Reasons to own a C melody:
- You want to play along with concert-pitch instruments and you’d rather not transpose or improvise all the time.
- You want to have a tenor-format sax you can carry onto airplanes. You’ll still want to check with your airline, of course. But the FAA reports that
The maximum size carry-on bag for most airlines is 45 linear inches (the total of the height, width, and depth of the bag).
For my C melody, the “linear inches” would be 43.5”. For my tenor, the “linear inches” would be 51. (For my alto, the “linear inches” are exactly 45”). But some airlines advertise a 22” maximum length, so you could, technically, run into an attendant willing to be a pain about it, so call before you make reservations.
- You want to be able to practice without disturbing people next door or downstairs.
- You want to be able to play in the same room with unmiked guitars, mandolins, etc.
In fact, if you travel a lot, live in an apartment, and jam frequently with acoustic guitarists, a C melody may be just what you need.
Reasons Not to Own a C Melody
On the other hand, if you are playing rock or jazz and you have the chops to transpose or improvise, you’ll probably want the broader range of expression that you’ll get with a similar quality alto or tenor.
If you’re a student wanting to play in school band, or an adult wanting to play in a community band, a C Melody is almost as useless as a digeridoo. There is no music for it. Period. In fact, you sometimes see C Melodies that have been fixed up because someone’s kid wanted to play in band and there seemed to be no point in buying a new saxophone when Uncle Joe’s horn was still in the closet. Then the horn gets made playable, the kid shows up with it for band class and the band director tells him or her that he doesn’t have music for it, so get another horn. Based on the money someone put into fixing up my Selmer stencil, and the fact that it was barely played after that, I couldn’t help wondering if that was what happened here.
How to Buy a C Melody
You probably can’t go to the music store and pick one out. If you want a new one that qualifies as a musical instrument, you’re pretty much restricted to Aquilasax, a New Zealand company whose horns are made in China with more quality control than the average Chinese saxophone.
If you want a used C Melody, find a sax player who can help you pick one out and who can recommend a good service person. If you wind up buying over the internet, use a service like Paypal that gives you some protection against grossly mislabeled merchandise (even if the vendor says “no returns.”) Find out how much a total clean up and repad would cost (don’t bother with replating or lacquering - it doesn’t help the sound). Then start comparing the horns that seem to have everything there plus what they would cost to restore versus the cost of restored horns. In other words, if you have a repairperson who will do a full mechanical restoration for $300, and you can get a restorable sax for $200, or you could buy a “fully restored” sax for $1000, do the math. For more information on buying a vintage C Melody go to our article “Shopping for C Melody Saxes.”
Whatever you choose, if you come across a C melody for a price you think is fair, and you appreciate it for what it is, have fun!
Enjoy your music!
Update for 2015: I bought this in part because of my own curiosity about the things and in part to play in my church praise team for a worship leader who liked to pitch songs in A, E, and even B (That’s C# for a tenor player). I play extemporaneously when I can, but about the time I bought this, another instrumentalist who CAN’T play extemporaneously asked why I was allowed to play and she wasn’t. So the worship leader had to decide whether it was easier to transcribe music for her to play or tell me not to play any more.
The upshot is the C melody was getting far too little use, and I knew several people who were interested in trying one out. The first fellow to try it out bought it happily.
This puts me down to one alto, one soprano, and one tenor, two of which are professional horns, so that’s all the saxes I’m likely to need in the foreseeable future. Also if I get hit by a truck it will be a lot less trouble for my survivors to figure out what to do with the things. Banjos and guitars, though, are another story.
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:
The original eBay ad: Here's an IMMACULATE CONDITION 1930s SELMER NEW YORK C MELODY SAXOPHONE. SERIAL # 114229 COMES WITH MOUTHPIECE, LIGATURE, CAP, REEDS AND ORIGINAL HARD SHELL CASE WHICH IS IN DECENT CONDITION . PADS ARE BEAUTIFUL. LACQUER FINISH HAS ONLY 2 SMALL SPOTS OF CORROSION ON THE ENTIRE HORN. NO DENTS , DINGS, REPAIRS OR ISSUES. EXCELLENT CONDITION. NO RESERVE.
The answer to my question about the mouthpiece: The mouthpiece and ligature are unmarked as to manufacturer. Only the letter "C" is on both of them
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