by Paul D. Race
When you’re trying the establish the date of saxophones, the word “ergonomics” may come up. The word technically refers to how easy it is to accomplish some task. In the world of saxophone science, it refers to how easy its to play certain keys. Key shape and position, lever design, and a host of other engineering decisions go into this. That said, a saxophone can have great ergonomic features and poor tone, or relatively poor ergonomic features and great tone.
Ergonomics are considered important when you are:
- Are attempting to assign a date range to a sax,
- Evaluating a sax’s suitability for a beginning student,
- Evaluating a sax’s usefulness to a professional player.
The odd thing about this, is that, although several big advances in sax ergonomics took place between 1920 and 1960, most of those changes didn’t find their way to “student horns” until the 1970s. So you very seldom see a vintage horn with more than a couple of the improvements that characterize “modern” saxophones, and you very seldom see a “modern” saxophone that lacks any of the most obvious improvements.
As our “Evaluating Used Saxophones” article explains, knowing how to determine whether an instrument is “vintage” or “modern” will help you determine a used horn’s potential usefulness for a beginner. It will also help you to keep from being “snookered” by someone claiming that a relacquered vintage horn is “almost new” or that a beat-to-death 1980s student-line horn is a vintage collectible. This article will look at the “great divide” in sax ergonomics that culminated in the 1970s, including several ways to pick out a “post-divide” horn from a “pre-divide horn.” Then it will examine some of the pre-jump experiments that help distinguish different eras of vintage horns.
The “Great Divide”
Though a few changes to improve the playability of saxophones had occurred between 1920 and 1930, the biggest changes started in the 1930s when Selmer engineers, trying to stay a step ahead of Conn and Buescher updates, began rethinking every key, experimenting with size, shape, position, and engineering, trying to achieve the easiest, most natural action. The resulting Balanced Action and subsequent horns really were easier to play.
For decades, though, those improvements applied only to top-of-the-line saxes. Student-line and intermediate saxes continued to be made using engineering that was developed before 1930 (in most cases before 1920). And why not? Those were the horns on which jazz and swing were invented, and many of them were professional horns in their day. So a 1960 Buescher Elkhart “student-line” horn was essentially a lacquered 1925 Buescher “True-Tone,” a 1965 Selmer Bundy “student-line” horn was essentially a lacquered (and slightly dumbed-down) 1930s Buescher Aristocrat, and so on. And nobody in the United States seemed to have a problem with that.
By the 1960s, Keilwerth, a European manufacturer, had started to incorporate Balanced-Action-inspired features on their saxes, including, ironically a line of stencils labeled “Selmer Major” (usually including the word “Dusseldorf” in small letters on the bell). So Europeans who bought second-tier “Selmer” horns in the 1960s were getting features that wouldn’t appear on Selmer’s American-built second-tier horns until the 1970s.
Then, in the early 1970s, Yamaha decided to get into the saxophone market. Instead of slavishly copying the 1920s-era student line engineering, as many competitors had done, Yamaha followed Keilwerth’s lead, borrowing as many of the advanced Selmer features as they could without driving up manufacturing costs. By adopting those proven improvements, Yamaha accomplished an end run around all manufacturers of student saxophones, including Selmer, who was forced to redesign the Bundy. Just as most violins being manufactured today promise to be “faithful copies” of Stradivarius’ designs, nearly all saxophones made after 1980 are copies of Selmer’s mid-century professional saxophones.
Though a few horns incorporated some of these upgrades before this “seed change,” “modern saxes” almost universally include the following modifications borrowed from Selmer.
- Low B and Bb keys are both on the right side of the bell (from the player’s perspective). More often than not, the guard that protects them is stamped from heavy-gauged sheet brass, not the heavy wires that protected those pads on earlier horns.
- Low Eb(D#) and C key are tilted upward so they allow a more natural motion for the right pinky than the old in-line design. The low C key often has a sort of “scoop” shape that helps the player’s leverage.
- The left pinky keys stick out away from the horn to provide better leverage. The low Bb key also has a “scoop” shape that is especially helpful to small fingers.
Once you know what you’re looking at, you can tell at a glance whether any horn you see is a “vintage” or “modern” horn. Again, many vintage horns are still sought out for their great tone, and most of them are better made than most currently-available “student-line” horn, but when you’re shopping for saxophones, understanding the “great divide” will help you know what you’re looking at.
Now, if you’re looking, say at vintage horns, you might be wondering how, when, and why some of these changes occurred, and which ones (like the famous Conn “Nail-File” G# key) actually affect playability.
Origin of Sax Fingerings
Saxophone players can thank Adolfe Sax for designing the easiest, most logical fingering system of any wind instrument (unless you consider it a tie with flute). Like clarinet and flute, the fingering is based somewhat on the medieval recorder fingerings.
But recorders are basically designed to operate in one or two keys. If you have to play with too many sharps or flats, you wind up using some pretty difficult fingerings, which make it difficult to play a clean slurred melodic line and nearly impossible to perform certain trills.
By the time the saxophone was invented, the clarinet had accumulated several extra levers and buttons that were played by the pinky or by the base of the first finger (so-called “palm” keys). These would allow you to play sharps and flats relatively easily. Clarinets also added a key that would jump them up an octave and a half, substantially increasing their practical range, although it made the fingering of certain commonly-used notes relatively complex. Adolfe borrowed many of the clarinet’s mechanical features when he invented the saxophone. But he added a complex octave-key mechanism that jumps the saxophone one octave, making saxophone fingering much simpler than clarinet’s. (That’s one reason clarinet players have less trouble moving to sax than vice-versa.)
Most saxophones are bigger than most clarinets, but overall, most early sax makers more or less adopted the shape and location of the pinky and palm keys from the clarinet, without necessarily taking into account the additional strength that would be necessary to move a pad that is six times as large and three times as far away from the key as the equivalent on a clarinet. In many larger saxes, no provision seems to have been made for smaller hands, which may have contributed to the the practice of recommending Alto sax to all beginners, even those who may have preferred tenor.
Even though Conn, Martin, and Buescher had more-or-less solidified the way they would be engineering their saxophones by 1920, the palm and pinky keys continued to get reexamined, especially the G# key and the other keys in the left hand cluster. Those keys are played by the pinky of the player’s left hand, potentially the weakest and least coordinated finger. A review of some of the changes that this key cluster went through between 1914 and 1975 will give you some idea of how inventive American saxophone engineers were “in the day.”
On most early saxes, this key is a smooth rectangle, about the shape and height of a Chicklet, though sometimes it’s a little wider. (The low C#, B, and Bb keys, located beneath it, are almost exactly the size and shape of Chicklets.) To say it could be hard for beginning players to consistently hit the button at the precise pressure point to open its pad fully with the least resistance would be an understatement. The pattern on this Martin C Melody shows an early use of rollers - some early horns lacked those.
Unlike the other left-hand pinky keys, the G#/Ab key was used frequently in orchestral arrangements. So, several early 20th-century engineers experimented with different shapes that would hopefully improve leverage and help the player hit the “sweet spot” of the key consistently.
Some manufacturers tried shaping it like the other left-hand keys. But the other three left-hand keys on the saxophone simply close pads - the pinky key operates a lever that allows a spring-powered pad to open, so the motion required to press it is different. Many players found the button design harder to play than the Chicklet design.
Here’s an interesting variant - the Martin “typewriter” key arrangement, so called because all of the left pinky keys used pearls. Think about this - the traditional pearl keys - D, E, F, G, A, and B - are all played by your fingertips pressing down almost as directly as you press on a typewriter or piano key. But people’s pinkies very seldom hit the pinky keys at the same angle - often it’s the edge of the pinky that actually hits the key, so putting a pearl on a pinky key may make it harder, not easier to play .
Some folks like the “typewriter” saxes because of their tone. The folks who prefer them have got used to the pearls, but I don’t know anybody who prefers these because of the pearls.
Buescher and Conn experimented with wider G# keys, as you can see in the Buescher-built Gretch example to the left. Hopefully the oblong button would help the player find the “sweet spot” while still having enough leverage to operate the key.
Eventually both manufacturers also reshaped the low Bb key, extending it to the outside of the low B key, as shown on the Conn New Wonder to the right. (Yes, these keys were aligned originally, but we’re talking vintage horns here.) With the rollers, a person could slide from low B to low Bb easily. If your pinky was long enough to reach the extension, it gave you much better leverage than the old design.
On the Conn New Wonder II (sometimes erroneously called “Chu Berry”), they introduced a hash-pattern that would make it easier for the player to keep his or her finger on the key while playing (left below). Consequently, a “nail-file” G# key is often considered to indicate a relatively desirable vintage horn. The Buescher Aristocrat, in the meantime, used a similar shape, and put the brand name on the key, giving you tactile feedback similar to the hash pattern (right below).
I am most used to the Buescher arrangment, by the way, although neither my early 1962 “Elkhart” student horn nor my Buescher-designed 1968 Selmer Signet had the brand name on the G# key. At the time I didn’t think it was any great hardship to have to wonk down the low Bb key. Actually, I still don’t.
The most revolutionary design award goes to the Conn 10M and 30M “Naked Lady” series horns. I don’t know if it’s more “ergonomic” than the designs above, but it’s certainly “cooler.”
While US saxophone engineers were doing all they could to make the big levers that operated the low B and Bb key easier to flip with the left pinky, Selmer’s engineers in France were redesigning the levers. Moving the low B and Bb pads to the right side of the horn (from the player’s perspective) allowed them to simplify the mechanism and make it easier to operate.
With the new design, they didn’t feel that the big wrap-around low Bb key was necessary any more, and they went back to a single Bb key, located beneath the low C# and low B key. They did adjust the whole key cluster so that it was easier to operate, and they added a scoop shape to the low Bb key to make it a little easier to hit the “sweet spot.” The photo to the right actually shows the Selmer Mark VI tenor’s interpretation of this arrangement.
Once Yamaha copied this and Selmer’s other “Balanced Action” improvements, and everyone else followed Yamaha’s lead, the Selmer design became all but universal.
The Jupiter example to the right shows a typical minor variation. The little lever you can see next to the C# key above has been removed. But the rest of the keys are just the same.
Selmer also redesigned the right pinky keys, tilting them to make them easier to reach with a natural motion, and adding a scoop shape to the low C key.
As an example, compare the photos to the right. These are the Eb and low C keys, operated by the right hand pinky. On the early 1960s Buescher Elkhart to the left, the keys are flat, requiring 100% vertical pressure to operate them. On the post-divide Bundy II to the right, the keys are curved, and they are tilted upward, so the pinky uses a more lateral, more natural motion to play them.
These are just a few examples of how saxophone ergonomics evolved between 1915 and 1970, and how many ergonomic features of Selmer’s Balanced Action horns became almost universal by 1980, in some cases trumping thoughtful improvements by other brands.
Ergonomics Do Not Guarantee Quality
All other things being equal, a horn with good ergonomics should outperform a horn without. But all other things are not equal. Remember, updates like we’re describing happened first on the professional lines. The engineers were trying to give horns that already had the best tone, durability, and intonation possible an “extra edge” to attract professionals who typically played for hours a night and would actually notice the difference if, say, the low Bb key took a fraction less effort to play.
But once those improved levers and linkages had been designed, and the patents had run out, there was nothing to keep second- and third-tier manufacturers from using them on far inferior horns. Shysters like to point at things like key shape and claim that there is little difference between a $400 Asian cheapy and a $5000 professional horn. But better materials, better quality control, more accurate bore and tone hole measurements, and a host of other differences separate the two. Frankly, the majority of “student horns” being made today lack the tone, intonation, and durability of “unergonomic” vintage horns made in the U.S. and Europe before 1970. If you can’t play the thing in tune across its range, does it really matter how the low Bb key is shaped?
Tone, Intonation, and Durability are More Important than Ergonomics
Here’s an irony - I realized while I was researching this article that, except on soprano sax, none of the ergonomic differences I have discussed here have ever made any difference to me. I have played horns with almost all of the different key setups I described in this article, and have owned some version of most of them. When I get a saxophone out of the case, I put my fingers where they’re supposed to be and play. It might be because I grew up with horns that would now be considered vintage, but, by the time I’ve adjusted to a horn’s tone and intonation, I don’t even notice the difference in key shape and positions. In fact, my Buescher-built Selmer “New York” C Melody sax stencil has one of those silly round “pearl” buttons for the G# key, and I didn’t even notice it until after I had written most of this article.
Except for Sopranos
Why is soprano saxophone the exception? Saxophone engineers in the early 20th century (when the Conn New Wonder, Buescher True-Tone and similar “low pitch” saxes were being developed) scaled the palm key and pinky key sizes up and down as the size of the horn increased or decreased. This wasn’t a problem for alto, tenor, or even most bari saxes (unless you had very small hands.) But on soprano, especially C soprano, the tube is so small that the palm and pinky keys are tough to reach. For example, on most altos and tenors, the high D key, which is played with the base of the forefinger, is only an eight-inch or so away in normal playing condition. On my vintage Martin C soprano, it’s “hugging” the slender neck, almost an inch and a half farther in. This requiring me to seriously adjust the way I hold onto the thing whenever I play notes above high C#. The thumb rest is nothing to write home about, either. In fact, if I’m not paying attention, certain riffs that I can play easily on all my other saxes will all but cause me to drop the horn.
After a soprano-playing friend died recently, I saw that on his vintage Conn soprano, he had bent some of the left palm keys into wierd shapes, trying to make them easier to reach. So I’m not the only one with this problem. I’ve also seen “extenders” that add rubber or some such material over the top of the key to bring the playing surface further from the bell.
Modern sopranos “fix” this problem by having palm and pinky keys that you can easily reach from a normal playing position. .
To some people, modern sopranos (right) look “funny” compared to the vintage ones, because the palm and pinky keys stick “way out.” Those keys are nearly the same size as the same keys on most altos. Some of them actually stick out a little farther, to compensate for the narrowness of the bore. But they’re much easier to reach without straining yourself or dropping the horn. So if you’re looking for a soprano, be sure to test modern as well as vintage horns, including all the notes you use palm and pinky keys to play.
If you’re looking for a Bb soprano, you’re in luck - Kenny G and other players inspired literal boatloads of “student-line” sopranos with modern fingerings. (No, they’re not all playable, but at least you have options).
If you’re looking for a C soprano with modern egonomics, your choices are far more limited. Your basic choice is between a vintage horn you’ll have to adapt to fingering, a new model, such as the Aquilasax C soprano, which keeps the same bore (and basic tonal qualities) of the vintage horns, but adds modern fingering, or an expensive custom model like the IW horn shown to the right.
The photos to the right show a vintage Martin C soprano and an International Woodwinds C soprano, which was designed in Germany by Benedikt Eppelsheim and Laksar Reese but is reportedly being built in China. Word has it that the IW horn has a bigger, more “modern” bore so if you want a more typical soprano sax sound, and can afford what is essentially a custom pro horn, that may be the way to go.
By the way, many vintage C sopranos only go up to high Eb or E, so if you need to go up to F or F#, that’s another reason to price modern horns. (Mine gives me a headache if I got that high anyway, so I’m not worried about that detail.)
Except for the soprano issues mentioned above, tone, intonation, and durability are all more important than ergonomics. That said, hopefully this article has given you enough information to help you make saxophone shopping decisions easier and to weed out false claims about the age of horns you’re looking at. (If they’re lying or ignorant about the difference between a 1920s horn and a 1990s horn, they’re probably lying or ignorant about everything else they tell you.)
If you’re trying to find a saxophone for a beginner, please check out our article Evaluating Used Saxophones. If you’re an experienced player shopping for a vintage saxophone, please check out our article Evaluating Vintage Saxophones.
The really “short answer” is that your mileage will vary. Have fun.
Other articles you may find helpful include:
Saxophone.org’s Saxophone Buyer’s Guide page has some good tips, especially if you’re looking for a pro or classic horn.
Another resource, the Horns in My Life articles describe various saxophones (and one flute) with which I’ve made a personal connection over the last 45 years. Some folks who’ve had similar horns will find it a helpful resource. Others will just like to reminisce along with me. On the other hand, if you come across one of these horns while you’re shopping for a saxophone and want to know more about it, you may find one or more of the articles helpful.
The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.
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