Country of origin: France
Date of manufacturing: 1907-1928 1 (Likely prior to Selmer’s takeover of the Sax company).
Date of Review: 2017
It was in November 2012 that I wrote about a A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax that belonged to a fellow who lives less than an hour from my place. The horn was a train wreck, and if were ever to be played again, it would need a restoration complete with the manufacturing of new parts.
The owner, Eric, was not a saxophone player, but nonetheless decided to get the work done by my tech—David Gsponer—who is also the owner of Matterhorn Music. When David saw this poor thing, he took on the job, but told Eric that in order to keep the price down to a reasonable amount, he would have to do it during his slow periods.
Eric was prepared for a long wait, since David had to do some research on what some of the missing pieces would have looked like originally. Most notably, the entire octave mechanism was missing, so David had to make one from scratch and then send it, and all the rest of the newly made parts (like tone hole chimneys) out for nickel plating.
Over the holidays I got a phone call from Eric telling me that his sax was finally ready, and he hoped that I could join him at David’s shop when he went to pick it up. Last Tuesday is when this happened. I play-tested the horn, and took the after pics of this very interesting, and quirky saxophone.
I was only the second musician, and first saxophone player, to play this A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax in over half a century. Prior to that, who knows how long it had been sitting in pieces when Eric got it in the 1960s!
One thing is for sure though, as pretty as this horn is, it is an odd duck, and doesn’t really fit into any modern music ensemble. That said, it is its own entity, and stands out both in looks and tone. More on both of these topics below.
- A tenor saxophone tuned in the key of C. This is NOT your grandfather’s C melody.
- Keyed from low Bb to high F.
- Nickel plated.
- Repadded with Pisoni leather pads with nylon resos.
- Springs used: blue needle.
Inscribed with monogram trademark “AS FILS”
MÉDAILLE D’OR 1900
Feur de l’Académie Nle de Musique
84. RUE MYRHA
MADE IN FRANCE
The A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax vis-à-vis a Conn New Wonder 8M
I have already mentioned that this is not a C melody. I can’t stress this enough. This A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax is just that: a tenor saxophone pitched in the key of C, rather than Bb.
If we go back to the beginning of saxophones, we know that Adolphe Edouard’s father, Antoine Joseph (Adolphe), originally conceived of two different lines of saxophones: one for military use, and another for orchestral use. The military horns were pitched in the keys of Bb and Eb, while those for orchestral use were to be in the keys of C and F.
Of course we now know that orchestras never did adopt the saxophone as a member of the family, thus there were very few C and F-pitched saxophones built. It wasn’t until the sax-happy 1920s that companies like Conn, Buescher, Martin et al., all jumped on the band wagon (pardon the pun ) and started producing the non-transposing C melody saxophone so that non-musicians could read sheet music over the shoulder of a piano player.
However, this A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax shares very little in common with those C melodies we see so often find for sale online, or at garage sales and flea markets. Other than its size, it shares nearly nothing with my straight neck, Conn New Wonder Series II, from 1927.
- Pitched in C
- Length approx. 24″
- Built as professional model instruments, and had the quality to back that up.
Characteristics that they don’t share
- Conn has a front F key
- The A.E. Sax horn has left-sided bell keys, while the Conn has split ones.
- Conn has an alto-style neck. (Although goose necks were available from them as well.) The A.E. Sax horn has a tenor-style neck.
- The Conn has a G# trill key, as well as a Fork Eb. The A.E. Sax C tenor has neither.
- The Conn has rolled tone holes, while the A.E. Sax C tenor does not. (No surprise, but still needs to be mentioned.)
- TONE! That’s the big one, and will be explained below.
If you have never heard a straight neck, Conn C melody, I strongly suggest you hop on over to YouTube and check out some of the recordings. There are some lovely examples of tone there.
When played by someone who knows what they are doing, and who has a proper C melody MP, you can tell that the Conn was not built for orchestral work. The sound is bright2, with lots of overtones. (Please read my article on the 3 Aspects of Tone to see what I’m referring to when I use these terms.)
On the other hand, the A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax is much darker in tone. It lacks many of the overtones present in the Conn, thus making its main, or core tone much more evident. When played with the same Runyon C melody MP and Légère Signature Series reed, the saxophone’s main purpose as a classical instrument could not be clearer.
This was not a saxophone built with its main purpose to play in a Vaudeville-style act, full of honking, braying, laughing, and moaning saxophone sounds. It was a serious horn built for serious, classical music. Sadly, that musical style never fully accepted our kind, so this baby is rather lonely in the world.
The tone of this peculiar beastie could best be described as definitely not an alto. Closer to a tenor, but not really. It really is somewhere in between the two. In the end it sounds like its own instrument. I can honestly say in 30 years of being around and playing saxophones, I have never heard anything quite like it.
The tuning of this instrument was remarkably good. In fact, it was better than my Conn 8M. (My Conn needs its key heights adjusted me thinks.) There were only a couple bad notes where the tuning was out more than 20 cents. Likely that was due to me not being familiar with this old C tenor, rather than the horn itself.
Since I regularly play horns that are nearly 100 years old, I don’t have a problem with old and weird ergos. Of the 25+ saxophones in my personal collection, more than ½ have key layouts that would make non-vintage players shudder. Therefore it’s probably not that surprising that I found this A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax an easy horn to play from an ergonomic perspective.
Given that this is not a vintage, but rather an antique (meaning over 100 years old) saxophone, Adolphe Edouard Sax did a superb job in getting the keys in the right place. The feel is nice under the fingers, and fast passages are easy to play. The response is quick, and the new octave mechanism works flawlessly.
Kudos to David for researching what the original octave lever and mechanism would have looked like, and then making one from raw materials.
Unfortunately one area that is not original is the G# key. The key had been replaced when I originally saw the sax the back in 2012. At the time, this is what it looked like…
This is what the key would have looked like originally…
This is what it looks like now…
I never spoke to David about the key, but I assume he did not make a new key in order to keep the costs more reasonable. Remember, the owner is not a player nor a collector of saxophones. If it had been my saxophone, I’d likely have had an original-shaped key made for the sax. In for a penny, in for a pound… Right?
That said, the playability of left pinkie cluster is not adversely affected by the lack of an original or originally shaped key, but the value of the horn certainly is.
The disadvantage of a goose neck
One area in which this A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax did not feel so good in, is the way it lines up for playing.
Although I do own a C mel with a goose neck, I have never played it. The Martin Handcraft has been a piece of art on my walls since I got it over 10 years ago. Since my C melody is a Conn straight neck, I only have it to compare this Sax tenor in C to. Between the two of them, the Sax tenor was very awkward to play.
The angle at which the mouthpiece comes to your mouth just feels wrong. It just feels too low, and you end up having to reach for it. Also, the neck feels too short, so the instrument is too close to your body. If you bring the horn in closer to meet up with the mouthpiece better, then your arms are even more cramped. This makes the entire playing experience feel strained, especially when playing the left palm keys, or any other notes that don’t require you do have a firm hold of the horn with both hands on the keys.
If this was my horn and I played it regularly, perhaps this feeling of the neck being to short/low would not be as obvious. However, since it is unlikely that anyone would be playing a C-pitched tenor as their primary instrument, this would be probably something that a player will always have to contend with.
I assume this is the same issue that any C melody player who plays a horn with a tenor-shaped neck has to contend with. Personally, I wouldn’t put up with it. I don’t want to put that much time into a horn I play so infrequently in public.
The before and after pix
This A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax had no pads, almost no springs, and was missing numerous parts. The images on the left, on the beige/light brown background, are always the “before” shots. The ones on the right, on the blue-grey Berber carpet, are the “after” shots.
The neck had suffered a bit of pull-down. That was repaired, but David opted not to send the neck for re-plating, due to the potential that it may change the tone of the instrument.
Right Side View
Missing Tone Hole Chimney
The chromatic F# and bell keys were missing their tone hole chimneys, and so were a number of other keys. Some of the chimneys were with the sax, while others had to be made new.
Octave Key Mechanism
This is probably the part that David should be the proudest of. This entire key assembly/mechanism was missing.
None of the photos I could provide to David of similar vintage A.E. Sax instruments had a view of this part of the instrument, so he had to do a lot of research until he could find one to pattern this after. He eventually found one at a saxophone shop somewhere in the US.
Damaged Body Tube
The body tube had been quite seriously damaged around the F key tone hole. David repaired this. Now only slight damage is visible. When you run your fingers over the area it has a bit of a different feel than the rest of the horn. However, given what it started out like, it is quite remarkable.
Other Before Pix
You’ll notice in these photos how badly damaged the body tube was. This poor A.E. Sax was bent out of shape. As you’ve seen in the pics above, and in those below, David did a great job getting in back into its proper shape again.
Other After Pix
This A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax is a wonderful example of an antique horn that reminds us of a time when the 20th century’s history of saxophones was yet to be written. Saxophone haters had not yet sprung out of the woodwork in droves—like we would see in the 1920s and 30s—although the possibility of our instrument achieving some respectability in the eyes of legit music had already gone up in a puff of Vatican smoke.
The build quality, tone, intonation, and overall playability of this horn tells us that A.E. Sax certainly knew how to build saxophones. This tenor pitched in the key of C is one of the finest antique instruments that I have ever played.
That said, the fact that it is in C makes it very impractical in today’s world. The only other strike it could have against it would be if it were a HP horn, which fortunately it is not.
As I mentioned to Eric, the owner of this wonderful old sax, in the 15 years that I’ve owned my C melody, it has gone out on exactly 1 paid gig. Thus I lump this A.E. Sax C-pitched tenor sax together with my Evette & Schaeffer HP bari from 1886: both are wonderful antique instruments, but for the average musician, both are unlikely to be used enough to recover costs.
1 According to the serial # listing of Adolphe Sax instruments, which lists a C-pitched tenor by A.E. Sax with #14823 with a range of 1907-1928.
2 Although not bright by today’s standards, I use the term relative to what the French saxophone makers like Selmer or Pierret were producing at the time.