There has been a lot of interest recently in C Melody saxophones. This is not a common instrument, but they are not rare. Manufacturers generally quit making C Melodies around 1930, so you won't find any new ones in the local music store - if you even have a local music store. On E-bay, however, there are many. At any given time there will be twenty or more of these old saxes up of sale. This guide will attempt to answer the following questions.
1. What is a C Melody, why were they made and why aren't they made any more?
2. What are they good for, and are there pitfalls to avoid?
3. What are they not good for?
4. How do we recognize a C melody? (as in "I really wanted a tenor.")
5. How do we find a decent instrument?
What is a C Melody, why were they made and why aren't many made any more?
the early 20th century (and even earlier) - an era before TV, stereos,
I-pods and the like - if you wanted to have music in your home, you
made it yourself. Many people played pianos or organs and most everyone
sang, at one level of skill or another. People were always on the
lookout for instruments to play that sounded good and weren't too hard
to play. The saxophone fit the bill. Unfortunately the saxes that were
used in bands were built in sizes that required transposing music to a
different key. It's not a skill the working man was likely to
take the time to learn. Enter the C-melody sax. It's a bit bigger than
the Eb Alto and sounds 1 1/2 step lower. It is a bit smaller than the
Bb Tenor and sounds 1 step higher. Because it is in the key of C, a
player can read right off of the piano music without transposing.
Although there are a few recordings of professionals playing the C
Melody, it was marketed as an instrument for the home. The great
depression took many people out of the market for non-essential goods, and at about the same times, the quality of radio became better and other options for bringing
music into the home became available. The market for C Melodies dried
up, and manufacturers stopped making them around 1930.
Recently, Aquilasax, a New Zealand company operating out of China has
been offering new C Melodies, mouthpieces, and accessories. I have no
experience with either the company or their products, but you might
consider doing a little research on them if this option appeals to you.
What are they good for?
not surprising that C Melody saxes were good for their intended use. If
mom plays the piano, and dad wants to play along on the sax, here's the
ticket. But there are some other uses for a C Melody that are very
twenty-first century. More and more churches have bands or orchestras,
and they often have odd instrumentation - particularly with gaps in low
and middle voices. A C Melody sax can play parts
that are written for any C instrument (flute or oboe, for
example) or any treble clef part from a piano sheet. If a part has to
be copied from a score or piano part, it doesn't have to be
A second place where C Melodies fit well is
in guitar bands. Many amateur bands would love to have a sax on
some numbers, but amateur bands often play in sharp keys, like A (three
sharps) and E (four sharps). A good professional sax player can play in
any key, but for lesser mortals these are tough keys on soprano, alto
and tenor saxes. Soprano and tenor saxes are pitched in Bb. To play
along with other instruments, their music is written one step higher
and two sharps are added (the tenor really sounds an octave lower than
that). An Eb Alto sax is written 1 1/2 steps lower and three sharps are
added.. So, if a band is playing in the key of A (three
sharps) an alto player is struggling along in his key of F# (six
sharps) and the tenor and soprano player are in B (five sharps).
instruments are fingered pretty easily in their home keys (which are
written for them in C, but sound in Eb or Bb). To move up or down
the scale, requires moving a single finger in most cases. The more
sharps or flats that are added, the more cases where two, three or more
fingers have to be moved to go up or down the scale.When playing in
sharp keys, the C melody not only eliminates transposing parts, it
eliminates two or three sharps.
Are there pitfalls to avoid?
seems to have pitfalls, but there are some serious challenges in
dealing with a C melody sax. Prices are reasonable. $150 to $250 for an
attic relic $500 or so for an overhauled instrument. If you are buying
on Ebay, you should expect to spend more once you receive your sax. It
will likely cost at least $200 for a simple repad. $300 or more if you want the
instrument adjusted, and even more (possibly much more) if you want the instrument
restored. This type of work is more expensive on an old
instrument than on a more recent sax. Ask questions of the seller and
review feedback. Try to find an instrument on which all the keys work
easily and spring back normally. That will make working on the sax much
easier. Unless the seller says the sax was recently overhauled, expect
the sax to need all new pads and corks - even if the seller says they
look fine. If the seller is player and has been playing the instrument
regularly or if the sax has been through the shop, it is probably worth
Watch out for high pitch instruments. They can't be
played in tune with instruments that are pitched on the modern standard
of A=440. Vintage C Melodies were made in the era before the A=440
(Low Pitch) standard was really standard, and every instrument should
be marked low pitch (or L or LP) or high pitch (or H or HP). You may
hear stories of someone who found a usable high pitch instrument, but
99% of the time, another name for a high pitch instrument is "lamp." If
a C melody sax isn't marked low pitch, look elsewhere.
concern is a lacquered brass C Melody. When these instruments were
made, the standard instrument was silver plate over brass. A few very
fine instruments were wholly gold plated (over silver, over
brass), and very many had a gold wash inside the bell. The lower
cost finish was raw brass. Lacquers just weren't good enough. A lot of
these raw brass instruments were later lacquered, and that's
fine. Purists will say that a re-lacquer hurts the sound, but
it's a very subtle difference most of us can't hear. The real
problem comes when a silver finish begins to wear and show brass in the
heavy contact areas. If an ambitious soul decided to remove all the
silver and lacquer the sax, real damage was probably done. I don't know
how to tell which route a sax took to to a lacquered finish, so I avoid
them. There may have been some original lacquer finishes on later
models, so if the serial number indicates an instrument was made
near 1930 and the seller has been playing it, it's probably ok.
of serial numbers, you can find the serial numbers for the major
manufacturers by searching for 'Buescher Sax serial', for example (no
quotes). The serial number/date correlation may or may not apply to
stencils, which I'll cover below, along with the manufacturers.
white pads may be attractive to a collector who doesn't plan to play
the instrument, but players will need to replace them soon. Modern pads
are usually tan or brown leather. If a collector is bidding, the white
pads may drive up the price. If you want the authentic look with a pad you can play, Roo pads are available in white leather.
finally, I don't recommend buying an old sax
without a neck. It's rare to find an old neck. The same is true for
missing parts, but some techs have bins full of parts and can fabricate
or adapt parts. Not necks. The one exception is new replacement necks
that are available from Aquilasax. If you find a particularly good sax
(except for a missing neck) you might check to see what Aquilasax has
to offer. The last time I looked they had necks for Conns and Holtons.
This won't help the value as a collectible, but may get you a sax that
What are they not good for?
Melody saxes are not used in school bands, community bands or any other
organization that uses published arrangements. Published arrangements
include parts for Eb Alto, Bb Tenor, Eb Baritone (bari) and
sometimes Bb soprano or Bb bass saxes. Almost never for any sax
in the key of C. They are also not really appropriate for a beginning
student. The key mechanisms feel a little bit different (sometimes more
than a little bit) from modern instruments. If your student is
hoping to advance to the next level, get her a decent modern student
model. Most saxophonists who own a C melody got it as their second,
third or fourth horn. Alto usually comes first, then tenor. A soprano
or bari may be next if the player has an interest, C melody fits in
later in the sequence, depending on the interests of the player. (For
me, it was clarinet first then alto sax, then tenor sax, flute,
soprano sax, clarinet in A and finally C melody sax - decades after I started playing. There were
upgrades in the other instruments, too before I got to a C Melody)
How do we recognize a C melody?
course many sellers identify them correctly, but many do not. Many
saxes are sold without the seller even attempting to identify the type.
I'll start by pointing out that most C Melody saxes look very much like
tenor saxes. The neck is shaped like a tenor neck (semi "s"
shaped). The exception is the "straight neck" Conn C Melody which can
be mistaken for an alto since the neck is a single curve then straight.
Almost all C Melodies were made by five manufacturers: Buescher, Conn,
Holton, King and Martin (alphabetical). There are others but these
probably account for 98% of what you'll see on Ebay. There was a
widespread practice of stenciling instruments, however, so there are
probably forty or fifty brand names made by these five.
stencil is made by a manufacturer for sale to another
company and engraved (or stenciled) with that name. Visit saxpics.com
or saxgourmet.com to look at many pictures and find discussions on how
to tell who manufactured a stenciled sax. Common things to look for are
the Conn "Mercedes" style keyguard on the bottom key on the right hand
side (all Conn stencils, as far as I know); Martin's soldered and
beveled key chimneys (most Martin stencils, but some French or Italian
manufacturers too); Buescher's "man in the moon" neck brace (not even
most Buescher stencils, but definitive if the rest of the sax matches). But that's a bit away from the topic.
to the identification of a C Melody. Ask the seller the length of the
sax from the bottom of the bend to the top of the tube, without the
neck. Altos are about 21 inches, C Melodies about 24 -25" and tenors
are 27" to 29". If you'd like to avoid asking, there are other
Start with Conns. If you learn what that "Mercedes" key
guard looks like, Conn made saxes are easy to spot if the pictures show
the bottom right hand side of the sax. All of the key guards on the old
saxes are made of thick wire rather than sheet metal. The key guard at
the bottom right of a Conn or Conn stencil is shaped like the 3 pointed
star of the Mercedes emblem while other manufaturers guards are shaped
like a sideways T. Once you've
identified a Conn made sax, look at the serial number area on the back
of the sax below the thumb rest. All true Conns and most Conn
stencils have a C, A or T above the serial number to indicate C melody,
Alto or Tenor. Student model Conns sold under the Pan American
label and many Conn stencils have a serial number that starts
with a P. That doesn't help identify a C melody. Some other
manufacturers mark their instruments in the same area as Bb, B, Eb or
C. If it says Bb or Eb that's pretty clear. In the German
tradition, B is Bb, so that probably means it's a tenor, but I get
uneasy. Ask the length.
Except for Conns, which are pretty
well marked, as described above, the left hand bell key is another tell
tale sign. Remember that, except for the straight necked Conns, C
Melody saxes look like tenors. Since the photos don't show scale very
well they look very much alike. Our task is to distinguish a C Melody
from a Tenor. While more recent saxes have the bell keys on the same
side of the sax, old saxes from the time of the C Melodies have one key
on each side of the bell. The lower bell key (nearest the bend)
is on the left hand side of the sax. On a tenor, the key guard of that
key is very near the seam, while on a C Melody its about an inch or so
above the seam. It's not true for Conns (they move the seam
higher) but for all the other common makes that works pretty well.
Again, look at the pictures on saxpics.com.
How do we find a decent instrument?
the big question, isn't it. If you've decided you really want a C
melody, how do you find a good one. My personal idea of the popularity
of the different manufacturers would place Conn first (although some
people find the longer straight neck uncomfortable) followed closely by
Buescher and Martin. Kings (by H N White) have many adherents but
generally Kings weren't as popular until after the C Melody days, when
the H N White name was dropped or deemphasized. Holtons bring up the
rear, although I have a Holton that's fine. Holton never quite gained
the acceptance of the others and often have some unusual key work. For
most of us, any of those saxes are ok. Their stencils may be just
as good but are commonly a slightly lower grade. I won't try to get
into different stencils. Until you know more, think of them as a second
line horn from the major manufacturers. Remember too that there will be
an occasional French or Italian C Melody which I've not discussed.
you read about the pitfalls, above, you know most of my ideas on
quality. Ask about key movement, don't worry about the pads. You'll
replace them anyway, unless the seller played the sax regularly. In
that case, ask how long since a repad and about the condition of the
pads. If the sax is being sold as ready to play, ask about the tone. Do
the bottom notes speak easily and clearly (probably not really easily -
don't expect too much). Don't worry too much about the appearance. A
sax will show more wear if it's played regularly. An instrument in like
new condition after 70 or 80 years can't have been played much. Why?
Maybe Fred just didn't take to it and put the sax in the closet.
Or maybe it didn't play in tune or the keywork was sticky. It can take
as much work to fix up a really pretty thing as a fairly beat-up
If you've decided to go for an attic special that
was found at an estate sale by someone who doesn't play and doesn't
know what he has, good luck. If all the parts are there, the keys move
freely and you're willing to pay to have it worked on, you can probably
find something for $150 or so. Be sure you have found a tech who knows
about these old saxes and is willing to work on them. Someone who has
never seen one of these old mechanisms can spend a lot of time figuring
our how to make them work, and time is money. If your tech prefers to
work on Bueschers, get a Buescher. They're wonderful horns and
you'll save on maintenance if your tech knows and likes them.
(Substitute any of the big 5 - Buescher is just an example).
hope you'll be successful in your quest. It's a real hoot to play
these old axes. The C melody sound is different from alto or
tenor. I think of my C melody sax as a time machine. It takes me to
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