Conn 6M 'Underslung' alto saxophone ( MK.VIII )
Guide price : £600 +
Date of manufacture: 1944
Date reviewed : April 06
Description : One of the finest altos ever made in the 'Golden Age' of
envy" is a funny old thing. In general, the 'average man in the street"
is most likely to experience it whilst driving his fairly nondescript
4-door family saloon as he pulls up alongside an old MG Roadster, or an
E-Type Jaguar. One can't help but admire the classic styling, the earthy
rumble of the engine and the undoubted cred that comes from simply sitting
in such a vehicle. And yet having owned a few distinctive vehicles myself
I can tell you that it isn't all smiles and smugness. There's the sheer
running costs, the lack of any modern conveniences, the difficulty of
maintenance and the constant prospect of the whole thing simply breaking
Once you learn to live without the admiring glances you actually start
to realise just how marvellous it is to run about in a car that's fast,
safe, quiet, cheap and comfortable - and very likely to remain where you
parked it the night before.
So it is with vintage horns.
I long ago gave up my vintage horns in favour of nice, shiny modern horns
- and I can't say I've ever regretted it. I get the tone I want, I get
the unstinting reliability, I get the speed and the efficiency - and sometimes
I even still get the odd wink or two.
But if there's one vintage horn I'd be happy to own and play as my main
instrument, the Conn 6M alto would be it.
This horn breaks right across the vintage/modern boundary - not so much
because of its production run ( approx. 1934-69 ) but because of the combination
of its ( at the time ) revolutionary keywork and the flexibility of its
tone. That alone sounds like enough to encourage anyone to go out and
buy one - but it's not quite that simple.
Most sax makers followed a progression with regards to models - Model
A was replaced by Model B, then C and so on. Conn tended not to have these
distinct cut-off points and were constantly tweaking and re-tweaking production
models to the extent that two identically named models can sometimes be
very different horns indeed.
The 6M was no exception, and there are important differences between those
models made at the start of the run and those at the end.
This particular model is the MK.VIII version, one of the last to feature
rolled tone holes ( produced until 1947 ). This particular feature is
most important as it's reckoned that subsequent plain tone holed models
aren't quite as good in terms of tone - and having played both versions
side by side I'm inclined to agree.
As far as build quality goes, these old Conns are nearly always superb
examples of the craft of sax building and it's rare to find anything to
moan about concerning the construction. My only real concern is the bell
to body brace - being a single rod design with a relatively small mounting
plate on the body it means that a severe knock to the bell can do a hell
of a lot of damage to the body...so that's something to bear in mind when
it comes to choosing a case for this sax.
The rolled tone holes complicate
matters when it comes to dents in the body.
In general the tone holes are usually spot on in terms of flatness - but
it's not uncommon to find the odd example that has one or two holes out
of true. This far on from the date of manufacture it's impossible to say
whether such faults were built in, or whether it's due to damage - but
one thing's for sure, levelling rolled tone holes requires a great deal
of care and expertise.
Another significant feature is the 'reversed' crook socket.
On most horns the crook has a tenon that simply fits into a corresponding
socket on the body. The 6M's crook fits over a tenon that protrudes
from the body. This feature is no cause for concern save to the repairer
when it comes to tightening the crook joint up.
6M gets its nickname 'Underslung' from the design of the crook octave
key mechanism. The principle behind this mechanism is that a normal crook
octave key runs over the top of the crook. This makes it quite vulnerable
when it comes to fitting or removing the crook, and it's extremely easy
to bend a crook octave key in this fashion. A bent octave key can also
stop a horn dead in its tracks ( though it's easy enough to fix, if you
know what you're doing ), and this design attempted to alleviate that
You'll see modern horns advertised as having underslung crooks, but in
fact they're simply variations on the ordinary crook key - a true underslung
also has the octave key hole on the underside.
It might seem like a particularly bad idea to place the octave key hole
on the underside of the crook, given that there'll be a lot of moisture
running around at this end of the horn. Conn thought about that and made
the tube tapered to prevent any bubbles of water from forming in the tube.
Seems to work, I've never encountered any moisture problems when playing
The underslung mechanism also has a slightly different feel to an ordinary
octave key mechanism insomuch as the pin which actuates the crook key
does so by forcing the key down ( rather than up ). It gives the mech
a very precise and fast feel.
You'll also notice a rather unusual lump of metal on the
end of the crook.
This is the ubiquitous Conn Microtuner. The idea behind this was to provide
a means of tuning the horn without the player having to move the mouthpiece.
It sounds like a neat idea, but in practice it can cause all manner of
complications and often ends up being regarded as something of an Achilles
heel. Prospective buyers should check out my article on servicing
the Microtuner, as this may help you to understand why it's important
to check the integrity of the unit.
stopped fitting the Microtuner in the mid 1950's, but I've noticed that
some earlier 6M's appear to have done away with the unit. Seen here on
the right are two crooks superimposed - both from 6M's.
The example beneath is from a non-rolled tone hole model, the upper from
an early 1940's rolled tone hole model - note that the later crook is
quite a bit longer.
Note too that on the upper crook, the step appears just after the octave
key hole - and if you examine the photo of the whole horn you'll see that
the octave key hole actually sits on the base of the Microtuner itself.
It would be quite a complicated affair to remove the Microtuner and replace
it with a plain tube - and not exactly the sort of job the average repairer
would undertake lightly, which leads me to believe that this would have
been done at the point of manufacture. I'm sure if anyone knows better
they'll soon let me know!
This particular horn had a fixed thumbrest, but you can
find examples that are fitted with an adjustable one, albeit a simple
swivelling type ( similar to that found on the Buffet
The keywork has its pros and cons.
On the plus side it was, in its day, quite advanced in terms of design
and ergonomics. Players who own exclusively modern horns will often baulk
at the feel of vintage actions, but the 6M feels as slick and and comfortable
as most modern horns. It might not seem like much of a big deal now, but
back in the 1940's it was quite a breakthrough.
You'll notice too that the bell keys are fitted to the rear side of the
bell. This wasn't quite so much of a revolution - this setup had been
seen on earlier saxes from other makers - but in terms of Conn saxes it
continued the departure from having a tone hole on each side of the bell
for the low B and Bb, with a corresponding rise in the immediacy and precision
of the bell key action.
Another feature is the design of the G# key, being a relatively long lever
- as opposed to today's quite compact designs.
I still feel this design to be a winner in terms of feel and response.
When it comes to the cons it's rather ironic that the one
thing that tends to let the 6M down is one of the features that was supposed
to be a plus; the point screws.
These feature the use of tiny grub screws to lock the point screws in
place, the theory being that the action would then be constantly adjustable.
It is too - but the grub screws often work loose and fall out, or they
get chewed up during adjustment. Either way, it's very common to see these
horns with the most appalling play in the action due to badly adjusted
For more information have a peek at my review of the 10M
You might have spotted an extra key on the right hand key stack, inbetween
the F and E keys. This is a G# trill key. It always struck me as a rather
curious addition as the 6M's G# mech is superb, and shouldn't present
any problems should you wish to trill on this note ( though from a purely
personal point of view I would encourage you to avoid trilling wherever
possible...can't stand it, sets my teeth on edge ).
Some versions also featured an Eb trill, as seen in the above mentioned
10M review, and this would indicate an earlier model.
A quick word about the pads. Conn used a special type of pad called a
'Resopad'. This pad featured a metal ring that sat round the circumference
of the pad felt, with a lip that sat over the rim of the cup. A standard
pad sits within the cup and so the size is limited by the internal diameter
of the cup - the Resopad, with its metal ring was effectively the size
of the external diameter of the cup. It only amounted to a few millimetres
difference, but given that some of the cups were hardly much bigger than
some of the tone holes, those few extra millimetres made a difference
when it came to getting a good seal on the rolled tone holes.
The horn can still be repadded with standard pads - it just takes a bit
more care - but some people insist on using Resopads, which means either
finding a new set or having the old pads rebuilt around the existing rings.
I've played examples with both types of pads - makes no difference at
One point to note; saxes with rolled tone holes tend to suffer more with
sticky pads. This is simply down to the increased contact area on the
tone hole - and if this is a problem you can either opt for having the
springs set a little harder, or keep the pads as clean
I said at the start of the review that this was a vintage horn I could
be happy to play on a regular basis.
There are two reasons for this, and one caveat ( which is that I'd have
to secure the action - I wouldn't be at all happy at the prospect of forever
having to tinker with those blasted locking screws ).
Reason No.1 is the action.
It's fast. Not just a bit fast - it's blindingly fast.
There has to be a magic combination of key weight, cup angle, spring length
and tension that allows an action to move this fast - and the Conn has
it. I'd go so far as to say no other sax comes close.
Sure, the Selmer MK.VI has a great action, so does the Yamaha YAS62 -
but the 6M has something extra. It doesn't seem to matter how light you
set the springs, the action remains responsive where other actions would
start to feel distinctly floppy.
It fits right under the fingers too...none of that tiresome reaching for
keys that you get with a lot of other vintage horns ( from back in days
when everyone, apparently, had deformed fingers ). Everything is right
where it needs to be - and even the relatively quaint bell key spatula
layout is comfortable and slick.
The 6M often requires a bit of tweaking around the palm keys - they're
set quite tight in, and many players need to have them opened out a little.
This is simply a matter of ( carefully ) bending the keys. Don't be tempted
to have a go yourself though - there's only so many times you can bend
a key before you run the risk of breaking it, and there's no way to tell
how many time the keys might have been bent in the past.
The height of the action is variable too. On all horns there's a limit
to how far open or closed you can have the keys in relation to the cups,
but the 6M seems to be far more generous in its latitude. I've played
on some extremely close actions on 6M's, and without any apparent loss
of tone or detriment to the tuning.
Set up one of these with a light, close action and you can really shift!
Reason No.2 is the tone.
I make no bones about my preference for a bright tone. A full, lush tone
is all good and well - and can be very nice - but I like a nice bit of
cut to my tone. That's not to say I want a thin tone...I want breadth
and depth, but I still want that edge too.
Plenty of modern horns have a sort of 'set menu' tonewise. What you get
is pretty much what's built in, which is fine once you've found the horn
that gives you the tone you want. The 6M's tonal menu is 'a la carte'...it'll
do anything you want it to, and it'll breeze over that traditional boundary
between the warmth of a vintage horn and the clarity of a modern horn.
It all appears to be very rosy, but there are one or two thorns.
The tone can vary across the scale. This is the price you pay for such
overall variety of tone - the very things that make this such a distinctive
horn also make it quite a tricky beast to master if you're not a confident
player. Ditto the tuning - the experienced player shouldn't have any problems,
but a newcomer might stumble a bit...especially if they've gone for quite
an extreme mouthpiece. Once you've got the handle on it though it's an
incredibly expressive and soulful horn.
It's worth reiterating that the later models ( with plain tone holes )
seem to have nowhere near the same amount of flexibility of tone. This
isn't anything to do with the rolled holes, it's down to the physical
dimensions of the horn. That said, at the right price these models are
still worth having if you feel you're getting what you want from them.
Finding a decent example is worth the search, but you'll need to do your
homework with regard to dates and serial numbers - and I find one of the
best resources is the excellent Saxpics
page on this model.