Grafton plastic alto saxophone
Guide price : Variable, heavily dependant on condition
Date of manufacture: 1950's - 60's
Date reviewed : November 2005
Description : The world's first synthetic-bodied saxophone, and arguably
an icon of the 20th century.
aren't many instruments that strike fear into the heart of the woodwind
repairer, but the Grafton alto is definitely one of them.
I reckon a repairer averages three overhauls on these creatures; the first
out of ignorance and sheer curiosity; the second out of disbelief that
any instrument can be such a pig to repair; and the third just to to be
really sure that the thing really exists and isn't just a terrible nightmare.
The truly masochistic (or perhaps forgetful) might tackle four.
The thing that makes and (quite literally) breaks this horn is the synthetic
Although often referred to as the Grafton Plastic Alto, it's in fact made
from an acrylic plastic - and it's just about the most brittle plastic
ever made. What's worse is that it's extremely difficult to repair - very
little seems to want to stick to it.
This, essentially, is the reason these horns are so rare - they simply
fall apart unless handled with the greatest of care, and to find one with
no cracks or splits on it is getting to be near enough impossible these
Naturally, this built-in obsolescence has turned the Grafton from a 'chuckaway'
horn that you could have picked up for about fifty quid in the 70's to
an icon of 50's design that regularly fetches four figures (or rather
much more in one significant case).
And iconic it certainly is. No less a giant that Charlie Parker played
on one, as did Ornette Coleman. Glam rock fans might well recall a certain
Mr. Andy Mackay playing one with Roxy Music - and it was Parker's Grafton
that sold at auction a while back for a few grand short of £100,000.
They do say that on the very quietest nights you can hear the soft, dull
thud of one-time Grafton owners kicking their own backsides for selling
their horns for the price of a night out in town all those years ago.
Of course, it's doubtful that any of these people played one because of
its tone or response - the one thing the Grafton has that no other sax
has ever had is that unmistakable look.
That it looks as good as it does is probably down the the fact that the
designer, Hector Sommaruga, was an Italian by birth.
Just look at the bell key guards...they simply ooze Italian '50s style.
Up close and personal, things are rather less rosy for the Grafton.
Whilst the design of the action is a tour-de-force in terms of overcoming
the constraints of working with a synthetic body, the end result is rather
disappointing in terms of feel. Without being able to use traditional
needle springs, the designer resorted to using coiled springs - exactly
like those you'd see on baritone sax and brass instrument water keys.
For sure, they work well enough, but they don't have an ounce of 'snap'
to them, which lends the Grafton a typically spongy feel.
They're also one of the reason these horns are such a pig to repair -
as soon as you withdraw the stack rod screws, these springs ping off in
all directions, and they're the very devil to put back on.
They're not exactly stock items these days either, so any lost or broken
springs have to be made from scratch.
It's actually not as hard as it sounds, and I believe I still have a tool
knocking about the workshop which I built to knock up water key springs
from phosphor bronze wire back in my college days.
Note the 'balanced action' type adjustment screw above the A key touchpiece.
Another huge drawback was the impossibility of bending keys on the horn.
Oh sure - you could bend the keys (as you would do when adjusting key
angles etc.) but your efforts would be repaid with a sickening crack as
the key mounting stub cracked off from the body.
This particular feature presents the owner with something of a paradox
- if you want to have one of these things repaired you'd be seriously
well advised to find a repairer who's tackled one in the past, unless
you want your horn back with assorted stubs cracked off it...but if you
find such a person there's a very good chance they'll refuse outright
to work on the thing - and if they do consent to work on it you can expect
to pay a very considerable premium! I'll just say that again...a very
considerable premium. Mmmm.
far and away the most common problem with Graftons is the flimsiness of
the key guards, their mounting stubs and the bell brace. The whole point
of key guards is to absorb the casual knocks and dings that every sax
is subjected to in normal use, but the Grafton isn't built to take such
punishment. You really wouldn't believe just how light a knock it takes
to crack the guards and knock off the mounting stubs. This particular
horn is the very first one I've ever seen that's had intact guards and
It's also the first I've seen that doesn't have a glued-up bell brace.
As you can see, it's a very insubstantial affair - and it's been said
that you can break this brace simply by swinging the horn a little over-enthusiastically
during a solo. Even dropping the horn into it's case with undue care can
see off this joint.
This particular shot shows up the integral tone holes quite well.
The pads as fitted were atrocious. It's interesting to note that the
vast majority of Graftons still have their original pads fitted...simply
because very few people are brave enough to attempt replacing them.
Consequently most Graftons are plagued with spongy, leaky pads.
It's a shame really, because the design of the integral tone holes is
a good one, and despite the somewhat vague and slightly loose keywork,
the pad cups are generally quite flat.
If you wanted to replace the pads I'd advise a very soft pad with a fairly
soft skin - a soft MusicMedic's
'roo skin' pad would fit the bill admirably.
Under the fingers the keys all seem to fit in the right places. Ergonomics
were never really an issue with the horn - but the inherent play in the
action, coupled with the coiled springs and the dodgy pads makes the whole
action feel somewhat hit and miss. This makes playing the horn a rather
trepidatious affair - you feel as though you want to clamp your fingers
down hard in order to seal the pads, but you daren't put too much pressure
on the keywork in case you bust a stub off.
One major criticism of the Grafton has always been the tone it produces
- or so people would have you believe.
This particular horn was brought in by Pete
Thomas, who first instructed me to close my eyes while he blew the
as yet unseen sax.
He blew, and I listened, and my initial thoughts were that, tonewise,
the sound was quite 'bootsy' but with a little something missing in the
midrange, though not overly bright up top nor boomy down low. My first
guess was a cheap Chinese horn - it had that sort of sound...good, but
not polished. My second guess was a Conn 6m...there was a fair bit of
warmth to the tone, and quite a bit of power..the sort of tone you'd get
from a 6M with a vintage mouthpiece perhaps.
You can imagine how surprised I was to open my eyes and find the Grafton
When I blew it it put me in mind of a vintage midrange horn. The tone
wasn't unpleasant, and yet it lacked the sparkle and zing that you'd get
from a pro quality horn - and about the best analogy I could come up with
was that it sounded like an ordinary sax being played behind a thin felt
wall...slightly furry at the edges, as Pete succinctly put it.
I've heard it said that you can't play a Grafton alongside another sax
player because of the difference in tone.
Complete rubbish. I've sat beside many a decent player who's had a far
more woolier tone than the Grafton puts out, including one lovely old
gent whose alto tone sounded like Ben Webster playing under a duvet -
which is quite a feat, when you think about it.
My Rousseau mouthpiece lifted the clarity a little, and a brighter piece
would introduce the requisite sparkle if you so desired.
So why did these strange beast die out?
Well, as mentioned, the chief reason was their fragility, unreliability
and difficulty when it came to repairs - but perhaps the biggest impact
came from sheer prejudice.
You have to remember that this horn was cutting edge in its day, and if
I've learnt one thing in my decades of being surrounded by musicians it's
that they can be a remarkably conservative bunch when it comes to innovations
The exact same thing happened with the introduction of mass-produced horns
from Japan in the 1970's - and you'll still find many a modern-day clarinettists
who pours scorn on 'plastic' clarinets. Witness too the resistance to
adequate Ultra-Cheap horns coming out of China these days.
What really must be remembered is that this horn was never intended to
be used as a professional instrument. The whole point about it was that
it could be built cheaply and easily, and thus sold cheaply to beginners.
In other words it's the Buffet B12 of saxophones - and that's something
that has to be taken into account when assessing its action and tone.
That it found its way into the professional 'hall of fame' is perhaps
more than the designer could ever have hoped for.
I still believe the premise was a sound one, and it's perhaps an idea
that's well overdue for a fresh look. There are many advantages to using
a synthetic body, and pretty much all of the disadvantages that plagued
the Grafton could be easily overcome with modern plastics and resins.
Just think of it...a carbon-fibre horn, fitted with L.E.Ds moulded into
the body that light up as you play! Who could resist it?
At the time of writing this review (2005) the Grafton was unique in having
a synthetic body, but since then we've seen the debut of the Vibratosax
- which takes the concept a step further by also using synthetic materials
for the keywork. I think it's fair to say that, like the Grafton, it has
Mr.Sommaruga certainly left a legacy behind him. Even today, the Grafton
never fails to impress whenever it makes its appearance on stage - and
it impresses in two distinct ways. For the punters, it's simply down to
the art-deco looks...but for any watching saxophonists it's more likely
to be because the thing hasn't yet fallen to pieces.
Much as I hate to say it, it's not really a player's piece anymore. Its
rarity and fragility have turned it into an 'investment opportunity',
and one that's likely to increase in value year on year. I expect we'll
still see them popping up on major gigs for the next few decades - and
the simple glamour of the horn will mean that there'll always be a market
for a Grafton that actually works.
For a more in-depth look at the technicial issues surrounding an overhaul
of one of these horns, check out my article on The