Grafton plastic alto saxophone
Guide price: Variable, heavily dependent on condition
Weight: Not much at all
Date of manufacture: 1950's - 60's
Date reviewed: November 2005
The world's first synthetic-bodied saxophone,
and arguably an icon of the 20th century
There aren't many instruments that strike fear into the heart of
the woodwind repairer, but the Grafton alto is definitely one of
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 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 body.
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 days.
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 to the fact that
the designer, Hector Sommaruga, was an Italian by birth.
Just look at the bell key guards...they simply ooze Italian '50s
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.
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
Another huge drawback was the impossibility of bending keys on
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.
By 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 stubs.
It's also the first I've seen that doesn't have a glued-up bell
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
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 in design. 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
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
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 its problems.
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 technical issues surrounding an
overhaul of one of these horns, check out my article on The