Martin Handcraft (original) alto saxophone
Guide price: £600+ for a tidy used example
Date of manufacture: 1920's
Date reviewed: October 2006
The first in a long line of professional
quality horns from one of the great American marques
I've always had something of a soft spot for Martin saxes. Our
relationship goes right back to my schooldays, when I got my hands
on an early Buescher baritone sax. It was the first bari I'd ever
played...perhaps ever seen...and for a while I puffed and blew that
beastie quite unaware of what other treats lay out there in the
big, wide world. My next bari encounter was with a Conn Crossbar
- reckoned by many to be one of the finest baritones ever made,
and shortly thereafter a rather nice Selmer MKVI.
And then the day came when someone offered me a Martin Handcraft
bari for £120.
It was in pretty poor shape - but it still blew...and my, how it
I loved the Buescher, it was warm, fat and round; I liked the Conn,
it was alive and punchy; I enjoyed the Selmer, it was precise, authoritative...but
the Martin was all these things, and more.
Ever since then I've always viewed the arrival of a Martin on the
bench with some relish - knowing that I'm unlikely to be disappointed,
and highly likely to be completely surprised.
I think, though, that the thing that most surprises me is that
not so many years ago (at least here in the UK) you couldn't give
Martins away - and sometimes it seemed you had the devil of a job
just to find anyone who'd heard of the name. That's how I got the
Handcraft bari for £120...no-one else knew what it was or
These days it's a very different story, but you can still find good
Martins being sold for less than equivalent horns from other vintage
makers - which makes them a superb bet if you're after a decent
vintage horn on a budget.
And so we come to the Martin in question.
The 'Handcraft" model name was used by Martin almost throughout
the company's productive life, and so this horn - the first of the
range - is now known as the Handcraft Original.
There were three variants of this model; the first featured plain
tone holes - not the chunky, bevelled affair that became Martin's
trademark; the second had the bevelled tone holes but no front top
F key, which made its appearance on the third version. This model
is the second variant, made in the period between 1919-1928.
As with any Martin, the first thing you notice is how heavy it is.
Hardly surprising, surely, given the amount of metal on those tone
holes - but it also points up how robustly built these horns are.
Or do you - because if you pop the Martin on a set of scales it
weighs in at 2.38Kg...which, in old money, is barely 3 ounces more
than a Selmer MkVI. It's a curious phenomenon, but almost everyone
who picks one of these horns up comments on the weight. Perhaps
is just the expectation of 'heft', or maybe it's simply a learned
response ("All vintage horns are heavy, man!") - and maybe,
just maybe, it's simply the gravitational effect of the obvious
pride with which these horns were built.
said, the bell brace is typical of the style of the day, being nothing
more than a simple bar, and is woefully inadequate by today's standards.
Cop a moderate whack to the bell and there's every chance that the
bell stay will sink into the body, causing one hell of a lot of
damage to the body in the process.
As you can see on the left, it's fitted to the body 'twixt the F
and Auxiliary F key cups. To this end it's a wise owner who keeps
their Handcraft in a suitably padded and substantial case.
Mind you, in the event of such damage the repairer has the option
of being able to remove the tone holes - they're soft-soldered on.
Quite why they chose to go along this path (rather than draw the
tone holes out of the body, like pretty much everyone else) isn't
entirely clear - though I'm sure at some point someone must have
posited that not drawing the tone holes out of the body maintains
the geometry of the bore (you don't get any distortion around the
base of the tone holes).
By far and away the biggest practical advantage is that this makes
the tone holes replaceable...though heaven knows what kind of damage
you'd have to do to the rest of horn to wreck one of the tone holes.
Of course, there's a drawback too...and it's that leaks can develop
in the tone hole joints.
In fact it's highly likely that they will, and this is due to a
curious process called Selective Galvanic Corrosion. In brief, this
describes an electrochemical reaction between dissimilar metals
- the upshot of which is that if you play a Martin long enough,
the tone holes might drop off (the phenomenon is covered in more
detail in a separate
article devoted to the topic).
For this reason it's vital to thoroughly inspect the tone holes
of any Martin you're about to shell out for. In particular check
for leaks at the rear of the holes.
The body features wire guards, again as per the style of the period.
These aren't detachable, so if they get badly damaged then they'll
have to be unsoldered in order to reshape them.
They're pretty substantial though, and this is both a good thing
and a bad thing. Good inasmuch as they'll brush off all but the
hardest knocks, and bad inasmuch as any shock gets transmitted straight
into the body....so in the event of, say, a fall, your guards might
not be too badly misshapen, but the horn's body could be severely
I mentioned the need for a substantial case earlier, and this is
yet another good reason to invest in one - but it might not be all
that easy finding one that the horn fits. This Handcraft has the
low B on one side of the bell, and the low Bb on the other - modern
horns have both on the one side...and thus modern cases are built
to accommodate them.
quality overall is very good. The pillars feature generous bases
and everything's fitted nice and neatly. No surprise really, the
name 'Handcraft' meant pretty much what it said - these horns were
built, crafted even, by hand. There are no concessions to weight-saving,
nor "just strong enough for the purpose" design parameters
- everything's built to the 'belt and braces' philosophy, right
down to the bottom bow plate...which looks like it would enable
the horn to double as a highly effective mace in the event of a
tussle for the first alto chair.
Likewise the sling ring is gloriously beefy, measuring in at 19/11.
The finish is superb, a matt silver plate with brightwork picked
out on the bell section. At its best it looks gorgeous, at its worst
it can look a bit iffy - and you can see on the right just how bad
it can get.
This is the Handcraft in the state it arrived in the workshop.
Look awful, doesn't it - but the wise buyer isn't immediately put
off by the cosmetic condition of a prospective purchase...it might
mean that the horn has been stashed away for many years and hasn't
actually seen a great deal of use. This often means there's little
or no wear in the action or to the body, though rusted pivot screws
and imperfections to the finish are problems to look out for.
Matt finishes aren't my favourite, they're rather difficult to bring
a shine to and tend to dull quite quickly (all that sweat and gunk
gets into the pits in the finish), but you can get a decent result
by following up a standard silver polish with a degreasant. Lighter
fluid is fine, meths will work too.
The keywork continues the belt and braces feel - though not at
the expense of elegance. It has a nicely rounded feel to it and
appears almost quite delicate in places...until you try to bend
You'll find few (OK, none) modern fripperies, such as adjusters
and swivelling links - but everything's where it ought to be and
nothing in particular sticks out as being uncomfortable.
The Handcraft features that old standby of early vintage horns,
the low Eb trill key (not pictured here, but see the Conn
10M review for an example). This works off a lever over the
low E key cup and a link from the low D cup to the E cup. By pressing
the F and the D keys down an Eb is sounded - and D is sounded by
bringing down the E key lever, which closes a small cup round the
back of the horn.
Sounds handy - but in practice the mechanism tends to wear and go
out of regulation fairly quickly, and it's just another place for
a leak to develop.
Most people tend to wedge the little Eb key cup closed - though
a neater fix is to reverse the throw of the key's spring. I can't
abide trilling on saxes, so I take a fair degree of pleasure from
springing this little bugger closed.
bell key spatula arrangement is rather basic, but nonetheless functional.
The G# key isn't articulated - that's to say that there's no connection
between it and the other bell keys...so playing a C# or B to G#
interval will require you to move your finger.
You could, in theory, have a link fitted - but as the C# (being
a single, solid key) tends to feel quite heavy already, you might
well find the articulation makes the whole setup much harder to
get round - such as on the later version, which came with such a
link fitted. You can improve matters somewhat with careful tweaking
of the spring tension and the use of modern regulation materials
- but ultimately you're battling inefficient leverages...and there's
not a lot you can do about that.
In spite of the mechanism's comparative crudeness it's quite surprising
how nimble it feels once the key angles have been tweaked a little
- though I'd be misleading you if I said that the jump from C# to
Bb was smooth and uneventful.
When it comes to the octave key mechanism it's a slightly different
I love these old mechs...or rather I should say that I love the
'Heath Robinson' look of the things, but absolutely hate trying
to get the damn things to work when they've gone drastically wrong.
I don't believe you can appreciate the true beauty of the now-standard
Selmer octave key mechanism until you've wrestled with a few of
these quirky vintage affairs. It's not that it doesn't work - it
does - it's more the fantastically convoluted manner in which it
does so, with curiously shaped arms and stubs flying here and there
all over the place.
Not including the crook key, there are up to four springs in play
on this mech (including the G key)...on a Selmer type mech there
are just two, and one of them is on the G key.
As you might imagine, in order for this mechanism to work properly
all the arms and levers have to be set in exactly the right position
and all the springs must be counterbalanced against each other.
There's a little room for manoeuvre, but not much - and if there's
any appreciable amount of wear in the mech it's anyone's guess as
to whether it'll work.
That said, with enough care and patience this mech can feel quite
smooth in operation - though never as light as a modern mech (there's
just too much friction floating about).
the third version of this horn (the one with the front top F key)
there's an extra link from the octave key to the Aux.B bar, which
closes the Aux.B when playing top C#. This is to improve the tuning
on this note, which on the Martin tends to be (ahem) rather sharp.
However, it's unlikely you'll want the mech set so that the Aux.B
completely closes, and this tends to make the note rather flat.
The sweet spot seems to be somewhere in the middle - so that the
octave mech brings the Aux.B down (say) halfway. This just 'shades'
the note and calms it down...but the payoff for this is that it
adds a little clunkiness to the octave mech. If you're new to the
horn I'd advise spending a month or so to get used to it before
adjusting the mech.
The rest of the keywork is pretty much as you'd find on a modern
horn, save for the single piece side Bb key.
You don't get a front top F key on this version, which would limit
the horn's potential in the modern arena - but you could always
have one made and fitted (you'd be better off simply buying the
later model Handcraft though).
From an ergonomic point of view the rather rounded palm keys can
be a bit of a struggle, but nothing you couldn't get used to - and
there's always the option of tweaking them slightly or using risers.
Putting it all together results in a surprisingly unclunky action.
Many players are put off vintage horns solely from past experience
with clattery old bangers, but a well serviced Martin has an action
that goes like the proverbial train. This Handcraft may well be
at the extreme end of the vintage scale chronologically, but it
has an action that's really rather contemporary in feel...and this
is a quality that carries on into the tone...
The thing I've always found remarkable about Martin saxes is the
sheer range of tones they're capable of.
My personal preference is for a tone that's bright to neutral -
not too much roundness, a nice bit of cut on the side and bags of
clarity. There aren't many vintage horns that can give that (at
least not without resorting to some rather extreme mouthpiece options),
but the Martin can.
The thing is though, it can also give you that wonderfully creamy,
fat vintage tone...if you want it.
It'll scream too, it'll smooch as well - it's got versatility written
right through it.
Better still, I find the Martins to be very accommodating when it
comes to mouthpieces. There's many a vintage horn that complains
when you pop a contemporary piece on it (usually the tuning goes
AWOL), but the Martin seems to take it in its stride.
Not bad going for a horn that was designed almost a hundred years
I noticed a few slight imperfections in the evenness of the tone,
but then that's the payoff for its versatility. Design those imperfections
out and you design out the very qualities that allow the player
to work the tone to their own preference. That's fine if what you're
left with suits you, but with a bit of work in getting your embouchure
accustomed to the particular foibles of this horn, you can have
just about anything you want.
In a similar fashion the tuning needed to be reined in slightly.
This is much more of a technique specific to vintage horns, which
were built to a different design philosophy to today's horns - and
again it's the payoff for having a wide degree of flexibility.
After ten minutes or so putting the horn through its paces both
the tone and the tuning had been sussed and the horn began to sing.
And it has a powerful voice. This horn has remarkable projection,
but not at the expense of tone. With even quite a loose embouchure
and an open throat, the warm tone expands effortlessly to fill a
room. Tighten up the embouchure, close the throat a little, and
it takes on a silvery edginess that still touches all four corners.
I like to think of Martin horns as being 'giant killers'. If a
client drops by with an old Conn, King or Buescher etc. and I'm
lucky enough to have a Martin in, I can never resist bullying them
into having a blow (not that they take much persuading)...and I've
seen many a jaw drop. I've even known clients to subsequently sell
their current vintage pride and joy and buy a Martin. I've even
been tempted myself - and for someone who's more at home with a
modern horn, that's really saying something.