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Pierret Competition alto saxophone

Pierret Competition altoOrigin: France
Guide price: £500+
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: Late 1950's?
Date reviewed: January 2007

A rare and distinctive sax with a mysterious pedigree

It's always a delight when a curiosity comes into the workshop - it brings with it an almost magical sense of the unknown.

Consider this - if someone dumped a Martin or a Conn in your lap, and you'd never heard of the particular model, you'd at least have some idea of what to expect when you blew the horn (assuming you'd blown a few other models from those manufacturers in your lifetime).
But when someone hands you a horn from a manufacturer you might never even have heard of, all you have to go on is what your eyes and ears tell you. Without the benefit of anyone else's comments rattling around in your head ("These horns are great/rubbish/out of tune/amazing" etc.) you can do nothing more than assess the instrument for what it actually is. And what exactly is the Pierret Competition alto...?

The Pierret company started life in 1906 and survived until the early 1970s - though production seems to have stopped around 1960. They only ever made saxophones (as far as anyone can tell), and apparently had a bit of a reputation amongst the French classical players. In later years, Pierret supposedly made stencil horns for the likes of Olds and Buescher.
Dating this horn is liable to be a hit and miss affair, even the company's later horns had a very distinct 'vintage' look about them - and this particular horn has features that could place it as early as 1930 or as late as 1960.
The best possible match is from a distributor's catalogue circa 1952, which features the 'Super Artist' model. This model has many features found on the Competition alto, but a significant extra is the Conn-like Microtuner. I would suggest that the Competition is a later model. The Microtuner, and a right hand G# trill key on the Artist model are features that were phased out on other makes of horn by the early 1950s. I suspect too, from looking at the tenor in the catalogue, that the low C# key was a single piece design, as opposed to the Competition's cantilevered arrangement - and the curious block pillars on this alto seem to me to be the sort of thing you could only get away with in the run-up to the 1960s.

The body itself is quite well built, and of relatively simple design.
The bell brace is likewise a simple affair, and seems to be something of a throwback to earlier horns of the early to mid 20th century, being a simple curved rod with a small base on the body.
Some care has been taken with the crook socket tube, which tapers neatly into the main body.
Pierret Competition alto guardThe bell key guards are perhaps the most striking feature, with their substantial mount tubes - which almost look as though they incorporate some method of adjusting the height of the guards (they don't). I think they look quite snazzy really - though I'd be the first to point out how impractical they are. Guards are always getting knocked out of shape, it it would be quite a job trying to get these tubes aligned after a heavy bash.
The body is finished in silverplate - but it's plain to see that this isn't the original finish (though it might well have been plated originally). There's noticeable wear to the body, particularly around the thumbhook, and this has been plated over.
Before moving onto the keywork, I should note that both the bell and the crook are marked with the model name. The bell is engraved, simply and neatly, whereas the crook has been stamped...with somewhat less care.

The pillars are quite remarkable, being nothing more than flat slabs of brass. Of course, there's no reason why they shouldn't be - but it doesn't exactly look very stylish. They're also rather crudely built, finished and fitted. The best that can be said for them is that they're entirely functional - although even that's debatable because of how the point screws are fitted.
Pierret Competition alto pillarsKeys wear in use, and those that are held on with point screws can be tightened up by means of moving the point screw deeper into the pillar. This is typically done by reaming out a small amount of metal from the point screw socket in the pillar - but the Pierret's pillars don't have sockets...the screws fit flush against the pillar.
The photo on the right shows the side trill keys - with the screw of the Bb key removed from the pillar (at lower right in the shot).
Following the law of sod, all the action on the horn was badly worn - but the remedy presented something of a problem. If I wanted to use the reaming technique I'd have to physically cut sockets into the pillars. This would do the job, sure enough - but it would completely ruin the horn's original condition...and with any vintage horn that's not a matter to be taken too lightly.
Another method of taking up wear in point screw action is that of swedging the key barrel ends. Swedging uses a special pair of pliers that effectively compress the key tube (they're normally used to take up wear in rod screw action) - but the problem when swedging point screw barrel ends is that the metal is substantially thicker that than used on rod screw barrels - and because you're only working on the last 5 or 6 millimetres of key tubing it tends to leave the tubes with an unsightly looking step on each end.
You also run into problems when there's no exposed tube on the ends of the keys (such as on the Bb key in the photo above) - you have nothing the put the swedging pliers on. All in all it's a poor technique to use, except in a last resort...which left me only one other option - to replace all the point screws.
This did the trick. By using a screw with a longer, fatter point I was able to accommodate all the wear in the action without ruining the horn's original design. In order to match the new screws with any existing ones, each screw had to be heat treated to blacken the head. A small touch, but worth the effort.

The keywork is well made, though again slightly curious and quirky in design.
There are places where it looks as though quite some care has been taken in the design, with neat cut-outs and graceful curves - and then in other places it's almost as though they've got bored of being artistic and resorted to using plain old square bits of metal.
The key arms are really quite thin in places too, and although this makes the keywork light it also makes it easier to bend. It's just as well that the main keys stacks have a square section bar on the Auxiliary keys. As it happens, the key metal is quite soft anyway - and this might account for some of the excessive wear found in the key barrels.

Pierret Competition alto bell spatulasThe bell key spatula arrangement is typical of the crossover period between vintage and modern horns, with large 'interlocked' plates and articulation on the G# and C#. It's quite a large mechanism too - they certainly didn't skimp on the brass here!
The octave key mechanism is rather crude, but seems to do the job.

Some of the keywork's quirks proved to be a proper pain when reassembling the instrument.
In years gone by it was common for the springs to fit into small holes drilled into the key arms (as opposed to the modern practice of using spring posts, or grooves cut into the key arms). The problem with this method is that the repairer has to ensure that such keys are mounted on their springs before fitting them to the instrument (it's also nigh on impossible to adjust the tension of such spring once the action is mounted).
What tends to happen is that you forget one, and it's only when you've assembled an entire stack that you realise this - and so you have to take all the keys off and start again.
It's not so bad if you're dealing with a horn that uses this method throughout - you get used to looking out for errant springs. The Pierret uses this method, but only on a couple of keys. Just enough to catch the unwary repairer out.Pierret Competition alto F key

So, once you've had the action apart and back together a couple of times and are feeling suitably relieved - it's time to spot a couple of the horn's other keywork quirks, such as a G key that fits under the left hand key stack and a top side F key that has a large hole in the cup arm (seen right) that the spring has to pass through before the key can be fitted. And so the left hand stack has to come off...again!
I was beginning to wonder whether the object of the 'Competition' in the horn's name was for French designers to come up with a horn that would have the English repairers tearing their hair out.
"Alors Francois, 'ave une butchers at le key stack a gauche. Je 'ave put le G key underrrrr le stack!!!"
"Mon Dieu!! Fantastique !! Eet's one in le eye for le English repairer, mais non?"
"Oui, and wait 'til 'ee regardes le silly 'ole in le F key!"

Once (finally!) reassembled the action felt rather good under the fingers, quite swift and light. The only real issue I noticed was that the top D touchpiece was a little too low down the body for my liking, and the low C# mechanism felt sluggish due to the poor design of the articulation mechanism - and the side Bb/C/F keys could do with being a bit further round towards the right hand key stack.
If I had to compare it with a well-known horn I'd say that it felt very much the action found on the Selmer Cigar Cutter - which has a similarly simple and light action.

I mentioned earlier that wear to the body was visible under the plating, and that the action was rather badly worn. This (assuming the action wasn't badly built in the first place) would indicate that this horn had seen a great deal of use. That suggests that someone played it a lot - and that someone liked the horn enough to want to play it a lot. And that's because it's actually a really lovely blow. Really, it's lovely. I could use words like 'sweet', 'individual', 'full' - but I think that kind of misses the point. It's a joyful, expressive little horn.
From what few comments I've seen about Pierret horns dotted about the web it would seem that some people are inclined to compare them to Selmers. As it happens I had a MKVI alto in for a service, so I took the opportunity to compare them side by side. That I felt it worth making such a comparison in itself speaks volumes - and as for the result, well, it's quite surprising.
In terms of a 'vintage' tone I would say that there are two camps, in general - the American sound and the French sound. Tonewise, the Pierret sits right slap bang in the middle - and it takes but the merest tweak of your embouchure to send it one way or the other...it's your choice.
It seems to have a more refined tone than the Selmer - playing the two side by side makes the Selmer seem almost brash, and yet that isn't because the Pierret isn't lively. It has all the cut up the top end that the Selmer has, but couples it with more roundness of tone - and the lower end is absolutely lush.
I noticed a tad of shading on the low/mid D, which improved when I raised the low C key slightly - but otherwise the tone was even across the range. Tuning was good too, I didn't notice any particular problems.
The thing is, this horn is fitted mostly with plain riveted pads - what few reflectors exist are very small, so one can but wonder what effect fitting a set of decent pads will have on the tone. It's already very good, I suspect it would lift the tone out even more.

Is it, then, a Selmer killer?
Well, I'm sitting here with the Pierret alto and a MKVI - and it's the Pierret I keep picking up.
Although the main stack action competes head on with the MKVI, the ancillary keys let the Pierret down somewhat. I'm not a big fan of chopping and swapping keys from one instrument to another, but in this case I can see the merit. It wouldn't perhaps be necessary to go that far even - a few mods and tweaks here and there could pay significant dividends.
Naturally, this raises the question of the originality of the horn - but some things transcend mere history - and I would tentatively suggest that the Pierret with a modern action would make the MKVI break out in a cold sweat.
As it stands I would put this horn up there with the noted greats; the Conn 6M, the King Super 20; The Martins and the Selmers. They all have their quirks, just as the Pierret does - but the one thing they all have in common is that they sing.
I can see now why the action was so badly worn, why the thumbhook had been eaten away, why there's a dish worn in the G# key touchpiece. Someone has played and played and played this horn...and quite probably loved it.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015