Vito Leblanc System 35 (Johnny Hodges) alto saxophone
Guide price: £350 upwards, varying wildly
Date of manufacture: Late 1960s
Date reviewed: May 2019
Look, but don't touch.
There are good horns. There are bad horns. And
then there are mad horns.
I'm sure most players can name a good horn or two - though naming
a bad horn is often rather more difficult mostly because players
are inclined to list horns that they don't much like, rather than
any that are demonstrably bad.
When it comes to mad horns all that's really required is that you've
seen one. They're very easy to spot because they're either made
of an esoteric material (such as cheese, or fine green beans) or
they're so hideously and obviously complicated that first impressions,
by and large, fall very much into the "WTF?" category.
But does that make them bad? Or good, even? Ah, well, now you're
I'm all for innovation, but I also follow the
principle that 3,000,000 flies can't be wrong - which is to say
that the marketplace is a great leveller. What works, sells - and
what doesn't sell usually doesn't work. This is why all modern horns
look pretty much the same these days; the standard features have
been well tried and tested over the last 150 years or so and most
of the current innovation is concerned with making what's proven
to work, work better.
Every once in a while someone comes up with an idea that they think
will revolutionise the way we play our horns. In years gone by such
people were responsible for the articulated G#, the swivelling octave
key mech, the top F# key...and so on. In more modern times we've
seen the advent of triple and quadruple mounted bell braces, detachable
compound bell key pillars and double cup arms among others. All
of these innovations share one thing in common - they all work,
and they've all proved to be popular with players.
However, if you spend some time browsing patent
libraries (it's nice to have a hobby) you'll soon discover that
for each of these useful and valuable innovations there's at least
half a dozen completely mad ideas that either never saw the light
of day or shone but briefly. Some were useful but superfluous, others
were too expensive or complicated to implement successfully...and
some were just plain bizarre. But if you're a bit mad/passionate/obsessive
and you happen to own a horn factory, there's very little to stop
you from foisting your creations upon the unsuspecting public...at
least until the sales figures come in.
And this, essentially, explains the rationale
(yeah, I know) behind Leblanc's trio of horns - which kicked off
with the Rationnel and later developed into the Semi-Rationnel before
finally ending up with the 'System' series.
The principle behind the design of these horns was to adopt the
Boehm approach to keywork, which can be roughly explained as aiming
to have every tonehole below the one in use being open - thus maximising
the amount of venting available to the note in play. From an acoustical
point of view it sounds like a mighty fine idea - but unfortunately
it often tends not to be a practical proposition in mechanical terms.
If you've ever played/repaired a Marzoli Boehm system bassoon you'll
understand this point with complete, despairing clarity.
What's interesting (to me, at any rate) about these three models
is that it's clear to see a sort of progression in the design. The
(full) Rationnel was just completely insane, with the Semi-Rationnel
being less so. By the time Leblanc got around to the System series
it must have been painfully clear that an awful lot of players were
taking one look at their horns and saying "Er...thanks...but
no thanks". It was still a mad horn...it just wasn't as mad
As you might imagine, such a complex horn appeared
in many variants over the years - which soon becomes something of
a nuisance when you start browsing forums and blogs in an effort
to pin down some reliable historical information. I can only do
so much historical research before my brain starts to dribble out
of my nose and I begin to see the appeal of doing all those household
DIY jobs that I've been putting off for months - so most of what
follows has been obtained by asking people who enjoy doing this
kind of research.
The horn seems to have started life as the "Vito Hodges Model
9140 alto saxophone, Leblanc (Paris) System". By the time it
reached American shores it had become the "Model 35 Vito Eb
Now that's not so complicated - rebranding for different markets
isn't uncommon, and it's something Yamaha have made much use of
down the years.
However, the 'proper' Hodges model was (supposedly) the 135...(and
this is where it goes off the rails) and/or the 9140. And then there's
the Model 100, and the Model 120.
At this point I'm well past caring - and unless someone comes up
with documented evidence to prove otherwise I'm going to state that
the 9140 seems to be the early model, the Vito 35 the later one
- and anything else is just a cosmetic variation (different lacquer/plating
options). The whole 9140/35 etc. series can be considered to be
Hodges horns. There's one significant mechanical difference between
the early and late models, and we'll touch upon that a little later...
I don't claim this to be authoritative at all, it's just my way
of tidying things up so that I can be done with the boring "Who
did what, and when?" and get onto the nuts-and-bolts stuff
that really grabs my attention.
construction is semi-ribbed - most of the pillars are fitted to
four large plates on the main body tube, with the remainder being
on smaller plates or fitted individually to the body. These - along
with the extra keywork - give the horn an appearance of heft, and
yet it tips the scales at a gramme less than the weight of a Yamaha
62 (purple logo model). Quite how they managed to do this is beyond
me because there's nothing particularly lightweight about the build
The toneholes are plain drawn and few of them were particularly
level. In fairness this horn's been around a while, but aside from
some damage around the bell brace there wasn't really any evidence
of the sort of trauma that would have put the toneholes out of level
- and nothing to suggest that anyone had taken a file to them.
And speaking of the bell brace, it's a simple
two-point vintage-style bell brace - the chief disadvantage of which
is that an impact to the bell will drive the body end of the brace
into the body tube...taking out the adjacent toneholes as it does
so. As had happened to this example. You might also note that the
socket on the body has rather a small footprint, which means it's
likely to pop off at random intervals if care isn't taken to ensure
there's no stress in the brace when fitting the socket to the body.
At first glance it looks like the brace is detachable, because the
brace bar is held in the bosses by a pair of screws. However, it's
not detachable in the normal sense of the word because getting the
bar out requires that you release the two screws and then push the
bell forward to create enough clearance at the body end in order
to slip the brace out of its boss. Doing so will result in a certain
amount of clenching down where the sun don't shine, and thus it's
not a technique I would recommend you try unless you're absolutely
certain you know what you're doing and that you understand the very
real risk of distorting the bottom bow. Getting the brace back in
is just as tricky and is likely to mean having to leave it in a
stressed state. See above...
In fact it's better to think of the brace as being merely adjustable,
because even if you removed it you still wouldn't be able to remove
the bell as it's soldered in place at the bottom bow/body junction.
Not that being able to adjust the bell will do you much good - the
amount of movement available is minimal, and you're back to dealing
with the problems of stress again.
The screws are a bad idea too, and it's not uncommon to find that
the brace has been soldered into the socket at one or both ends
- presumably because the screws kept coming loose.
get a full set of detachable bell key guards, but they're curious
inasmuch as they have threaded sockets for an adjustable bumper
felt holder, but aren't fitted with a holder. Instead you simply
screw the felt cylinders into place.
Technically-speaking this makes them adjustable - but it's hellishly
fiddly trying to adjust the felt in this manner and you're usually
better off screwing the felts into place and making any adjustments
by shaving the felts down. About the only other point of interest
is that the main bell key guard is a triple-ganger, which is to
say that it covers the Bb, B and the C#. I'm a big fan of a guard
over the low C# given how common it is to see a 'double seat' on
the pad because it's copped a knock.
You also get detachable guards around the side/chromatic F# and
the G# - the latter being pretty much essential given that it's
situated on the rear of the body tube, just below the sling ring.
And that's about it for body features other than a disappointingly
static metal thumb hook and pear-shaped flat plastic thumb rest
which is detachable via a grub screw fitted to the base of the holder
- though I suppose I ought to mention that the main body tube has
rather more toneholes than a typical horn...
But now we need to talk about the keywork. Oh
As it's going to get very complicated very quickly, I'll kick off
with most of the peripheral details first before focussing on the
meat-and-potatoes of the main stack assembly - and I might as well
start with my favourite topic...the point screws.
I'm delighted to say that they're proper points, and as an added
bonus are of the shoulderless/headless variety. This means they're
constantly adjustable down the years without the need to have someone
ream out the pillars or mangle the key barrels. There's no built-in
locking facility for the screws, so a dab of weak/medium threadlock
is required in order to prevent the screws from working their way
out over time. Excellent.
Not so excellent, however, were the heads of the rods screws. A
great many of them were badly formed and rather carelessly slotted
- and I have no reason to suppose that they're not original.
Note the springs. They're steel with a gold paint
finish. They look great when new, but once the gold paint starts
to deteriorate they tend to look rather shabby - which makes them
look a great deal worse than they actually are. At this point you
might be tempted to whip them out and replace them with new springs.
- and this would be a big mistake, because the original springs
are brilliant. They'll suffer an enormous amount of bending before
they'll break and they're beautifully matched to the action in terms
of how much zip and zing they have. They should be retained at all
costs, and only replaced as and when they actually break...which
may take quite a while. If you find their tattiness annoys you,
you can always touch them up with a gold paint pen - if you feel
key cups are very shallow indeed - measuring out at approximately
2mm deep at the cup wall. It's said that these complex Leblancs
require thin pads, and while that may be true for the earlier models,
this one needed standard thickness pads for the most part - with
only a few pads on the upper stack needing to be rather thinner
Perhaps someone had bent the keys in the past to accommodate thicker
pads? Possibly, but unlikely - I couldn't see any evidence of bending,
and you'd really have to go some to bend the rather hefty cup arms.
In any case, if you start bending cup arms you're going to run into
problems with the regulation arms, which'll mean yet more bending.
The real tragedy on this particular horn is that it had been repadded
quite recently - and whoever did it managed to find a set of pads
that were rather thicker than standard. As you can imagine, it was
a complete and utter disaster...a dog's dinner royale, no less.
Just for fun I attempted to get one of the pads to seat, and ended
up clamping a key down for three days solid...and still the pad
wouldn't maintain a seal. They must have known something was amiss
because they resorted to using white kid bass clarinet pads on some
of the top stack keys in an effort to at least get something to
are some unusual angles on a couple of the keys - the most extreme
being the front top F touchpiece. Such angles are generally frowned
upon (at least by me) because of the likelihood of rapid wear and
the difficulty of ensuring a reliable and long-lasting key fit between
the pillars. You might suggest that they were merely trying to be
efficient - but then you'd have to try to explain the octave key
mech - and I rather suspect that these odd key angles were included
in the design with the sole purpose of providing a "Hey, look
at that!" point of interest.
And the front top F key is a really poor design
anyway. It regulates the height of the B key, and it can be very
fiddly to 'synchronise' the three buffers on it (one where it contacts
the B key cup, one where it lifts the top F and one on the foot
of the key). It really has to be very precise - which is why it's
very common to see evidence of mangling on this key where a pair
of pliers has been taken to it in order to tweak the regulation
without having to faff about with replacing bits of cork or felt
when you've overdone the sanding. You can't quite see it in this
shot but there are a couple of grooves on the top of the key where
someone's taken a pair of domestic/linesman pliers to it.
mentioned earlier the G# key cup is situated on the rear of the
body - hence the need for a guard. I doubt there's much risk that
you'd catch the key on your clothes but I can see that there's a
slight chance that a bit of clumsiness when fitting the sling/neckstrap
could result in the hook catching it...which would be very bad news
for the pad. Perhaps not such a risk with today's modern locking
sling hooks, but back in the day you'd be using a very simply open
The mech itself is rather tricky to set up. The link from the touchpiece
to the cup key isn't much different from that on an ordinary horn
- there's just an arm that reaches over a stub attached to the cup
arm. But the link from the Aux.F (that keeps the G# closed when
you're going for the bell notes) comes off the rear of the Aux.F
and connects with an arm off the lower end of the G#. You can just
see it in the bottom left of the shot, hiding under the bell key
barrels. As such, the leverages involved are less than optimal -
and the sheer distance between the Aux.F and G# key cups means that
the very slightest amount of wear in either key will be amplified
at the G# pad seat.
It's going to become very clear later on that this horn is a martyr
to wear in the action - but if you only had enough money to have
two keys tightened up, it would have to be these.
So far, so reasonably simple - but from here on
in it all gets a bit, well, there's really no other words for it...bonkers.
The layout of the main stacks is...unusual, because the stacks are
'double decked' - which is to say that the key cups and regulation
arms are divided into two layers. Splitting the stacks up isn't
that unusual, but where this is done it's usually confined to single
keys - such as the Bis Bb and G keys on a modern horn, which are
mounted separately from the remainder of the upper stack.
split on the Vito is far more dramatic, such that half the cup keys
and regulation arms are on one layer and the rest on the other.
Regulating the mains stacks is fantastically,
mind-numbingly fiddly. The design of the horn means that most of
the regulation points are on flying arms that sit over the top of
the key cups. This isn't so much of a big deal if you're using cork
because it's easy enough to sand it to size. However, cork is likely
to be very noisy - so felt is a better option, but it's a lot harder
to adjust felt to the right thickness with the degree of accuracy
needed for the job. And you can forget about bending the arms because
the knock-on effects up and down the stack will rapidly result in
your being stuck in kind of never-ending regulation hell.
What you have to do is regulate the key in pairs as you pad them.
Set one pad, pop the next key up or down the line on, set the pad
and then set the regulation between the two keys - then move on
to the next key down the line, and so on. It's a complete pain in
the arse, especially if you later need to tweak a pad seat - and
I'm sure you're wondering why on earth didn't they put regulation
screws on the end of those arms. Well, they did - at least on the
earlier models. This is the significant mechanical difference I
referred to earlier.
And don't even think about setting the key height at this stage,
it's just not going to be worth it. Get all the internal regulation
sorted, then bring the action down when you do the final assembly.
The owner of this horn had very helpfully provided me with a photocopy
of document produced by Leblanc that detailed the process of regulating
the action. "That'll come in handy" I thought "I'll
refer to it when I come to assemble the horn".
I didn't in the end - I decided to do it 'old school' and simply
followed standard mechanical procedures; but I took a look at the
document afterwards just to see whether the prescribed method was
any different to my own. Turns out the document had been written
for the earlier model...that features adjusting screws on the ends
of all those flying arms, and thus would have been completely bloody
this leads to another question: Who on earth was mad enough to think
that removing these adjusters (probably to bring the price of the
horn down) was a sensible idea? Whoever it was, I bet they were
popular with the guys and gals on the assembly line...
However, there's more to this than meets the eye. Putting regulation
adjusters on those flying arms seems to make perfect sense; there's
a need to be able to balance such a complex mechanism and to be
able to easily account for the necessary compromises due to key
flex. But adjusters on flying arms seldom work that well. You can
still see them used today on horns that feature an 'F# helper arm'
- which is an adjuster that's connected to the low F key barrel
and sits over the top of the Aux.F key cup. Here's one fitted to
a Yanagisawa alto.
The problem with these arms is that their length makes them prone
to flexing, which is a quality you really, really don't want on
point of regulation. You can more or less get away with it on a
helper arm because it's merely a supplement to the standard point
of regulation at the rear of the key - but if you had to rely on
such an arm for the primary and sole point of regulation it's likely
to end in tears before the bandleader calls The Last Waltz.
That, at least, is my perspective, based on years of trying to persuade
relatively floppy bits of brass to stay put - and so it was with
some smugness that I noticed a correspondent involved in the historical
research made mention of having gigged with several versions of
this horn and found that the ones with adjusters were rather unreliable.
Dispensing with the adjusters on the end of the flying arms and
going for cork/felt that extends along the entire working length
of the arms helps to spread the load (or, more correctly, the leverage)
and reduces the effect of flexing - though at a considerable cost
Another regulation point that raised an eyebrow
was that tabs were fitted to a couple of the key cups on the top
stack. This is such a bad idea because wherever there's a tab there
will always be the temptation to bend it. Indeed, in places where
tabs are commonly found (beneath the G# and below the low Bb touchpieces),
bending them very slightly to make minute on-the-fly adjustments
is fairly standard practice.
In such instances the tabs are attached to sturdy key arms or touchpieces,
which means they can be tweaked without too much concern about what
will happen to whatever they're mounted on. However, when you attach
a tab to a key cup you can be assured that any and all attempts
to bend the tab even slightly will result in some distortion to
the key cup...and thus the seat of the pad. And so I was completely
unsurprised to find that on dismantling the horn, the key cups with
tabs on them were bent to buggery (as the saying goes).
handy (and necessary) as regulation points are, they represent a
weak point in the integrity of the action. If one of a pair of linked
keys is worn, the effects of that wear will be passed along to the
linked key - and if both keys are worn, well, that just makes it
all the worse.
It's a common problem, but because the linked keys on a horn generally
only have one or perhaps two points of regulation it's possible
to dial in a bit of compensation. In other words, you can get away
with it if you really have to. But all that goes right out of the
window on the Vito, because there are so many linked keys - and
thus so many points of regulation.
At this point I suspect that if you've ever had any experience of
regulating a horn's action you're probably doing that thing that
plumbers and car mechanics do when they cast an eye over a job;
that pursing of the lips, the long and noisy intake of air followed
by a low "Ooooooh nahhhhhh" and a slow shake of the head...
And here's why. What you see here in the top
right of the shot is a link via a tab from the Bis Bb to the Auxiliary
B key. No big deal, it's just a slight variation on the standard
link from the A to the Aux.B that you'll see on any horn. But there's
another link (bottom left) from the G to the Bis Bb...and thus the
Aux.B. This is definitely not standard - and forms part of the mechanism
whereby it's possible to flatten any note on the top stack by a
semitone by pressing down any key on the lower stack.
"So what's the big deal?" I hear you ask, "You press
one key down and another one closes...and if there's wear you can
dial in a bit of compensation, right?"
The trouble is, the compensation works both ways. In the setup above
you'd adjust the cork beneath the Bis Bb tab so that the Bb closes
at exactly the same time as the Aux.B. And then you'd adjust the
cork beneath the G so that it closes at exactly the same time as
the Bb...and thus the Aux.B. Now - even if the action was as tight
as a drum there'd still be a certain amount of key flexing to take
into account. Oh, it won't be much, to be sure, but it increments
with every linkage - which means that when you press the G key down
it just might not be able to close the Aux.B fully...and you'd have
So you dial in some compensation by increasing the thickness of
the cork under the G key tab, and all is well. Until you reverse
the direction and come down the key stack. The Aux.B will close
just fine because there are no linked keys above it. The Bis Bb
will close reasonably well because it's only one regulation step
away from the Aux.B - but by the time you hit the G you'll be up
against that slightly thicker piece of cork you installed in order
to compensate for the key flex...and because the flex is no longer
there (you're holding the keys above down), the cork will prevent
the G from closing properly. It's called 'holding off'.
If there are any linked keys below the G (and there are on this
horn), the problem gets progressively worse the further down the
horn you go.
Such anomalies are unlikely to stop a horn dead
in its tracks unless they're severe, but with each occurrence of
holding off it becomes necessary to press the keys down harder in
order to overcome it. Most players probably won't realise they're
doing this (it becomes subconscious very quickly) and it typically
only becomes evident when another player - who's used to playing
on a more well-balanced horn - has a go.
It also shows up when playing fast and complex runs. Your finger
pressure drops and the horn loses some of its responsiveness.
is the Achilles heel of these complicated Leblanc horns - the action
is barely, barely capable of functioning properly when it's in tip-top
condition and has been set up and tweaked to the Nth degree by someone
who really knows what they're doing. Once a bit of wear creeps in,
or a cork gets a little compressed, the performance of the horn
begins to drop off. And if it's been set up at all carelessly then
you might as well pack your horn away and go home.
With all that said, the Vito is not completely
bereft of adjusters - oh no. There are, in fact, two. Yes, two.
The first of these can be found tucked away at the rear of the lower
stack on a peg/stub/boss/thingummybob that sits between the E and
D keys - and regulates the height of the D key. In fact it regulates
the height of the entire lower stack given that the D sports an
arm that sits over the E key cup...and so on.
The other can be found on the foot of the G key - and this too regulates
the height of the entire stack. At least in theory. In practice
I found it rather more sensible to set up the key heights in the
traditional manner (by adjusting the corks/felts) and then used
the adjusters merely to bring the G and D keys into line.
And if ever there was a place for an adjuster,
it's on the foot of the A key - which, as on the low D, butts up
against a peg attached to the body.
always a faff to adjust the regulation on this type of key foot
layout (it's quite common on very early horns) because there's nearly
always a bunch of keys in the way and it's a proper fiddle to get
a piece of sandpaper in there. A small screw right through the foot
of the key or the peg itself would solve all the problems.
While I'm having a moan, there's a nasty assembly
gotcha on the top stack. The G key has to be fitted before the top
layer of the upper stack goes on. Not that it's that much of a gotcha
really, because you'll be assembling and dismantling the action
so many times during the course of padding/regulation that having
to do it one more time to fit the G key really isn't going to make
that much of a difference.
For such a mechanically advanced horn the octave
mech is surprisingly old-fashioned.
The body key cup is housed on a seesaw arm with the crook key pin
on the other end, and the switch between the body and crook keys
is made via an arm that sits atop the body key. It's a throwback
to the sort of mechs that were around in the early 1900s - but it
gets a bit more interesting as you go further back towards the foot
of the G key...which you can see at centre right (with a small adjusting
screw fitted to it).
On a modern horn the G key foot would sit on top of the body octave
key, keeping it held down when the G was up. Once G was pressed
down, the foot would rise off the body key and allow it to rise.
On early saxes this foot was often quite long which, in tandem with
other similarly long levers, would make the mech look rather like
a weird kind of knitting machine.
order to avoid this inelegance, Leblanc have fitted a transfer mechanism
which passes the downward/upward movement of the G foot to the top
of the body key - but it's taken them two additional levers and
pivot arm that's bolted to the body in order to do so. And I really
can't see why they did this. OK, I get that they may have wanted
to avoid long arms - but by extending the G key to the upper pillar
they could have got rid of the pivot arm and one of the levers and
simply reversed the action of the lever on top of the body key.
Given that the more levers and links you have in a mechanism, the
less responsive it feels and the more likely it is to suffer from
wear and noise, it looks to me like the mech was designed to be
fussy simply for the sake of, well, fussiness. It all looks rather
rococo - which, in case you didn't know, is like baroque...on steroids.
It works well enough, though I'd hesitate to describe it as slick
The Vito picks up points because of the shaped
thumb key and the pear-shaped rest (which is nice and comfy) - but
loses them all by virtue of the long thumb key pivoting on a short
rod screw...which will show up any effects of wear quite rapidly.
I mentioned earlier that the thumb rest was detachable - but I think
it might also be adjustable, at least in terms of rotation. Its
present position will likely suit the majority of players, but some
may prefer the 'lobe' to be more in line with the octave key...in
which case all that's required is that the grub screw is loosened
(you can just see it poking out of the rest socket on the bottom
right of the shot), the rest moved to a suitable position and the
screw tightened up again. I like this feature, as well as the shape
of the thumb rest. It's my preferred shape when building custom
thumb rests for players who find the standard one (typically on
vintage horns) too small and uncomfortable.
Another throwback to earlier horns is the design
of the side keys - they're single-piece keys. It isn't so much that
the keys feel heavy and clunky (because they don't) rather it's
the fact that this kind of key at this sort of size is very prone
to wear. Once that happens the pad seats gets a bit vague as the
key cups start to wander. I really don't know why they didn't go
for a fork and pin connection given the complexity of the rest of
It's features like this, plus the octave mech, the regulation pegs
and the bell stay, that seem to me to jar with what was essentially
a cutting edge horn in its day - and I really don't know why they
didn't go that extra five yards and bring these relatively old features
up to date.
now I guess you're itching to hear how the horn feels or plays -
or at least gasping for a cuppa and a 'comfort break' - but before
we get onto the playtest section let's just pause to take in the
magnificence of the rear of the horn. I don't often show a shot
of the horn from the rear but in this case I think the horn deserves
it - not only so you can see the complexity of the keywork and the
triple bell key guard, but also so you can cop a look at the very
extensive engraving which fills almost every available space on
the body and crook. If nothing else this sax is certainly a front-runner
for the most-blinged-up-horn award.
In case you're wondering (as I was), the silver engraving was done
by chasing the design into the horn and then applying the silver.
I'll admit I'm not a big fan of either silvery horns or extensive
engraving, but it seems to sit very well with this horn - and I
particularly like the way in which the clean lines of the logo float
in a sea of chasing on the bell (see the closing beauty shot). It's
very nicely done.
Under the fingers the horn feels quite normal
really. Most of the fripperies are confined to the internal workings
of the action, which means they're pretty much invisible to the
fingers. For the most part it feels just how you'd expect a horn
that spans the vintage/contemporary era to feel - though I have
no doubt that it being an alto (as opposed to a tenor) is something
of an advantage.
The octave mech isn't as slick as a modern swivelling mech, but
it's at least a step-up from some of the clunkier vintage mechs
- and the single-piece side keys work very well...at least while
the action's nice and tight.
The rather quirky bell key table, which positively
bristles with rollers, doesn't feel too bad either.
Note how the touchpieces follow the curvature of the body tube.
It's a nice touch - and probably quite an expensive one - though
I can't in all honesty say that it made any difference to the feel
or accessibility of the keys.
And see that extra touchpiece between the G# and the top F? That's
your top F# key. Yep. I'm in two minds about this feature; on the
one hand it's initially quite odd - having to use your left hand
to reach a top F# - but it's surprising how quickly you become accustomed
to it. On the other hand I wonder about the effect it might have
on players who swap between horns. For example, I cut my sax chops
on horns that didn't have a dedicated top F# key - and even though
all my horns now have such a key I still find myself reaching for
the 'fake fingering' rather than the proper key. If you get used
to the top F# hanging off the left, there may come a time when you
pick up another horn and find yourself reaching for a key that simply
and piffle!" I hear you cry - and you may well have a point,
but I'd counter with the fact that if this was such a great feature,
why did it not become standard on all later horns? I rest my case,
Everything else is more or less where you'd expect
it to be - with perhaps the only issue of note being that the right
hand pearls might feel a bit cramped if you have large fingers.
For all its complexity the action is remarkably swift and responsive
- the keys are well-balanced, the springs are smoothly responsive.
But that's on the basis of it being in tip-top condition. As soon
as a bit of wear creeps in, or some of the regulation goes out of
whack, the feel is likely to deteriorate far more rapidly than that
of a traditional horn...though much will depend of how fussy you
are when it comes to there being no double-action, and not having
to grip the keys like a gorilla in order to get the low notes out.
Enough of the blurb, then - how does it play?
Well...it's a very odd blow - and I don't necessarily mean that
in a bad way. It's clear that Leblanc went out of their way to design
a horn with a very even response...and that's exactly what it has.
But it's even to the point of being a bit, well, unnerving. Sure
- some horns are more even-toned than others, but even the best
of them show some variation from top to bottom. The Leblanc appears
to have almost no variation at all.
It takes a little while for this to sink in because it's such an
unfamiliar response - and I wouldn't blame you at all if your first
impression of it was that it had no character. But give it a while
- give yourself time to become accustomed to the evenness and you
might find it starts to become quite beguiling.
Tonewise it's a little bit restrained - and again
that's not always a bad thing. It's got 'medium' stamped all over
it, and it really doesn't want to stray very far off the path. It's
always difficult to convey the tone of a horn in the written word,
which is why I so often resort to analogy as a way of giving you
some idea of what to expect - and in this instance I'd say that
the Leblanc comes across as the archetypal perfect gentleman.
It's always smart and well-presented. It's crushingly polite, inoffensive
and resolutely restrained. It's pleasant company, reasonably interesting
but modest. Get the picture?
On the face of it, it seems that there's not a lot to dislike -
but the uncertainty slips in when you play it alongside, well, just
about any other horn. It becomes immediately apparent that the evenness
comes at the cost of the breadth of tone. Imagine, if you will,
a horn having its tone spread out all over a table. You've got upper
harmonics over there, low end grunt over here - and somewhere or
other is the midrange...and all the piles of stuff are kinda mixed
up at the edges. Leblanc has come along and tidied everything away
into a box. A very small box.
Most other horns will have a much larger (and louder) soundscape
in comparison. It won't be so well-ordered and linear, but there's
more of a sense of there being something to explore. They're also
likely to be more rogueish - which, as far as I'm concerned, is
the perfect quality for a sax.
I discussed it with the owner when he came in to collect the horn,
and I think he really nailed it when he said "It's got that
Buffet thing going on". It is what it is, and it does what
it does - and it's a lot of work if you want to get it to do anything
From a strictly technical point of view it's clear
that this horn is a member of that small but elite group of 'quirky'
horns that require specialist knowledge and experience in order
to repair them - such as the Grafton and the Conn 26M. This experience
is hard to find and seldom comes cheap, but you can't get away with
winging it on esoteric horns like these because the quirks are usually
in the action, which means that any and all sloppiness in the workmanship
will be brutally punished at the regulation stage.
This horn had been' overhauled' recently, and the sad fact is that
it was probably working better before the job than after. The pads
were way too thick and in the fine tradition of bodging, someone
had taken a mallet to the key cups in the vain hope of forcing the
pads into some kind of seat. And whoever did the work must have
bought all their felt from Mr Fuzzy's Fuzzy Felt Fayre (right next
door to Crazy Carl's Crappy Cork Cavalcade - conveniently placed
just opposite Mick's Mallet Mart).
put it plainly, there's simply no point in owning a horn like this
unless it's been thoroughly and properly serviced by someone who
really - and I mean really - knows what they're doing,
and regularly maintained thereafter. If you skimp on this, the complexity
of the action will magnify the smallest faults and any benefit you
might have accrued from the whizz-bang features will turn into a
performance liability. Ask your repairer what their standard price
is for an overhaul, then double it. If you get quoted less than
four figures for an overhaul on one of these horns they either don't
know what they're taking on...or you're getting "mate's rates".
And if this sounds like an advert for my services, think again.
I've paid my 'mad horn' dues time and time again, and I'm officially
done with working on them...which is good or bad news for all the
up-and-coming repairers out there (depending on your perspective,
Would I recommend it? Depends.
If you're an advanced player with very specific needs with regard
to getting around very complex fingerings, you might find the keywork
enhancements of some use. However, getting the hang of them isn't
going to come overnight - and doing so will require quite a commitment
to the horn...both in terms of its keywork and its tone.
If, on the other hand, you're a collector of unusual saxes then
yeah, the Leblanc is a relatively rare bit of kit which will add
much street cred to your collection of horns. But buy cheap, don't
fix it up and stick it straight in the display cabinet.
As for the rest of us...well...
I think there's a tendency to look upon such horns as sacred cows.
There's no denying that a lot of work has gone into designing and
building this horn and yes, it has some unique features - but I'm
not in the least bit convinced that the pros outweigh the cons.
It has a nice, distinct tone - but it's not what I'd call 'spine-tingling';
it's sort of competent and interesting, but it doesn't quite give
you that kick in the pit of your stomach that, say, a Conn 6M's
top end or Martin Committee's low end does. It's steady all round
rather than being exciting in places.
The action, too, is competent - but its complexity carries with
it the seeds of its own destruction. Again, it's decent all round
but it doesn't have the crushing efficiency of the Yamaha 62 nor
the playful reliability of the Selmer MkVI.
And then you've got the expense of the thing - not so much in its
purchase price these days (it was actually remarkably inexpensive
when new) but rather the cost of any repairs it may need, as well
as ongoing maintenance. You also have the spectre of failing regulation
over a period of time. To be fair you have this on any horn, but
on the Leblanc it'll have a far greater impact than on any standard
horn. Failure to address it as when it occurs will rapidly diminish
one of the primary reasons for owning the horn in the first place
- which begs the question "What's the point?"
And I suppose you have to ask yourself "Do I really need this
horn?" Take a look around you - who's playing these things?
By rights it ought to be the de facto standard for classical players
- but hey, they're all rocking Yanagisawas these days (at least
those of them who've given up on Selmers). I suppose there are the
fingering enhancements, but just how useful are they?
My own feeling on it is that it's too much hassle
for not enough glitter, and if you placed it alongside, say, a nice
Buescher and said "Take your pick", I can't see too many
people saying "Oooh, I'll take the Leblanc please!"
At least not the sane ones.