Pan American (Conn) 56-M bass saxophone
Guide price: £2500 +
Date of manufacture: Late 1920s
Date reviewed: October 2003 (updated June 2019)
A fine vintage bass saxophone built at the
start of the golden age of US vintage horns
It's been 16 years (can you believe it?) since
I first published this review, and while I've tackled the odd Pan
American bass here and there over the years, I've never had the
time to update this review and add more of the details I glossed
over on the first time around. However, the planets must have aligned
themselves fortuitously because another (slightly younger) Pan American
bass came in while I had some time on my hands. Unfortunately one
of the planets must have been a bit off-whack, because it wasn't
a silverplated bass...so if it looks like there are a few colour
jumps in the update, that's why.
What an incredibly imposing and impressive instrument
The sheer size (it stands nearly as tall as its player) is enough
to demand your attention, as is the sound it makes.
The Pan American is a stencil horn - it's built by
another company and rebadged, and in this case the builder is none
other than Conn.
There are many features that give this away, in particular the use
of locking point screws - though the design of the keywork and the
format of the serial number are also very good indications as to
With that said, there's some debate as to whether
this is a stencil horn. The terms refers to horns that are made
by one manufacturer and sold by another under a different brand.
For example, the Martin
soprano I reviewed in June 2017 may well have 'Martin' stamped
on the bell (a now-extinct American manufacturer of very fine horns)
but the instrument is actually an S800 made by Yanagisawa. Such
instruments are usually priced below the manufacturer's own model,
and so represent a good way to save a few quid on the purchase of
a decent horn.
Stencil horns can sometimes be identical to the manufacturer's own
version of the horn, but more often than not the only differences
are minor and/or cosmetic. In some instances a stencil model can
be a cheaper or an older version of the manufacturer's current production
With me so far?
Now, we all know the Pan American was made by Conn
- but it wasn't actually marketed by another company. If you go
looking for the Pan American company, you find Conn. In other words
it's their own brand. It's essentially performing the same function
as a stencil (cosmetic differences, cheaper/older model, lower price
etc.) but it's being done 'in house', so to speak - and the term
for this is 'second line'.
Why not just simply make the horn under a different model name?
Lots of companies do this - they make a top end horn and might call
it the 'Pro' or the 'Special' - and make a cheaper range called
the 'Student'. I can't say for sure why they didn't do this, but
someone out there will probably know.
If I had to take a guess I'd say that they wanted to preserve their
status as a top-line manufacturer, and that the Pan Americans were
so close in terms of design and build quality that it might have
raised awkward questions from the punters.
Proponents of the 'stencil' nomenclature will point
out that the definition of a stencil is a horn made by one manufacturer
and stamped with the name of another company...typically a reseller/distributor
- and thus the Pan American fits the bill.
Those who favour the second line stance will say that Conn owns/is
Pan American, and that a manufacturer can't stencil itself...or
the world will implode.
The argument carries on in this fashion until someone throws a punch
or accuses the other side of being communists or liberals (delete
Personally I think both arguments have their merits,
but the whole thing is further complicated by the fact that the
Pan American company was a subsidiary of Conn...and so was an individual
company in its own right.
That the argument persist is, I suspect, because the use of 'stencil'
as a descriptor adds value to the horn in the marketplace - whereas
'second line' perhaps carries with it the implication of a lesser
But enough of the semantics, let's winch the bass
onto the workbench and take a close look at it...
This model dates from the latter part of the 1920's,
or thereabouts - records this far back tend to be sketchy, but the
inclusion of the letter 'L' after the serial number indicates the
horn is low pitched, which puts its manufacture at a date after
concert A was shifted down to what we play it at today (440Hz).
This means the horn plays in tune with modern day instruments.
Incidentally, if you're ever in some doubt as to who made the bass,
have a look at the serial number - which you'll find located below
the thumb rest, just above the bottom bow joint.
You'll see a patent number stamped into the body tube - if it's
a Conn bass the stamp will read "Dec. 8, 1914, 1119954".
If it's a Pan American it'll read "Sept 14, 1915, 1153489".
construction is single pillar (post to body) - which is just as
well, as a whole bunch of ribs and plates would add extra weight
to an already hefty instrument. Being a (very) vintage horn there
are few mod cons on the body. So you get a static metal thumb hook,
a tiny thumb rest with a pearl inset, wire-type bell key guards
with no adjusters for the bumper felts - and soldered body tubes...so
no detachable bell/top bow. You also get a positively huge sling
ring - it measures 22/13mm, and looks like it was designed to take
a block and tackle rather than a simple sax strap.
There's also a spit key fitted to the U-bend down from the crook
- which saves you having to upend the bass in order to clear the
condensation out of the tube. Very handy.
Although the bass is keyed to low Bb, it only extends up to top
Eb. Some might consider this a drawback, but I tend to be of the
opinion that you buy a bass for the low notes...and if you want
to play up in the squeakies...buy a bloody soprano.
The body itself is very sturdily built, and with due
regard to its heftiness the PanAm bass is fitted with a most excellent
bell brace. This design is reminiscent of the crossbar seen in Conn's
later baritone saxes, and which led to its colloquial name of the
'Conn Crossbar'. This is a bell brace that means business, and in
the event of a fall it should help to prevent damage to the body
even if the bell takes all the punishment. It's a great deal easier
to straighten out a bell on a vintage bass than it is the body -
you have to unsolder whole sections of the instrument if the body
gets bent. There are two other, rather smaller, braces that hold
the down tube at the top to the main body tube.
Note the arm reaching over to link up with the low Bb key cup -
the key that actuates this arm rises about a foot from the arm,
and couples to the low B key, which is about half as long again.
I can assure you it takes a not inconsiderable push to close these
keys in order to get a low Bb out of the horn - and due to the sheer
weight of the key cups themselves you're rather limited as to how
light you can set the springs.
The toneholes are plain drawn, and despite the size
of the body there's really not much 'meat' on them. This is an important
point when buying a vintage bass sax. Because of the difficulty
and expense involved in accessing the bore to remove dents and bends
you'll often find that tone holes have been mercilessly filed in
order to level them off in order to get the horn going again after
a fall. It's also why you'll find a lot of basses with bent key
cups - where they've been bashed to allow the pad to meet the contours
of a warped tone hole.
I'm not a fan of either warped toneholes nor bent key cups, but
I'd far rather see a bent cup than an emaciated tonehole - and many
a punter can be forgiven for opting for a 'botch job' on a bass
sax as opposed to shelling out a hefty wadge of cash just to have
one dent taken out of the body.
A more conscientious repair would be to flatten the cup and shim
With that said, the bass is so large that it's sometimes
possible to get tooling through the toneholes. This is a risky business,
though - and requires the repairer to hold a very heavy and uncooperative
instrument in place with precision, and be able to look in two places
at once. It's why we charge so much.
The length of the downtube (up at the top end) marks
this bass out as a 'long wrap'. The European basses that appeared
a little later favoured a body design that resulted in a much shorter
downtube, and these horns are known as 'short wrap' basses. As per
usual there's lots of debate as to how this affect the tone, but
I think it's fair to say that short wrap basses are perceived to
be 'less tonally expressive' than long wrap basses. Feel free to
disagree/throw a punch/call me a communist etc.
build quality of the body is excellent. This is because the assemblers
were paid double the going rate for skilled workers, we're given
an allowance of three bottles of champagne a week and were chauffeur-driven
to work each day by members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra- or
so the legend has it. Or it could just be that they took some pride
in their work.
Unfortunately it's often hard to appreciate the workmanship because
most vintage basses have had the crap beaten out of them, and have
been repaired by people who couldn't get a job fixing Ellington's
fleet of Cadillacs.
When it comes to the action the picture's a little
To be fair, the build quality is still there - it's just the design
that's at issue. The biggest drawback to bass saxophones is the
unwieldy action. The keys are huge, and some of the key barrels
and arms are rather long. Keys as large as this have a tendency
to flex in use (known as key whip) and this is understandably problematical
when it comes to maintaining any degree of accuracy in the action.
Moderns basses are rather better designed in this respect, with
the use of short(ish) key arms and linked keys coupled with extra
braces for the barrels to run in, and just plain stiffer brass used
throughout. There are no such niceties on the Pan American.
Here's the top stack - or rather a very small part
of it. What you can see here (from left to right) is the A key cup,
the B and A touchpieces and the G key cup (which has a pearl fitted
to it). The rest of the stack goes way off up to the left and is
nowhere near the key pearls. This means having to use some very
long key barrels...and the longer a key barrel is, the more likely
it is to flex and twist (due to torsion) in use.
And then you need to link all these keys together - and this is
done via those flying arms. There's one that sits under a tab off
the A key cup and another, with a T bar on it, beneath the B and
A touchpiece arms.
These are all rather long, and really rather thin. The T bar in
particular is a very poor piece of design - just look at how thin
the arm is where the crossbar is attached. There's very little stiffness
in these keys, and with each key connection the flex is compounded.
Add in the torsion on the long barrels and chuck in a bit of wear
and tear for good measure and it's a miracle than any of the pads
close at all.
In fact they don't - at least not without a bit of 'gorilla grip'
help from the player. But here's the killer - if you press a flexible
key down hard to seal a leak, which is typically at the front on
the pad, you can get to a point where pressing it down harder will
cause the key to flex even more...and begin to open the pad at the
rear of the seat.
situation isn't helped much by the use of parallel point screws.
These screws rely solely on the corresponding holes in the key barrel
being drilled accurately, and on the barrels being a snug fit between
opposing pairs of pillars. Once a bit of wear sets in, and/or the
horns cops a few knocks that shifts things out of alignment, there's
no provision for taking up any free play.
Or almost - because these screws do have a degree of adjustability
built in. They're the famous/infamous Conn points. These screws
have no head to them, so can be continuously screwed into the pillar
until they drop out of the other side. In effect you can alter the
effective length of the screw. Once you've adjusted the screw to
where you need it to be, it can be locked in place by tightening
up a small grub screw that's fitted through the side of the pillar.
There's a channel cut into the point screw where the grub screw
can grip it.
It all sounds very wonderful, but there are a couple of problems.
Unless the tip of the point screw has something to butt up against,
it won't matter how much you tighten it up - it simply isn't going
to take up any wear. For it to be able to do so it would require
a tapered point on the end (which Conn later used). And then the
grub screw had a habit of working itself loose and falling out -
as it has done so here, probably decades ago.
All in all it's not a great system - and it looks
like a previous owner of the bass got properly fed up with it and
had someone make a few modifications.
In the lower of the three shots you can see that the grub screw
hole has been fitted with a plug, and the point screw no longer
has a channel cut into it - and although you can't see it, it's
fitted with a tapered point.
But look a little closer and you might spot that the diameter of
the new screw is a little smaller than the original screws...and
if you look closer still at the rear (left hand side) of the pillar
you can see a faint ring around where the screw goes through the
head of the pillar. This pillar has been bushed and new, smaller
thread cut into it - and it's been done very well, as has the fitting
of the grub screw plug.
I suspect that these were repairs rather than upgrades
though, because not all of the pillars have been modified in this
fashion. Chances are the original screws went rusty and had to be
drilled out - and whoever did the job either didn't have proper
replacements, or simply decided to make a better job of it than
the manufacturer did.
And rust is an important consideration on a bass sax - there's a
lot of steel present in the form of long rod screws, and bearing
in mind that these screws are no larger in diameter than those used
on altos and tenors it becomes vital to keep the action well lubricated.
It also helps to keep it reasonably quiet.
lower stack suffers even more from flex by virtue of the keys being
that much larger and the various arms longer.
The touchpieces are grouped around the low E key cup, which works
independently of its touchpiece because there's an Eb trill mechanism
fitted (press the F and D keys down to get an Eb, bring the E key
down to get a D). Although it's called an Eb trill it was actually
of more use when jumping between Eb and low C - which would otherwise
have involved some nifty fingerwork over the rather cumbersome Eb/C
Because of the very approximate nature of the keywork,
setting up the regulation on the main stacks is very much an exercise
in making compromises.
If you try to achieve by-the-book perfection it's going to drive
you mad in no short order.
You can certainly make the job a little easier by ensuring the toneholes
are level, and you can take a leaf out of the manufacturer's book
by fitting soft pads - or at least avoiding firm ones. These will
tend to take a deeper seat and will be rather more forgiving than
a harder pad. It won't do a lot for the feel of the action, but
then it's so springy anyway it's really not going to make any noticeable
I tend to regulate such horns in reverse, which is
to say that I try to ensure that the lowest pad that's closed has
the best possible seal - and rely on combined finger pressure on
all the keys above to overcome the flex in the action. It's by no
means ideal - it's just what you have to do to get the thing working.
Note the mother-of-pearl rollers on the low Eb/C keys.
It's quite rare to find a full set of m.o.p rollers in good working
order because the rod screws they pivot on tend to rust. The rust
expands and increases the diameter of the rod screw, which first
jams up the roller and then splits it.
You can get away with jammed rollers on a smaller horn, but on one
this size you're really going to need them - so it's worth checking
they're in good order, and keeping them properly lubricated. I had
to replace all the rollers on the silver bass - it made a lot of
difference to the playability.
octave key mech is...challenging.
To be fair, the mech on a horn this size is always going to be hampered
by the need to span the relatively vast distance between the two
octave key pips - but if you're careful to minimise the length of
any flying arms, and do your best to optimise the leverage necessary,
it's possible to come up with something that's reasonably efficient.
All of which is exactly what this mech isn't.
There's nothing really wrong with the thumb key, and there's nothing
really wrong with the two cup keys - it's where they all come together
in the middle that the rot sets in. There's quite a lot of flex
on those flying arms, and that seesaw mechanism that links the three
keys together is rather approximate in action. At best.
With all that said, there's something to be said for having such
a vague mech on a horn like this. It's all a bit exposed and prone
to damage, which would render a slick and precise mech inoperable
in no short order. Give this mech a whack and there's a good chance
it'll make no difference at all. Might even make it better...
if setting up the mech is hard enough, just wait until you have
to deal with the link from the foot of the G key (which controls
the switch between the upper and lower octave key pads). It's buried
deep within this little rat's nest of levers. It's a bit galling
really, that on an instrument so huge there'd be a spot where you
could barely fit a scalpel blade into. If you want/need to make
any adjustments to the octave mech it's very likely going to mean
having to remove quite a few keys just to clear a bit of space.
Not that you ought to fiddle with the mech unless it's absolutely
necessary - the golden rule here is "If it ain't broke, leave
And just to add insult to injury, there's a transfer lever that
sits between an arm that comes off the rear of the G key and the
octave mech itself. You can just see a part of it sticking up over
the key barrel (it's the bit with the torn cork). It's quite an
important piece, this - but it's fitted with a very short barrel
that'll wear in no time at all. When that happens it'll add yet
more uncertainty to the already approximate octave mech.
The bell key table is typically vintage and has few,
if any, concessions to ergonomics.
It's not a bad table, and on a smaller horn would be quite presentable.
However, the bell keys themselves are massive - and very, very long
- and it all adds up to a feel that's rather hit or miss.
can be quite hard work balancing the springing on the bell keys.
You obviously want them to be as light and nimble as possible, but
they're so big and heavy that the minimum spring tension required
to make them work rather limits what you can do. Fortunately, none
of the bell keys are connected to the G#. If they were I think you'd
probably need two hands to press the key the low C# key down...
I'm aware that my overview of the action sounds appalling,
and were it an alto or a tenor it would probably mean the horn would
barely work at all - but it's a bass, and therefore capable of being
extremely forgiving when it comes to such discrepancies. We repairers
are always banging on about how important it is to ensure a horn
is completely leak free - but the bigger a horn gets, the more you
can get away with. Not that you'll have much choice - and yes, it'll
mean that the response of the horn will take a hit....but you'll
at least be able to get the low notes out.
This example (on the right) is a slightly later model,
and dates from 1929 - and in most respects is identical to the earlier
The most obvious difference is the finish, which is now bare brass.
There are some tiny spots of gold lacquer hanging onto the crook,
so it seems likely that this was the finish the horn came with originally.
There's also no engraving at all on the bell, which is rather curious.
Every example I've seen thus far (and it isn't many, admittedly)
has been engraved. I suppose there's a chance it's been buffed off
in the dim and distant past...but you'd really have to go some to
polish that much metal off the bell. And why would anyone do such
a thing anyway?
The most reasonable explanation I can come up with is that the original
bell suffered a catastrophe of some kind and had to be replaced.
It's quite possible (indeed likely) that the engraving is applied
only once the body's fully assembled - so an off-the-shelf bell
might have been completely bare.
only real difference between the two examples is that the later
one has an extra bell brace, situated a little further down the
body, below the low D key pearl.
This is a very sensible idea. It's not so much that the upper brace
is weak - because it's not, and certainly won't bend in a hurry
- rather it's the tubing the brace is fixed to. Give the bell a
hard side-on whack and the impact is likely to cause the brace's
opposing foot on the body to sink into the tube.
There's also the issue of day-to-day stress on the stay feet - they're
supporting a lot of metal, and there's bound to be some flexing
A secondary braces adds stiffness to the bell and spreads the stress
load. It's an idea that's not without merit even on much smaller
horns, and one that occassionally pops up here and there. Perhaps
the most interesting example of which is the brace fitted to the
TJ Horn 88.
You might have noticed that the design of the cross
bar is slightly different too.
The orginal was made from two bars soldered together in the middle,
with some decorative rounding off - and the later one seems to be
cut out of a solid sheet of brass and left with squarer edges. It
looks to be slightly thinner too, and I suppose it's natural to
assume that it's all about cutting production costs. But it probably
cost just as much to make and fit a pair of simpler braces as it
did to make and fit the fancier one - and any reduction in the stiffness
of the upper brace is more than offset by the lower one.
this is all very impressive, but it still leaves the upper part
of the horn from the upper bell brace to the top of the body tube
rather exposed and unsupported - though in practical terms there's
not a lot you can do about that. As you might imagine, it's not
uncommon to see a slight bend in the upper section of these horns
- and indeed on any vintage bass.
As bad as this sounds it's actually not too much
of a problem provided the bend is both gentle and not too severe.
There's such a lot of space between the keys and a considerable
distance between the top and bottom ends of the upper stack that
it's entirely possible to set the action up around a slight curve
with few, if any, ill effects.
In fact it's quite possible to knock a slight bend in the upper
section of a bass and not even notice a difference in the way the
horn plays. More often than not even the bend itself goes unnoticed
by the player - and many's the time I've told a bass client that
their horn has a bend in the upper section, to which their response
is "Oooh, is it? Where? ....Oooooh yeah!"
A quick word about the side keys to finish off. Both
of the cup keys are sprung closed - each having a corresponding
lever that presses down on the rear of the keys to open them. Nothing
particularly special about that.
However, whilst the Bb lever is fitted with a foot that prevent
the lever from rising too high - there's no such provision on the
side C lever.
If you lift the touchpiece up it'll keep on going until the other
end of the key hits the down pipe tube. Such an arrangement isn't
uncommon on very old horns. But there's usually some means of keeping
the lever key in contact with the cup key - and typically this would
involve the use of a light spring to force the lever key down and
hold it in place. But there's nothing on this bass, nor any sign
that either a spring or a key foot was ever fitted. Very strange.
Under the fingers the action feel a lot better than
you might think - at least if it's in reasonable working order.
A lot of this is going to be down to the fact that the thing is
so huge. Your arms are much further apart, as are your fingers -
and it's almost as if your brain primes you to expect a cumbersome
affair. And it is, but because the thing is so much fun to play
you find yourself almost willing it to work.
Once you've got used to it you might even find that the action feels
quite sprightly...though I'll admit this does require some suspension
The same action on a smaller horn would feel utterly dreadful.
Something that may put off the modern player is the
omission of a Bis Bb key. This certainly catches you out initially,
but once you get used to it it's actually not something you miss
that much. Indeed, there are many modern players who prefer not
to use Bis Bb because they consider the tone of this fingering to
And then there's the issue of the horn only going up to top Eb -
which could be something of a drawback if you're playing contemporary
pieces. While I'm on the palm keys it's worth mentioning that the
touchpieces are not really very easy to reach - so you might find
it pays to bend them around a bit to suit you.
This isn't as risky as it sounds given the size of the keys, although
you wouldn't want to keep on doing it time and again.
for overall quality - well, no-one builds a cheap bass saxophone
(apart from the Chinese).
Either it's top notch or not at all. That such an instrument remains
a viable purchase after so many years is mainly due to the price.
Modern basses start at around the £9,000 mark - so there's
a healthy market for these grand old stalwarts, provided you don't
mind putting up with a few quirks.
Playing the thing is huge fun - and no-one should
be ashamed of heading straight down the bottom end and giving it
large with the low notes. Ye gods, what a thunderous sound!
There's a very marked difference between playing an old, knackered
bass and one that's been set up ready for action. The low notes
have a rich roundness that make your ankles wobble.
As does holding the thing up after a while. I may have mentioned
it before but it's worth repeating - it's heavy, very heavy indeed,
and it would be a very brave (or strong) player who'd consider gigging
this beast with just a mere plain saxophone strap to support it
with. Sensible players will use a harness of some sort - though
some players make use of a stand, and there are some that can be
used in both the sitting and the standing position.
There's also the issue of how you 'dress' your bass. Some players
like to throw the instrument diagonally across their front on the
basis that it does away with the need to support the horn with the
right hand thumb. I tend to start off in the traditional by-my-side
position, and gradually move to a diagonal position when fatigue
sets in. This usually takes about two minutes.
Tonewise the Pan American sounds exactly like it
should do, with that classic vintage US rumble combined with an
easy expressiveness. However, it's also a surprisingly lyrical horn
- capable of rather more subtlety than you might think. Get it right
and this horn will croon as well as a tenor. Granted, it takes a
more advanced player to coax such lightness out of the horn, but
it's there - and in vast quantities too. It would be a great shame
to confine an instrument like this to the simple role of playing
'oom-pah' bass parts.
The top end gets a bit tricky - like the baritone sax, the sound
thins out considerably and it's a mistake to think you can play
the top notes like you can play the bottom ones.
I can't in all honesty say that the tone is even across the range.
This is a tough call even for a baritone, and on a bass it's practically
impossible. The only way around it is to spend some time, and quite
a lot of it, getting used to the instrument's quirks and foibles
(known in the trade as 'practice'). It's what marks out a proper
bass player from someone who merely owns one.
As for the tuning...
It depends on how picky you are, and what you're going to use the
bass for. If you're just pumping out bass lines you're probably
not going to run into too many issues. If you're using the bass
in a solo or ensemble context I think it's fair to say that 'some
steering is required'. As with the uneven tone, it's all about finding
out where the quirks are and being prepared for them. You can certainly
make your life a lot easier by using a proper bass mouthpiece rather
than a baritone piece (which won't fit on this particular horn anyway).
However, decent bass pieces are few and far between, and ain't cheap.
Cases? Vintage bass sax cases are little more than
plain boxes, with no padding - all they do is protect the horn from
light knocks and scratches...the big knocks go right through the
case. If you feel the need to replace it, or you don't even have
a case, a decent one will probably cost you an arm and a leg (though
I recently saw an old one sell on ebay for 99p. Yeah, 99p), and
the combined weight of the instrument and its case will be a recipe
for a hernia. Many bass sax players settle for using zip-up covers,
and take great care with handling the horn in transit.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely, without hesitation.
Let's face it, if you're after a bass there's really not a great
deal of choice - you either have to go vintage (of which there are
but a handful of options) or you go new (of which there are even
fewer options). However, new basses tend to be focussed more on
tuning than tone - and to my ears at least they rather sound like
'uber baritones'. They're precise and responsive, but it comes at
the cost of expression. The only exception is the fabulous Eppelsheim
bass, which combines the fullness of the vintage tone with impeccable
tuning, vastly improved evenness of tone and a modern action. You'll
pay dearly for the privilege, mind you. And then there are the aforementioned
Chinese basses - which are only a good bet if you're prepared to
throw a good few hundred quid at them to sort out all the build
So there we have it - the Pan American bass sax. Amazing,
thrilling, wonderful... and almost completely insane. The world
would be a better place if we all owned a bass saxophone like this.
Check out how the silver bass wowed
the punters on its first gig after its service.
for ebayers and other auctioneers