Martin C Melody saxophone
Guide price: £300+
Date of manufacture: 1923 (or thereabouts)
Date reviewed: September 2005
A now obsolete member of the saxophone family,
from one of America's premier horns builders in the mid 1900's - and perhaps
one of the very last examples of Martin's run of C Melody horns
I have to say that what you're looking at here is quite possibly one
of the finest examples of a C Melody as you're ever likely to see. I can
say this from the perspective of having been told by the owner to 'give
it the works'. What you see here is a completely overhauled and restored
example of the genre.
Jobs like these require some thought before the process of overhauling
begins in earnest.
There are some who feel that the object of restoration is to put an instrument
back into 'as new' condition. I don't subscribe to that view in that this
tends to require a great deal of cosmetic work....a brand new instrument
has no scratches, no wear to the finish, no odd little marks that bear
witness to harder times.
No, I prefer to do what's called 'sympathetic restoration', which focusses
more on the mechanical aspect of the instrument, and the integrity of
Such a process tends to be less 'caustic', and follows the principle of
not taking away something that can't be put back - so that the process
can be repeated in later years, if necessary. There's many a fine vintage
horn out there that's reached the end of its life prematurely by dint
of having been buffed to within an inch of its life every time it's been
As it was, this horn arrived in pretty remarkable condition for its age
- I rather suspect that I'm the first person ever to have undertaken any
major work on it.
One of the wonderful things about working on a vintage horn is just how
well built they are. Granted, the design is perhaps quite simple - and
in a modern context I'd throw criticism at such things as the single mount
point for the bell to body stay, the static thumb hook and the fixed bell
key guards (it's quite hard to set pads on these bell keys when the guards
obstruct your getting a pad setting plate inbetween the pad and the tone
On a more positive note the pillars are all well fitted, the bottom bow
joint (where the straight portion of the body meets the curve of the bottom
bow) features a substantial soldered joint and you get a sense that everything
is twice as strong as it needs to be - indeed, the bottom bow plate sports
a ridge that looks as though it could easily double as an icebreaker should
the player ever find themselves stranded at the North Pole.
Considering its size you might be quite surprised by the weight of this
This is for two reasons; Martin never built flimsy horns in the first
place, and then there's the extra meat on the soldered on tone holes.
these are no ordinary tone holes. No simple tube here, each tone hole
is a beefy affair, with enough wall thickness to cut a decent chamfer
in at the lip.
There are pros and cons with this design, of course, and the big drawback
is the possible lack of integrity of the joint where the tone hole meets
the body. It's very common to find Martin horns with leaks around the
tone holes, and this is most likely due to the process of oxidisation
of the soft solder that holds the tone holes in place.
It's not something you see much of on modern horns (which feature drawn
tone holes, whereby the wall of the tone hole is physically pulled out
of the body material), but if your crook falls off its tenon sleeve then
it's quite likely that the cause will be oxidisation of the solder - causing
it to crystallise and lose adhesion.
It's unclear why some Martins seems to suffer from this problem and others
don't (this horn had perfect tone holes) - but I suspect that it's got
a lot to do with patterns of usage and storage*. It's certain that
dampness around a soldered joint will accelerate oxidisation, so perhaps
this horn had either very little use or was well looked after by its previous
Another advantage of soldered on tone holes is that in the event of any
significant damage to the body, they can be removed to assist the repair,
levelled off independently of the body and then refitted.
* I'm indebted to Tom Crawshaw, who emailed me after having read
the original review and raised the issue of 'selective galvanic corrosion'.
Essentially this describes the process whereby two different metals in
contact with each other set up an electrical difference in the presence
of an 'electrolyte'. In the case of the Martin we have the brass of the
tone hole and body, and the lead alloy of the soft solder. The electrolyte
is nothing more than the water that forms in the bore as condensation
or gets blown into the horn as saliva. In effect, it turns the interface
between the tone hole and the body into a battery.
There's a thing called 'the Galvanic Series' which consists of a list
of metals - and the further apart two metals are on that list, the more
critical the galvanic corrosion will be. As it happens, lead and brass
are quite a few steps apart.
What this means is that even if the soldered joint is sound, without
any pinholes or flaws, corrosion of the joint will still take place. It's
also the case that the weak acids in saliva will help to break down a
soldered joint in time - so between the two processes it's no wonder that
these tone holes are often problematic.
There's a separate article here
that goes into more detail, and discusses the remedies.
And here's something to scare those of you who've bought solid silver
crooks. Silver and brass are even further apart on the Galvanic Series,
so leaving the crook on the horn after you've played it will eventually
weaken the tenon joint.
it also raises the question as to whether silver plated horns with soldered
on tone holes are more susceptible to galvanic corrosion than lacquered
brass ones. My advice would be, when buying such a horn, to check the
tone holes very carefully indeed.
The most obvious solution, inasmuch as such a thing can be prevented,
is to ensure that you thoroughly dry your horn after playing.
The crook is of the tenor variety. Some C Melody horns feature an alto
style crook. There's no real difference in the way the design affects
the response, but it does have a bearing on how the horn hangs. Alto players
use a very high approach - a straight neck and back is the most common
stance, whereas tenor players tend to have a very slight stoop...due to
the angle of the crooks, and perhaps the size and weight of the horn.
The Martin sits somewhere inbetween...which takes a bit of getting used
A few words about the finish. This horn features a matt silver finish,
with brightwork (silver plate on plain, flat brass) on the bell and a
gold wash inside the bell. This matt finish was popular back in the early
to mid 1900's (and seems to be making something of a comeback today in
'retro' horn finishes), but I've never been a big fan of it. Essentially,
the horn is sandblasted to lend the brass a pitted effect and then silver
plated. It looks reasonable enough, when clean, but it gets grubby quite
quickly and can be very difficult to keep clean on the grounds that grime
and tarnish will lurk in the pits of the finish, and short of scrubbing
the horn it's very hard to remove it.
That being said, when it IS clean it looks quite special - especially
the contrast with the brightwork on the bell.
The keywork has its pros and cons too. The most obvious pro is its build
quality - nothing flimsy about these keys.
It's of simple design too, so you won't find any modern conveniences like
stack key adjusters or fancy compound mechanisms.
That simplicity is perhaps the drawback also - there's no Auto top F mechanism,
no link from the G# to the bell keys and a vaguely Heath-Robinson octave
key mechanism. There's also the ubiquitous low Eb trill key mechanism
(note the extra key arm over the low E key).
Although this mechanism works it's inclined to wear rapidly due to the
relatively small key barrels on the relevant keys, and it becomes an ideal
vector for a leak. As per the modern practice I reversed the springing
on the trill key cup so that it remains closed - though some people are
quite happy to simply wedge the Eb trill cup close with a bit of cork.
I guess too that Eb trills just aren't as popular a musical device as
they once were (which is fibe by me...I can't stand trilling!) - though
it's more useful if you think of it as an alternative Eb. This horn also
features a G# trill key (seen inbetween the low F and E keys). It's perhaps
of more use than the Eb trill, allowing you to hold the G# key open with
the left hand little finger whilst you trill with the right hand middle
finger, and as it's just a mechanical connection to the existing G# key
it won't pose any problems with regard to leaks should the action wear.
bell keys are all mounted on long rod screws - as opposed to modern horns
which use point or pivot screws. Long screws are inclined to wear, through
a combination of sheer surface contact area and a tendency to lose lubrication
- plus there's the associated drag of friction which tends to make such
keys a little less than sprightly in response.
As for the bell key spatulas they're a very simple affair, though quite
functional. The only caveat really is that the low C# key isn't cantilevered,
so can feel quite heavy with the large spring that's required to ensure
the key doesn't flap when you play the bell notes.
However, that's all par for the course with a horn of this vintage, and
provided the action is kept in good mechanical order and well lubricated
it can be balanced to give a light and positive feel...with perhaps only
the octave key and the bell keys being slightly stiffer than on a modern
horn. As regards the point screws, these are good old-fashioned proper
points which allow for any free play in the action to be taken up as and
It's quite an unusual experience blowing a C Melody.
I have to say right from the off that I'm not really a fan of this type
of horn. I've worked on and played many an example, I even used a marvellous
old Wurlitzer C Melody in a blues band for a few years, but somehow I
never really managed to feel comfortable with the tone.
The horn sits, physically, between the Eb alto and Bb tenor. In an ideal
world the C melody should take the upper notes of the alto and the lower
notes of the tenor and combine them in a glorious assemblage of tone...but
to my mind what it seems to do is take the weaker top notes of the tenor
and combine them with the strident lower notes of the alto. Now, I fully
expect that there's many a C Melody buff out there who even now is putting
finger to keyboard with a view to sending me one of those emails that
begins "Dear Sir...I have never, mark you, NEVER heard such utter..."
etc. - so perhaps I should add that the C Melody may well have something
in common with the soprano sax in that it has it own unique style of playing.
In other words, you have to apply yourself to it.
From listening to 'proper' C Melody players, who somehow manage to eke
quite a light but punchy tone out of these horns, I suspect that it's
me that's at fault and not the poor old saxophones.
One thing's for sure, this Martin has some of the same quality of tone
that I find so appealing in all the other Martins I've played - that luscious
combination of rich lower notes and crisp top notes. Martin horns have
punch, and yet it's not a case of it being 'always on'...they can be backed
off to give a lovely, dry mellow tone that can switch in an instant on
demand to that powerful tone that so characterises horns of this vintage.
That being said, if this horn was a tenor I'd say that the lower notes
had less richness than I would have liked, and were it an alto it would
have less cut.
Another thing that throws me is the pitch shift. This sometimes happens
to doublers, typically alto and tenor...where you're going from an Eb
instrument to a Bb. The effect is such that after playing an instrument
for a while you become accustomed to certain finger positions giving you
certain pitches. Thus you'd finger a G and get, naturally, a G. Switch
to a differently keyed horn and that G fingering produces a different
note at concert pitch (though it's still a 'saxophone G'). This can catch
you out initially, but after some time spent swapping between two differently
pitched horns you can become attuned to it.
The C melody though is so uncommon that the average player might never
even see one in a lifetime, let alone play one - and even with my flute
playing credentials (another instrument pitched in C) I felt somewhat
at odds with the relationship between my fingering and the pitch of the
I think if I had to give one word to describe the tone of the Martin
I would say it would be 'mysterious'.
I think too that this perhaps points up how so often the tone of the C
Melody goes to waste. Listen to any collection of C Melody recordings
and you'll find a preponderance of 'novelty' pieces...happy-go-lucky,
chirpy pieces that require great technical dexterity - and yet if you're
lucky you might come across the odd rare piece that's rather slower, and
perhaps darker or more minor in feel. The Martin C Melody seems to be
made for just this niche, its warmth of tone carrying just enough edginess
to make you ever so slightly wary. Tonewise I've seen these horns described
as anything from 'syrupy' through to 'sweet', but I feel this woefully
underplays the horn's more 'noir' characteristics. If James Bond was going
to play a sax, he could do no better than get one of these.
The tuning requires some in-depth comments.
I was expecting to hit a few problems initially. Blowing a vintage horn
requires slightly more input on the part of the player - much as driving
a vintage car requires a bit more of the driver. That's not to say that
the design is bad, it's just built with a different set of manufacturing
parameters. I could go so far as to say that these days tuning, or at
least ease of achieving it, is paramount - but back when the Martin was
built it was tone that ruled the roost.
I've seen what happens when the one out-balances the other - you end up
with an instrument that either sounds wonderful but can't play two notes
in tune relative to each other, or one that sounds dead and dry but hits
pitch every time.
The science of woodwind instrument construction is that of achieving balance
between the two - with a fair degree of latitude as to whether you make
the player work at tone or tuning.
Thankfully this horn was 'low pitch', built to the new standard for Concert
A that became the norm just after the turn of the century. It's important
when buying horns of this vintage to check the pitch - most horn built
to the (then) new standard will exhibit the initials 'L.P' somewhere on
the body, usually close by the serial number, just below the thumb hook.
In my initial tests I used my workbench Vandoren tenor mouthpiece. It
worked just fine both in terms of tone and pitch right up to the top C...and
then things went badly wrong. So much so that by the time I reached top
F I was, in fact, playing a perfect E.
I really couldn't believe that a horn from such an established manufacturer
would be quite this badly out of tune, so I switched to the original mouthpiece
that came with the horn.
Granted, I immediately lost the open tone the Vandoren gave me, but the
tuning snapped into place more or less...I still felt the top notes exhibited
a degree of flatness, but not so much that I couldn't learn to accommodate
with my embouchure given enough time. Indeed, after half an hour's playing
I found the top notes sliding more and more in tune.
So it would appear that this horn, and probably most C Melodies, are quite
mouthpiece-dependent (no surprises there).
I'd imagine that the order of the day would be something with quite a
wide, open bore - unbaffled, and with a fairly close lay to give you a
rich, rounded tone without too much edge...and given that C Melody mouthpieces
aren't exactly common these days you might find that it would pay to have
one made by an expert, such as Ed
Pillinger, for example.
Failing that, some time spent trying out a large range of standard tenor
pieces should yield some results - and as no two players have the same
requirements this might be the best way to find a piece that works both
in terms of tuning and tone.
It's worth commenting here that the setup is important with regard to
tuning. It's been my experience that many repairers are perhaps fooled
by the size of the C Melody, and set about giving it a tenor's action.
Naturally, being smaller than the tenor this results in too high an action.
Likewise, giving it an alto action results in too low an action. This
isn't such an issue on modern horns, but for vintage horns the height
of the action, and the relative difference between the upper and lower
stacks can make quite a difference to the response and tuning of the horn.
I can see, in theory, how a sax pitched in C should have mass appeal.
No need for transcribed music, simply follow the piano score. And yet
this type of horn is no longer manufactured. It's not unreasonable to
ask why that should be, and I suspect that it's largely down to the tone.
As good as a C Melody can be, it can't quite match the fireworks of the
alto, nor the gravitas of the tenor - and although you could argue that
it has its own unique sound, it will forever be plagued with the sense
of sitting between two stools. But for those who are prepared to put the
time and effort into coaxing out the very best that the horn has to offer,
the Martin has to be worth a look.
Bear in mind though that cases for these horns are all but impossible
to find - so you may need to budget for a custom case, or at least refurbishment
of the original one.
For those of you who are fans of this particular member of the saxophone
family, I can thoroughly recommend a peek at Alan
Tucker's entertaining and comprehensive collection of articles.