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Swanee sax

Origin: UK
Guide price: £100 upwards depending on condition
Weight: 0.8 Kg
Date of manufacture: Late 1920s
Date reviewed: February 2015

A curious oddity from the 'age of novelty'

You have to feel sorry for the poor old saxophone sometimes. Not only did it have a difficult birth, but its early years were steeped in intrigue, rancour, skulduggery, prejudice...and even death. But it survived and, later, prospered - but before it did so it had to suffer the indignity of being 'noveltied'.
For the most part this tended to revolve around the music played on it, and the uses it was put to - but as the saying goes "Any publicity is good publicity", and not only was this due to the instrument's huge popularity at the time but it also served to increase it still further.

Now, as many of you are well aware, the sax isn't a particularly difficult instrument to get started on (sure, it gets a lot tougher later on) - but it's still something of a handful if all you're interested in is 'having a bit of a dabble'. Not only that, it's not a particularly cheap thing with which to dabble - and this led to a number of rather curious inventions designed to cash in on the craze.
Perhaps the best known of these is the slide saxophone. It might surprise you to know that there were four or five different makes of slide sax, but by far the most familiar is the Swanee Sax - so called because of its similarity to the Swanee Whistle.

It enjoyed a moderate amount of success, perhaps due to its being aimed at those who might gather round the family piano of an evening and wish to join in the merriment without having to spend many long and tedious hours practising an instrument. For a relatively modest outlay and the ability to read a simple instruction manual, you could be up and parping on your slide saxophone in no time at all. What's not to like?
What's particularly interesting (to me, anyway) about this curious instrument is that it was made in the UK. In itself that shouldn't be so unusual, but somehow the idea of a slide saxophone sounds like a quintessentially American thing - it's a novelty, and if there's one thing the Yanks like, it's novelty (we're inclined to be a bit po-faced over this side of the pond...though I freely admit that doesn't explain Morris dancing, jellied eels or rugby).

There was a choice of models, too - though there seems to be some confusion over the model names. I've seen them described as models A, B and C or models B, F and D. In any event it's clear that there are three models - a small one, a medium one (this one) and a large one...which has an upturned bell, as per an alto sax.
I suspect the B, F, D nomenclature is the right one, given that it relates to the lowest note marked on each model.

The design is very simple. Most of what you can see is merely cosmetic - the actual 'business' part is hidden away inside the trumpet-like exterior, and consists of a length of box section brass with a slider. The acoustic principle is equally as simple; blow into a tube fitted with a mouthpiece and you'll, hopefully, produced a note that's dependent on the length of the tube. If you're skilled at such things you might be able to produce a 'harmonic' note...i.e. blowing harder can make the note jump up an octave.
If you change the length of the tube, the pitch of the note changes. This is basic principle behind all brass and woodwind instruments - in the case of brasswinds, valves are used to direct the air down increasingly longer sections of tube; woodwinds rely on keys that progressively cover holes bored into the tube, thus forcing the air to travel ever further before it can escape.
And so as you raise or lower the slide on the Swanee sax, you shorten or lengthen the effective length of the tube...and the note produced changes accordingly.

Swanee sax dismantledThe construction is very simple too.
The outer 'trumpet' is made from thin brass, and the sliding section is held in place by a single screw at the bottom. The addition of a couple of rubber or cork buffers and the placement of the mouthpiece tube (which sits in a slot at the top of the horn) helps to keep the slider in place. More or less.
To dismantle the horn you simply remove the screw and lift the slider section out through the top.

The slider section is also made of brass, though of a much heavier gauge than that used for the body...which is practically paper-thin.
As you can see, the top of the box section is open - and there's a slot in each of the side walls into which the flat slider fits.
Well, I say 'fits'...it goes in, and if you're lucky it goes up and down. It's very common to find that the slider has been bent, which usually means it goes halfway up (or down) and then jams up. If you find one with a slide that moves quite freely then it's probably because it's badly worn, and this leads to air leaking past the slider. The slider is fitted with a small handle which screws in at the bottom.

Finally, there's a disc fitted inside the bell section (see below) which serves no purpose other than to hide the bottom of the slider section from view - though on the grounds that every novelty needs a 'killer feature', this is often referred to as 'the resonator'.
The whole thing is finished with a coat of plating. This one looks to have been nickel plated, though it seems silver plated models were also made.

There are a couple of 'advanced' features - there's a small sling ring at the base of the bell section, and the slot in which the slider handle runs is marked out with note positions. Not that they're of much use, because you can't see them when you're playing the thing. I guess they serve as a guide while you're in the early stages of 'mastering the instrument'.

Swanee sax bungAt the top end of the slider section there's a 'bung' fitted. It's pretty crude - just a block of cork - and it serves to block up the top end of the tube (otherwise the air would escape here...and you'd only ever get one note) as well as providing a means of vaguely regulating the tightness of the slider action.
There'd usually be a cap that fits over this section - but these are often lost, though an effective replacement can usually be made from an old clarinet mouthpiece cap...provided you cut a slot into the top to allow for the slider to pass through it (or simple take it off before you start playing).

The mouthpiece tube (technically speaking this will be the crook or neck) is soldered onto the slider section, and usually not very well. Leaks where the tube meets the slider are very common, but it's easy enough to fix. The mouthpiece is about the same size as a soprano sax piece and, like the top cap, is often soon lost.

And that's about it - all very simple.
You'd think there wasn't much to go wrong, but these things are often plagued with problems - some of which that are easy to fix, others not so much.
Dents are very typical. The body is extremely thin and the slightest knock will leave a respectable ding in it. Fortunately the thinness of the metal means it's but a moment's work to push the dents out again...but you can only do this so many time before the metal gets tired and starts to split.
Dents also mean that the body gets pushed out of round, which makes the gap where the handle runs a little uneven. This can be a bit trickier to sort out due to the inherent springiness of the thin body.
It's fairly common for the plug at the top of the tube to disintegrate - and although it's not difficult to replace it, it's nonetheless a fiddly job...mostly because you have to get the thickness juuuuuust right. Too thick and the slide will be hard to move, too thin and you'll get a leak. It's also one of those things that needs 'wearing in' - if you set the bung just right and reassemble the slider for playing, you'll find that after half an hour or so it'll start to leak...and you'll have to start over. Fitting a sheet of Teflon to the rubbing face of the bung is a nifty mod...assuming you can get the stuff to stick to the cork.
Then there's the aforementioned problem with the mouthpiece tube coming away from the slider section - but by far the number one cause of most of the problems is the slider section itself.

Swanee sax scaleBent sliders can be very troublesome. A gentle bend isn't too difficult to deal with - some carefully applied pressure in the right places will restore the flatness of the slider, but a sharp bend will usually leave a kink behind and will require some very diligent bending, beating and scraping to bring it back to level. The box section doesn't usually give any trouble - it's fairly sturdy, and is unlikely to be damaged by the odd knock.

But even assuming everything's running smoothly, there's the issue of wear (or inaccuracy) in the slider.
In an ideal world the air that gets blown in via the mouthpiece should only be able to escape from the end of the slider. This would ensure than when you selected and blew a note, you'd get a nice clear tone. But the Swanee sax was built down to a price, and what you have to accept is that while most of the air will come out where it's supposed to, a certain amount in also going to leak past the slider's grooved channel, and through the bung at the top of the slider. Just how much will depend on how worn the slider is.
Some lubricant will help, but there's a law of diminishing returns; too thin a lube won't do much to seal off any leaks in the slider - and while a very thick lube will, it will also slow the action of the slider down by a considerable amount. A thin grease is probably the best bet, with perhaps a drop or two of oil every now and again.

The range of the horn is two octaves (from F to F2, pitched in C) - and as you can see, the individual note positions are marked and labelled along the length of the slider channel. The markings would have been reasonably accurate when the horn was brand new, but the accumulation of leaks in the slider means that the lower down the scale you go, the less likely it is that the pitch of the note will line up with its designated marker. No big deal really - like any trombonist or violinist, you just have to learn where the right spot is for each note.

In terms of build quality, then, the Swanee sax is, well, a bit crap really.
Sure, it's distinctive, it's unusual, it's kinda fun...but it's still a bit crap. And how does it sound?
It sounds like shit.

No, honestly, it does - but what d'you expect? You've got a soprano sax mouthpiece attached to a small box-section body that leaks like a sieve that's seen better days and a means of adjusting the pitch of the notes that has all the grace and finesse of an elephant riding a skateboard through a quarry. Of course it sounds awful.
Swanee sax bellAnd that's when it's in good working order. As it gets leakier, it gets more and more wheezy until it becomes almost impossible to play either the lowest or the highest notes. Ordinarily this would be enough to put any self-respecting musician off - but for aficionados of these curious novelties it seems to be about the time they decide that it would be 'really fun' to take it on a gig...or, even better, knock up a video and bung it on You-tube.

I suppose you could argue that if someone can hold a tune on one of these things, and perhaps pick out individual notes with a degree of accuracy, then that's a remarkable feat of musicianship...but it's akin to being able to peel a potato while someone blats you around the head with a cricket bat. It's all a bit pointless really.

So, the big question is - should you get one?
If you can find one in excellent condition for less than three figures it'll be worth buying it just to flip it at auction. I've seen these things fetch four or five hundred pounds - so as an investment it's a sound proposition. If you want one for playing you'll really have to make sure the slide is in good shape, with no evidence of bends or repairs, and with as little wear as possible to the slider channel. Alternatively, buy cheap and spend out on restoration (you can have the slide replated and lapped).
If you want one 'just for fun' I think you have to consider very carefully just how much (or little) fun you'll get out of it. You can probably pick up a used Vibratosax for a few hundred quid - and although that too is rather crappy, it's at least considerably more usable than a Swanee sax.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015