Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Reviews from the repairer's workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

Conn 10M (Ladyface) tenor saxophone

Conn 10M tenor saxophoneOrigin: USA (Distributed in the UK by Lafleur, London)
Guide price: Varies according to condition
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 1930something
Date reviewed: June 2002

A top-of-the-range pro horn from the 1930s that maintains its status even today

Of all the vintage saxes that come through the workshop, the 10M (and its alto counterpart, the 6M 'underslung) really 'does it for me'. I freely admit to being a fan of modern instruments - I like the slickness of the action, the free blowing feel, the relative neutrality of tone - something which many vintage horns lack. This is no bad thing, if what they lack are the things you don't much like in modern horns, but the 10M excels in that it combines the best of both worlds.

It's also known as the Ladyface, due to a portrait of a woman's head engraved on the bell. Later models were more 'extensively engraved', which led to its other nickname...the Naked Lady.
Rumour has it that the more of the lady you can see, the better the model...

The build quality of these horns is generally excellent. They were made in a time when accountants were where they belonged - out in a back office filling out payslips and adding up petty cash receipts. This left the craftsmen and women to get on with the job in hand, which is why a well cared for 10M is every bit as good today as it was when it was built.

The design is relatively simply by today's standards, with few of the features you'd expect to find on a top-flight horn. There's no adjustable thumb hook, the bottom bow joint is soldered and the thumb rest is rather on the small side.

Like a lot of vintage horns, the brace that runs between the bell and the body is not that stout, comprising just a single bar with a woefully inadequate base plate on the body. If the horn takes a knock to the bell the implications for damage to the body are very great. With this in mind you should never even consider using a soft case for one of these instruments (or any other really).

Similarly, the bell key guards are little more than stout wire cages - with no provision for adjusting the bumper felts once they've been fitted. This isn't such a big deal though, it's generally a one-time job anyway.

The body is of single-pillar construction, which was the norm for the day. There are pros and cons to this type of construction, but it's worth noting that many modern horns still use this type of build. The jury's out as to whether it makes any difference tonally, but that doesn't stop manufacturers from highlighting it as a tonal feature in their product blurb. That said, they're just as likely to highlight ribbed construction for exactly the same reasons...

The 10M has rolled tone holes. No-one really knows whether or not this is a good thing. From an entirely mechanical point of view the fact that the holes are rolled mean that they impart a little extra bracing to the body - and are subsequently far harder to level out in the event of damage. As you might realise, these horns require that you take rather more care looking after them than your average modern instrument.
Some say that the increased surface area of the tone hole rim will mean the pads seat better, others (like myself) point out that less surface area makes for a better seal due to the finger pressure being distributed over a far smaller area (it's why you don't want to let anyone wearing stilettos walk across your polished wood floor). There's also the issue of the pads being inclined to stick more due to the increased contact area.

The angle of the crook may cause the player to raise an eyebrow. In comparison to modern instruments it's set a little lower, which means you have to raise the horn slightly higher in relation to the embouchure position. It's not uncomfortable, but it might take a little while to get used to it.

The crook is not that well braced - again, a common problem with vintage instruments - and once again due care should be taken when the horn is in transit. If it cops a whack, that wire brace is likely to punch its way into the tubing just above the tenon sleeve - and that can be very expensive to fix.
It's also a good reason to avoid fitting the mouthpiece once the crook is fitted to the horn. This is when 'pulldown' is most likely to occur - the force of carelessly pushing the mouthpiece on bends the crook tube down. Best to play it safe and fit the mouthpiece before fitting the crook to the horn.

As for the action - well, this is where the horn really comes into its own. There's really no other sax quite like it. The 10M is capable of supporting the lowest, fastest, lightest action out there - with comparatively little loss of tone or detriment to tuning. Quite why this is I do not know, it's just the way the instrument is built - just bear mind that to keep it running like this it will need more frequent checking and adjustment because of the point screw design...and here's why.

Conn 10M pillar In an attempt to build in a degree of adjustability into the action, Conn used a shoulderless point screw held in place by a small grub screw at 90 degrees to the point screw. In theory this method ought to work quite well - in practice the grub screws are too small to properly secure the point screw and end up either splitting or corroding solid in the pillar.

For the player this means having the action adjusted on a regular basis, or putting up with noisy action and occasional leaks. For the repairer it's hell on earth - and quite a few will charge you more for sorting the action out on these instruments.

There are workarounds, the most drastic of which entails cutting larger lock screw holes - but then this diminishes from the horn's originality and with instruments like this it's almost a duty to take such issues into consideration. Far better to make use of modern materials, such as threadlock solutions or nylon inserts - which are completely reversible and quite effective at locking the point screws in place.

Conn 10M Eb trill keyThe keywork has a couple of extra features - a G# trill just below the low F key, and an Eb trill - actuated by a key on top of the low E key whilst the F and D key fingers are forked. This actuates a small key cup round the back of the instrument, as seen here on the left.
It's common to see this key cup wedged closed - few players use this trill these days, it simply adds weight to the action and is another thing to go wrong. Reversing the spring on the trill key cup is the common method of adapting the action - though a bit of cork wedged under the trill cup guard will do the job just as well, if less elegantly. The example here has been reverse sprung permanently closed.
If you require the use of this key it's vital to ensure that the pad seats correctly and that there's no excessive wear in the action.

The bell key cluster is neat and tidy, and quite slick in action even though it's quite basic. The positioning might take some getting used to though, but note how the low Bb spatula extends round from the back of the cluster to cover the top on the arrangement, which give you more options when going back and forth between B and Bb.
The G# key is particularly nice, being rather more of a long lever than its modern counterparts. What this means is that relative spring tension here can be set quite high without making the G# action excessively heavy under the finger, which should help prevent sticky G#s.
The C# key is a single piece, directly sprung, so it's heavier than on a modern horn - but the generous touchpiece gives you plenty to press down upon.

Conn 10M bell spatulasAs for playability, well, what a delight. This horn has it all, and more besides. Tonewise I find it uniquely capable of giving either that typically warm, full bodied ooomph that you'd expect from a fine vintage horn whilst still being able to produce a sound so edgy you could cut glass with it. Get the mouthpiece choice right and you can do either/or.
The action is an inspiration - to play faster. Yes, it's nice to wallow in that lovely broad tone but there's something about a well set up 10M that positively demands you try out your fastest, flashiest licks on it. And the best of it is that it's right there with you, it just never seems to trip over itself.
The tuning is good too, most vintage horns have their quirks - as does the 10M, but nothing that barely a few hours playing won't put straight.

It's worth bearing in mind that although the 10M range ran from around 1935 to 1959, Conn dropped the rolled tone hole feature around 1948. To all intents and purposes this shouldn't have made any difference - but if you play a rolled tone hole model alongside a plain tone hole version you'll notice that that there is a difference, and the later version has a brighter, less rounded tone. This has nothing to do with losing the tone hole roll itself, it's simply about a change in the bore design. I've played some truly wonderful rolled tone hole models, and some simply unimpressive plain tone hole models...I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

So if you're after a vintage horn that combines the best of the golden age of American horns with the slickness of today's CNC made instruments - this is your baby. There is only one question that remains to be asked...why did they stop making it?

For further Conn 10M resources, check out Dr.Rick's list of serial numbers and's article on this series of horns. There's also a rolling thread on by Connsaxman_Jim, who specialises in Conn history.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015