Let's assume, for a moment, that you're sitting down of an evening -
perhaps with a cool beer in hand, or a jar of cockles - ready for a spot
of entertainment via the medium of your telly. This telly, however, has
only two channels; on channel one there's a display of gymnastics, given
by a fleet of finely honed athletes, which promises to be a veritable
feast of men jumping, successfully, over various items - such as sticks
and sand; on channel two though is a programme about woefully unfit, and
possibly drunk, middle-aged men attempting to do pretty much the same
thing around the house - with predictable results.
What's it gonna be?
Well, it's a fair bet that the vast majority of you will opt for the spectacle
of people falling over and otherwise damaging themselves and anything
else within range. This is because we all enjoy a laugh at other people's
expense, and few things are more entertaining than watching someone make
a pig's ear of things.
The Germans have a wonderful word for this, the tongue-wrappingly rich
Similarly, if you take your kids for a walk around a local museum it's
a fair bet that the bit that will most appeal to them is the section that
houses the 'nasties' - grizzly jars containing pickled pigs with three
heads; photographs of apparently self-combusted human remains; the actual
mincing machine used by the Pie-Making Whippet-Snatcher of Pudsey...and
perhaps a display dedicated to fashion in the 1980's.
Every museum worth its entrance fee has one of these - known, in popular
parlance, as a 'Black Museum'.
I'd like to have one too, but unfortunately my job is more about fixing
things rather than preserving their state of hideous disrepair...but that
doesn't stop me taking a few photographs and sharing some of the more
horrifying examples that find their way into my workshop prior to my fixing
So, pour that beer, dip into those cockles, and prepare to be shocked,
awed and truly queasificated (OK, I just made that word up...but you heard
it here first, right?) by some of the horrors that have crawled onto my
up is a tenor sax crook socket.
To the untrained eye it looks quite normal - harmless even.
It's only when you understand how it's supposed to work that the true
horror becomes clear.
You'll notice a small slit in the bore. That's there because this joint
is effectively a clamp. The crook tube slides into this socket, and by
applying force to close the gap that the slit provides, the crook is held
firmly in place.
It follows, then, that some means of closing that gap is in order - to
whit, a clamp.
And so we have a clamp, on the outside - complete with a neat screw and
a corresponding slit.
I suspect that you're now beginning to see the problem - the slit in the
socket doesn't line up with the slit in the clamp.
Aha, you say, surely the clamp can still apply pressure to the joint.
Well, it could if the clamp was free to move on the joint tube - but it
isn't...it's soldered in place - so you could do the screw up as tight
as you like and it would never make any difference to the tightness of
the crook fitting. The best it can do is bend the clamp screw sockets,
or break the screw itself.
The thing that's particularly devilish about this example is that the
clamp is in the right place - it's the socket tube that's not. It's been
removed (or fallen off) and refitted out of line. The clamp has been removed
too, and refitted - but can only fit in one position due to the necessity
to line up that pillar with the rest of the octave key mechanism.
on to the next example we see an octave key mechanism on a Selmer.
Again, a casual observer might not notice anything terribly untoward -
but look carefully at the area around the right hand pillar.
Notice the gap where the key ends and the pillar begins?
Look too at the how the rocker bar sticks out of the key at its left end
- and note how far away the thumb key touchpiece is from the thumbrest.
This is a Frankensteinian octave key mech - made up from parts of no less
than three models of Selmer saxes.
The bulk of the mechanism is the original Mark VI keywork; the bit at
the end (where the gap is) is from a Reference series, and the thumb key
is from an SA80 series.
What you can't see on the photo is that the thumb key arm (that connects
it to the mech itself) has a slot in it that's completely incompatible
with the part of the octave key it's supposed to connect to. Needless
to say, it didn't work at all.
up is a truly gruesome exhibit.
Again, the ghastliness of this one isn't immediately evident.
I'm sure you can all see the difference in the two bell keys shown. The
B key (the lower one) looks fine...the cup appears to be sitting nicely
above its corresponding tonehole - but the Bb key seems to be somewhat
out of line, showing a sizeable gap at the rear and being rather too far
I would not blame you at all for supposing that this is nothing more than
a bent key. Some of the more knowledgeable among you might even suggest
that the pillar (just visible at the bottom of the photo) has been knocked
out of line.
Not so, I'm afraid.
This, my friends, is another freakish transplant operation.
There is nothing wrong with the position of the pillar; there is nothing
wrong with the angle of the bell; there is even nothing wrong with the
Bb key...other than it's from a different instrument.
full nastiness is revealed when you look at the other end of the key.
The touchpiece for the Bb key sits on the left of the photo.
Note how very far away it is from the other two touchpieces.
Granted, the key is of similar design to the one that should be there
but it's from a different, later model - and not only has the bell angle
changed on the later model, but also the position and alignment of the
bell key touchpieces, or 'spatulas'.
I feel you're now ready to withstand the real horror behind these exhibits
- they all feature on the same instrument.
Oh, there's more too - but I wouldn't want to be accused of giving anyone
Suffice to say, what we have here is a late vintage Selmer MKVI tenor
that has evidently lost a number of keys.
Whoever has attempted to fix it (and I know who) has worked on the principle
that, say, a Bb key is a Bb key is a Bb key...and that whilst it would
perhaps be foolish to replace a missing key from a Selmer with one from,
say, a Yamaha, it should be perfectly acceptable to replace it with one
from another Selmer...albeit a different model.
So - rather like the popular country and western song that celebrates
a Cadillac built from parts that span a number of years, this Selmer is
a MKVI/VII/SA80/Ref 54.
It was purchased on Ebay, and the seller commented that it 'needed a few
repairs, none of which are beyond the scope of a competent repairer'.
He was right - he just failed to mention that those repairs would almost
certainly get very close to the four-figure mark.
My next exhibit is perhaps rather less gruesome, but is still guaranteed
to make you wonder what on earth was going through the troubled mind of
the person responsible for it.
The horn in question is the much vaunted King Super 20 'Silversonic' tenor.
A late model, but nonetheless still a highly desirable piece of kit -
even more so considering the fact that is has just been fully overhauled
and sports a particularly fine set of black pads, complete with Noyek
reflectors (or resonators).
Now, the term 'overhaul' implies that any problems that might affect the
proper operation of the instrument have been corrected - such as wear
in the keys, broken springs, missing corks and worn out pads etc. It also
implies that any bodywork problems have been sorted out, such as significant
dents, bends, loose fittings etc.
From experience I have to say that, unfortunately, this isn't always the
case - and many an apparently overhauled horn requires extra work to bring
it up to standard. More often than not this relates to worn action or
badly seated pads - but this horn really takes the biscuit.
The overriding principle of replacing a pad on an instrument is that both
the key cup and the tonehole must be level. If there's any discrepancy
at all the pad will fail to seat properly - or if it does seat, it's likely
to be unreliable once the pad settles down or ages.
I often spot wobbly toneholes/key cups on overhauled horns, but for the
most part the discrepancies are slight - and I put it down to the repairer's
lack of experience or laziness.
What you see here though is quite the most spectacularly warped tonehole
I've seen in quite a while. Indeed, the photo doesn't quite do it justice
- you need to see it from at least two angles to fully appreciate how
bad it is.
How did it get that bad, and could it have happened subsequent to the
Well, there are no dents visible in the body adjacent to the dips on
either side of the tonehole - so that rules out the horn having copped
a whack after the work was done. However, there's evidence of dent removal
adjacent to the peaks (front and rear) - which means that the dips are
in fact at the right height...and the peaks have been pushed up by dent
removal. You can't push a dent up by dropping the horn, it takes a very
deliberate act on the part of a repairer to do so.
Furthermore, look along the bottom edge of the key cup - it's clearly
It got like that because whoever fitted the pad (and once again, I know
who) did so in full knowledge that the tonehole was out of level...and
took a mallet to the key cup in a fiendish effort to bash it so that the
pad followed the warp in the tonehole.
If you think that's bad - this is but one example of many on the same
Were it just the one tonehole I might have given it the benefit of the
doubt and assumed that something strange and horrible had happened subsequent
to the horn having an overhaul...but the presence of many similarly warped
toneholes and correspondingly bent key cups undoubtedly points to a 'mallet-set'
Continuing on the theme of being heavy-handed with a hammer, this next
exhibit is a perfect example of what's known in the trade as the old 'double
There are many techniques for removing dents from saxes, and the most
common is that involving the dent ball. This is nothing more than a smooth,
rounded ball fitted to a steel bar. The principle is simple enough; a
suitable ball is chosen and fitted to a bar that's firmly clamped in a
vice, the bar is inserted into the bore of the horn until the ball sits
under and makes contact with the dent, and then the bar is struck with
a hammer. The shock travels down the bar, through the ball and out into
the dent. In effect it's like being able to climb into the bore and hit
the dent with a hammer.
It's an effective means of removing dents, though a very great deal can
go wrong if you don't have quite the right touch.
By far and away the most common problem comes from choosing the wrong
size and shape of dent ball.
When you whack that bar it vibrates - and the important point here is
that it vibrates in two directions...into the dent and away from it. Once
the ball is much larger than about 50% of the bore diameter there's a
very real risk that a suitably heavy whack to the bar will allow the dent
ball to smash into the opposite bore wall - and so the skilled repairer
will be careful to gauge both the right sized ball for the job and the
right weight of the blow to the bar.
is what happens when it all goes wrong.
The horn in question is a Selmer Reference 54 alto - a very expensive
bit of kit indeed.
There are two features to note here; the three ripples on the body and
the slight bulge just above the top F tone hole.
The horn had originally sustained damage to the opposite side - a fall
had resulted in a dent around the octave key pip where the top F# key
pillar had been driven into the body.
This is a particularly tricky job as this pillar sits on a strap that
runs the entire length of the left hand key stack. It's clearly not practical
to remove this strap...though it is possible to unsolder and lift just
the end, which makes for an easier job when it comes to removing the dent.
If you don't lift this strap off you're effectively trying to remove a
dent from both the bore wall and the strap..and that's a LOT of metal.
Naturally there's another method, and that's to shove a dent ball up
the horn and give the bar the mother of all whacks - and that's precisely
what's been done here.
If you look closely at the photo you can make out three distinct ripples...which
means that the repairer hit the dent bar at least three times, and presumably
never noticed the damage being inflicted on the opposite wall...or perhaps
If you think this is bad, it gets worse.
When a horn gets dropped with enough force to bash a dent under a strap
it usually means the body bends - and indeed it did. Thing is though,
this bend was left in.
When a body bends it increases the distance between the pillars - and
this had been resolved by a combination of knocking pillars over at an
angle to take up the gaps, and, where that had been insufficient, the
fitment of a brass washer between the end of a key barrel and the pillar.
This next exhibit is breathtaking in its deviousness insomuch
as real money, and lots of it, was paid out for the privilege of having
the 'work' done.
It's a truly awesome example of a cack-handed job, otherwise known as
a 'right royal cock-up. What makes it particularly horrifying is that
the job was done by someone who's a member of a repairer's trade association,
NAMIR, which led to the unsuspecting victim thinking that the quality
of workmanship would be at least of a certain standard (the poor fool!).
your eyes over this right hand stack setup.
The keys are being held down with more than enough pressure to ensure
a decent seat on any sax that's halfway reasonably set up - and yet there
are gaps clearly visible above each of the toneholes. My standard test
for a well set pad is to trap a cigarette paper between the tonehole rim
and the pad - when it's pulled out I'd feel a steady grip if the pad is
seating. On each of these pads I reckon I could get a couple of client's
Christmas cards between the tonehole rim and the pad...and still have
room for a fag paper.
A leak of this magnitude can never go unnoticed - even by a non-player.
weren't much better up the top end either. Here's a shot of the left hand
key stack, with a positively cavernous gap between the B key cup and its
If you could see to the right you'd see a gap below the auxiliary pad
too. With such leaks at the top end of the horn it was little wonder that
the lower leaks weren't noticeable, the poor player could never get below
G - even with a grip on the keys that would have made the Incredible Hulk
You could suggest that it wasn't so much that the pads weren't seating,
rather the problems were down to bad regulation - but if you corrected
the regulation (which I tried) the pads still didn't seat properly.
You can but imagine the anguish - but it doesn't stop there...
Here's a small collection of key cups taken from the unfortunate
The starting principle of repadding a saxophone is astonishingly simple
- remove the old pads and replace them with new ones that fit the cups.
In this instance the word 'fit' has been used in its most liberal sense...sure,
the pads do actually go into the cups - but only in the same way that
a man with a size 36 chest will fit into a size 42 jacket.
big problem here is that pads aren't exactly flat - they tend to roll
down at the edge - so it's very important to ensure that you maximise
the flat area by fitting pads that completely fill the cups. If you don't
you run the risk of the tonehole trying to make a seal on the roll-off
of the pad, and this is never satisfactory.
The largest cup shown is that of the low Bb key - and you can just see
that the tonehole impression practically falls off the side of the pad.
It wouldn't have mattered though, as it was completely impossible to get
a note anywhere near the low Bb...and if it were possible the Bb pad was
On its own this job is one of the most unedifying exhibits
I've ever had the misfortune to display, and even now I can feel the cold
chill of revulsion that creeps up your spine....but wait, the worst is
yet to come!
How much d'you think changed hands in remuneration for this grisly operation?
£50? £150? £250??
Alas no - a truly knee-wobbling, gut-wibbling, head-borking £500
was handed over in exchange for the foul deeds you see laid bare before
O Tempora! O Mores! O Bugger!
This next addition to the collection is perhaps a little
less daunting than the previous exhibits, but it will still tug at that
part of the human psyche that can't resist slowing down to peek at traffic
accidents on the other side of the road.
What's particularly notable about this exhibit is that it doesn't involve
the actions of a third party - rather it's an example of a horror spawned
The unfortunate beast in question is an unusual tenor sax branded 'Galasso',
a Brazilian manufacturer.
The horn itself is nothing to write home about, just a basic student horn
by the looks of it - and to the casual observer it just appears to be
'A.N.Other' old horn. But look a little closer and the awful truth is
What you see here is a standard drawn and rolled tonehole
- but what's that brassy patch at the rear?
It's exactly that - a patch.
No big deal on its own, the tonehole might have suffered some kind of
trauma at some point which required the fitting of a patch - but look
at the other tonehole and you can see evidence of yet more remedial work
at the rear.
It's the same for practically each and every tonehole on this unfortunate
instrument - almost all of them have been patched or filled, some in more
than one place.
What's happened here is a problem in the manufacturing process. As the
toneholes have been drawn out of the body they've fractured, perhaps due
to the poor quality of the brass or some fault in the drawing process
itself. There are plenty of scratch marks in the toneholes which might
indicate the drawing tool was rather rough and ready - so these toneholes
weren't so much carefully drawn as violently ripped out of the body. There's
some evidence to suggest some of the repairs were made before the horn
was finished in nickel plate - which certainly points the finger at the
In spite of all that, it actually blows quite nicely (in places).
And now, good people, prepare yourself for the foul horror
you see here is a vintage Selmer MkVI baritone sax - a very early example,
with a low A - with a hole drilled through its body and a guard stay fitted
with the aid of a nut and bolt. At first sight it appears to be nothing
less than vandalism, but if you look a little closer it takes on a more
What you have to bear in mind is that Selmer once thought it a good idea
to use two-point mounted guards on some of their saxophones (as opposed
to the standard three-point mounts just about everyone else uses). There's
no structural advantage to a two-point mount, so it would have been one
of those 'natty ideas' that someone in the company felt would add to the
aesthetic appearance of the instrument. However, there are significant
drawbacks to the design - not the least of which is that there is less
load-spreading in the event of a knock to the guard, and without the third
foot the slightest knock could tip the guard forwards or backwards.
The end result was that many players got so fed up with
the guards moving about that they had their repairer pop a drop of soft
solder over the securing screws to help keep the guards in position. It
was the only effective means of dealing with the design flaw.
It brings to mind a 'discussion' I had on one of the saxophone forums
regarding the design of saxophone bell braces, in which I made the point
that truly effective bell braces didn't appear until around the 1970s,
when Yamaha came up with a design that looked like someone had given more
than a passing thought as to how damage to the saxophone's body could
be minimised in the event of an impact to the bell by fitting a bell brace
that was designed to absorb and deflect the energy. I was assured most
pointedly that the boffins at Selmer knew what they were doing and that
their original ring design would have been a highly developed and tested
piece of engineering (instead of, as I maintained, just a pretty way of
securing the bell to the body).
If the boffins really were thinking about design, how on earth did the
two-point guard make it past the drawing board - and what possessed someone
to fit it to a low Eb key (a key that takes an awful lot of knocks, inside
and out of the instrument's case)...and on a hulking great baritone saxophone?
as the instrument was owned and played by a rather distinguished professional,
he had little choice but to address the problem of the poor design and
had someone attach a third foot to the guard.
The manner in which the foot is fitted to the guard is actually quite
neat, with a carefully shaped flare and a countersunk bolt to secure it
in place - but it all goes a bit wrong when it comes to fitting the foot
to the body. In all fairness I suspect that the intention was to do the
job without damaging the lacquer - which meant no soldering...hence the
use of a bolt to fit the foot to the guard and another to fit it to the
It was decided to tidy the job up and make it more permanent, which would
also deal with the inevitable leak that comes from having a bolt fitted
though the body - but how to do the job with the least amount of damage
to the remaining lacquer?
Ideally I would have liked to have made up a small plug for the bolt hole
and silver-soldered it in place, but that would mean bringing the area
up to red heat...and that would have burned off a great deal of lacquer.
So, I went with the plug idea but silver-soldered it instead to the guard
foot so that it would locate in the bolt hole. It had to be carefully
made to ensure a snug fit in the hole and to lie flush with the bore.
The whole affair was then soft soldered to the body, just like a standard
guard foot mount - and the bolt on the upper end of the foot would allow
for removal of the guard for access to the Eb key cup.
little reprise now, in the shape of a 'spot the deliberate mistake' exhibit.
As many regular visitors to my site will know, I've been very interested
in instruments coming out of China - and it's been fascinating to watch
the rise in quality and development in the last few years. However, there
still remains something of a barrier when it comes to a common language.
It's quite clear to me that there are some highly skilled craftsmen and
women involved with woodwind instrument manufacture in China, but there
are times when confusion arises over what the buyer wants and what the
manufacturer thinks they want.
What you see here is an alto saxophone crook. It's no ordinary crook -
the tube is hand formed out of solid silver. It's nicely made too, not
quite up to the standard of, say, a Gloger crook, but then it comes in
at less than the price of replacement standard brass crook as churned
out by one of the big manufacturers.
That's an astonishing prospect - being able to by a handmade solid silver
replacement crook for less money than the one that originally came with
The trouble is, something got lost in the translation, and the result
can be seen here.
Have you worked it out yet?
If not I can put you out of your misery.
Take a look at the tenon sleeve. Although the crook itself
is meant for an alto, the sleeve is for a tenor!
It's not that easy to spot at first - or rather it is, it's just that
most people can't imagine such a thing happening and so completely ignore
it. It becomes quite apparent when you hand the crook to someone and ask
them to fit it to their alto.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this crook is the sleeve ring (that
sits atop the tenon sleeve). At some point during manufacture someone
will have needed to fit the sleeve to the crook tube. They couldn't have
used a sleeve ring off a tenor crook as it would have been too large a
fit over the crook tube, and one off an alto wouldn't have accommodated
the sleeve tube - so they would have had to make one up especially for
this crook. I would like to think that at some point the maker thought
"What the ****?", but then he or she probably had a ticket on
the bench that stated the buyer wanted the crook built exactly to that
design - and that's exactly what the buyer got.
It's a well-known fact that it costs money to maintain a
collection of any kind. Museums often spend many hundreds of thousands
of pounds to secure important exhibits on behalf of the public at large,
and the shwoodwind black museum is no different.
I found this next item in a 'storage repository' and immediately entered
into difficult and drawn-out negotiations to secure the item at a reasonable
price, in order to display it for posterity in this humble collection.
Or, to put it another way - I spotted it at the local tip and offered
the guv'nor a fiver, on the basis that it was so utterly appalling that
I simply had to have it.
And so, showing once again that the black museum trawls the very face
of the planet to bring you the very best exhibits - I present 'The Indian
first glance this instrument looks very much like an original Adolphe
Sax saxophone. The small bell (to low B) is very indicative of a sax from
that era, as is the double octave key and the basic keywork.
A closer inspection reveals that this is, in fact, a copy. A very poor
copy. A very poor, modern, copy.
The story behind these instruments is that they are knocked
up in small sheds out in rural India. Whether that's entirely true or
not I have yet to confirm, but it seems a highly likely state of affairs.
The true horror of an instrument like this is that they're sometimes seen
for sale on places like ebay. I suspect that there are few visitors to
this collection who would be foolish enough to buy one of these - but
there are still plenty of people out there who have never really seen
a saxophone 'up close', and are likely to be tempted to buy one of these
simply because of the cheap price (much cheaper even than a basic Chinese
saxophone). I suspect too that the tourist trade accounts for a large
number of purchases.
What's quite interesting about this saxophone is that the
body is surprisingly well-made. Although Adolphe Sax is rightly revered
as the inventor of the saxophone, his own examples weren't as well-made
as you might have imagined - and the body of this sax is nearly as good
as any I've seen on an original Adolphe sax.
But that's as far as it goes, because everything else is completely and
the left you can see a close-up of the top stack. It's quite plain to
see just how badly made the keys are. They appear to be a combination
of pressed (keycups), turned (pearl holders) and cast parts - none of
which really fit together with any kind of accuracy. Where there are gaps
(and there are gaps, some of them quite large) there are generous blobs
of soft solder.
Keys that don't quite fit have been hammered and roughly
filed into shape, and when even this hasn't worked they've been fitted
anyway. The rod screws, which on any half decent sax serve as pivots for
the action, merely hold the keys between the pillars. If they move up
and down it's a bonus, and if they're at all stiff then this is overcome
by the use of fiercely powerful springs.
To give you some idea of how strong they are, if you played more than
half a dozen scales on this saxophone you'd have to stop to rest your
Not that that's likely to happen, because neither the tone
holes or the key cups are level - which is academic anyway, as the 'pads'
that have been fitted have the consistency of the back of a soft leather
armchair, and are about as flat as a boxing glove. I suppose it's a form
of 'self-seating' pad - in a "seat 'em yourself" kind of way.
To do this you must first overcome the incredible spring tension and then
press the keys down almost half as much again to push the soft, squishy
pads over the warped tone holes. More often than not the pads on these
Indian saxes are bright red colour - but these are a drab brown. Perhaps
this is a 'mock vintage' model...
So if you saw one of these in a market, how would you distinguish
it from an original Adolphe sax?
Well, as simple as the Adolphes are they're still much better made than
this example. The keys will still be relatively crude but they'll be a
great deal neater.
You also won't see such modern features as spatula key rollers, such as
those seen on the right. You can clearly see that no expense has been
spared on the key fittings. To be fair these rollers do actually roll
- but they're so thin that you can't get your finger on them. They make
a nice rattly sound though.
Perhaps the biggest giveaway is the tone holes - they're drawn. Adolphe's
original saxes were built quite some time before that process was commonly
used, and his saxes all had soldered-on tone holes.
This is quite a surprise as it's by no means a simple job
to draw tone holes out of a tube - and it has me wondering whether these
things are made by more than one company. I said earlier that the body
wasn't too badly made, and if you add in the drawn tone holes and the
contrast them with the quality of the keywork it leads me to suggest that
people buy in the bodies from someone who's quite good at making bodies,
and then make and fit the pillars and keys themselves.
Does it play?
This example is missing its top Eb key and a couple of pads - but with
the addition of a few lumps of Blu-Tack (thus doubling the build quality,
and the value of the instrument in one fell swoop) it's just about possible
to play a scale from mid to low C - assuming giving up half way counts
as a scale. From this it can be determined that the sax is pitched in
F, and that in the space of an octave it's completely out of tune with
I'm sure you will all agree that this terrifying exhibit
was well worth the small fortune paid to secure its rightful place in
the black museum .
The techniques used in the trade of saxophone repairing
are many and varied, and each exponent will have his or her preferred
methods - but by and large they all get the job done to the required standard.
However, there are those who have drifted to the dark side of the force
and make use of sinister and gruesome means by which to torture and maim
the instruments entrusted to their care.
of the most labour-intensive tasks is that of tightening loose rod screw
action. This uses a technique called swedging (pronounced sway-jing),
which carefully compresses the worn key barrels so that the rod screw
fits snugly once again. It's a tough, time-consuming job that can sometimes
leave your hands blistered and aching.
So it's little wonder that some less scrupulous technicians will be tempted
This unfortunate key came off a stencil Martin alto - a
very badly worn instrument. That it was badly worn wasn't immediately
obvious to the casual observer - if you gave the keys a quick wiggle while
fitted to the instrument they appeared to be reasonably tight, with little
or no end or front-to-back play.
However, if you wiggled them up and down it was obvious that something
was very seriously wrong.
And this is why. You can see that someone has crimped the
very end of the key barrel.
This has done two things - it's compressed the tube in one plane (you
can see the bore is now oval) and it's pushed a nub of metal over the
end of the barrel.
It's an ingenious bodge really, very few players who might be a bit savvy
when it comes to checking for key wear would think to check if a key barrel
moves up and down - and for the unlucky owner who paid to have this work
done they'd probably have been none the wiser. Until they tried to play
You might just about get away with it on a standalone key (such as a palm
key), but on keys that are linked to others the up-and-down play would
have to be taken up first before the linked keys would move. Disaster!
This 'fix' probably took someone five seconds, as opposed to the five
or ten minutes (and sometimes considerably more) to do the job properly.
And now for a little culture. This exhibit is an 'installation
artwork' - which is a short way of saying "Hey! Look what we found
outside! Let's nail it to the wall and take bets on how long before someone
says 'I can see the underlying metaphor...'". What it is, in fact,
is a brand-spanking-new Selmer SA80 Series III soprano saxophone.
I'll admit that it's not a very exciting exhibit on its own - after all,
if you've seen one soprano sax, you've seen 'em all. However, there's
a tale behind this one which dramatically alters the perspective in which
this object is viewed.
It was purchased from a well-known music shop in London - the sort of
shop I advise people to buy their instruments from. I do so because I
believe it's worth supporting our High Street retailers, and even though
you may pay a little more for the privilege you can at least be assured
of customer service and satisfaction. Right?
Unfortunately not, it would seem.
On the plus side this instrument was out of stock when the buyer called
in at the shop (they had previously arranged to try one at another shop,
who subsequently turned out to be also out of stock), but a despatch-rider
was duly summoned and a new instrument was brought forth from the wholesaler.
So far so good.
The instrument was unpacked and handed to the buyer, who tried it and
found there was a problem with it - some of the notes were rather stuffy,
and there was a warble down the bottom end. The in-house repairer was
called up from the dungeon and tasked with job of putting it to rights.
So far so gooder.
After half an hour or so the repairer returned, sweat pouring from his
brow, his mangled hands cradling the soprano as though it were a new-born
baby. The buyer played it again...but it still wasn't right - it still
sounded stuffy and it still warbled on the low notes.
What to do? Well, when you've schlepped 60-plus miles to go shopping
and it looks like the horn you're holding in your hand is the only example
in town, what ya gonna do?
They handed over the cash and hoped that the advice on playing-technique
(push the mouthpiece on further!) given to them by the salesman would
make everything alright.
It didn't - and you can see why.
The soprano isn't a brute of an instrument. If you wield a baritone in
anger you might have to expect to put a bit more effort into bringing
those big key cups down - but the keys on a soprano are small, and delicate...and
should close with almost the power of thought alone. Not much chance of
that happening with this one.
It's quite clear that the A key isn't closing (and thus the Bis Bb) -
and this is because it's being held off by the adjuster screw that sits
atop the Auxiliary B key. This means that the moment you play any note
lower than a B, the horn leaks. What notes you might be able to get out
of the instrument below the B will be stuffy, and if you can get anything
out of the low notes at all it'll be a major achievement.
And the fix for this? Back off the adjuster screw a tad, and thicken up
the buffer on the A key foot. About a minute's work.
Had this been a budget horn I might have been inclined to say 'these
things happen' - but this is a top-of-the-range professional model, bought
from an established retailer with on-site repairers on hand - who spent
half an hour tweaking it. And at this point you might want to ask yourself
exactly what would you expect for a shade under £4000.
Which is why this installation is entitled "The Rise and Fall of
High Street Retailing" - though the museum night-watchman calls it
"The soprano of shame".
We're now entering the Natural History section of the museum.
It's a relatively small department with a modest collection. In fact there's
just one exhibit in it - but what an exhibit!
is an Aardvark.
I'll admit it looks a lot like a curved soprano saxophone - in fact that's
exactly what it is - but the nature of the problem which earned it a place
in this collection demonstrates perfectly a phrase I've often used when
examining Chinese-built instruments; "Check bottom bow for Aardvarks".
On the face of it, it appears to be nonsense...surreal, even. I mean,
why on earth would you want to check a bottom bow for Aardvarks? Has any
sax ever had an Aardvark stuck to its bottom bow? Probably not...but have
you ever checked?
In years gone by things were a lot simpler. A cheap instrument
was built to a price. You knew it wasn't going to be as good as an expensive
one and you knew that as well as shortcomings in the way in which it performed
there might also be some mechanical shortcomings. On the whole, though,
everything was where it ought to be and even if it wasn't that well made
it was still what it ought to be.
When the Chinese began building instruments in earnest, that changed.
Instruments were made with things where they didn't oughta be, and in
some cases nothing where they shoulda oughta be - and in some extreme
cases, the things that were where they were weren't what they ought to
have been. Such as an Aardvark stuck to the bottom bow.
Still with me?
This particular Aardvark is the low D key. A cursory check reveals nothing
of note; it's a key cup, fitted with a plastic key pearl and there's a
pad fitted inside the cup. The key barrel is quite well drilled, so it
doesn't wobble around on its pivot. The spring that powers it is fully
functional...and the pad is quite well seated. It all works.
It would be very easy, therefore, to tick all the boxes and move on to
the next key...unless you happened to take a peek at the lower side of
the key cup - at which point you'd see that there's a rather large chunk
missing from the side wall.
I didn't spot this immediately - mostly because I wasn't looking for such
To be sure, I was looking for a number of other 'Aardvarks', such as splits
in the tone holes that had been taped over with sticking plaster, or octave
key pips fitted at a 45 degree angle to the body, or loose key barrels
that had been 'swedged' by crimping them with a pair of wire cutters...or
perhaps a missing key, or a superfluous pillar. But a chunk missing out
of a key cup? Nope, wasn't looking for that.
strange thing is, this isn't why the horn came in for a service - so not
only did the player not notice it but neither, I suspect, did the seller.
And who can blame them - it's quite hard to spot unless you examine the
horn from the bottom bow end - and even if I handed the horn to someone,
told them there was an unusual fault with it and suggested they examine
it from a particular angle, they still might not have spotted it.
It's rather like the solid silver crook you saw earlier. I've handed that
to many a client and said "Tell me what's wrong with this" -
and 90% of them won't spot it in spite of it being completely obvious.
And the reason for the missing chunk? It all becomes dreadfully obvious
when you press the key down.
The rim of the key cup would have contacted the bell clamp ring, thus
preventing the pad from closing against the tone hole. Why this has happened
is up for debate. Perhaps the key cup diameter is a little too large (looks
about right though), or maybe the clamp ring is too thick (seems OK) or
too far up (nope)? I'm inclined to think that they've been a bit careless
when levelling the tone holes and have taken too much 'meat' off the top.
This means the top of the tone hole is just a tad below the top of the
clamp ring. Had the tone hole been a couple of millimetres taller, there'd
be no problem.
So it's a manufacturing defect. It wouldn't have been spotted until the
horn was assembled, by which time the body would have been lacquered -
so rather than ruin the lacquer the builder decided to take a chunk out
of the key cup.
To be fair I've seen something similar before - a low D key cup with just
a little relief shaved into the cup wall for exactly the same reason.
But by relief I mean a very slight, shallow dish - neatly finished and
quite intentional. This one's been done with a handheld mill and just
left...teethmarks and all.
They say that bad things come in threes - and as if to prove
the adage, here's another soprano sax.
anything strange about it?
This 'A.N.Other' Chinese soprano was brought in for a setup just after
purchase. On the face of it, a pretty standard job - though I've long
since learned that when it comes to Chinese horns, nothing much is standard.
Sure, it had the usual problems; a few iffy tone holes, a couple of dodgy
pads, a handful of indifferent corks - but nothing that an hour's worth
of tweaking couldn't put right...or at least put into a state where it
would allow the horn to work. And work it did - and rather well at that,
it has to be said.
However, it wasn't until I came to fit the crook that I noticed this curious
'gotcha'...because I couldn't tighten the crook.
And it wasn't because the crook was too loose, nor that the clamp screw
thread was stripped - it was simply because there's absolutely no provision
for tightening the crook.
See where the clamp screw fits into the pair of brass sleeves?
See that little recess in the middle? That's supposed to be a slot. Not
only that, the slot is supposed to be cut right through the socket (and
you can see an example of this in the very first shot of this page).
Without this slot, all the clamp screw can do is tighten
itself up against the sleeve; with a slot in place the screw will allow
the rim of the receiver to just pinch up a tad, thus ensuring the crook
is held securely in position.
Cutting a slot took a mere minute or so...but it took me a good ten more
before I stopped laughing.
That just about wraps up the tour of the Black Museum for
the time being - a small but stomach-churning selection of nasties, I'm
sure you'll agree. Don't forget too that, for someone, these examples
will undoubtedly be 'wallet-churning' too...
Feel free to drop by the Black Museum from time to time, when further
horrors will be presented for your edificatory queasification.