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Adolphe (Edouard) Sax alto and tenor saxophones

Adolphe (Edouard) Sax alto sax reviewOrigin: France
Guide price: Unknown, but not generally expensive
Weight: 2.21kg (alto) 3.17kg (tenor)
Date of manufacture: 1928+
Date reviewed: August 2021

A beautiful pair

Here's something I don't often do - an alto and tenor review on the same page. If memory serves (and it might not these days) I've only ever done this once before - and that was for the trio of Cannonball saxes, and then only by way of convenience.
This time I have an entirely different reason for bundling them together, and one which I think you'll agree merits doing so. Y'see these two lovely horns have been in the same player's possession for over 40 years - and in all that time they've hardly ever been separated. They were even brought in for repairs together, so it seemed somehow wrong to separate them for the purposes of a review.
Besides, it shouldn't lead to any confusion; after all, the design of a particular model of alto is much the same as its counterpart's just on a slightly different scale. Where there are significant differences between these two horns I'll point them out - but otherwise what's good for one is good for the other.

Adolphe (Edouard) Sax tenor  sax reviewGiven how old these horns are I suppose I ought to start off with a bit of history. Long-term readers of my reviews will know that I'm not really into the history of horns (I prefer the nuts and bolts, so to speak), but on this occasion I guess I ought to at least make a small effort.
So, Adolphe Edouard Sax was the son of our esteemed hero, Antoine-Joseph "Adolphe" Sax (may his solos never go square and rot at the edges). Following the demise of his father, Edouard continued in the family business - which remained in the family until around 1928, when it was bought out by Selmer. This wasn't a huge surprise, given that there were already commercial relations between the two companies - and indeed, Edouard continued to work under Selmer's ownership for some years to follow - and it was during this time that these two horns were made

Now, if you're a bit of a Selmer buff you may already have noticed that these horns bear a striking similarity to Selmer's Modele 1926. Suspiciously so.
At this point I have to put on my 'hat of speculation' and wonder if we have something of a 'chicken or the egg' situation in play. The question is, was the 1926 model based on Edouard's horn, or was Edouard's horn based on the '26? Or was it a case of both of them sharing ideas and designs?
I don't honestly know, but Edouard was certainly no less well-versed in saxophone design than Selmer - and why else would Selmer have bought out the Sax name if they weren't going to take advantage of it?
Well, they did...or sort of did. Y'see, these horns were sold by Selmer at the same time as they were marketing the Modele 26. On the face of it that makes no sense - but here's the curious thing. The Sax horns were sold as 'bargain Selmers'. It seems like a very strange marketing ploy to me, but I suppose (and I do only suppose) that Sax wangled a deal whereby he could retain the family name whilst still being a part of the Selmer company. The fact that the two models are virtually identical lends credence (to me, at any rate) that both of them had a hand in the design.
Sounds feasible? I guess the only way to know for sure would be to dig up some cast-iron references...or to precisely measure the relevant dimensions of the two models - but for the time being it's a theory that sits comfortably with me. Feel free to knock it down.

As far as build dates go for these two horns the alto dates from around 1928 and the tenor from a few years later. Certainly no later than 1933, given that it seems Selmer stopped using the Sax engraving at that point - which is a shame, because it's really quite exquisite in its detail.

In spite of the age of these horns the body design is surprisingly modern in places; the horns feature ribbed construction on the main stacks with the remainder of the pillars on plates or, in the case of the low C/Eb pillars, standalone on very large bases. The toneholes are plain drawn, there's a static metal thumb hook, a small metal thumb rest that's fitted with a domed pearl, a 14/8 sling ring and simple wire key guards with a clamp for the buffer felts. And it's all very neatly put together, with no signs of sloppy solderwork or misaligned parts.

Adolphe alto bell braceThe wire-type bell brace is pretty much standard for a horn of the period, though its design differs in one important way. The majority of wire-type braces were fitted to centre of the body tube - usually between the two uppermost keys of the lower stack. When the bell took an inevitable knock the brace would be driven into the body tube, leaving behind a big dent that distorted the adjacent toneholes and, more often than not, a bent body tube.

But note how the foot of the bell brace sits further over to the side of the body tube - and is fitted to the lower stack strap. The former prevents an impact from driving the brace into the body and the latter resists buckling and spreads the load so that it's the wire itself that deforms rather than the body. In the case of a very severe impact the brace would probably push its way into the bell - but the resulting damage would be a lot easier and cheaper to deal with than a deformed body tube.
It's a really simply but effective design that makes the best use of the limitations inherent in wire bell braces - and I suppose I should point out that this kind of fixed bell brace means that the bell isn't least not without first unsoldering it at the body to bottom bow joint.

The bell key guards are of the plain wire type - with just two feet. Unfortunately this makes them very weak, so even a light knock will mostly likely bend them or knock them out of alignment - and in the event of a major drop the damage to the body will probably be quite extensive. When looking to buy a horn with such guards fitted it'll pay dividends to check the flatness of the toneholes beneath them quite carefully. It's often the case that bent guards get knocked back into line (to make the horn look good), but nothing is done about the now-warped toneholes. It's easy enough to live with a wonky bell key guard - but not so much a warped tonehole.

Adolphe tenor bell key guardThe low Bb/B guard on the tenor fares slightly better in that it has an additional foot in the middle. It's only a small improvement, but still an improvement nonetheless.
As you can see, there are no fancy bumper felt adjusters on these horns, just a plain old sheet brass clamp - which, more often than not, will be all chewed up with careless plier marks and probably held on with anything from hot melt glue through to messy gloops of bodged solder.
I know how this happens - and it's, thankfully, less likely to be down to repairers as it is to players. Faced with a loose bumper felt it doesn't take much examination to work out that tightening the clamp will sort it - but please, if you really must have at it with a pair of your granddad's pliers, at least take the time to cover the serrations in the jaws with a piece of thick cloth...or a bit of card. Or just pop a drop of contact adhesive on the top of the felt and shove it back in the clamp. It'll be fine.

Moving onto the action, perhaps the most distinctive feature is the design of the top stack. At a time when most (if not all) other horns were made with all the top stack keys fitted on a single rod screw, the Adolphe separates off the Bis Bb and G keys and has them mounted on point screws - the pillars for which are marked in red.
Adolphe alto top stackI could be wrong but I believe this (and the Modele 26) was the first horn to feature this layout, which would later become the de facto standard that's still in use today. Mind you, the Modele 22 had a similar layout - though one that's not quite as neat and simple as this.

It's an elegant and practical design, and I can only assume that patent issues (or just sheer bloody-mindedness) meant that other manufactures soldiered on with the clunky single rod layout until at least the 1960s. With all that said, I believe I've seen earlier Adolphe Edouard horns where the top stack has been mounted on a single rod - but with enough other common features to mark them down as essentially the same horns.
The lower stack is a slightly older design, with the G# cup key being mounted on the stack rod - but it's at least a very 'clean' layout, with no extra trill keys (such as for the G# and the low Eb). This single feature (or lack thereof) marks Edouard out as a man of distinction and discretion, and one who realised that trilling is the province of players who've run out of ideas. Or who simply don't know any better. Either way, the lack of extra gadgetry on the stack means that over a period of time there'll be fewer problems with wear and tear...and that's always a good thing.

Note the round pearl on the alto's front top F touchpiece. This is a classic Selmer feature - one that they still use to this day - but the later tenor (below) has a much more ergonomic teardrop touchpiece, which just about every other manufacturer uses these days. Chronologically it doesn't fit, and I guess they stuck with the teardrop because a pearl would have looked rather odd and clumsy on the end of such a long key.
Speaking of pearls, they're all proper mother-of-pearl with a slightly concave profile - and from the condition of them it's a reasonable bet that neither of these horns have seen a great deal of heavy use down the years.

Adolphe tenor palm keysThe palm key layouts differ. The alto has the usual arrangement, with three flat-bodied keys - but the tenor has the top F tonehole placed on the top of the body tube, and a key with a standard round barrel. I'm not really sure why they've done this, given that flat-bodied palm keys were pretty much a standard fitment back then - and it was usually on only sopranos that you'd see long barrels on the palm keys.
It can't have been down to problems getting the front top F key to work with a standard palm key (they managed it well enough on the alto) and there's no shortage of space - so maybe it all boils down to something as simple as "Well that's the way we've always done it!".

There are some other differences in the keywork between the two horns (size notwithstanding) with the most notable being the layout of the bell key table.
In the shot below the alto's on the left, and features a 'wraparound' low B touchpiece. The tenor has a much simpler design and has a slightly more profiled G# touchpiece. What's interesting about the difference is that the tenor's layout conforms to that found on Selmer's Modele 26 - and the preceding Modele 22 - save for the G# touchpiece, which is a round pearl on the Selmers.
The alto layout is remarkably similar bar the wraparound, which never appeared on any of the Selmers. This feature was dropped at a later date, most likely because complex touchpiece shapes like this are quite expensive to make, and much money would have been saved by simply kitting out the Sax horn with the same bell key table as fitted to the Modele 26.

Adolphe alto and tenor bell key tablesAgain, note that the bell keys are all mounted on point screws. As with the top stacks on very vintage horns it was common to mount these keys on very long rod screws, which didn't do the slickness of the action any favours...especially as such keys were very prone to being bent. No split keys either; from the key cups right though to the touchpieces, they're single keys - all of which adds up to a set of bell keys that are remarkably light in action under the fingers. Indeed, perhaps a little too we'll see later...

Another (technical) difference is that the low C/Eb keys are mounted separately on (proper) point screws on the tenor - and combined on a single rod on the alto.
Makes no real odds to the way the horn feels - hence just a technical difference - but at least on the alto it looks like there may have been some to-ing and fro-ing through the years between putting the keys on a single rod or on separate points - which still seems to be the case on modern Selmer horns.
Adolphe tenor low CI'd like to say "Make your bloody mind up!" - but Selmer eventually did, and came up with the truly rotten design that features on the Reference series, whereby a sprung rod is mounted on a pair of rod screws. "Be careful what you wish for" is the phrase that springs to mind...

The octave mechanism is crude by today's standards but nonetheless functional - and reasonably slick when properly set up. It's the 'properly set up' which causes the most problems given that this is an active mech (there are springs powering keys other than the thumb and crook keys) and requires some careful balancing of the tension of the springs in order to give of its best. The use of modern non-stick buffers will add a little slickness too.
But by far and away the best thing you can do with such mechanisms is to keep the action nice and tight. It's not that a little free play in the keywork will stop the mechanism dead in its tracks, rather it becomes very clunky quite quickly. If you keep on top of wear and tear you shouldn't have any significant problems.

Adolphe alto octave mechYou get no frills with the thumb rest, being just a small riser with a domed pearl fitted - and a thumb key that really only works if you roll your thumb up. The thumb rest doesn't feel so bad on the alto, but on the tenor it gets a bit tiresome after a while. Fortunately it's easy enough to modify the rest with modelling putty or Sugru - and if you weren't too bothered about maintaining the originality of the horn you could always have the pearl taken out and a custom thumb rest fitted. If done with care and a little thought, it should be an entirely reversible mod.
The mechanism on the tenor (this is the alto) is identical in layout - it just has slightly longer keywork, and requires perhaps just a little more care when setting it up and balancing the spring tensions.

And speaking of setting up, there are no adjusters on this horn at all - all the regulation is handled by bits of cork and felt. It's not really an issue for the player (unless they're into a bit of home tweaking) and is more an inconvenience for the repairer. Providing the right materials are used there's no reason why these horns should drop out of regulation.

The side keys feature overarm connectors, which means that the (flat) springs that keep them closed are fitted to the cup keys.
They work just fine, though the use of flat springs lends the keys a more 'progressive' feel rather than the snappy action you get from keys powered by needle springs (all blued steel on these horns). It also means the action can be slightly 'knocky' given that it's necessary to allow for some clearance between the rear of the cup key and the overarm connector...otherwise you might end up in a situation where the overarm prevents the cup key from closing. It's a very minor point, but an important one to consider if you feel inclined to fiddle with the buffering.

Adolphe alto sax side BbAnd I think that wraps it up for the technical details other than to say that, as you might expect, the overall build quality is excellent. Proper handcrafted stuff, with all the attention to detail you'd want to see on such a horn - and all finished off with a very decent coat of silver plating.

Under the fingers the ergonomics are, for the most part, fine. The only real gripe I had was the position of the side C key cup in relation to the thumb rest on the alto. It's such a small rest that I tended to push my thumb further onto it for comfort - at which point it would hit the side C...which wasn't a good feeling. I daresay you could get used to it, but perhaps a better solution would be to build up the left side of the rest with some Sugru.
The bell key table isn't too bad once you get used to it, and it at least benefits from the lightness that comes from having the keys mounted on point screws rather than rods. The ridiculously small G# touchpiece is more of an issue on the tenor simply because the fingers are more splayed out - but it's no big deal once your fingers have dialled in where it is. On the plus side, the teardrop front top F key is much more user-friendly than the pearl on the alto - and what's perhaps particularly striking is how modern the action feels in spite of the age of the horns ; there's a very definite sense that this was the prototype action for just about every horn on the market today.

Some of the spring sizes are...optimistic - which is to say that while the action is capable of being set incredibly light, it can lead to a few problems.
All of this will be down to modern pads. Back in the day this alto would have been kitted out with rather soft pads (probably without any reflectors/resonators). I'm not even sure you can buy pads that run this soft these days, so you might run into situations where you get a bit of growling when pushing the sax hard. This'll be down to one or other of the normally closed keys vibrating against the air column (the low Eb and C# are common culprits). The fix for this is to fit larger springs. You'll have to ream out the pillars a tad - but not by much, maybe one or two spring sizes larger at most. This won't ruin the feel - it just means that instead of using a thinner spring at the peak of its power, you can use a stronger spring and have the latitude to back it off by as much as is required.
Similarly, the extra weight of the tenor's low B key benefits from a slightly beefier spring - if only to relieve it of its tendency to bounce.

Adolphe (Edouard) Sax alto saxThe alto is a joy to play - it's just so light and breezy. It has the classic modern Selmer presentation - with the slightly expanded midrange - but it's kind of more...pure. In many ways it's reminiscent of Selmers up to the SBA know, before they got 'thicker and meatier' tonewise. It's also got the usual Selmer foibles, such as the slight tendency for the top C to growl a little when you push it hard with certain mouthpieces - as well as the slightly shaded mid/low D and low B. None of which are particular problems, they're just things your embouchure learns to adjust out automatically.
There is, perhaps, an almost ethereal and haunting quality to the alto - one that I feel has been lost a little in the modern-day rush to produce horns that are more "well temper'd" in the tuning department. It's rather disconcerting for someone like me - who prefers his altos to have plenty of cut and bite...and it's almost as if I can hear the great Mr Sax leaning over my shoulder and saying "There is another way, you know...".

The tenor is as equally beguiling to play. Again, the classic Selmer sound is there - and again, there's that sense of lightness. However, I feel it shows its vintage credentials more than the alto in that it doesn't have quite that tinge of brilliance at the edge of the notes that contemporary Selmers have. You may see that as a good/bad thing depending on your tonal preferences. However, it all steps up a notch when you put a bit more air down the horn - which suggests to me that some careful mouthpiece matching would pay dividends.
I did notice some sight tuning issues on the tenor on the palm key notes, which can be addressed by altering the opening heights of the keys - and the front top F requires a little bit of steering initially to bring it into tune. Pretty standard stuff for very vintage horns.

It's clear to me that both horns have a tonal pedigree; there's very much that sense that no matter how hard you drive these horns, you're never going to run out of road. But they also give you a sense of being unencumbered by the developments that came in later years. Yes, you do have to steer these horns a little - and yes, it's not 'all on a plate in front of you', but the payoff for that is perhaps a sense of freedom. If I had to sum them up in one word, it would be 'delightful'.
And Mr Sax, I'm sure, would agree.


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