C Melody Saxophone

Over the years I’ve seen dilapidated old C Melody saxes in pawn shops and wondered what they were like to play. They’re invariably cheap and in need of a complete overhaul to get them playing. So I was delighted when a customer brought one in for me to look at the other day. He’d bought it on eBay and was a bit crestfallen to discover it needed a major overhaul, but agreed to let me loose on it.

The C Melody is a small tenor sax and was popular for a short period around 1915-1925. Although Adolph Sax intended the C Melody and C Soprano saxes for orchestral use, they were primarily made for the home entertainment market in the US. Yes – home entertainment in a time before electronics when people actually gathered round the piano and played and sang. C instruments could play straight from the sheet music – no transposing! The Wall Street Crash and ensuing depression made it uneconomic to continue making C Melody saxes, and by the time the economy recovered around 1935, the Big Band Era had arrived and everyone wanted to play the alto or tenor, so the C Melody pretty much died out.

The sax I was working on is a Buescher “stencil”, which means it was made by Buescher for a music retailer and stamped with their own “stencil” – Oliver Bitson Company. It’s a very early design with metal touches instead of pearl. Hard to date exactly because the stencil serial numbers differed from the main manufacturer’s numbers, but I reckon around 1920. There were a couple of dents to iron out and the tone holes were quite uneven and needed to be levelled, but after that, the pads went in quite nicely and I’m very pleased with the way the instrument plays.

These saxes have a small bore compared to their length, which gives them a very mellow sound compared to modern saxes, especially with an appropriate vintage mouthpiece. The intonation isn’t perfect but with a little practice it’s possible to play in tune. The ergonomics are awkward compared to modern saxes but really not too bad and the instrument was a joy to play. I didn’t want to give it back to the customer…

Big thanks to my good friend Brett Gustafson from Gustafson Custom Horns in Adelaide for helping out with the dent work and providing a genuine vintage C Melody mouthpiece to test the instrument.

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