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Buescher 400 alto saxophone

Buescher 400 alto saxophoneOrigin: USA
Guide price: Anything less than £800 is a bargain
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: Late 1950s
Date reviewed: August 2002

A top level vintage horn, sporting a host of unusual design features that make it one of the most interesting instruments out there

There are plenty of good reasons for buying a vintage horn - and quite a few bad ones too, of which how it looks is perhaps the biggest no-no of all. It's not a problem if all you're going to do is nail it to a wall and stare at it, but if you intend to play it with any conviction there will be far more important considerations that should take precedence...such as build quality, ergonomics, tuning, tone etc.
Wouldn't it be nice if you could have both? All the boring 'essential' stuff such as build quality, good tuning...blah blah - coupled with a design that just screams elegance. Step forward, the Buescher 400.

Now this is a beautiful horn.
Seriously, I don't mean it merely looks nice, or even unusual, it's very definitely a beautiful horn.

The first thing that hits the eye is the profile of the bell. It looks shorter than a typical bell, but this is an optical illusion brought about by a combination of a flare that starts lower down than on your average horn and ends in a wider bell rim (by about a centimetre or so) - with the added difference of the bell key cups being situated to the rear of the bell. Also, the bell is set slightly further out from the body than on a modern horn, which lends the instrument a very open and uncluttered look.
There's just something about the visual balance of this horn that sets it apart from all the others; the Martins, the Conns, the Kings - and even the more esoteric brands like Couesnon and Pierret.
But does such beauty come at a price? Let's find out.

The build quality is good, as you'd expect from a top-flight vintage horn. A nice touch is the nickel silver band that runs around the underside of the bell. This helps to strengthen the bell flare - but you'd better not drop this horn on its bell, repairs would be difficult and expensive.
The crook is fitted with a pseudo-underslung key - that's to say that although most of the key runs beneath the crook, the octave key nipple sits atop the crook as per a standard horn. Looks familiar? Yep, it's the same sort of design that you'll find on modern Yanagisawa horns (and their Chinese lookalikes). As is so often the case with 'modern design features' on saxes, someone else thought of them almost a century ago.

The body is constructed with individual pillars, with each pillar featuring a diamond-shaped base. This gives the pillars a secure footing as well as looking quite distinctive.
As you might expect with a horn of this vintage there are few mod-cons. There's no detachable bell - which some players would regard as an advantage, and no adjustable thumb hook - which few players would regard as an advantage.
The bell key guards are quite basic, being of the round wire type and with no provision for key height adjustment (though you can simply tweak the buffer felts) - and there are only two of them anyway as the low B/Bb keys don't require them.

Buescher 400 bell braceA major weakness of vintage body designs is often the bell brace, and the Buescher is no different from many other such horns in this respect.
It's a very simply yet elegant design but in practical terms it's about as much use having a spike fitted to the centre of your steering wheel. The brace itself is fitted square-on to the main body tube, and the mount on the body is just a small plate - little bigger than those fitted to the pillars. When the horn takes a serious knock to the front of the bell (as would happen if you dropped the horn), a large part of the impact force will be directed through this small plate - with the result that, at best, the brace would leave a substantial dent in the body (right between two tone holes too) and at worst the body would fold up around the brace mount point.
I realise it all sounds a bit doom-and-gloom, but it's as well to be aware of this Achilles heel - both in terms of day-to-day handling of the horn and when it comes to examining one prior to purchase. Always, always check out this spot for evidence of damage. Don't be too concerned to see that the brace has been resoldered though - this may just mean it popped off (another common problem with vintage bell braces) - but do check the surrounding area for signs of repairs...and take a peek down the bore too, you might be able to see ripples in the bore beneath the bell stay body mount.

The funny thing is, the band fitted under the bell rim will add stiffness to the bell - but this will mean more of the impact force will be transmitted to the bell brace. This is why cars are designed with 'crumple zones'...the less important bits absorb the impact, the important bits (the people in the car...or this case the horn's body) survive reasonably intact.

Buescher 400 crook socketThe crook clamp is an interesting design. It's obviously a great deal beefier than the usual affair, but it also doubles up as a lyre clamp.
I'm not too sure how well this would work in practice as it's entirely possible that the shaft of the lyre could prevent the clamp from fully tightening around the tenon sleeve - so you might either have to put up with a loose lyre or a loose crook. I'm sure there would be ways around it - one of the best being not to go marching with such a fine horn.
There is another drawback to the chunkiness of the clamp, and that's the temptation to overtighten it. For sure, there's no doubt it's up to the job - a bit of looseness in the socket would just disappear with an extra turn of the screw - but that's not how a crook clamp is supposed to work. Your crook joint should be a snug, airtight fit before you even touch the clamp screw - it's only meant to just nip the joint up to prevent the crook from swivelling. Using the clamp to act as a seal will eventually stretch it, and that often leads to cracks developing in the socket - so if your crook is at all loose, have your repairer expand the tenon sleeve. It's not an expensive job.

One last little feature that's worth a mention is the Buescher logo on the bell. It's a fitment, picked out in silver or nickel plate (see below). I love this feature, though regrettably it disappeared from later models. I'd love to see it make a comeback, rather like the pseudo underslung octave key.

Buescher 400 key barThe keywork is very well built - a bit old-fashioned in some places (but not all, as we'll see shortly) but beautifully made and finished in nickel plate on this example. There are a number of small features that just give the impression that someone has put a lot of thought into the design - and not just for its own sake - there's functionality there as well as elegance.
The bars for the Aux. B and F are my favourite feature. This bar is usually either a round rod or a flat one (sometimes even a half-round rod), and as such it's prone to flexing. It's not by much, but it's enough to make a difference. It's most noticeable on the low D - and even with the most carefully set pad and the tightest action, there will still be a bit of flex in the auxiliary bar to contend with - and this is done by slightly backing off the regulation on the low D key.
Not a problem with this bar. As you can see, it's still a flat rod but it's been fitted so that the 'working edge' is the narrow side of the bar (the norm is that the widest face of the bar would be sat over the key feet). This gives the bar a great deal more stiffness and makes regulation a breeze. It's such a simple and effective solution that I really don't know why it isn't standard on modern horns. Mind you, it would be even better if there were a set of adjusting screws built into the bar...but you can't have everything.
While I'm on the subject of adjusters, there aren't any built into the Bis Bb/G# bar either.

Buescher 400 C sharpAnother nice touch is the bridge mechanism for the low C# key.
The low C# key cup itself pivots on the right hand stack rod (at the rear in the photo) - the key barrel sits just below the low D key barrel - and there's a short link (the bridge) that connects to the low C# lever key barrel (at the front in the photo). Again, someone thought long and hard about this, it lends a very light and positive feel to the action - as long as there's not too much wear in the bridge key barrels, which pivot on a pair of tiny rod screws.
Even the compound pillar that holds all the key barrels in place is a nice design.

Buescher 400 side C keyThe side Bb/C linkage is rather unusual. The link itself is a metal pin bent at 90 degrees, one end of which slots into the key cup arm, the other into the actuating arm.
At first glance it seems like a bit of a kludge but in practice it works quite well, and is less noisy than you'd imagine - but you wouldn't ever want to lose the pin as it's a bit more complex that just a bent bit of rod.
This bent pin link is used again on the octave key mechanism, to connect the body octave key pad to the thumb key mechanism.

Note the rather unique design of the octave key touchpiece and thumb rest.
Look great, but in practice I found the rest to lack sufficient support for the rear of the thumb - it could do with being a bit wider. The octave key touchpiece, though, is very comfortable in use - so I guess this is one area where the designer got a little bit carried away.
Not to worry though, you can always mod it with a packet of Sugru.

Buescher 400 alto bell keysI mentioned earlier that the design of the low B and Bb keys means they don't have the usual bumper felts fitted - and that's because there's nowhere to fit them. There's no key guard.
Instead, the lever arms act as both the actuators for the key cups and as the buffers. It's a clever design, one perhaps that was gleaned from watching wrestlers perform leg locks. It's also quite a good mechanism for preventing key bounce, because as the key cups rise the lever arm contacts the key cup barrel and acts as a sort of brake. Probably a feature that's more by accident than design (but who knows?), but it works...and that's what matters.

On the whole, the action is a curious blend of the old and the new. It was designed at a time when manufacturers were moving away from the principle of 'bung everything on a single pivot', and thus the top stack is separated out into three parts; the main stack, the Bis Bb and the G key - all on their own pivots.
Likewise, the two-part side keys are up-to-date, as is the inclusion of the front top F key and the generously-proportioned bell key table. And yet there's the lack of adjusters on the Bis Bb/G# bar and the old teardropped side F# key and the basic spatulas on the low C/Eb keys. The Buescher gets away with it though, because it all works - and in some ways it puts me in mind of one of those sci-fi films in which the future is portrayed in a very 'retro' style, and where the baddie brandishes a phaser whilst sporting a very fine waxed moustache and a top hat.

Norton springsAnd speaking of villains - the Buescher 400 is fitted with the dreaded Norton springs throughout. Why dreaded? Well, several reasons. Norton springs are ordinary needle springs that have been pre-fitted into a threaded brass sleeve. Instead of the usual deal where you simply fit the springs straight into the pillar, Norton springs have to be screwed in, sleeve and all. In theory it's great - it means that anyone can change a spring. In practice the idea fails because you'd still have to be able to dismantle (and reassemble) the horn to change most of the springs. Also, it relies on the availability of replacements, which aren't that common - and if your repairer doesn't have any Norton springs in stock then you're stuck. There is a way around this problem, it's fiddly and time consuming though.
There's also the possibility of the sleeves working loose in the pillars, which can lead to an unresponsive feel to the action.

Lastly there's the point screws. Regular visitors to my site will be well aware of my dislike for parallel point screws - which is what the 400 is fitted with. The use of this type of screw makes it very difficult to adjust the point screw action for wear, so it's essential to keep the action well lubricated.

The keywork has a typically vintage feel to it, but whilst it's not perhaps as slick as a modern horn it's still nonetheless fast and comfortable. The bell keys fit nicely under the fingers, despite their slightly unusual angle. The only handling issues I could fault were the top F key touchpiece tends to obstruct the 2nd and 3rd (A & G) fingers, the unusual rectangular octave key thumb rest lacks a bit of support for the rear of the thumb, the right hand thumb rest was a tad small... and the bell key action took a bit of getting used to due to the slightly different weight distribution of the cups.
None of these are serious issues and are the sort of thing you'd get used to in no time at all. You could sort the palm key issue out with a spot of judicious bending (or realigning, if you want to pay more for the job) of the F key.

Buescher 400 logoAs for the playability, well, I found it very hard to decide exactly how to describe the sound.
On the one hand there's that lovely 'roundness' you'd associate with a vintage horn, yet at the same time there a crisp brightness that not only cuts through in the upper register but makes its presence known right down to the low Bb.
There was something very clearly different about the way I was hearing the sound. My initial explanation was that the angle and profile of the bell was the reason - but if you stand the horn up next to a modern one you'll see that there's very little difference, save for the bell rim as mentioned earlier.
Perhaps then it's that extra centimetre of flare that throws just that little extra bit of sound back to the player's ears?

After having blown a mere half dozen notes I convinced myself it was a ballad horn - with its lyrical sweetness of tone and the way the notes seems to ooze from the horn.... but a mere few seconds later it turned into a bop horn, with precise definition of notes in fast passages, coupled with a edgy dryness to the tone. Or was it a classical horn...with its even response and hauntingly ethereal presentation? Or a solid rock horn, with a full-bodied sound that easily filled a room and etched the notes into the glass on the windows?? Tonewise it could be all things to all players.

Even as I was sitting here trying to think of how to describe the sound of this horn, the client (Pete Thomas, no less) arrived to collect it. He told me his wife described the instrument as 'the sexiest sax' she'd ever heard.
I don't think I can top that.

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