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

Grafton plastic alto saxophone

Grafton plastic altoOrigin: UK
Guide price: Variable, heavily dependent on condition
Weight: Not much at all
Date of manufacture: 1950's - 60's
Date reviewed: November 2005

The world's first synthetic-bodied saxophone, and arguably an icon of the 20th century

There aren't many instruments that strike fear into the heart of the woodwind repairer, but the Grafton alto is definitely one of them.
I reckon a repairer averages three overhauls on these creatures; the first out of ignorance and sheer curiosity; the second out of disbelief that any instrument can be such a pig to repair and the third just to be really sure that the thing really exists and isn't just a terrible nightmare. The truly masochistic (or perhaps forgetful) might tackle four.

The thing that makes and (quite literally) breaks this horn is the synthetic body.
Although often referred to as the Grafton Plastic Alto, it's in fact made from an acrylic plastic - and it's just about the most brittle plastic ever made. What's worse is that it's extremely difficult to repair - very little seems to want to stick to it.
This, essentially, is the reason these horns are so rare - they simply fall apart unless handled with the greatest of care, and to find one with no cracks or splits on it is getting to be near enough impossible these days.

Naturally, this built-in obsolescence has turned the Grafton from a 'chuckaway' horn that you could have picked up for about fifty quid in the 70's to an icon of 50's design that regularly fetches four figures (or rather much more in one significant case).
And iconic it certainly is. No less a giant that Charlie Parker played on one, as did Ornette Coleman. Glam rock fans might well recall a certain Mr. Andy Mackay playing one with Roxy Music - and it was Parker's Grafton that sold at auction a while back for a few grand short of £100,000. They do say that on the very quietest nights you can hear the soft, dull thud of one-time Grafton owners kicking their own backsides for selling their horns for the price of a night out in town all those years ago.
Of course, it's doubtful that any of these people played one because of its tone or response - the one thing the Grafton has that no other sax has ever had is that unmistakable look.

That it looks as good as it does is probably down to the fact that the designer, Hector Sommaruga, was an Italian by birth.
Just look at the bell key guards...they simply ooze Italian '50s style.

Up close and personal, things are rather less rosy for the Grafton.

Whilst the design of the action is a tour-de-force in terms of overcoming the constraints of working with a synthetic body, the end result is rather disappointing in terms of feel. Without being able to use traditional needle springs, the designer resorted to using coiled springs - exactly like those you'd see on baritone sax and brass instrument water keys.
Grafton actionFor sure, they work well enough, but they don't have an ounce of 'snap' to them, which lends the Grafton a typically spongy feel.
They're also one of the reason these horns are such a pig to repair - as soon as you withdraw the stack rod screws, these springs ping off in all directions, and they're the very devil to put back on.
They're not exactly stock items these days either, so any lost or broken springs have to be made from scratch.
It's actually not as hard as it sounds, and I believe I still have a tool knocking about the workshop which I built to knock up water key springs from phosphor bronze wire back in my college days.
Note the 'balanced action' type adjustment screw above the A key touchpiece.

Another huge drawback was the impossibility of bending keys on the horn.
Oh sure - you could bend the keys (as you would do when adjusting key angles etc.) but your efforts would be repaid with a sickening crack as the key mounting stub cracked off from the body.
This particular feature presents the owner with something of a paradox - if you want to have one of these things repaired you'd be seriously well advised to find a repairer who's tackled one in the past, unless you want your horn back with assorted stubs cracked off it...but if you find such a person there's a very good chance they'll refuse outright to work on the thing - and if they do consent to work on it you can expect to pay a very considerable premium. I'll just say that again...a very considerable premium. Mmmm.

By far and away the most common problem with Graftons is the flimsiness of the key guards, their mounting stubs and the bell brace. The whole point of key guards is to absorb the casual knocks and dings that every sax is subjected to in normal use, but the Grafton isn't built to take such punishment. You really wouldn't believe just how light a knock it takes to crack the guards and knock off the mounting stubs. This particular horn is the very first one I've ever seen that's had intact guards and stubs.
It's also the first I've seen that doesn't have a glued-up bell brace.
Grafton bell stayAs you can see, it's a very insubstantial affair - and it's been said that you can break this brace simply by swinging the horn a little over-enthusiastically during a solo. Even dropping the horn into it's case with undue care can see off this joint.
This particular shot shows up the integral tone holes quite well.

The pads as fitted were atrocious. It's interesting to note that the vast majority of Graftons still have their original pads fitted...simply because very few people are brave enough to attempt replacing them.
Consequently most Graftons are plagued with spongy, leaky pads.
It's a shame really, because the design of the integral tone holes is a good one, and despite the somewhat vague and slightly loose keywork, the pad cups are generally quite flat.
If you wanted to replace the pads I'd advise a very soft pad with a fairly soft skin - a soft MusicMedic's 'roo skin' pad would fit the bill admirably.

Under the fingers the keys all seem to fit in the right places. Ergonomics were never really an issue with the horn - but the inherent play in the action, coupled with the coiled springs and the dodgy pads makes the whole action feel somewhat hit and miss. This makes playing the horn a rather trepidatious affair - you feel as though you want to clamp your fingers down hard in order to seal the pads, but you daren't put too much pressure on the keywork in case you bust a stub off.

One major criticism of the Grafton has always been the tone it produces - or so people would have you believe.
This particular horn was brought in by Pete Thomas, who first instructed me to close my eyes while he blew the as yet unseen sax.
He blew, and I listened, and my initial thoughts were that, tonewise, the sound was quite 'bootsy' but with a little something missing in the midrange, though not overly bright up top nor boomy down low. My first guess was a cheap Chinese horn - it had that sort of sound...good, but not polished. My second guess was a Conn 6m...there was a fair bit of warmth to the tone, and quite a bit of power..the sort of tone you'd get from a 6M with a vintage mouthpiece perhaps.

You can imagine how surprised I was to open my eyes and find the Grafton alto!
When I blew it it put me in mind of a vintage midrange horn. The tone wasn't unpleasant, and yet it lacked the sparkle and zing that you'd get from a pro quality horn - and about the best analogy I could come up with was that it sounded like an ordinary sax being played behind a thin felt wall...slightly furry at the edges, as Pete succinctly put it.

I've heard it said that you can't play a Grafton alongside another sax player because of the difference in tone.
Complete rubbish. I've sat beside many a decent player who's had a far more woolier tone than the Grafton puts out, including one lovely old gent whose alto tone sounded like Ben Webster playing under a duvet - which is quite a feat, when you think about it.
My Rousseau mouthpiece lifted the clarity a little, and a brighter piece would introduce the requisite sparkle if you so desired.

So why did these strange beast die out?
Well, as mentioned, the chief reason was their fragility, unreliability and difficulty when it came to repairs - but perhaps the biggest impact came from sheer prejudice.
You have to remember that this horn was cutting edge in its day, and if I've learnt one thing in my decades of being surrounded by musicians it's that they can be a remarkably conservative bunch when it comes to innovations in design. The exact same thing happened with the introduction of mass-produced horns from Japan in the 1970's - and you'll still find many a modern-day clarinettists who pours scorn on 'plastic' clarinets. Witness too the resistance to adequate Ultra-Cheap horns coming out of China these days.

What really must be remembered is that this horn was never intended to be used as a professional instrument. The whole point about it was that it could be built cheaply and easily, and thus sold cheaply to beginners. In other words it's the Buffet B12 of saxophones - and that's something that has to be taken into account when assessing its action and tone. That it found its way into the professional 'hall of fame' is perhaps more than the designer could ever have hoped for.

I still believe the premise was a sound one, and it's perhaps an idea that's well overdue for a fresh look. There are many advantages to using a synthetic body, and pretty much all of the disadvantages that plagued the Grafton could be easily overcome with modern plastics and resins.
Just think of it...a carbon-fibre horn, fitted with L.E.Ds moulded into the body that light up as you play! Who could resist it?
At the time of writing this review (2005) the Grafton was unique in having a synthetic body, but since then we've seen the debut of the Vibratosax - which takes the concept a step further by also using synthetic materials for the keywork. I think it's fair to say that, like the Grafton, it has its problems.

Mr Sommaruga certainly left a legacy behind him. Even today, the Grafton never fails to impress whenever it makes its appearance on stage - and it impresses in two distinct ways. For the punters, it's simply down to the art-deco looks...but for any watching saxophonists it's more likely to be because the thing hasn't yet fallen to pieces.
Much as I hate to say it, it's not really a player's piece anymore. Its rarity and fragility have turned it into an 'investment opportunity', and one that's likely to increase in value year on year. I expect we'll still see them popping up on major gigs for the next few decades - and the simple glamour of the horn will mean that there'll always be a market for a Grafton that actually works.

For a more in-depth look at the technical issues surrounding an overhaul of one of these horns, check out my article on The Naked Grafton.

If you've enjoyed this article or found it useful and would like to contribute
towards the cost of creating this independent content, please use the button below.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2018