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Vito Leblanc System 35 (Johnny Hodges) alto saxophone

Vito Leblanc System 35 (Johnny Hodges) alto sax reviewOrigin: France
Guide price: £350 upwards, varying wildly
Weight: 2.48kg
Date of manufacture: Late 1960s
Date reviewed: May 2019

Look, but don't touch.

There are good horns. There are bad horns. And then there are mad horns.
I'm sure most players can name a good horn or two - though naming a bad horn is often rather more difficult mostly because players are inclined to list horns that they don't much like, rather than any that are demonstrably bad.
When it comes to mad horns all that's really required is that you've seen one. They're very easy to spot because they're either made of an esoteric material (such as cheese, or fine green beans) or they're so hideously and obviously complicated that first impressions, by and large, fall very much into the "WTF?" category. But does that make them bad? Or good, even? Ah, well, now you're askin'...

I'm all for innovation, but I also follow the principle that 3,000,000 flies can't be wrong - which is to say that the marketplace is a great leveller. What works, sells - and what doesn't sell usually doesn't work. This is why all modern horns look pretty much the same these days; the standard features have been well tried and tested over the last 150 years or so and most of the current innovation is concerned with making what's proven to work, work better.
Every once in a while someone comes up with an idea that they think will revolutionise the way we play our horns. In years gone by such people were responsible for the articulated G#, the swivelling octave key mech, the top F# key...and so on. In more modern times we've seen the advent of triple and quadruple mounted bell braces, detachable compound bell key pillars and double cup arms among others. All of these innovations share one thing in common - they all work, and they've all proved to be popular with players.

However, if you spend some time browsing patent libraries (it's nice to have a hobby) you'll soon discover that for each of these useful and valuable innovations there's at least half a dozen completely mad ideas that either never saw the light of day or shone but briefly. Some were useful but superfluous, others were too expensive or complicated to implement successfully...and some were just plain bizarre. But if you're a bit mad/passionate/obsessive and you happen to own a horn factory, there's very little to stop you from foisting your creations upon the unsuspecting least until the sales figures come in.

And this, essentially, explains the rationale (yeah, I know) behind Leblanc's trio of horns - which kicked off with the Rationnel and later developed into the Semi-Rationnel before finally ending up with the 'System' series.
The principle behind the design of these horns was to adopt the Boehm approach to keywork, which can be roughly explained as aiming to have every tonehole below the one in use being open - thus maximising the amount of venting available to the note in play. From an acoustical point of view it sounds like a mighty fine idea - but unfortunately it often tends not to be a practical proposition in mechanical terms. If you've ever played/repaired a Marzoli Boehm system bassoon you'll understand this point with complete, despairing clarity.
What's interesting (to me, at any rate) about these three models is that it's clear to see a sort of progression in the design. The (full) Rationnel was just completely insane, with the Semi-Rationnel being less so. By the time Leblanc got around to the System series it must have been painfully clear that an awful lot of players were taking one look at their horns and saying "Er...thanks...but no thanks". It was still a mad just wasn't as mad as before.

As you might imagine, such a complex horn appeared in many variants over the years - which soon becomes something of a nuisance when you start browsing forums and blogs in an effort to pin down some reliable historical information. I can only do so much historical research before my brain starts to dribble out of my nose and I begin to see the appeal of doing all those household DIY jobs that I've been putting off for months - so most of what follows has been obtained by asking people who enjoy doing this kind of research.
The horn seems to have started life as the "Vito Hodges Model 9140 alto saxophone, Leblanc (Paris) System". By the time it reached American shores it had become the "Model 35 Vito Eb alto saxophone".
Now that's not so complicated - rebranding for different markets isn't uncommon, and it's something Yamaha have made much use of down the years.
However, the 'proper' Hodges model was (supposedly) the 135...(and this is where it goes off the rails) and/or the 9140. And then there's the Model 100, and the Model 120.
At this point I'm well past caring - and unless someone comes up with documented evidence to prove otherwise I'm going to state that the 9140 seems to be the early model, the Vito 35 the later one - and anything else is just a cosmetic variation (different lacquer/plating options). The whole 9140/35 etc. series can be considered to be Hodges horns. There's one significant mechanical difference between the early and late models, and we'll touch upon that a little later...
I don't claim this to be authoritative at all, it's just my way of tidying things up so that I can be done with the boring "Who did what, and when?" and get onto the nuts-and-bolts stuff that really grabs my attention.

Vito 35 bell braceThe construction is semi-ribbed - most of the pillars are fitted to four large plates on the main body tube, with the remainder being on smaller plates or fitted individually to the body. These - along with the extra keywork - give the horn an appearance of heft, and yet it tips the scales at a gramme less than the weight of a Yamaha 62 (purple logo model). Quite how they managed to do this is beyond me because there's nothing particularly lightweight about the build quality.
The toneholes are plain drawn and few of them were particularly level. In fairness this horn's been around a while, but aside from some damage around the bell brace there wasn't really any evidence of the sort of trauma that would have put the toneholes out of level - and nothing to suggest that anyone had taken a file to them.

And speaking of the bell brace, it's a simple two-point vintage-style bell brace - the chief disadvantage of which is that an impact to the bell will drive the body end of the brace into the body tube...taking out the adjacent toneholes as it does so. As had happened to this example. You might also note that the socket on the body has rather a small footprint, which means it's likely to pop off at random intervals if care isn't taken to ensure there's no stress in the brace when fitting the socket to the body.
At first glance it looks like the brace is detachable, because the brace bar is held in the bosses by a pair of screws. However, it's not detachable in the normal sense of the word because getting the bar out requires that you release the two screws and then push the bell forward to create enough clearance at the body end in order to slip the brace out of its boss. Doing so will result in a certain amount of clenching down where the sun don't shine, and thus it's not a technique I would recommend you try unless you're absolutely certain you know what you're doing and that you understand the very real risk of distorting the bottom bow. Getting the brace back in is just as tricky and is likely to mean having to leave it in a stressed state. See above...
In fact it's better to think of the brace as being merely adjustable, because even if you removed it you still wouldn't be able to remove the bell as it's soldered in place at the bottom bow/body junction. Not that being able to adjust the bell will do you much good - the amount of movement available is minimal, and you're back to dealing with the problems of stress again.
The screws are a bad idea too, and it's not uncommon to find that the brace has been soldered into the socket at one or both ends - presumably because the screws kept coming loose.

Vito 35 low C guardYou get a full set of detachable bell key guards, but they're curious inasmuch as they have threaded sockets for an adjustable bumper felt holder, but aren't fitted with a holder. Instead you simply screw the felt cylinders into place.
Technically-speaking this makes them adjustable - but it's hellishly fiddly trying to adjust the felt in this manner and you're usually better off screwing the felts into place and making any adjustments by shaving the felts down. About the only other point of interest is that the main bell key guard is a triple-ganger, which is to say that it covers the Bb, B and the C#. I'm a big fan of a guard over the low C# given how common it is to see a 'double seat' on the pad because it's copped a knock.
You also get detachable guards around the side/chromatic F# and the G# - the latter being pretty much essential given that it's situated on the rear of the body tube, just below the sling ring.
And that's about it for body features other than a disappointingly static metal thumb hook and pear-shaped flat plastic thumb rest which is detachable via a grub screw fitted to the base of the holder - though I suppose I ought to mention that the main body tube has rather more toneholes than a typical horn...

But now we need to talk about the keywork. Oh yes.
As it's going to get very complicated very quickly, I'll kick off with most of the peripheral details first before focussing on the meat-and-potatoes of the main stack assembly - and I might as well start with my favourite topic...the point screws.
Vito 35 shoulderless point screwsWell, I'm delighted to say that they're proper points, and as an added bonus are of the shoulderless/headless variety. This means they're constantly adjustable down the years without the need to have someone ream out the pillars or mangle the key barrels. There's no built-in locking facility for the screws, so a dab of weak/medium threadlock is required in order to prevent the screws from working their way out over time. Excellent.
Not so excellent, however, were the heads of the rods screws. A great many of them were badly formed and rather carelessly slotted - and I have no reason to suppose that they're not original.

Note the springs. They're steel with a gold paint finish. They look great when new, but once the gold paint starts to deteriorate they tend to look rather shabby - which makes them look a great deal worse than they actually are. At this point you might be tempted to whip them out and replace them with new springs. - and this would be a big mistake, because the original springs are brilliant. They'll suffer an enormous amount of bending before they'll break and they're beautifully matched to the action in terms of how much zip and zing they have. They should be retained at all costs, and only replaced as and when they actually break...which may take quite a while. If you find their tattiness annoys you, you can always touch them up with a gold paint pen - if you feel brave/lucky/bored enough.

Vito 35 key cupThe key cups are very shallow indeed - measuring out at approximately 2mm deep at the cup wall. It's said that these complex Leblancs require thin pads, and while that may be true for the earlier models, this one needed standard thickness pads for the most part - with only a few pads on the upper stack needing to be rather thinner than normal.
Perhaps someone had bent the keys in the past to accommodate thicker pads? Possibly, but unlikely - I couldn't see any evidence of bending, and you'd really have to go some to bend the rather hefty cup arms. In any case, if you start bending cup arms you're going to run into problems with the regulation arms, which'll mean yet more bending.
The real tragedy on this particular horn is that it had been repadded quite recently - and whoever did it managed to find a set of pads that were rather thicker than standard. As you can imagine, it was a complete and utter disaster...a dog's dinner royale, no less. Just for fun I attempted to get one of the pads to seat, and ended up clamping a key down for three days solid...and still the pad wouldn't maintain a seal. They must have known something was amiss because they resorted to using white kid bass clarinet pads on some of the top stack keys in an effort to at least get something to seal.

Vito 35 front top F keyThere are some unusual angles on a couple of the keys - the most extreme being the front top F touchpiece. Such angles are generally frowned upon (at least by me) because of the likelihood of rapid wear and the difficulty of ensuring a reliable and long-lasting key fit between the pillars. You might suggest that they were merely trying to be efficient - but then you'd have to try to explain the octave key mech - and I rather suspect that these odd key angles were included in the design with the sole purpose of providing a "Hey, look at that!" point of interest.

And the front top F key is a really poor design anyway. It regulates the height of the B key, and it can be very fiddly to 'synchronise' the three buffers on it (one where it contacts the B key cup, one where it lifts the top F and one on the foot of the key). It really has to be very precise - which is why it's very common to see evidence of mangling on this key where a pair of pliers has been taken to it in order to tweak the regulation without having to faff about with replacing bits of cork or felt when you've overdone the sanding. You can't quite see it in this shot but there are a couple of grooves on the top of the key where someone's taken a pair of domestic/linesman pliers to it.

Vito 35 G# keyAs mentioned earlier the G# key cup is situated on the rear of the body - hence the need for a guard. I doubt there's much risk that you'd catch the key on your clothes but I can see that there's a slight chance that a bit of clumsiness when fitting the sling/neckstrap could result in the hook catching it...which would be very bad news for the pad. Perhaps not such a risk with today's modern locking sling hooks, but back in the day you'd be using a very simply open hook.
The mech itself is rather tricky to set up. The link from the touchpiece to the cup key isn't much different from that on an ordinary horn - there's just an arm that reaches over a stub attached to the cup arm. But the link from the Aux.F (that keeps the G# closed when you're going for the bell notes) comes off the rear of the Aux.F and connects with an arm off the lower end of the G#. You can just see it in the bottom left of the shot, hiding under the bell key barrels. As such, the leverages involved are less than optimal - and the sheer distance between the Aux.F and G# key cups means that the very slightest amount of wear in either key will be amplified at the G# pad seat.
It's going to become very clear later on that this horn is a martyr to wear in the action - but if you only had enough money to have two keys tightened up, it would have to be these.

So far, so reasonably simple - but from here on in it all gets a bit, well, there's really no other words for it...bonkers.
The layout of the main stacks is...unusual, because the stacks are 'double decked' - which is to say that the key cups and regulation arms are divided into two layers. Splitting the stacks up isn't that unusual, but where this is done it's usually confined to single keys - such as the Bis Bb and G keys on a modern horn, which are mounted separately from the remainder of the upper stack.
Vito 35 lower stackThe split on the Vito is far more dramatic, such that half the cup keys and regulation arms are on one layer and the rest on the other.

Regulating the mains stacks is fantastically, mind-numbingly fiddly. The design of the horn means that most of the regulation points are on flying arms that sit over the top of the key cups. This isn't so much of a big deal if you're using cork because it's easy enough to sand it to size. However, cork is likely to be very noisy - so felt is a better option, but it's a lot harder to adjust felt to the right thickness with the degree of accuracy needed for the job. And you can forget about bending the arms because the knock-on effects up and down the stack will rapidly result in your being stuck in kind of never-ending regulation hell.
What you have to do is regulate the key in pairs as you pad them. Set one pad, pop the next key up or down the line on, set the pad and then set the regulation between the two keys - then move on to the next key down the line, and so on. It's a complete pain in the arse, especially if you later need to tweak a pad seat - and I'm sure you're wondering why on earth didn't they put regulation screws on the end of those arms. Well, they did - at least on the earlier models. This is the significant mechanical difference I referred to earlier.

And don't even think about setting the key height at this stage, it's just not going to be worth it. Get all the internal regulation sorted, then bring the action down when you do the final assembly. The owner of this horn had very helpfully provided me with a photocopy of document produced by Leblanc that detailed the process of regulating the action. "That'll come in handy" I thought "I'll refer to it when I come to assemble the horn".
I didn't in the end - I decided to do it 'old school' and simply followed standard mechanical procedures; but I took a look at the document afterwards just to see whether the prescribed method was any different to my own. Turns out the document had been written for the earlier model...that features adjusting screws on the ends of all those flying arms, and thus would have been completely bloody useless anyway.

F# helper arm (Yanagisawa)But this leads to another question: Who on earth was mad enough to think that removing these adjusters (probably to bring the price of the horn down) was a sensible idea? Whoever it was, I bet they were popular with the guys and gals on the assembly line...
However, there's more to this than meets the eye. Putting regulation adjusters on those flying arms seems to make perfect sense; there's a need to be able to balance such a complex mechanism and to be able to easily account for the necessary compromises due to key flex. But adjusters on flying arms seldom work that well. You can still see them used today on horns that feature an 'F# helper arm' - which is an adjuster that's connected to the low F key barrel and sits over the top of the Aux.F key cup. Here's one fitted to a Yanagisawa alto.
The problem with these arms is that their length makes them prone to flexing, which is a quality you really, really don't want on point of regulation. You can more or less get away with it on a helper arm because it's merely a supplement to the standard point of regulation at the rear of the key - but if you had to rely on such an arm for the primary and sole point of regulation it's likely to end in tears before the bandleader calls The Last Waltz.
That, at least, is my perspective, based on years of trying to persuade relatively floppy bits of brass to stay put - and so it was with some smugness that I noticed a correspondent involved in the historical research made mention of having gigged with several versions of this horn and found that the ones with adjusters were rather unreliable. Dispensing with the adjusters on the end of the flying arms and going for cork/felt that extends along the entire working length of the arms helps to spread the load (or, more correctly, the leverage) and reduces the effect of flexing - though at a considerable cost to convenience.

Another regulation point that raised an eyebrow was that tabs were fitted to a couple of the key cups on the top stack. This is such a bad idea because wherever there's a tab there will always be the temptation to bend it. Indeed, in places where tabs are commonly found (beneath the G# and below the low Bb touchpieces), bending them very slightly to make minute on-the-fly adjustments is fairly standard practice.
In such instances the tabs are attached to sturdy key arms or touchpieces, which means they can be tweaked without too much concern about what will happen to whatever they're mounted on. However, when you attach a tab to a key cup you can be assured that any and all attempts to bend the tab even slightly will result in some distortion to the key cup...and thus the seat of the pad. And so I was completely unsurprised to find that on dismantling the horn, the key cups with tabs on them were bent to buggery (as the saying goes).

Vito 35 alto keycup tabsAs handy (and necessary) as regulation points are, they represent a weak point in the integrity of the action. If one of a pair of linked keys is worn, the effects of that wear will be passed along to the linked key - and if both keys are worn, well, that just makes it all the worse.
It's a common problem, but because the linked keys on a horn generally only have one or perhaps two points of regulation it's possible to dial in a bit of compensation. In other words, you can get away with it if you really have to. But all that goes right out of the window on the Vito, because there are so many linked keys - and thus so many points of regulation.
At this point I suspect that if you've ever had any experience of regulating a horn's action you're probably doing that thing that plumbers and car mechanics do when they cast an eye over a job; that pursing of the lips, the long and noisy intake of air followed by a low "Ooooooh nahhhhhh" and a slow shake of the head...

And here's why. What you see here in the top right of the shot is a link via a tab from the Bis Bb to the Auxiliary B key. No big deal, it's just a slight variation on the standard link from the A to the Aux.B that you'll see on any horn. But there's another link (bottom left) from the G to the Bis Bb...and thus the Aux.B. This is definitely not standard - and forms part of the mechanism whereby it's possible to flatten any note on the top stack by a semitone by pressing down any key on the lower stack.
"So what's the big deal?" I hear you ask, "You press one key down and another one closes...and if there's wear you can dial in a bit of compensation, right?"
The trouble is, the compensation works both ways. In the setup above you'd adjust the cork beneath the Bis Bb tab so that the Bb closes at exactly the same time as the Aux.B. And then you'd adjust the cork beneath the G so that it closes at exactly the same time as the Bb...and thus the Aux.B. Now - even if the action was as tight as a drum there'd still be a certain amount of key flexing to take into account. Oh, it won't be much, to be sure, but it increments with every linkage - which means that when you press the G key down it just might not be able to close the Aux.B fully...and you'd have a leak.
So you dial in some compensation by increasing the thickness of the cork under the G key tab, and all is well. Until you reverse the direction and come down the key stack. The Aux.B will close just fine because there are no linked keys above it. The Bis Bb will close reasonably well because it's only one regulation step away from the Aux.B - but by the time you hit the G you'll be up against that slightly thicker piece of cork you installed in order to compensate for the key flex...and because the flex is no longer there (you're holding the keys above down), the cork will prevent the G from closing properly. It's called 'holding off'.
If there are any linked keys below the G (and there are on this horn), the problem gets progressively worse the further down the horn you go.

Such anomalies are unlikely to stop a horn dead in its tracks unless they're severe, but with each occurrence of holding off it becomes necessary to press the keys down harder in order to overcome it. Most players probably won't realise they're doing this (it becomes subconscious very quickly) and it typically only becomes evident when another player - who's used to playing on a more well-balanced horn - has a go.
It also shows up when playing fast and complex runs. Your finger pressure drops and the horn loses some of its responsiveness.
Vito 35 bottom stack height adjusterThis is the Achilles heel of these complicated Leblanc horns - the action is barely, barely capable of functioning properly when it's in tip-top condition and has been set up and tweaked to the Nth degree by someone who really knows what they're doing. Once a bit of wear creeps in, or a cork gets a little compressed, the performance of the horn begins to drop off. And if it's been set up at all carelessly then you might as well pack your horn away and go home.

With all that said, the Vito is not completely bereft of adjusters - oh no. There are, in fact, two. Yes, two.
The first of these can be found tucked away at the rear of the lower stack on a peg/stub/boss/thingummybob that sits between the E and D keys - and regulates the height of the D key. In fact it regulates the height of the entire lower stack given that the D sports an arm that sits over the E key cup...and so on.
The other can be found on the foot of the G key - and this too regulates the height of the entire stack. At least in theory. In practice I found it rather more sensible to set up the key heights in the traditional manner (by adjusting the corks/felts) and then used the adjusters merely to bring the G and D keys into line.

And if ever there was a place for an adjuster, it's on the foot of the A key - which, as on the low D, butts up against a peg attached to the body.
Vito 35 A key footIt's always a faff to adjust the regulation on this type of key foot layout (it's quite common on very early horns) because there's nearly always a bunch of keys in the way and it's a proper fiddle to get a piece of sandpaper in there. A small screw right through the foot of the key or the peg itself would solve all the problems.

While I'm having a moan, there's a nasty assembly gotcha on the top stack. The G key has to be fitted before the top layer of the upper stack goes on. Not that it's that much of a gotcha really, because you'll be assembling and dismantling the action so many times during the course of padding/regulation that having to do it one more time to fit the G key really isn't going to make that much of a difference.

For such a mechanically advanced horn the octave mech is surprisingly old-fashioned.
The body key cup is housed on a seesaw arm with the crook key pin on the other end, and the switch between the body and crook keys is made via an arm that sits atop the body key. It's a throwback to the sort of mechs that were around in the early 1900s - but it gets a bit more interesting as you go further back towards the foot of the G key...which you can see at centre right (with a small adjusting screw fitted to it).
On a modern horn the G key foot would sit on top of the body octave key, keeping it held down when the G was up. Once G was pressed down, the foot would rise off the body key and allow it to rise. On early saxes this foot was often quite long which, in tandem with other similarly long levers, would make the mech look rather like a weird kind of knitting machine.
Vito 35 octave key mechanismIn order to avoid this inelegance, Leblanc have fitted a transfer mechanism which passes the downward/upward movement of the G foot to the top of the body key - but it's taken them two additional levers and pivot arm that's bolted to the body in order to do so. And I really can't see why they did this. OK, I get that they may have wanted to avoid long arms - but by extending the G key to the upper pillar they could have got rid of the pivot arm and one of the levers and simply reversed the action of the lever on top of the body key.
Given that the more levers and links you have in a mechanism, the less responsive it feels and the more likely it is to suffer from wear and noise, it looks to me like the mech was designed to be fussy simply for the sake of, well, fussiness. It all looks rather rococo - which, in case you didn't know, is like baroque...on steroids. It works well enough, though I'd hesitate to describe it as slick in operation.

The Vito picks up points because of the shaped thumb key and the pear-shaped rest (which is nice and comfy) - but loses them all by virtue of the long thumb key pivoting on a short rod screw...which will show up any effects of wear quite rapidly.
I mentioned earlier that the thumb rest was detachable - but I think it might also be adjustable, at least in terms of rotation. Its present position will likely suit the majority of players, but some may prefer the 'lobe' to be more in line with the octave which case all that's required is that the grub screw is loosened (you can just see it poking out of the rest socket on the bottom right of the shot), the rest moved to a suitable position and the screw tightened up again. I like this feature, as well as the shape of the thumb rest. It's my preferred shape when building custom thumb rests for players who find the standard one (typically on vintage horns) too small and uncomfortable.

Another throwback to earlier horns is the design of the side keys - they're single-piece keys. It isn't so much that the keys feel heavy and clunky (because they don't) rather it's the fact that this kind of key at this sort of size is very prone to wear. Once that happens the pad seats gets a bit vague as the key cups start to wander. I really don't know why they didn't go for a fork and pin connection given the complexity of the rest of the action.
It's features like this, plus the octave mech, the regulation pegs and the bell stay, that seem to me to jar with what was essentially a cutting edge horn in its day - and I really don't know why they didn't go that extra five yards and bring these relatively old features up to date.

Vito 25 alto rearBy now I guess you're itching to hear how the horn feels or plays - or at least gasping for a cuppa and a 'comfort break' - but before we get onto the playtest section let's just pause to take in the magnificence of the rear of the horn. I don't often show a shot of the horn from the rear but in this case I think the horn deserves it - not only so you can see the complexity of the keywork and the triple bell key guard, but also so you can cop a look at the very extensive engraving which fills almost every available space on the body and crook. If nothing else this sax is certainly a front-runner for the most-blinged-up-horn award.
In case you're wondering (as I was), the silver engraving was done by chasing the design into the horn and then applying the silver. I'll admit I'm not a big fan of either silvery horns or extensive engraving, but it seems to sit very well with this horn - and I particularly like the way in which the clean lines of the logo float in a sea of chasing on the bell (see the closing beauty shot). It's very nicely done.

Under the fingers the horn feels quite normal really. Most of the fripperies are confined to the internal workings of the action, which means they're pretty much invisible to the fingers. For the most part it feels just how you'd expect a horn that spans the vintage/contemporary era to feel - though I have no doubt that it being an alto (as opposed to a tenor) is something of an advantage.
The octave mech isn't as slick as a modern swivelling mech, but it's at least a step-up from some of the clunkier vintage mechs - and the single-piece side keys work very least while the action's nice and tight.

The rather quirky bell key table, which positively bristles with rollers, doesn't feel too bad either.
Note how the touchpieces follow the curvature of the body tube. It's a nice touch - and probably quite an expensive one - though I can't in all honesty say that it made any difference to the feel or accessibility of the keys.
And see that extra touchpiece between the G# and the top F? That's your top F# key. Yep. I'm in two minds about this feature; on the one hand it's initially quite odd - having to use your left hand to reach a top F# - but it's surprising how quickly you become accustomed to it. On the other hand I wonder about the effect it might have on players who swap between horns. For example, I cut my sax chops on horns that didn't have a dedicated top F# key - and even though all my horns now have such a key I still find myself reaching for the 'fake fingering' rather than the proper key. If you get used to the top F# hanging off the left, there may come a time when you pick up another horn and find yourself reaching for a key that simply isn't there.
Vito 35 bell key table"Pshhawww and piffle!" I hear you cry - and you may well have a point, but I'd counter with the fact that if this was such a great feature, why did it not become standard on all later horns? I rest my case, m'lud.

Everything else is more or less where you'd expect it to be - with perhaps the only issue of note being that the right hand pearls might feel a bit cramped if you have large fingers.
For all its complexity the action is remarkably swift and responsive - the keys are well-balanced, the springs are smoothly responsive. But that's on the basis of it being in tip-top condition. As soon as a bit of wear creeps in, or some of the regulation goes out of whack, the feel is likely to deteriorate far more rapidly than that of a traditional horn...though much will depend of how fussy you are when it comes to there being no double-action, and not having to grip the keys like a gorilla in order to get the low notes out.

Enough of the blurb, then - how does it play?'s a very odd blow - and I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way. It's clear that Leblanc went out of their way to design a horn with a very even response...and that's exactly what it has. But it's even to the point of being a bit, well, unnerving. Sure - some horns are more even-toned than others, but even the best of them show some variation from top to bottom. The Leblanc appears to have almost no variation at all.
It takes a little while for this to sink in because it's such an unfamiliar response - and I wouldn't blame you at all if your first impression of it was that it had no character. But give it a while - give yourself time to become accustomed to the evenness and you might find it starts to become quite beguiling.

Tonewise it's a little bit restrained - and again that's not always a bad thing. It's got 'medium' stamped all over it, and it really doesn't want to stray very far off the path. It's always difficult to convey the tone of a horn in the written word, which is why I so often resort to analogy as a way of giving you some idea of what to expect - and in this instance I'd say that the Leblanc comes across as the archetypal perfect gentleman.
It's always smart and well-presented. It's crushingly polite, inoffensive and resolutely restrained. It's pleasant company, reasonably interesting but modest. Get the picture?
On the face of it, it seems that there's not a lot to dislike - but the uncertainty slips in when you play it alongside, well, just about any other horn. It becomes immediately apparent that the evenness comes at the cost of the breadth of tone. Imagine, if you will, a horn having its tone spread out all over a table. You've got upper harmonics over there, low end grunt over here - and somewhere or other is the midrange...and all the piles of stuff are kinda mixed up at the edges. Leblanc has come along and tidied everything away into a box. A very small box.
Most other horns will have a much larger (and louder) soundscape in comparison. It won't be so well-ordered and linear, but there's more of a sense of there being something to explore. They're also likely to be more rogueish - which, as far as I'm concerned, is the perfect quality for a sax.
I discussed it with the owner when he came in to collect the horn, and I think he really nailed it when he said "It's got that Buffet thing going on". It is what it is, and it does what it does - and it's a lot of work if you want to get it to do anything else.

From a strictly technical point of view it's clear that this horn is a member of that small but elite group of 'quirky' horns that require specialist knowledge and experience in order to repair them - such as the Grafton and the Conn 26M. This experience is hard to find and seldom comes cheap, but you can't get away with winging it on esoteric horns like these because the quirks are usually in the action, which means that any and all sloppiness in the workmanship will be brutally punished at the regulation stage.
This horn had been' overhauled' recently, and the sad fact is that it was probably working better before the job than after. The pads were way too thick and in the fine tradition of bodging, someone had taken a mallet to the key cups in the vain hope of forcing the pads into some kind of seat. And whoever did the work must have bought all their felt from Mr Fuzzy's Fuzzy Felt Fayre (right next door to Crazy Carl's Crappy Cork Cavalcade - conveniently placed just opposite Mick's Mallet Mart).
Vito 35 bellTo put it plainly, there's simply no point in owning a horn like this unless it's been thoroughly and properly serviced by someone who really - and I mean really - knows what they're doing, and regularly maintained thereafter. If you skimp on this, the complexity of the action will magnify the smallest faults and any benefit you might have accrued from the whizz-bang features will turn into a performance liability. Ask your repairer what their standard price is for an overhaul, then double it. If you get quoted less than four figures for an overhaul on one of these horns they either don't know what they're taking on...or you're getting "mate's rates".
And if this sounds like an advert for my services, think again. I've paid my 'mad horn' dues time and time again, and I'm officially done with working on them...which is good or bad news for all the up-and-coming repairers out there (depending on your perspective, naturally).

Would I recommend it? Depends.
If you're an advanced player with very specific needs with regard to getting around very complex fingerings, you might find the keywork enhancements of some use. However, getting the hang of them isn't going to come overnight - and doing so will require quite a commitment to the horn...both in terms of its keywork and its tone.
If, on the other hand, you're a collector of unusual saxes then yeah, the Leblanc is a relatively rare bit of kit which will add much street cred to your collection of horns. But buy cheap, don't fix it up and stick it straight in the display cabinet.

As for the rest of us...well...
I think there's a tendency to look upon such horns as sacred cows. There's no denying that a lot of work has gone into designing and building this horn and yes, it has some unique features - but I'm not in the least bit convinced that the pros outweigh the cons. It has a nice, distinct tone - but it's not what I'd call 'spine-tingling'; it's sort of competent and interesting, but it doesn't quite give you that kick in the pit of your stomach that, say, a Conn 6M's top end or Martin Committee's low end does. It's steady all round rather than being exciting in places.
The action, too, is competent - but its complexity carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Again, it's decent all round but it doesn't have the crushing efficiency of the Yamaha 62 nor the playful reliability of the Selmer MkVI.
And then you've got the expense of the thing - not so much in its purchase price these days (it was actually remarkably inexpensive when new) but rather the cost of any repairs it may need, as well as ongoing maintenance. You also have the spectre of failing regulation over a period of time. To be fair you have this on any horn, but on the Leblanc it'll have a far greater impact than on any standard horn. Failure to address it as when it occurs will rapidly diminish one of the primary reasons for owning the horn in the first place - which begs the question "What's the point?"
And I suppose you have to ask yourself "Do I really need this horn?" Take a look around you - who's playing these things? By rights it ought to be the de facto standard for classical players - but hey, they're all rocking Yanagisawas these days (at least those of them who've given up on Selmers). I suppose there are the fingering enhancements, but just how useful are they?

My own feeling on it is that it's too much hassle for not enough glitter, and if you placed it alongside, say, a nice Buescher and said "Take your pick", I can't see too many people saying "Oooh, I'll take the Leblanc please!"
At least not the sane ones.

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