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Martin C Melody saxophone

Martin C Melody  saxophoneOrigin: USA
Guide price: £300+
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 1923 (or thereabouts)
Date reviewed: September 2005

A now obsolete member of the saxophone family, from one of America's premier horns builders in the mid 1900's - and perhaps one of the very last examples of Martin's run of C Melody horns

I have to say that what you're looking at here is quite possibly one of the finest examples of a C Melody as you're ever likely to see. I can say this from the perspective of having been told by the owner to 'give it the works'. What you see here is a completely overhauled and restored example of the genre.

Jobs like these require some thought before the process of overhauling begins in earnest.
There are some who feel that the object of restoration is to put an instrument back into 'as new' condition. I don't subscribe to that view in that this tends to require a great deal of cosmetic work....a brand new instrument has no scratches, no wear to the finish, no odd little marks that bear witness to harder times.
No, I prefer to do what's called 'sympathetic restoration', which focusses more on the mechanical aspect of the instrument, and the integrity of its construction.
Such a process tends to be less 'caustic', and follows the principle of not taking away something that can't be put back - so that the process can be repeated in later years, if necessary. There's many a fine vintage horn out there that's reached the end of its life prematurely by dint of having been buffed to within an inch of its life every time it's been overhauled.
As it was, this horn arrived in pretty remarkable condition for its age - I rather suspect that I'm the first person ever to have undertaken any major work on it.

One of the wonderful things about working on a vintage horn is just how well built they are. Granted, the design is perhaps quite simple - and in a modern context I'd throw criticism at such things as the single mount point for the bell to body stay, the static thumb hook and the fixed bell key guards (it's quite hard to set pads on these bell keys when the guards obstruct your getting a pad setting plate inbetween the pad and the tone hole).

On a more positive note the pillars are all well fitted, the bottom bow joint (where the straight portion of the body meets the curve of the bottom bow) features a substantial soldered joint and you get a sense that everything is twice as strong as it needs to be - indeed, the bottom bow plate sports a ridge that looks as though it could easily double as an icebreaker should the player ever find themselves stranded at the North Pole.

Considering its size you might be quite surprised by the weight of this horn.
This is for two reasons; Martin never built flimsy horns in the first place, and then there's the extra meat on the soldered on tone holes.
Martin C Melody tone holeAnd these are no ordinary tone holes. No simple tube here, each tone hole is a beefy affair, with enough wall thickness to cut a decent chamfer in at the lip.
There are pros and cons with this design, of course, and the big drawback is the possible lack of integrity of the joint where the tone hole meets the body. It's very common to find Martin horns with leaks around the tone holes, and this is most likely due to the process of oxidisation of the soft solder that holds the tone holes in place.
It's not something you see much of on modern horns (which feature drawn tone holes, whereby the wall of the tone hole is physically pulled out of the body material), but if your crook falls off its tenon sleeve then it's quite likely that the cause will be oxidisation of the solder - causing it to crystallise and lose adhesion.
It's unclear why some Martins seems to suffer from this problem and others don't (this horn had perfect tone holes) - but I suspect that it's got a lot to do with patterns of usage and storage*. It's certain that dampness around a soldered joint will accelerate oxidisation, so perhaps this horn had either very little use or was well looked after by its previous owners.

Another advantage of soldered on tone holes is that in the event of any significant damage to the body, they can be removed to assist the repair, levelled off independently of the body and then refitted.

* I'm indebted to Tom Crawshaw, who emailed me after having read the original review and raised the issue of 'selective galvanic corrosion'.
Essentially this describes the process whereby two different metals in contact with each other set up an electrical difference in the presence of an 'electrolyte'. In the case of the Martin we have the brass of the tone hole and body, and the lead alloy of the soft solder. The electrolyte is nothing more than the water that forms in the bore as condensation or gets blown into the horn as saliva. In effect, it turns the interface between the tone hole and the body into a battery.

There's a thing called 'the Galvanic Series' which consists of a list of metals - and the further apart two metals are on that list, the more critical the galvanic corrosion will be. As it happens, lead and brass are quite a few steps apart.

What this means is that even if the soldered joint is sound, without any pinholes or flaws, corrosion of the joint will still take place. It's also the case that the weak acids in saliva will help to break down a soldered joint in time - so between the two processes it's no wonder that these tone holes are often problematic.
There's a separate article here that goes into more detail, and discusses the remedies.

And here's something to scare those of you who've bought solid silver crooks. Silver and brass are even further apart on the Galvanic Series, so leaving the crook on the horn after you've played it will eventually weaken the tenon joint.
It also raises the question as to whether silver plated horns with soldered on tone holes are more susceptible to galvanic corrosion than lacquered brass ones. My advice would be, when buying such a horn, to check the tone holes very carefully indeed.
The most obvious solution, inasmuch as such a thing can be prevented, is to ensure that you thoroughly dry your horn after playing.

The crook is of the tenor variety. Some C Melody horns feature an alto style crook. There's no real difference in the way the design affects the response, but it does have a bearing on how the horn hangs. Alto players use a very high approach - a straight neck and back is the most common stance, whereas tenor players tend to have a very slight stoop...due to the angle of the crooks, and perhaps the size and weight of the horn. The Martin sits somewhere inbetween...which takes a bit of getting used to.

A few words about the finish. This horn features a matt silver finish, with brightwork (silver plate on plain, flat brass) on the bell and a gold wash inside the bell. This matt finish was popular back in the early to mid 1900's (and seems to be making something of a comeback today in 'retro' horn finishes), but I've never been a big fan of it. Essentially, the horn is sandblasted to lend the brass a pitted effect and then silver plated. It looks reasonable enough, when clean, but it gets grubby quite quickly and can be very difficult to keep clean on the grounds that grime and tarnish will lurk in the pits of the finish, and short of scrubbing the horn it's very hard to remove it.
That being said, when it IS clean it looks quite special - especially the contrast with the brightwork on the bell.

The keywork has its pros and cons too. The most obvious pro is its build quality - nothing flimsy about these keys.
It's of simple design too, so you won't find any modern conveniences like stack key adjusters or fancy compound mechanisms.
That simplicity is perhaps the drawback also - there's no Auto top F mechanism, no link from the G# to the bell keys and a vaguely Heath-Robinson octave key mechanism. There's also the ubiquitous low Eb trill key mechanism (note the extra key arm over the low E key).
Although this mechanism works it's inclined to wear rapidly due to the relatively small key barrels on the relevant keys, and it becomes an ideal vector for a leak. As per the modern practice I reversed the springing on the trill key cup so that it remains closed - though some people are quite happy to simply wedge the Eb trill cup close with a bit of cork. I guess too that Eb trills just aren't as popular a musical device as they once were (which is fine by me...I can't stand trilling!) - though it's more useful if you think of it as an alternative Eb. This horn also features a G# trill key (seen inbetween the low F and E keys). It's perhaps of more use than the Eb trill, allowing you to hold the G# key open with the left hand little finger whilst you trill with the right hand middle finger, and as it's just a mechanical connection to the existing G# key it won't pose any problems with regard to leaks should the action wear.
Martin C Melody spatula keysThe bell keys are all mounted on long rod screws - as opposed to modern horns which use point or pivot screws. Long screws are inclined to wear, through a combination of sheer surface contact area and a tendency to lose lubrication - plus there's the associated drag of friction which tends to make such keys a little less than sprightly in response.
As for the bell key spatulas they're a very simple affair, though quite functional. The only caveat really is that the low C# key isn't cantilevered, so can feel quite heavy with the large spring that's required to ensure the key doesn't flap when you play the bell notes.

However, that's all par for the course with a horn of this vintage, and provided the action is kept in good mechanical order and well lubricated it can be balanced to give a light and positive feel...with perhaps only the octave key and the bell keys being slightly stiffer than on a modern horn. As regards the point screws, these are good old-fashioned proper points which allow for any free play in the action to be taken up as and when required.

It's quite an unusual experience blowing a C Melody.
I have to say right from the off that I'm not really a fan of this type of horn. I've worked on and played many an example, I even used a marvellous old Wurlitzer C Melody in a blues band for a few years, but somehow I never really managed to feel comfortable with the tone.
The horn sits, physically, between the Eb alto and Bb tenor. In an ideal world the C melody should take the upper notes of the alto and the lower notes of the tenor and combine them in a glorious assemblage of tone...but to my mind what it seems to do is take the weaker top notes of the tenor and combine them with the strident lower notes of the alto. Now, I fully expect that there's many a C Melody buff out there who even now is putting finger to keyboard with a view to sending me one of those emails that begins "Dear Sir...I have never, mark you, NEVER heard such utter..." etc. - so perhaps I should add that the C Melody may well have something in common with the soprano sax in that it has it own unique style of playing. In other words, you have to apply yourself to it.
From listening to 'proper' C Melody players, who somehow manage to eke quite a light but punchy tone out of these horns, I suspect that it's me that's at fault and not the poor old saxophones.

One thing's for sure, this Martin has some of the same quality of tone that I find so appealing in all the other Martins I've played - that luscious combination of rich lower notes and crisp top notes. Martin horns have punch, and yet it's not a case of it being 'always on'...they can be backed off to give a lovely, dry mellow tone that can switch in an instant on demand to that powerful tone that so characterises horns of this vintage. That being said, if this horn was a tenor I'd say that the lower notes had less richness than I would have liked, and were it an alto it would have less cut.

Another thing that throws me is the pitch shift. This sometimes happens to doublers, typically alto and tenor...where you're going from an Eb instrument to a Bb. The effect is such that after playing an instrument for a while you become accustomed to certain finger positions giving you certain pitches. Thus you'd finger a G and get, naturally, a G. Switch to a differently keyed horn and that G fingering produces a different note at concert pitch (though it's still a 'saxophone G'). This can catch you out initially, but after some time spent swapping between two differently pitched horns you can become attuned to it.
The C melody though is so uncommon that the average player might never even see one in a lifetime, let alone play one - and even with my flute playing credentials (another instrument pitched in C) I felt somewhat at odds with the relationship between my fingering and the pitch of the note.

I think if I had to give one word to describe the tone of the Martin I would say it would be 'mysterious'.
I think too that this perhaps points up how so often the tone of the C Melody goes to waste. Listen to any collection of C Melody recordings and you'll find a preponderance of 'novelty' pieces...happy-go-lucky, chirpy pieces that require great technical dexterity - and yet if you're lucky you might come across the odd rare piece that's rather slower, and perhaps darker or more minor in feel. The Martin C Melody seems to be made for just this niche, its warmth of tone carrying just enough edginess to make you ever so slightly wary. Tonewise I've seen these horns described as anything from 'syrupy' through to 'sweet', but I feel this woefully underplays the horn's more 'noir' characteristics. If James Bond was going to play a sax, he could do no better than get one of these.

The tuning requires some in-depth comments.
I was expecting to hit a few problems initially. Blowing a vintage horn requires slightly more input on the part of the player - much as driving a vintage car requires a bit more of the driver. That's not to say that the design is bad, it's just built with a different set of manufacturing parameters. I could go so far as to say that these days tuning, or at least ease of achieving it, is paramount - but back when the Martin was built it was tone that ruled the roost.
I've seen what happens when the one out-balances the other - you end up with an instrument that either sounds wonderful but can't play two notes in tune relative to each other, or one that sounds dead and dry but hits pitch every time.
The science of woodwind instrument construction is that of achieving balance between the two - with a fair degree of latitude as to whether you make the player work at tone or tuning.
Thankfully this horn was 'low pitch', built to the new standard for Concert A that became the norm just after the turn of the century. It's important when buying horns of this vintage to check the pitch - most horn built to the (then) new standard will exhibit the initials 'L.P' somewhere on the body, usually close by the serial number, just below the thumb hook.
In my initial tests I used my workbench Vandoren tenor mouthpiece. It worked just fine both in terms of tone and pitch right up to the top C...and then things went badly wrong. So much so that by the time I reached top F I was, in fact, playing a perfect E.
I really couldn't believe that a horn from such an established manufacturer would be quite this badly out of tune, so I switched to the original mouthpiece that came with the horn.
Granted, I immediately lost the open tone the Vandoren gave me, but the tuning snapped into place more or less...I still felt the top notes exhibited a degree of flatness, but not so much that I couldn't learn to accommodate with my embouchure given enough time. Indeed, after half an hour's playing I found the top notes sliding more and more in tune.
So it would appear that this horn, and probably most C Melodies, are quite mouthpiece-dependent (no surprises there).
I'd imagine that the order of the day would be something with quite a wide, open bore - unbaffled, and with a fairly close lay to give you a rich, rounded tone without too much edge...and given that C Melody mouthpieces aren't exactly common these days you might find that it would pay to have one made by an expert, such as Ed Pillinger, for example.
Failing that, some time spent trying out a large range of standard tenor pieces should yield some results - and as no two players have the same requirements this might be the best way to find a piece that works both in terms of tuning and tone.

It's worth commenting here that the setup is important with regard to tuning. It's been my experience that many repairers are perhaps fooled by the size of the C Melody, and set about giving it a tenor's action. Naturally, being smaller than the tenor this results in too high an action. Likewise, giving it an alto action results in too low an action. This isn't such an issue on modern horns, but for vintage horns the height of the action, and the relative difference between the upper and lower stacks can make quite a difference to the response and tuning of the horn.

I can see, in theory, how a sax pitched in C should have mass appeal. No need for transcribed music, simply follow the piano score. And yet this type of horn is no longer manufactured. It's not unreasonable to ask why that should be, and I suspect that it's largely down to the tone. As good as a C Melody can be, it can't quite match the fireworks of the alto, nor the gravitas of the tenor - and although you could argue that it has its own unique sound, it will forever be plagued with the sense of sitting between two stools. But for those who are prepared to put the time and effort into coaxing out the very best that the horn has to offer, the Martin has to be worth a look.
Bear in mind though that cases for these horns are all but impossible to find - so you may need to budget for a custom case, or at least refurbishment of the original one.

For those of you who are fans of this particular member of the saxophone family, I can thoroughly recommend a peek at Alan Tucker's entertaining and comprehensive collection of articles.

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