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Buescher "The Buescher" True-Tone soprano saxophone

Buescher True-Tone soprano saxophoneOrigin: USA
Guide price: £600+
Weight: -
Age of review model: 1928 (approx)
Date reviewed: January 2004

A semi-pro to pro vintage horn from one of the most widely respected names in vintage horns

Buying a vintage soprano can sometimes be a somewhat chancy business.
The saxophone has always been built on a foundation of compromises, that's the simple physics of the design, and the smaller the space those compromises are packed into the more critical they become.
I think it fair to say that before the dawn of the computer age, designing an instrument was something of an art. Without advanced testing and theoretical design processes a great deal of the design must have relied on experience coupled with trial and error. All this, along with the manufacturing limitations of the day, meant that the smaller an instrument became, the more likely you were to start feeling the anomalies - particularly with regard to the tuning.

In real terms this means that the average vintage alto or tenor is likely to have a few quirks - but generally none that can't be worked around with a spot of patience. But when it comes to a vintage soprano those quirks can become insurmountable faults.
And yet the vintage soprano has an enduring quality somehow - a factor perhaps bolstered by the comparative cheapness with which they can be purchased. It follows, then, that to be forewarned is to be forearmed - and so the arrival of a vintage Buescher soprano on the workbench was an ideal opportunity to examine its credentials to see whether it merited a place in the vintage horn's hall of fame, or a dusty corner in the 'interesting lamp-stand' shop.

My initial impression of this instrument was that it was beautifully elegant.
Modern sopranos somehow look very 'industrial' or 'businesslike'. It's perhaps to be expected - there's a lot of gubbins to be shoved into a relatively small space, so it's hard to avoid a cluttered look. Even the complicated octave key mechanism, with its large cantilever, has a certain symmetry to it. The rounded touchpieces on the palm and side keys add still further to the horn's flowing lines.
The overall build quality is superb, just as you'd expect.

Taking the horn apart did nothing to diminish its elegance, but it did unearth a whole heap of problems. The smaller an instrument is, the more critical the accuracy of the action becomes - and the older an instrument is, the more likely it is that the action will be worn. Obviously, this isn't a good thing - and whilst you can perhaps get away with it on anything bigger than an alto, on the soprano it becomes 'make or break'. There's just no room for sloppiness.

This particular horn suffered from the double whammy of not only exhibiting wear on the keywork, but wear on the stack rods - which required new rods to be made up and carefully lapped in (a process using a very fine abrasive compound to grind the key barrels to a precise fit on the rod).
That such wear was evident is a perfect demonstration for the efficacy of oiling the action.

The key cups are worthy of mention - Buescher used a system of padding utilising their 'snap in' reflectors. This means that every cup, bar the very smallest, has a central boss fitted to it onto which a substantial reflector is clipped.
It wasn't an idea that caught on - it limits you to the size of the reflector or resonator supplied (unless you have spares floating about) and prevents the use of ordinary pads. If you lose or break a reflector, you're stuffed - and it's very common to find that the bosses have been cut or ground out and ordinary pads fitted in place.

This horn was half and half, which suggests that over the years some reflectors had broken off and ordinary pads had to be fitted due to lack of replacement parts. It's worth mentioning that you can still get special pads for these type of cups, but they tend not to be of wonderful quality. A far better bet is to have the pads custom-made to fit, which is what I did for this particular horn.

As for the cups themselves, almost all of them were warped. This is entirely due to them having been bent or bashed in order to make the pads seat - and as such is a common fault on vintage horns.

Buescher Ture-Tone Sop octave mechThe action itself has a couple of quirks, the most notable being the complex octave key mechanism.
With the aid of hindsight it seems amazing that no-one thought of the cantilevered ball and socket mechanism until the mid 1950's - and in the meantime manufacturers came up with all manner of ideas to facilitate the automatic crossover at the octave G/A boundary.
Setting up one of these old-fashioned mechs takes a great deal of patience, and is a constant battle between the need for precision and the need for balance.
In the end you have to accept that there will always be a degree of clunkiness about the mech, but it works quite well nonetheless. Another quirk is the inclusion of a low Eb trill, facilitated by a touchpiece that sits over the low E key, connected to a small key cup to the rear of the low D.
It works - but because of the design it adds a huge potential for a leak if the mechanism isn't tight and precisely all times.
As is the common practice these days, I reversed the spring action on the trill key cup so that it remained permanently closed (always worth checking this key on a vintage horn, it's rare that the pad has been set properly, or that the action's tight).

The use of long rods on the bell keys is a minus point. These long keys are prone to taking knocks, which bends the key barrels. This leads to a stiff action (or even a lock-up), and even when working properly the extra friction involved limits how light you can set the keys.
Not too much of a problem on the whole though, the keys are light enough to allow for a little extra tension on the springs to compensate.

Once back together the horn felt very slick under the fingers.
The design of the action will limit how light it can be set, but because of the relatively small key movement a reasonably firm action will give you a nice positive feel with plenty of speed.
I found the bell key cluster to be a little tricky in use, particularly the G# - but then I have quite long fingers, so it was more to do with my having to bunch them up rather than any stiffness in the cluster design.

The horn's finish bears a quick mention. It has a frosted silverplated body with bright silverplated keys, and whilst the body was in good condition I found quite a few of the keys were losing their plate. This wasn't down to wear, but rather a peeling of the plate. I did note that there were some lacquer residues on the horn, indicating that at one time it had been lacquered over. I wondered whether that process, or at least the cleaning preparation, had somehow corrupted the plating on the keywork. Nothing terribly serious though, part of the appeal of a vintage horn is that it looks like it's been around the block a few times.

And so to the important bit - hall of fame..or lampshade city...?

The tone is the first thing that hits you. Focussed is what I'd call it.
I tend to think of modern sopranos as having the tone splay out from the bell, in all directions. Tonewise the Buescher seems to shoot it out straight ahead, you could almost point to a listener in the audience and play solely to them. But it's a big sound too, nice and rich with rounded edges, and yet not the sort of roundness that's indistinct or woolly. It's got a sort of cheerfulness about it, and I'd imagine you'd have to work at getting that more 'lonely' (or ethereal' if you're feeling upbeat) feel that you can get from a modern horn. The tone is quite even throughout the range, though I did find a few notes shouted more than others at first. This is par for the course with a vintage horn, and it only took ten minutes or so to find the middle line throughout the range.

The only note that gave trouble tonewise was top C. It had that slight buzz to it which some horns have. I tried a few tweaks to ease it off, but nothing really brought it up to the crispness of the side C (also known by the old boys as the Ballad C, because of its clarity. Fuzzy top C's have been around for a very long time). It's not a major problem though, rather it's one that points up the need for careful mouthpiece matching. The reasonably bright Link I was using was asking for trouble (that's why I use it for testing), but a piece with a more suitable chamber would make all the difference.
In fact, the owner tried it with both a Buescher and a Jody Jazz piece and didn't note any problems with the top C.

As to the tuning - no real problems at all save for the top C#, which was a little flat, but this too may be down to the mouthpiece.
Being realistic, it would take practice to get around this problem - but that's part and parcel of playing a soprano. It's a horn that very few players can simply pick up and play well without having put the homework in beforehand.
I found the inclusion of the side C key brought it nicely into tune, so there's a workaround if you can't be bothered to do all that long note practice...

In summing up I am in no doubt that this beastie gets a hall of fame award.
It's a delightful little horn, with a cheeky personality - and puts to rest the claim that vintage sopranos are always dreadfully squawky and out of tune.
I'd have said that they represent an amazing bargain at current prices (even allowing for a hefty overhaul fee), but I have a feeling this review will push the prices up a bit. Sorry about that.

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