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

Buescher 'True Tone' curved soprano

Buescher curved sopranoOrigin: USA
Guide price: £900+
Weight: Not much!
Date of manufacture: 1925
Date reviewed: August 2010

A professional quality vintage soprano in the curved format

'When I were a lad' there was a popularity among the young bucks of my age to drive around in what was known as a 'Q car'. This was a term derived from 'Q ships', which were naval gunboats disguised to look like freight or passenger ships. The enemy submariners would spot the ship, think they had an easy target and pop up to have a shot - only to find themselves looking down the barrel of a couple of 8 inch cannons.
A Q car was usually a sedate-looking old "granddad's car", such as a Hillman, but under the bonnet there would be a dirty great V6 engine - carefully (or not so carefully) shoehorned in. Would-be 'racers' with their Ford Cortina 1600s would be left, as the modern phrase goes, eating dust at the traffic lights.
How does this relate to saxes? Well, the horn under review turned up in an aluminium camera case and was handed over with the words "You'll never guess what's in here". I had a couple of goes...a pair of Eb clarinets...a flute and a clarinet perhaps - but when I opened the case I found this Buescher curved soprano, as wonderful a treat as lifting a bonnet (hood) to find a meticulously polished V8 in your dad's old jalopy.

This sax dates from around 1925, and is only a few years older than the straight version I reviewed some years ago, so I was very keen to see how it would compare. Just for fun I decided not to re-read that review until I'd completed this one - to see just how many of the final impressions matched up (turns out it's pretty close).
The saxophone in general is capable of being quite an elegant looking instrument, but the small size of the curved soprano doesn't work in its favour and I find they can very easily end up looking a bit, well, 'novelty' like. Not so the Buescher.
There's something about its proportions that keeps it on the right side of classy - perhaps it's the lack of bell key guards, or the modestly flared bell. There's no doubt about it - it's a very pretty horn.
It's not just good looking, it's very well put together too with the sort of build quality you'd expect from a premier maker of the period.
The body is very neatly constructed with drawn tone holes, soldered bottom bow and securely attached pillars and fittings. The crook (neck) isn't removable, being soldered to the body tube. As per the standard design of the period the bell stay is a simple plain rod affair, which doesn't really offer much protection to the body in the event of a bell-on bash...but then that's far less likely to be an issue on a soprano than on any of the larger saxes. In any case, Buescher make up for this 'flaw' by providing a proportionately huge bottom bow brace.

A sling ring is fitted, as well as a non-adjustable but quite comfy thumb hook - and there's a lyre holder fitted to the bell in case you fancy a spot of marching.

The finish is silver plate, with a 'gold wash' to the interior of the bell. In spite of the age of this horn and the obvious use it's had, it's still in remarkably good condition - which probably means they didn't skimp on the silver in the old days.

The keywork is similarly well built, and despite the small size of the keys they're nonetheless quite sturdy. Compared with a modern action the keywork is rather quirky in places. For example, there's no front top F key (early models didn't even have a palm top F, they only went up to top Eb) and there's an Eb trill key - which isn't shown but which can be seen on other horns of similar vintage, such as the Conn 10M. While some players find this mechanism useful it tends to cause more problems than it solves due to wear and tear in the action making it somewhat imprecise. This results in the trill key pad leaking - so most players are happy to have the spring reversed. This keeps the trill key cup closed, which has the added benefit of making the E key action a little lighter and more responsive. It's an easy tweak, and one that's completely reversible should you ever wish to fork out for having the action tightened sufficiently for the key to work properly.

Buescher curved soprano bell keysThe design of the bell key spatulas is very basic, as you might expect, but because of the relatively small size of the soprano they're rather more sprightly than you might imagine. This is due in part to there being no articulation with the G# key. I would normally draw attention to the use of the long rod screws used in the bell key levers but because of their relatively short length they won't be much of an issue, unless very badly worn.
Typical of horns of this period, the G# touchpiece consists of a round pearl. On a larger horn this might prove to be a clumsy arrangement, but it seems to work well enough on this soprano. In fact it's rather good, as we'll see shortly. On later models the round pearl was replaced with a crescent plate, at which point a front top F key was also added.
There are also no guards on the bell keys, which is perhaps what makes this soprano look quite elegant.
Strictly speaking this is a bit of a design flaw - those large key cups are exposed and could easily be damaged or bent out of line - but because the curved soprano isn't a clumsy instrument there's far less chance of it taking a careless knock. That said, I wouldn't rule out damage while the horn was in transit - so the design of the case must be taken into account. As you saw at the start of the review, this horn didn't have its original case - but I'd be very surprised if any provision had been made for the lack of bell key guards.

Buescher curved soprano octave keyOne of the biggest drawbacks of playing a vintage horn can be the design of the octave key mechanism.
Until Selmer came along with the swivel (or seesaw) arm system, these mechanisms tended to be rather complex and fussy. It can be surprisingly hard to work out how they're supposed to work, and on certain vintage baritones (which feature even more complex mechanisms) working out which key does what is rather like doing a cryptic crossword puzzle. Thankfully the Buescher's mechanism isn't quite that complicated, but it's still a bit of a dog's breakfast.
The design is such that no matter what you do (fit low-friction buffers, tweak springs, tighten free play etc.) there's no way the final result can ever be called 'slick'. It's perhaps the one thing that lets the whole action down - and the only saving grace is that because the keys are so small it won't matter too much.

The pads are of the 'snap-in' variety. If you've not come across this system before it's worth my while explaining it (if you have, feel free to skip this paragraph!). Modern sax pads have reflectors (or resonators) fitted to them. These are discs of metal or plastic which serve to cut down on the surface area of pad leather presented to the tone hole when the keys are closed - the idea being that this helps prevent the leather absorbing too much sound and thus giving the instrument a woolly tone. The snap-in (also sometimes knows as a snap-on) reflector is separate from the pad and is fitted to a 'boss' that sits in the centre of the key cup. The pad, with a suitably-sized hole in its centre, is fitted to the key cup and the reflector is pushed on to the boss to hold the pad in place. When the reflector clicks into place it does so with a small 'pop' or 'snap' - hence the term 'snap in'.
There are pros and cons to this system (which I might go into at a later date), but suffice to say that many repairers remove the bosses and convert the key cups to take standard pads. While there's nothing wrong with this practice in technical terms, it does tend to ruin the 'orginality' of such horns and this will affect the resale value. It's not uncommon to find Bueschers with a mixture of snap in and standard pads, where either the snap in has been lost (they sometime become loose and can fall out) or removed during a service.

Buescher curved soprano palm keysUnder the fingers the keys felt quite comfortable - at least in terms of the main stack keys. I ran into problems with the palm and side keys, which is a well-known issue with this horn. They're positioned such that it's quite a long drop before your palm hits the touchpieces, which makes it tricky to keep the fingers hovering over the upper stack. Fortunately it's not too difficult a job to modify these keys yourself - check out the article on custom key risers.
The clunky octave key mechanism proved to be less than inspiring too, even after making allowances for the less than tip-top condition of the action, but the relatively simple design of the bell key spatulas proved to be no problem at all.
The action felt quite speedy, which ought to be a given considering the relatively small size of the keys - though I've come across a number of sopranos with positively spongy action. The G# mechanism deserves a particular mention in that the feel and response it gives is superb, due to the generous length of the lever arm (a similar design can be seen on the Conn 6M and 10M saxes).

One of the major problems associated with vintage soprano saxes is their tuning, and this seems to be more of an issue with the curved variety. I've long been of the opinion that no sax plays in tune, and that it's the player that has to make the necessary adjustments with their embouchure in order to bring the instrument into line. This holds true for all saxes, save for the few with documented tuning problems due to design flaws. The thing about sopranos is that their size tends to make all the necessary compromises built into a sax rather more focussed - so straightaway there's a tendency for players to struggle with the tuning. Add in the vintage factor, when design and manufacture were less accurate than they are these days, and I think it's fair to say that you can expect something of a challenge when it comes to playing these little beauties in tune.
So I was rather pleased to find that the Buescher curvy was more in tune than I expected.

My first few minutes of playing showed up a tendency for the low notes to play flat and the upper octave to get progressively sharper up the scale. After ten minutes or so the lower end stepped more or less into line and the upper octave began to slip down. Half a hour later and I was more or less getting the pitch bang on, as long as I continued to rein in the embouchure as I went up the range. Given enough time and practice I can see that the tuning could be mastered, and so I'd say that Buescher has few or no issues with regard to its tuning.
I would say though that mouthpiece choice is likely to be critical. I used a rubber Link 7 - I suspect that a more open piece with a larger tone chamber would have made things a little easier, as much as a more contemporary piece would have made things more difficult.

Tonewise? Oh well, let's face it, it's gorgeous. The big payoff for accuracy in tuning on modern sopranos has been a tendency for a more hollow, bright tone. Personally I quite like that - but there's no denying the Buescher has a much more complex and rich tone. It's quite hard for sopranos to develop much warmth, but this horn has plenty of it - and better yet it's evenly spaced right across the range. The low notes are nicely rounded and the top end is nothing short of creamy.
It has plenty of power too - a slightly resistant blow, which requires more breath support from the player, but it doesn't break up when you push it hard. In fact it develops quite a nice edge...though you wouldn't want to play at that kind of volume all the time.
I would prefer rather more edge in general myself, which would mean using a brighter mouthpiece, which would play havoc with the tuning...and which would negate most of the benefits of playing a vintage soprano (in other words, a waste of time).
I think a modern soprano has an ability to be 'haunting' in terms of tone, but the Buescher feels much more friendly and warm.
Rather interestingly, I compared it side-by-side with a modern Bauhaus-Walstein bronze curved soprano. These Chinese-built horns are based loosely on a Yanagisawa design, but whether by design or accident they seem to have ended up with a remarkably vintage-like tone. As a player I prefer the 'modern' sound, but as an enthusiast I love the vintage warmth. I felt the Bauhaus bridged the gap very nicely - and as such it's a viable alternative to these rare and expensive vintage curvies.

Re-reading my review of the straight version I'm pleased to see that I found many of the same characteristics on the curved soprano. It had the same focus of tone and that lovely, rich warmth. Players tend to say that curved sopranos sound different from their straight counterparts - but this is by virtue of having a bell that curves upwards. Listeners will be hard put to notice anything different, but the player gets more of an earful!
And as with the straight soprano, this beautiful Buescher walks right into the hall of fame. It's a gorgeous, responsive little horn with bags of character.

If all this has made you jealous then here's the killer. The chap who brought this little beauty in also brought in a nice old Aristocrat alto. Both these horns, and a clarinet, and a selection of mouthpieces were all bought from a charity shop...for less than £100 in total. Lucky, lucky, lucky!

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