As sax players, we are all searching for the “Holy Grail” of saxophones from alto saxophone, tenor saxophone up to bass saxophone. Ask most people what their ultimate sax would be and the usual answer is “a Selmer Mark VI from 1956-1962.”
And they are wonderful instruments. But, because they are so popular, the price for a good Mark VI puts them out of reach of many players.
So are there other options for vintage horns out there?
Another horn maker that was doing interesting things in the first half of the 1900’s was C. G. Conn. The American manufacturer produced the “Conn New Wonder” horns from 1914 onwards, and over the years to 1933 there were a number of variants including what is known as the “Chu Berry” and towards the end the “Transitional” model.
The legendary 10m followed from 1933.
Although many players love the warm sound of the Conn saxophones (some would argue it’s a better sound than a Mark VI Selmer), there are tuning and mechanical issues that make them much harder to get on with. In fact, ergonomically they can be a bit of a nightmare.
Cost wise though, the Conn saxophones are much cheaper. In fact, whereas you can pay anything up to £6000 ($10,000 USD) for a good Mark VI Selmer, there are Conn horns on the market for £1000 to £1,500 ($1500 – $2500 USD).
“When choosing a vintage Conn, check the serial number. The T designates it’s a Tenor (A for Alto) and, importantly, the L at the bottom designates it’s “low pitch” which is now the standard. It’s best to avoid “H” or “High pitch” instruments which are tuned differently”
A few years back I began to make adjustments to customers Conn horns. I started with moving the right hand thumb rest and adjusting some key shapes and positions. It got me thinking about a much larger project where I could rework the entire horn to make a Conn horn feel like a modern “Mark VI” type mechanism, but still have that fabulous Conn sound.
The British jazz saxophonist Paul Dunmall was the first test subject for my Conn Conversion project.
Paul had bought a 1930’s New Wonder Conn and had asked me to re-pad it. When I suggested what I had in mind Paul was like a kid in a candy store – he wanted the works!
And the sax turned out great. In fact Paul still has that horn and loves it.
That was back in 2009 and I have since completed a number of full conversions for many of the leading players in the UK and the process has been continually evolving all the way.
The magic of these early Conn horns is the sound and that comes from the main body tube. So, my aim was always to keep that wonderful sound but improve everything else around it.
To do this meant a complete reworking of the mechanism and overall ergonomics of the horn. And this starts with the neck strap hook and right hand thumb position.
Originally, the neck strap hook was too high making the horn swing back towards the player. By lowering it I make the weight distribution much better and this makes playing a lot more comfortable.
Similarly the right hand thumb hook was originally way too low to be comfortable. By raising it and moving it further around the horn, your hand is in a much more natural position which feels better when playing.
From top to bottom I have made adjustments to the mechanism. Often this means completely removing the pad cups, adjusting them and rebuilding bell keys. For the left hand I rebuild the front F key, modify the B and B flat cups and change the pearl touches.
A big issue with the Conn saxophones is the old design of the left hand little finger stack so I completely redesigned the G sharp key to make it easier to play. The great thing about doing this work is that I can customise the shape of the key to suit the player.
The right hand
At the bottom of the horn I actually re work all the pearl cups to make them more comfortable for the right hand. Also, the original Conn design had an extra E flat key that gets in the way when playing. By removing this I can modify the keys to be much more efficient and practical.
Of course removing keys means a lot of rebuilding work on the mechanism but the end result is definitely worth it. In the process I am also able to add some adjusting screws to the mechanism that makes it easier to maintain.
The end result
Although a vintage horn can sound amazing, playing it day to day can be a real struggle because of tuning issues, the key design and general maintenance requirements. By doing these conversions I’ve managed to create a great sounding horn that also has an excellent modern feeling key system. And in the process. set them up correctly to control most to the tuning issues. The end result is a horn that’s easier to play and more durable for day to day playing.
With this project I wanted to create great playing instruments. Working horns for working players. And thankfully many top players are now using my conversions. Also I wanted to keep that fantastic “vintage” character of these horns so I haven’t replated or relacquered them. You can see the life they have had, their history, and you can hear their voice. Plus they’re fun to play. What more could you wish for in your perfect horn?
Player Stories – Living with a Conn Conversion
Horn: converted Conn Chu Berry (also known as the New Wonder) from about 1926.
“I always loved the sound of the old Conn saxophones but just couldn’t get on with the tuning issues. The first time I played this horn from Steve I couldn’t believe it! All the great sound but without the tuning and mechanical issues. I absolutely love playing his horn and it’s my everyday sax now. I’m hoping to get a second one soon so I have a backup!”
For more than 25 years Ray has been the leading figure in the swing scene in Europe. With his band “The Giants of Jazz” he has performed across the USA and is a regular at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London.
Horn: Converted Conn 10M
I’d been playing a Mk6 for as long as I could remember (actually one that used to belong to Joe Henderson) and I made a visit to Stuart McDonald’s Woodwind Exchange in Bradford. I tried every horn in the shop. He had a great selection that day – 20 or so vintage Selmers – Mk6s, SBAs, BAs Cigar Cutters, also King Super 20s, Martins, Conn 10m’s, Chus, etc. There were 3 horns I had it down to that were, for me, head and shoulders above the others:
Martin (can’t remember the model)
Conn 10m (1938 rolled TH)
The Martin, as well as some ergonomic issues, seemed to have a weird scale to it so I discarded it.
The SBA was a killer. Steve was asking £10,000 for it.
The Conn 10m was even better (sound-wise) and going for around £1500. The keys seemed to be in funny places for me, but Dexter used to cope ok, didn’t he? Stuart recommended I give Steve Crow a shout as apparently he’d just done a whole redesign of the keys on Paul Dunhill’s Chu.
So I booked in with Steve to redo the keyword on my new-old ( reassuringly scruffy looking, so I didn’t mind doing some surgery!) 10m. He modelled it as close as he could on my Mk6 using a new set of Selmer keys.
There were certain limitations to what he could do as I didn’t want any rolled tone holes moved so the sonic essence of the horn would be unaffected. Anyway, the end result was kind of between the two and infinitely more manageable for me at that time than the pure Conn.
Steve did a fantastic and very meticulous job. Playing this horn for a few years actually toughened me up so that now playing an unaltered 10m is no problem, so that’s what I’m doing as I’ve found one even better! (1941)
About the author:
Steve Crow is a classic and vintage saxophone repair specialist based in Leeds, UK. He is known internationally for his skillful repair work and conversions to vintage Conn horns.