The History of the Saxophone

Reading through the history books, the saxophone remains one of the most remarkable instrument ever to appear on the music scene.

It has been many decades since its invention, but the sax still stands out. The relaxing, sophisticated, romantic, and sensual sound the sax produces strokes your nervous system in an exciting way that you can’t get enough of it.

Here’s a classic sax album to kick things off by the “colossus” himself, Sonny Rollins.

Although music has continued to change over the years, the saxophone has consistently enriched the music scene. The sax is one of those instruments that fascinates you even if it is lying around, not being played.  Just the look of it is intriguing.

Sax music is not just about the external sound that is produced by the saxophone; it’s a piece of the soul. Its an expression of what is felt from deep within. The sax has many of the same characteristics as the human voice, with a great deal of character and diversity of sound.

Adolphe Sax & The Invention of the Saxophone

The saxophone was invented more than 170 years ago by Adolphe Sax.  This would have been in the 1840’s (patented in 1846).

Adolphe was one of the most renown instrument makers of his time. He was also a clarinetist and flutist.

Sax’s father was also a skilled instrument maker and had passed this skills to his son. Being a skillful instrument maker, Adolphe had made some improvements and changes to existing instruments.

The improvements that Adolphe had made in the bass clarinet through the extension of the lower range and creation of the ophicleide helped him to acquire the experience that he needed to make the first saxophone.

Being a student of clarinet and flute in the Brussel’s Conservatory of Music, he made an observation that only a keen student would have seen.

He noticed that the typical woodwind had a missing range and he believed that just a brass instrument would fill that void. He then began to develop an instrument that would overblow the octave, and he made an instrument that had both clarinet and horn properties.

Adolphe created saxophones in various sizes both small and big. He then applied for a patent for this instruments and was then given a 15 years patent. This patent was a composition of the fourteen different designs that he had created.

The fourteen original designs where then categorized into two groups each ranging from contrabass to soprano.

 The two groups were E and B and F and C. The set E and B were used in military bands although it is the most commonly used set in today’s saxophones.

The set F and C was often used in the orchestra. Throughout the 15 years he had, he experimented on this instruments to find the right key. He finally settled on an instrument that was alternating in between Bb and Eb.

The Evolution of the Sax

After his patent expired in 1866, various instrument makers arose and made some improvements and changes in the sax.

Although Adolphe may have tried different modification such a lowering the range, a French instrument maker was the first one to be able to make this kind of adjustment.

Minor changes such as the addition of keys for alternate fingering were made. This made the saxophone easy and fast to play it. Bending the pitch was also achieved through this modification.

Various developments were made on Adolphe’s saxophone such as operating the tone holes with one key. Initially, the saxophone had two separate octave keys that helped to play the upper registers. This advancement made it easier to play the sax.

Buffet, one of the largest saxophone manufacturing company, immediately after Adolphe patent expiration, together with other companies such as Millereau, began producing licensed saxophone.

In 1881, shortly after Gautrot had been dismissed, he renewed his patent and made more innovations on the sax.

This aim of the new patent was to extend the saxophone bell so that it could produce the A and Bb notes. He also added another octave key to make a total of four. The addition of the octave key was to enable the production of G and F notes.

Pierre-Louis Gautrot

When it came to manufacturing and designing instruments, Gautrot was a genius.

Just after Adolphe patent expired, he applied for his patent in 1868.

After carefully making observations on the challenges the saxophone was faced with, he realized that pad leaking was the most significant problem. His patent was aimed at producing saxophones that were leak proof. 

Although the system Gautrot introduced was not perfect, it had a great impact and minimized the problem of a leaking pad.

Although Gautrot was a genius he also had his weaknesses. He had poor management skills when it came to business and this lead to him being declared bankrupt.

Henri Selmer and The First Modern Saxophones

Seimer is one of the known manufacturers of clarinets and other mouthpiece instruments.

He founded a company named after his name that is located in Paris.  He won a number of medals such as gold and bronze for the instruments that he had manufactured. 

He made various development on Adolphe’s sax in the early 1940’s. This included the renovation of the octave key, and the best of the development was offsetting of the tone holes.

His company was the first one to create a modern saxophone.

Most of the modern saxophone trace their origin to this model. He invented the balanced action of the sax that leads to a significant improvement in the sax world. His mechanism was straightforward and it made it easy to play the lower register in the same speed you could play in other parts.

Mark VI

Mark VI is the most remarkable saxophone that Selmer created. This model was available in alto, soprano, tenor, and bass. Salmer’s Mark VI saxophones were transitional and incorporated both the design that he had seen in the preceding saxophone and also the element design that was found in the current saxophone.

All these instruments were manufactured in France and later imported to other countries such American and British markets. This model set a standard that all manufactured use. There have been modifications over the years of the saxophone, they are all variations of Selmers Mark six model.

Charles Houvenaghel

Understanding the technical difficulties that could confront an instrument, the life of Charles Houvenaghel was devoted to improving the saxophone.

His knowledge of the manufacturing processes gave him an upper hand as compared to other competitive manufacturers.

He had those rare qualities that once come along once in a while. He was so brilliant in instrument design, he had an ear for music and a background in engineering. All these qualities combined made him redevelop the mechanics of the saxophone system.

He used the tone placement principle of the Boehm system. Although the regular fingering system of the sax is used, addition of new fingering can be used.

The most distinct feature of this modification is that it lowered the tones and you do not need to use the side keys to produce both the tone scales.

This instrument was expensive to build and many saxophonist players were unable and unwilling to learn the newly introduced fingering despite its advantage.

Only a few numbers of this instrument were able to be produced into the market. This model was only used for a few years and is not currently in the market.

Parts of a Saxophone

The sax consists of a conical tube and a bell. It also contains 20 to 23 tone holes at intervals, and they vary in size. To play the upper register, two vent holes are placed along the tube. Soft leather cups cover these holes.

Although the saxophone is categorized as a woodwind instrument, it is made of brass which is different from what most woodwinds are made of.

In contrast to brass instruments which produce sound when there is contact between the mouthpiece and the lips, the sax produces sound through wooden reed which is oscillating.

Another significant feature that makes it be classified as a woodwind is that pitch is produced as a result of breath going through the closing and opening keys.

The yellow brass is mostly replaced with copper for tonal and visual effects.

Little significance is given to the type of material used in the manufacturing of saxophones. All the attention is focused on the sound that is produced. Different materials such as polycarbonate and plastic have been used to a certain degree in the production of saxophones. 

A silver plate or an acrylic lacque coating which can either be clear or coloured is used to cover the brass before the final assembly of the saxophone parts.

Applying lacquer coating is very crucial in preventing oxidation of the brass. This maintains the shiny appearance of the sax. Over the years, different surface colours have been used. It’s just a matter of preference.

History Continues…

The saxophone is a versatile instrument. It adds a sensational moment to all music genres.  From rock to blues to folk to jazz.

The saxophone sound is very unique and cannot be ignored when its played in a mix. As is the custom of many bands when trying to find their rebellion by experimenting using different instruments, the saxophone has been a stable rock in an ever-changing sea.

The magic in bringing your emotions to a standstill can only be found in the saxophone.

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