• Grafton

    by  • May 19, 2010 • Grafton Acrylic Alto

    The nice thing about the Grafton Acrylic Alto is that it’s extraordinarily well documented. If you want to read some very nice, in-depth histories, check out the articles by Wally Horwood (Archive.org Link) and Dave Gelly.

    Bottom line is that the Grafton Acrylic Alto was the world’s first “professional” plastic saxophone — others were toys — and that’s pretty revolutionary, as all previous saxophones were made out of brass or sterling silver (today we have horns made out of bronze or copper, as well). And yes, it’s only an alto: I have heard that Hector Sommaruga, the inventor, did create a tenor prototype, but it was allegedly too heavy to hold its own shape — and probably far too brittle.

    Hey, the Grafton is also the first horn you have to worry about shattering if you drop it.

    The Grafton Acrylic Alto 

    Inventor: Hector (Ettore) Sommaruga (1904 – 1986)
    Introduced: 1949
    Discontinued: 1962 (s/n 14xxx; appx. 4000 sold)
    Original Advertised Price: 55 Guineas ($108 US)
    Significant Patents
    GB604418 (1948-07-02)
    GB604407 (1948-07-02)
    GB587807 (1947-05-06)
    Available Pitches
    Eb alto (keyed range, low Bb to altissimo F)
    Available Finishes
    White acrylic plastic, copper keywork and neck
    Page Navigation
    Introduction, Construction, Plastic Keyguards,
    The Sound, The Modern Plastic Alto,
    Links and Further Reading


    Speaking of construction, as mentioned the Grafton is the world’s first plastic pro horn. However, that’s not the only thing that’s unusual: it doesn’t have straight springs (needle springs), it has coiled. This, according to some of the Grafton owners I’ve spoken with, lends a rather unusual feel to the horn. “Kinda mushy” is the general comment. The other problem would be that the springs are next to impossible to adjust so all your keys could end up with odd heights. THAT’S not a good thing.

    Quoting from the Horwood article:

    “The other difference was more of a concern to a saxophone player used to a metal instrument. Needle springing was for technical reasons impossible and was replaced by a system of piano-wire springing which led to a completely different ‘feel’ for the action. Because the springing was lighter in tension, there was, theoretically at least, the possibility of a much faster technique on the Grafton. But it was essentially a different technique and it meant that it was almost impossible to transfer finger dexterity to a conventional instrument without a great deal of reorientation. Towards the end, for some reason, I found that this lack of resistance in the action was something that began to bother me and I was eventually tempted back to a conventional sax.”

    One of the interesting things, to me, is that the horn is a combination of plastic body and copper keywork, with a copper neck. There are some comments that suggest that a neck really does have a significant impact in the overall tone of the horn. Perhaps a plastic neck made the horn sound a bit too “buzzy”. I also could think that there’s another practical reason: considering that the horn, overall, is fragile and the neck gets a lot of use, it could be that one of the designers said, “Mmmm. Let’s not do the plastic thing for the neck, after all”.

    Let me quote from Roy Wood, who was the gentleman in charge of Grafton production in 1953 (he’s quoted in the above Dave Gelly article):

    “The Grafton was not an easy thing to manufacture. The plastic body was injection-moulded and some of the holes had to be drilled out and filed by hand. The keys came as rough casting and they had to be smoothed off, fitted with pads and springs, polished, gold lacquered and mounted — all by hand. It was a slow job, but if you tried to rush it you broke something; then you’d have to cement the broken bit and wait for it to harden. We had a whole assembly line doing the work, but we never managed more than about 20 completed instruments a week. The average was around 12.” The original order had been for enough parts to make 3000 instruments, with a few extra bits for spares, but when Dallas closed down the Grafton production line in 1959, nothing like that number had actually been completed. By this time Roy Wood had left, and the company arranged for him to build Graftons on a freelance basis using the left-over parts.

    “For a couple of years, right up to until late 1961, I made up one or two a week in my garden shed. In the end they wanted to get shut of the whole thing and offered to sell me the remaining parts, but they weren’t complete sets and couldn’t have been made up into instruments. So I turned it down and they junked the lot for scrap. Except for this.” From a drawer he produced a plastic saxophone body, ready drilled and prepared, bearing the serial number 13082.”

    A Disassembled Grafton

    Plastic Keyguards

    People have commented that they’ve seen that Grafton keyguard somewhere else. They have: the Keilwerth New King and Toneking models (and stencils) from approximately 1952 to 1963 (s/n 21xxx to 45xxx) had very similar looking keyguards. However, the kind of plastic is actually different: Keilwerth used Lucite.

    These are also not the only horns to use plastic for keyguards: the exceptional American-made Conn 28M Connstellation alto produced from 1948 to 1952 (s/n 330xxx to 345xxx) and interesting German-made Hammerschmidt Klingsor (mid- to late-1950’s) also had them. Look at the dates: looks like we had a bit of a fad going.


    The Sound

    Most people that have written to me regarding the Grafton have mentioned that it sounds … like a saxophone. This is a testament and tribute to the general idea behind the A. Sax design: if the bore is approximately the same proportions of any saxophone, it’ll sound like a saxophone, regardless of what the horn is made out of. false, some people have noted that the horn sounds a tad buzzy, but it still sounds like a sax.

    Again, considering this is one of the best documented saxophones of all time, we have a lot of recorded examples of people playing these horns. While there are definitely a lot of extremely talented players that have played these horns, you have only two that are really “known” for playing them: Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker — the latter had his horn sold at auction awhile back for the whopping sum of $144,000 US (serial number 10,265, by the way).

    There is a video on YouTube of Peter King playing Parker’s horn (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjY1NPUUp9U) and I highly recommend that as a start. There are quite a few videos featuring Ornette Coleman, as well, such as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgTr8Z2ioMk (in recent years, Coleman has switched to a different horn, also white, but not plastic. I think it’s an S80 II).

    The Modern Plastic Alto

    You can’t keep a good idea down — and it’s a good idea to have extra-cheap saxophones. Plastics have come a long way since the 1950s and 1960s and here we go again: the Vibratosax A1 alto.

    The Vibratosax A1

    In this case, the horn’s a 100% ABS plastic saxophone with rubber pads — the only things that are metal are the springs, which are stainless steel (I believe they’re “standard” needle springs). The horns are aimed squarely at the student market and should have a price around $200 — very similar to the introduction price of the Grafton. The manufacturer has also mentioned that it’s possible that they will make the horns in different pitches, too. Hey, it makes a lot of sense to make a plastic soprano.

    I might buy one of these horns, just because I think it’s strikingly beautiful (it’d be nice if you could add a bit more color to customize, but that’s a style issue), but I doubt I’d want to use it on a gig: the sound is somewhat thin and it’s somewhat difficult to estimate the intonation.

    The Vibratosax also suffers from something else: the market. The Yamaha YAS-23, which was the premier student saxophone (replaced, in most markets, with the YAS-275) averages under $400 on eBay. Slightly more, and you could get a YAS-52/34, which is a professional-quality horn. And the Yamaha’s a better instrument. Now, if the warranty on the Vibratosax is “you break it, we replace it” and some of the other quirks are worked out, it’ll definitely be worth it.

    For more information on the Vibratosax, I recommend:


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