Now, here’s an interesting turn down the odd design corner: the E.O. Sylvester sax. I first came across the Sylvester way back in 2002. At that time, however, I just filed it in my “interesting, but not my cup of tea” bin and went on to looking at pictures of Selmers. The reason I came back to it is because I found a store that’s going to be selling one soon.
The saxophone’s current keywork was essentially set by the end of the 19th century and the “balanced” key layout was cemented by the time the Mark VI was introduced in 1954 (i.e. most modern horns have keywork that looks a lot like the layout used on the Selmer Super Balanced Action). However, there have been a lot of folks that have tried to improve upon the keywork and/or venting to make a more perfect horn. The main problem is that most professional horns that were in use were good enough and were cheaper than any alternative. Here’s a small list of major keywork redesigns in the 20th century (for 19th century redesigns, please see this excerpt from Frederick Hemke’s dissertation on the early history of the saxophone):
The Evettte & Schaeffer System. Primary patent US638385, 1899. Used from 1897 to appx. 1927. (Link to original 1899 ad.) This is the original, “watered-down” version of the Apogee System (mentioned in the next point) that was specifically designed to, “… [Enable] the player to perform more easily than hitherto the notes high E and high F; second, of facilitating the transition from Eb key to other keys; third of enabling the player to perform the low notes Bb, B and C# by means of of the medium of the right hand.” Interestingly, this design was one of the few that were successful: not only did it last until the late 1920s, other companies “borrowed” the design for their horns. As another measure of success, I’ve seen this design implemented on Evette & Schaeffer contrabasses! This keywork system was immediately followed by …
Apogee System. Primary patent US1005009, 1911. Used from 1907 to appx. 1930. (Link to original 1908 ad.) This was a combination of the Evette-Schaeffer System with some radically redesigned, and additional, keywork. While it was available for quite awhile, I’ve seen extremely few of these horns and only altos. However, I have seen the design of the Eb/C/C# right hand pinky cluster on other horns. I also mentioned on saxpics.com that these horns were about 20% more expensive than the standard Evette & Schaeffer horn. I think that had a lot to do with the rarity of these instruments now.
Loomis Double-Resonance Alto. Primary patents US1336359, 1920 and US1662695, 1928. No production instruments; 8 prototypes between 1920 and 1928. This was an attempt by a future designer for Conn to design essentially the acoustically perfect sax. It arguably succeded in that, but it also weighed 4 pounds more than conventional altos and had over 25% more mechanism. That’s … quite a bit. Sylvester’s patent does reference one of Loomis’ many patents, but it’s the one for the octave key mechanism, not the one for the Double-Resonance alto.
Raymond Dubois Essor. Primary patent FR672552, 1929. Used from 1929 to appx. 1935. A beautiful horn. You rarely see any horns with a badge of some kind incorporated into the design and this one has one of the most elaborate badges I’ve seen. The additional keywork is for the low Eb/C/C#, as seen on the Apogee, and altissimo D, D#, E and F which isn’t seen anywhere else. The real fun is seeing how they had to redesign the positioning of the altissimo keys and the spindly connection rods — which reminds me a LOT of the Leblanc “paperclip” contrabass clarinet I used to play — to the additional pearls on the right side of the horn.
Le Rationnel, Semi Rationnel and Leblanc System. Primary patent US3136200, 1961; others. Used from 1929 to appx. 1982. Beautiful and beautifully made horns that were originally intended to a) be as close as possible to the Boehm ideal: “Any note being emitted, all the notes below it should have their holes of emission open when the instrument is at rest and to allow the player to lower the pitch in the left hand key bank one semitone by depressing the first, second or third finger of the right hand.” This initially resulted in a horridly complex horn that was successively watered down until you got to the Leblanc System models — and you still needed a repair manual that was specific to the horn. While versions of this horn were available from roughly 1930 to 1982 — hey, I even remember the ads in the Saxophone Symposium magazines — there were under 3000 total produced of all models.
Buffet-Powell Horns. Primary patents US2051176, 1936; US1846454, 1932; US173541, 1929; . Used from 1929 to appx. 1941. Absotively beautiful, but from a completely different angle: the horn was designed to, “[P]rovide [a] simplified octave mechanism, to reduce the number of operating parts between the keys and the valves, to reduce the amount of friction to be overcome in playing the instrument and to reduce the expense of manufacture.” There were at least two versions of these horns, but the idea was essentially the same: intead of having a dozen rods and point screws, rehinge everything and use as few as possible. Sounds like a good idea to me! Pity it didn’t last for very long. I think that there were maybe a thousand or so of these horns produced between 1930 and 1939 (all the ones I’ve seen have a 32xxx serial number). Interestingly, this design was also copied by another manufacturer. In this case, the largest pre-WWII German/Czech manufacturer, Kohlert, used a very similar design on ONLY their “VKS Model” baritones.
The Grafton Acrylic Alto. Primary patents GB604418, 1948; GB604407, 1948; GB587806, 1947. Used from 1949 to appx. 1962. This horn is referenced in the Sylvester patent, but not because of the acrylic, but because of the keywork. As an example, take a look here. The Grafton, because it was acrylic, had to use mainly coil springs in its design and it had to do away with most of the rods. E.O. Sylvester just ramped the idea up to 11. The comment I’ve heard from many Grafton owners is that the action is spongy or mushy and that can’t be easily fixed: you’ll have to remove keywork on an exceptionally fragile instrument and replace a coil spring that you can only hope willmake your keywork tighter and more responsive.
Jim Schmidt’s Chromatic Saxophones. No patent. Used from appx. 1985 to current. Quotation: “The logic behind my fingering system is straightforward. One note follows the next chromatic note by closing down the next key with the next finger of your hand, and so on down the line, one after the other in linear sequence.” While this sounds an awful lot like, well, mostly normal saxophone fingerings, the design is truly awesome. However, it’s very pricey: $10,000 for an alto or tenor (he seems to have discontinued his C contralto, which was at $8,000 when I last checked). There have been quite a few minor keywork enhancements by a variety of companies over the years. I can name at least two off the top of my head: Buffet’s S1, which had patented keywork for both the G# cluster and the C/Eb keys and SML’s patent for a unique way of playing a C# (it only made it onto a very few horns — like, less than 100).
I don’t have any idea of how many of the Sylvesters were produced, nor any other details about Mr. Earl Sylvester. I did some Google searches and found an “Earl Sylvester” from San Leandro, CA (where Earl O. Sylvester lived when he obtained is patent) that died in 1959. Same one? I have no idea, but that could certainly explain why there weren’t many horns produced and why they’re not better known. The horn, itself, I can tell you a little more about. It’s a Pierret design, modified from the Artiste/Artiste Competition body. The main feature that screams “Pierret” are the Sylvester’s overbuilt screw mechanisms on the pad bumpers for low Eb, C, B and Bb. The G# clusters are also terribly similar. I also know that Pierret did make a lot of stencils. I have no problem believing that they provided a saxophone body and parts for anyone that paid for them. The only significant difference, beyond the keywork, is the bell-to-body brace, which is probably inverted from the standard Pierret to allow the horn to have the additional keywork installed and/or for a tech to have access to the keywork for “fine tuning.” Because the horn is a Pierret, I have no problems believing that it sounds good and has adequate intonation, but I don’t know about “plays good.”