Did I get it all wrong ?

For years now, I’ve been favouring C Saxophones (and a C clarinet), even sold a few, and I’ve often described the C-Mel as having a (e.g.) “….sound which can vary from deep and breathy lows, to crisp and lyrical highs….”.

However, a very astute statement from the well respected  Mr Stephen Howard, who admits to having played a C-Mel in a blues band, leaves me wondering “Why didn’t I really notice that ?”

Here is his comment from that scary place – alt.music.saxophone

“In theory they’re a great idea – but in practice they have a tendency
to take the worst aspects from the alto and tenor saxes. Thus you get
the lower end response of an alto and the top end response of a tenor.
If it were the other way round….

I played one for a few years in a blues band – it was kind of fun, but
never really very satisfying.”

Hmm, Stephen has done great reviews on both Martin and King C-Mels – as well as many other more modern instruments – so I respect his opinion.  Food for thought, indeed.

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13 Responses to Did I get it all wrong ?

  1. Lewis Pelham says:

    I wonder also which mouthpiece Stephen was using….an alto piece I would guess.

  2. Gandalfe says:

    I saw that too and thought that for most players, this is probably true. It take a special kind of musician to make the C Melody work. And the tarogato, skalute, sarrusophone, soprillo sax… The list goes on and on.

    I gotta say though, the C clarinet is almost indistinguishable from it’s sister soprano clarinets. 99% of world can’t tell if you are playing a Bb, A, or C soprano clarinet. It should not be in the same category as the C Melody saxophone.

  3. JonF says:

    Well, one man’s meat is another man’s poisson. I certainly don’t have any problem getting a raucous tone from my C mel if I want it. I play sop alto tenor and bari as well as C mel, and I find the C mel just as ‘satisfying’ (whatever that means) as all the others.

  4. Mal-2 says:

    I think that (like any other saxophone) it largely comes down to the "setup" — the mouthpiece, reed, and player’s oral cavity. C-melody saxophones, by their very nature, are not terribly different from either alto or tenor saxophones. Lengthwise and cosmetically they are most like tenors, but acoustically more akin to altos. I have seen an alto played with a tenor mouthpiece and as long as care was taken not to play in a manner that emphasizes the location of the "break", it was difficult to tell that it wasn’t a bright tenor. I have recorded both the tenor and C-mel, same mouthpiece and reed, and exactly the same material (transposed appropriately), and it is also difficult to tell the C-mel isn’t "really" a tenor… until you hear the tenor, that is. The C-mel sounds good, but the tenor sounds "fat" in a way the C-mel does not. This I have to attribute not to the length difference, but the difference in cone angle. Even a Yamaha tenor, which does not have a particularly wide cone angle for a tenor, flares considerably more quickly than a Buescher C-melody. It would probably be even more evident if I used a Keilwerth tenor.

    Still, I use my C-mel as a "tenor substitute", as it is slightly better suited to the role of alternately pretending to be a trumpet and a trombone in a 3-piece horn section. The tenor blends better with the ‘bone, but it’s clearly evident as "not a trumpet" when given that role. Conversely, the alto does a great job backing the trumpet, but it is clearly "not a ‘bone" when played in that range. Realistically, I could make it work with any two horns from the alto/C-mel/tenor range, but I’ve taken a liking to the C-mel even though the YTS-21 is a somewhat easier horn to control. The C-mel does have the advantage of "removing sharps" when playing with guitarists, but frankly it isn’t THAT hard to learn to play in B, F#, and C# — and the trade-off is found when you hit those tunes in F minor, Bb minor, Eb minor, Db (thank you very much Billy Strayhorn for writing everything in Db)…

    I have the alto around because it is the one I find best suited for "stunt saxophone". I can do most of the same fireworks on the C-mel now (much more so than I can on tenor — more evidence for the cone angle theory?) but not at the same volume levels and not with the same reliability. Besides, they’re a minor third lower even when they work. But I don’t need anything below the low concert Bb, so there is no particular need for the tenor. There was one tune in the book that called for concert Ab, but we never played it and it has been "retired". Shame, it was a good tune, but every other cover band in town was doing it so we never did.

    I too have the entire spectrum from soprano to bari, and it could be argued that the gap between alto and tenor is the one LEAST in need of filling. From the standpoint of "a different sound", I would have to say this argument has some merit. The C-melody is not distinctly different from either of its nearest neighbors. You just have to love it for what it is, not for what it isn’t.

  5. Mal-2 says:

    Separate comment on C clarinets — I do think they sound different, and generally in a somewhat unruly manner. I think the sound of a C clarinet drifts uncomfortably toward that of the notoriously difficult "eefer". C clarinets, particularly Albert system, are something where Alan and I are distinctly not chasing the same auction items, so I’ve tipped him off to them when I’ve spotted them. In a "blindfold test", I would generally identify a C clarinet as an Eb, not a Bb or A. A C-melody I might hear as alto, C-melody, or tenor, depending on the setup, the player, and the material being played. I’ve heard Joe Lovano’s C-melody tracks repeatedly and did not realize it was anything other than his usual tenor until it was pointed out to me (by being featured here).

  6. Lewis Pelham says:

     Despite the C Mel being more akin to the tenor in terms of length, it has the alto bore, so the length/bore ratio is more alto than the alto.
     However, I do agree with you that the set up, and particularly, the player, is the deciding factor which influences the sound.

  7. Lewis Pelham says:

     I have heard Alan Tucker playing his Martin C Mel. Fitted with an "adults only" mouthpiece I would swear that it was a tenor.
     Difficult to believe sometimes that Earl Bostic’s horn was an alto.
     The player and his set-up have a vast influence.

  8. stan says:

    You fellows seem to know a lot about cone angles on saxophones. It would be interesting to know what the angle is on the various makes of C melodies. I think they average about 1.7 degrees per side, but that is from memory so I may be way off .  Stan

  9. Mal-2 says:

    I’ve never actually attempted to measure the angle per se, though I suppose it could be calculated with a little trigonometry. All I have done is measure the width of the bore at some point on the horn, and compare it with another horn at the same distance. In theory, the bore at 18 inches on an alto should be slightly smaller than that of a C-mel, which in turn is slightly smaller than that of a tenor, all because the horn starts bigger. In practice, it is quite evident that the C-mel will have the smallest bore of the three, and it starts off with about the same opening at the mouthpiece as an alto.

    I have put the C-mel neck in my alto, and it actually fits, though of course any attempt to play it is wildly out of tune. To my surprise, the alto neck does not quite fit on the C-mel, even though the reverse seems like a good fit. Oddly enough, my bari neck fits both the alto and C-mel, but the tenon is so short I can’t even seal the clamp notch adequately. (This is a problem on the bari too! I’ve been using hot wax but need to get the tenon properly replaced on both sides. It’s a bit odd to have to carry a candle and lighter in the case.) This doesn’t say much about cone angles though, since bari necks are so short. I think baris inherently have fairly narrow cone angles, or they would be even more unwieldy beasts than they already are. It also would help keep the formants up where the ear is more sensitive, though they still start slipping out of the crucial 1-4 kHz band.

    Anyhow, if a C-mel neck starts the same size as an alto, and ends the same size as an alto, but is significantly longer, then I don’t have to crunch any numbers to know it has a smaller cone angle. By far, the horn with the largest neck tenon in my collection is the YTS-21., and disproportionately so to the alto (let alone the C-mel).

  10. All the C Mels I’ve played have been with a tenor piece – first one was a Selmer ( E or F, I think ) and these days I use an unmodified Vandoren T25. I’ve tried one with my Dukoff D8 – I wouldn’t recommend it.

    The one I used with the blues band was a Wurlitzer. Nicely built horn, not quite as lush as the Martin tonewise but an otherwise capable horn.
    Since then I’ve played a fair number of them….Conns, Kings, Martins, Holtons etc. and even some relatively unknown brands, most commonly shop stencils of one sort or another.
    I’ve always maintained that the C sax is a great idea – so great an idea that’s it’s quite incredible that it hasn’t survived in any major way to the present day. It makes perfect sense – a horn you can pick up and play from standard sheet music without any of the fuss of having to transpose.
    Why then did it fade away? It had everything going for it, and yet it failed to make the move into the mainstream.
    It certainly wasn’t due to ‘tradition’ – the sax as an instrument at that time had only just begun to establish its credentials and was probably selling in greater numbers than ever before. It wasn’t cost – they weren’t overly expensive in comparison to altos and tenors. It wasn’t availability – pretty much all the big makers were knocking them out.
    The only reasonable conclusion is that they weren’t that popular. Given all the advantages they had it’s amazing that they never survived – and that can only be due to some sort of resistance in the marketplace.
    I feel people would have come to the same conclusion that I came to – that listening to or playing an alto or a tenor has more of a ‘wow’ factor.


  11. al says:

    You may be surprised, but I pretty much agree with all of that…  Which is why I raised this ‘Did I get it all wrong ?’ topic.   🙂

    I play C-Mel, C-Sop, C-Clari and (c-)flute almost exclusively these days, because my relatively small amount of public playing is almost always where there won’t be formal Bb/Eb parts – maybe just a piano/keyboard part – so it makes life easy, I can switch instruments merrily, same notes, same finger patterns (with the obvious exception of clari), and same chords to improvise on. Even where there are no formal dots (often), I can watch the keyboard players fingers, or take as ‘absolute’ any chords, muttered or jotted down for me by any other C players – or use the multitude of C fake books.  Somehow, the need to ‘dep’ for alto/tenor players with established Eb/Bb ‘books’ doesn’t seem to exist anymore in the depths of Dorset ?  Whoopee !  I well remember the phrasing in those old ‘Jimmy Lally’ standards charts…  I saw the reference to them on your site, Stephen, and suppressed a laugh !
    I still keep a conventional Bb soprano, alto & Bb tenor around, plus Bb clarinet, and still enjoy the odd reunion with them – so I still feel able to comment on the differences, after all, at one stage the Bb/Eb’s were all the tools of my trade – the only C instrument I had then was the flute. As to the effectiveness of the C’s, sentiment and common-sense apart, I’ll readily admit that I do have to live with some compromises. I’ll attempt to list them here.   First, the C-Mel tone isn’t at all as strong (or as unique) as either a booting tenor, or a screaming alto.  Can’t be, given the design, but then I don’t play that much R&R, or mega-volume jazz-funk any more !  It is, at best, a practical compromise, leaning towards a tenor because I use tenor mpcs/reeds, and because I ‘feel’ tenor when I play them.  As a real shortie – five foot and a bit – Bb tenor always felt big, and you should have seen me on bari !

    And the intonation ?  Doddle !  I’ve had to play with some indifferently tuned musicians and their instruments over the years – all characters with their own strong style (if that’s the word for it 🙄 ) – if I could stay in tune with that lot, then a little bit of tuning quirkiness on my own instruments is of little consequence…  So, whilst C saxes aren’t for everyone, for someone in my position they suit admirably.

    ‘Course, there is the occasional downside, playing C instruments. One of the tunes I love playing (even got a backing track) is Moonlight in Vermont. On the alto, my instrument of choice for that tune, its usually transposed C, so fits under the fingers nicely ( I tend to treat it as A minor anyway) – whereas for C instruments it’s in it’s concert key of Eb, which feels a little alien to me, as any ‘bluesing’ just adds more flats…

  12. Mal-2 says:

    I don’t know what exactly would cause others to have such different experiences, but I don’t think the C-mel has "the low end of an alto and the high end of a tenor". I find it has a little less boominess to the bottom end than a tenor, but when I belt out the low Bb-B-C there is no mistaking it for an alto. Not just because the alto doesn’t have those notes, but because there is still a presence to it that just works. It substitutes fine for tenor for my purposes, and since I take one or the other (not both), there is no opportunity for direct comparison by the audience.

    Unfortunately, I find it does have some of the shortcomings of a tenor at the top end, though not to the same degree as my tenor. (I will grant that the YTS-21 is not exactly the epitome of screamer tenors.) Even so, I was doing a bit of "hooligan sax" with it in warm-up, though I didn’t try it during a set. I did manage to work in some screaming on alto on our last tune, and found myself in "uncharted territory" for me — I had restrained myself from anything over D4 previously, but the trumpet kept leapfrogging me on the ending and I found myself on E4 and F4 a few times before the night was out. If the last chord had gone another 4 or 5 seconds, I might have been forced to go for G4.

    I’ll figure out how to make the C-mel scream, but first it would be nice if E3 and F3 would speak cleanly at fff volume levels.Even Eb3 sometimes wants to "fnark" on me in staccato passages. I am still much more comfortable playing the high-loud-fast combo on alto than on C-mel — I can do any two of the three on the C. 😆 On alto the F#, G# and A are reliable, and G has to be finessed slightly, but then I can "lean on it" and make it do weird multiphonic things. F# and front F will do that too, but I really have to want them to. Unfortunately, I have to finesse the C-mel starting around Eb, and seriously so for F# on up, and "leaning on it" is not an option, it will either just fall apart completely or the reed will slam shut (even with the switch to 2 1/2’s).

    I have solved one nagging problem, that of neckstrap height. I added a second strap ring to the Buescher C, right below the original one, but it still requires the strap hook to be set about an inch higher than the alto does. The constant adjustments were annoying and in many cases too slow, so I put a key ring on the strap ring of the alto. Now it’s a bit of a pain clipping in on the alto, but at least I don’t have to worry about adjusting the strap every time I switch.

    Why do Buescher C’s have the strap ring in such a position that the horn constantly tries to knock my teeth out? Is this common across C-melodies of other makes? Is it common to other sizes of the same time period?

  13. Lewis Pelham says:

     The position of the strap ring on C Mels. was a constant topic on Wade’s old site.
     I do not know if this was common to all C Melodys but it is  true of the Buescher, the Conn and the King to my certain knowledge…Alan can fill in for all the others.
      It is not common to the Bb & Eb instruments of the period, so why the C Mel players had to cope with the rearing, teeth smashing mouthpiece remains a mystery.
     I play harp in addition to saxophone, frequently playing the fills on harp and the solos on sax. I have taken to playing tenor simply because I can let it hang & play harp unrestricted; with the C Mel under these conditions I had the problem of holding the sax out of the way with my forearm when blowing a harp.
     Many of us have taken your route in either duplicating a lower mounted strap ring or re positioning it about 1.5" lower.
     If you go to Alan’s home page, under Saxy Links you will see photographs of a Conn C Mel that I modified for ergonomic reasons. Click on Pelham-Conn & you will see it hanging at it’s natural angle (on a skeleton) after I re-positioned the strap ring.
      Although the harp/C mel combination is now a practicality, I still use the tenor; playing in concert E & B now feeling normal.

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