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Today I want to talk about the rare in-between member of the saxophone family — the C melody saxophone.
Those of you that have followed me for a while now know that I only own a tenor and alto saxophones.
Now, if you’re thinking to yourself there are only four types of saxophones, you wouldn’t be wrong. Generally the alto, the tenor, the bari, and the soprano are the saxophones that are played today.
The C melody saxophone is properly called the C tenor saxophone.
The reason it got called the C melody, is because it is pitched in the key of C, meaning it can play along with the melodies of the piano.
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What is the C Melody Saxophone? A Brief History
To answer this, let’s go ans start all the way at the beginning of the story with Adolphe Sax.
When Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone, his idea was to have an instrument that bridged the woodwind and brass section. Tha would help blend in the orchestra a lot more.
His initial idea was to have, essentially, a saxophone section in the orchestra.
For that, he created two separate families of saxophones, initially. One family was pitched in C and F, and these where meant to be the orchestral saxophones, the other is the now familiar family pitches in Bb and Eb — what we know as saxophones now.
Because each family had seven instruments when they were first constructed, there were 14 possible saxophones. One of these saxophones that was on the orchestral side, pitched in C, was actually the C melody saxophone.
Here’s an article I wrote about the history of the saxophone. You should read it, especially if you want to find out why there are no saxophones in the orchestra.
The C Melody Saxophone is Not a Transposing Instrument
The C melody saxophone is not a transposing instrument. So automatically, it is a lot easier to write for to begin with.
The C Melody Saxophone Has a Dark, Mellow Tone
The C melody was known for having a mellow tone, and therefore, blends better with other instruments in the orchestra.
The tone is more along the lines of a tenor saxophone in terms of its mellow quality.
Why are C Melody Saxophones Rare?
So, why don’t we see any C melody saxophones today?
If you didn’t know this, in the 1920s, there was a “saxophone craze”. The most popular instrument in the United States for the entire decade of 1920 was the saxophone with hundreds of thousands of instruments being produced.
And one of the most popular of those was the C melody saxophone.
That actually goes back to the great depression when the saxophone market was hit pretty hard because saxophones were considered a luxury good. Most manufacturers, including C.G. Conn, cut back on saxophone production in many different keys.
During the depression, they had nowhere to sell them because people just weren’t buying saxophones, they were struggling to make ends meet.
After the great depression ended, Conn never really picked up production again of their more exotic lines of saxophones, mainly because people had gotten familiar with the main four, and so, composers were only writing for those four.
So although we are now seeing a resurgence of the C melody and other keys, it’s only new companies that are making them, and restored C melodies that are coming on to the market.
In fact, to this day, because of the sheer number of C melodies produced in the 1920s, after the soprano, the alto, the Bb tenor, and the bari sax, the most commonly encountered saxophone is the C tenor.
If you get your hands on a C melody saxophone and look at the serial number, it will most likely be a restorated saxophone made in the 1920’s.
These instruments were made up until the 1950’s. In fact, we have a few instruments made by Selmer. But production was pretty much dead by the early 1940s.
They are very rare. Good luck getting your hands on one. But musicians have these instruments because they were made in such large numbers.
Restoring an old C Melody Saxophone
One of the problem becomes, you can a C melody saxophone fixed up but you are rarely ever going to use it.
You can even buy a cheap C melody saxophone for a couple hundred bucks, but restoring it is likely going to cost more than the instrument is worth.
Most of the time, musicians are not going to put in the money to fix them up, which is a shame because they are fantastic instruments.
So let’s say you get one of these horns and get it fixed up…
What are you going to use it on?
The answer is… not a lot, sadly.
You can do some solo recital stuff, you might even take it into jazz, but for composers…
The C Melody Mouthpiece
The other thing we need to talk about is the C melody mouthpiece.
Although the C melody saxophones are still around, their mouthpieces often got lost and, by-and-large, you couldn’t use a Bb tenor mouthpiece or an alto mouthpiece on them.
Granted, some people had some success, but it wasn’t as optimal as using an actual C melody mouthpiece.