I was a huge band geek in high school. Then I played for a year in my university’s concert band, got lazy, got rid of my sax, and didn’t look back. Until now. Recently I started pining to get my chops back again, without blowing a lot of money on a new instrument. So I started searching, and struck gold over the weekend. Someone had posted a vintage Imperial Martin alto sax on Craigslist for $100. It even came with the original case and mouthpiece! It’s a bit leaky, but is about 75% playable at the moment. Which is *unheard of *for a sax this old. My guess is it’s been sitting in climate-controlled storage (maybe a closet) for a long time. I’m not a repair tech, but the body is in GREAT shape. The lacquer is coming off in places, and there are quite a lot of scratches, but I don’t care about cosmetics. In terms of functionality, it just seems to need new pads. Once I get the money for repadding (still waiting on an estimate, maybe $300), it’ll be the oldest and awesomest instrument I’ve ever laid hands on. I’ve doodled on it a bit and was pleased to hear a really rich, dark tone. Saxes these days are designed to have a brighter sound, which is a big reason why I’m so glad I stumbled on an affordable older one.
I bought a new mouthpiece, ligature, reeds, neck strap, and a clip-on tuner with gift cards I got for my birthday (still waiting for them to be shipped). Even though I can’t play it for more than a few minutes without getting tired, yet… life is good.
Is it really all that uncommon for a 50 year old sax to be unplayable? I have a 1914 Conn that hasn’t been played in about 15 years. When I last took a look at it a few months ago it was still in fine shape.
As far as vintage instruments are concerned, most that were manufactured no longer exist. Many of the remaining ones are in various states of disrepair, even to the point of being permanently unplayable. Mint-condition vintage instruments are extraordinarily rare, because of the damage wrought by time. The longer a horn has been around, the more chances it’s had to be neglected, dropped, mishandled, or misplaced. Or even infested by mold, fungus or insects! Over time, any instrument that isn’t played and maintained on a regular basis will be rendered unplayable. I knew a kid in high school who tried to use his uncle’s old saxophone. It had been sitting in its case in a closet for a long time. It had to be completely overhauled due to environmental damage, and it was “only” 25 years old.
I’m not an expert repair tech by any means, but a saxophone is a mechanical marvel with moving parts, pads, oil, glue, and lacquer. Like any machine, it can’t be left sitting around for decades without negatively impacting its condition. It’s even harder to keep one in playing condition if it’s not regularly played and, more importantly, actively maintained. Most cases aren’t airtight. Excess moisture can get in, causing mildew, mold, corrosion, rust, or tarnishing of the body/keys. Moisture creates even more havoc on the pads, causing them to swell and, consequently, leak. From the other side, moisture can escape if the environment isn’t sufficiently humid, causing dry and cracking pads. This also means leaks. A single leaking pad in the top of a sax’s body means it will not play. Period.
No snark–did you play test? Or just look at it? If it hasn’t been touched in 15 years, it’s probably not in great shape. Any saxes from that era that look nice and are still in good playing condition would be worth a *lot *of money.
That sax looks incredibly cool - huge congrats. Love the neck engraving. Never heard of Martin Brass, but of course Elkhart was a huge center for brass and wind makers. As a guitarist, hard not to think of the flattop guitars. Was Martin well-regarded? Any known players? When I think sax, I think Selmer - but what do I know?
God, I would love to play sax - jazz, like Ben Webster…drool. Or Bobby Keys who played on the Stones stuff…
Side question - does the same apply to vintage trumpets? My dad recently passed away and I found the trumpet he played in high school band. It seems to be in good shape, some minor sticking on one key and in need of polishing. I, as a non-player, was able to get an “almost” note out of it that sounded pretty good. Not that I would sell it…
Ah, looks very, very familiar! Had pretty much the same alto in high school and college. Dad sold it after our falling-out (or I should say, after his psycho girlfriend convinced him to change all the locks while I was at work, forcing me to move out).
Thank you! Unfortunately, I don’t really know much about vintage instruments. I played a crappy no-name sax when I was young, and I went on a musical hiatus for the better part of a decade. So I’ve only been reading up on Martin for a few days now. They’re certainly not poorly-regarded, but I don’t think they’re the best brand ever or anything like that. I’m not sure of any well-known players.
Lots of people think Selmer when they hear about saxes. I always thought of them as the pretty-boys of the industry, more flash than substance. But that’s probably less a justifiable rant and more jealousy of the one rich kid in my 6th grade band class whose parents could afford to buy him one.
I loved it, was already in stitches and then he said, “John Coaltrain.” haha!
I really have no idea. It’s worth looking into. If you’re curious about its value, post about the instrument with a few pictures on a trumpet enthusiast forum. You don’t have to say you’d never sell it. Without a trumpeter (trumpetist? trumper? trumpest?) doing a play-test, though, you’re going off the looks. And as I mentioned above, good looks don’t necessarily correlate with a working instrument.
I did doodle around a bit on it, but my phone took the video upside-down and windows movie maker keeps throwing up all over the place. I’d like to convert it to an mp3 so I at least have the audio, but I can’t find a free program for that.
I can’t even imagine how painful that must have been. If I can ask, and if you remember, what kind of mouthpiece did you use?
All-new pads are quite expensive, it’ll be awhile before I can afford that. However, I just found out that my local music shop has a $75 basic service (not including parts) that will:
Reseat pads as needed
Rough out minor accessible dents
Replace key corks as needed
Regulation of key mechanism
Lubrication of key mechanism
Ultrasonic cleaning of mouthpiece, neck or head joint as applicable
Play test instrument
They won’t completely disassemble and re-work the horn, like they would for a full-service repadding, but that costs $550 for a non-student horn. However, they *will *replace pads on an ala carte basis. So I’ll get the basic service and the worst pads taken care of first, then do the rest when I can afford it.
I highly recommend you do this. Trying to play an instrument that is in poor working condition can be frustrating, and unless you’re an expert, you may not know why it’s so hard.
Almost any woodwind or brass instrument can be made to work like new. Bent parts are the hardest to fix, but repadding, recorking and polishing does most of the repair. Mildew and tarnishing should have minimal effect on the sound; just rub off the worst and clean as best as you can. Re-plating brass or silver might not be cost effective unless it’s a vintage, high-quality instrument.
Spoken as someone who has done minor repairs to many instruments.
Hm, I knew a girl in middle/high school named Rachel who played saxophone. You’re not a ginger are you?
I had an alto & a tenor when I was in high school. Just because I was bored one summer day I took my tenor completely apart. I eventually got it to work but it was never the same (this was my first lesson in mechanics: appearing to be in proper alignment is not the same as being in proper alignment. Fortunately for me, the school needed someone to play baritone and they had one they would supply. I volunteered all over that. Trouble was, once I got the wind to work the baritone it was nearly impossible to play my alto. Sold the alto & the tenor for book/beer money when I was in college. If I applied myself, I could maybe work a slide whistle these days.