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Aquilasax C Melody Saxophone

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Saxophones are the voice of the gods – whichever gods you happen to believe in – but for the most part, the gods insist on singing in an inconvenient key. Saxes play in Bb or Eb as a rule, and while this is cool if everyone else you’ll be jamming with plays in a comparable key, it can a bit of a dog should you find yourself called-upon to play with a piano, a flute or anything else that prefers to play in C.

It wasn’t always this way. During the 1920s, a number of horn builders created what came to be known as C Melody saxophones. As its name implies, a C Melody sax plays in C. That is, when you finger it to play C, it actually plays C, rather than, for example, Bb, as would a conventional tenor sax.

C Melody saxophones disappeared during the 1930s. It’s still possible to find relics of their brief history in specialized horn shops and the occasional garage sale. However, many of them were cheap horns to begin with, and with close to a century on their clocks, they’re usually not pretty when they turn up in the new millennium. Even the really nice ones suffer from weird intonation and unusual key placements.

I have a 1923 Conn C Melody which was a professional sax when it was new, and was subsequently restored by USA Horn to brand-new roaring-twenties condition when I bought it. It’s magnificent as vintage saxes go, but it’s still not particularly pleasant to play.

Until recently, anyone who wanted to play sax with orchestral instruments was confronted with the two unenviable choices of either blowing into an antique or transposing a lot.

A few years ago, Aquilasax, a hitherto unknown horn maker in New Zealand, began building modern C Melody saxophones. As of this writing, they’re the only instrument manufacturer to do so since the repeal of prohibition. The company name derives from the Latin word for “eagle,” which will probably serve to explain the winged logo they like to etch on their instruments.

The Aquilasax C Melody saxes appear to have been modeled upon the same 1920s Conn that I own, although they embody significant improvements over their ancestors. They use modern pads and springs, vastly improved fabrication methods, contemporary key placements and correct A440 intonation – as much as a sax ever exhibits correct intonation.

At seven or eight hundred dollars plus about a hundred dollars to ship one from the antipodes, they’re also a lot less expensive than a restored original C Melody horn, assuming you can find one.

Body Work

The Aquilasax C Melody sax is available in a rich palette of finishes, with a variety of engraving options. I bought a black Pearl horn, with nickel keys and no artwork. Aside from looking sinister and cool, it has a dark, brooding sound that can probably set off nearby seismographs and frighten horses within a twenty-mile radius.

Do be sure to scope out the various engraving options at the Aquilasax page. I don’t think they do reclining nudes, but just about everything else is available.

Aquilasax offers straight and curved necks for their instruments. I ordered the latter, and the horn arrived with both at no extra charge. It also came with a comfortable neck strap, a hard case and a very, very large T-shirt. I’m not certain if I should be offended by the shirt.

The Aquilasax C-Melody horns turn out to be built in China, apparently under the stern gaze of the company’s founder. These things aren’t cheap Chinese saxes, nor are they student instruments, despite their competitive prices. Perhaps they represent the Ming-dynasty vases of brass instruments. Nicely finished, beautifully engineered and flawlessly assembled, my C horn was impressive as soon as the packaging stopped rattling.

Someone clearly spent some time setting up this sax.

My C sax is a peach to play. It’s as fluid as a contemporary alto, with a rich, centered tone and no complex finger exercises. It lacks the rolled tone holes of my original Conn, which makes its keys slightly noisier, although I’ll shake the hand of anyone who can hear its keys over its playing. It projects impressively.

This said, I should note that it suffered from extreme pad noise when it first arrived, sounding reminiscent of one of the ancient mechanical telephone switching machines so beloved of the documentary film makers who haunt the Discovery Channel. Five minutes with a sheet of pad cleaning paper disabused it of this behavior, and it stayed fixed. I’m not sure if this reflects something left on its pads during manufacture, or if it was the result of its disembarking in the midst of the great heat wave of 2010.

As an aside, unlike most contemporary saxes, the Aquilasax C sax has a bell that opens almost vertically, rather than leaning forward slightly. This makes it a lot easier to fully appreciate what you’re playing, as you’ll be able to better hear the instrument. It does have one obscure drawback – should you find yourself playing it on a hot summer afternoon beneath a rotating ceiling fan, it will develop a truly disturbing vibrato. Don’t go there.

The key placements of the Aquilasax are somewhat more in keeping with those of a conventional modern horn, albeit with a few reflections of simpler times. The low B takes some getting used to, and the “retro” octave key will prove to be somewhat unforgiving at first, harkening back to the age bootleg gin and flappers. This sax tends to squeak a bit on lower notes in the upper octave ‘til you get the octave key exactly where it wants you. Neither of these issues really constitute flaws in the design of the horn… no two instrument makers build these things in quite the same way.

Freed of the necessity to transpose, the Aquilasax C-Melody saxophone lends itself to improvisation in situations which would have called for considerable forethought and a lot of bad notes with a Bb tenor. You can sight-read from whatever everyone else is playing. Piano players will elbow each other out of the way to vie for your attention.

The Great Mouthpiece Caper

The only potentially nettlesome issue in the Aquilasax C-Melody restoration is its choice of mouthpieces. When I initially bought this horn, I intended to use the mouthpiece I’d been playing my Conn C-Melody with, having sweated blood and no mean pile of cash to locate one that worked well with that instrument.

Needless to say, it wasn’t going to be that easy.

Unlike its ancestor, the Aquilasax isn’t designed to use a tenor-size mouthpiece, despite its being effectively a tenor sax. Its neck cork is the same diameter as that of an alto horn. While it proved possible to pad the neck cork with Teflon plumber’s tape and get my extant C mouthpiece installed, the large chamber size distorted the tone of the sax. It had a bottom end that sounded like a small tactical nuke, and an upper octave that suggested a liberal politician surrounded by reporters.

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The obvious resolution to this odd bit of architecture was to use an alto mouthpiece with the Aquilasax. This was monstrously disappointing, in that it sounded breathtaking played as an alto… but it played in C#. It was just possible to slide an alto mouthpiece back up the cork to get the horn to play in tune – there was about half an inch of cork left under mine. So positioned, however, the horn warbled and burped at the bottom end of its low octave, and the mouthpiece moved around a lot.

A C# Melody sax isn’t likely to be a whole lot of use to anyone.

Aquilasax sells a respectable palette of custom-made mouthpieces for its unusual horns, and perhaps not surprisingly, slipping one of them onto its neck resolved its issues. I bought a hard rubber mouthpiece… albeit with a two-week wait for it to deplane from China… and for the first time, the horn played well and in tune. It also proved to have a variety of voices thus equipped. A soft number three reed made it sound woody and very much in keeping with speakeasy jazz. A number four reed darkened it down and gave it a smoky, nuanced tone.

I’ve never bought a horn that didn’t call for a considerable undertaking of jumping through hoops to find it a suitable mouthpiece, and in this regard, the Aquilasax was very much one of the band. Most of the new horns I own arrived accompanied by cheap styrene mouthpieces, and while they were too objectionable to actually play, they did prove useful as starting points in selecting more sophisticated lip technology. The Aquilasax lacked such an accessory, which would have been worthwhile in this case.

If you decide to spring for an Aquilasax, be certain you order it with a mouthpiece.

The Sax that Made the Twenties Roar

Buying an Aquilasax C-Melody horn is a somewhat unusual retail experience. You can choose an instrument you like from Aquilasax’s web page, beat up your credit card and they’ll ship it to you. Their horns ship out of China – apparently because the Chinese post office ships things less expensively than the post office of New Zealand. It’s worth noting that the Chinese post office does have an English-language tracking page.

My sax took about a week to arrive. It showed up in an impressive cardboard sarcophagus, with enough foam to survive even the brutality of the Canadian post office.

The ostensible drawback to buying a sax by mail from half way around the world is that while Aquilasax will allow you to return your instrument if you don’t like it, you’ll have sunk a substantial amount of cash into shipping it if you take them up on their offer. This having been said, I can’t imagine anyone not liking these horns.

The Aquilasax C Melody saxophone is arguably not the ideal instrument to play if you’re into contemporary jazz, and everyone else you know plays a non-orchestral horn. If you’re into jazz of an earlier epoch, you might want to listen to recordings by Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Rudy Weidoeft and Frankie Trumbauer, all of whom played C Melody sax. A C sax can also be used for other genres of music, of course – relieved of the chore of transposing all its parts, it suits practically anything that doesn’t involve a pedal-steel guitar, chewing tobacco or a turntable.

As a final note, it’s probably worth mentioning that Aquilasax appears to have experienced some design and quality-control issues during its early pre-history. As its early pre-history was only about three years ago as I write this, some less than salutary reviews of their instruments exist on the net. The Aquilasax horns of the hour are nothing like their questionable antecedents.

These are saxes that will still be impressive when yet another century has clocked by.

Comments (6)

AlJanuary 31st, 2011 at 11:14 am

Good review, Steve Wedgwood (Mr Aquilasax…) rightly deserves all the good exposure he can get. I’ve linked to this from my blog at csax.net.

AmandaMarch 13th, 2011 at 3:37 pm

What a great – gorgeously written – review! Thoroughly enjoyed reading & being on the cusp of purchasing an Aquilasax Cmel it’s most reassuring. Peeed off I just sank a load of cash into a Lakey alto mouthpiece tho…

IanMarch 25th, 2011 at 5:57 pm

A very helpful review – thanks. I think this initiative by Steve Wedgwood really deserves support and I’ll be ordering mine from a UK dealer very soon

David HartfordFebruary 26th, 2012 at 7:54 am

I could not agree with this review more. I recently purchased a horn from Aquilasax so I could play along with my wife, she plays the piano. I have limited experience with the sax in general and always played alto previously, but am fully enjoying this horn and not having to do hours of transposing.

Danny PerezSeptember 7th, 2012 at 11:41 am

Agree!! Great horn. I have the straight neck, and am using an alto Beechler Bellite #6. Intonation is fantastic, and the sound is marvelous. With the Beechler, you can play softly with the reedy type sound, or push it and be heard WELL with piano, electric guitar, etc. Fantastic job, Steve!

Booker EvansJune 5th, 2016 at 8:53 pm

I bought a C Soprano and I must say I was incredibly surprised… it has a different flavor than the Bb soprano. It is a well made horn with sound metallurgical foundations. Bought with an Aquila sax mouthpiece. It is highly recommended.

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