The [De]Evolution of the Buescher “400” Alto Saxophone
“‘Let’s build the finest saxophone ever conceived – a saxophone that will enable the great artists to transcend today’s idea of playing excellence.’
This was the ideal set before Buescher musical craftsmen back in 1934. No time limits. No expense restrictions. This instrument was to be better than anything previously produced throughout the world.
“Eight solid years were spent in creative planning – calling for new concepts of design – new mechanisms – yes, even NEW METALS – to achieve this perfection.”
This, readers, is how Buescher introduced the new Super “400” line of saxophones in the February, 1942 issue of Metronome magazine. Both in advertisements and their self-published booklet, Out of this World, Buescher proudly proclaimed they were “…breaking with tradition – striking out on new paths of research to blaze the trail to the stars.” These were bold statements, to be sure. How, then, did this once outstanding, cutting edge saxophone eventually become little more than a Bundy II with a different engraving? It’s a long, complex tale that involves much to do with finance, corporate takeovers, four band instrument manufacturing firms, and a couple of major armed conflicts. That’s not the story that I plan to tell today. No, instead, I plan to chart out, from a mechanical standpoint, a timeline for the de-evolution of Buescher’s most advanced alto saxophone into a glorified student instrument. In this article, we’ll take a look at the changes made to the instrument over the course of four decades and chart a rough outline of when these changes occurred. My sources of information are, primarily, Buescher’s (and later Selmer USA’s) marketing materials and dealer price lists as well as the six instruments that will make photographic appearances in this article. Special thanks to the National Saxophone Museum for allowing me to dig through their archives and for loaning me two saxophones; also to Saxquest for loaning me an additional two saxophones.
Before we get too into the weeds of saxophone mechanisms, marketing, and morphing, I’d like to establish a few things regarding nomenclature of the “400” line of saxophones (bearing in mind that this article is exclusively about the alto). In the 21st century, vintage saxophone enthusiasts refer to the early “400s” as the “Top Hat & Cane”, thus named for the engraved top hat, cane, and gloves engraved above the raised Buescher logo. The model after is oft called the “Super 400” because that phrase is engraved on the bell. The one after the “Super 400” is frequently called the “Post-Top Hat & Cane,” and then, the one following that, the “Floral Engraved 400”, again, because of its engraving. These are not, however, what Buescher called their instruments. What we call the “Top Hat & Cane” was the model B-7 and was called by Buescher, in marketing and pricing materials, the “Super ‘400’” as early as 1942. The following model, S-1, was also referred to as the “Super ‘400’” while the next, model S-5, was just “400,” as was the model 1037. For ease of communication, I’ll refer to the instruments by Buescher’s model numbers.
By the early 1940s, Buescher’s Aristocrat line of saxophones was equipped with a few Buescher-exclusive features. These included a “floating” octave mechanism, “Snap-on” pads (metal-backed pads held into the key cup with a domed resonator that snapped onto a spud in the cup), and Norton gold-plated screw-in springs. These all carried over to the “400.”
The model B-7 “400” was a significant step forward for Buescher with regards to mechanical design. They boasted over sixteen improvements that went into making the “400.” Buescher had, for a decade, been using Norton gold-plated screw-in springs on their saxophones. Prior to this, they had swedged blued-steel needle springs into the saxophone’s posts like other manufacturers. The Norton springs were a way in which Buescher saxophones were set apart. The “regular” Norton springs were steel wire springs soldered into a threaded brass bushing and gold plated. The improved version for the “400” was now tapered, much like the blued-steel springs on other saxophones. They claimed that this tapering gave “an action that is faster and lighter than ever.” The new underslung neck octave key was claimed to “Give Better High Register” and prevent accidental damage to the key. The redesigned neck receiver was now a “Single Unit – Won’t Leak.” The long rods, hinge tubes, and cross hinges were now constructed of solid nickel-silver, a harder alloy than the brass previously used and said to be “longer wearing” and to provide slicker action. The brass parts of the mechanism were now constructed of Buescher’s “Super-Brass” which they alleged was 250% harder than normal brass. The posts upon which the keys were mounted were taller than on previous models which allowed for more even venting around each tone hole with a shorter feel to the motion of the keys. New “Patented Steel Bearing(s)” were used on the side Bb, side C, body octave, low B, and low Bb keys to eliminate the friction associated with cork-covered surfaces rubbing on those keys. The right hand palm C, Bb, and E key mechanisms were redesigned such that all three key touches sat closer to the player’s hand and traveled for the same distance and in the same direction when actuated. The curvature of the bottom bow was widened. The low B and Bb tone holes were moved from the left side of the bell to right and “behind”. Buescher alleged that these two changes “…greatly improved low register tones – made the more clear and full and tonal timbre uniform.” The levers that actuated the bell keys were changed from a long-rod through a tube into separate keys individually mounted on pivot screws. Though the earliest of the B-7 units had a bell whose dimensions closely resembled the bell of the Aristocrat, the bell flare and rim were soon widened to 5 ¼ inches in diameter and reinforced with a silver “tone ring” which were claimed to allow the player to “…play low tones with pianissimo or extreme fortissimo, and improve quality in low register.”
The low C and Eb key touches were made slightly concave and the rollers were changed from a cylinder shape on earlier models to an ovoid “barrel” shape, retaining the amber color that was Buescher’s signature. The strap ring was changed from a brass hoop brazed to a brass plate into a single-piece casted nickel-silver, teardrop shaped affair that both looked slick and would take longer to be worn through than the brass ring. The right hand thumb hook also received an updated shape that had a larger mounting surface on the body for a stronger solder joint. The “Buescher 400” logo on the bell was a soldered-on, raised silver logo as opposed to being engraved.
All of these changes, Buescher claimed, caused production of a “400” saxophone to take “twice as long…as it does an ordinary saxophone.”
That was, in fact a long list of updates and features. It may seem long winded, but it is the starting point for the de-evolution of the instrument. At the point Buescher was ready to introduce their new “Super ‘400’ Saxophone” the United States was dragged into a little conflict known as World War II. Again, not to get too far into the history of world events but, during WWII and the subsequent Korean War, Buescher’s plant converted to manufacturing aircraft parts for the military.
From 1941 until sometime in the mid 1950s, the B-7 was Buescher’s top of the line alto saxophone. Durably constructed with slick, fast key action and gorgeously adorned with its highly polished nickel-silver and brass components and an elaborate engraving on the bow and bell, the “400” was due for a cost-reducing revision.
After the conclusion of Buescher’s military contracts for the Korean War, the B-7 was revised into the model S-1. Briefly, this revision was stamped as model “B-8” but that model number lasted perhaps only a few months and never appeared in any marketing materials. S-1 was the official model number of the revised instrument. Initially, little was changed. The solid-nickel construction of the keys was dropped for nickel-plated brass. Concurrently, mentions of “Super-Brass” were dropped from marketing materials. The usual engraving motif of a castle on a bluff by the sea surrounded by floral patterns was dropped for a simplified floral pattern. The left hand thumb rest, which was normally a convex mother of pearl touch on a raised brass cylinder accompanied by a scalloped, triangular octave mechanism touch, was replaced with the new “Spatulated Octave Key,” said to be “wider, more comfortable, to permit a wider variety of thumb positions.”
Further, the “Patented Steel Bearings” on the bell keys were eliminated and replaced with a simpler arm and roller affair that Buescher called “direct drive.” The bearings were retained on the side keys and octave keys. The individual post construction at the lower end of the bell key levers was reengineered such that all bell key levers and the lower stack rod screwed into a single, large, arch-shaped post.
Sometime later in the decade, the top hat, cane, and gloves engraving, along with the floral motif and raised logo would be dropped in favor of a vertical, block lettering on the bell that said “Buescher” with the phrase “Super 400” engraved horizontally above it. This model S-1 is what is colloquially known as the “Super 400.”
Around this same time, Buescher’s Aristocrat line saw its first major revision since 1941. The revised Aristocrat (model 141 alto and 157 tenor), too, received the Spatulated Octave Key and had a change to the engraving. The keys were, like the S-1, nickel-plated brass. The neck receiver changed to the single-piece design sported by the B-7 and S-1. The biggest change to that line, however, was the replacement of its bow and bell with the wider-spaced bow and larger bell of the “400” with the right-side keys in tow. They didn’t get the tone ring, so the bell rim was left rather unsupported. The left-hand table mechanism on these were modified to match the new bell key placement and were a simplified direct drive mounted on a single rod and lacking the rollers on the bell keys.
Though this is an article about the “400” the above changes to the Aristocrat are important because in 1959, Buescher had a major rebranding of its saxophone line. The Aristocrat moniker was reassigned to its budget line formerly branded as Elkhart Band Instrument Company saxophones. The S-1 Super “400” was still available but the “400” name was applied to the saxophones formerly known as “Aristocrat.” The new model designations were S-5 for alto and S-25 for tenor and bore an engraving nearly the same as the S-1, only lacking the word “Super.” The newly rebranded horns lost the single-piece neck receiver. Measurements that I’ve taken of the tone holes, bore, and pad cups for models S-1 and S-5 indicate that very little is different about them. The necks are a different design and the mechanisms are obviously quite distinct but, little else about the bodies and bows are different. Throughout the run, small cosmetic changes were made to minor parts such as the bow guard, key guards, and key feet.
In 1963, the Buescher Band Instrument Company was purchased by Selmer USA. As the 1960s went on, the S-1 model was available until at least 1965. The neck receiver ceased to be the single-piece construction of its earlier versions, the right hand thumb hook reverted to the Aristocrat style hook, and its Norton springs were no longer tapered but otherwise it remained unchanged. The S-5, however would see some more changes. Gone was its on-top neck octave key and in its place was mounted an underslung key like the S-1. The teardrop-shaped, solid nickel strap ring was added. The bell keys were moved to the left side of the bell and their keywork simplified again.
This earlier model, 1037 - seen on the left, now sported a nice, floral engraving surrounding the block “Buescher 400” text on the bell.
Speculation has long existed that for a few years from 1959 until the mid -1960s, all three types of “400” may have been available simultaneously. Though the model S-1 and S-5 were certainly available at the same time, I have yet to locate marketing materials, price lists or internal documents from Buescher that indicate that the “Top Hat & Cane” was concurrently available.
After the mid 1970s, the Buescher 400 would disappear from Buescher and Selmer’s marketing materials. The line was ended. Or was it?
In 1981, Selmer USA reintroduced the Buescher “400!” This model 1022 was, however, barely anything like previous “400” models. In fact, this new “400” was little more than a Bundy II. The normal brass strap ring of the Bundy II was eschewed for the return of the teardrop nickel-silver strap ring. The normally nickel-plated keys were now lacquered to match the body and the whole affair was available in silver plate. This only lasted until 1982, as far as I was able to find.
That’s it, really. The “400” tried to enter the new horn market with a BANG, sporting mechanical features to rival or exceed what its contemporaries were producing. Sadly, though, the “400” of which Buescher had been so proud in the 1940s would go out with little more than a whimper. The older instruments are, however, well revered by vintage saxophone enthusiasts and even the 1960s models S-5 and 1037 are quality-built instruments that are purported to be very good players.
Please be sure to browse around the National Saxophone Museum for more photos of Buescher saxophones, as well as rare, curious, and informative marketing info, company correspondence, and other such publications. Also check out saxophone.org for more galleries and a forum where vintage saxophone enthusiasts gather to share information.
Again, special thanks to Saxquest for supplying the two model 1037 horns featured and to the National Saxophone Museum for supplying the two model B-7 instruments.