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Grafton Vintage Sax

Alto Saxophone

Article from One Two Testing, June 1986

A plastic classic

This is my plastic saxophone, Grafton it's called, a creamy deco sax with opaque swirling keyguards and old gold lacquered keys.

It is a video sax and not common now.

The modern sax is still barely changed from the original mid-nineteenth century Adolphe Sax patent. Slight modifications exist but the instrument is substantially unchanged.

Only once, for about a decade, did a different design rise quickly to notoriety and as quickly disappear again.

The Grafton Acrylic was the brainchild of Hector Sommaruga, an Italian who worked as an instrument maker and repairer, and musician all over Europen and failed in business as a surgical instrument maker before developing the acrylic sax in his premises on Grafton Way off the Tottenham Court Road.

He rearranged the keywork and adopted a completely different spring system, he cut down the number of pillars supporting the keys from around thirty to ten and incorporated all the main supports into the body. The new springs gave the sax a different action.

It also felt lighter but bulkier than a brass sax, due to the innovation which caused interest in the sax to spread farther than musical circles into the daily news media - the bright cream moulded plastic body and clear plastic keyguards.

A symbol of post-war optimism, belief in new production methods and infatuation with plastics, the first unplayable prototype flaunted its pin-up plastic cream at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition of 1947, under the banner 'Great Expectations Realised!'. Below it was the slogan 'Built For Better Times Ahead!' and to its sides the expletives 'It's Modern!' and 'It's Super!'.

Three years later they were on sale at £55, considerably cheaper than the brass equivalent, advertised as "a tone poem in ivory and gold". First played in public by John Dankworth, then Melody Maker 'musician of the year' poll winner, they quickly gained an impressive list of endorsees amongst notable British alto players.

Ornette Coleman used one in America and although Charlie Parker played one on tour in Canada, he was forbidden contractually to play it in the US, where it's sales floundered due to a boycott by American traders fearful of the effect on conventional instrument sales.

In this country the conservatism of musicians, teachers and band leaders (who wanted visual uniformity in their sax sections) along with the swing to the guitar as the instrument of the popular hero thwarted its commercial success. Sommaruga left his backers the Dallas Co. (later to become Arbiter, present-day distributors of Remo drums and Fender guitars) after only three years of production. They carried on for a while, failed to develop a tenor, introduced a clarinet of similar construction which was a commercial disaster and gave up.

In the mid-sixties, the tools and machines were sold for scrap.

Players who were it's contemporaries despise it a little. The plastic is too brittle, it breaks, though the sound is as good and as varied as a brass sax. I think it makes them feel sad too, it reminds them of an era they have outlasted.

Musicians who had Graftons found that repairers tended to dislike working on them because the mechanism was so unlike other saxes and normal knocks resulted in cracked or split bodies rather than dented ones so they became comparatively rare, comparatively quickly.

The Grafton has not yet been copied but I am sure it will be. For the time being they are odd and uncommon, as quaint as the post-war dreams they were caught up in. Many woodwind instruments now are plastic but masquerading as wood.

None are as proudly plastic as the Grafton.

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JHS Rockbox II & Bass Box

Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Jun 1986

Feature by John Lewis

Previous article in this issue:

> Blabber

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> JHS Rockbox II & Bass Box

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