Posted on October 24, 2012
Conn 6M “Transitional” Saxophones
This article includes (with permission) information from posts on the forum at Saxontheweb by saxophone historian/geek Paul Lindemeyer, author of Celebrating the Saxophone, and photos and information from Brian at Getasax.com. Both Paul and Brian are fellow Conn lovers, and this article would not have been possible without their help. Because I have left most of what Paul wrote intact with only minor editing, I have put his name next to sections for which he is mainly responsible. Some information may repeat between what I wrote and what he wrote, but trust me there is a ton of information here and the read is worth it if you are interested in Conn transitional altos!
And of course, if you know something I don’t, share it! Ok, on with the article.
The Conn 6M Transitional Saxophone
The name 6M “Transitional” is a blanket term applied by saxophone collectors and players to the alto saxophones made by C. G. Conn Ltd. during the period of evolution from the New Wonder Series II alto saxophone to the 6M “Artist” alto saxophone. These transitional 6M saxophones can have a wide variety of features, in general evolving over time from configurations that are mostly identical to New Wonder Series II configurations to configurations that are almost identical to the eventual 6M model of 1936 that remained mostly unchanged until 1948, when the rolled toneholes were discontinued. For altos, the serial number range of the transitional horns is roughly 234,000 to 270,000- give or take a few- which means from roughly 1930 to 1935. In addition, there are some interesting neck variations that show up during the transitional period that last through the first few years of “regular” 6M production.
(Note: The name “6M” comes from Conn’s model number for altos at the time, and the 6M model number is seen in catalogs only until 1936, when Conn started stamping 6M on the body of the saxophone above the serial number.)
The first “transitional” feature to appear on the altos is the sculpted/raised side E touchpiece, the earliest example of which I have seen was on a 234,xxx horn that was with that one design exception a run-of-the-mill New Wonder Series II. The bell keys switch from a split bell key design to left-hand design at about 245,xxx. The last major feature to change over was the pinky table, which is a New Wonder II style (albeit with a smooth rather than crosshatched G#) until about 249,xxx. At about the same time, the forked Eb trill disappears, and by the 250,xxx serial number range the 6M design is fairly complete.
Other features that changed (incomplete list):
– new double socket neck design
– underslung octave key and redesigned octave mechanism
– bis and G moved to their own pivot screws, upper stack rod significantly shortened (saxophones are still designed this way today)
– swivel thumbrest
– fork Eb trill disappears
– redesigned ergonomics on palm keys
– front F redesigned
– left hand pinky table completely redesigned, low B and Bb both one-piece keys
– G# mechanism redesigned
– chromatic F# touchpiece changes from teardrop to bar
– redesigned low Eb/C touchpieces
– body to bell cage pantsguard added
– internal mechanism of tunable neck redesigned
– bore and tonehole placement redesigned
This is a partial list, and represents only some of the most visible changes. All in all, by the end of the transition it was a completely different saxophone.
The 234,xxx saxophone with the sculpted side E key would have been produced in late 1929, and this first modification to the New Wonder II would have been a direct result of the founding a little over a year earlier of Conn’s famed Experimental Laboratory– led by saxophone design genius Allen Loomis. Over the next few years, features would be introduced to Conn’s saxophone line that resulted by about 1934 in a saxophone that was light years ahead in craftsmanship, mechanical design, and intonation compared to the New Wonder Series II. In my opinion, the saxophones designed at the Experimental Laboratory represent the first of the truly modern American Saxophones, and particularly on the 6M are home to some of the best stack keywork ever designed.
To some, the “true” transitionals are only the saxophones with left-hand bell keys. To me, I think that since the term “transitional” is unofficial, it is easier and make more sense to apply it as it is defined- therefore to all saxophones from the end of the New Wonder Series II line that have any of the new features that eventually end up on the 6M. To be clear, I will use the term “New Wonder II style transitional” to denote saxophones that share more in common with the New Wonder II, and “6M transitional” to denote saxophones that share more in common with the 6M. The changeover occurs from New Wonder II style transitional to 6M transitional with the switching of the bell keys from a split bell key design (New Wonder II style) to left-hand bell keys (6M style), which happens around serial number 245,xxx in 1931.
Although the word “transitional” is a word that has been applied after the fact by saxophone enthusiasts, it may be more appropriate to refer to these saxophones as the “New Model”, because…
The Very First Transitionals- The New Model
Saxophones in most moderate to large factories were produced in batches- that is, a few dozen to a couple hundred at a time of a particular type. This is why there are noticeable clusters of production for horns like the Buescher Tipped Bell soprano, the King Zephyr Special, the Conn 26M, the Selmer Dorsey Special… they are different enough from the other horns being produced at the same time at the same factory that we can begin to outline the batches.
Conn was one of the largest saxophone manufacturers of its day, and its production volume was quite high. Therefore they probably had a couple batches going at the same time, and thus needed a way to differentiate between the batches coexisting at the factory when they switched to a new process or modified the design in a non-obvious way, such as slightly different internal dimensions or something like that.
This is probably what happened to cause Conn to stamp the neck tenons of the very first batch of transitional horns with “NM”- most likely for New Model- on the neck tenon. These horns all appear within a few hundred serial numbers of each other right around 235,000, in both alto and tenor. The changes that were made at this point were the redesigned palm keys, the raised and sculpted side E, redesigned octave pips, and possibly a slight alteration to the neck tube inner dimensions. Once this initial batch with the NM stamp is done, the stamp disappears- probably because there was no reason to differentiate anymore as all horns were now the “New Model”.
And lastly, here is a tenor example of a horn with the “NM” stamp. Although the stamp is not shown in the photos, its existence is confirmed by its previous owner and its current owner.
Mystery Horns with the X after the Serial
This portion contains conjecture by me, and me alone. Take it for what you will.
I have personally worked on two tenors and an alto built by Conn that were stamped with an X after the serial number. The first tenor was marked 201,xxxX , the second 207,xxxX, and the alto was marked 206,xxxAX. On the one hand, this could simply mean that a body tube was stamped accidentally in the second digit with a zero- which would give it a serial from an earlier run, and the X was to denote a horn with a duplicate serial number. I’ve also heard that the X could stand for a horn that was used by Conn as a “floor model” of sorts for their education outreach programs. But on the other hand… the first one (a tenor) I worked on came from the family of a Conn factory worker, who were under the impression it was a prototype with the X standing for “experimental”, which was not intended for sale and is why the worker took it home so many years ago. Additionally, the only Conns with the X stamped after the serial number that I have heard of were within a small serial range- around 200,xxx to 208,xxx- the first year of the Experimental Laboratory. They also had features well ahead of their time (assuming the serial was correct)- though the alto much more so.
Questions: If the X simply meant a duplicate/mis-stamped serial, why have we not seen them outside of this small and busy era of new design going on at Conn? Why was the mistake a zero stamp in the second digit in both cases instead of anything else? If the horns were indeed “floor models”, why have I never seen others outside of that serial range, and why were they ALSO mis-stamped? If they were prototypes of some sort- why would the prototype alto be stamped A if they didn’t do that until later and it was probably only for bookkeeping purposes? The alto also lacks the body-to-bell-key-cage pantsguard- perhaps if we could find out if a 266,xxx horn would have that, that could tell us something. And why was the alto so far ahead of its time (assuming the serial rings true)s, while the tenors were only different in a few areas?
So, lots of questions and not many answers. At this point, I don’t believe these horns to be prototypes, but I also don’t know if I really believe any of the other explanations I’ve heard either.
So whatever these X horns are, I have worked on three of them- two tenors and an alto. Both tenors were much like a New Wonder Series II transitional- that is, they were mostly New Wonder Series II but with the raised side E and improved palm key spatulas and no forked Eb. Bizarrely, one of them sported straight toneholes. Interestingly, the alto I have seen (206,xxxAX serial number, pictured below) has almost every feature to be found on the eventual 6M.
So who knows? Interesting to see, anyways.
About the 6M…and the stamp (Paul Lindemeyer)
The model number 6M appeared only in catalogs and literature from about 1922 (when Conn started numbering its models) until about #276xxx (1936), when it started to appear on alto bodies. But the alto model itself – the model we today call 6M – first appeared in 1931 and continued in production in various forms until Conn dropped its pro line saxes in 1969. Along with the 12M baritone, made from 1929-’69, and 10M tenor, made from 1934-’69, the 6M enjoyed the longest production run of any saxophone, by any maker.
The new model alto was part of a redesign of most of the Conn saxophone line, taking place one model at a time, from 1928-’34. Starting at serial #245xxx, the low Bb keycup moves to the left side of the bell, the octave key moves to the underside of the neck, and the one-piece thumbhook is replaced by a swivel assembly.
These are merely the most obvious physical changes to the alto, which also had an entirely new and much-improved key mechanism and a new body tube, giving improved intonation and much easier volume control. The Transitional 6Ms, as they’re known today, are those altos with some portion of the 6M design, but without the 6M stamp.
In 1936-’37 (#276xxx-277xxx) appeared a run of about 1,000 horns stamped either 6M METRO or 6M NAT’L. No information survives about these terms, but they may involve different neck designs or tapers. These terms had appeared on certain 26M Connqueror altos as early as 1935, so possibly the 6Ms were reusing old tooling.
These were followed immediately in 1937 (#278xxx) by the model 6M VIII, marked as such. The VIII featured a new microtuner, a one-piece, nonswivel thumbhook, and some unknown changes to the neck. (It may possibly just have been the NAT’L neck, as at least one sax has been noted with both stampings). The VIII stamp appears until about 1945 (#315xxx). After that, altos were simply marked 6M, probably without design changes.
About the “A suffix” (Paul Lindemeyer)
This appears on every Conn alto I have ever seen made between about #253xxx and #275xxx (1932-1936). The horns made during that time are almost all Transitional 6Ms, identical to later 6Ms except for certain neck details (not all known, as summarized above) and, of course, the swivel thumbhook.
Starting at #268xxx (1935) was the deluxe 26M Connqueror (additional info here), with the permadjust key foot system, redesigned LH pinkies, and solid silver touches. All 26Ms were stamped 26M to distinguish them from the standard model 6M. Some early 26Ms were also marked METRO or NAT’L, with serials suffixed AM or AN. After 1937 all 26Ms were marked VIII until the end of production in 1942.
The suffix A disappears from 6Ms and 26Ms at #276xxx (late 1936). At the same time the prefix letter M, used on all saxes since 1924, is dropped.
sample marking for most Tranny 6Ms:
PAT APP’D FOR
for Metro/Nat’l 6M:
for 6M VIII:
But what does the “A suffix” mean? No one knows. Conn burned all its archives in 1970. It could mean “alto”, which would have been an easy way to keep track of how many altos (the most popular model by far) were selling vs. tenors, baritones, and such. Indeed, prefixing M for “saxophone” was probably done for the same reasons of record-keeping during the sax boom of the mid ’20s.
About The Neck Stamps (Paul Lindemeyer)
The problem up to now has been that no one has made any measurements or other tests on these particular horns.
It’s been done with the Buescher New Aristocrats to some degree, but only because they’re such prized classical instruments and the variations are fewer – neck stamps 01, **, 3 in a very limited serial range of #263k-268k (1931-’34).
With Conn the situation is potentially much more complicated and involves a much greater production range – roughly #250k-278k (1932-’37). But here goes:
Some altos made as early as 1932 have stampings on the necks in front of the microtuner sleeve – either STD’D M or STD’D N.
Then in the #276k-277k range only (1936-’37), altos appear that are stamped METRO or NAT’L under the thumbhook, after the model number. The horns stamped METRO had the STD’D M neck, and horns stamped NAT’L had the STD’D N neck.
Then came some #277k horns marked VIII NAT’L on both the horn and neck. The necks have a new, quicker-changing microtuner.
As far as I know, no VIII METRO horns have been found! Make of that what you will.
Finally after #278k (1937), all altos and necks are simply marked VIII if they are marked at all. The marking VIII appears until about 1945.
During much of the period 1932-’37, there are other variables that may or may not be significant:
-the optional non-tuner (and the very rare tunable) overslung alto necks
-the 26M Connqueror series beginning in 1935 (also offered with an optional overslung neck – of yet another design)
-the nickname “New York Neck,” of unknown origin, usually used for the non-tuner overslung, but sometimes confused with the METRO neck
-the letter A at the end of most alto serial numbers in this period (and only this period)
-around 270k, the engraving gets larger. The pattern stays the same, but it takes up a larger space on the bell.
Neck Stamp Measurements
I am currently working on measuring Conn transitional necks, and when I have a conclusion (if I reach one) I will post it here. If you have an undamaged and completely original Conn neck with or without the stamp and also know how to use calipers correctly and feel like helping out, please send me the following measurements in thousands of an inch:
A: the inside diameter of the neck cork end
B: the inside diameter of the inner sleeve of the tunable neck (you will need to complete unscrew the tuner barrel to get to it)
C: the inside diameter of the inner tenon on the body end
So Should You Buy One?
It is my opinion that the Conn 6M “Transitional” is a fantastic buy in vintage alto saxophones. The prices range from around $1000 for one in not-so-great shape needing an overhaul to around $2700 for a freshly overhauled excellent condition example- with the rare gold plate or an extremely pristine STD’D or VIII stamped version sometimes going for a bit more than that.
The ergonomics range from fairly vintage-y but servicable in the early New Wonder II style transitionals to very modern (although different from a VI) in the later 6M transitionals and eventual 6Ms proper. The intonation on the 6M transitionals in particular is usually very good with a sensitive overhaul, and the quality of construction is second to none. The tone is nice and warm and fat with a solid core- and could be used for anything from big band to small group jazz and even classical with the right mouthpiece.
Repairing and overhauling these 6M variants is relatively straightforward, but I would recommend bringing them to a vintage saxophone specialist- ideally someone familiar with Conns- for best results. The difference between a well-overhauled 6M and a 6M with a mediocre job is huge, and to really get your money’s worth and see what makes these horns special they need to be in tip-top shape.
Literature and Advertising
Video Overview (done previously)
Further Information and Examples