Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Chromatic Sax by Jim Schmidt

In the world of saxophones, new technology doesn't come often. We might get something like a high g key on the alto or some new neck design that is supposed to radically change your sound, but what about a totally new fingering system? Well, Jim Schmidt did just that by inventing a tenor saxophone that implements an easier fingering system. Since the saxophone is based around the concept where closing holes makes lower notes and opening them makes higher notes, Jim decided to make a saxophone where you only have to lift one finger to move up chromatically. It also features two octave keys (for each thumb) and a C# key operated by the left hand thumb! So what are some advantages of this saxophone over the current fingering system, the Boehm system, used? Here are some from his website:


  • Lighter spring pressures throughout because of the independent keys (few interlinkages). This makes for faster facilitation and reduced fatigue - in the same way that flute or clarinet players (with lighter keys) can usually play faster than saxophonists. The Boehm keywork has heavier spring pressures because in many instances one finger must close more than one key (and spring) due to the interlinkage mechanisms.
  • The linear chromatic layout makes for faster & smoother chromatic runs.
  • The Schmidt fingering system is based on the chromatic scale which is the Grand daddy of them all. All key signatures are easy to play with no “problem” key signatures such as Db on the Boehm system.
  • Freedom of choice to open or close many more tonehole combinations. This provides better choices for altissimo forked fingerings and special combinations for multiphonics and other special effects.
  • No closed keys/toneholes (except for the top palm keys). This provides a more open, clear and projecting tone. Because of several closed keys, the Boehm system sax has some stuffy or ill sounding notes.
  • Simpler, stronger keywork - fewer problems.
  • Freedom to use more shortcuts or “cheat” by closing some keys which can remain closed throughout a fast scale or phrase. The Boehm system provides fewer opportunities because its interlinkages lock you out of many short cut sequences.
  • More resonance in the horn because there are fewer ribs and keywork posts soldered onto the body to deaden its vibrations. Even if a Boehm system sax were made similar to one of my horns by reducing the number of posts, it would not sound as good because of the intonational compromises and misplaced toneholes inherent with the Boehm design.
  • Fewer (if any) redundant keys. The Boehm layout has several redundant keys to try to get around the problems of its C scale based design.
  • Trills are clean, easy and in tune because of the light key pressure, fewer interlinkages and ideal location of the toneholes. Tremolos (the trilling of wide intervals) are better for the same reason that trills are better. Usually several fingers can be held down during a tremolo while only one or two fingers need to move in order to perform the fluttering interval. Several tremolos (or intervals) can be strung together to form a phrase. A player can use this technique to develop muscle memory patterns which will allow him/her to play faster and with more ease. Low note trills and tremolos are available in all intervals - far beyond the capabilities of conventional horns.
  • Better facilitation of the palm keys. The Boehm system sax has some palm keys which are awkward because they are not operated by the fingers but are sort of bumped into by the hand.
  • Although my horn does require development of technique and muscle memory training, the new finger motions, once mastered, offer more advantages than disadvantages compared to the Boehm system sax. 
Currently, Jim is only making tenor versions of this chromatic saxophone. So, you want one? Well be prepared to fork over a mini-fortune as these tenors retail for $12,000 each! Why are they so expensive? Well, Mr. Schmidt does not mass produce these (he isn't sure if there is a huge market for them) and makes them by hand. Below are some pictures courtesy of his website.

fingering chart
layout of keys

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