School of The Rock


Horns in my Life:

1962 Elkhart Tenor Sax

by Paul D. Race

elkhart_tenor_sax_181My first saxophone came from a mail-order catalog. Actually saxophone wasn't my first choice. I loved the sound of a French horn from an early age. When the music store people came to the school auditorium in 1962 to demonstrate band instruments and take orders, I went expecting to come home with a French horn. But while I was drooling over the French horn, my father (who had little confidence that I would stick with band) was asking the sales guy which instrument was easiest to learn. Somewhere over my head, literally as well as figuratively, the guy answered, "Saxophone, definitely." "What about French horn?" "Nobody starts on that; it's too hard to play." "What do people who want to play French horn start on?" "Trumpet." "Is that easier than French horn?" "Yes, much." "Is it easier than saxophone?" "No."

Today I know that a saxophone has always cost at least twice as much as a trumpet. Price-wise it's a "second-tier instrument," along with “double” French horn, baritone horn, and a few others. The first-tier instruments (flute, clarinet, trumpet, cornet, and trombone)  all cost about the same (although trombone is sometimes a little cheaper). That way, kids can choose from any of the "core" wind instrument groups without having to decide whether preferring, say, flute over clarinet, is worth spending another $50. (Drum kits are usually a little cheaper, but other factors often steer families away from drums.)

In other words, my father, who didn’t think I was committed to learning an instrument, was nevertheless willing to spend more money if it meant improving my chances. In addition - I realize it now - he loved the sound of a tenor sax, especially in jazz.  Perhaps he wanted to play one as a kid and was hoping to give me the chance to do what he never got to do.  Or perhaps he imagined that I would one day be a great jazz saxophone player on the order of Sil Austin, John Coltrane, or Sonny Rollins, etc.   If he was, I know I disappointed him. But after all, there weren't really many places to learn jazz in Donnelsville, Ohio in 1962. Or - after we moved - Miamisburg, Ohio, in 1964.

There was only an alto sax on display.

"What about tenor?" Dad asked the sales guy.

"Well, the kids usually start with alto, because that's the 'main' instrument of the family. Hardly anyone starts on tenor."

Dad looked at the alto and blanched at the price tag. But he asked, "So, he wouldn't be fighting for first chair or such?"

"Not likely."

Unlike my friends who took horns home that night, we went home with empty hands.  Dad ordered a tenor saxophone through a mail order catalog, probably getting it for half of what the store model cost. On a factory-worker’s budget, that was the appropriate choice.  The horn - an Elkhart - probably came from General Merchandise, Dad's mail order catalog of elkhart_tenor_from_flickr_215choice in those days.

A fellow on Flickr has posed several photos of the same model I started on (I think). Click here for a look at his pictures.

Getting a Late Start

The first "problem" with my saxophone was that it arrived two weeks after "band class" had started. So for two weeks, I had been promising my teachers that a horn really was on its way, and sitting through "band class" holding only my music book, while Mr. Allan was showing the other kids how to blow their horns. By the time my horn arrived, even my parents realized that I would need some sort of "jump start" to catch up with the class.

One of my aunt Shirley's in-laws was a woodwind teacher. So when the saxophone came, Dad called "Hap" Ashenfelter and asked if he could help me get started. The first night, Hap looked over the horn, showed me how to put it together, showed me where to put my fingers, and taught me to blow a few notes.

At the next band class, it was clear that I was still behind. When time came for my next lesson (we thought), Dad drove me over, only to find out that Hap hadn't put me on his schedule - he thought my lesson was a one-shot deal and couldn't fit in any new students. Still, he squoze me in one more time. By the time I finished that second and last "lesson," I knew what I needed to catch up with the class, and I was never behind again.

In retrospect, taking lessons from Hap would have been a huge help later on in my life as a would-be saxophone major. But since I was "hanging in there" without lessons, it never seemed critical to me or to my often cash-strapped parents.

Size Does Matter

Another "problem" with my saxophone, when I started out, at least, was that it was nearly as big as I was. The case was huge. While I lived in Donnelsville, we walked to school. I would lug the thing up the hill on band days, then lug it home, the handle on the end of the case announcing my approach by banging with each step. In nice weather, I might take it home at lunch. Back in 1962, no one thought anything of the kids who lived in the neighborhood wandering off the grounds at lunch time - how things have changed!

Later, when we lived in Miamisburg and I took the bus, the sax case took up as much room as another kid - not a good thing when there weren't enough seats anyway. Usually the bus driver made me leave it by the door where there was a little floor space, with the result that everyone coming in or leaving kicked it or tripped over it. In the band room, I couldn't put it in the "cubbies" with the rest of the horns - I had to heft it up on the top of the cabinets, where they stored the tubas and other huge instruments. I was very small until I was a junior in high school, so wonking it to the top of a seven-foot high shelf was interesting too. All of this isn't to say that I wish I had taken up clarinet instead - only to point out that when I was 50 inches tall and weighed 45 pounds, alto sax might have been a better choice. (Tenor had its advantages, though, as I report later.)

What Kind of Horn is an "Elkhart," Anyway?

In my youthful ignorance, there was one more "problem" with my horn - it was an "off brand," to me at least. All my friends has instruments from "real companies" like Conn or Martin. But I was "stuck" with an "Elkhart" that had come from a mail-order discount store. Although all of the major band instrument companies were headquartered in Elkhart, Indiana, at the time, nobody had ever heard of Elkhart instruments, not "Hap," and not any band director I ever had. Still, I didn't let having an "off-brand" instrument keep me from catching up with the rest of the kids.

Practice, Practicefingering_chart_166

belwin_band_builderMy progress was probably aided by the fact that mom would never check off the practice chart in my Belwin Band Builder booklets unless I had actually practiced. But playing the same beginning exercises over and over and over got old fast. So I went ahead, using the fingering chart in the front to learn the notes we hadn't been taught yet. And I reached the end of the book in a few months.

To give me something else to play, Dad bought a big saxophone practice book with about three hundred songs in it. Some were easy, some were not so easy, but over the next few years, I learned them all. Here's a funny aside - many were 60-100-year old popular tunes like "Old Oaken Bucket," "Aura Lee," "Long, Long, Ago," "My Grandfather's Clock," and "Man on the Flying Trapeze." Somewhere we had also picked up an old "sing-a-long" songbook that had all of those songs, so after I learned the tunes from my saxophone book I learned the lyrics from the songbook. Consequently, as a child I learned dozens of songs that my grandparents would have known by heart, and nobody in my generation - or since - ever heard of. Of course people today are never impressed by the fact that you occasionally recognize tunes they've never heard of. (Trivia Question 1: Oklahoma opens with the first seven notes of what old tune mentioned above? - They play those seven notes twice, in two different keys, in case you didn't catch the reference the first time. Question 2: Which song mentioned above was recorded by Elvis with other words?  Answers at the bottom of the page.)

Some of the other practice tunes were based on classical themes, so I learned some of the most powerful melodies ever written, by folks like Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Mussorgsky.  This wasn’t as much help when I was a music major later as you might think, but it helped me to recognize a good melody when I heard it. 

Never Use Brass Polish on a New Brass Instrument

Besides getting no respect, the Elkhart had the bad luck to fall into the hands of a family that had never owned a wind instrument before. So when Mr. Allan told the class that we needed to "polish" the instrument before band concerts, my Mom took his direction seriously. The horn was made of brass, so you should use brass polish, right? Only if you want to take all the lacquer off the horn in a matter of minutes. So by the time the poor thing was thee years old, it looked thirty. Not to mention the wear and tear that any kid puts on an instrument that is nearly as large as he is when he starts out.

Between my sixth and seventh grade, the family moved to Miamisburg, OH, and I wound up in the Miamisburg Junior High band, not a bad place to be, really. Director Tom Coffman loved music, liked most of the kids, and nagged if we hadn't practiced.

The Elkhart tenor then survived two years of junior high and two and a half years of high school. By then, I had discovered guitar. And I has also - unfortunately - learned that I didn't really need to practice saxophone outside of band class to keep up with 99% of the people in the room (I credit my earlier practice for that, not necessarily any inherent talent.) So I practiced irregularly, to say the least.

Now I realized that, had I been taking lessons, there were lots of things a teacher would have worked on, intonation and expression being at the top. But I constantly tested out second-chair out of five or six saxophones, beating out a couple kids who were taking lessons and had state-of-the-art horns so I didn't worry about continuous improvement like I should have.

I have to admit that my H.S. band director never took me seriously my freshman or sophomore year. Maybe it was the beat-up-looking Elkhart, or maybe it really was my playing. In fact he made me go onto bass clarinet one year - a fate usually reserved for kids who weren't cutting it on clarinet, and that was saying something.

The Final Blow

In the middle of marching band season my Junior year, a kid slammed the band room door on me as I was coming through, snapping my saxophone's neck piece off at the joint. A number of my friends were getting upgrade horns for one reason or another about the same time, but money always seemed tight, and I didn't really expect my folks to chip in for an upgrade. If they had taken my Elkhart to a stand-alone repair shop instead of the big music store in town, it might have gotten a soldering job and a few new pads and lasted me through the rest of high school.

In the music store, though, my parents heard the sales guy explain that the Elkhart was a cheap, off-brand starter instrument and, if they really loved me, they would realize that I deserved a better horn. Frankly, I probably didn't. I was focusing on guitar then, and all but neglecting saxophone. Plus, getting a "decent" horn in the middle of marching band season wasn't really optimum (today I recommend that students looking to upgrade their instruments keep their old horns for marching band).

Revisiting Assumptions

Many years later, while I was researching vintage saxophones, I came across the Elkhart brand again. Turns out, that there was once an Elkhart company.  But by the time my horn was built, Buescher had bought them out.  Some time after Buescher introduced their new professional Aristocrat in 1932, they begun using the Elkhart name to identify its student horns.  The 1950s and 1960s Elkharts carried over the core geometry of Buescher’s earlier “True-Tone” line.  But they included several updates from later Buescher saxes, including the Aristocrat’s low B and Bb key and pad arrangements.

After Selmer bought Buescher in 1963, the Elkhart line was reissued as the Selmer Bundy sax, by far the single most popular student sax line in the 1960s and 1970s.

In other words, the Elkhart actually compared favorably with the "brand name" starter horns the rest of the class was playing, and was better than many.  But I didn’t know that when I was a kid, and - sadly - neither did any of my teachers. elkhart_engraving_225

elkhart_engraving3_217If you think you may have come across one of these, one distinctive feature was that - like the Aristocrat, and the first-generation Selmer Bundy, the low B and Bb pads were on the left side of the bell, which allowed more room on the right side for the engraving. Mine had a stylized elk-head completely contained in a heart outline. On others, the elk's antlers protrude past the heart outline. Some versions have the Buescher name under the logo and some don't. I think mine looked like the one on the left above.

If you’ve ever wanted to try out a Buescher True Tone but you don’t mind a low Bb key button that is easier to push, try one of these out.  The point is that it was a better horn than I or any of my teachers or directors gave it credit for.

Usefullness to Beginners Today?

All of this is not to say that an Elkhart would compete with name-brand student horns today. For one point, all “real brands” have substantially improved the ergonomics of their starter instruments.  bundy_ii_eb_low_c_keys_124

elkhart_eb_low_c_keys2As an example, compare the photos to the right. These are the Eb and low C keys, operated by the right hand pinky. On the old Elkhart (and virtually all student line horns before 1970), the keys are flat, requiring 100% vertical pressure to operate them. On the “improved” Bundy II, the keys are curved, and they are tilted upward, so the pinky uses a more lateral, more natural motion to play them. The left hand pinky keys are similarly tweaked, as are the palm keys and many others.  For more information on the kind of saxophone key design changes that separate “modern” saxophones from “vintage” horns, please refer to our article on “Saxophone Ergonomics.”

Ironically, most of these improvements were first incorporated on "pro horns," to give working musicians an edge. But starting in 1967, they worked their way "downstream" because they also make the horns easier for beginners to play. That's one reason to consider newer horns for beginners and small hands. Of course, if you're, say, an adult alto player looking to pick up an old tenor to double on, you won't have much trouble making the adjustment between modern and traditional key shapes.

Because “Elkhart” is still a relatively unknown model, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying a $100 basket case and spending $500 to get it fixed up - the obscure brand name would keep your horn from ever recouping your cost. A US-built Bundy II, or a Japanese Vito, or any number of other horns made between 1980 and 2000 would be a better investment - they would cost less to bring up to “spec” and they would be more likely to sell for a good price when you are ready to upgrade.  

That said, an Elkhart that could be brought to playable condition without a huge investment will outperform, outplay, and substantially outlast any of the under-$1000 cheapies coming out of China in 2014.

What the Elkhart Taught Me

Fifty years after my first tenor saxophone arrived in the mail, I am convinced that I learned more about music in general playing tenor than I would have on French horn or alto anyway. And I've been able to play the thing in a lot more circumstances than I would have a French horn (or even an Alto).

Nobody but tenor sax and baritone (brass) horn players know this, but never playing the melody is actually a good education in how all the parts of a piece go together. On marches tenor saxes always get the countermelody. On pastorales, we always get the cello part, on boogie-woogie, we always get the bass line, and so on. To this day, no matter what the music style, when I'm playing sax improvisationally in an ensemble, the last part that I imagine playing is the melody. And, frankly, that gives me more flexibility and creativity than a lot of people who are more talented in every other way.

Not Missing French Horn as Much as I Thought I Would

As an aside, I also play alto, and have occasionally played it in civic or church bands or whatever. Sadly, in many pieces that were originally arranged for an orchestra, the so-called Alto Sax part is really just the "F" French horn part transposed to Eb. So, decades after being disappointed that I didn't get to start out on French horn, I learned that, cool as they sound, French horns very seldom get interesting parts. If you play French horn, don't blame me for writing the previous sentence - demand better parts! Or switch to tenor sax.

So, thanks to the old Elkhart. I hope it got fixed and reused by someone else - it really was a decent enough horn, much better than the treatment we gave it, and on a quality par with many horns that are labeled “intermediate” today..

If you have or had a late-fifties or early-sixties Elkhart sax and want to add anything or tell your own story, please get in touch - I'll be very glad to hear from you.

Paul Race

Here are write-ups on other horns I’ve loved.

The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.

Other Articles you may find helpful include:

Answers to music trivia questions:  The song “Long Long Ago,” starts out with the line “Tell me the tales that were told long ago, long long ago.”  The curtain of Oklahoma opens to the tune of the “Tell me the tales that were told” line, then the orchestra goes up a half step and repeats the same line.  Back when the play opened every person in the audience would have “gotten it.”   Also, Fosdick and Poulton’s Civil-War era love song “Aura Lea” was repurposed with new words for Elvis’ hit “Love me Tender.”

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