Electronic saxophones have resulted from fusing the acoustical qualities of the raw power and tonality of a brass saxophone with the electronic modifications of a microphone, preamp and a speaker.



L2P Special: The History Of Electric Sax—Written by Gwen Shroyer
The first electronic saxophone that I am aware of was the Varitone introduced in 1965 by H & A Selmer. They worked hand in hand with Electro Voice to insure that the electronics were pristine. The full design was a professional saxophone with an embedded microphone in the neck. The controls were attached to the key guard of the low B and Bb on the bell so that one could reach it easily with the right hand. With it one could achieve tremolo, echo, synthesized tone in a lower octave and control over the tone quality and volume. The control unit plugged into the powered external speaker cabinet that one had to tote around with their setup. The most notable player to use the Varitone was Eddie Harris on tenor saxophone. Harris’s talent in experimental jazz is well noted using the electronic saxophone as well as his Mark VI.

The Hammond Instrument Company also manufactured an electronic saxophone that they called the Condor. Unlike Selmer, the Condor did not actually include a saxophone. One had to drill and thread a hole in their saxophone mouthpiece to screw in the pickup holder which is where the sound was captured and sent to the Condor’s controller unit. The tone could be manipulated to create a number of brass instrument tones as well as up to three synthesized octaves and volume control to an amplifier.
A more modern version of an electric saxophone called the Synthophone is made by Softwind Instruments. They basically take a Yamaha 23 or 275 series student saxophone and retrofit it with a lip sensor attached to the reed and add the electronics within the instrument itself. This instrument is more in line with a keyboard synthesizer as it completely changes the tone to any variation available on a tone module.
Other instruments in this variety are the Akai EWI, Casio DH100, Casio DH200 and the Yamaha WX11 and Yamaha WX5 wind controllers. The thing that really sets the Synthophone apart from the others is the fact that it is embodied into an actual saxophone. This type of feel can add a lot more to the playing experience. The most notable saxophone player to use this type of electronic saxophone was Michael Brecker who famously used the EWI on several of his recordings as well as in hundreds of live events. He was able to manipulate the tonal qualities to sound like he was playing
 any thing from a fiddle to an electric bass guitar. He was quite the musician and could make his Selmer Mark VI Tenor sing like the best of them but to hear what he was capable of creating musically with an electronic saxophone was just as impressive.
I have played many of these instruments and even owed a few Yamaha Midi Wind Controllers as well. Experimenting with these instruments can be a lot of fun as well as the increase of one’s playing and rehearsal time to accommodate being proficient on them. I would love to hear back from you about your experimenting with electronic saxophones and those that you have encountered playing them as well.
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Side note: Possibly one of the most famous songs recorded that featured a Varitone Electric Sax was “Peter Gunn” by Henry Mancini and Orchestra.

Originally posted 2009-08-08 19:07:58.