Lyon And Healy ‘Artist’ Alto (1920)

The Story

I bought this alto from Magginisupplies, who are based in the West Country. Over the years I have acquired a number of fine instruments from Tony, who is a keen on sailing, so we sometimes meet in the car park of a local reservoir when something interesting comes up. This was one of a couple I bought at the time. What a grand tribute to capitalism it is – to be buying ancient saxophones on a Sunday morning from the back of Tony’s estate car. He has a lot of different instruments for sale, although I believe violins are perhaps his main thing.

The Instrument

Lyon and Healy were a US-based department store, opening for business in the 19th century. In fact they still exist as harp makers. The company, still based in Chicago, Ill., USA was formed in 1864 and began making brass instruments in around 1890. According to Wikipedia it boasted making 100,000 instruments a year in its 1892 catalog, making it an interesting precursor of the major companies like Conn, Selmer, Martin and Buescher who would manufacture these kinds of numbers for saxophones alone in the late 1920s and Yamaha, who would do so again in the 1960s.

Although they manufactured a few of their own horns (see the excellent article at saxpics) – it looks as if the majority of their instruments were made (albeit to their own designs) by other companies. I have no doubt that my sax was made by Martin from the bevelled tone holes and the font of the ‘PAT APPLD FOR’ stamp above the serial number. According to Dr Rick the serial number would make the year of manufacture 1920, which seems appropriate for its features. John Henry Martin had worked for Conn in Elkhart, Ill., USA and others before he set up the Martin Band Instrument Company in 1905. I have a few of their horns and find them all to be expertly made, if a bit light on the weight of brass.

In this case the horn is a ‘clapper’, with the low B on the left and the low Bb on the right from the player’s point of view. I can’t tell if this was originally lacquered or not – if it was, it’s totally faded now. On balance I think it was a polished brass finish. It appears dullish to look at, although an excellent renovation by my sax technician has made it very playable.

One very interesting feature is that the G# key also controls the bottom C#, rather than having a single key for each. I’ve never seen this feature on any other sax and it was almost certainly added by Lyon and Healy at the design stage. While arguably it simplifies things for the player, I find the additional weight makes it harder to play G#. It also has an extra pivoted spring at the top just behind the upper octave hole on the neck, which certainly does make the octave key more reliable.

In other details it is very similar to a Martin Handcraft and includes a Selmer ‘cigar cutter’ style octave key. It has the serial number repeated on the neck and the face of a clown etched on the bell above the ‘Lyon and Healy, Maker, Chicago, USA’. According to the 1926 catalog this alto was priced at $111.75 (including case) when new.

The Player

It would be wrong to suppose a saxophone from the 1920s would play as easily as a modern horn. As I noted above, the G#/C# key is a bit heavy under the left hand ‘pinky’ and the pearls feel more widely spaced and harder to depress than on a modern balanced instrument. However the sound is loud and true when played with my Berg Larsen ebonite 6 (with Rico 3 1/2 reed) mouthpiece. It’s certainly not a ‘peashooter’ – a name used to describe early saxophones with a narrow bore towards the neck end and hard to keep in tune in the upper register. I’ve included a video clip of the horn from my saxachronic chamber.


  • Make – Lyon and Healy (Martin stencil)
  • Model – Artist alto
  • Serial Number – 20,097
  • Date of Manufacture – 1920
  • Place of Manufacture – Elkhart, Indiana, USA
  • Finish – Polished Brass
  • Weight – 4lbs 2oz
  • Sound – Mature and loud, well in tune in upper register
  • Ease of Blowing – Somewhat strenuous
  • Ease of Fingering – Offers more resistence than modern instruments

More about Lyon and Healy saxophones can be found currently on the Web from Dr Sax and Bassic Sax in addition to the saxpics and catalog from Vinatage Images referrenced above.

Do you own a Lyon and Healy? Do you see value in the conjoined ‘pinky’ keys? Please let me know by commenting on this post.

4 Responses

  1. Hi!

    I have recently purchased a ‘C’ soprano sax with the following details:

    Lyon and Healy


    Patd Dec 8 1914 (drawn tone holes)

    C Key ‘C’

    P23291 What does the ‘P’ denote? Presumably the number is the serial number

    L Low pitch – 440

    Any idea if this is a stencil or original or other helpful history? The engraving appears to be of a lyre.

    I am interested in the history of the instrument and how I might locate a suitable mouthpiece!

  2. Mike

    Thanks so much for your comment. Your Lyon and Healy is almost certainly a Conn stencil – the ‘Patd Dec 8…’ refers to a patent it took out on its rolled tone holes (although my Pan American has the inscription, but no rolling).
    My Lyon and Healy has a Clown motif, although it’s difficult to see from the photos.
    Lyon and Healy had some interesting design inputs to their saxes, so it would be interesting to see how your C soproano looks.
    Let me know if you’d like us to cover it here.


  3. Hi Martin,

    I am interested in your comment that the ‘lacquer is mostly faded now’, but yet you also list the spec as ‘highly polished brass’? Which is it? Lacquered or just polished naked brass?

    The reason I ask is because I have a L&H bari (Martin-style beveled tone holes) 201,XXX and I am unable to tell if it was lacquered (once) or a bare brass finish. Today it is an authentic ‘pitted corrosion’ finish!


    BTW keep up the good work 😉

    • Quentin
      Thanks for spotting my slip. I think it was a polished brass finish and have adjusted the offending text. Please send some pictures of you bari – these are very fine instruments and advanced for their time.
      Best Wishes

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