Interesting Questions . . .
Back to Q&A Topic Directory
|Q. Hi there, I saw your link off one of the many sax rings and thought to give you a try. A while back I had someone tell me my alto was a fairly old horn but lost the exact info. If I remember correctly H. N. White manufactured some horns for King for some time. I was wondering if you had any information or had any links to pass on to help me figure out when, roughly speaking, my horn was produced. It says ‘King’ on the bell, and then below that it says ‘H. N. White, made in Cleveland’. I have only found King horns with 6 digit serial numbers, but mine has only 5 digits. It says “low pitch” and then the serial is 36xxx. Were the H. N. White line horns just a lower prestige horn made for King or something? It has some of those extra keys some of the older super 20′s style altos had and such. I appreciate any and all comments you might have. Also wondering if this horn would even be worth restoring. It has been dipped a couple of times, so I will have to completely refinish it as well as a repad. Thanks for your time and help. Sincerely, Chad …
A. The H. N. White Company in Cleveland, OH is the base company for King saxophones. ‘King’ was a line or brand name used by the H. N. White Company, much like Buick is a line of General Motors. In 1925 H. N. White bought the Cleveland Instrument Company, so Cleveland saxophones are related to King saxophones by common ownership (i.e., Buick and Chevrolet). There are some design similarities between the two – and some differences that were intentionally maintained over the years. You will see Cleveland saxes with both bell keys on the left, for instance, but never King saxophones – at least of the vintage period. With the Voll-True II, King adopted left bell keys (like the Europeans) and stuck with them all the way through the Super 20. The engraving on every King I’ve ever seen had the H. N. White name in addition to the King brand name, even the Saxello. H. N. White also had brands called Gladiator, Liberty, Master Model, Silver Tone and American Standard, in addition to King and Cleveland.
Your sax is an early one, for sure. The King serial number charts are sketchy, at best, and particularly so on the numbers in your range. This is a guestimate, but I would place your sax around 1920. Your sax would bear no resemblance at all to a Super 20, so your comment about Super 20 features is a bit puzzling. The Super 20 is one of the world’s great saxophone designs that appeared just after WWII and developed to its full potential in the early 1960s. The King saxes of 1920 are simple and backward by comparison. That’s not meant to run down your sax, just to state a fact about the mechanical sophistication of the Super 20 in comparison.
The early King saxes have a great sound, but they have weak mechanisms, particularly the octave train and the G# assembly. The G# is especially problematic because it is located on the back of the sax body (like the original Adolph Sax design) as opposed to resting between the upper and lower stacks as in modern saxophones. The other weakness of this model King is the use of double pad cups for G and sometimes low C. Those are unwieldy and hard to keep in sync. If you can get these horns set up and adjusted correctly they play OK – and of course have the characteristic great King sound – but the trouble to keep them playing is a burden. For this reason they are not of great value, and are particularly not suited to heavy play, that is, unless you are a competent tech yourself – and somewhat of a masochist …
The King line of H. N. White Company takes its name from a trombonist, a Mr. Thomas H. King, for whom Mr. White and his partner, a Mr. C. H. Berg, produced a prototype trombone around 1900. As the story goes, Mr. King was such an exceptional trombonist that Mr. White recognized that the state of the art in trombones of the time was limiting Mr. King’s abilities. So, Mr. White took it upon him self to design a superior trombone to alleviate the problem. The two worked together to create ‘The King of Trombones’ (which it is said they did) and from that time forward the top instruments of the company took the designation of ‘King’ (as in king of the line). Though the company started out repairing and making brass instruments about 1894 under the name of White & Berg, by 1909 they were producing a full array as The H. N. White Company, including saxophones. The company reached its height from the late 1930s until the early 1970s. During this period King made some of the finest instruments on the planet, and pioneered the use of solid silver body parts that add such a tremendous color and life to a horn’s sound. In addition to the fine saxophones the we obviously think of in the Zephyr and Super 20 lines, King has always excelled in trumpets, and of course, in trombones. The Silver Sonic trombones stand right along side these same saxophone models in terms of their legendary mystique — and for good reason. Around 1970 King production was moved to East Lake, Ohio from Cleveland. That move started a downward spiral in quality from which there was no recovery. The company was sold at least once after the move (I want to say UMI, but someone correct me if that’s wrong), then the residue of the King Company was acquired by Selmer late in the Twentieth Century. It sounds funny to say it that way, but in so doing it points out that the H. N. White Company, in it’s various forms, has now endured for at least parts of three centuries.
Discussion on G# trill & fork Eb
After considering the question a bit more I believe those ‘extra keys’ to which Chad alludes are things like the G# trill and fork Eb that were common on saxophones until the mid 1930s. These keys are considered to be of little use to us today (which isn’t necessarily true), but keep in mind that the character of the music we play is constantly changing. In the early Twentieth Century trills were obviously quite important to performing the music of the day, so designers sought to facilitate performance in order to better serve (and capture) the market. The G# trill on these older vintage saxes is pretty much a harmless critter, but the fork Eb can be troublesome.
There are two types of G# trill mechanisms, each with its own mechanical implications and potential uses. The earlier type G# trill is accomplished by extending the G# cup’s rod down into the lower stack & soldering on a lever & touch that the player uses to close the G# pad once it is opened using the left pinky spatula. When not in use this little lever & touch sits between the F & E key touches, riding up & down as the G# pad opens & closes. The advantages of this type G# trill mechanism are that it is mechanically simple and can be used in a pinch to pry a sticking G# pad open on the fly. The disadvantage is the extra weight of the extended G# cup & actuator arm must be accounted for in the G# springing — already a tedious proposition by the nature of the two part/two spring G# assembly. We see this type mechanism up until the late 1920s.
The second type of G# trill was introduced by Conn on the transitional altos around 1930. This later type of G# trill mechanism, consisting of a separate rod & lever just inside the lower stack rod assembly, actually opens a closed G# by pushing the left hand pinky G# spatula down from its back end. Because of its positive function, this type mechanism is more appropriately characterized as an alternate G# fingering than as merely a G# trill. Your tech must take care to adjust this type G# trill so that the lever & touch neither wave wildly about between your right hand fingers when not in use, nor clanks against the sax body when the touch is depressed. Aside from these adjustment issues this design G# trill is fairly trouble free. As a substitute for the left pinky G# this key is especially useful in altissimo register when the left hand is occupied applying an awkward combination of upper keys. If your front alt high E & F fingerings prove a bit flat on an old Conn, opening the G# is often an effective fix, and the ability to do it with your right hand can often facilitate difficult left hand passages.
Because the function of the fork Eb mechanism mechanism is so misunderstood it is often disabled. Most view the fork Eb as some sort of trill key, which it is not. The purpose is to facilitate passages where the player must quickly swap the two right hand spatula (Eb/low C) keys. The forked Eb is especially useful when playing in keys such as Bb, B or Db, or when using the minor 3rd in key of C. There are lots of blues licks that use that jump, as you good players doubtless know. The little fork Eb pad wrecks low end response if it leaks, so many techs and players who do not fully understand its potential benefits simply opt to avoid all possibility of trouble by disabling the pad.
The real issue has always been the extra time it takes for a tech to properly adjust the fork Eb mechanism. That means BOTH having the pad operate & seal (in conjunction with E & D), and setting the open height of the fork Eb pad to optimize the sound of the Eb produced using the alt fingering. Because there are several interrelated clearances in the fork Eb keywork train that must to be correctly set for this all to happen, the regulation can be a bit tricky. So over the years it became expedient to simply block off the little pad by either reversing the spring, corking the pad closed against its guard cage or sealing the tone hole itself. Depending on the method employed to disable the fork Eb there can be several resulting maladies, the most common of which is a lazy E key. That’s cuz the little spring that lifts your fork Eb pad also gives an assist to raising the weight of the arm that operates it – and that must be lifted solely by the E spring when the fork Eb spring isn’t functional. Other possible maladies include intonation, response & tonal issues in notes in the proximity of E that were designed with the premise that the fork Eb pad would be open nearby.
Pros who know how to work on vintage saxophones will NEVER disable a fork Eb mechanism. Experienced vintage sax techs know that if they first adjust everything else in the lower stack the chore of regulating a fork Eb mechanism isn’t at all daunting. In fact, one acid test to determine if a tech is qualified to work on your vintage saxophone is to ask how they handle the fork Eb mechanism. Armed with the information in the above discussion you know what the answers must be. So we’ve proved again that knowledge is saxual power in your hands …