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Holton 666 'Super' Collegiate alto saxophone

Holton 666 'Super' Collegiate alto sax reviewOrigin: USA
Guide price: £400-£500
Weight: 2.3kg
Date of manufacture: 1959 (serial range: 317xxx)
Date reviewed: February 2017

A distinctive horn with an equally distinctive nickname

Ask any sax buff to name the great vintage American marques and it's a fair bet that they'll reel off Conn, King, Martin, Buescher and leave it at that. But every once in a while you'll find that someone will mention Holton.
I think it's generally agreed that Holton - despite being one of the oldest makers - never really kept abreast with its later competitors, at least in the realms of woodwind, and yet to this date there remains quite a loyal following. Perhaps it's because Holton horns have something of the underdog about them, or it might just be that because everyone else is busily snapping up Conns and Kings at premium prices you can still pick up a Holton relatively cheaply.
It's all too easy to dismiss these people as overly-keen fanboys, but it wasn't such a long time ago that you couldn't give a Martin away (I bought one once for £25) and now they're fetching big money - so maybe they're just ahead of the game.

It's probably a very smart move - almost all of Holton's output comes from the days when build quality mattered, and for the price you might pay for rather bland '80s Taiwanese horn you could pick up something that's got a bit of heft to it, and some character.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, my workbench knows nothing of brand loyalty - and I'm equally as willing to upset fan clubs as I am major manufacturers (hate-mail to the usual address, ta) - so let's pop this little beast on the bench and see what it's made of...

There's been much conjecture about the use of 666 as a model number.
As everyone knows, 666 is the 'number of the beast'. Or so it is said. In fact lots of people say it isn't so - and that it's 612, or 512...or 606. Or was that a jazz club? Not that it matters that much - there's a general consensus that 666 is the number, and the number is 666.
This leads to the horn's rather sinister nickname - "The Devil's Horn" (which also happens to be the title of a fascinating book by Michael Segell - and of a rather less well thought of film).
Holton alto - the 666You have to wonder what on earth possessed (ho ho ho) the manufacturers to choose this number, given its connotations, and I dare say that a number of tinfoil hatters might suggest that there had been some sort of cabalistic influence in play...
We may never know the real answer, which is why the rumours abound. I did a bit of digging and called in a few favours, but didn't get very far - but I did pick up a story (cue Twilight Zone music) that suggested the guys 'n gals on the production line weren't very happy with the situation, and that some effort was put into ensuring the three sixes never lined up perfectly...presumably in an effort to denote the number as, say, 66 6 or 6 66.
Who knows? But you can clearly see the model number on this horn is out of alignment, as it is on many of the others I've seen.

As for the 'Super' - this largely appears to be a fan-base epithet. As far as I'm aware there's no official 'Super' designation for this horn, though the term has been used on other instruments from Holton. There's clearly meant to be a distinction between the basic Collegiate models and the more expensive ones - so it seems only fair that this model deserves the title.
But does that mean it's any better than the basic model, or that the body tube is different? I don't know, but I suspect not.

Rumours and speculation aside, what d'you actually get for your money?
The most obvious feature is the copper body. Is it copper, though? It's certainly not copper plated, but it's also almost certainly not pure copper.
Pure copper is really rather soft, and for practical purposes it'd make for a very poor body material. However, the 666's body is quite soft - and while dressing some of the toneholes I noted the typical 'grabbiness' that copper has against a file. I also noted how much more heat was required when resoldering fittings to the body. So I think it's safe to say that the body is made from a high copper content alloy. A very high copper content alloy.
I just call it copper.

Holton 666 alto toneholeThe other obvious feature is that the bell and crook are of a different colour (nickel plated), which has led to some speculation that they're actually nickel as opposed to the more usual brass. This example has had extensive and repeated repairs to the bottom bow which has resulted in the loss of the nickel plating inside the bottom bow, and as a consequence of this you can peer down the bell and gaze upon the soft yellow hue of rather tarnished brass. Similarly, after treating the crook with vinegar to remove years of encrustation it's plain to see that it's brass rather than nickel.

Before we get much further into the review I should point out that this horn has had a hard, hard life.
That's not to say that it's been well played. Most of the rod screw action was reasonably tight, with very few signs that it had been tightened up in the past. My impression of it is that it's seen sporadic but careless use by a player with gloved hands (minimal wear to the action doesn't match excessive wear to the touchpieces) and that the vast majority of its problems are down to whoever butchered the horn in an attempt to repair the damage caused by the careless handling.
It's clear that the bottom bow has taken a pounding - but what's less evident is that, at some point, the horn has taken a severe whack to the bell which, due to the design of the bell brace, has resulted in a very nasty fold in the body. This is an unfortunately common weak spot for horns that feature this kind of bell brace. It's designed merely to hold the bell to the body with no allowance for absorbing and spreading the forces of an impact.
If ever you're examining an old horn with a view to buying it, and you spot a bell brace like this - take a good, hard look around the area where the brace meets the body. If you see any signs that the brace has been resoldered, there's a good chance an impact knocked it off...and if you see any evidence of dentwork it might just mean you'd be better off looking for a horn that's been handled a bit more carefully.

Such damage is always a bad thing, but it's made so much worse by the relative softness of the copper body of the Holton.
And so someone's tried to straighten things out.
The apex of the bend was at the G# tonehole, and there's plenty of evidence to show that much use was made of a dent ball and a tonehole file - with the result that there's now barely any meat left on the tonehole...and the fact that it's level relies solely in a large reverse dent beneath its outside edge. If you look very closely you can also see that split has been repaired in the front of the hole.
There's no recovering from this kind of damage - at least not at the price this horn is worth. Such damage always ruins the structural integrity of the body - and when it's gone, it's gone. Couple this to a softish body and the ever-present spectre of repeat damage, courtesy of the crappy vintage bell brace, and you'd have to be a bit bonkers mad to cough up the necessary dough.

Holton 666 alto sling ringAnother treat was the repair made to the sling ring. This horn's clearly spent a lot of time hanging off a metal sling hook and, as expected, it's chewed its way through the ring. The standard fix for this is to remove the assembly, fill the chewed-out area with silver solder and then blend it all in. Which I've done - and for good measure I generally then flip the ring and fit it in reverse so that the repaired section now sits behind the sling hook.
What someone's done here is simply wrap some wire around the groove and then dob a bit of soft solder on it to hold it in place. Very neat.

As for the other body features, there's no detachable bell, no top F#, no adjustable thumb rest and non-removable bell key guards with no adjusters for the bumper felts. All of which add up to practically no features at all. The build quality of the body appears to be adequate. From new it would have been quite neat and tidy - the pillars (all single pillar construction) have decent bases on them and, along with the other fittings, seem to have been well-soldered in place.

The keywork is quite plain and simple and has as many features as the body (i.e. none). There's not a single adjuster on the whole horn.
The layout is typical for a horn of the period, being a bit of a blend of the old and the new - so you get a staggered top stack (separately-mounted Bis Bb and G keys), a separately-mounted G# key cup and single-piece low B/B keys...against which you have a non-levered single-piece low C# key, a teardrop touchpiece on the side F# and a basic but nonetheless effective octave key mech. And the bell key table layout is flat and non-tilting. Good to see simple fork and pin connectors on the side Bb/C keys, though.
Holton 666 alto G# keyAs vintage as the G# key design is, I quite like this arrangement. The modern design is an exercise in compactness - but that's not a quality that you tend to associate with leverage. No such problems here - you can see where the key cup foot rests on the lever key (about two thirds of the way down), and the lever is powered by a flat spring a little further on. It looks, I'll admit, a bit clunky - and it's often a complete pain to remove and refit as it tends to mean you have to remove/assemble the whole bell key cluster in one go - but it gives the G# a really slick, snappy feel. You also have a lot more latitude when it comes to setting the spring tension, which can go a long way to alleviating the dreaded sticky G# syndrome.

But by far the biggest issue with the keywork is the softness of the key cups.
The keys themselves aren't especially soft - in fact they're reasonably sturdy. The key cups, however, appear to be made of cheese.
I figured something was off when the horn first came in for repair, what with practically every key cup exhibiting a ding or a dent. It's not so unusual to see such damage on the odd key here and there, and it can either be caused by careless handling (which this horn has seen a lot of) or by crappy repairing...which this horn has also seen a lot of.
But why would a repairer beat the crap out of almost all the key cups?
Well, bashing the key cups is a viable technique - but there's a world of difference between giving the cups a judicious tap with a well-aimed mallet and knocking seven bells out of them. For example, there's little point in fitting a new pad into a key cup that's got more warps than a federation starship - so the cup will have to be levelled first. There are a variety of methods for doing this, but they essentially boil down to hitting it with a mallet. The technique (usually) works because of the combination of the toughness of the metal and the strength imparted by virtue of the various bends and curves.
But the Holton's key cups are incredibly soft - and it's not down to the thickness of the metal because it's much the same as any other cups I've seen, rather it's down to the quality of the brass. Which means that while a gentle tap with a mallet to the rim of the cup would normally straighten out a warp, on the Holton it merely results in a dent to the cup.
It's also problematic when bending the key cup arms to reset the key cup angles; rather than the cup and the tip of the arm resisting the bending force while the arm itself moves, the key cups simply deform as the tip of the arm pushes into the cup.
It's by no means an impossible situation - you just have to be aware of the softness and take appropriate care.

Holton 666 alto point screwThe point screws are of the parallel type, and are also really rather thin...and long. There are lots of reasons why this type of pivot screw isn't much cop, but making them thin and long merely adds to the problem. If the horn takes a knock to the keys there's a good chance that the force might bend the tip - which, at best, leaves you with a slightly offset key and at worst means the key jams up completely.
It also leads to something of a gotcha when assembling the keywork. It's standard practice to fit one point screw and then pivot the key on it as you swivel it into position. It saves a great deal of time when you're key-fitting - but you can't do this on the Holton (or any horn with properly-fitting parallel points, really) because the screw's tip will bend. There was barely a single straight pivot screw on this horn when it came in, and a couple looked to have been deliberately shortened...presumably to remove a bent portion.

By now you'll probably have noticed the state of the finish on the horn. It's rather pockmarked, most notably on the nickel-plated sections.
This is unusual, because nickel plating is generally as tough as old boots and arguably as attractive - but despite its tendency to tarnish to a rather difficult-to-remove grey sheen, it nonetheless resists wear and tear quite well. What makes it look so bad on this horn is that Holton have slapped a coat of lacquer over it.
Putting lacquer over plating is almost always a bad idea - it seldom holds on very well, and once the plating starts to tarnish beneath the lacquer it always looks rather worse than flaky lacquer over bare brass. And you can't really polish up the nickel where the lacquer has fallen off, because the sort of polish that can cut through nickel tarnish will also cut right through lacquer in no time at all.
It's an unusual choice of finish, but I would imagine it was done to try and retain the horn's inherent 'blinginess', given its probable target clientele (marching band players). Whether or not you like the two-tone finish you have to admit that a bunch of these horns being marched six-abreast down the street would probably have looked pretty dazzling. For a while, anyway.

Holton 666 alto octave mechThe action's not too bad at all on this horn. In fact it's really rather good. You can set it surprisingly light.
To be sure, you can set any horn's action light...but you'll soon run into problems when the weight of the keys exceeds the force of the springs. The Holton will go quite some way lighter than a great many horns and still have a fluid and responsive action. Just for fun I set it as light as I dared - and it still worked. However, it didn't seem to suit the horn somehow - and adding a bit more 'weight' to the springs made it feel more cohesive.
The layout's pretty good - it sits nicely between the vintage and modern styles, and I doubt very many players will have any issues with the key placement. The bell key table is a little quaint, but what it loses in design it more than makes up for in its responsiveness. I quite liked it.
As mentioned earlier, the octave mech's quite basic but nonetheless quite a nice design. OK, so the small, domed pearl that suffices for a thumb rest is a bit meagre - but some attempt has been made to profile the octave key's touchpiece. The swivel is simple and effective - but the main plus point is that it's a robust mechanism, built to withstand the rigours of student life. It's also quite slick and responsive.

Tonewise it's a very warm, smooth blow. I also found it notably resistant. Now, on paper that looks like a polite way to say 'stuffy' - and I'd agree that stuffiness does indeed tend to fit that profile. However, it's the end result which counts - and whereas a stuffy horn puts out a mediocre, unsatisfying sound, the Holton rewards you with a rich mellowness. I don't mind admitting it's not the sort of tone I personally look for in an alto, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy the occasional stroll down Smooth Street...in the same way that I don't mind the odd glass of port (or two, or three) over my usual tipple of a single malt whisky.
Being harsh I'd say it lacks the percussiveness I look for - the sense of every note starting with a 'ping'. The notes seem to ease into existence (think of the difference between a glockenspiel and a xylophone) and blend into each other.
But that's not to say that there's no edge at all. It's there, once the note starts, but rather than tending towards the harsh and gritty it's more soft and gentle. A bit of a fizz...which is nice. I daresay you'd be able to tweak the response considerably with the right choice of mouthpiece - my Rousseau is as about as middling as it gets, which makes it a good analytical piece, but something with a bit of a baffle might well poke some pep into the response. Or you could just enjoy the comforting warmth.
It's a good ballad horn, and it's a good alto for those players who want a tenor-like presentation. In fact it's remarkably good in that respect, but if you put it up against a pro horn with similar qualities (such as one of the Buffets) I think you'll quickly find there are easier ways to achieve that laid-back mellowness. But, of course, you'll pay for the privilege.

Other than that it was quite even across the scale with no notable tuning anomalies.

Holton 666 alto bellThe big question about these horns is "Are they pro models?"
And the answer is "No, they're not".
I base this on a variety of factors which include the build quality, the construction features, the feel and, ultimately, the playability.
It's a nice player, there's no doubt about that - but there's very much a sense of the horn having limits.
I sort of view the playability of a pro horn as being a bit like a Mandelbrot set - the deeper you look, the more you see...and the more there is to see. You feel like you might play that horn for a thousand years and still never quite reach the end of its capabilities. Whichever direction you wish to go in, the horn will be right there with you.
The Holton doesn't have that. It has a lot, to be sure, but the more you play it and the harder you play, the more you start to feel the walls of the quality barrier encroaching upon you.
To be fair that's something that will affect the vast majority of horns out there - which is why most pros are playing on horns that cost several grand...though there are some notable exceptions, such as the venerable Yamaha 23 and, rather surprisingly, one or two cheapo Chinese horns.
With that said I think it would be wise to make an allowance for the damage this horn has incurred in the past. The odd repaired dent or two isn't going to make a significant different to the playability, but when you start mangling the toneholes it's almost certainly going to impact the way in which the horn plays.
Had this horn been in better condition I might have got a touch more brightness out of it, or maybe a little less resistance. Hard to say for sure - but I wouldn't bank on a pristine example being very much different in terms of response. It would certainly be interesting to revisit this review as and when a better example comes in...and if it does, I will. But for now, this is the horn that I've reviewed.

All in all I think it's quite an interesting horn. It's distinctive, it's different, it's a pleasant workhorse with plenty of character - but the design and materials mean it's not for the faint of heart (or wallet). And before you buy one you might just want to check that the body hasn't been bent - and that those sixes don't line up...

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2016