Holton 666 'Super' Collegiate alto saxophone
Guide price: £400-£500
Date of manufacture: 1959 (serial range: 317xxx)
Date reviewed: February 2017
A distinctive horn with an equally distinctive
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
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).
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.
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
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
Such damage is always a bad thing, but it's made
so much worse by the relative softness of the copper body of the
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.
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
As for the 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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...