King Super 20 'Silversonic' (series IV)
Guide price: £2000 upwards, depending on condition
Date of manufacture: 1962 (serial range: 388xxx)
Date reviewed: March 2021
A few years ago I reviewed a Super
20 tenor (series V), and now we're taking a relatively short
step back in time to have a look at a series IV alto.
I covered the basic history of the model in the tenor review, so
I'm not going to bore you (and, more importantly, myself) by going
over all the mundane stuff again - other than to say that the IV
was the last of the Cleveland-produced horns, and as such are regarded
by some as the last 'true' Super 20.
A controversial opinion perhaps, but there are those for whom even
the IV is a brash upstart with delusions of grandeur.
Such things bore me to tears; I'm far more interested how horns
are put together and what the end result is rather than the label
on the bell. So without further ado, let's dive into this rather
fine-looking horn and see what it's made of.
The construction is single pillar (post to body,
with generously-sized bases) with just a handful of cradles for
the palm and side keys. There's a very chunky 16/9.5 sling ring
- though only a single one rather than the triple-ringed affair
that graced earlier models. The bell brace is a static two-point
job, you get a static metal thumb hook, a domed pearl thumb rest
and no bumper felt adjusters on the bell key guards. In fact you
get no bumper felts at all, as the key heights are regulated by
feet extending off the key barrels. Nothing much to say about that
other than it's quite an old-fashioned arrangement...and some extra
care has to be taken with regard to spring tension and buffering
materials as this system is more inclined to induce a bit of key
bounce. And just as a bonus you get engraved low B and Bb key cups.
The Super 20 has soldered-on toneholes, and if
you're at all up on such things you might be put off by it. But
fear not, because the toneholes are silver (or hard) soldered on.
This is distinct from horns that have soft-soldered toneholes, such
as those typically found on Martin horns. These horns often suffer
from selective galvanic
corrosion - which in layman's terms means that that solder rots
away over time and the toneholes spring a leak, resulting in a loss
of performance and a fairly involved repair job.
Not a problem with silver solder, though - it's likely to last longer
than the brass itself.
So how can you tell if the toneholes are soldered on? Well, the
dead giveaway with the Silversonic is that while the bell is made
from silver - the toneholes are brass...so they can't have been
drawn (pulled out) of the body tube. That's not much use, however,
if you're looking at an all-brass horn - but the tenor review contains
a few pointers as to how to spot them.
And while we're on the subject of toneholes I should point out that
the King's weren't all that level. Sure, this horn's been around
the block a few times and had the usual knocks and dings to show
for it - but even after making allowances for such damage it was
clear to see that they skimped on this very important process.
It's been suggested that as soon as the first
Super 20 rolled off the production line all those years ago, the
manufacturer had been trying to cut costs all the way down the line.
I can sort of see how this might seem to be the case, but changes
in design with subsequent iterations of a model are scarcely uncommon
- and it's often the case that features that disappear tend to do
so because they don't actually add that much value to the horn.
For example, the earlier models sported a triple sling ring...three
sling rings atop each other. This gives you the option of adjusting
the angle of the horn - perhaps useful when moving from a sitting
to a standing playing position - but hardly any other manufacturer
felt it was worth fitting one. In case you're tempted by such things
it's worth bearing in mind that most players these days either sit
or stand...with just a few cheesy big-band types still doing that
old standing up for solos and section-work routine. It's also the
case that the more you're asked to leave your seat in order to play
a riff or two, the less you're likely to be paid...and the more
unsartorial the jacket you'll be asked to wear. Besides - who the
hell wants to faff about with their sling hook when having to stand
up for eight bars, and then have to faff about with it when they
sit down again?
as I was saying - the double-socketed crook also disappeared on
the series IV and was replaced with a standard sleeve and socket
joint - to which I say "About bloody time too". It may
well have looked rather flash, but any claims as to its 'sonic superiority'
are sketchy at best - and from a purely mechanical perspective it
was more likely to leak...if only because it was such a pain to
tighten the joint up.
But if cost-cutting really was the brief then someone clearly didn't
get the memo because my overwhelming impression is that this horn
is not so much assembled as hewn from the solid. It's the little
details. I mean, take a look at the flat spring cradles. Normally
you get a simple piece of u-shaped brass channel soldered to the
body. And that's if you're lucky. Each of these cradles has a steel
pin inserted into it which acts as the bearing point for the tip
of the spring. Can you imagine how much it costs to have someone
take a look, too, at some of the unique pillars. They're not just
a lump of brass attached to a baseplate - someone's gone to a great
deal of trouble to either make them decorative, or customised them
to fit in position where you wouldn't normally expect to find a
pillar. This kind of thing costs money - and yeah, OK, it's largely
unnecessary if you think hard about the design of the horn...but
that doesn't diminish from its integrity.
The crook key pillar is a superb example of this;
just look at how incredibly substantial it is and the way it's been
designed to straddle the brace. And yeah, it too has a steel pin
for the tip of the spring to rest on. It's lovely, for sure, but
it's fantastically over-engineered.
is the crook itself. Many people refer to this as an underslung
crook but in fact it's more correctly called semi-underslung.
A truly underslung crook has the octave pip situated underneath
the tube - as seen on the Conn
6M. This is just a normal crook with most of the key fitted
below the tube (a design still used today on Yanagisawa horns).
If there's an advantage to this design it's only that it makes it
less likely that you'll bend or distort the key when fitting or
removing the crook. That's about it; it's a nice-looking feature
that adds to the production costs for very little benefit to the
There are plenty of ways in which King could have reduced production
costs on this horn, but it seems to me that all they did was change
features that were beginning to look a little bit old-fashioned.
usual distinctive King bell brace is fitted. It's a reasonably nice
design, and although the body mount is sensibly placed slightly
more to the rear of the tube than on many vintage horns it's still
rather too close to the toneholes (particularly the auxiliary F)
for my liking. If the horn cops a whack to the bell there's a fair
chance that the brace will be driven into the body and do substantial
damage to the tonehole.
However, the design of the brace incorporates a modest kink - which
will go some way to reducing the damage to the body (which is about
as much as you can hope for with a kink). It's much cheaper to fix
a brace than have to straighten a bent body and level up a silver
soldered tonehole. You might suppose that you could unsolder the
tonehole - and you could, but the high temperature required to do
so would make a hell of a mess of the surrounding area.
Naturally, with a bell brace like this the bottom bow joint is soldered
- so very much a non-detachable bell on this horn.
rather dubious feature is the two-footed low C key guard. I say
dubious because this style of guard has been used on other horns
- most notably the Selmer Balanced Action - and it's usually always
problematic. This guard takes a lot of punishment, and with one
less foot to support it, it's likely to tip over. This is such a
common problem on the Selmer that it's incredibly rare to find an
example where the guard hasn't been soldered to the mounts, just
to stop the damn thing tipping all the time.
King have at least addressed this potential problem by going one
better than Selmer and providing you with two screws on each mount
rather than just the one. This solves the problem of tipping but
it still leaves the guard more vulnerable than a standard tripod
arrangement (as found on the low Eb and Bb/B guards on this horn).
And they pick up another point for the large size of the guard stays.
They'll not be falling off in a hurry.
On to the keywork now, and the first thing to
note is that the key barrels (and some of the key arms) are made
from nickel silver. This is a neat idea; nickel silver is much tougher
than brass and will withstand rather more wear and tear over time.
As with all things sax-related, however, it's a case of six of one
and half a dozen of the other on the swings and roundabouts. If
you're in the market for a full overhaul on one of these horns and
your repairer quotes you the same price as they'd charge for a 6M,
MkVI or a Yamaha - walk away. Quickly. Nickel-silver barrels are
a whole heap more of an arse to swedge (effectively, to compress
or crimp down) than brass ones. Yes, they resist wear that much
better, but when they do wear it's not an insignificant job to remove
it. If you don't quite understand what that means - try shaking
hands with a repairer who's just swedged a set of nickel-silver
key barrels. They'll break all your fingers.
Little tech-tip here: If you decide to go down the path of reaming
the keys and fitting oversize rod screws to take up the wear and
tear there are three things you need to know - of which the first
is that you're very wise. The second is that your reamers must be
sharpened to the Nth degree - and that, unlike brass barrels, lubrication
of the reamer is advised. Lastly - when it comes to lapping the
rod screws in, on no account use an embedding abrasive (such as
Brasso). Chances are it'll gall up on you and leave you wondering
how you're going to drill half a rod screw out of a barrel. Use
a non-embedding abrasive. You can thank me later.
Some aspects of the action are little 'olde-worlde';
a feature which is common to horns that have models spanning many
decades without any really major changes to the design.
For example, the top stack is all fitted to a single rod screw -
and this at a time when the shift to mounting the Bis Bb and G keys
on separate pivots had long been in vogue. Likewise the bell keys
(bar the C# lever) are mounted on rod screws rather than points
- and the octave key mechanism is just...well...mad.
just look at the level of detail King went into with this mech -
the connecting arms on the pin and body octave keys have rollered
tips. A lot of repairers don't realise they're there - usually because
the rollers are gunged up with dried oil and have long since given
up moving. The small bolt fitted to the ends of the rollers should
be a clue, but in all fairness bolts are sometimes used on non-rotating
pins as a means of providing a stop for a plastic tube. And indeed,
if you remove the bolts to fit a tube you still might not notice
that there's a gunged-up roller fitted unless you looked very closely.
King could have just used standard 'flats' (a step cut into the
key arm) for the connectors - or, if they were feeling fancy, a
round pin. But oh no, they went they the full Monty and fitted nickel
silver rollers. Tiny little nickel silver rollers. It wouldn't have
However, it strikes me that they missed a trick. Take a look at
the G# mech. It's also a rather bizarre setup (though perhaps not
by King's standards) but the bit where all the business happens
is where a stub fitted to an arm off the G# touchpiece meets the
rear arm of the G# cup key.
horn has almost no adjusters on it whatsoever. You get nothing to
adjust the regulation of the main stacks, nothing to adjust the
link from the low B to the C# key cup - and not even the Bis Bb/G#
link has any adjusters. But you do get one (sort of)...and this
is it. You can adjust the position of the stub projecting off the
lever key to fine-tune the G# action. What's particularly irritating
about this feature is that it's just crying out for a roller. It'd
make absolutely perfect sense here - much more so than on the octave
Anyway, back to the octave mech - and here it
is in all its...er...glory. I said it was a pretty complicated affair,
and it's also an active mech...which means it contains additional
springs over and above the one on the thumb key and the one on the
crook key. In this instance there's just the one additional spring,
which lifts the body octave key. I've seen some strange mechs in
my time, but this one gets into the top 5 for weirdness.
like this always make me wonder how some companies manage to come
up with such simple and elegant solutions (such as the basic model
Yamaha mech and the standard Selmer mech) and others seem to go
all around the houses to get to the same place.
It's not that it's a bad mech - in fact it's quite good - but its
complexity makes it vulnerable to knocks, and it gets very vague
once it wears. Properly tightened up and balanced it's really quite
responsive...and kinda fun to watch as that little seesaw bridge
wiggles up and down. If you're a dyed-in-the-wool Star Trek Next
Gen fan, you'll know exactly what I mean when I say it's a little
And because I've now probably said too much, it's
time to take a look at the point screws.
These are excellent - with a caveat. The excellence comes from the
fact that they're proper point screws - with a a nice tapered tip
on each screw. This is the gold standard when it comes to taking
up wear and tear as far as I'm concerned. They're also shoulderless
(or headless, if you like), which means that they're constantly
adjustable down the years. Can it get any better?
No, but it can get worse - because shoulderless screws require a
means of locking them in place once you've set them. Many methods
have been used over the years - the simplest of which is a nice
little drop of threadlocking solution. Bish, bash, boff and you're
the most tedious (and ineffective) solution is that found on some
horns, which use a teeny-tiny grub screw to lock the point screws
into position. Which they do...until they vibrate loose. Which they
King chose the middle ground and opted for small brass nuts to lock
the screws in place. Oh, they do the job just fine - even brilliantly-so
- but they make the horn look like something off a submarine, and
it's a real pain to make small adjustments because every time you
tighten the nuts up, the screws move just that tiny little bit.
I'd like to be able to say that everyone has come to their senses
since the days of little brass locknuts, and have all taken a leaf
out of Yamaha's book and opted for nylon inserts...but Eppelsheim
still uses them. To be fair though, once they're set and tightened
up they're set for good - at least until you take a spanner to them.
Speaking of which, it's not at all uncommon to see that these nuts
are all gnarled up, and this is down to lazy repairers who can't
be arsed to find a spanner small enough to fit the nuts...and so
make do with a pair of pliers.
Incidentally, that little stub on the bottom left of the shot is
a stop for the G key touchpiece. It's a cool little feature - it
just gives the G key touchpiece arm something to stop on when you
press it down...makes for a more solid feel to the action rather
than relying on just the pad to do the job. It goes back to that
business of production costs; they could have left this feature
out altogether (as most makers do these days) or settled for a large
lump of cork under the G touchpiece arm. But no, here is an obviously
sculpted and not inexpensive stub to do the job. And someone has
had to fit it, which costs yet more money.
There's another one for the side/chromatic F# - and yet another
for the low Eb, though this one is less of a courtesy and more of
an essential item.
the key barrels are very tough indeed, the key arms are rather less
so. You'd expect that - being that they're (mostly) made of brass
rather than nickel silver - but they're actually a little bit softer
than you might expect. Not excessively so though, but just enough
to warrant a comment. And in a rather strange and unusual contrast
the bell key guards - despite being made of very much thinner brass
- are incredibly tough.
This slight softness in the key arms is really only likely to make
its presence known in the bell key table. It's not a bad design
in terms of the touchpiece layout - in fact it's reasonably good
- it's just that the touchpiece arms are rather lengthy, and given
the traditionally exposed nature of the table it's quite common
for things to get knocked out of whack from time to time.
Fortunately, a key that bends reasonably easily in one direction
will usually bend just as easily in the other - so it's not too
much of a problem to sort out. Unfortunately such knocks often end
up skewing the touchpieces - and if these aren't corrected when
the table is realigned, you end up with a functional mechanism...but
one that's very uneven. This
a great shame, because although it's a bit of a faff getting everything
lined up and even, it's well worth the effort - as you can see.
And I say faff because although this is an articulated table (both
the low C# and B are connected to the G#), the connection from the
B key isn't where it typically is - which would be via a tab underneath
the G# touchpiece. It's tucked away deep inside the mechanism and
requires a fair bit of to-and-fro tweaking to get the geometry just
right. Again, you can get it more or less in place - and it'll do
- but it's worth going the extra distance to make it work properly.
I think that pretty much covers the keywork other
than to say that the King is fitted with slightly concave mother
of pearl touchpieces and the action is powered by blued steel springs.
Or at least they were, once. They're more a shade of black now,
but don't be fooled by their appearance - they're excellent springs
and should only ever be replaced if they get rusty or lose their
quick mention, too, for the side keys which feature plain, simple
and slick fork and pin connectors. Don't forget to take a peek beneath
the side Bb cup key arm, where you'll find a copy of the serial
number stamped. Not really sure how useful a feature this is (it
was probably a manufacturing/assembly convenience) but at the very
least it'll tell you whether the side Bb cup key is the one that
came with the horn. Which is always nice to know.
And just for the hell of it, how about a photo
of a naked King? Now there's something you don't get asked every
Nothing particularly remarkable about this shot other than it looks
pretty - and in reference to my earlier comment about some of the
'olde worlde' keywork features, note that the toneholes are all
inline....as opposed to the modern fashion of offsetting the lower
This example is finished in a light gold lacquer with a gold wash
inside the bell. If the lacquer's not original it's been very well
relacquered at some point, and apart from the usual collection of
marks and scratches the only thing that marred the finish was a
dirty great patch of acid bleed around one of the G key pillars.
Someone had resoldered it at some point in the past and failed to
clean up properly afterwards. I did wonder about leaving it (historical
marks, and all that) but because there was a chance that it could
spread still further I decided to clean it up.
the hands the King feels a great deal lighter than it ought to be.
All that nickel silver, all those fancy pillars and complex keywork
- it all looks like it ought to pile on the pounds...but the horn
comes in at a very dainty 2.2kg, which is about the same weight
as a Conn 6M and just a touch lighter than a Selmer MkVI. And that
sense of lightness applies to the action too. When properly set
up the King's action is superb. Slick responsive and almost effortless.
I say almost because the bell key table knocks the score down a
little. Not that it's bad - not by a long shot - it's just that
the long and large key arms add just a touch of flex to the mechanism
and the geometry of the G# stub/cup arm connection means there's
significantly more sliding action than you'll find on just about
any other horn. The daft thing is, if the rest of the action wasn't
so good you'd hardly notice the difference. Nothing to worry about,
just a minor observation.
In terms of ergonomics I had no problems at all. It's an alto, so
it would have to be spectacularly bad before it'd trip me up.
I think it's worth pausing at this point to spend
some time focussing on the setup. I can tell you that the quality
of a horn's setup can make or break an instrument. This is perhaps
somewhat less true these days (providing you don't mind 'average'
performance), but many vintage horns are rather more picky about
such things. Kings are prima-donnas in this respect. Sure, they'll
blow no matter how the action's set - but there's a palpable difference
between blowing and playing. It's my opinion - perhaps controversially
so - that much of the flak that various models of King horns get
on the internet (yeah, I know) is down to folks having a run-in
with an indifferently set up example.
For instance, if you set the low C too low on a Super 20 it'll kill
the low/mid D - so much so that when you go from low/mid E to D
you might almost think that the D was supplied by a completely different
horn. It's a surprisingly common rookie mistake - and this is because
it's a fast action, and lots of people equate 'fast' with 'low.
It ain't necessarily so - and if you do this to the Super 20 you'll
just end up suffocating it. And it will complain.
And it won't just be the D that's affected. You'll find tuning anomalies
across the range and a general sense of the sound being pinched
and a bit nasal. The Super 20 is a gregarious horn, it needs a lot
of space to move around in. If it had a catchphrase it'd be "Don't
cramp my style, man". You can quote me on that.
Speaking of quotes, in my review of the tenor I said "If you
can't play it in tune you're not man enough to own one". I
realise it's a bold statement, and one that's likely to get me into
trouble with the gender police these days, but it applies to this
alto too. No-one's going to claim that older Kings didn't have any
foibles, and it's well-known that even though the series IV started
out with a few improvements in that regard, it still went through
a number of small revisions by way of tweaking the tuning still
further - but if you want a horn that will do all (or at least more
of) the tuning work for you, you'll have to buy something like a
Yamaha or a Yanagisawa. Sensible mouthpiece choices and some good
old-fashioned practice will pay dividends on this horn.
Tonewise I think I have to say that if I were
to choose just one word to describe it, it would be 'silvery'. OK,
this has nothing at all to do with the silver crook and bell - rather
it describes the way the notes blend into each other when you're
playing fast passages. I can't in all honesty say where it comes
from but my feeling is that there's something about the way each
notes starts (its 'percussiveness', if you will) that seems to lend
them a kind of seamlessness. If you were able to play a chromatic
run fast enough it seems to me that it might just merge into one
does that mean it has no definition? No punch or clarity? Nope -
it's got those by the bucketful. It's one of those horns that has
a tone that sits nicely between what's considered to be a vintage
one and what we think of as being contemporary...with just a bit
more of a foot in the vintage camp. Given the build date of this
horn that kinda makes sense.
I suppose the big question is going to be "How does it compare
to the earlier models?" - to which I would answer "Very
well indeed". If you're familiar with one of the earlier model
and you picked this horn up, you'd still feel that familiarity -
it's still got that King thing. It still has the typical King power
too, but it's applied in a slightly different way. The 'bootiness'
has been toned down a touch and replaced with more evenness across
the scale (very much a contemporary trait). But here's the thing
- it's very mouthpiece-dependent. Kick around on a medium-chambered
piece and you'll get that nod to the modern. Slap on something with
a bigger chamber and the horn seems to dig deeper. This horn came
with a 1960s Link 7*, and while I rarely bother to play on a client's
mouthpiece I just couldn't resist the chance to see what it could
do with the King.
I wasn't disappointed - I got the full Zoot suit experience.
So if you have a hankering for a Super 20, which
series d'you go for?
I can't really answer that. So much depends on what sort of experience
you're looking for. If it were my money I'd have this one - hands
down. It has most of the bells and whistles, its slightly (and only
very slightly) more contemporary design seems leaner and meaner
and the acoustic tweaks make it a more pliable and accommodating
horn. As much as I love a vintage tone, I have an equal love for
the contemporary - so any horn that can mix 'n match between the
two is always going to appeal to me (which is why I play a TJ RAW
If you're more heavily into 'that vintage thang'
you'll probably favour the earlier models, and if you like looking
like a pimp (and paying for the privilege) you'll probably like
the full-pearl version. If you're not that impressed by midrange
bloatiness and inflated prices you might quite like the later series
V. But the series IV, to my mind, captures the essence of the older
models and presents it in a more angst-free setting. If you really
want to save a few bob, just get the all-brass version. Sounds exactly
It's long been said that the Super 20 is an out-and-out jazzers
horn, but this version comes across as being more even-tempered.
That doesn't mean it's a laid back horn though, it still has the
grit and grunt the model is renowned for...it's just less in your
face. And in everyone else's face. I appreciate that this probably
leaves you with something of a predicament - but spare a thought
for the poor owner of this horn. She had to collect it from my workshop
after I'd sorted it out and take it home to compare it with her
existing alto with a view to seeing which one she liked the most.
What's her other alto?
A mid '30s Conn 6M.