New Super Dearman alto
Various - Eastern Bloc generally
Guide price: £100 upwards
Date of manufacture: Mid 1930s (Serial range: 65xx)
Date reviewed: January 2018
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Back in the days when I was just a young horn
player, nothing was guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine
like the sight of a horn bearing the mark 'Foreign' on the bell.
It was a sort of catch-all term for anything that wasn't made in
the UK or America. There was no such thing as the internet back
then, so your chances of finding out exactly where 'Foreign' was
were pretty slim - and the term came with some pretty hefty negative
baggage. Many cheap and awful horns were stamped with this mark,
and many new players had to suffer the indignity of learning on
an instrument that was, essentially, a badly-made copy of a copy.
This often led, understandably, to the notion that anything so marked
was cheap junk - reinforced by the fact that many such instruments
could usually be found languishing, unloved and in various states
of disrepair, at the back of school music room store cupboard.
And yet in among the undoubted dross there were a few gems - of
which the New Super Dearman arguably defines the genre.
There's nothing particularly definitive as to
the origins of this horn. What's known is that Dearman was imported
and distributed by the Dallas
company - and while you might not have heard of them, you'll have
almost certainly heard of the Grafton
alto...which was one of their lines.
Other than the word 'Foreign' engraved (discreetly) on the bell,
there are no marks to suggest where this horn was built, or by whom.
However, it's generally known that these horns were Eastern Bloc
stencils - most likely Czech or East German. In such cases it's
often possible to identify a horn by its design and features - but
the Dearman seems to be something of a mixture. This suggests that
rather than being an off-the-shelf design from a single manufacturer,
it's more likely to be a specified design that gets touted around
various makers until the best price/lead time can be found. It may
even be possible that more than one manufacturer was involved with
the build (one to make the body, another to make the keys - for
example). I'll come back to this point in the final wash-up, but
in the meantime let's pop the horn on the bench and see what it's
immediately obvious that it's not an unattractive horn, and much
of this is down to it having been refinished. As far as I can tell
these horns were available in just two finishes - lacquered brass
or silverplated - but this one's had the keys and the inside of
the bell gold plated and then lacquered. I'm not sure why a coat
of lacquer was applied over the gold plate, but it hasn't been done
very well. This is rather surprising, given that refinishing back
in the day was generally of a good standard...so maybe it was re-refinished
at a later date.
One thing's for sure, the owner must have really loved this horn...because
gold plating wouldn't have come cheap.
There's also some evidence that the body has
been replated. Note the wrinkles on the thumb hook. These are down
to wear - a combination of friction and acid sweat that's eaten
into the metal over time - and there's no way a coat of silver plate
would survive such an attack. Thus it's reasonable to assume the
body has been replated...though it may equally indicate that only
the thumb hook has been refinished.
This would be unusual, and there's no apparent evidence to suggest
the hook's been removed and refitted - and what's also unusual is
that the body seems to have a thin coat of lacquer on it, some of
which can been seen hanging on to the lower right section of the
The construction is single pillar with generously-sized
bases and the toneholes are drawn and rolled. And that's, frankly,
There's no detachable bell, a rudimentary bell brace and fixed wire
bell key guards with no adjusters. In fact there are no adjusters
at all on this horn. Not one. You do, however, get a chunky sling
ring (17/10) and the bottom bow plate looks like it was designed
by the people who did Boudica's chariot wheels. Imposing, is the
word that comes to mind. And just for good measure an equally imposing
brace is fitted beneath the crook.
The overall body construction is rather good - the pillars and fitting
are neatly attached and there's a general sense of solidity about
it, despite being quite a light horn. The rolled toneholes weren't
too bad either. I had to address a few warps, but nothing dramatic...and
there's a good chance that most of them were down to previous knocks
and bashes to the body. Even in this state they were considerably
better than some modern
examples I've seen of late.
only real gripe with the body is that the simple bell brace leaves
the body quite vulnerable to severe and expensive damage should
the bell cop a whack. This is typical for horns of the period -
a hefty knock pushes the bell into the body, and the foot of the
brace punches a dent into it...which wrecks the level of the adjacent
toneholes. It's a nasty affair, and one made all the more complicated
by the addition of rolled toneholes.
Thankfully there's an easy solution. Just don't drop the horn. I
know that sounds glib but it's essentially all you can do about
the problem - unless you're prepared to shell out big bucks to have
a bespoke offset bell brace made.
the keywork side there was a lot of evidence of 'butchery'. Horns
this old have been round the block a good few times and don't always
get the care and attention they deserve. This tends to show up in
unfeasibly large amounts of free play in the action due to a combination
of wear that hasn't been properly addressed and bodged repairs that
have further reduced the efficacy of the keywork.
Here's an excellent example. At some point it's highly likely that
the top D key got stuck on its pivot (most likely through a bent
key rather than rust), and had to be cut off the instrument. It's
not an uncommon procedure, but there's a right way to do it and
a wrong way - and whoever did it got it completely wrong. It left
the key barrel more than 5mm short, which is a lot of play to take
up using the standard methods.
The easiest fix would have been to fit an extension to the key barrel,
or even replace the barrel altogether - but I wanted to preserve
as much of the finish as possible. So I made a judgement call and
opted to take up the wear on the body by fitting a solid silver
stub to the threaded pillar. It's far less cosmetically damaging,
it's easy to reverse - and it mimics a standard feature often found
on vintage horns.
The rest of the keywork was so badly worn that
I opted to fit oversized rod screws throughout - and straightaway
ran into a rather odd problem.
It has non-standard threads on the rod screws. The pitch of the
threads checked out as 4-40 UNC, but with truncated thread forms
(as seen on the left in the photo) - which means they were cut with
a modified or custom die...or someone took a file to the threads
after they were cut. I suspect the former, given that a standard
4-40 tap wouldn't fit in the pillars, which means they used a modified
the right is a new thread, cut to the correct dimensions. It doesn't
look much larger but you can clearly see that the threads are much
'sharper', and as such it won't fit the pillars. Time to make another
judgement call, and this time I opted to file the new threads to
match the original ones - for two reasons. Firstly, it retains as
much originality as possible - and secondly it's a lot less work
than having to run a tap through all the pillars to bring them up
to 'official' spec. I've also opted to finish the threads with an
undercut (that narrow, unthreaded portion at the base of the thread).
This gives the screw a much more definite 'stop' when the main body
of the screw hits the pillar, and it also helps prevent the screw
from biting into the pillar and driving itself off-centre.
Incidentally, the rod screws are alloy (probably
nickel silver). This seems to have been a popular option on Eastern
Bloc horns, and you'll often find such screws on Czech-built Cortons
and East-German Weltklangs. The advantage of alloy rods is that
they won't rust, but they're softer and will wear more rapidly...and
they're prone to gumming up. They're also quite tricky to remove
if they get stuck because the screw heads have a habit of breaking
if you apply much more than moderate torque to them. Given the pros
and cons I opted to make the new screws from silver steel.
As for the point screws, I'm happy to report that these are all
proper points - though many of them needed replacing. Not because
they were worn, but simply because someone had previously replaced
them with screws that didn't quite fit the threads in the pillars.
The design of the keywork is quite old - and I
suspect this is because it is (I'm clever like that). The upper
stack sits on a single pivot and the G# sits on the same pivot that
holds the rest of the lower stack.
There are some mod-cons though; you get front top F key and the
side keys feature fork and pin connectors - and there are some quirks,
such as the addition of right-hand G# trill key and a rather clunky
bell key table.
fact the bell key table is something of a letdown for this horn.
The rest of the action is pretty decent - it's well-built and reasonably
sturdy (perhaps juuuuust a touch on the soft side), but it's capable
and comfortable. The bell keys, however, are a bit of a nightmare.
Some of this is down to having the low B and Bb mounted on a single
long rod (bad for friction and key whip) and some is down to having
a single-piece low C# key (necessitating a heavier feel) - but the
real killer is the way in which the link to the G# has been handled.
It's bloody awful.
For the link from the low B/Bb there's a sort
of T piece that sits beneath the low B/Bb touchpieces. In terms
of leverages it's very poorly placed. The action when playing a
low Bb is fine, as you have the extra leverage provided by the Bb
touchpiece - but playing the low B on its own is something of a
it pales beside the link to the low C#, which seems to have been
purposely designed to be as inefficient as it's possible to get.
Yes, you could spend all day tinkering with spring tensions and
slippery buffers, but you'd be fighting the laws of physics. I really
think you'd be better off disabling the links (it can be done with
some judicious key bending) and spending more time learning how
to do without a linked G#. It won't take long, and it'll make the
bell key action feel so much more responsive.
Note the flat pearl on the G# touchpiece. This
features a crosshatched surface (known as a nailfile pattern), the
idea being that it was supposed to provide a bit of extra grip when
the going got hot and sweaty. It might well have done when the pattern
was new and sharp, but once it wears down it's really not very effective
at all...and it tend to pick up grime.
Note the mother-of-pearl rollers too. These were in surprisingly
good condition considering the age of the horn - though given how
fragile MOP rollers are there's a good chance they may have been
replaced at some point.
The octave mech deserves a few comments. It's
a relatively simple affair which has a floating bridge between the
body and crook keys. In this respect it's closer to the mechs found
on modern student Yamahas rather than the swivel types that are
seen on Selmers. It's functional and quite slick in use - but I
found it to be very picky when it came to adjusting the throw of
mechs have 'break point' - which means that if there's too much
travel on the thumb key it'll exceed the maximum movement of the
other parts of the mech...which leads to an unpredictable response
(typically it means the crook key pad will open when only the body
key is supposed to). Most mechs have a fairly wide latitude around
this point which, in practice, means you're unlikely to want that
much throw on the thumb key.
The Dearman is rather more sensitive and its break point falls well
within what I'd consider to be a practical amount of throw (if,
for example, you preferred a slightly high action).
The way around it, apart from limiting the throw of the thumb key,
is to beef up the tension on the crook key spring. This works well,
but has the knock-on effect of making the mech a bit stiffer in
operation. A more effective fix is to pay some attention to the
thickness of the octave key pads. If your mech has this problem
it'll typically show up as stuffiness in the octave D to G range
- or even a complete failure to produce the notes.
Finishing up the action you get a full set of
concave real mother-of-pearl touches as well as the aforementioned
flat pearl on the G# - and the whole action is powered by blued
steel springs. These will have been changed over the years, but
it's safe to assume they're what's would have been fitted from new.
The horn came with its original case, which is
a simple box affair with less padding than a Jiffy bag. As much
as old cases often have a great deal of character, they're pretty
damned useless when it comes to protecting the horns from knocks
in transit - and given the risk of the bell brace being shunted
into the body you'd be well advised to seek a modern replacement.
In the hands the horn felt well-balanced and responsive.
The relatively light weight around your neck is noticeable (and
welcome) and the speed of the action, once well set up, was surprisingly
good...not withstanding the clunky bell key table.
The ergonomics are fair for such an old horn, but a lot of this
is likely to be down to it being an alto. A tenor might prove slightly
more of a challenge, but for most people I don't think there'll
be a great deal in it.
The palm keys sit a little on the low side (hence the owner's set
of risers) and the G key, being on the same pivot as the rest of
the top stack, has a slightly vague feel about it - but these are
characteristics rather than deal-breakers.
take quite a light action, which perhaps points up why some of the
spring sizes seem to be a touch on the thin side. There were a few
keys where I found myself wondering whether to stick with the stock
size and tension it to the max, or ream out the hole and go for
a heavier spring that's set light. The latter is likely to be more
reliable in the long term - and on a horn with rolled toneholes
you might well run into issues with sticking pads if you set the
action too light.
As mentioned earlier, the bell keys are a bit
pants. The G# touch is wide but not quite long enough, and because
of its design it doesn't quite have that extra snappy snappiness
that I like to feel.
Still, there's always the option of using the G# trill key (if you
really must trill) - which works well enough in spite of the mechanism
being somewhat industrial in design. As for the rest of the cluster,
it's by no means impossible to use (grit your teeth, flex your finger
muscles and think of England....it's only a flesh wound...no, don't
wait for me - I'll only hold you back) but by heck is it a chore.
I've seen and gigged on worse though - and I guess it only stands
out so much because the rest of the action is more than up to par.
But never mind all that guff - how does it play?
It's bouncy. Yes folks, it's a bouncy horn. And what the hell does
Well, as you may know, I set a lot of store on how a horn feels
when I play it - or rather how it makes me feel. Some horns push
you into a rock 'n roll groove, some steer you towards slow ballads
or perhaps a smattering of Be-bop. The Dearman just cries out for
up-tempo songs. It's tuneful, it's breezy, it's nimble - and above
all, it's joyful. It's what we call 'a darling little horn' in the
Sure, this horn's an all-rounder tonewise - and it'll cut right
across all genres. It's got a medium to slightly warm presentation
with a lower end that's crisp and strident when pushed yet soft
and smoky when subtoned - and a really nice, clean top end that
doesn't seem to get all shrill and shouty when you give it some
It's an easy blow too - not too stiff, not too wild. Just enough
to get your teeth into.
It doesn't quite have the sparkle that you'd get from a Conn or
a Martin (etc.) of the same vintage, but it's close. It's damn close,
in fact - and in a blind test I wouldn't like to bet a bottle of
scotch that I'd be able to tell the difference every time.
It's got that presence that sets it well above a starter horn, and
the sort of tonal integrity you'd expect from a horn of the quality
of (say) a Yamaha 62.
As for the tuning, it's not too bad at all. It's
certainly true to say that it's 'of the period' - which means that
a certain amount of steering by the player is in order...but it's
not what I'd call excessively demanding. You'll just have to put
some practice in, and some care in choosing a suitable mouthpiece
will help. I suspect a piece with a large tone chamber will be a
good place to start.
The only real issue I found was that the front top F leans a bit
flat (the palm key F is fine), but can be brought up to pitch by
adding the side F#.
Oh, and 'fake' top F# (front top F + side Bb) is rather a struggle.
Some alternative fingerings may work, as may some practice...
let's return to the question of origin.
Without any concrete evidence I don't want to go on record as stating
this horn was made by so-and-so, but I can at least say for sure
that this horn was made by someone who knew what they were doing.
If you do a bit of browsing you'll find half a dozen or so names
keep popping up (Amati, Keilwerth, Kohlert, Huller etc.), all of
whom had a reputation for producing some rather nice horns.
In its day this would have been classed as an intermediate horn
- and indeed the Dearman was known as "The poor man's Conn"...most
likely as result of the rolled toneholes, and as a nod to its quality.
As with many things that were built back then, the emphasis was
on quality-for-money rather than penny-pinching...and by modern
standards this horn would comfortably fit well within the entry-level
We also have some definite information regarding the date of purchase
and the cost (from the original receipt) - and when it was purchased
in 1938 it cost a few bob over £20. This roughly equates to
a modern-day purchase price of around £1200 - which is pretty
much slap-bang in the middle of today's intermediate price point.
So far so good - but there's a bit of a problem
when it comes to finding a good example.
There are plenty of these horns around - and for not much money
at all (less than £100 in some cases). However, they're old
horns and are likely to have been well used and less well looked
after. The design of the horn means that some care and skill is
needed when servicing/restoring them, and a poorly 'overhauled'
horn is likely to be more problematical than one in original condition
that hasn't been butchered.
A proper job is going to run into many hundreds of pounds - realistically
at least £400 - so be very wary of 'restored' horns selling
for two or three hundred quid. If you choose wisely and keep an
eye on the budget, you should be OK.
If you buy a restored example it should sing like a bird - with
no gurgling, farting, coughing or wheezing. If it doesn't, it hasn't
been restored properly.
When all is said and done, I'm very impressed
with this alto - to the point where I'm not sure that "The
poor man's Conn" really does it justice.
No, I think it's rather better than that - and given the very reasonable
price these horns could and can be bought for I reckon "The
canny man's Conn" is a more accurate description.