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Benedikt Eppelsheim bass saxophone

Eppelsheim bass sax reviewOrigin: Germany
Guide price: £20,000
Weight: 9kg
Date of manufacture: Not yet known
Date reviewed: January 2019

The evolution of the bass saxophone

When it comes to horns I'm unashamed about my personal preference for modern examples. Don't get me wrong, I like a vintage beauty as much as the next player - but in terms of what I want to feel, hear and live with it's the contemporary sound that floats my boat.
But not too contemporary, mind - while there's undoubtedly a place for the sort of tone that's as brittle as glass it's not really quite my cup of tea. However, when it comes to bass saxes I find my preferences are somewhat reversed. I say 'somewhat' because it's slightly complicated.
Y'see, as much as I enjoy the clarity and bite of a modern horn I'm always mindful of the fact that there's a need to, as it were, keep one foot in the past. Manufacturers can keep on pushing the limits of design, but it nearly always comes with a price...and the price is usually the tone. Stability is improved, playability is up, tuning is more precise - but every step towards precision seems to take a horn that little bit further away from the character of the first horns that rolled off Adolphe Sax's workbench.

In recent years, thankfully, there seems to have been a recognition that the majority of players are happy to put up with a few foibles if it means a more characterful playing experience - and this has led to some exciting new mainstream horns over the last decade or so.
But the poor old bass seems to have been largely forgotten. It's easy to understand why; they're hideously expensive and not exactly what you'd call popular - so there's really not a lot of impetus to pour shedloads of cash into developing new models.
And this has left the modern bass at something of an impasse - with preferences (and the market) being very firmly divided between the vintage and modern cohorts, and nothing inbetween to bridge the gap.

Is there a gap? Sure there is. You only need to play a vintage and a modern bass side-by-side to hear the difference - and it's a far bigger difference than that between a vintage and a modern tenor or alto.
Granted, a modern bass is undeniably an easier beast to handle - in fact I'd go so far as to say there's better than half a chance the thing will actually work properly - but in that push to modernise it, it seems to me that the very essence of what a bass is has been rather lost...and I think what we've ended up with is what I call an 'uber baritone'. Not that there's anything wrong with baritones, oh no, it's just that the bass should be so much more than simply a baritone that goes lower.
In other words, it's not just about the low notes - impressive though they are.

The bass (and sure, this is a very subjective opinion) should be rich and sonorous. It should have some 'grunt', so as to lift it out of the mire of vagueness, but not so much that it loses its identity and its surprising ability to carry a soulful tune.
Unfortunately it's a great deal easier and cheaper to build a bigger baritone than it is to come up with a bass that's easy to handle yet still retains the nimble grace of its forebears.
To do so would take skill and dedication, a sharp eye and a good ear coupled with the will and ability to think laterally - all of which perfectly describes Benedikt Eppelsheim, the inventor and builder of this magnificent instrument.

What makes this bass so very interesting is that tonal integrity has been placed very high up in the design specifications - if not at the very top - and thereafter every effort has been made to make that philosophy pan out in a mechanical sense. It sounds easy - and on a smaller horn it generally is, but once you get into the realms of the baritone and beyond you very quickly find that the sheer size of the necessary keywork may leave you with a horn that sounds great but feels bloody awful.
This is, essentially, the challenge that vintage bass designers faced - to which the modern answer was to settle for scaling up the baritone...at which point the tonal integrity gets shoved ever further down the list of priorities.
Eppelsheim bass top bow jointThe Eppelsheim bass overcomes these limitations with a brave and extraordinary feat of engineering, as is hopefully evident in the unique design and layout of the horn. Allow me, as they say, to show you around...

The body tube is in three main sections (plus the crook), and as per the modern fashion these sections are detachable.
The bell section is held in place by a very substantial flange at the bottom bow. This is a far, far cry from the usual push-fit joint with a crude clamp - and it's much more like the sort of thing you might see on a submarine hatch. It looks like it means business.
There's an identical though obviously smaller flange for the top bow - situated at the top of the main body tube. I'm pleased to see it's been placed here rather than at the top of the crook tube, because it allows for (relatively) easy access to the main body tube when it needs some dentwork. And on a horn of this size you can be pretty sure it's going to be a case of when rather than if.

Eppelsheim bass flange screwsAs per usual, I checked the joint screws - and found that almost all of them were loose. The lower joint screws weren't too bad (just needed a little nip up) but some of the top bow screws were well on their way to falling out (top, right). I suspect a combination of expansion and contraction, the compressibility of the joint and the considerable vibrational energy of the instrument are to blame - though I'm assuming that no-one's taken this horn apart before and failed to correctly tighten the flanges.
Nevertheless, if you own one of these horns it might well be worth checking the tightness of these screws every once in a while. You might need to rush out and buy a very long thin-bladed (and thus flexible) screwdriver though...otherwise you may have to remove a couple of keys to gain access to that top screw.

Eppelsheim bass bell braceComplementing the detachable bottom bow joint are not one but two bell-to-body braces.
The primary brace has four mounting points and a very unusual 'twisted H' configuration, while the secondary brace a little lower down is a relatively simple triple-point affair. Between the pair of them they offer a very great deal of support to the massive bell, and such support is very much needed on a horn of this size.
I'm particularly impressed with the primary brace because it spans (most of) the width of the bell. Bell braces are usually mounted to the bell dead centre of the tube (and to the side of the body), which does a good job of supporting the horn in the event of a frontal knock but doesn't do so well when dealing with side-on knocks. The H brace has it covered in both planes.
Note the standard tilting bell key table and the curious compound bell key pillar, which hangs down from the bell. There's a very good reason for this, which we'll come to a little later...

The top end is equally well supported, with this nifty brace that sits just above the crook joint.
Take a close look at its design, there's a lot more going on than might initially meet the eye. Most top bow braces are relatively simple affairs - little more than a piece of brass bar, or even just a plate. If a manufacturer wanted to increase the strength of the brace it's a fair bet that the most they'd do is increase the thickness of the metal. This would add some stiffness, to be sure, but it's not really a very elegant solution.
Eppelsheim bass top bow braceThe Eppelsheim's brace is not only hewn from a thick piece of brass, it also features an L-shaped section. This makes the brace rather stiffer than the mere thickness of the metal, and does so without appreciably increasing its weight. It's a lot of fuss and expense to go to, and yet the L-section has been beautifully incorporated into the curves on the brace. This is superb attention to detail, and yet I bet hardly anyone gives it a second glance.

The horn is of single pillar (post to body) construction, with each pillar having a reassuringly large base. A few saddles have been used here and there, for the side keys and assorted linkages. The toneholes are all plain drawn and completely level - and are clearly levelled (or at least dressed) after lacquering. This too is reassuring, because it means that any stresses induced by the polishing and lacquering process that may lead to slight warps in the toneholes can be addressed. And some of the toneholes are truly massive, given that the largest key cup on the horn clocks in at around 95mm O/D.
Eppelsheim bass sling ringAs you might expect, the horn comes with all the mod cons. There's an adjustable thumb hook (metal, of course), adjustable bell key bumper felts, a large mother-of-pearl thumb rest (a particularly nice feature) and a very heavy-duty triple sling ring. This is an especially useful feature which allows you to alter the balance of the horn depending on your playing position - whether that be sitting, standing with the horn to the side or with it slung across your front.

And then there's the crook, which is both distinctive and elegant. Basses tend to come in one of two varieties; vintage style, with a long down-tube running down from the top of the horn to the crook socket - and modern (Selmer) style, which has a shorter down-tube that partially doubles back on itself. Both types use quite short crooks.
The Eppelsheim crook is much larger and longer and has a number of mechanical advantages. For a start it reduces the amount of 'static pipework' on the body, which makes for easier access to the keywork and requires less bracing. It also means that the crook tenon joint is very much larger than usual, which means it's less likely to wear or get damaged - and I'd suggest that increasing the distance between the mouthpiece and the tenon joint is likely to have some tonal/stability benefits. It also makes it a great deal easier to keep this section of the horn clean, as it's where all the gunk tends to settle.

Eppelsheim bass thumb keysBut what's that little tube sticking out from just behind the mouthpiece cork? Ah, well, that's the altissimo octave key vent. Yep, this bass has a dedicated altissimo key. The normal range of the bass is Bb 3 to F# 6, and this key adds notes all the way up to D 7.
Putting a vent so close to the tip of a crook on any horn would necessitate a very complex arrangement of keys which, on a horn as large as the bass, would be completely impractical - but the Eppelsheim uses an ingenious solution to overcome this obvious problem. The mechanism is driven by a flexible cable, just like the sort of thing that operates the brakes on a bicycle.
If you're thinking ahead you might be wondering how such a system can work, given that the crook is now connected to the body via a cable. Surely this is going to cause a few problems when you want to remove the crook? Well, the answer is that the cable is in two sections; there's a fixed portion that runs from the altissimo thumb key to a lug on the down tube (you can see the cable on the opening shot) and a detachable section that screws into this lug and runs up to the vent on the crook (I'd like to have shown this but the owner seems to have mislaid the cable).

Eppelsheim bass altissimo pip But it gets even better because the altissimo pip features a self-sealing mechanism, which means that if you can't be bothered with the high notes or you simply can't be arsed to fit the connecting cable each time you assemble the horn, you can simply leave it off...and the pip won't leak. How brilliant is that? However, if you've ever dabbled with gardening you'll be all-too-familiar with the problems that can arise from using self-sealing hose couplings - so I decided to check just how well the pip was sealing. And it wasn't.

To be fair it wasn't leaking much - but any leak on a horn is as welcome as a raincloud at a barbecue, and the nearer to the top of the horn it is, the greater its effect will be.
So I took the pip apart and found that the seal is provided by a spring which pushes a ballbearing over the vent hole. The inner core of the flexible cable rests against this ball, and when the altissimo key is pressed it pushes the ball back against the pressure of the spring and opens the vent - and the air escapes from that hole on the top. Having spent the last 40+ years clearing out the gunk that you lot blow into your crooks, I kinda figured that such a precise mechanism isn't going to cope all that well with dirt and gunge...so I gave it a good clean out and lubed it up with a drop of mineral oil.
That sorted it, I'm pleased to say - but I'd consider cleaning and lubricating this gadget as a pretty important piece of regular maintenance. Fortunately it's very easy to do, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if mention of it is made in some sort of owner's manual. There's a small o-ring beneath the head of the screw, and I'd advise smearing it with a little silicone grease before reassembly.

It's surely clear by now that the design of the body is worthy of admiration - as is the precise and tidy way in which it's put together - but it almost pales in comparison to the keywork.
There's certainly plenty to talk about, but without doubt the most interesting feature is the use of connecting rods to replace what would have been rather ungainly key arms. There's no question about it, it's a brilliant idea, and one that has allowed the Eppelsheim to throw off the shackles of traditional design and allow for far more flexibility when it comes to tonehole placement. This is the horn's killer feature - it isn't limited by the constraints of traditional keywork...although great care has been taken to ensure that the horn feels just like any other large sax, at least in terms of general key placement.
Eppelsheim bass  key linksIn order to transmit motion from one end of a key to the other you either have to use a key built as a single piece (such as your top D key), or divide the key up into two or more parts. The bit you press becomes the lever, and this in turn operates a separate key cup (such as the side Bb on most horns). In some cases an additional key is required to bridge the gap between the two - and a typical example of this would be the front top F key which, on some horns, comprises the touchpiece, an intermediary lever and the top F key itself.
This system works well enough, but the larger a horn gets the less well it works. Each connection adds the prospect of play (or lost motion), it adds weight and complexity and it reduces the responsiveness of the action. It's still better than single piece keys on a large horn though, which tend to be cumbersome, unresponsive and prone to rapid wear...which pretty soon rules out any notion of precision.

This bass does away with such limitations and makes extended and/or complex links with the aid of connecting rods that pivot on each end via the use of tiny ball joints. These are identical to the sort of joints you'll find on your car (the track rod ends being a particularly good example) - they're just smaller. There are lots of advantages to this system, the chief of which is that it allows the keys to be designed to work with maximum efficiency. Your only fixed placement points are going to be the touchpiece and the key cup - anything inbetween is largely negotiable, within limits of course.
There's also very little chance of lost motion creeping in the mechanism over time because there are no corks or felts to wear down. I suppose it's possible that the ball joint will wear eventually - but with such low-torque use I'd expect them to last for a very, very long time indeed. And if they do wear it's just a simple matter of unscrewing and replacing them. I wouldn't even mind betting they can be serviced.

It's obviously a very effective system and a cunning solution to a tricky problem. You've only got to look at the placement of the low C key cup (in the main shot) to see that it's situated more or less where you'd expect the low C# cup to be. Now look at where the low C touchpiece is, and imagine trying to span that distance with a single-piece key. Sure, it can be done...but you can bet it'd feel awfully heavy and clunky.
There are, naturally, a few drawbacks. From your perspective it'll be the cost. I doubt it's an especially cheap way of making keys, and that's going to be reflected in the purchase price. From my perspective (and thus ultimately yours too when it comes to paying servicing bills) it adds extra time to the process of removing and refitting keys. I suppose, too, that there's always the spectre of damage - but then again those ball joints have a degree of latitude built in and should readily accomodate a little bit of misalignment. All things considered, I really wouldn't be overly concerned with such drawbacks.

Eppelsheim bass adjustersAdjusters! You want 'em? You got 'em!
I'm always moaning about horns that don't at least have regulation adjusters, and on large horns I consider them to be pretty much essential when it comes to dealing with the inevitable key flex that comes with large keys. As much as we repairers like to bang on (at length) about precision, the fact remains that a horn's action is really quite a crude bit of machinery. There's always going to be a need for compromises to be made, and the best way to achieve them is by the use of screws that can adjust the action on the fly, rather than having to faff around with bits of cork. So I was very pleased - and relieved - to see regulation adjusters on both of the main stacks. But it gets better, because some thought has clearly gone into dealing with the problems of key flex on the lower stack.
Here are the Bis Bb/G# adjusters, and straightaway you can see that there are three adjusters rather than the normal two. This is because there's a separate G# adjuster for the low F and E keys - which are situated above that H-shaped plate.

This makes a considerable difference when it comes to setting up the lower stack. In the normal course of events you'd set the G# adjuster to keep the G# key cup closed when playing an F (whilst also holding the G# touchpiece down). No problems there. But you also have to set the adjuster so that it works when playing an F# - and because you're now dealing with a longer stretch of keywork it's quite likely that the adjustment you made for the F isn't going to be enough for the F#.
So you tend to split the difference - the amount of which will depend on various factors such as the flexibity of the keywork, the tightness of the action and the state of the pads. And when all that's done you still have to worry about what happens when you want to play an E...because your regulation setting for the F# may well interfere with the full closure on the pad.

And so it becomes an exercise in dialling in an appropriate amount of compromise. In other words there's always going to be some key flex, so you set the adjusters to distribute it as evenly as possible across the combined mechanism. The extra adjuster removes that limitation and allows for a much more precise setting - and when combined with the regulation adjusters on the Aux. F bar it gives you so much more control over this pernicious problem. Better still, there's no connection from the low D to the Aux.F key, which removes yet another typically problematic area.
And I particularly like the way the adjuster have been fitted to the key arms. They're threaded on (and thus are replaceable) and secured with a locknut. It offers a small degree of adjustability by virtue of being able to move the adjusters in or out, but best of all it's an aesthetic fit with the ball joints and point screw lock nuts. There's a similar adjuster on the top stack that deals with the regulation between the A and Bis Bb keys.
While we're here, take a close look at the stack pillar (centre, left) - note the small grub screw fitted in the centre. This is to lock the rod screw in place - and there's another one on the top stack rod screw. It's there to prevent the rod screw from working its way out. It's not a terribly common problem, but it does happen from time-to-time - usually when there's some misalignment within the key stack. With keys of this size it's highly likely that the stack is prone to 'temporary misalignment' due to flexing, and that grub screw ensures that it won't lead to further problems.

Eppelsheim bass low B armBut given the horn's generosity when it comes to adjusters, I can't help but wonder why they weren't fitted to the low B and Bb keys.
There's an arm extending off each key that contacts a similar arm on the next key down. Thus the Bb arm helps to bring the low B cup down (along with the usual 'tab' beneath the Bb touchpiece) and the B arm keeps the low C# closed if you're a bit cackhanded over the bell key table.
And in order to set the regulation between the arms there was just a big lump of cork.

Given that steps have been taken elsewhere to mitigate the effect of key flex, I'd have thought that the two largest keys on the instrument would have been prime candidates for adjusters - especially as it's here where the compromises can be really punishing. Perhaps there was an argument to be made for going for as much contact area as possible rather than only on a distinct point, or maybe it was felt that there was too much flex to make adjusters worthwhile?
Incidentally, you'll note that the buffer has a layer of felt fitted to it. Much use has been made of composite cork throughout the action, and while it's good stuff (very resistant to compression) it does tend to lag behind in terms of noise dampening. Most of the horn's action is surprisingly quiet for its size, which is why a handful of keys made noticeably more noise than the rest. In each case it was down to composite cork being used as a buffer between another key or directly against the body - and the very simple solution was to replace the corks with a layer of felt (it's actually baize) or a cork/felt sandwich. It made a significant difference.

Eppelsheim bass low C# armWhile we're here - any ideas what this is?
It's a link between the low C# key cup and the low C - but what does it do? In this position both keys are at rest - which means the low C# is closed and the C is open.
If you press the low C down, the lower of the two arms drops down - and if you then press the C# key, the upper of the two arms rises. In other words there's no working interaction between them. At all.
I thought about it...and then thought about it a bit more - and then I wondered if it might be some sort of inscrutable feature that only vastly experienced bass sax players would be aware of (so that's me out then). The best that I can come up with is that it's a device to minimise key bounce on the low C cup...but it doesn't seem to be all that effective, or even required.
It just looks a bit...odd.
Answers on a postcard...

Eppelsheim bass point screwsAnd now it's time to talk about the point screws (you just knew I would).
They're of the shoulderless type with proper tapered points on them. Because they don't have a head on them they need some other means of ensuring they don't work loose, and on modern horns that use this type of screw (student Yamahas, for example) this function is achieved by the use of a threadlocking fluid or nylon inserts fitted through the threaded portion of the screws. However, where these type of screws were used on vintage horns the most common method of locking them in place was with a nut - as typically seen on some King saxes. This is the method that's used on this bass.
I've never been particularly keen on it, and said as much to Benedikt when I met him at the Frankfurt Musik Messe some years ago. My beef was that it's a fiddly system to adjust, there's a temptation to use a pair of pliers to grip the nuts rather than a proper spanner (thus chewing up the nuts), it takes two tools instead of one to tweak the action...and there's always a tendency for the nut to turn the screw just before it locks, which throws out your careful adjustments and requires you to anticipate how much further the screw will be driven into the pillar before the nut locks it in place - even if you use a screwdriver to try to keep the screw in position. And there are neater solutions these days.
Benedikt disagreed, as well he might, and while I still maintain it's a fiddly solution I can't deny that his implementation of it is excellent. Steel (stainless?) nuts have been used, which'll take a lot more punishment than brass ones - and the point on the screws is a large as can fit through the pillar. In short, you have more than a lifetime's worth of adjustment built in - and I can't complain about that.

Eppelsheim bass nut driverWhich is why I smiled wryly to myself as I set to adjusting out a spot of free play on the side Bb lever key and found a little gotcha.
This sits at the bottom of a triple-headed pillar (above), with the side C lever above it and the top E above that. With three screws in such close proximity it proved to be impossible to fit a spanner over anything other than the uppermost nut (the top E) because the other nuts are in the way. In order the adjust the side Bb I had to remove the side C screw...and in order to remove that I had to remove the top E screw.
I told you it was fiddly...
I got very fed up with it very quickly indeed and decided the best course of action would be to knock up a special tool that would speed up the process and allow me to adjust a single screw within a group without having to remove the adjacent ones. It's just a small hex socket that's been cut in half, tidied up a bit and fitted with a handle. It works an absolute treat, though some care must be taken to choose a socket with a thin enough wall so as not to foul on an adjacent nut. But taking it all into consideration I feel I ended up coming round to Benedikt's point of view. It's not the most elegant solution, but it provides a great deal of adjustability on a horn that's likely to suffer quite a few knocks - and takes into account the fact that access to some pillars (should they require reaming, for example) may be limited. As such I have to admit that it works perfectly for this horn - though I will temper my retraction by saying it's still a poxy idea on smaller horns, and that there's another gotcha in the shape of access to the Bis Bb upper screw being blocked by the top bow stay. Let us never speak of it again.

One of the reasons this horn came in for a service was that there was some difficulty in getting the low notes. A quick examination revealed that the compound bell key pillar had taken a knock backwards, and there was now a considerable amount of free play on the bell keys.
I see this sort of damage on a regular basis, and when it comes to running up a review I'm never too slow to point out what I feel to be weak engineering in this area. Let's face it, horns are relatively fragile and sax players can be rather clumsy (or 'overenthusiastic', if you like) - and you'd be surprised at how little a knock is required to push this pillar out of whack. If that happens just before you're about to go on stage, it's gig over for you matey.
Eppelsheim bass compound bell key pillarSo there I was staring at Benedikt's compound bell key pillar. It's a very unusual arrangement, because rather than being fixed to the body it actually drops down from the bell. It looks like it ought to be quite sturdy, what with the thickness of the metal, the substantial base and the supporting rib to the rear of the pillar - but in fact it's surprisingly flexible, and it really doesn't take much effort to make it move (just a firm push with a finger was all it took to shift it momentarily). On any other horn I'd flag this up as a major problem - a very major problem - but to do so on this horn would be to overlook a very cunning feature.
Y'see - I'm always banging on about how vulnerable large horns are to knocks and bashes. The sheer size and weight of anything larger than a tenor makes it a liability, and it's usually the bell that takes the brunt of the damage - and as any bari/bass player who's ever knocked a bell will attest, it typically means the low notes are dead in the water. And any such player who can't get any low notes is going to find themselves surplus to requirements in no time at all.
But (and this is really clever) the bass is designed so that the entire bell key action is mounted on the bell section. Yep, the whole lot. This means that the horn has a degree of knock tolerance built in. If the bell moves, the keys move with it - and the pad to tonehole relationship is maintained. For sure, if you dropped the horn from standing height the lack of low notes is going to be the least of your worries - but for the typical workaday knocks that big horns are susceptible to, the design makes complete sense.
OK, I still feel that pillar could benefit from being a tad stiffer but in all honesty I can't really mark it down when considering the bell key mechanism as a whole - and given the sheer amount of engineering thought that's gone into this horn I really wouldn't like to bet that the flexibility of this pillar is actually a design feature. Let's just say the jury's out on this one.

Yanagisawa anti-flex braceSo far the horn's done pretty well, but I do have a couple of minor grumbles.
The first is the ridiculously small nut that secures the bell key barrel anti-flex brace in place. You know the sort of thing, you've probably got one fitted to the side top E and F# barrels - about halfway along the keys, adjacent to the A key. Unfortunately I was so busy cursing the damn thing that I forgot to take a photo of it, so here's a shot of one on a Yanagisawa alto.
The one on the bass is of a similar design, except that there's a thread that runs right through it and it's fixed onto the supporting pillar by means of quite possibly the tiniest nut you've ever seen. And to make matters worse there's barely a millimetre of thread sticking up out of the brace. So you're trying to hold the fiddly small brace in place while you try to thread the world's smallest nut onto the world's shortest thread. Oh, it was fun.
There really was no need to make it so damn fiddly. The thread could have been larger, it could have been longer - and the hex nut could have been replaced with a cylindrical knurled nut...or even just a larger bloody nut.

My other grumble is a little more worthy, because I noticed that all of the palm key touchpieces and both of the side key cups had considerable play in the pivots.
I'd like to be able to say that it was down to fair wear and tear, but the extent of the play didn't match any of the play on the rest of the horn (which was minor at best).
Eppelsheim bass side key playAll of the affected keys required quite a lot of swedging to bring them down to size, and to make them fit snugly between their pillars. As it's a horn with quite a few bars under its belt (I don't yet know how old it is... I'm currently waiting for that information to come through) I feel it's only fair to give the benefit of the doubt, but as I spend most of my days addressing such wear I like to think I have a pretty good idea of what constitutes wear and what looks like a build quality issue. So I'm a bit 'Hmmm' about this one.
Anyway, here's a fancy animated gif of the play on the side Bb key to look at - see what you think.

On the plus side, in spite of the swedging required to correct the play, the lacquer on the keys remained unmarked - and given the condition of the rest of the horn I think it's fair to say it looks to be pretty tough stuff.

The octave key mechanism, despite being truly vast in size, is nonetheless just your basic swivelling mech. And there's really no need for it to be anything else.
There's some added complexity by way of the ball-jointed link from the thumb key and the extended arm for the body key, but it makes no difference to the standard operation of the mech. There's really not a lot to say about it other than it's very well made and as slick in action as you'd hope it to be.
Eppelsheim bass octave mechYou can see some of the vast crook tenon sleeve on the bottom right. The crook joint, though standard, is reversed - with the socketed portion being fitted to the crook. I mentioned earlier that its girth would likely mean that it won't suffer from too much wear - which is just as well given the wall thickness of the tenon sleeve, because there's just no way you'd ever be able to expand it.
Note the felt on the G key arm, which replaced a strip of composite cork. As mentioned earlier, the noise from this type of cork was considerable - and in the case of the G key it made it rather inclined to bounce. A very definite improvement.

Wrapping up the keywork is a full set of flat mother-of-pearl key touches and rollers, blued steel spring and a set of Pisoni Pro pads - which were well set, and properly secured with plenty of hot-melt glue. And I mean plenty.

Eppelsheim bass caseThe horn comes with a substantial case. It's of the semi-soft variety, but still manages to add a hefty 10kg to the already hernia-inducing 9kg of the instrument itself.
Unfortunately the photo doesn't really capture the scale of the thing - it really is unfeasibly large, and wouldn't fit into the boot of my BMW tourer without having to put the rear seats down (which is always a bloody nuisance).
Fortunately it just about fitted across the width of the rear seats...but only just.

Hefting this little lot around will put hairs on anyone's chest - and after my last experience with a bass I was half expecting my poor old back to give way and land me in bed for a few days. I'm pleased to say it didn't, but probably only because I could only take a few steps at a time before I had to put the case down and stop for a recuperative cup of tea and a medicinal bun.

There's a little space inside the case for your knick-knacks, but the bulk of the storage space is provided by a large zippered pouch that fits down the bell...a feature than I'm none too keen on, I have to say. For the size of the pouch it was remarkably unpopulated, especially as it appeared to have several distinct compartments within it. Perhaps there was an accessory/tool kit with it originally?
And yes, it's a zippered case...and we all know what I think of zippered cases...

Picking the horn up to play it is quite an event - not just because of the sheer size and weight of the thing, but because it has so much presence. For sure, this is common to all large instruments - but the Eppelsheim bass seems to come with grandeur fitted as standard.
If admiring looks are what you're after, this is definitely the horn for you. Anyone who's unfamiliar with saxes can't fail to be amazed by this horn, and anyone who knows one end of a sax from the other will be utterly beguiled by the apparent complexity of the keywork. It's a genuine show-stopper - and the very best of it is that you needn't then feel obliged to put on a dazzling display of technique, you simply have to hit a low Bb and everyone will gasp in astonishment. Sometimes, just sometimes, it's all too easy.

As far as how the horn feels under the fingers goes I think it's fair to say that I've played baritones that are harder to handle. With that said there's an initial sense of it being somewhat...unnatural.
The thing is, when you've handled as many horns as I have in my lifetime you sort of build up something of an expectation. Hand me a Conn 10M or a YAS62 - or a Super 20 alto or a MkVI bari, and I know what it should feel like even before I've laid a finger on it. I know the feel of a single key compared to a levered one, I feel the softness of leverages that aren't optimal, of stacks with wear in the barrels. Which is why the bass felt strange.
Oh, to be sure, not unpleasant - not at all. In fact quite the opposite. In fact too opposite. Yes, it's a big horn - so there's a certain unavoidable unwieldiness to it - but it's like half the equation is missing. You have the size of the keys, you have the weight...but you don't have the hesitation that ought to accompany it. It's utterly delightful.
If and when you experience that moment, savour it - because it won't last long. Your fingers and your brain will register a moment of confusion, and then it's pretty much all 'so last week' from the moment you realise you can really whizz about on this fantastic beast. Comparatively speaking, of course. Nothing's going to change the fact that it's a big horn, so if you're expecting the feel of an alto you're going to be a bit disappointed - and if you were expecting the feel of a large baritone I think you're equally likely to be disappointed. It really is, as they say, a whole new ball game. On the one hand you have those beautifully efficient linkages, those extra regulation points and an action that's potentially as tight as it's possible to be - but on the other you have significantly larger keys down at the lower end...so it all becomes a bit of a balancing act. But then that's the real beauty of this horn, it's superbly balanced in every respect.

I had some initial misgivings about the bell key cluster inasmuch as I felt the low B touchpiece was placed a little too close to the axis of rotation. It'd have been fine on an alto or a tenor, but it didn't seem to have enough leverage to handle the weight of the key. At least on the bench, at any rate. In the hands it seemed to perk up somewhat, and after half an hour of playing I found myself wondering what all the fuss had been about. It's perhaps worth mentioning that some care and attention should be paid to the spring tension on the bell keys. They're not especially fussy, but you don't want to stray too far towards the extremes.
Ergonomically-speaking everything's where it should be and it's very clear that a great deal of effort has gone into keeping the 'keyboard' as compact as possible. In short, there wasn't anything I tripped up on once my fingers had slipped into 'big horn mode'.

Perhaps the biggest improvement I made to action (aside from realigning the compound bell key pillar) was fitting those felt buffers. I wouldn't go so far as to say the horn was rattly or clunky when it came in, it just that it sometimes got a bit...percussive in places. Quietening the action and taming some of the key bounce really improved the responsiveness.
Will it fit your hands? If you're comfortable with a baritone then I see no reason why the Eppelsheim would cause you any major problems.
The one thing that might prove to be a bit of a stumbling block though is the weight. It's quite possible to sling this thing around your neck, and the triple sling ring certainly helps when it comes to finding the best centre of balance for your personal preference - but there's no getting away from the fact that it's 9 kilos of brass and steel.
Eppelsheim bass  peg holderIt's not the heaviest bass I've played (that gong goes to the Keilwerth Special bass, which clocked in around 10kg - though in its defence it did go down to low A), but at this sort of weight I suspect that a kilo here and there probably makes no real difference at all.
Fortunately the Eppelsheim comes with some relief in the form of a floor spike - the (very) sturdy socket for which can be seen on the right.
It's fully adjustable with ease and gives you the option of using the spike in both the standing and sitting positions - and is likely to become your new best friend in no time at all.
Here's a little tip for new owners though - don't just throw the spike down the bell when you're done playing. Just below this fitting there are three outward dents in the bottom bow. They're all within a couple of centimetres of each other, they're all the same size and they've all been punched in from inside the bore by something suspiciously like a floor spike. I find it hard to believe that anyone would do such a thing, so maybe the spike was placed in the accessory bag a little carelessly and subsequently fell out...and it took three goes before the owner figured out what the problem was?

And how does it sound?
Glorious. Simply glorious. In the opening blurb I spoke about the tendency for modern basses to sound rather like oversized baritones, and from the very first note it becomes patently obvious that this is a true bass. There isn't that sense of constriction, of feeling that the money's been spent merely on the pitch of the notes. It's quality over quantity.
The low notes are impressive, as you might imagine. Granted, this is true of any bass - but the Eppelsheim is relentless in its ability to stretch the tone out. It's rich yet punchy, and manages to be full without tipping into overblown and flabby. It also avoids the uber-baritone nasality whilst still providing plenty of definition....and yes, I do believe there's even a bit of glitter thrown in for good measure.
Tonewise it's an excellent blend between the old and the new, and yet at the same time it has a very unique quality about it that's quite hard to describe because there are so few points of reference. I guess if you've ever played one of Sax's original horns you'd perhaps understand what that means. The sound it produces is undoubtedly that of a sax, but it's different. It breathes.
And so will you, because it's really rather easy to blow.

I put a lot of store in what a horn makes me want to play - and after I'd spent a good while pumping out fat low notes (well, you would, wouldn't you) and running through the usual raft of tedious scales and arpeggios, I found myself...well...drifting.
At this point in a playtest I'd usually be veering towards a particular style - say soul or funk, west coast or blues...or maybe just relaxed ballads - but this horn had me noodling. It's as though it makes you play every riff and trick you know just so you can hear how different it sounds, and then you sort of get a bit lost and end up wandering around in a kind of comfortable nonchalance. Strollin', in other words.

I noted no problems with tuning and evenness across the range (I wasn't able to try the altissimo register) other than the usual foibles you get with any unfamiliar horn. For example, the middle D started off quite stuffy but rapidly opened out after half an hour or so. It's all about finding the core of the note and locking the embouchure in on it. All standard stuff.

Now, I should put those remarks into perspective by saying that I'm by no means an expert when it comes to playing the bass.
Sure, I've long since cut my teeth playing baritone - vintage and modern - but the bass, like the soprano, is somewhat distinct from the standard alto/tenor/baritone trio insomuch as it requires a bit more thought than simply approaching it as just a large member of the family. There's...how shall I say...a different emphasis to the notes. If you just pick the horn up and blow it, it'll play just fine - but to get the best out of it, and to really appreciate just how subtle and lyrical a true bass can be, you need to spend some time with it...and certainly more time than I had.
You choice of mouthpiece is going to be important. The bore on this horn is cavernous for a start, and it'd be daft to whack a high-baffled screamer on it and expect to get tonal value for money. It came in with a Zinner, which suited the horn perfectly. Your mileage will vary, of course.

Eppelsheim bass bellNaturally, it's an extremely expensive bit of kit - but what about the competition?
There isn't much really. There's the Selmer at around £23k and the Keilwerth at £18k. They're both good horns - but they're also very much modern basses. If you want a bass with more presence you'll have to go vintage, or you can take your chances on one of the cheap(er) Chinese basses that are modelled on the vintage design. Best of luck with that.
I'm sure many a vintage bass fan would make a good case for buying one over a modern bass, but they're not without their issues - and I'm working on the basis that you have twenty grand plus to throw at a bass and don't want to end up with a clunky old war-horse.
So just get the Eppelsheim. It's handbuilt, beautifully designed and put together...and arguably blows anything else clean off the stage. Effortlessly.

So how shall I sum up this horn?
I would very much like to remain cool and professional - to carefully weigh the pros and cons, to shape 40 years of experience at the workbench into a cohesive and structured report. But I can't...I just can't.
It is, quite frankly, a tour-de-force. I know it, you know it - and I know Benedikt knows it. If you've ever had the pleasure of meeting the man you'll recognise his personality in this horn. It's precise, it's measured, it's efficient - but it's also characterful and yes, maybe even slightly quirky in a thoroughly charming way.
But more than this it represents a vision, a quest for the kind of perfection that keeps the spirit of tonality at its heart, and one that tempers the glint of the present with the soft glow of the past.
It's a remarkable achievement in every respect, and I rather feel that although Adolphe Sax might well be amazed at how things have developed since his first horns rolled off the workbench - this horn, perhaps above all others, would make him smile.
And I'm sure he'd just nod - because nothing would need to be said.

 

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