Kohler Empor baritone saxophone
Guide price: £500+
Date of manufacture: 1954-62 (serial range: 30**)
Date reviewed: November 2022
I've probably mentioned it before, but every so
often I get an instrument in for a repair quote and the figures
don't add up in economic terms. In most cases it's a straightforward
decision - the horn simply isn't worth fixing, either due to its
lack of quality or the surplus of secondhand examples at relatively
cheap prices. The boundaries get a bit blurred when you factor in
an emotional attachment, such as a horn that belonged to a relative
- which tends to trump most other considerations. But it all gets
a bit tricky when I encounter a horn that I (and sometimes the client)
feel like it has playability potential in spite of the poor economic
forecast. When this happens it usually falls to me to make the decision
on behalf of the client - and that's quite a hefty responsibility.
I'm obviously going to profit from the job, but I have a duty of
care to provide the best advice that I can based on whatever information
and experience I may have gleaned down the years. And sometimes
it all comes down to blowing the horn and looking to see if it has
that certain something that sets it apart from any other junky old
Thus it was that this baritone turned up in the
workshop. It was in a dreadful state. Years of neglect had taken
their toll, as had a fair bit of structural damage - and the situation
wasn't helped by the horn having been entrusted to the hands of
a bodger at some point in its life. It was very clearly going to
need a very great deal of money spent on it, and it didn't look
like it was going to be worth the cost.
The client expressed an attachment to the horn, so I set about doing
a few emergency tweaks in an effort to get the thing vaguely blowing.
And I'm glad I did, because it became immediately clear that this
horn had that certain something. It was also helped by the fact
that underneath all the grime, damage and botched repairs the build
quality was really very good indeed.
It was still going to be a very expensive repair, and at the full
price it very definitely wouldn't have been worth the effort. But
I'm a bit of a sucker for a lost cause, so I took the job on as
What this means is that there's no set schedule for the repairs
- I just fit them in as and when I have the time, and the client
gets the horn back when...well, when they get it back. That's the
client's side of the bargain; my side of it is that it can sometimes
cut the price of the work in half.
Now, I should add that I don't take on many sleeper
jobs - and that they have to fulfil a very specific set of criteria...so
there's no point throwing an old Martin tenor at me and hoping for
a half price job because the first criterion it has to fulfil is
that I'm actually interested in the horn and the work involved.
In this instance I was very interested indeed, and my initial playtest
led me to believe that the restored horn would easily outplay its
market value - so without further ado let's have a look at what
turned up on the bench.
This is a Kohler Empor baritone. Note - not Kohlert.
At first glance I reckoned the horn dated from around the early
1930s. The design of the keywork was simplistic in places and overly
complex in others. And yet this is quite a modern horn. Although
it's not possible to pin a precise date of manufacture on it, it's
known that these horns were produced from about 1950 to at least
the mid '60s - but the addition of the word MIGMA on the bell very
firmly dates its production to some point between 1954 and 1962.
Close enough for jazz.
There's a little bit more history to this brand, and if you're more
interested in that sort of thing than I am I thoroughly recommend
you take a peek at the very excellent article on the equally excellent
construction is single pillar (post to body), with diamond-shaped
pillar bases. The bell is soldered in place and therefore not (easily)
detachable - likewise the top bow is fixed. You get a non-adjustable
thumb hook and a rather small thumb rest, fitted with a proper mother
of pearl touchpiece (as indeed are all the stack keys). The bell
key guards are of the wire type, so there's no provision for easy
bumper felt adjustment. And that's it in terms of the features.
The toneholes are of the drawn and rolled variety
- bar the top E and F which sit on the top bow and are plain holes
that have been silver-soldered on.
Given the extensive damage this horn had sustained I fully expected
them to be all over the shop in terms of flatness - but no, they
were remarkably flat. The bell holes were typically among the worst,
but that's generally par for the course - but many of the main stack
holes barely needed any work at all. And nor was there any sign
that they're been levelled previously.
That wins the manufacturer top marks; it's uncommon enough to see
a modern plain drawn tonehole that's level from the factory let
alone a drawn and rolled one from back in the '50s.
prize, however, for the wonkiest toneholes went to the G and G#
- because, like so many vintage horns, this baritone is fitted with
a 'piledriver' bell brace. It's just a single bar that's fixed to
the bell at one end and mounted to (almost) the middle of the body
tube...with the G tonehole right above it and the G# a little lower
One good whack to the bell or a drop and the impact will drive this
brace right into the body tube - resulting in a bent body and taking
out the flatness of the adjacent toneholes. As you can see from
the relatively scruffy condition of the mount area, it's very clear
that this brace has seen quite a lot of work down the years (and
most of it rather sloppy).
It's very much the Achilles heel of such vintage horns - and on
a baritone it usually means having to open your wallet wide and
asking your repairer to help themselves should you be unlucky enough
to drop the horn.
There's a similar brace up on the top bow (pigtail)
of the horn that connects the bow to the main body. Again, if the
horn cops a whack here it'll drive that brace into both body tubes.
In fact this horn had suffered so severe a knock that the impact
snapped this brace off one of its mounts. Very nasty.
the brace after I'd worked my 'magic' on it. I had to straighten
out the body tube beneath lower stay plate and make a new plate.
I'm rather pleased with the way it turned out.
The crook is worth a mention if only because of
the apparent disparity between the diameter of its tube and that
of the bow tube.
It's considerably narrower, such that there's quite a step up in
size between the two parts. This difference means that the crook
sports quite a meaty crook tenon sleeve - which sort of gives it
the appearance of part of the crook having somehow shrunk in the
wash...or like a very large man wearing a very small hat.
I hadn't known any better I'd have said that the crook was off a
completely different instrument. It's really that striking. Note
the position of the pin key (or lifter key) in relation to the crook
octave key. We'll come back to that shortly.
A quick mention about the wire-type bell key guards.
Most of them are mounted in the tradition fashion - which is to
say that the guard feet span the the tonehole. However, the low
C tonehole has two of its guard feet attached to the side wall of
the tonehole itself. It's not a very common arrangement but it sometimes
pops up on vintage horns - and it's about the worst place you can
put the feet.
When an ordinary wire brace takes a big knock it'll drive dents
into the body tube adjacent to the tonehole. This'll result in a
warped tonehole and you'll have to remove those dents before you
can bring it back to level. It's a fiddly but not especially tricky
job. But where the guard is attached to the tonehole itself, a similarly
hefty knock will drive the wall of the tonehole down into the body
- so now you not only have a tonehole that's out of level, you also
have a distorted hole to deal with.
on rolled toneholes you may well find that the rim has cracked.
It's a really daft place to mount a guard - but they probably did
it this way because placing the guard in this position would necessitate
a rather ugly-looking guard if you mounted it in the normal fashion.
With that said you have to wonder why they didn't just rotate the
position of the guard 90 degrees clockwise and fit a standard one.
In terms of build quality the Kohler is very well
put-together. In those places where a bodger hadn't made a right
old mess with a soldering gun, the solderwork was very neat. You
can see the same tidy approach on the keywork too - and the engraving
on the bell is suitably impressive. It all adds up to a rather elegant-looking
horn, which is no mean feat for a baritone.
On to the action now, and let's kick off with
that curious octave key.
The mechanism is very much in the vintage mould, with various flying
levers here and there - although there is a sort of rudimentary
swivel joint between the arms for the body and crook keys. And it
had to be said, it's perhaps the pickiest mech I've ever come across.
I would imagine that when it was designed it was done so with little
or no wiggle room. If the pillars weren't just so and the relationship
between the pin key (which lifts the crook key) and the body octave
pad was even just a gnat's whisker off - the mech would grind to
Given that baritones tend to lead a rather robust life it's something
of a liability - and if you ever have to rebuild the mech and resolder
the pillars you're probably going to have to take a file to the
keywork to restore some necessary clearance.
But that's not the most pickiest aspect - oh
no; it's the position of the pin key itself.
the red arrow in this shot? That marks the dead centre of the crook,
and on pretty much any other horn that's where the pin key usually
sits...or thereabouts, at any rate. But see how far over to the
left it is?
When the octave key is pressed and the crook key comes into play,
the pin key doesn't so much push the crook key ring up as sort of
slide along it and hope for the best. It's very strange - and because
there's a great deal less leverage that would normally be available,
you're very much limited in terms of where you position the crook.
So, for example, if you prefer to have it slung over slightly to
the side (say, when sitting down to play), you're going to be rather
out of luck.
It's really not a very good design at all, and it almost seems as
though the manufacturers got so far with it and then decided they
were bored with the whole thing and left it where it stood. And
it's probably needless to say that it's not a terribly responsive
But it does work, after a fashion.
I said at the top of this review that at first
glance the Kohler seemed a great deal more vintage than it was -
and perhaps the most 'dated' feature on the horn is the addition
of an Eb trill. I'm not sure when the last horn that sported one
of these keys was made but I'm willing to bet this bari is very
much in the running. I don't mind admitting I've never been a fan
of these mechs.
one, I don't much care for trilling (sets my teeth on edge) and
I've yet to come across an Eb trill mech that had any sort of long-term
reliability built in. The slightest bit of wear or flex in the keywork
and all your notes below D are wholly reliant on this little pad
seating absolutely perfectly. And it seldom does, at least not for
So as a matter of course I always re-engineer the spring on the
cup key to hold it in the closed position - and adjust the lever
mechanism to prevent the cup key from 'holding off' the D key. Unless,
that is, the customer is adamant that they want this functionality.
And some do - which is fair enough - but I always point out the
the side keys are a bit more up to date, featuring good old no-nonsense
fork and pin connectors. Absolutely nothing wrong with these at
all. But look beyond the side key to the rear of the top stack and
you'll see that there are no adjusters on the stack bar. In fact
there are no adjusters on this horn at all. Not one - all the regulation
has to be done with buffers. Fair enough, having no adjusters on
the main stacks is something that can be seen on many modern horns
- but by the 1950s it was reasonably common to at least see some
means of adjusting the regulation over the G# and Bis Bb keys.
Incidentally, the top stack keys are all mounted on a single rod
screw. A very, very long rod screw. Quite possibly the longest I've
ever encountered on a baritone.
The bell keys are another old-timey throwback
with a pair of arms that stretch across the back of the horn and
connect to the separate key cups by way of a sliding link. It's
a very inefficient setup - and by the time this horn was made most
manufacturers had settled on making the low Bb/B keys as single
certainly possible to tweak these keys to get a bit more slickness
out of them (such as in the careful selection of buffering materials)
but ultimately they're always going to feel slightly clumsy when
compared with their modern counterparts.
Up at the other end of the bell keys we find a
reasonably workable table.
The G# touchpiece is very generously proportioned - and the wraparound
Bb touch gives you the option of either pushing forward off the
B for the Bb or sliding down. And there's even a roller between
the low Bb and C# in case you want to get a bit busy down at the
it's a little bit hampered by virtue of the low C# being a single-piece
key - and being such a large and long one it has to be quite strongly
sprung compared to the rest of the bell keys. You do, however, get
a fair bit of leverage from the long touchpiece. If you were coming
from a modern bari to this one you'd probably find yourself tripping
up a bit over the table's layout and resistance - but once you've
become accustomed to it, it's not so bad.
The point screws are of the parallel type.
I'm not a fan of this type of point/pivot screw simply because there's
no built-in scope for adjustment as and when the action wears -
and when that happens it tends to be an expensive proposition if
you want to restore some degree of accuracy to the action. With
that said, baritones - especially vintage ones - tend to be rather
approximate in nature when it comes to the action, and yet somehow
they still manage to keep on going (albeit rather noisily).
rather more interesting is that the rod (hinge) screws are made
from nickel silver as opposed to the usual steel. It's not a feature
that tends to crop up that often, and on the whole you're more likely
to find it on East German built horns than any others.
I'm not really sure why anyone thought that using
nickel silver for the rods was a good idea. Yes, there's certainly
no chance of the screw rusting in the key barrels - but non-ferrous
metals are still subject to other forms of corrosion and as a bearing
material it doesn't hold up as well as steel. It also doesn't take
a lot of punishment, so if you do encounter a corroded rod you'll
only get so many chances at turning the screw before the head splays
All the major rod screws (stack keys etc.) on this horn were badly
worn and had to be replaced - likewise most of the minor screws
(side keys etc.).
A quick note about the pads. They're incredibly
thick. In some places they were required to be almost 6mm thick
- which is pretty heavy going for a pad.
I did wonder whether the key geometry had been mucked about with
in the past but couldn't really see any evidence of it. If you're
going to attempt to repad on of these horn you're almost certainly
going to have to shim the pads to bring them up to the required
And I think that pretty much wraps up the technical
overview other than to say that underneath all the damage and tarnish,
it's a very well-built horn. If you take the weight of a Conn 12m
as a 'vintage standard', the Kohler tips the scales at just over
a kilo heavier. That's an awful lot of brass.
Under the fingers the action feels quite good.
Well, quite good for a vintage baritone. Its a bit of a mixed bag
though, due to some of the quirky throwbacks - but there's nothing
really offensive about it.
The octave mech is perhaps the worst feature, which is rather frustrating
given that the rest of the action is more than passable. Even the
slightly clumsy bell keys aren't so bad once you get the hang of
There's also quite a 'big' feel to the action, and this is due to
the thickness of the pads and the corresponding key geometry. In
order to get sufficient clearance over the toneholes you have to
raise the height of the action somewhat. Again, it doesn't take
long to get used to it - though not having a front top F key is
a bit of a disappointment. Plenty of room to fit one though, if
you're so inclined.
As I said at the top of the review, I took this
horn on because even though it was in a terrible state when it came
in, it nonetheless had a certain something tucked away under all
the clanks and wheezes. It's sometimes the case that this is all
you have to go on when determining whether an economically borderline
horn is going to be worth the expense of repairing - so it was with
not a little trepidation that I approached the playtest after the
horn made it off the bench.
I needn't have worried.
put me very much in mind of the time I replaced my woofly old Buescher
bari with an old but serviceable Martin Handcraft. The difference
in tone and projection was night and day. The Kohler has this projection
too. It's not a shrinking violet.
Tonewise it's everything you'd expect from a vintage
baritone; there's a richness to the tone, a fullness, along with
a very melodic presentation. But there's also some gorgeous brightness
too. Nothing too harsh or scratchy, mind you - just enough to put
a bit of a glimmer on each note and to bring a bit of cut and punch
to the warmth. It's also enough to kick the horn into a lovely growl
when you push it hard (R 'n B mode) - and yet that's not its best
trick. If you back right off into the subtone, that glimmer remains
and gives the horn a very slightly percussiveness to what's typical
quite a soft soundscape.
That's quite a contemporary approach, and one that pleased me greatly.
Any negatives? Sure - the mid/low D is slightly more shaded...but
that's easy enough to even up once your embouchure has found the
core of the note. And that's really about it. The tuning's pretty
good too, certainly nothing untoward for a horn of this age, and
plenty of flexibility in the way it plays to allow you to nail all
When all is said and done I was very impressed
with this lovely old bari. The build quality, the feel, the response,
the sheer playability - it all adds up to being a very credible
vintage horn. And just like any vintage horn it has its quirks,
but they're not insurmountable...and what the horn delivers makes
it worth the effort.
It's not a very common horn, so examples are likely to be few and
far between - and the cost of restoring one could easily take you
into four figures (depending on the quality of work, of course)...so
it might be worth looking out for one before this review gets around
- and the asking price goes up.
If you can find one that's in decent condition I'd say it represents
an interesting alternative to the rather more common vintage American
marques. It's got a bit more clarity and perhaps a little more versatility
- and nothing beats the "What the hell is that??" factor.
Given that this horn was in a truly dreadful state
when it came in, I thought you might enjoy seeing some of the work
involved in bringing it back to life. If so, check out the Kohler
Empor rebuild article.