Keilwerth SX90R tenor saxophone
Origin: West Germany
Guide price: £3000+
Age of review model: Various
Date reviewed : Feb.02 (Addendums
added, see below)
This extended review covers several variants of the SX90R series
Description: A professional level instrument, brass body and keys, nickel
plated body with gold lacquer overlay. Features 'rolled' tone holes.
have to say that this review may worry quite a few SX90R owners - so I
would welcome comments from other repairers/owners to incorporate into
The first thing that meets the eye with this horn is its finish. Keilwerth
have chosen an unorthodox approach by giving the body a coat of nickel
plate, and then following it up with a coat of gold lacquer (Example pictured
is a standard lacquered brass model).Undoubtedly durable, nickel plate
being extremely tough - though lacquer will be lacquer, and may not be
However I'm not so sure the marriage is a happy one, I found the finish
to be slightly streaky with distinctly darker patches around the fittings.
Another finishing defect was file/machining marks on some of the keys.
An examination of the instrument revealed a far more serious defect.
Keilwerth market this sax as having tone hole rings. Although this gives
the horn the appearance of having rolled tone holes, true rolled holes
have the lip of the hole rolled over and tucked underneath to form a beaded
rim to the tone hole - a practice common with American horns of the 40's
and 50's. Advantages include extra strength to the tone hole and a wider
seating area for the pad. Disadvantages are that it's extremely difficult
to level such holes in the event of damage, and there is some justification
to the point that a less well defined tone hole rim makes for a less definite
Keilwerth have compromised - the 'rolled' section is actually a separate
fitting, soldered onto the tone hole. This means it is possible to remove
and replace the rolled section, giving some of the advantages of a true
rolled hole and fewer of the disadvantages.
All good and well, but an examination of the instrument showed that the
tone holes from low D down were slightly warped.
Now, this is not an uncommon problem - with cheaper horns, and is easily
remedied with a light dressing of the tone hole (more severe warps require
bringing up from beneath the tone hole). However, these horns typically
have straight tone holes - the addition of a roll complicates matters
enormously. Dressing a rolled tone hole runs the risk of breaking through
the roll, and even if this doesn't happen it leaves an uneven surface
area on the top of the tone hole.
On a professional level horn such an error is a grave manufacturing defect
- and a remarkable oversight given that Keilwerth fitted the rolls separately.
Such errors can be compensated for by backing up the pads to match the
profile of the tone hole - but this is an expensive and skilled procedure
and is never as reliable as a true tone hole and a correspondingly flat
I noted too some roughness around the inner rim of the tone holes, indicating
Perhaps the horn had been damaged? I looked, but saw no evidence of any
stress to the body - and whilst it's common enough for the low C guard
to take a knock and warp the tone hole I am certain that the run of warped
holes from D down is a manufacturing defect, as such damage would be quite
The design of the keywork and fittings is nice, Keilwerth have chosen
a more angular design for the pillars, which lends the instrument a nice
The addition of a brace arm extending from the low F up to the Aux.F key
above it is a welcome addition, providing a more secure closing action
to the right hand key stack... something that's often a problem on tenors,
particularly when the action starts to wear.
An unusual addition is a lever that extends from the G# actuating arm,
across the G# key cup and onto the Aux.F key cup. I was somewhat confused
as to the function of this key, but after having seen a number of Keilwerths
I've finally sussed it out.
It's supposed to be a mechanism that prevents the G# key cup from sticking.
How it does this is rather nifty.
In normal use, and with a working G#, the arm does nothing at all - but
should the G# stick, the lever pivots on the stuck G# key cup and makes
contact with the Aux.F key cup. Once it does this it tries to force the
Aux.F key down - in effect using the spring of that key to boost that
on the G# key cup and supplying the upward force at the pivot of the lever.
It works, but in spite of setting the lever up correctly I found there
was a slight delay before the G# cup came unstuck.
Still, a 'late' G# will be better than no G# at all - although most horn
players will habitually test the G# and low C# keys before playing. If
a stuck key is found it's a simple matter to just lift it off with your
finger, and thereafter it shouldn't trouble you again for the duration
of your gig/practice. If it does then it's rather more likely to be an
imbalance of springing.
(Since writing this review I've noticed a number of SX90R owners commenting
on sticking pads - this will be due to the extra surface area on the tone
hole rings - see the article on sticking
pads for a solution).
I noticed too that the pearls were extremely thick. I felt this made
the action appear higher than it actually was, but this is just a personal
preference. Having said that, I found the action of the roll-on Bis Bb
to be remarkably comfortable.
Whilst I'm on the subject of key pearls, I found a problem with the low/mid
Eb. In fast passages it was possible to get my finger trapped between
the Eb touchpiece and the underside of the D finger button. It didn't
happen every time, but often enough to make me acutely aware of it.
I can see what's happening - if you're playing a jump from, say, E to
Eb you instinctively press the D and the Eb key at the same time. If the
Eb key is ever so slightly ahead of the D key it's possible to trap the
tip of the little finger between the two.
Naturally, not every player will be affected by this - and even then it's
perhaps something that you'd learn to avoid - but in comparing the D key
with a Yamaha 62 tenor it can be seen that the Keilwerth's finger button
is a great deal closer to the bottom of the cup, and thus very close to
the Eb touchpiece when it's pressed down.
The palm keys are of an interesting design! The bane of sax players has
always been the relative height of the palm key touchpieces, leading to
all manner of gadgets and additions to raise the keys to a level comfortable
for the individual. Keilwerth have recognised this dilemma and have incorporated
an adjustment into the palm key touchpieces. Whilst I applaud this innovation
I have to say that I thought the design to be somewhat less than elegant,
which is a shame as this is a rather elegant horn otherwise. Also, I felt
that the touchpiece supports were a tad on the thin side...maybe 4mm in
diameter? These keys get a lot of stick in use, it'll be interesting to
see how they hold up.
The setup on the horn was a bit suspect...most of the right and left
hand stack key pads were up at the back, giving a spongy feel to the action
and leaving a leak at the front of the pad. The use of a cork buffer on
the Bis Bb arm imparted a squeak to the action. It must be borne in mind
that the sax had had a year's worth of use though.
After a setup the action improved enormously. Not quite the precision
feel of the Japanese saxes, and not quite the fluidity of the Selmers...but
a nice middle ground with a responsive and fast feel.
The bell key cluster is very well designed. Sturdy yet smooth, one of
the best designs I've seen.
Tonewise...well, it's a very individual thing. For me I felt the horn
lacked 'zing'. There's a certain 'crackle' to the tone that I listen out
for, one that inspires me to keep on playing - I didn't find it, though
I did find a nice evenness of tone over the entire range. My testbed Vandoren
T25 gives a neutral to slightly bright sound, and I would have expected
to hear a little more edge in the tone. I felt it leaned more to the classic
Selmer or Conn sound than to the Yamaha sound - but of course, you may
well think differently!
Last impressions. Certainly an interesting horn, with some very nice
touches - but so badly let down by some serious manufacturing defects
and an iffy finish.
I'd want more for my money, and I'd strongly advise potential buyers to
take a packet of cigarette papers with them when they try the horn - and
check those lower tone holes!
Since this review was published, I have received much correspondence
and seen many comments about it dotted around the web. I think it's worth
reviewing those points here - if only to save me having to re-write them
time and again.
Surely no manufacturer would consistently turn out horns with a defect
- perhaps you're only seeing the worst examples?
It seems very unlikely that only the worst horns turn up at the workshop.
Indeed, the people who respond to my offer of a free check-up often have
no idea as to whether their horn is affected by the problem.
I've seen anomalies on horns by other manufacturers, and where serious
have advised clients to return the horn for replacement. Once you get
to the standard of the basic Yamaha horn, serious structural or cosmetic
defects are gratifyingly rare - and can be counted on the fingers of one
hand in as many years. The problem with the SX90R horns has turned up
on almost every* example (eighteen, and still counting)
thus far. How many do you think I need to see before it becomes obvious
that something's not quite right?
I've seen reports of other examples from third parties, but in the interests
of accuracy I can really only comment on the horns I've seen personally.
* I'm happy to report that I have now seen three examples with level
tone holes, as noted in the addendums below (04/11/05, 10/12/08 and 08/01/13).
If people don't realise their horn has a problem, surely it's not
It's what you're used to. Any repairer will have worked on horns that
have only come in for 'a bit of cork', and found leaks on the bell keys.
Having repaired those leaks and handed the horn back, the client will
often remark that they never realised they were missing so much 'oomph'
down the bottom end.
You compensate, and you become accustomed to it - but that doesn't make
it right or desirable.
I tried a number of horns out in the store - the Keilwerth beat them
And so it might do - it is, potentially, a very nice horn. But it comes
back to what you're used to - and when trying out new horns you'll be
taking on board a whole package of new impressions and sensations, and
you may not realise that the horn is capable of more than you're getting.
Bear in mind too that the problem represents 'trouble in store'. New (and
therefore soft) pads have a degree of accommodation in them - once they
start to harden up they'll be less and less able to compensate for any
anomalies in the tone holes. This could very well take a few years, but
it would be a repetitive cycle. You'll be seeing a lot more of your repairer
than owners of other makes of horn..
Keep in mind too that very few stores bother to set their horns up - so
you could well be comparing one leaky horn with another leaky horn.
Didn't the old Conns have the same problem?
Conn saxes had proper rolled toneholes (see the accompanying
article for more details) and yes, they had their problems too - but
I've seen more Conns than I have Keilwerths and the problem is nowhere
near as endemic or severe. Those examples that have warped toneholes will
have exactly the same problems as any other horn with the same fault.
It's also not an excuse. The Conns were built around sixty years ago,
and because the toneholes were properly rolled the manufacturing techniques
required were very complicated. It's now the 21st century, manufacturing
techniques have come on leaps and bounds - and the Keilwerth doesn't even
have proper rolled toneholes.
Hey, I'm happy with my Keilwerth!
I'm really pleased to hear that - and I hope it remains to be the case.
Assuming a given quality of manufacture I can repair a horn, hand it back
to the client, slap my hand down on the workbench and promise, even guarantee,
that they'll be happy with it for a long time to come. I can't do that
with the SX90R.
I know a guy who says he's never come across this problem, nor have
any of the people he knows who have these horns.
Good for him - I'm delighted to hear it, but that makes him and his friends
the luckiest people on the planet.
Consider the statistics. There have to be tens of thousands of these horns
out in the marketplace, so the chances of coming across a single anomaly
should be reasonable enough. The chances of coming across that anomaly
twice should be quite rare. Three times, even rarer still.
Once you get to four times, five times, six times etc. - the probability
factor is getting seriously phenomenal. Now consider the probability of
seeing those anomalies on consecutive horns...one after another, from
a random selection out of thousands and thousands of horns.
Am I really so fantastically unlucky that I've only seen the dregs - or
is this a consistent and repetitive problem?
And some people seem to take criticism of their horns rather personally.
I've seen comments ranging from complete dismissal of the problem through
to suggestions that even if there is a problem it really doesn't matter!
In one instance I saw a claim that all the horns I'd seen had been mysteriously
damaged in transit (that one made me chuckle).
Don't be satisfied with glib brush-offs...ask the same questions I've
asked, read the accompanying article on warped
tone holes and weigh up the pros and cons for yourself with the benefit
of factual information and unequivocal proof.
My repairer has never heard of you, and I'm told that none of the
UK shops know you.
Does that make a difference?
Anyone can be shown how to diagnose a warped tone hole, you don't need
to be an engineer or a professional musician to see the problem or to
In any event I value my independence and take great care to ensure that
personal or business relationships don't compromise it, no matter how
illustrious the name.
I can see how a retailer with a stockroom full of SX90R's would want to
distance themselves from any hint of a problem - and if someone expresses
an opposing view you'd be well within your rights to ask what their associations
or interests might be.
I can get my low notes - surely my horn doesn't have this problem?
Just about any horn is capable of belting out the low notes. If there
are minor leaks you can compensate with extra finger pressure and more
air support. The real test is in playing subtone (that lovely, soft, typically
Getz sound), and with light finger pressure.
If you pick up a well maintained and regulated horn and blow subtones
around the bell notes, you should be able to do so with ease - and with
a very light touch. If you find you have problems you tend to compensate
subconsciously - in the same way that you will adjust your embouchure
to play in tune.
What this particular problem does is not necessarily stop the horn dead
in its tracks, rather it takes away a percentage of the tone and volume
(I reckon about 20% ?), which only comes back if you tighten your grip
on the keys. For many players this would be enough to send them scurrying
off to their local repairer. It's a fault, no two ways about it.
How do I know you're being entirely honest?
Mainly because you're reading this article. This isn't a secret document,
hidden away from prying eyes - it's a public statement, subject to public
scrutiny...and legal scrutiny.
There's one beneficiary from the time and effort that goes into these
review pages - and it's you.
On these pages you'll find plaudits and put-downs in equal measure. I
hold no allegiance, I simply report on the evidence before my eyes without
fear or favour. And I can do that because I have the evidence. None of
the horns reviewed are figments of my imagination, they exist, they have
been made, bought and paid for - warts and all.
You seem rather over-concerned with this issue.
Keilwerth's tag-line is "Saxophones are our passion".
Guess what? Same here! I reckon any of my clients would be able to attest
to how much these amazing instruments thrill me. You can see it for yourself
- just pop along with a vintage beauty in mint condition, or a unusual
horn with an interesting history and you'll see my eyes light up like
a kid who's been given the day off school and then found a fiver on the
ground - right outside a sweetshop.
But it's more than that too. I take pride in my work, nothing beats the
satisfaction of coaxing the very best out of an instrument - and defects
such as those found on these horns make my job that much more difficult,
if not almost impossible,
And then there's the issue of you, the consumer, and your rights. Nobody
buys a Rolls Royce and then expects to have to put up with wobbly steering
at 70mph. I've always maintained that you get what you pay for - and in
this case I truly and honestly believe that you're getting less than you
paid for, and more than you bargained for.
So what d'you reckon is going wrong?
A client was gracious enough to lend me a copy of Keilwerth's video of
their manufacturing process. Naturally I viewed it with relish!
I think I see precisely what the problem is. The tone holes are drawn
very early in the manufacturing process - right after the bell and the
body are formed from the sheet. Directly after that the holes are machined
level and the tone hole rings are soldered in position (and I am assuming
here that the rings are level - have seen examples where the rings were
After that, the separate bell and body parts go through a whole range
of processes, whereby the pillars and fittings are attached, the bell
section is fitted to the body and finally the keywork is matched to the
horn before being sent off to the finishing department.
The whole thing is subject to a great deal of heat and manipulation following
the fitting of the rings - and it's only natural to see how assorted stresses
are imparted to the structure. This would explain the gentle curves of
the tone hole warps, as opposed to the relatively sharp curves you'd see
as a result of impact damage.
Now, I can understand the need to level off the tone holes and solder
on the rings early on in the process - it would be tricky to jig the body
parts up once the pillars and fitting are in place in order to solder
on the rings and dress the tone holes.
What's needed is an oversized tone hole ring - one that's, say, 3mm taller
than currently fitted. This can be fitted as per usual, early on in the
process, and then dressed down with a suitably profiled die fitted to
a handheld machine after the pillars and fittings are in place and the
bell attached to the body. The extra height of the tone hole rings would
allow for any warp to be ground out as the rings are brought down to their
Of course, it would involved some material costs - they'd need suitable
dies for every size of tone ring, and handheld drivers to power them,
and it would probably add about 30 minutes to the production run - but
the end result would be gloriously level tone holes!
That's really the only answer I can come up with for now - and this assumes
that the problem isn't due to the rings themselves being warped prior
to fitting...in which case the problem would be far easier and cheaper
Does this problem affect the SX90 - without the tone rings?
Not that I'm aware of - though I haven't 'officially' reviewed one yet.
Looking at the manufacturing process I would tentatively suggest that
there's a risk, but in any event it would be easy enough to rectify permanently
by conventional methods.
From an entirely personal point of view as a player I feel the rings add
nothing tonally anyway - and simply create more problems with regard to
sticking pads. Mind you, it's a moot point now - they no longer make this
Have you told Keilwerth about your findings?
Yes, I've had correspondence with people at the factory and with executives
at the (now ex) parent company stateside.
In the former case they said they'd examine their manufacturing process
and report back to me. They apparently did so, but informed me that they
could find no problems.
The email I got from the parent company expressed concern at my reservations,
but thanked me for bringing the problem to light. I have had no follow-up
to my response, so I cannot say if any changes in the manufacturing process
have been made.
I believe that they're caught between a rock and a hard place on this
issue. If they were to admit that there is or was a problem, then that
would leave them open to every SX90R owner chucking their horns back at
If they don't admit to it, but subsequently claim something like 'improved
tone hole accuracy' then that leaves them pretty much in the same boat.
The only commercially viable option is to say nothing and quietly resolve
the manufacturing issue.
That being said, the addendum added on 8/04 points up yet another problem
with the tone holes.
Are you sure it's a manufacturing issue? Couldn't the horns have got
If the warps were a result of damage there'd be collateral evidence.
If your horn took the kind of knock that could distort a tone hole then
there'd be a corresponding distortion to the body. Such damage would be
clearly visible - you can see what it would look like on the photo of
the copper belled horn below. Another way of distorting tone holes is
by bending the body of the horn - but this too would be highly visible,
and tends to occur around the G-F tone holes (sax bodies typically get
bent around the mid section). A bend on the bottom bow would be highly
unlikely - the sort of force required to do that would result in a crushed
Would you ever say if you'd seen one without warped tone holes?
Yes, as I have done.
Have you ever managed to fix one?
Yes, I've been able to address the issue on a couple of examples that
weren't too badly affected - and the difference it made was significant.
Success depends on where the warps are and how deep they are...there's
only so much I can do.
Maybe you just don't like Keilwerths.
I'll admit they're not my horns of choice, but then neither are many
of the horns that get reviewed on this site...and most of them manage
to get a decent enough write-up.
I don't have to like a horn in order for it to be a good one - the web
is awash with 'reviews' by players who feel their horn is the best - but
any half-decent player knows that it's all down to personal preference.
Because such things are personal my reviews focus on the mechanics.
In any event, I awarded an SX90R my 'horn of the show' in my 2008 Frankfurt
Musik Messe report
I have supplemented this review with an article dedicated to the issue
of warped tone holes, which explains in more detail the nature of the
problem - and contains further details specific to the SX90R. It can be
I have recently examined an alto variant of this model, with the black
nickel plate finish.
Regrettably I found the same old tone hole problem. This is particularly
disconcerting on this model as any attempt to level the holes from the
top down would destroy the finish on the tone hole tops.
Even more disconcerting is that fact that this instrument is barely four
months old...so the tone hole problem remains an issue.
The review of the tenor corresponds to my feelings about the alto - though
I will add that the black nickel finish looks gorgeous!
I had a client bring in a tenor, bought new in February 2003 which exhibited
the same tone hole problems as detailed above. In this instance the low
C and C# tone holes were affected - with the C showing gaps at the top
and bottom of the hole, and the C# showing a gap at the top of the hole.
Lovely brushed nickel plate finish on the body though, very distinctive.
I have recently examined another tenor - built in 2000, a special 'Anniversary'
Again it exhibited the tone hole problem, specifically on the low C, B
and Bb holes, with the warp on the low Bb being quite severe.
I felt this model had far more 'zing' than the others I've seen thus
far, particularly on the low notes (when they worked).
yet another example comes under scrutiny - an Anniversary 'Edition 75'
tenor, built around 2000, with a black nickel plated body and silver plated
bell and keys. Looks very nice - but once again the toneholes exhibit
the same old problem. The low C and Bb in particular were really quite
Here's the low C - there's a substantial dip at both the front and the
rear of the tone hole.
Might not look much, but bear in mind that a serious leak is one that
you can slide a cigarette paper into...you could get a bit of card into
My offer to examine SX90R horns brings in another example - this time
a horn in the 109xxx (purchased new around 2002) serial number range.
This model features a copper bell and crook with standard brass body and
keywork. Very nice it looks too.
On my initial examination I really thought I had at last found an example
without the tone hole problem - and this proves how hard it can be to
spot the anomaly in amongst the curves and reflections, because when I
placed the test
die over the low B tone hole I found a pretty major warp.
In this case it begins just left of centre of the tone hole, with its
apex at the extreme right. A particularly difficult one to spot, given
that as you look down the bell with the cup closed it doesn't show a leak
on the lower portion of the pad.
Of more interest (to me, at any rate) was another anomaly I spotted on
the G# tone hole. Have a look at the picture below.
Note the arrow, which points to the rim of the drawn tone hole. The tone
ring is fitted onto the tone hole - and if you assume that the parent
tone hole is level, then if follows that the ring ought to sit flush on
the rim of that hole.
But look just above the arrow and you can clearly see a gap inbetween
the rim and the lip of the ring.
Note too how the gap decreases away from the arrow - which means the tone
hole ring has a rise in it.
what's going on here? Up until now, and confirmed by what I've seen in
the manufacturer's video, I've assumed that at some point the parent tone
holes have been levelled off - and that warpage appears to be caused by
stress imparted to the body later in the build process. But this picture
indicates that there's yet another potential problem - that of the tone
rings being incorrectly fitted in the first place.
As you can imagine, having the tone ring sticking up in this fashion completely
destroys any hope of the tone hole being level - and this on the G#...one
of the most critical tone holes on a saxophone.
I'd expect better - and if you've forked out several thousand for such
a horn, so should you.
else caught my eye too - take a look at this shot of the low Bb tone hole.
There's a crease just under the rear of the hole, as shown by the curved
reflection about a centimetre from the base of the hole.
I wondered how that might have got there.
I tend to assume that any structural damage is down to the owner - but
just how would you push a crease like this into a horn? Bear in mind that
the Bb key cup sits over this hole, as well as the low B/Bb key guard.
To make a crease like this the owner would have had to crush both the
guard and the key cup hard down onto the tone hole - and at the rear of
the key cup too. Naturally such an impact would do a great deal of damage
all round, but none of this was in evidence.
Oddly enough, the low Bb tone hole was level - but I wonder if it started
off uneven and had been given a 'tap' at some point to bring the rear
of the hole down?
I shall be looking out for more examples of this particular 'fix' in future.
As for the blowing - pretty much the same as the other examples, although
this horn had a nice crackle to it - perhaps more due to the copper neck
than the bell, and although it blew all the way down to the low Bb you
could still eke out a good 20% or so more tone by squeezing the keys hard
against their tone holes.
The owner hadn't played this horn much since purchase, so the pads were
pretty much as new - but as time goes by the G# in particular is going
to cause some considerable problems.
There is a possibility that the warp in the low B can be corrected by
raising the body underneath the tone hole - which would leave a hump to
match the removed crease on the low Bb!
An Anniversary Edition 75 alto finds its way into the workshop. This
time it gets a full
review, and whilst it's about the best example I've seen in terms
of the tone hole issue, it still fell on a very warped low C.
A solid nickel silver bodied alto turns up on the workbench - and becomes
the very first example of the series I've seen without the dreaded tone
hole problem. Read all about it here!
A brand new standard SX90R ( 118xxx ) is brought into the workshop for
a checkover and setup.
This example was much improved over the earlier versions I've seen, though
I regret to say I still found a few issues worthy of comment.
The low Eb tone hole was slightly warped, with a gap of about 1 millimetre
at the front and rear of the pad.
The reason for this warp is an incorrectly fitted tone hole ring, as can
be seen on the photo on the left.
See that grey band just below the top of the tone hole? That's the side
of the tone hole ring, and the grey band marks out the discrepancy between
the top of the tone hole base and the lower part of the tone hole ring.
Had this ring been fitted correctly the tone hole would have been level.
Fortunately, the Eb pad is always held closed by its spring - so this
discrepancy won't be too critical an issue for as long as the pad is in
good condition. Trouble is, the Eb pad takes a lot of punishment in terms
of moisture and gunk - and it will be necessary to change this pad more
frequently than on a horn with a level Eb tone hole.
The low C tone hole was fractionally out, but I felt it was within reasonable
tolerance after a slight dressing. It needed a dressing too, there were
a couple of rough spots on the surface. It'll be fine, but it's still
less than perfect.
place that had imperfections was the palm key tone holes. My attention
was drawn to these by excessively heavy springs - and in order to back
off the spring tension I had to remove the palm keys. I also had to address
the problem of a seriously sticky top F key pad (so sticky that the front
F mech failed to open it).
Upon removing the keys I noticed the F and E tone holes had burrs inside
( can be seen here as a rough white arc inside the tone hole ). The reason
for the F sticking was the pad fouling in the tone hole burr. All that
was required to remedy this was to remove the burrs with a fine file before
smoothing over the bore of the holes.
In terms of improvement to build quality I'd rate this example as an
8 or 9 out of ten - though it's lucky that the badly fitted tone hole
ring was on the Eb key. Had it been the low D or C it would have been
a far more serious issue.
Overall though the quality control is still not up the the standard I
would expect to see on a horn in this price bracket.
Once set up the horn blew very nicely. The balanced combination of a
rich, warm tone coupled with a nice touch of edge makes this a very versatile
tenor that will respond nicely to a wide range of mouthpieces. Without
suffering the vagueness of earlier examples with more severe tone hole
problems, the lower notes spoke with more immediacy and authority.
I still feel the action feels slightly large under the hands, and on
this model the bell key action felt ever so slightly more sluggish. This
would appear to be down to the fitment of a spring to the unusual G# anti-stick
mechanism. It's a small point, but having felt a great many excellent
bell key mechs I think I'd be inclined to remove the spring to put back
a bit of snap into the action here.
So, a bit of improvement then, but still a disappointment to find quality
control issues on a top-level horn - and as such I can still only recommend
this horn with caution.
Another nickel-bodied alto arrives in the workshop - but unlike the previous
example it exhibits problems with a couple of the tone holes. I have added
it to the alto review here.
latest example on the bench is a 'Vintage' model - so called because of
the distressed finish to the plain brass body, similar to that seen on
the Borgani Ponzol,
whereby the body is 'dirtied up' and then lacquered. It has the effect
of making the horn look instantly old, and ensuring it stays that way
and doesn't get any grubbier (where's the fun in that though??).
This model (serial number range 123xxx) was bought new in Dec.2006.
It doesn't look too bad, though probably not to everyone's taste, and
the brushed matt finish on the keys certainly helps to make this a very
distinctive looking horn.
From my initial inspection I suspected that what problems there were
with the horn was due to poor action setup. Several keys were badly regulated,
which caused leaks due to pads being held off closing by linked action.
This made the lower subtone notes insecure, and although the horn didn't
sound too bad it lacked the zing it should have.
the action helped matters greatly, particularly slackening off the excessive
spring tension on the main stacks and bell keys - but a warp was found
on the low C tonehole. Although a double warp (photo left, warp on left
side of tonehole hidden), it wasn't as bad as those I've seen on previous
models - and I would be tempted to say that this bodes well were it not
for the recent alto model that shows a step backwards in terms on tonehole
An adjustment was made to the tonehole which helped to lessen the degree
of warp, and this, along with an adjustment to the pad seat, really improved
matters for the subtone notes.
Once blowing properly it was possible to fully appreciate the richness
of tone throughout the horn, and the playful edge to the lower notes
As it stands, this horn represents an improvement, but I still find manufacturing
defects of this nature unacceptable on a top-flight horn - and I shall
Now this is interesting...this next SX90R to arrive in the workshop (bought
new in May 2007) is the same model as the one reviewed above - the 'Vintage'.
This horn bears a serial number of 123xxx - and is approx 450 horns later
than the model above.
If you make the natural assumption that the more horns Keilwerth make
- the better they should be at it, then this model should be an improvement
on the previous example.
In a word? NOT!
point of fact this particular horn was the worst example I have ever seen.
The reason it came into the workshop was because it barely blew much below
low D - and here's why.
This photo show the low Eb tone hole; note the cavernous gap on the right
hand side. There's another gap on the other side, though it doesn't show
up on the photo.
This is bad enough, but this isn't even the half of it.
Not only was the low Eb tonehole completely out of true, so was the low
C, and the low B...and the low Bb - and by a considerable degree. I didn't
even bother to check the C#, or any holes above the Eb...there didn't
seem to be much point.
When it came to deciding which tonehole anomaly to display I was quite
literally spoilt for choice.
Bearing in mind that this horn was bought mail order (from Germany) I
examined the horn carefully for transit damage. None was evident - the
defects found were built in at the factory.
the build quality aside for a moment, I was rather taken aback by the
overall finish of the horn.
The 'pre-distresssed' finish has been around for some time now - and whilst
I'm not particularly a fan of it, I can at least appreciate how some players
would find it appealing...but I have to question where the line is drawn
between a deliberately 'funky' finish and just plain sloppiness.
The photo on the right shows the bell section of the horn. Note the black
splashes around the key guard stay and bell stay plate. These are what's
left of flux/solder residues after the body has been dipped in a cleaning
solution. You can clearly see what's called a 'wipe mark' to the left
of the key guard stay...where the builder has wiped the soldered joint
with a cloth to remove any excess solder. I call these 'witness marks'
- they point up areas of repair.
If it were the case that an ordinary horn needed a parted stay resoldered,
this is how the job would look immediately after the stay had been resoldered
in position (though many a repairer would have made rather less mess)
- and subsequent to the resoldering the area in question would be cleaned
There are marks like this all over the horn, and much as I like to be
objective about esoteric finishes I feel that in this case someone is
taking the piss - it's really not a nice finish at all.
A 'vintage' finish should be about treating the brass to make it look
old and worn - if your old and much-loved Selmer came back from the repairer
with these kind of witness marks you'd probably have a blue fit.
I did try to play the horn - if only so I'd have something good to say
about it in the write-up - but it really wouldn't blow very well...the
setup was absolutely atrocious.
I ended up advising the client to send the thing back on the grounds that
it was a complete and utter disgrace - and recommended that if he wanted
to buy a sight-unseen horn then he'd better stick to something from Japan...or
get himself off to a decent music shop and spend a day trying out horns.
He did send it back, and the seller's technician agreed that the horn
was awful and a full refund was made. He subsequently spent a day trying
out horn in a shop and came away with a Selmer Ref.54 (so he's not completely
out of the woods yet!).
So where does this leave the SX90R in terms of quality control?
I really had hoped that as time went by the manufacturer would address
the issue of warped tone holes, but with this very up-to-date example
being the worst I have ever seen it looks like there's been a step backwards,
I find myself applying the term Caveat Emptor to a horn that costs over
£2000...and that's an appalling state of affairs.
I'm told that production is moving to a new factory shortly. I'm not holding
SX90R Shadow bears a serial number of 121xxx, which places its build date
somewhere in 2006 at a rough guess.
When this tenor arrived in the workshop it was barely working at all -
it was a real struggle to get much below low F, and naturally I assumed
it would be a problem with the tone holes.
But I was wrong (pretty much), because although this horn had a couple
of tonehole issues the chief problem was the state of the action.
Practically every single key cup on the main stacks was at the wrong angle,
resulting in the pads bedding down at the rear - which leaves a leak at
Now, this horn has been in use for a couple of years - so I can't really
point the finger at manufacturing problems, but I will say that such problems
rarely come about of their own accord (unless someone has taken a mallet
to each and every key cup and given it a healthy whack) - and that I've
seen the same issue on quite new examples.
The problem is indicative of a pad that has been compression set - it's
been placed in the cup and then forced closed against the tonehole, rather
than heated and manipulated to lie level.
Pads set by compression tend to expand and thus lose their seat at one
end or other of the tonehole - and the only fixes are to have the pads
reset (or the cup angles adjusted) or use those dreadful key
clamps to maintain the compression seating when the horn is in its
Because this horn played so badly the client was able to purchase it
for a knockdown price (I won't say what it was, it would bring tears to
your eyes) - but then discovered that the reason it played so badly might
be down to warped toneholes...hence a nail-biting visit to my workshop!
And yes, it did have warped toneholes - but only a couple, and fortunately
neither were so bad that they either couldn't be levelled or compensated
for with a backed-up pad.
The biggest problem was the low D tonehole, with a slight warp to the
front and the rear. Because of its proximity to the bottom bow joint it
wouldn't be advisable to attempt to rectify matters by lifting the bore
or tapping down the tonehole sides, so I opted for fitting backing wedges
to the underside of the pad to take up the discrepancy. It took a while
to get it just right, but it's a substantially cheaper solution than having
to whip the bell off to remake the bottom bow joint seal. Not as permanent,
mind you - whoever replaces that low D pad will have to ensure they shim
it to match the profile of the tonehole rim.
more concern was the low Bb tonehole.
You can see to the rear of the tonehole that the body is clearly dented
(note how the light curves around the base of the hole).
I've seen this before, on the copper-belled model reviewed in 2004.
There's really only one way to get a dent like this in the body, and that's
to give the tonehole rim a whack. Because of the placement of the key
guard it's all but impossible to do this kind of damage accidentally -
and in any case, if you did you'd warp the tonehole. As it happens this
tonehole was level from front to back - which suggests that this dent
has been deliberately made in an attempt to address a warped tonehole.
It almost worked - I had to raise the hole very slightly on the bell
rim side to fully level it.
It still has to be said, a fix like this is unacceptable on a top-end
Once the keywork issues had been addressed, and the tone holes accounted
for, this horn blew as sweetly as any of the very best tenors I've played.
The client, considering the price he paid for it, was over the moon. So
was I, to be frank.
Note definition was superb - every single note had a nice sparkle, but
there was also a deep richness there too. It almost felt as though there
were two horns playing...one bright, one warm - and this carried on through
right across the range.
I would say though that at subtone that sparkle was a little intrusive,
and in a side-by-side test with a Yamaha YTS62 the Yamaha actually sounded
warmer at subtone. Not by much, I grant you, but enough to surprise me.
This was on the same mouthpiece though, and I would think that a larger
chambered piece would quell that slight brightness if it wasn't to your
It's an effortless blow too - very free-blowing and responsive, and I
think for the very first time I actually enjoyed playing one of these
horns. I still feel for me that the design and layout of the action makes
the horn feel big under the fingers, but that's something that individual
players will either like or not.
What's particularly frustrating about this example is that it shows what
these horns are capable of. I can combine that comment with my recent
experience at the Frankfurt Music Messe this year (2008), at which I snuck
onto the Keilwerth stand and gave their horns a good blow. They were featuring
a 20th Anniversary Shadow with a solid silver crook which was just gorgeous
to blow (I checked the toneholes visually, they looked OK) - perhaps one
of the best horns at the show.
Contrast that with the previous addendum - the horn so bad that it got
sent back to the manufacturers.
This is what's so frustrating, it's obvious that these horns are good...great
even...when they work - but someone, anyone, at Keilwerth has to recognise
that consistently good build quality is demanded and expected at this
Let's not forget too this latest addendum example had build issues too
(fortunately largely correctable) - and as such I do have to mark it down
as a fail in terms of build quality.
chance to examine a very early SX90R - this one bearing a 106xxx serial
number, bought new in 1997.
As far as tonehole issues are concerned, this example wasn't too bad -
though it still had some problems on the low C/B and Bb tone holes. Seen
here is the low B tonehole showing a warp that affects about a third of
the area of the tonehole. The low C tonehole was about as warped, the
low Bb slightly worse with gaps showing on both sides.
What was particularly interesting about this horn was that it had been
serviced a little while back and a number of pads had been changed in
an effort to remedy the horn's reluctance to speak clearly and accurately.
Unfortunately no effort had been made to address the tonehole warps, either
by tackling the toneholes or backing up the pads - and it was possible
to note multiple failures of the cigarette paper test.
Given that the latest model seen with such problems was built in 2007,
and this one dates from 1997 - it amounts to an issue that spans a whole
decade. Happy Anniversary!!
example, bearing a 111xxx serial number, dates from around 2003 at a rough
guess and receives the accolade of perhaps the worst example of a warped
tonehole I've seen to date, beating even the model reviewed on 20/06/07.
The client 'noticed some difficulty' in getting the low notes.
The overall setup was poor too, with many cups at the wrong angle which
meant the pads were contacting the rear of the toneholes first and leaking
at the front. I spent a good hour tweaking cup angles and resetting pads
just to get the horn in reasonable blowing order.
The client the told me it had recently been serviced by a major London
shop and the bill had been in excess of £150.
I don't know what's more disgraceful - the state of the tone hole shown
or the appalling service job!
brand new (as of Nov.08) Anniversary Shadow tenor (serial 124xxx) looks
very impressive, with its black nickel body, solid silver crook and bell.
I played one of these at the Frankfurt
Music Messe earlier this year and felt it was perhaps the best playing
tenor there - so I was extremely keen to get one on the workbench for
a thorough inspection.
As it happens it was one of two possible horns that might have found their
way here, but the other example the client tried out in the shop failed
to work at all - which wasn't very encouraging for such an expensive horn.
Given the previous record of SX90R horns the first thing I checked was
the integrity of the toneholes.
I'm delighted to say that they passed muster! I found a couple of very
slight gaps in two toneholes when testing against the die, but not of
sufficient size to cause any undue concern (which perhaps puts into perspective
how bad some of the previous examples have been).
It's not all good news though, there were a number of very significant
leaks from the pads - including a very large leak from the top B key pad.
I did the cigarette paper test and had the client tug on the paper so
that he could clearly see how one side of the pad completely failed to
grip the paper.
There were similarly serious leaks on the entire right hand key stack
(all the pads leaked at the front, which points to incorrect cup angles/pad
thickness) and a very noticeable leak on the rear of the low B pad.
Because the toneholes were level it was relatively easy to correct these
errors - but on a horn of this quality and price they should not have
been there in the first place. I know most, if not all, horns will benefit
from a setup from new, but these kind of issues shouldn't be seen in this
quantity at this price level - and perhaps explains why the other horn
in the shop failed to work at all (the client subsequently wrote to Keilwerth
to express his surprise that such an expensive horn should be allowed
to make the showroom in this condition).
Once fixed up the horn blew very well indeed. Tonewise I would liken
it to the difference between the Yamaha 62 series and the Z series - essentially
the same tone as the cheaper model, but a bit more of everything. I think
existing SX90R owners are unlikely to be tempted by it en masse, but new
buyers might well be persuaded to fork out the extra over the standard
On the basis that I found no manufacturing defects on this model I feel
I can cautiously recommend it - but with the caveat that you'll very probably
need to have it properly set up.
You should also continue to check for tonehole problems, you'll see from
the timeline of the reviews above that a decent example is no guarantee
at all that the next horn off the production line will be as well built.
Shadow (124xxx) is brought in for a checkover.
This horn was bought around two years ago, and as the client also had
a Shadow alto he felt it was worth making the long trip over from Bristol
to take advantage of my 'inspect and oil' offer.
I hesitate to say I found no significant problems - because the photo
on the left shows the upper side of the low Bb tone hole...and there's
a distinct line between the rim of the tone hole and the soldered-on tone
That shouldn't be there...the ring is designed to fit on top of the tone
hole. It hasn't been filed either, as the tone hole rim is ever so slightly
lower than the ring.
In terms of playability it represented no problem - but in terms of quality
control at this price level it's not great. The tone hole itself had a
very slight warp, with a dip in the upper and lower sides - but this was
easy enough to correct with a very slight lift to the bore.
The horn was blowing well enough when it came in, with just a very slight
lack of solidity on the low Bb. The tone hole correction sorted it a treat
and gave the low note just a little bit more zing.
been a while since I had the time to do an update to this long-running
review, and in that time the Keilwerth factory has undergone a number
of changes. For a while it looked like there was some doubt as to whether
this distinguished marque would survive, but with the acquisition of the
company in late 2010 by Buffet it would appear that all is well. It would
also appear that someone in the company bought a new broom and gave the
factory a bit of a once-over.
Well, this is a brand new SX90R Shadow (serial 126xxx) - ordered late
2012 and delivered to the buyer barely a week ago. It's about as hot-off-the-press
as it gets. And it's perfect.
Well, OK, it needed a couple of key realigning and a spot of double-action
dealing with - but as it was a mail-order purchase I think it's only fair
to put that down to a spot of jiggling in transit.
The big deal is that the tone holes are level. All of them. Spot on.
About bloody time too!
Now, I've been here before. Having announced (with genuine pleasure)
that I've seen an SX90R with good tone holes, and suggesting that it may
herald a new era of improved quality-control, I've later found myself
disappointed to find the same old problem cropping up on later models.
This time it's different. I am led to believe that some changes have been
made at the factory - and whether that means they've bought the quality-control
inspector a new pair of glasses or are horsewhipping the builders every
hour, I don't really care. Just as long as every horn they turn out is
like this one.
also wondering if they've made a few minor changes to the action, because
it feels like a more cohesive package; these horns have always felt a
bit 'industrial' to me - possibly due to the Heath-Robinson anti-stick
G# mechanism - but this one felt smoother and creamier under the fingers.
It may well be down to a better overall build quality, but whatever it
is (even if it's my imagination) I like it.
I still find it's worth setting the springs just a tad harder than normal,
just to alleviate the tendency of the pads to stick to the wider tone
The client who brought this horn in wanted to know whether he should
keep it or send it back - and there was a certain amount of holding of
the breath as I examined the tone holes. Understandable really - the small
leaks due to transit affected the playability of the horn in exactly the
same way that warped tone holes would.
So I was delighted to be able to tell him it was a keeper - and better
still, that if I were going to keep an SX90R, it would be this one. It
sings like a bird up top, and growls like a tiger down the bottom.
Naturally, I'm going to continue to keep an eye on this model - but as
it stands at the moment I'm going to give 'New Improved Keilwerth' the
benefit of the doubt and give them the official thumbs-up on this model.
Perhaps this Shadow will lead them out of the shadows.
If you own a Keilwerth SX90R series horn and are concerned
or curious as to whether your horn suffers from warped tone holes, you
are invited to bring it along to the workshop for a free inspection. In
the course of the inspection I shall examine and test the instrument and
take photographs as necessary, whereafter they will be added to the rolling
reviews (good or bad!).
There will be no charge for this, and in return for your time I will carry
out a setup and lubrication job on your sax free of charge.