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King Super 20 (late model) tenor saxophone

Late King Super 20 tenorOrigin: USA
Guide price: £700+ ?
Weight: -
Date of Manufacture: Late 1980's ?
Date reviewed: April 2003

A later version of one of the most popular and sought-after American horns

I should start this review off by saying that, technically speaking, this horn doesn't exist.
King began making the Super 20 in the late 1940s right up until 1975, when the serial number records ceased at around the 540xxx mark after numerous changes in design and one or two changes in the ownership and location of the company.
This horn carries a 788xxx serial number - and judging from the overall condition of the horn and the likely production rate, I estimate this sax was built in the late 1980's to early 1990's...quite some time after the Super 20 had ceased to exist, officially.

The Super 20 earned a place in the heart of horn players across the world by virtue of its big, lush tone, its slick (for the period) keywork and its robust build quality. The success of the design prompted King to issue a variant in the 1950s with a solid silver bell and crook, which was branded the 'Silversonic'

For some players this horn represents the acme of saxophone design - not for them the mystery of the Selmer MKVI, or the precision of the Yamaha 62.

But is all this high praise justified?
Certainly there's no disputing the build quality of the instrument. The keywork in particular has been built to survive, though perhaps at the slight expense of a touch of flair. I hesitate to call it functional and yet if there's a category in which it excels, it's function.
This lends the action a very businesslike, brisk feel - so much so that I feel you'd be missing out on the sheer speed this action is capable of running at if you set the action too light.

King Super 20 tenor spatulasThere are a couple of quirks in the design, one of which is the bell key cluster. In use this arrangement works quite well, but from a repairer's perspective it's a nightmare to assemble and set up - but it does rather give you the impression that once it's set up, it stays set up, though wear in the key barrels can make this arrangement feel very sloppy.

Further evidence of 'beefiness' can be found on the low C key - with its imposing double arm.

Note the little locknuts on the pillars. These lock the point screws in place. It's an effective but rather dated mechanism, which makes the horn rather fiddly to regulate and always puts me in mind of a model steam engine.

 

King Super 20 low CIts worth pointing out that during the course of servicing this horn I noted that the keywork was very resistant to bending. The key barrels too were rather hard.
The latter is something of a double-edged sword - it means that the action is less prone to wear, but if it does wear ( as the action on this horn had ) then it's a real sweat to take up the free play with swedging pliers. If you own one of these horns, make your next stop the page on Oiling the Action.

As for the body, well, sturdiness again is the watchword. I'd have liked to have seen a beefier bell brace, the mount point on the body is rather small and has very little capacity to spread the load in the event the bell takes a bash, but then again I get the impression it's almost surplus to requirements. There's a decent soldered joint between the body and the bottom bow and the tone holes were nice and level.
The crook on this particular horn was weak (sax spotters note; it's a silver plated crook), though this was down to the fact that it had been (badly) worked on in the past. That it sustained damage in the first place doesn't really surprise me - the crook brace offers very little support to the centre section. In fact, if the crook takes a top-down knock over the cork the rear foot of the brace will concentrate all the stress just above the tenon sleeve, resulting in a stoved in neck.
I suspect this crook had been silver plated to cover up a multitude of sins...

King Super 20 octave key Also worthy of mention is the octave key mechanism. It's possibly one of the longest octave key mechanisms on a saxophone. It too is sturdily built, and yet it responds with switch-like precision even when there's a bit of wear in the key barrels.
One little oddity I noticed was that the crook octave key was inclined to give a little 'ding' from time to time, particularly going from octave A to G - where the crook octave key gives way to the body key.
In playing, the ding wasn't audible - but even if it was it would be a problem that could be cured with a bit of felt placed appropriately. I found it rather endearing.

In the hands the horn feels nicely balanced. I tripped up over the bell key spatulas and found the low C a little bit of a reach, but nothing that couldn't be gotten used to in time. The G# mechanism felt wonderful, really swift and positive - you really can't beat a decent bit of leverage here, it's something modern manufacturers ought to look back to.
I made a reference earlier on to model steam engines - and it's in running the fingers over the action that the analogy really stands out... the thing goes like a train! If this horn was the Chattanooga Choo Choo you'd barely have time to down your ham & eggs, let alone get your shoes shined up!

And how does it play?
Well, d'you remember those old Batman shows on telly? Whenever the Dynamic Duo got into a scrap the screen would be littered with punctuations like POW!, WHAMMO! and COWABUNGA!!!
That's what this horn plays like.
Tonewise it seems to be able to switch from strident to melancholic in a gnat's cough - one moment you're riding the A-Train, the next you're doodling on that Slow Boat To China - it's got oodles of tonal expanse, and then some. It's no wonder this horn is a big hit with the jazzers, and an even bigger hit with the R n' B'ers. And when you want it to whisper it'll whisper with the kind of tone that would set anyone's bottom lip a-quiver.

Tuning? It plays in tune - if you can't play it in tune you're not man enough to own one!

As you can probably tell, I was enthusiastic about this horn. It was a sod to work on, I'm even now nursing a fat blister from having to swedge those tough key barrels - but it really was a labour of love, and I feel suitably rewarded.
Bear in mind though that this is a late model - the general word on the street is that the earlier models are the ones to go for. But having said that there can be no shame in owning one of these, and you ought to be able to procure one at a pretty reasonable price (though owing to this review it's probably just gone up...sorry).

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015