Hawkes & Son XX Century tenor saxophone
Guide price: £400+ (often much less)
Weight: 3.16kg (drawn tonehole model)
Date of manufacture: Just prior to 1930
Date reviewed: December 2003
One of the very few saxes to have come out
of Britain, and in its heyday a professional quality instrument
It's always nice to come across a rarity, and this particular sax
has the double accolade of being both rare in terms of being hard
to find and rare in that the UK never produced that many saxophones.
Indeed, as far as I'm aware the only other manufacturer of saxophones
in the UK to date has been Grafton
- who made the (in)famous Grafton plastic (acrylic) alto.
I've seen a fair few XX Century altos (often referred to as 'double
century', less so as '20th century') , but as far as I can recall
this is the very first time I've seen a tenor version - so it was
a foregone conclusion that it had to have a review.
If the name seems half familiar it's because Hawkes & Son merged
with Boosey & Co. in 1930 to form Boosey & Hawkes - who
then went on to produce some very notable clarinets (the Symphony
1010 in particular) and some equally notable brass instruments.
However, they never quite managed to maintain development of their
saxophones - and this is very odd, given that both companies had
some very promising horns on their books at the time of the merger
(see my review of the
Boosey & Co. soprano).
The very first thing I checked was the pitch of the horn. I've
seen a number of earlier Hawkes & Son horns (such as the Excelsior)
and these have always been high pitched (i.e. made before everyone
got together and decided to build their instruments to a common
pitch of A 440Hz) - which makes it impractical to use them alongside
modern instruments. I was happy to note that this horn was low pitch,
although there's no mention of it on the instrument; typically the
letters LP would be stamped on somewhere, though there is a flat
symbol (b) stamped between the low E and D tone holes.
It's a rather elegant looking horn - mostly due to having the left
hand stack all on a single rod, and sharp-eyed readers will have
noted the lack of a low F# side key. They may also have noted that
the bell keys are on the opposite side to modern horns. This makes
no difference to the playability of the horn, except that it means
the bell key guard will be up against your leg when on a standing
gig - and it also limits the type of case the horn will fit into.
The construction is semi-ribbed, with the main stack pillars being
fitted to a combination on small ribs and individual pillars - which
have large oval bases. There are no mod-cons; the thumb hook is
static, the thumb rest is a small, round and fitted with a pearl,
the bottom bow joint is soldered and the bell key guards are of
the wire type with crude clamps for the buffer felts.
far and away the biggest problem with these saxes is the bell brace.
The socket on the body is woefully small, and even a moderate bash
to the bell will easily pop the socket off. It's no big deal to
have it soldered back on, but it does mean dismantling half the
horn to gain access to it.
That's if you're lucky. What's more likely to happen is that the
horn takes a hefty knock which bends the bell rim and transfers
the rest of the impact force down the brace and into the body.
This drives the stay in - and at best it leaves a dirty great dent
at the base of the adjacent tone holes or, in the worst cases, causes
the body to fold up. Sorting this kind of mess out is an expensive
proposition, which is why a common modification is to fit a bigger
baseplate to the socket as a means of spreading the load of any
The tone holes get a mention because they're soldered on - but
unlike American horns of the period that had soft-soldered tone
holes, they're silver-soldered on.*
There are those who claim that soldered on tone holes mean less
distortion in the bore, and thus a better tone - but even if this
is true there is the problem of the solder breaking down and leaks
appearing over a period of time. This isn't going to be a problem
with silver solder - and on this horn the holes were as solid now
as the day they were fitted. They're rolled too.
* I'm now not so sure I called this right. All the subsequent
examples I've seen have had drawn and rolled toneholes - though
none have had the double B key (detailed below). I'd like to think
it's unlikely I mistook a drawn hole for a soldered one, and it
may well be the case that the given date of manufacture is out by
quite some margin and this is quite an early model.
The keywork has it quirks, especially the curious 'double B' key
you can see, the key has been split into two parts - the main cup,
with a small vent hole in the centre, and a thin flap that sits
on top. What's less obvious is that there's a link from the G key
that closes the main B cup.
I couldn't determine what purpose this arrangement serves - pressing
the G key on its own gives a slightly out of tune B, but then why
would you want to do that? You may as well finger a straight B.
The only thing I could come up with was that it enabled you to play
an alternate top D.
Many players use the false top E (Auto F, plus A and G) to give
a 'fast' E when coming down from an Auto F - if you then lift the
Auto F finger off you get a slightly odd sounding top D on this
also found that this gadget throws up a hefty mismatch between the
height of the B and Bis Bb pearls, making it rather tricky to roll
between the two. It's quite a jump in height, and not even a spot
of fiddling with the pad thicknesses would make enough difference.
A rounded button glued to the Bis Bb pearl might prove to be a worthwhile
I'm not sure how common this arrangement is as I don't recall ever
seeing it before. It seems very similar to the system that's sometimes
used on the low D key on horns from this period - and which acts
as an Eb trill.
The bell key cluster is typically dated, but nevertheless feels
quite slick in operation.
Much of this will be down to the fact that there's no link to the
G# key - which is a bummer for all those who need to jump between
G# and C# double quick. The payoff though is a much lighter set
of bell keys. If necessary, it would be possible to have a link
have been interested to have seen the posture of the horn's designer
- there are a few ergonomic issues that had me wondering what sort
of hand the horn was designed to fit.
For a start, the angle of the key cups mean the horn feels very
large under the fingers. Of course, it's the same size as any other
tenor, it's just that the keys are a bit of a reach.
Not something you couldn't get accustomed to, but a bit of a surprise
if you've just jumped from a modern horn.
The sling ring isn't fitted in entirely the best position - it's
a bit too high, and not far enough over to the right (a second ring
in a much better position has been fitted to this particular horn),
and was probably put there to suit the players of the day - who
would've remained seated throughout the gig...and which may also
explain the placement of the bell tone holes.
Indeed, if you sit down the original ring puts the horn in just
the right spot.
The octave key mechanism, although slightly crude, is quite light
and agile - I was surprised at how lightly I could set the G key
spring. On modern horns the octave key mechanism tends to determine
the minimum strength of the G spring, and I ended up having to tweak
the spring up on this horn just to suit my 'modern' G finger.
So you may be thinking that given the number of picky things I
found with this horn, why the review?
Well, dear reader, there are some issues that transcend the merely
physical - and as soon as this horn was fitted with my testbench
mouthpiece it more than proved its worth.
No, seriously - it does.
Y'know - sometimes you pick up a horn and blow it and straightaway
it guides you into a particular style of playing. Anyone who's blown
their fair share of horns will have come across 'the Bopper' - the
horn that just cries out for a bebop riff, all fast and furious,
light and energetic.
Then there's the 'Smoocher' - the horn that just oozes luxuriant
mellowness...and the 'Funkster' - brash, immediate, in yer face,
hard and edgy.
But this horn is a rocker. Half a second into the first note and
you just have to growl!
Tonewise it's bright, but full - and there's so much crackle to
the tone you can practically see the sparks flying.
It's a booty horn - it makes you want to jump onto the nearest bar
and give it large with 12 choruses of Night Train.
But it can be subtle too - if you let it. Back off the power a little
and the horn just ticks over like a V8 waiting for the green light...you
can feel the power underneath your fingers, each note has a crispness
about it that simply begs you to blip the throttle and leave everyone
standing at the lights, enveloped in blue smoke.
Frankly I couldn't quite believe it - I had to put the horn down,
go home, and come back to it the next day just to check that it
wasn't just me having a particularly wonderful day. It wasn't -
it still rocked.
Here's the caveat though - the tuning. As with any vintage horn,
you can't expect perfection (not that you can you even now), and
I found that I had to work a little to keep the pitch down in the
second octave. The top E gave some pause for thought too, being
remarkably flat initially - but this improved with opening the throw
of the key and a spot of practice.
With some careful mouthpiece matching and some time spent wrapping
your embouchure round the quirks it shouldn't be too difficult to
rein the tuning in. After 45 minutes of blowing I was ready to gig
with this horn.
Considering this horn was built many decades before the golden
age of rock 'n roll, you have to wonder whether Hawkes & Son
were visionaries...or just got lucky.
See one, play one, buy one - but make sure you practice your bar-room
Update July 2019:
client brought in a later example of the double century - so late,
in fact, that it bears the Boosey & Hawkes stamp.
This would place its build date at 1930 at least (the time of the
merger), but it's likely it was made no earlier than 1932. This
is because the production records for Hawkes extend to this date
- as the client found when he had a look at the records in the Horniman
From these records it's clear that Hawkes were still turning out
instruments under their own name following the merger, and continued
to produce them under the B&H name thereafter...though for how
long is unknown.
The design of the horn is largely unchanged - though I can say
with certainty that the rolled toneholes are drawn - but the curious
vented top B key has gone and there's been a change to the profile
of the bell brace where it mounts on to the bell.
On a more technical point I can also tell you that the crook tenon
sleeve is tapered internally, and goes from a nominal 26.2mm to
27mm along its length.