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Hawkes & Son XX Century tenor saxophone

Hawkes XX Century tenor saxOrigin: UK
Guide price: £400+ (often much less)
Weight: -
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 - with their ubiquitous 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 equaly 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 make 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# trill 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.

XXcentury bell braceBy 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 impact.

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.

The keywork has it quirks, especially the curious 'double B' key arrangement.
XX Century split BAs 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 was it enabled you to play an alternate top D.
Many players use the false top E (Auto F, 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 horn.
XX Century Bis BbI 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 mod.

I'm not sure how common this arrangement is as I dont recall ever seeing it before. It seems very similar to the system that's sometimes used on the 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 fitted.

XX Century bell spatsI'd 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 player of 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 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 walk first!

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015