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Schenkelaars tenor saxophone (Couf Superba II)

Schenkelaars tenor saxophone reviewOrigin: Germany
Guide price: £400
Weight: 3.28kg
Date of manufacture: 1970s (guesstimate) (serial range: 78xxx)
Date reviewed: December 2015

Going Dutch, German...or simply mad?

It's been a good month for stencil horns - or a bad one, depending on your perspective.
Following on from the Noblet Vito alto is another example of a horn from a company who seemed to have some difficulty in achieving any kind of consistency with the horns they rebadged and sold. Strictly speaking that's not entirely accurate, because rather than simply buy in a horn and re-stamp it, Schenkelaars tended to buy in bodies and fitted them with their own in-house keywork. This can make 'stencil surfing' rather difficult, given that it's often the keywork that serves to point up the true identity of a horn (assuming you aren't able to blow it).

What's known for sure is that Schenkelaars bought in bodies from German, Romanian and Italian manufacturers - and there's also a suggestion that they may, at one point, have even made some bodies themselves (and apparently some pretty dire ones at that).
From what I've been able to dig up it seems that the Romanian and Italian based horns aren't much cop - but the German built bodies are said to have been built by Keilwerth. If that's the case, and the body can be identified as such, then this could be a rather nice horn. It also means it should be able to be bought for a very agreeable price.
But how to tell?

Let's have a closer look...
The body is of single pillar construction, each of which has a nicely sized base that's neatly soldered to the body. There's no detachable bell - the bottom bow joint is soldered. The toneholes are drawn, and were reasonably level. A few needed some attention, but this horn's clearly been around the block a few times - and I rather suspect the anomalies I found were due to knocks and bends rather than manufacturing issues.
The body had a few unusual features, but the most naff is bell key guards.
The guards themselves are fine, even rather good. They're nice and sturdy with a distinctive offset curve shape to them (a nod to the art deco period, perhaps) and they're fitted with adjustable bumpers.
But the way in which the guards are fitted to the body is a bit crappy - there are only two stays per guard as opposed to the usual three. A few manufacturers have dabbled with this sort of design, and history has shown it to be a dreadful way of mounting something to the body that's supposed to be designed to withstand the inevitable knocks and bashes that are part and parcel of a horn's life.
Schenkelaars tenor guardThe big problem with a two-screw design is that when the guard gets knocked, there's no way the screws can take the punishment...and so the guard tilts.
You can try tightening up the screws that hold the guard in place, but they're only small and you can never get enough grip out of them. The best known, and perhaps worst, example of the genre can be found on older Selmers - and it's rare to find one of these horns where are least one of the guard screws hasn't been soldered in place in a bid to stop the damned guard from tilting. But sometimes even this isn't enough - and in one case it led to someone taking rather more drastic measures...

However, there's a slight twist to the Schenkelaars design - the guard feet aren't simple flat pieces of metal, they're a U-channel. This means they slide over the stub on the stay, the screw secures them in place and the sides of the U-channel prevent the guards from tilting. Now that's neat. It's still crap, mind, but it's neat crap.
If this guard (the low C) cops a light whack there's a reasonable chance the guard will stay put. If it cops a heavier whack it might still stay put - but with only two feet to spread the impact there's a very good chance the stays will be driven into the body...and you can kiss goodbye to a level low C tonehole.
It's a bit like fitting a bumper made of glass to the front of your car. It'd look great, and it'd probably be just fine...up until the point where you nudged a bollard in the car park...and then it's all tears and broken glass. Given the time it must have taken to design and make these guards, they'd have been better off spending it popping another foot on.

Another curious body feature is the thumb hook.
Schenkelaars tenor thumb hookHave you ever seen one like this? It's an adjustable one (in plastic) - but with a very unusual pivot and lock screw arrangement.
It's actually not much different to a standard adjustable hook - they too have a pivot and a lock's just that the pivot point is usually hidden from view and the lock screw sits below the hook. Naturally, such refinement is expensive - and this design is, well, cheap and cheerful. But it does the job, and it does it well - just don't lose the hook, and don't even think about fitting an aftermarket upgrade.
Note the detachable F# key guard just above the hook. That's a nice feature, but not really necessary - they'd have been better off with a cheaper soldered one and spent the saving on a bog-standard hook.
Note too the rather...expansive...curve on that top E key. They've done that so that players can shunt their whole hand forward to make the note (rather than having to roll just the forefinger). It's not uncommon to see a raised profile on this's just that the arc is usually filled in with metal. This key works just fine, but if it cops a knock it'll bend in a jiffy.

Finally, there's the bell brace.
Now, I don't mind admitting I quite like this design - which might be rather surprising given that I'm always banging on about the drawbacks of spindly little bell braces - but a little bit of thought's gone into this one. For a start the mount point on the body is offset...which means that any frontal impact won't be so inclined to transfer the shock straight down the brace and stove the body in, and there's also a gentle kink in the brace, which will also help to take the edge off any major impact.
About the only grumble is that the mount point on the bell is a bit iffy, what with the brace going straight into it. A little offset or a curved foot here would have been the icing on the cake.
Schenkelaars tenor bell braceAnd yeah, I'd agree that the brace is still a bit spindly, but it's paired with a soldered bottom bow I think it'll get away with it.
But most of all I simply like how it's a sort of "impressionist's bell brace".
And that's about it for the body, other than to say it all seems to be quite well made and well finished (at least in the places where it's not worn). But before we move on to the keywork, what d'you think of those pillars in the shot on the left?
That's quite a distinctive design, and you may have seen them somewhere before. On a Keilwerth perhaps?

The keywork follows pretty much follows the body insomuch as it's the standard fare with a few notable oddities. It's a modern design, so there's nothing too out of the ordinary. The top stack is divided, with the Bis Bb and G on their own pivots. You get proper mother-of-pearl key touches, simple but effective fork and pin connectors for the side keys, proper point screws, blued steel springs and a pair of adjusters over the Bis Bb arm and the G# key cup...but no adjusters on the main stacks.
There's also no adjuster between the low C# and low B...but that's because there's no link between them. No big deal, they hardly ever work properly anyway - and more often than not they either prevent the low B from closing properly or they fail to stop the low C# from opening slightly when you're a bit clumsy with your bell note fingering.
You also don't get a top F#, though this note is always available with a false fingering anyway.

Schenkelaars tenor bell key tableThe bell key table is of the non-tilting type. It's very much no frills, but at least it's got a full set of rollers, and the G# touchpiece is generously proportioned. And because it's a simple design it's also quite slick. The bell keys are mounted on a single compound pillar - which isn't perhaps the sturdiest design, but the pillar's base is nice and chunky.
However, the way in which the table is assembled on the horn is a proper nightmare. Assuming a fully assembled horn save for the bell keys, the normal method of assembly is to fit the low C# lever first followed by the low B, low Bb and finally the G# key.
On some horns this pattern is reversed. But some horns are rather more fiddly, requiring you to fit or remove the keys in an odd sequence. It's no big deal, just more of a reassembly gotcha that means you might be left holding a G# key and wondering how the hell you can fit it without having to take the entire key cluster off again. This was one of those horns where you fit, say, the low C# first followed by the G#...and then you go back to fit the B and the Bb...but you can't do that without releasing one or other of the keys you just fitted. You sort of have to get everything lined up at once, and tighten up four screws all at the same time...and if you so much as breathe, the whole lot falls off the horn onto the bench.
They've also cut a (small) corner with the low C# key's spring - it simply rests on the touchpiece arm. Nothing terribly wrong with that, it's just a bit cheap and cheerful. How much would it have cost them to cut a slot in the key arm to accommodate the spring? Even thirty seconds with a hacksaw would have done reasonable job.

There's another oddity at the other end of the low C# key.
It utilises a captive spring. Nothing very odd in that - lots of horns use this type of mech...except that the spring is usually a flat one. This one's a needle spring. Not only that but the reassuringly beefy key arm off the low C# lever key is only used to close the key's the spring that provides the opening force.
Schenkelaars tenor low C sharp keyThis wouldn't be so bad if there was another spring on the C# key cup that was set to power the key which case when the C# lever is pressed, the arm rises, the C# key cup spring forces the cup open...and that diddly spring on the lever key just helps things along a little, and helps to reduce any key cup bounce.
But there is no other spring. This is all you get to open the key cup.
Well, it works...but low C# pads are notorious for sticking...and when this one sticks it's going to put a hell of a lot of stress on the spring when you press the C# key.
An effective fix would be to mod the lever so that a flat spring could be fitted...but as that wasn't in my brief I settled for fitting a slightly thicker than standard needle spring from my much-prized stock of (apparently) unbreakable NOS vintage springs. That should sort it...for now.

The octave key is a relatively simple affair, and bears a resemblance to that found on the old Yamaha 23 horns. This sort of design has a lot going for it because it's unfussy, sturdy and yet quite slick in use. It's also better able to tolerate the odd knock, which might otherwise bring a swivelling mech to a complete standstill.
The notable feature is the figure-of-eight pattern where the touchpiece sits against the thumb rest. It looks like it ought to be quite clunky, what with the flat profile on both the touchpiece and the thumb rest - but it's actually quite nimble. There's even a small cutaway in the thumb rest to allow more of the 'meat' of the touchpiece nearer the thumb.
Schenkelaars tenor octave keyAnd while we're here - this horn has the largest octave key pips I've ever seen. Somehow or other I neglected to take a photo - but take it from me, they're bloody huge.
Internally they're no bigger than any other pips, but just before they hit the pad they open out into a small cup. When you set an octave key pad it's generally just a case of getting the geometry right. If the pad falls squarely onto the pip, it'll can't do anything but. With these ones you actually have to set the pad as though it were, say, one of the palm key pads. No problem...just unusual.

When this horn came in the action was, to say the least, somewhat floppy. Once it had been tweaked and tightened, however, it proved to be really rather slick.
Getting it to that state wasn't easy - this horn has seriously tough keywork. After a particularly heavy session of action work I ended up with "swedger's hand" - a particularly painful condition that (older) repairers will recognise as that point where you release your grip on the swedging pliers and find that it takes a good quarter of an hour before you can straighten your fingers out.
Most of the free play in the action (and there was a lot) looked to have been built in during manufacture - and I also noticed that a few pillars had been reamed off centre.

When playing the horn I found I stumbled a bit over the Bis Bb, which really would benefit from having a dome pearl fitted (it's a bit low, and it's just on the border of pinching the finger as you roll onto it). The round touchpiece on the front top F was a bit clumsy too - but other than that it chugged along nicely. No problems with the lack of a tilting table on the bells keys, though I have to say this simpler layout is a preference for me.
The spring are a good length and can be tweaked for a good deal of snap, and the no-nonsense fork and pin connectors on the side keys coupled with the simple octave key mech just adds to the sense of a very businesslike feel. The stiffness of the keys makes a difference too...they don't flex as much as usual, and although it's only a very small thing it nevertheless adds a degree of solidity. That said, you're unlikely to feel such a benefit unless you've had all the slop on the keywork taken up.
It's also quite light around the neck. Not quite a light as a Selmer MkVI but certainly not much heavier. Makes a difference on a long gig.

As mentioned earlier, my suspicion that this horn has a Keilwerth body is based on the design of the pillars - but also on how it plays.
Even before it made it onto the bench for a proper tweaking, it was quite clear that it had a lot to offer on the playability front. With the leaks sorted and the keywork tightened up, it's even more apparent that this is a player's horn. It's got bags of zip and zing and that real 'terrier out for a walk' keenness.
Tonewise it's got that lovely crackle around the edges of the notes that I always look for, and yet it doesn't overdo it and fall into brittleness. I'm going to drag up the old YTS23 again and say that it has much of the same presentation and feel, and yet goes the extra few hundred yards by adding more depth and roundness to the tone - particularly at the lower end.
Schenkelaars tenor bellAnd it's an interesting tone. I often find myself slipping into a particular style of playing depending on the response of a horn; some will make me want to play ballads, other might steer me towards the blues...but this horn had me playing those esoteric slow and sustained intervals that you always hear on jazz radio whenever they're running a 'late nite introspective' session.
Not that it's too laid back though - with a bit of a push (and only a bit - it's very free blowing, responsive horn) it kicks straight into a much more funkier, bluesier tone.
Better still, the tone is very even across the range...and the tuning's just fine.

At the time of writing I'm none too sure about the date of manufacture - but on the strength of the manufacturer's logo alone I'd place it somewhere in the mid '70s. The capital S looks like the sort of graphics I used to see at the cinema, just before the adverts came on...and you'd most likely see it heading up a word like 'SuperStereoSonicSound'. You'd then get the Pearl & Dean music (bupahh bupahh bupahh bupahh badabaahh) shortly followed by a terrible advert for a local takeaway, which would prompt a chorus of woofs and meows from all the kids in the tuppenny seats. Ah, the good ol' days...

So is it a Keilwerth? I dunno, as yet - but as I have a policy of playing the horn and not the badge, I don't really care. I be surprised if it wasn't, but if it turns out to be a right el-cheapo then it just goes to show that there are still some very underrated horns out there.
I liked it, I liked it a lot - and what with the uncertainty surrounding this brand, and the bad press some of the examples get, there's a very good chance the canny buyer might be able to pick up one of these for a song.

Postscript 2018:

Had an email from Richard Johnson who provided some valuable information regarding this horn.
Aside from the optional top F# and the twin-screw thumb hook, this horn is identical to the Couf Superba II of the same period (the thumb hook appearing on later examples) - and the serial number dates it to 1977/78.
This places a question mark over precisely what Schenkelaars' input was on this horn. The idea of buying in bodies and fitting bespoke keywork makes sense - but if you're buying in the body and the keywork, well, you're just buying in the whole horn and stamping your name on the bell. An out-and-out stencil, in other words.
If you rushed out and bought one of these horns just after my review was published - and paid a suitably low price for it - you've done very well indeed. For everyone else, the party's over...and I'd expect the asking price to rise in light of this horn's credentials. It'd still be worth it though.

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