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The Manufacturing History of Conn and King

18 Jul

The Manufacturing History of Conn and King

For the next couple of issues, I would like to divert the discussion of saxophone design to a review of the manufacturing history of a few prominent American makers. Tracing their evolution and contributions gives us a good perspective on how saxophones evolved, and I believe it is well worth noting some of their experiements and giving due consideration to revising and utilizing some of their ideas. We will begin our trip down saxophone Memory Lane with a look at two of the giants of the past, Conn and King, both of whom are sadly no longer making saxophones.
C. G. CONN For over one hundred years, the name Conn has meant the very finest in American-made saxophones.  The legendary models of the earlier part of the twentieth century are among the most prized and sought after among collectors and performers alike. As a tribute to the quality of construction and design, vintage Conn saxophones are often seen today in the hands of top professionals as the “instrument of choiceâ€, and many of the innovations first pioneered by the Conn company are found on instruments produced today by manufacturers around the world.


The very first saxophone built in the United States was built at the Conn plant in Elkhart, Indiana, in 1889 for E. A. Lefebre, a saxophone virtuoso who had risen to international fame as a soloist with the famous  Sousa and Gilmore bands of that era. Mr. Lefebre was also a personal friend of none other than Adolphe  Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, and had previously used instruments supplied to him by Sax himself. The original Conn saxophone was actually constructed by Ferdinand “Gus†Buescher, who was foreman at the Conn factory and who was employed by Conn from 1875 until 1895, at which time he established an instrument manufacturing company bearing his name.  The instrument that Buescher built for Lefebre was essentially a copy of an Adolphe Sax horn, and Lefebre was eventually persuaded to join the Conn company, where he was employed in the saxophone department from 1895 until 1906. Conn exhibited alto and tenor models at the 1893 World’s  Columbia Exhibition under the model name “Wonderâ€, and in 1894 advertised  a line of “Improved System†saxophones which included straight soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone models. These instruments were available in silver plate with gold plated keys; nickel plate; and polished brass. C. G. Conn, the founder and owner of the company, was elected to the United States Congress in 1892,  and introduced a bill which required that every United States Army regiment have its own band, and specified the instrumentation for the musical unit.  As a result, military orders for Conn instruments boomed, and in May, 1900, 150 Conn  “Wonder†saxophones were delivered to the Army, and were received at the Schuylkill Arsenal by Louis Seel.


During this era, Conn began trade-marking names that designated various models. These included Wonder (February 1, 1891); New Wonder (May 1, 1917); Pan American (January 29, 1918); American First (February 5, 1918); C. G. Conn (April 2, 1918); and Victor New Wonder (October 15, 1918). In 1911, Conn advertised a family of saxophones that included a curved soprano (which replaced the previous straight model);  a C Melody;  and a  bass, in addition to the standard alto, tenor, and baritone models. The ad mentioned an automatic octave key (actually introduced some time earlier) and a forked E flat mechanism. Only the alto and tenor models were keyed to high F, the rest of the line was limited to high E flat. A 1915 advertisement references an “improved†octave mechanism; a front F key;  a G sharp trill key;  a lengthened G sharp key, and a revised arrangement of the left hand pinky table. The 1915 horns were referred to as “New Invention†models, and were awarded the Medal of Honor; a gold medal; a silver medal; and a bronze medal at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition held in San Francisco. In an effort to increase international sales during this period, Conn offered saxophones in both Low Pitch (A=440), and in High Pitch (A=457). By 1916, Conn was advertising that “the saxophone department has been quadrupled in sizeâ€, and the 1918 catalog references the introduction of a straight soprano in E flat and a straight soprano in C. This catalog also makes mention of the Conn Microtuner and the Conn Resopad, both hailed as significant advances. These horns are referred to by Conn as “New Wonder†models, Conn saxophones of this era were seen with both soldered and drawn tone holes. The drawn tone holes are referenced by a patent engraved on the body tube (1,119,954  December  8, 1914) which was actually held by William S. Haynes, the flutemaker, and licensed  to Conn. Rolled tone holes were introduced around 1920, although straight tone holes were often found for a few more years. The 1922 catalog saw the re-introduction of the straight B flat soprano and the Conn Vacuum pad, which was designed to be installed without adhesives.  The straight neck C Melody also made its debut in this year.


During this period, Conn saxophones were often seen with spectacular engravings, and considerable experimentation was carried out in manufacturing techniques and design improvements. Conn was unique among American manufacturers in that a full time laboratory with a staff of six was maintained to pursue design improvements. The Conn design laboratory employed several designers, principally Allen Loomis; Hugh Loney; Paul Hardy; Russell Kerr; Edward Gulick; and Leland Greenleaf.  The legendary Santy Runyon also consulted with Conn on design matters. Loomis was known for his innovative, often bizzare, designs, many of which were never considered practical enough to enter production. Gulick might best be remembered for his design of the locking pivot screw, a device which has frustrated repairmen for years Conn saxophones in the late 1920’s were essentially an evolution of the earlier models.  There were, of course, improvements in keywork (the cross-hatched G sharp key of 1925, for example), and a redesigned straight soprano in 1928. The Conn instruments were considered the standard of excellence of the period, and a total redesign was not needed. Custom engraving and various finishes were offered, and these are among the most beautiful saxophones ever constructed. A surprising lapse of judgment was exhibited by Conn in 1928, with the introduction of the F Mezzo Soprano. Although the instrument had several unique features (left mounted bell keys, for example), there was simply no demand for a saxophone keyed in F, and the vast majority of these instruments went unsold. Many, in fact, were later used in the Conn Repair School to train technicians.  The F Mezzo was quickly followed by the Conn-O-Sax, also keyed in F, but with an extended range from written low A to high G. This strange instrument was quickly rejected in the marketplace, and both it and the F Mezzo were no longer offered by the factory after 1930. In 1931, a new alto was introduced which set the saxophone world on its ear! The totally new design carried over some of the great features of the past such as rolled tone holes; Resopads; Microtuners; and adjustable pivot screws; and added an entirely new mechanism which was far superior to anything seen before. The neck gained a tenon skirt to assist in sealing and aid in the elimination of the “buzzy Aâ€; the octave key was moved to the underside of the neck to protect it from damage; the low C sharp, B, and B flat keys now opened the G sharp pad; and the high E key gained a curve.  A swivel thumbrest was added and most keys were repositioned to give the most direct mechanical action.  Most, but not all, of these features soon found their way to the tenor.


The line continued to evolve, and the baritone and bass models were soon offered keyed to high F. Conn raised the bar again in 1938 with the introduction of the Connqueror seies alto and tenor.  These instruments used the wonderfully complex but efficient Permadjust action, developed by Hugh Loney. This system solved the age old problem of cork compression and key height adjustment. The left hand pinky table was moved to a more comfortable position, and the mechanism was much improved.  Key touches were inlaid with silver, and special engraving was added. These are perhaps the greatest of the Conn saxophones. Following World War II, Conn again established itself as the leader in innovation with the Santy Runyon designed Connstellation alto. This instrument used three octave pips to even intonation and voicing; a unique mechanism unsurpassed to this day for lightness and precision; ergonomic placement of the keywork; and an ill conceived plastic keyguard.  While not a success in the marketplace, the Connstellation is still highly regarded by saxophone designers and collectors. Conn put greater emphasis on student line instruments to take advantage of the post World War II baby boom market, and paid less attention to the professional market which was increasingly dominated by other makers from outside the United States. The saxophones lost their rolled tone holes in 1948; and their Microtuners in 1954. The professional models gained nickel plated keywork in 1955, along with clear lacquer. The tenor neck was changed significantly in the late 1950’s to an underslung design, but  by then it was too late.


In 1960, Conn acquired the Best Manufacturing Company of Nogales, Arizona, and moved most saxophone production there, although the “artist†models continued to be produced in Elkhart. The company has undergone several changes in ownership, and discontinued professional models in 1970. The Conn company was later merged with Selmer USA, forming Conn-Selmer, and has discontinued saxophone production.


H.N. WHITE “KING†I love King saxes. They are not without their quirks and faults, but there is just that indefinable something about the sound of a King at full song that gets my blood pressure up and my hair standing on end.  In recent years, these horns have developed a cult following, and I consider some of the models to be seriously undervalued. The King horns were produced by the H. N. White Company, which was founded by Henderson N. White in 1893. Mr. White had been a repairman in Detroit, Michigan and later moved to Cleveland, Ohio to head the repair department at McMillin’s Music Store.  He later former a partnership with C. H. Berg, and in 1893, bought Mr. Berg out and became the sole owner of the H. N. White Company. In 1903, he was joined by his brother, Hugh White, and in 1924, by his son, Richard White.  Following the death of Henderson White in 1940, his wife took over operation of the company and ran it successfully for many years.


The first saxophones  distributed by the company were Buffet horns which were imported from 1908 – 1910.  From 1910 until 1916, the company distributed Kohlert saxophones.  In 1915, work began on the design of a King saxophone, and this model (an alto) was introduced in 1916. King secured a government contract, and the entire saxophone production from 1916 –1918 was sold to the U. S. Army. In June, 1919, a tenor and a C melody were added to the line. All three of these horns had, in addition to the forked E flat mechanism and G sharp trill key in vogue at the time, the unique “open†G sharp pad. I’ve always considered this system to be a great idea, and have often wondered why it was not adopted by other makers.  This system involves using a double set of pads actuated by the G key, one corresponding to the note G, the other to the note G sharp.  This has two benefits: the player can leave the right hand keys depressed while using the left hand mechanism (think of a D arpeggio), and the intonation of the problematic note A is vastly improved. These horns were available in bare brass, silver plate, silver plate with gold keywork, and gold plate. In 1922, a curved soprano, a baritone, and a C soprano were added to the line. In 1924, King revamped their saxophone lines with the introduction of the New Series horns. These instruments continued many of the features of the previous King instruments, such as braised rather than drawn tone holes, and featured a front F key, a wider G sharp key, and an improved octave key. This mechanism, designed for King by Henry Dreves (US Patent 1549911, granted August 18, 1925) was an attempt to eliminate the hissing that often occurs  between high G and high A.  In this system, the tube of the neck octave pip was slanted, and the point of pad contact was rounded to better seal against a pad with a concave surface. Additional engraving, hand burnished gold finishes, and nickel plating also became available. Some of the engraving found on King horns of this era is spectacular!


The famous King Saxello was introduced in September, 1924, in an attempt to address problems associated with the straight and curved soprano horns of the time.  In his patent application (U.S. Patent 1549101, granted November 2, 1926), Henry Dreves describes the curved soprano as being problematic in the bow area and uncomfortable to play. He further states that the straight soprano is acoustically superior, but is also uncomfortable in its playing position.  His solution was a curved neck and a bell tipped at a right angle on a straight soprano. No tone holes were present on the bell, and only the upper octave pip was present on the neck.  The instrument could be played on a neckstrap, rested on the players leg, or with an optional (and very rare!) V shaped stand.


King revamped the line again in 1930, and claimed twenty-two improvements over its previous models.  These changes were mostly different tonehole locations on the lower stack, and the resizing of other toneholes and movement of the octave pip to accommodate the new King designed mouthpiece, which featured a larger tone chamber.  This model was called the Voll-True, and can be quite difficult to play with accurate intonation if a small chamber mouthpiece is used. In 1932, new alto and tenor models were introduced, known as Voll-True II horns.  These are very nice instruments, with right hand mounted bell keys, larger palm keys, adjusting screws for some key heights, the elimination of felt bumpers, a clothing guard, a floating octave key cup, and an ill-conceived mechanism which eliminated the high E key.  The alto made its debut in October, 1932, and was followed by the tenor in December. A baritone was  shown in July, 1933. In 1935, the Voll-True II was essentially renamed the Zephyr. These horns appear to be the same, and even had the same catalog number. Fortunately, King had the wisdom to abandon the high E mechanism of the Voll-True II  and use a conventional three key layout for the chromatic B flat, chromatic C, and high E.


Sometime around 1940, the Zephyr horns acquired the “socket neckâ€, which was intended to reduce leakage at the joint between the neck and body. These are really great horns, among the very finest of the era, with an unusually full voice. King took the Zephyr theme a step further in 1939 with the Zephyr Special. These horns had solid silver necks, engraving on some of the keywork, and a different bore. Mother of pearl touches were also added to the palm keys and side keys.  It is my understanding that they were also available with a sterling silver bell, although I have never seen one. After World War II, King introduced the legendary Super 20. The early examples were essentially Zephyr Specials with more elaborate engraving, but with a different neck. This neck, designed by Fred Meyer (U.S. Patent 2533389 granted December 12, 1950) was intended to provide more positive sealing and a lighter action, and became the trademark of the Super 20.


The initial run of Super 20’s had the three ring strap hook of the Zephyr Special, and mother of pearl key touches.  The left hand pinky cluster was changed around serial number 300,000 and the sterling silver neck became an option around serial number 340,000. The mother of pearl touches were discontinued, but a Super 20 baritone was made available. A silver neck was standard on the baritone, and I’ve seen one with a sterling silver bell. The socket neck was deleted around 390,000 and at 426,000 the production was moved from Cleveland to a new facility at Eastlake, Ohio. The underslung octave mechanism was discontinued, and these horns are generally considered to be of lesser quality and not as desirable. King was losing money on every Super 20 produced, and the line was discontinued in 1975. However, there are reliable reports of Super 20 horns with high serial numbers indicating later production dates. I can only assume that these instruments were produced from left over parts inventories.

From 1960 until the mid 1980’s, King imported the Marigaux line of saxophones from SML in France. These horns were SML Gold Medal models (no rolled tone holes) and were marketed to the classical community. They were engraved with the King logo, and later examples were fitted with a high F sharp key. They are SML’s in all but name, and there’s nothing wrong with that!


In 1995, King excited the saxophone world with the Super 21, which was exhibited at various trade shows. About a dozen of these horns were made (under the direction of Canadian repairman John Wier), and it was decided not proceed with further development or production. These horns were advertised as a natural evolution of the Super 20, but the economics just were not there. The fact of the matter is that these horns were in fact little more than standard altos manufactured by Kings sister company, Armstrong, with different cosmetic touches to make them appear as though they were new models. Several unsuspecting collectors have paid hefty premiums for what are in reality little more than student horns. Like the Conn company, the King brand was later acquired by Conn-Selmer and saxophone production was discontinued.

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