Holton 6/4 BBb - Update

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Posted by Tony E on October 19, 2002 at 01:31:45:

(Fair warning…this is a long post)

Christmas came early for me this year…

Even friends get to wait in line if they want Dan’s personal attention to their instrument at the Oberloh shop. So, I was pleased a couple of weeks ago to learn that, after only a few short months, it was time for my recently acquired 6/4 Holton BBb to go into the shop for “phase 1”. Phase 1, you ask? That’s my term. Neither Dan nor I happen to be ready for a complete rebuild, so the goal here was to remove a major dent in the upper branch, address a suspicious lead pipe, correct any major problems that a close examination might reveal, and improve the fit-n-finish a bit.

The horn was unsoldered to facilitate extensive dent work. Later, it was hard buffed and lacquered, but nothing too elaborate since it’s going to be plated at a later date. A great deal of work was done to the lead pipe. A large solder patch at the entrance to the first valve port turned out to be hiding a substantial crack. Additionally, there were a few other hairline cracks, and it was clear that a previous repair person had really contorted it when attaching it to the bell. Water keys were re-corked. Some nasty slide alignment was also adjusted, and any loose bracing was fixed.

Get this…I asked Dan to fabricate some custom valve caps, since someone had put some cheesy caps on it at some point. It turned out that those cheesy valve caps weren’t the only things that weren’t original…the valve stems themselves weren’t original, and the throw on all four valves was too short!! I wonder what bastard did that bit of butchering…

Finally, of course, it was re-assembled. I was fortunate to see this process, because I believe that herein lays an insight to these instruments. How can I say this? How about…the parts don’t fit together worth a crap. This is not at all like my Lego set where the parts are machined to snap together. I can truly attest to this…assembling one of these horns, for either the original factory worker, or any subsequent repair person, is entirely a matter of craftsmanship and skill. And, the way it needs to be done is according to how the pieces feel (tension and stress), not how they look. It’s time consuming. And, my guess is, the guys at the factory probably couldn’t spend much time doing it. Likely, many old Holtons would greatly benefit simply by being taken apart and carefully put back together by an artisan with some time to spend on the process.

It’s a testament to the design of the instrument that its tone and character had managed to find some voice even with all these problems.

But I was unprepared for the instrument that Dan delivered to me. As you might expect from what I described above, it blows much more freely. The tone has much more core to it. In fact, I’ve never been able to produce a sound like this on any tuba I’ve previously played. Projection is incredible. Not all that surprising though, since tone and projection are hallmarks of the old Holtons.

But here’s the BIG surprise, and an area that begs for discussion…the intonation is nearly perfect. This tuba, from top to bottom, plays as in tune as any horn I’ve ever owned or played. As some of you board hawks might recall, that certainly wasn’t the case before. I was very candid about the intonation problems, and in fact, I almost passed on the horn out of concerns about whether I could adjust to all the intonation issues.

I previously owned the new model King 2341, which is regarded as having good intonation. My Holton is easily on par. All notes with open fingerings slot within 5 cents of center. F at the bottom of the staff is not a problem. Only C in the staff is a candidate for an alternate fingering (4 is better than 1).

Joe S once observed that the big Holtons often have “barely a hint of a usable scale”.

But, facts are facts, and anybody who wants to play it can easily see that the intonation on this horn is stable and accurate. I’m not saying it’s “o.k.”. I’m saying it’s good. If you’re thinking I’ve been exposed to radiation, check with Dan Oberloh.

So, what gives? Here’s a thesis: the common intonation problems with the old Holtons, at least the BBb ones, are not due to the design, as commonly thought, but rather, are likely due to a lack of execution in the assembly of the instrument, screw ups by subsequent repair folks, or both.

Just a fluke? Maybe, but I doubt it. Either way, it works out well for me. And no, I won’t sell it…EVER.

Not to worry, though. Perhaps one can simply buy a MW Falfner, which Keating says is something special. Quite a comment coming from a respected owner of a very fine 6/4 BBb Holton.

Tony E

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