How H. Couf saxophones came to be
While on tour in 1967 with the Detroit Symphony, Couf stopped at a music store on 48th Street in New York to buy reeds. While there, the shop owner asked Couf to try a particular saxophone. Although he did find the horn quite remarkable, since he wasn’t in the market for a new sax he didn’t follow up on the instrument.
The saxophone in question was a Selmer Bundy tenor that Keilwerth had been providing for Selmer USA since the 1950s. This US-sold student model horn was basically JK’s The New King, which was a joint effort between then-partners D&J and JK. 1
In the mid 1960s, after Herb Couf retired from his performing career, he opened a music store in Royal Oak, Michigan. It didn’t take him long to get frustrated by the ever-worsening quality of American, student model saxophones. He then remembered the Keilwerth-made Bundy that he play-tested in New York.
Couf contacted an intermediary with Keilwerth in Detroit, and was invited to Germany. It was only a few weeks later that Herb Couf became North America’s exclusive importer of German Keilwerth saxophones, which he could sell under any names he chose.
While on his initial trip to Germany, Couf already provided several suggestions for modifications to JK saxophones to make them more interesting to the American market. Such modifications as: somewhat different tone holes for the left palm keys, larger key touches, and an alteration to the key guards. The tone holes were made larger for the American market, so students could get accurate intonation in the upper notes with the same applied pressure as they did on the rest of the horn’s range.
Shortly thereafter the first instrument with the Couf logo were released and sent to Royal Oak. The H. Couf saxophone was born.
In August 2005 Herb Couf provided the following information to Warren Weise 2 :
There were three levels of H. Couf saxophones; Superba I, the professional line…. Superba II the intermediate line with many of the same features as the Superba I…and the Royalist, the student line.
Did everyone catch this? Herb Couf considered the Superba II an intermediate model horn. This makes sense, because JK had historically considered The New King a non-pro horn, despite it being identical to the pro model Toneking in every regards sans a high F key.
How the Keilwerth-related horns looked at the time
With the model re-jigging, and changes in their features, the Toneking became JK’s intermediate horn during the 70s and 80s, with the Toneking Special now being considered JK’s pro model. This of course bumped the The New King into the lowly student level spot.3
JK Toneking Special – their pro model
Source: music-outlet-shop on eBay.com
JK Toneking – their intermediate model
Source: woodwinds-and-brass on eBay.de
The Toneking lost its rolled tone holes sometime in the 70s. The bow was made bigger—like that found on the Toneking Special. The high F# key was no longer a standard feature, but could be ordered for an additional charge.
JK The New King – their student model
Source: boplover on eBay.de
Why you find Superba II saxophones as early as the 1960s
Given all this information, it makes sense you can find Superba II horns as early as the 1960s. It wasn’t that the model was a successor to the I. Far from it. The two models were built early on—if not from the start—at the same time, and were very similar in many respects.
What were the differences between the Superba I and II?
There has been a great deal written about what makes a I a I, and what distinguishes it from a II. When I first started this research I was overwhelmed by the total lack of concrete information about this topic, and therefore it wasn’t a surprise that even Couf owners didn’t know for sure what they had.
Although I have provided illustrations of all the SATB&B Superba I & II horns on this page, rather than try to cram all of the information that I have found into an even longer page, I am creating separate pages for each model. This will allow owners, or would-be owners, to carefully look over the details of each horn that they are interested in.
At this point I do want to mention that the altos and tenors were the most different. The baritone and soprano Superba I and II models did not differ nearly as much when it came to features.
I want to thank Brian at Get A Sax, Roberto from Robertos Winds, Mark from USA Horn, as well as Chadd from World Wide Sax, for allowing me to use their images throughout all these H. Couf saxophone pages. Beautiful images are vital to illustrating the beautiful horns that Herb Couf helped the Julius Keilwerth Company design.
H. Couf saxophones by the numbers
There were approximately 600-700 instruments assembled annually at the JK factory in Germany for H. Couf. A further 300-400 saxophones were sent unassembled in pieces to the US. This procedure was necessary because Keilwerth did not have the capacity to deliver the requested number fully assembled.
The assembly in the US was managed by Mel Webster, who had been enticed over from Selmer.
Between 1968-1983 approximately 1,000 saxophones were imported annually from Keilwerth. Therefore if you do the math, 16 years X 1,000 per year = 16,000 H. Couf branded horns (approximately) have been distributed in North America. Of those, approximately 30-35% are altos, 30-35% tenors, 15% sopranos, 15% baritones, as well as a very few bass saxophones. According to Gerhard Keilwerth, these totals represented approximately 60-70% of the total saxophones produced by Keilwerth in those 16 years.4
Saxophones weren’t the only things that H. Couf brought in from Keilwerth
It was circa 1975 that Keilwerth trumpets were imported. I have seen both Superba I and II versions that came from Germany. The Royalist models that I have come across appear to all be American in origin. (I am totally open to being corrected on this. If a trumpet player/owner of a Couf Royalist wants to provide me photos of a German-made Royalist, please send them to me via email. Thanks!)
Superba 2 trumpet serial # 18254
Couf also sold trombones, clarinets, as well as mouthpieces bearing his name. The few trombones I have seen are all Royalist models and were made in the US. If anyone coming across this article has a Superba I or II trombone, please send me some photos. Thank you.
The only H. Couf clarinets I have seen were Royalist models, had ebonite bodies, and were supposedly made by Artley. Again, if anyone has something of German origin, drop me a note along with photos. Thanks!
With regards to H. Couf mouthpieces, of the saxophone mouthpieces, most were reportedly made by German mouthpiece manufacturer Zinner. (Runyon apparently made some slimline soprano ones that were almost identical to the Custom.) Presumably the clarinet H. Couf MPs were Zinner products as well.
In November 2018 I reached out to Zinner via email to see if they would be able to confirm that they were indeed the makers of the H. Couf mouthpieces, but unfortunately I received the following reply:
Dear business partners,
after many years being part of the clarinet and saxophone mouthpiece business we decided to close our factory on June 30, 2018.
Thank you for your understanding.
Hans Zinner GmbH & Co, KG
Zinner mouthpieces handcrafted in Germany
Marketing 101: create a want or desire
Herb Couf’s marketing strategy for selling his horns was very energy intensive—but extremely successful. He visited all the big cities in the US and turned to the top players and sax teachers and had them play-test his horns. During the play-test Couf employed a very specific strategy: First he would hand the player one of his Couf horns to try out. Only after that play-test, would the player be able to try his own instrument in comparison. Most players were no longer satisfied with their own instrument after the play-test.The first step was a success.
The success of the Couf saxophones was therefore largely based on extremely good word of mouth, although supporting ads—such as those in Down Beat Magazine—were also used.
Little by little Couf found endorsers for his horns, who played exclusively with his saxophones. Those included: Grover Washington Jr., Dave Liebman, Ernie Watts, the New York Saxophone Quartet, as well as the sax section of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
Larger bells & bows
Compared to their French contemporaries, the Keilwerth-built saxophones had a somewhat larger bell.
They also had an appropriately larger bow that produced the big, centred tone that the brand is known for. This larger bow is quite evident in the photos above.
The larger bow is also illustrated in the following [somewhat imprecise] photo of my H. Couf Superba II bari 61XXX, and my Selmer Mark VI bari # 147XXX. Notice however, that my Martin Committee III # 204XXX, has still an even larger bow than the Couf.
My 3 baris. From left to right: H. Couf Superba II, Selmer Mark VI, Martin Committee III.
On the body tube, the horns carry a stamp that reads:
MADE EXCLUSIVELY FOR H. COUF byJULIUS KEILWERTH MUSIKINSTRUMENTENFABRIK
Based on the <200 or so H. Couf saxophones that I have studied to date, it appears that this stamping was placed on the body tube. That said, there are some saxophones that for whatever reason didn’t get the stamping, for example, my Superba II bari #61XXX shown below.
Around the mid-1970s Herb Couf became the Vice President of Armstrong, and that company took over the Couf series. As a result, the stamping on the body tubes of the horns changed to:
MADE IN WEST GERMANY EXCLUSIVELY FOR W.T. ARMSTRONG COMPANY BY JULIUS KEILWERTH MUSICAL INSTRUMENT FACTORY
The location of the stamping was moved as well, and was placed above the serial #.
Some big changes were afoot during the late 1970s
- Around 1977-78 Keilwerth began to only deliver the body tubes and bells for the student model Royalist horns. The rest of the horns Armstrong manufactured themselves.
- At some point after that, Armstrong took over manufacturing the bodies themselves as well. According to Amati 5, that company too supplied horns to Couf during this period of time.
- It was at approximately during this same time frame that Keilwerth became the distributor for Armstrong saxophones in Germany and Austria.
Price list for H. Couf saxophones
Finding any printed literature for H. Couf saxophones has been incredibly difficult. To date the only information I have found, is this brochure from January 1982 (?), that was photographed for an eBay sale way back in 2012. The photos were quite small, so I used some Photoshop tricks to try and enlarge them a bit.
The quality of the photos wasn’t great to begin with, which made the Photoshopping of these pix even more challenging. So if anyone has a pamphlet or brochure on these horns that they would care to share with the world, we would all be extremely grateful. Just get in touch with me and we can talk. (Electronic copies are fine, but they have to be large and clear.)
Source: The-Sax-Group on eBay.com
H. Couf saxophones models and features chart
|Superba I||Superba II||Royalist|
|Corresponding JK model||Toneking Special||Toneking||The New King|
|True rolled tone holes (Not on bari or soprano)||X||–||–|
|Baritone||X (also with low A)||X (also with low A)||–|
|Black Gold – black nickel plate with gold plated keys & bell||X||X||–|
|Black nickel plate with gold lacquer application**||X||X||–|
|Real MOP key touches||X||X||X|
|Piano wire springs||X||X||X|
* I have yet to see these finishes in H. Couf horns. I do believe that silver plate may have been ordered, but so rarely that they have not appeared for sale recently with sax shops that I have regular contact with. Nor have they appeared for sale in online auctions.
** With regards to black nickel with gold lacquer keys and bell, that I am not so sure about. The very few black nickel horns I have seen stencilled for Couf, all appear to have gold plated keys and bell. This was a special order from JK that was a 20% surcharge on the regular lacquer price of whatever horn you were ordering. It is described in the pamphlet included on this page as Black Gold. However, black nickel with gold lacquer is not mentioned, nor is it a finish mentioned in any of JK pamphlets or brochures that I have come across to date.
H. Couf models & features illustrated
Depending on the model, H. Couf saxophones came in a variety of finishes, with a variety of options. However, there were some features that were reserved for only the most most popular—alto and tenor—versions of their horns. For example, rolled tone holes (RTH) are not found on either soprano or baritone Superba I horns.
Supbera I soprano
Superba II soprano
For much more detailed information comparing the Suberba I & II sopranos, please see this page.
Superba I alto
Superba II alto
Unfortunately there is no serial # noted for this Superba II alto. Note its adjustable right thumb rest; the MOP key touches on the chromatic F# & high F# keys; and the location of the chromatic F# tone hole. These are features we normally associate with the Superba I.
This Superba II alto has the non-adjustable thumb rest, as well as the more commonly-seen F# keys for the right pinkie.
Superba I tenor
Superba II tenor
Note that this horn has a high F# key. Also note that like the alto shown above, this Superba II’s location of the chromatic F# tone hole is at the back of the body tube.
Note: Despite having a high F# key—albeit a replacement courtesy of the seller’s tech—this Superba II has its chromatic F# key located on the side of the body tube.
Superba I low Bb baritone
Superba I low A baritone
Note this horn has a high F# as well.
Superba II low Bb baritone
Superba II low A baritone
Superba I bass
Superba II bass
High F# key
From the above-noted price list, it would appear that Superba I altos and tenors came standard with a high F# key.
For baris, the high F# seems to have been an option, as not all baris have the additional key. This one however does…
I don’t know if the high F# was standard on all Superba I sopranos because my sample size is quite small. Or if like on the Selmer Mark VI, the high F# key was an option that could be ordered from the factory. However the following horn does have it.
On the Superba II the high F# was even more of an option—with not even all alto and tenor saxophones having the extra key. I did however, find the following examples that indicate that the high F# key was available for the most popular saxophone voices as an option.
It is worth noting that I have not seen a high F# key on any Superba II baritones. As for Superba II sopranos, sadly the sample size I have is too small to draw any definite conclusions, but so far I haven’t seen any on those either.
As noted, true, drawn rolled tone holes—not the kind that JK has done in recent years that are rings soldered on top of straight tone holes, and shown here in this video published by the company in 2017—were a feature on only the alto and tenor Superba I models. The Superba I baris and soprano never had rolled tone holes, nor did any of the Superba II horns.
This is what straight tone holes looked like on a Superba I baritone:
And here is a Superba II bari with straight tone holes:
The key touches that H. Couf has are somewhat over-sized, and are made of real mother of pearl.
On the Superba II, and some Superba I horns though, the G# key had a black plastic key touch, as opposed one made of mother of pearl.
The use of MOP seems to be all over the place, with the chromatic and high F# keys, as well as octave keys sometimes having the material, and sometimes not. I have not necessarily been able to associate it with age. One thing is for certain however, Superba I horns with a black nickel plate and gold plated keys seem to have the most MOP keys.
This top-of-the-line H. Couf, which would have been the most expensive model available from the company at the time, has 12 MOP key touches. This is still a far cry from the 22 that Hammerschmidt’s Klingsor Model A had in 1961. JK did offer horns with the same number of MOP keys, but that was way back in its Graslitz days, prior to the company’s move to [then] West Germany.
Piano wire springs
In this day and age of blued steel springs, I must say I was pleased to see that H. Couf horns came standard with piano wire springs. When I had recently had my Olds Super tenor re-built, my tech used piano wire for the springs. (His idea.) I must admit, now that I’ve had a horn sprung with piano wire, I will never go back to blued steel. Why? The feel is so smooth and buttery, yet still the horn’s response is just as fast as my horns recently overhauled with blued steel. What it doesn’t have is that snappy feel you get from blued steel, and that is not something I personally miss.
I recently bought what could honestly be described as a closet H. Couf bari. This Superba II spent most of its 50 years sitting in someone’s attic or basement. Everything on this horn is original, including the springs. The horn feels simply amazing to the touch, and its response is extraordinary. It is smoother in response than my Mark VI bari that was overhauled about a year ago with blue needle springs.
While it’s true that H. Couf saxophone are known for their good intonation, here’s a fun-fact about the Couf bari: In about 1980, Herb Couf mentioned at a trade fair visit in Frankfurt that the originally-planned neck for the baritone was too long for him. He had Keilwerth shorten the neck by 1 cm, and deliver all new baritones with this shorter neck. Meanwhile the bari players who had such short necks on their horns, ordered the regular length ones because the intonation was problematic for them.
What year exactly Herb Couf made JK switch the neck length is not cited in Uwe’s work. Nor is there any mention in Uwe’s research when or if Couf switched back to the longer neck length. Given the popularity of Couf bari saxes, and the lack of intonation problems players have with them, we can only assume this was only a brief blip in Couf’s bari development, and is really only more a curiosity than a current problem for owners of these horns.
Finish options for H. Couf saxophones
For the most part, the H. Couf horns came in the same finish options as their JK cousins. That said, as shown in the chart above, the notable exception was Couf’s student horn line, The Royalist, which was only available in Gold lacquer. I will keep looking and update this page accordingly, but to date I have not seen any silver plated Couf’s, nor any of the supposed black nickel plated horns with gold lacquer keys that Gerhard Keilwerth mentioned to Uwe Ladwig.
This is not a common finish, and one that is very hard to distinguish from lacquer in photos. When buying online, one way you can often tell is by the wear pattern. I’ve tried to enclose a few shots here to show you how the gold plate wears. It is indeed different to how lacquer wears.
One thing that all H. Couf saxes appear to be prone to—regardless of what finish they have—is some damage to this finish. Furthermore, depending on where you live, what your body’s chemical composition is, or what you choose to eat or drink before or during the time you play, that damage can take on either a red or green colour. Meaning, you might either see spots of red rot, or less commonly verdigris, on the surface of the horn. I’m not sure why we seemingly see this more on Couf horns than on other German brands, but even my Black Gold, closet bari has just a touch of red rot on its unblemished surface. Go figure.
Couf serial number chart
H. Couf saxophones—well at least those made in Germany by the Julius Keilwerth company—followed the JK serial # charts.
N.B. You will notice that I have started this serial # chart earlier, and run it longer than that of my colleague Uwe Ladwig. That is because during the course of my research I have found examples of H. Couf saxophones with serial #’s that pre-date what Uwe had previously seen, and also with numbers that indicate the Couf horns were made after it was believed that production had already ceased.
I am not suggesting that this serial # chart is entirely inclusive. It is possible that there are still horns out there that I haven’t come across, which may be outside the chart in either direction. What this chart does tell us very clearly though, is that Couf horns were made for longer than the 16 years that is commonly talked about.
|Year of production||Serial #|
1 As explained on the Dörfler & Jörka page, JK sent their body tubes to D&J who then attached their key work to the horns. The horns were then sent back to JK for final assembly.
5 Saxophone: Ein Kompendium, Uwe Ladwig. Second Edition, 2012. p. 61
Note: The main source of information for this page is mainly from Uwe Ladwig, in der deutschen Fachzeitschrift—German music journal—SONIC sax & brass. I then used his research as a basis to further my own.
Uwe’s information sources were Gerhard Keilwerth, Thomas Prem from Amati,
I would like to thank Uwe for so generously allowing me to use his research, and very much appreciate the trust he has shown by allowing me to do my own translation.
Vielen dank Uwe! Vielleicht findest Du meine Fotos interessant.