Stephen Howard review

Andy Sheppard Autograph Series tenor

Origin: Taiwan (Assembled and customised in the UK)
Guide price: £5000
Weight: 3.43kg
Date of manufacture: 2014
Date reviewed: October 2017

‘The pro horn with a personal touch’

Autograph series horns aren’t a particularly new phenomenon – the practice of slapping a celebrity player’s name (figuratively or literally) on the bell of a horn goes back to at least the early 1900s, of which the Holton ‘Rudy Wiedoeft’ is probably the most well-known example.
I tend to divide such horns up in to two categories; the ‘endorsed’ and the ‘designed’.
Endorsed horns are generally pretty close to standard production horns. It might be the case that a noted player is known to prefer a particular brand, and either they approach the manufacturer concerned or the company approaches them with a view to producing a special edition of a current model. There are unlikely to be any major changes made; perhaps some key reshaping/repositioning, a change in the bell flare or the crook taper and, typically, a liberal sprinkling of cosmetic bling.
Designed horns start off much the same way, but the emphasis is on making a bespoke horn for the player which will then go into full production as a line model – and as such you can expect it to be markedly different from the standard range.

In this instance the artist in question is Andy Sheppard, and the manufacturer is TJ (Trevor James).
I have a very special place in my heart for Andy Sheppard, which dates back to around 1970something. I did what a lot of kids did back then, which was to hide under the bedclothes at night with a small transistor radio. As such, I was like many other teenagers – except that while they were tuning into Radio Caroline, I was hunting the short wave band for foreign jazz stations. As luck would have it I chanced upon a broadcast (on the BBC World Service, I believe) of a band giving it large, accompanied by a horn player who was tearing up and down the horn like his reed was on fire. I was impressed. And then I was miffed when the announcer said the sax player wasn’t much older than me. Bloody show-off, I thought.
I came to terms with my envy in later life – mostly because Andy is such a fantastic player…but also because the older I got, the more I got used to hearing players who weren’t old enough to buy me a pint blowing harder and faster than I’d ever been able to manage.

So in which category does the Andy Sheppard Autograph series sit? Well, it actually sits midway between these two categories – because although it’s based on a standard line (the TJ Signature Custom), it features enough physical differences to move it some way from merely being an endorsed model.
And what are those differences? Well, there are some small changes to the stock key layout (which we’ll examine a little later) and some cosmetic touches – but the real ‘meat and potatoes’ boils down to a different alloy used for the body and a tweaked bore and crook. It’s these latter alterations that place this horn closer to a bespoke model than an endorsed one.
It’s also notable that they’ve taken the meaning of ‘autograph’ one stage further than simply scribbling a name on the bell – because on completion of the build, each horn is subject to good few rounds of playtesting/tweaking by the respective parties before the whole package is signed off…and you get a presentation CD of Andy Sheppard playing your horn. So now that this horn’s been carefully built, assembled, extensively playtested and tweaked to within an inch of its life…let’s bung it on the ol’ workbench and take it apart.

As you might expect, it’s practically identical to the TJ RAW in terms of construction – so we’ll have a quick run-down of the features before we get on to discussing the salient differences.
The body features plain drawn toneholes and ribbed construction, with well-proportioned bases on the few remaining individual pillars – save for the top F# upper pillar, which I still feel is a touch on the small side for such a vulnerable pillar. You get a detachable bell and a triple-point bell brace, an adjustable metal thumb hook, a detachable domed metal thumb rest (engraved), a detachable side F# key guard and a set of bumper felt adjusters. And even the semicircular compound bell key pillar can be removed…should you ever feel inclined to do so.

Andy Sheppard tenor point screwsOn the keywork side the horn sports a full set of proper point screws, which ensure the action feels slick and precise. The point screws have a degree of adjustment built in (they can be tightened to take up wear and tear) – which means they can work their way loose if not properly secured. So I’m pleased to report that all the point screws had been secured with a drop of suitable threadlock- just strong enough to hold them in place, but not so strong that dismantling the horn becomes a problem.
Keep in mind that if you undo any of the point screws during maintenance, you’ll need to reapply some threadlock (I recommend Loctite 243) on reassembly.
But proper point screws are of no use if the rest of the action isn’t up to par, so I’m pleased to report that the rod (hinge) screw action is just as snug and precise.

As per the RAW there are simple but effective fork and pin connectors on the side keys, double cup arms on the lower stack keys (which help prevent the key cups from twisting), a tilting bell key table and a full set of regulation adjusters on both the upper and the lower stacks. The sling ring is the same too – it’s adequate, but I still would have liked to have seen something a bit beefier.
Andy Sheppard tenor side keyThe corkwork is excellent, with much use made of synthetic materials. There’s a decent set of pads fitted, which have been well seated, and the whole action is powered by a set of blued steel springs.

I think that just about covers the basics – and if there’s anything I’ve missed I’m pretty sure you’ll find it in the TJ RAW review – so let’s get down to that meat and potatoes.
I mentioned earlier that this horn uses a different body alloy than the RAW. If you’re a fan of the theory that the body material makes a difference, you’ll be all of a quiver. I, however, am not – so the most I’ll say about it is that it seems to have a slightly more golden hue than the standard RAW (XS) brass. Which is nice.
It must also be a slightly lighter alloy, because it weighs in at 0.07Kg less than the RAW…which, in old money, is around two and a half ounces.

As per the popular trend these days, the horn is finished in nothing at all. It’s a bare brass finish that’s been lightly scratched-brushed to give it a nice matte look – save for the interior of the bell which is bare polished brass. I quite like bare brass finishes, but I get a lot of emails from players who’ve bought such horns and are then plagued with concerns about the various spots and blemishes that have appeared on the brass.
I’m afraid that’s the nature of the beast – and either you keep on top of it by applying a coat of good quality car wax and wiping the horn down after playing, or you just let it get on with it and see where it ends up.
A pretty good marker is how often you felt moved to clean your lacquered horns. I tend not to be a very ‘wet’ player – so I always got by without having to reach for the polishing cloth that often, which means that my unlacquered tenor still looks quite tidy after a few years’ use. If, however, your horn can only go for a couple of months before it looks like someone dragged it through a soup kitchen, then maybe a bare brass finish isn’t going to be ideal for you.
And here’s a very handy tip if you have a bare scratched brass finish – you can deal with small, stubborn spots with a fibreglass pencil. It’ll cut through the crud without removing any significant amount of metal, and it’ll leave a finish that closely matches the original. Do it outside though…because the fibres the pencil sheds in use make for a first-class itching powder.

The difference that’s noticeable is the layout of the keywork – in particular the ancillary keys (i.e. not the main stacks). There have been subtle shifts in the angles of the the palm, side and bell keys which have resulted in the horn feeling more ‘drawn in’. The palms are a tad further in towards the centre of the horn, the side keys are slightly more to the rear and the low C/Eb spatulas are ever so slightly further up the horn. It feels more compact, more centred. I like it. This centred feel is accentuated by the fitment of flat (real) mother of pearl touches as opposed to the concave ones fitted to the RAW. I rather liked this feature – it’s rare to find a horn with flat pearls these days – though I noticed that they’ve retained the domed Bis Bb pearl from the RAW. Quite literally too – because it’s not quite a colour match for the rest of the pearls.
The crook angle is different too, with a slightly steeper upward rise at the tip – even more so than the new RAW crook – and the octave pip is set a little further back…presumably to take into account the changes in the bore.
It’s only when you sling up the RAW and the Sheppard after each other that you really notice these differences, and it sort of puts me in mind of the differences between, say, a standard version of a car and its sporty counterpart. It’s the same, but different….if you get my drift.

Andy Sheppard tenor trouser guardThe real differences are going to be in how the horn plays – but before we get to that, it’s time I had my traditional moan.
It’s the engraving on the lower stack guard, also known as the trouser guard. It’s upside down, isn’t it?
OK, yes, it all depends on your perspective, but I can’t help feeling it just looks wrong. In fact I don’t like it at all – and the more I look at it, the more it bugs me.
I know it’s a terribly minor point, but I felt I had to get it off my chest. And I feel much the better for it.
Of course, it’s no good whinging and whining about a problem if you don’t let those concerned know – which I did. And after looking at the guard from various angles, poking it with a stick, taking a break for a coffee…and then poking it with a stick a bit more – they agreed that yeah, it is upside-down. So they’re going to change it.
Let it never be said that these reviews don’t make a difference.

When it came to blowing the horn there wasn’t any way I was going to avoid making the very obvious comparison with my own TJ RAW – but just to add a little frisson into the mix, I also had a freshly-serviced Selmer Reference 54 to hand. In terms of price this places the Sheppard right in the middle…and I was looking forward to seeing which horn would come out tops.

If there’s a single thing that the Sheppard has inherited from the RAW, it’s the sense of balance. We’re all looking for different things from a horn, but for me the holy grail is the rich low end of a vintage horn and the punch and clarity of a modern one. But not too much of either – and while you’re about it, keep the midrange open and subtle….none of that boxy waffling, ta.
It’s not a precise need; I can go with a horn that leans a bit more to the warm or that favours the bright, and be just as happy – but the Sheppard nails its colours exactly halfway up the mast. In this respect, just like the build, it’s the same as the RAW – but there are some differences.

There’s more precision with this horn, more response and more clarity. It seems to know what you’re going for and hits the target dead-centre every time. It’s got – for want of a better description – more horsepower. And it’s this latter quality that shows you where the money’s been spent because it has to be built in to the horn…it’s not something a mere change of mouthpiece (or crook) will give you.
But above all I think it’s the response that surprised me the most, the sheer immediacy of it. The RAW’s certainly no slouch, but the Sheppard seems to have a supercharged eagerness – and the last time I encountered a horn with this kind of get-up-and-go, it was in the shape of the eye-wateringly expensive Inderbinen.

So that’s what you get – but what do you lose compared to the RAW?
Not a lot really. There’s a bit less grit to the Sheppard, it’s a bit cleaner…more honed.

Up against the Selmer Reference 54 the lower range of the two horns is eerily similar – so much so that you could almost imagine you were playing a pair of identical horns. However, the Selmer takes a slightly warmer path. On its own it sounds fine – great, even – but when the Sheppard is brought in you notice instantly that the Selmer’s warmth seems to come from an absence of something rather than an addition. The Sheppard is crisper, fresher – and somehow you feel more involved with the tone. It’s a very subtle thing – but if I said it’s like the difference you get when you swap out a so-so reed for a really good one, I think you’ll get the gist.

In the top range the clarity of the Sheppard shines through. The Selmer’s no slouch here, and from middle D to G the horns are evenly matched – but from G upwards the Selmer seems to carry a ‘voice’ with it. It’s hard to describe but it’s a bit like having someone standing a few feet behind you, humming along to whatever tune you’re playing…but an octave lower. In contrast, the Sheppard gradually lets go of the lower harmonics and takes on more of the purity you’d expect from an alto.

Andy Sheppard Autograh tenor bellThe midrange is where, for me at least, the rubber meets the road – and the Selmer very firmly stamps its in-house sound on the tone. It’s full, it’s rich – but it always seems to me like someone’s turned up the middle on one of those ‘hi-fi’ amps where you can adjust absolutely everything. It gets a bit shouty, a little bit boxy. Now, imagine the exact same sound…but with the middle backed off a touch. It cleans things up, it brings the soundstage forward and puts you right in the middle of it.

The Sheppard is an easier horn to get around, at least for me. This’ll be down to a combination of the key placement and the angle of the crook’s tip, which is considerably lower on the Selmer.

These are, of course, absolutely personal observations and impressions – but what can be said for certain is that both horns have the response and gravitas you’d expect from a top pro-spec instrument. Nevertheless, I found the Sheppard to be a more engaging, involving blow – and if I had to pick which horn most reminded me of the ‘personal’ approach that a very good MkVI brings, I’d have to say the Sheppard nails it.

I guess the question that most needs addressing is “Is it worth it?”
Purely from a playing perspective I’d have to say yes. It’s not uncommon at this level (and above) to shell out quite significant sums of money for what really amounts to incremental improvements. It’s just the way it goes. Spend £500 on a horn and another £500 will bring some noticeable changes to the response and feel. Another £500 brings more – but will have less of an impact. By the time you get to around £2000 you’ll be looking out for really rather subtle differences. It could be the case that a £5000 hits the altissimo notes with slightly more accuracy than one costing £4000 – and while a grand sounds like a lot to fork out for such a feature, it may well be worth it to you if you spend a lot of time up in the squeakies.
It all boils down to what you’re prepared to pay to make your life easier…and perhaps your playing.

On the more tangible side you get a horn that’s been put together and extensively reworked by Dave Farley himself, you get a unique body alloy and some tweaks to the action, the crook and the bore. You also get a limited edition horn – only a hundred will be built – and you get the Andy Sheppard input. You also get a rather nice Eastman case. It’s hard to put a real value on all of those (bar the case, which is worth a couple of hundred quid) without knowing the material costs and the time involved, but I rather suspect that you won’t be paying over the odds.