What do Joe Lovano, John Ellis, Bob Sheppard, Ravi Coltrane, Jerry Bergonzi, and Marcus Strickland have in common? Beyond being world-class players, they are all endorsers of handmade saxophone necks by Kim Bock. Introduced in 2016, these necks have quickly become the talk of the saxophone world. Bock, a noted New York-based saxophonist, and repairman, used his extensive background working with vintage saxophones as the impetus for his saxophone necks.
Players and repair technicians alike have marveled that his necks not only rival the vintage necks by Selmer but sometimes surpass them. Bock was kind enough to send me two of his more popular models, the Vanguard in hardened brass and the Redwood in a hand-hammered copper, for a playtest and review.
There are a number of things that impressed me about my experience working with Bock, and many of them came before I actually got to play one of his necks. Bock is passionate about his products and very attentive as a businessman. I sent him a Facebook message in October asking if he would be interested in participating in a review. 30 minutes later we completed a phone conversation in which he promised to send me a set of gauges that would help custom fit his necks to my saxophone.
Now, I have a lot of conversations with people who promised to send their products. Most fail to deliver on said promises. I guess it's the nature of the business and the price you pay for dealing with creative types. So, I wasn’t really expecting much more than a promise at the conclusion of our phone conversation. To my shock, I had a set of gauges delivered to my door 48 hours later. The process couldn’t have been more simple. I selected the gauge that fit my Mark VI and took a photo showing him where the octave arm would need to be placed. I sent the gauges back using the enclosed return shipping label (you have no idea how many people fail to supply return postage). After they were returned, we set a timeline for late November for him to send me two necks. Like a Swiss watch, I received an unsolicited email saying the necks were on there way, and one day before Thanksgiving they arrived. In a market filled with platitudes and promises, having someone deliver their word and follow through with his or her promise is worthy of recognition.
Those who have followed my previous reviews know that I play a rare 57xxx Mark VI tenor. Her name is Esther (named after a beloved childhood caregiver) and there is nothing that I would change about her. So the thought of trying aftermarket necks, even if they were handmade for her, was a bit unsettling. I know the sound of a saxophone is in the neck and I wasn’t really interested in changing the sound of my instrument. However, I was curious to see if the KB necks would perform as advertised.
My first opportunity to try them was with a big band that I regularly perform with. We typically perform three sets, so I decided I would start the gig on my stock neck and then use each of the KB necks on the remaining sets.
Before I get into the specifics of each model, let me report that I was wrong about changing the sound of my saxophone. Yes, as you will read, the KB saxophone necks do change the tonal characteristics of the saxophone, but it doesn’t change who your voice. I have to admit that I was worried that these necks would force me into a preprogrammed sound. I am happy to report that they do anything but. Playing them is like using handmade fountain pens. Despite their fine materials and craftsmanship, they will not change your overall penmanship.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that both of the KB necks had better projection and pitch than my stock Mark VI neck. To be honest, I was taken aback at how well I locked in with the section and how stable the pitch center was. Each neck gave me a different set of colors and response and I was able to use these traits accordingly in both my section work and in my soloing.
THE VANGUARD M-61 BRASS
The first neck I tried was the brass Vanguard M-61 model. This is the newest of his necks and the M-61 features a specially developed heat treatment that brings out tonal characteristics of the metal. According to Bock’s site, the Vanguard M-61 model “is our most mid-tone focused neck. The sound concentration is in the high mid-tone frequencies resulting in a very punchy and direct feeling neck.”
As promised, the Vanguard was quick, responsive, and full of high and mid overtones that offer a centered sound. This neck is designed to offer back pressure and resistance, but as I have said in the past, resistance is not a bad thing. In fact, the right amount of resistance offers excitement and color of tone. The Vanguard has a tonal impact. You can feel the sound center as it exits your instrument, with a wonderful color that is impressive to the core. I was able to shape the sound to achieve just about any tone color I desired. If I wanted to play old-school, swing tenor, I had access to all the punch and power I needed. Likewise, if I wanted to spread the sound and create a Stan Getz quality, it was ripe for the taking. Oddly, the ability to replicate a smooth, heathery tone was my favorite part of playing this neck. Don’t get me wrong, I could ring your bell if I needed to, but the flexibility really allowed me to hear what the music was calling for.
I think one of the most appealing aspects of the Vanguard neck was the tremendous feeling of energy I experienced. Once I found my voicing, I could just feel the saxophone come alive in my hands. The ability to feel the brass ring beneath my fingers was intoxicating.
REDWOOD HAND-HAMMERED COPPER
This neck is visually stunning. The hand-hammered treatment is applied after the neck is formed for added strength. The resulting “dimpling” creates a work of art and would be worthy of ownership simply for its aesthetic qualities. The Redwood played just as it looks: rich, velvety, and with complexity. It is freer blowing than the Vanguard as well as darker in tone. Too often, dark can indicate stuffy but nothing could be further from the truth in this instance. I found it fascinating that the Redwood maintains the projection and pitch associated with the Vanguard while offering a completely different set of colors. I can best describe the experience as what one would encounter in tasting a rich, full-bodied Bordeaux or exquisite Swiss chocolate.
Like the Vanguard, I was able to access a variety of colors. Again, the richness of the materials and design allowed me a completely different palette from which to draw. I really enjoyed exploiting the warmer, lower overtones, creating a husky tone that was really nice while playing a ballad. In contrast, I could lean into the sound, edging it to create a husky Texas Tenor vibe.
I used a variety of mouthpieces with each neck and found that I could really change the colors and complexity depending on the neck/mouthpiece paring. For example, the Vanguard paired with a Florida Otto Link or a Retro Revival UK Special really brought out the aggressive qualities of the instrument. Likewise, using a Drake Bergonzi or 10MFAN Classic with the Redwood really exploited the richer, darker qualities of my Mark VI.
I really loved playing these necks but couldn’t reach a decision as to which was my favorite. Just as I would reach a conclusion, I would change mouthpieces or change reeds and I would go right back to the previous neck. So, the big question is: would I switch to a KB neck? Yes, I very easily could. For me, it is simply a matter of achieving a different color and feel. The KB necks project very well and offer less pitch flexibility than my Mark VI neck without sacrificing tonal variety and flexibility I am looking for. In the end, I found my Mark VI neck played somewhere in between each model. Be reminded that these necks will not make a bad tone sound good any more than a Rolex is going to improve your ability to tell time.
Like anything handmade, quality comes at a price. In this case, a high price. The Vanguard Brass retails at $1,180 and the Redwood Hand Hammered Copper for $1,240. However, the quality of craftsmanship is unmatched in my experience, as is the customer service. Yes, there are cheaper aftermarket options out there, but I have yet to experience the sonic uniqueness the KB necks offer. You simply know that you are getting a product of quality when you play them. Given the variety of alloys and designs offered, the discerning saxophonist would do well to visit Kim’s store and get fitted with the perfect neck. Like a bespoke tailor, this is one of the truly custom options that live up to its billing. Should you choose to try them by mail or in person, you are sure to be rewarded.