A Deposed King
A look back at the King K-50 Power Bore Mellophone
by Scooter Pirtle
For many people who performed in a drum corps mellophone section in the 1980s, seeing a King K-50 in person elicits a similar response that a jet-black 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air evokes in someone who went to high school in the late 1950s, early 1960s. The K-50 represents the zenith of two-piston mellophones during an important evolutionary moment in the drum corps activity's rich timeline. It's an icon of a bygone era that will never be repeated.
Let's take a look at a well-weathered K-50 specimen and deconstruct what could be the greatest mellophone bugle designs ever. Along the way we'll hear from some current and former K-50 drivers who offer comments about the noble beast with two buttons.
But first, some background. The King K Series of bugles was a culmination of numerous designs created and promoted by Zig Kanstul who helped pioneer marching brass with his line of Olds Ultratone bugles in the late 60s and early 70s. A rules change in permitting two-piston bugles to begin replacing the current valve-rotor configured bugles prompted Zig to create a prototype grouping of Benge-inspired bugles under the name "American Command." These instruments were to eventually become the K series of bugles offered by King. The series consisted of nine G-pitched two-piston bugle types:
K-10 - Power Bore Piccolo Soprano Bugle
K-20 - Power Bore Soprano Bugle
K-30 - Power Bore Alto Soprano Bugle
K-40 - Power Bore Flugel Bugle
K-50 - Power Bore Mellophone Bugle
K-60 - Power Bore French Horn Bugle
K-70 - Power Bore Bass Baritone Bugle
K-80 - Power Bore Euphonium Bugle
K-90 - Power Bore Contra Bass Bugle
The Mellophone was configured with a .460 bore and a 10" flare. Its list price was $446 (the same price listed for the K-30 through K-50 instruments).
The K-50 is light (2 lbs, 13.6 oz with mouthpiece) and feels frail and diminutive in the hands (with some slight bell-heaviness). Obviously, the two piston configuration makes the instrument seem small compared to its three valve contemporaries in the key of F.
Despite its "light" feel, the build quality appears to be relatively good with this instrument. Some slides have some uneven gaps when fully closed. The sample tested has obviously been "through the wars" with junior and senior corps and, despite some cosmetic deterioration and some minor denting, the instrument is intact and plays well. This is a strong testament about the durability of these instruments considering the relatively short life span of current marching brass instrumentation.
The intonation is not spot on, but manageable. With its middle c in tune, the second line G is slightly sharp and the low C is very flat, requiring some pitch bending to bring it up to pitch. Heading northward, the fourth space E has a tendency to blow just under pitch (pretty close) and the high G is under pitch.
The unique spring-actuated first valve slide is left in the extended position and can be used to shorten the horn when the fourth line D and the high A-flat (above the staff) are played. The D is noticeably under pitch.
Obviously, the ear adjusts to these shortcomings relatively. For those who performed summers with these instruments, the true challenge was adapting back to their trumpets or horns when returning back to school after the conclusion of the season.
The K-50 in use today
Mellophonist Mike DeSouza of the St. Kevinís Emerald Knights alumni corps from Boston offered a great glimpse into how he uses his K-50 in an email sent in January 2008 that inspired this article:
Thanks for the warm welcome to your site. Great Website! I will attach 2 pics of the K50 King. Sorry about the obstructed view on the parade shot. Had a motorcycle accident in "79" & now have to play lefty.
I bought the horn in "98" in NEW condition from the original owner. It was purchased in a group of 10 by members of the R.I. Matadors Sr. Corps in the early "80s."She switched to soprano & never marched with the horn. I have played it in The Matadors 98-99 & The St Kevin Emerald Knights Alumni Corps of Boston 2000 - now.
I love the smooth valves ,how easy it is to play & how the sound just jumps out. The bugle is very light compared to the Kanstul & Dynasty mells (3 valve) the other guys in our section play. The silver finish is as new. Held up very well for a horn over 20 years old. I used to have a problem playing in tune with the other mells in our sec., but I just started playing a Curry 5TF mouthpiece & am now in tune. Horn instructor is very happy.
Yours in Drum Corps Spirit,
St. Kevin's Emerald Knights
If you would like to purchase a new King K-50 Power Bore Mellophone...you're out of luck. However, specimens do occasionally show up on eBay.
- Scooter Pirtle (email)