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Selmer MkVI alto header

Selmer Mk.VI alto saxophone (1959)
Origin: France
Guide price : Various from £2000
Weight: 2.3Kg
Date of manufacture: 1955 - 1975 (example reviewed - 1959)
Date reviewed : March 2011

Description : Arguably the most famous model of saxophone ever built.

Selmer MkVI alto (1958)There are many words in the English language to describe something of the utmost quality; excellent, superlative, incomparable, exemplary...the list goes on and on - and in some parts of the world people use the names of products to signify this level of quality. A very common one is Rolls-Royce, referring to the vehicle that epitomised quality of build, integrity of service and supreme luxury. To many saxophonists the Selmer Mk VI was, and still is, the Rolls-Royce of saxes.

There was a time I would have been inclined to agree, completely - but in the decades since the last MkVI rolled off the production line there have been very significant changes in the way saxes are made, as well as changes in what players are looking for from a professional quality instrument.
There are some who consider the MkVI to be beyond criticism, and who will cite the undeniably impressive roll-call of legendary players who have not only produced some of the finest music ever heard with these instruments, but who have also shaped and moulded their genres (though don't forget that there wasn't really a lot of brand choice around back in those glory days). The saxophone itself is an icon, and the MkVI is undoubtedly the definitive version of it.

So it's going to be a tough challenge to review this revered horn without upsetting someone, especially as some of its adherents border on the fanatical. A thread on saxontheweb debating what the 'thing' was that the MkVI had ran for more than thirty pages - and still no-one was able to say quite what it was that it had...but there sure were an awful lot of people who had a damn good try. There's an undeniable mystique built around this horn - and not a little hype too - but the workbench is a great leveller...

To all intents and purposes the MkVI was the first 'modern' horn. That said, it didn't quite spring from nowhere - rather it evolved from its close relatives, the Balanced Action (BA) and the Super Action - that was its official name, it's more commonly referred to as the Super Balanced Action (SBA). In fact evolution is precisely what this landmark series of horns was all about - and while it's quite easy to stick one of the first BAs next to one of the last VIs and say "Aha! You can see the difference!", it's not quite so clear cut when the dates of manufacture are closer together.
Some manufacturers are known for producing 'transitional' series' of horns - models that bridge the gap between the old and new with reasonably clearly defined features. Selmer made no such distinction - and it could be argued that everything between the first BA and the last MkVI was transitional.
I think it's fair to say that this horn marks the point at which numerous design elements came together to form what has effectively been the blueprint for almost every modern horn produced since - so if you feel I have attributed any particular features to the MkVI that appeared on earlier really wouldn't surprise me at all.

We have a detachable bell, pillars fitted to straps or ribs, an adjustable thumb hook, detachable bell key guards, an octave key thumb rest that isn't just an afterthought and a semi-removable bell brace that's less likely to punch its way into the body should the horn take a whack on the bell.
It's all neatly put together too, as well you might expect.

Selmer MkVI bell braceThe semi-removable brace coupled with the detachable bell was a real boon for repairers. Up until this point most saxes had bell braces and bottom bows that had to be unsoldered if you needed to dismantle the body to get at any dents etc. This meant such jobs took longer and were more expensive and often meant that the horn's finish was damaged by the necessary heat. Semi-removable refers to the bell brace only being removable from the body - held in place by a screw. Later horns, from all manufacturers, featured fully removable bell braces.
At the time the detachable bell caused some concern among players, who felt that it was an ideal place for leaks to develop. They were half right - the design proved to be reasonably robust, but it's not uncommon to come across MkVIs that just don't seem to speak that well on the bell which case resealing the joint is often all that's required.
As regards the bottom bow, Selmer changed the design of it throughout the MkVI's run, and it got increasingly longer. This example sports what's known as the 'short bow' - on later models the bell joint got moved further up the bell until they reached what's known as (no prizes) the 'long bow'...and then they decided to make it shorter again - so the bottom bow sequence goes Short, Medium-Short, Long, Medium. Much debate revolves around which design is 'best'. Some point to changes in tuning, others to changes in tone. More about this a little later.

The tone holes are drawn from the body, and on the MkVI Selmer moved to an offset arrangement - on previous horns the tone holes has all been in a straight line. This was more to do with ergonomics than anything else.

Selmer MkVI octave keyIt was in the keywork where perhaps the biggest revolution took place. In spite of there always being players who don't get on with the layout, Selmer got it pretty much bang on with the keywork - and give or take a few alterations this system has adorned almost every sax built since.
The keys are as well crafted as the body, and quite tough. I do tend to find that these horns are prone to key wear, which might be as much to do with the alloy of brass used as it is to the sheer amount of use they get, but finding bent keys is pretty rare.

Of particular merit is the octave key mechanism - it's such an obvious and simple design when you look at it, and it makes you wonder (as such things typically do) why on earth it took so long for anyone to think of it. Mind you it took Selmer a while - it appeared in various forms on the BA before they finally settled on the design used on the MkVI - and, again, pretty much every sax built since.
If you've not really seen that many saxes close up, and haven't seen many vintage horns, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about - but believe me, this design came a breath of fresh air to both players and repairers.
To put it in a little context, have a look at the octave key mechanism on a Martin Handcraft alto and note how far more fussy and complicated it is.

Selmer MkVI bell key spatulasAnother key feature (excuse pun) was the tilting table on the low Bb - which again has become a standard feature on almost all modern horns since.
The chief advantage of this design is that it allows for more speed when shifting between the keys, and more comfort too - although it has to be said that some players prefer a non-tilting mechanism. One disadvantage of the mechanism is that it's inclined to get a bit noisy if, as is so often the case, the player neglects to oil the mechanism and the rollers. It's also quite vulnerable to knocks - a non-tilting mechanism will probably carry on working after being slightly bent out of alignment (though it won't be very comfortable) but this type usually jams up.

Some level of adjustability was available in the action - although there are no adjusters on the main stacks (a slight step backwards from the BA, perhaps) there's scope for adjusting the regulation of the Bis Bb key and the G#, as well as moveable pins on the low C#, G# and front top F keys.
The point screws used are proper points, allowing for any free play to be taken up over time and the whole action is powered by a set of blued steel springs.

Selmer MkVI springs It's the length of the springs that really makes the action what it is - fast, nimble and precise. If a spring is too long it will feel lazy, if it's too short it'll feel stiff - and it makes very little difference no matter how you much try to tweak them. Get the spring length and diameter right and you can set the action as hard or as soft as you like and it will always feel responsive.
It's therefore always been a complete puzzle to me why Selmer decided to shorten the length of the springs on their newer models - the springs for the lower stack are around a third shorter, at least. I can understand many of the changes that appeared over time - I can even understand why Selmer changed the sound and response of the horns that followed the MkVI - but the springs were a feature that simply didn't need changing at all.
Even their current Reference series - Selmer's 'homage' to their earlier horns - have shorter springs on the stacks. It's what I would call an oversight...

And there's absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the action is responsive. There are modern horns with just as good, if not better, actions - but in its day the MkVI had very few peers and, for me at least, the only other vintage alto that achieved this kind of feel was the Conn 6M.
As an aside it always surprises me when MkVI owners bring their horns in for a service and I find the action is poorly set up - it seems to me a bit like driving around in a car with one wheel missing. It's the very heart, mechanically, of what the horn is about and it makes no sense at all to not make the very best of that feature.
I should also say that you'd be well advised to think carefully before changing the springs. If they're in good shape and doing the job, leave them well alone - you'd be hard put to match their quality these days.

Selmer MkVI side C keyOne design feature that saw numerous changes over the lifetime of the horn was the side Bb and C key levers.
In this example you can see that the lever key has a ring on the end of it into which a pin on the key cup fits (I would call this design a ring and pin link). It's a simple design that works very well - and the addition of some cork (or these days a plastic sleeve) on the pin keeps the mechanism quiet.
They later changed the design to a more complicated affair that used a ball and socket joint - which wore quite quickly and soon became very noisy in use, even if you kept it well lubricated. It also meant the inclusion of an additional, and small, part - which if lost would now be quite difficult to replace.
Thankfully commonsense prevailed and the design reverted to a fork and pin layout...much the same as seen here except that the ring was left open at the end.

So there we have it - the Selmer MkVI.
Or sort of.
As mentioned earlier, the design changed throughout its production life. The essentials stayed the same - but there were tweaks to the body and keywork, and various options were available...such as a top F# key and even a low A model.
Many finishes were available on top of the build options - different shades of lacquer (including some rare coloured ones), silver, nickel - even gold plate - or any combination you wanted. The engravings varied too, and there were distinct differences in decoration between models made for the European market and those made for America.
It's perhaps because of these variations that rumours abounded as to the relative merits of one model over another, largely spurred on by well-known players favouring certain models...and on occasion saying why they did so, which added yet more fuel to the fires.
In recent years much emphasis has been placed on the serial numbers (and thus the build date) of these horns. This example is numbered in the 76XXX range - and so it's one of the 'hallowed' 5-digit models. In simple terms the impression is that the earlier horns were better than the later ones. A great deal of this is reckoned to be down to the tone...and so I suppose I'd better take a deep breath and proceed to the part of the review that's likely to cause the most problems...

Let me begin by saying the MkVI has a great tone. You might not like it personally, but it's still a great tone - in the same way that Lennon & McCartney were great don't have to like their stuff, but there are some things you just have to accept because it's, well, true. (So no tedious emails from disguntled fanatics, thank you).
The previous models were known for their depth and richness, as well as a superbly balanced sprinkling of fire and edge - the MkVI quite literally expanded on this by adding a generous portion of breadth (and, it has to be said, not everyone liked that).
It's actually quite hard to pin down the tone - I come across any number of horns where I can quite confidently say "This is a warm horn" or "This is a bright, edgy horn" - but the Selmer defies such pigeonholing by virtue of its versatility. If you want it bright and edgy, you got it - if you want warm and fat, you got it...just change the mouthpiece and away you go.
But - there is still that Selmer sound underpinning it all, and for me that comes out as a lean towards the mid-range. There are times when it seems to lack a bit of clarity, and times when it tends towards a bit of 'boxiness'. I feel this is down to the versatility of the horn - perhaps by striving to meet the expectations of as many players as possible, it sometimes fails to put its foot down and say 'This is where I stand".
It's at this point where those who aren't so keen on the MkVI step out of the pool - and those who do yell out "C'mon back in, the water's lovely!"
If the Selmer sound 'hits your spot' then a good MkVI really hits the spot. You get to play with all that space, and you get to drive a horn that's more responsive than a dog who's just found a self-throwing stick that tastes of prime fresh beef.

I'm aware that so far it sounds like the MkVI has it all - the only reason you wouldn't like it is because the tone isn't to your taste - but it's not quite as simple as that.
I'm going to put my cards on the table here and state that what makes it the horn that it is are the compromises Selmer made when they designed it.
If that provokes howls of protest, just consider the fact that Selmer continued to modify the horn throughout its life (and ever since, really). All saxes...all woodwind instruments...have built-in compromises and what makes or breaks a horn is where and how those compromises are made.
This particular alto is one of the good ones - a real 'keeper' - but even so it's very apparent that it's not as even-toned as it could be. For example, there's a noticeable difference between the tone of the mid and low D and the surrounding notes. Sure, it's a tricky note on any sax, but it's rather trickier on this horn than on many other modern professional horns.
There's also a distinct change in timbre between D rising to G and G rising to C...and even a touch of a growl on the top C.
Then there's the tuning; that middle D is slightly flat, and the low D even more so...even after tweaking the height of the low C pad...and the low B is a bit dead too - and all this on a horn that's in tip-top order.
None of this should come as any surprise to anyone who's ever played one of these horns for any length of time - and indeed, quite a few players find that there are other issues that they find hard to play over...and those issues often vary from model to model.
But that's the point - it isn't a perfect horn, but what you get in return for those imperfections makes it worth the while to work around them. That this is possible is another feather in the cap for the MkVI - there are plenty of horns out there where you get what you're given and that's your lot.

Selmer Mk.VI alto 72xxxYou may have noted that I referred to this horn as 'one of the good ones'.
This is the Achilles heel of the MkVI, its variability. Not only do you have to contend with different versions (short bow, long bow, top F# etc.) you also have to be aware that these are extremely individual horns.

I could, with a very reasonable degree of confidence, tell someone to walk into a shop, grab a Yamaha/Yanagisawa/modern Selmer...or whatever...and be assured that they'd walk away with a horn of at least a certain quality. Sure, there will be some that are a tad better or worse than others, but they'll all be within a certain range.
This isn't the case with the MkVI, and it wasn't the case with the earlier models either. They can be so variable as to make some examples hardly worth the effort, while other examples will take your breath away.
This is widely acknowledged, and I've heard it said that even a bad Selmer is better than no Selmer at all. Take it from me, it isn't.
While I was writing this review I had two other Selmer altos in to compare it with - a later MkVI and a very early BA. I've played many BAs before, and I actually prefer them to the MkVI - I like their extra focus, they feel somehow more intimate - but this BA was as dull as dishwater. It played just fine...whispered right down to the Bb, but it had no joie di vivre. The later MkVI was more lively, but had a tad of brittleness to the tone, as though someone nearby was running their fingers down a blackboard.
The alto reviewed was the 'Goldilocks' horn - not to stuffy, not too bright - just right.
The Mk.VI on the left, a 1957 model in gold lacquer was another good one, but by no means the same in terms of tone and response. It was a touch brighter overall - which perhaps goes some way to disproving the tired old myth that darker lacquers mean a darker tone.

Were these horns being produced today I would mark this variability down as a pretty serious no-no - but the MkVI is the 'Grande Dame' of saxes, and it's only fitting that she should be allowed her airs and graces. She has earned them - but the lady still has her tempers.
This is precisely why so much is made of getting 'this' or 'that' version...5-digit serial numbers...6-digit...this bow, that bow, anything before 1966 or 1957 or any other arbitrary date...the list goes on and on and on - and none of it really matters. What you can say with reasonable certainty is that they got generally brighter as the years wore on, but not really by much. I've played as many excellent late models as I have poor early ones.

If you're thinking about buying one it's certainly essential to do some research. There are plenty of websites that cover these legendary horns, and the saxpics site is a good place to start.
These are very expensive instruments, and it's not unknown for sellers to be - shall we say - less than forthright about an instrument's history. The difference between "Well used and battered" and "Mint original condition" can be several thousand pounds, so you can see why unscrupulous sellers would be tempted to gild the lily somewhat. In extreme cases you might even find that some parts aren't original - check out the leading article in The Black Museum. Relacquers are very common - it was standard practice back in the day to relacquer a horn when it had an overhaul. Much debate is given over to the drawbacks of such practices, but it's worth bearing in mind that as there were so many companies carrying out such work it was generally of a high standard. It will have an effect on the price, but don't be too quick to assume it will have had an effect on the tone.
I have recently heard that there are some Ultra-Cheap Chinese horns out there that are copies of modern Selmer horns - and I don't mean in the general sense (as many horns are anyway) but in the literal sense. They're stamped 'Selmer'. Fakes, in other words. As yet I haven't heard of any Mk.VI fakes...but it really wouldn't surprise me if they appeared one day. The experienced enthusiast would undoubtedly be able to spot them, but a first-time buyer might well get caught out.

In the end we have a horn that gets a high recommendation, with a few caveats. You'll certainly pay through the nose for the privilege of owning one, but there's a reason why they're as popular today as they ever were - perhaps even more so. Good build quality, a superb action and more versatility than Swiss army knife all adds up to a very attractive package. If you bung in the historical aspect, which comes free with any vintage horn, there's even more to like.
But don't be disconcerted if you don't like it - in spite of the legend and all that, it's still just another horn and merely owning one doesn't make you a better player.

And so here is the bottom line.
If you want a Selmer MkVI there is only one way to buy it - and that's to play it first. Forget the mystique and the hype, try to ignore the expectations and simply play the horn and listen good and hard. Bear in mind too that there's some truth in the modern-day saying "No-one sells a good Selmer". I mean, if you had one, would you??

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