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Selmer MkVI tenor saxophone

Selmer MKVI tenor sax (1962)Origin: France
Guide price: Various from £2000
Weight: 3.15Kg
Date of manufacture: 1954-1974 (example reviewed - 1962)
Date reviewed: February 2015

'The' saxophone

At the opening of my review of the Selmer MkVI alto I hinted at some trepidation on the basis that this horn was, and still is, something of a legend. I knew from the off that no matter what I said, someone was bound to be upset - and there was a lot that needed to be said.

In approaching the tenor review I find myself reprising those anxieties - though this time it's perhaps a little more personal.
Y'see - to my mind, the Selmer MkVI tenor is the archetypal saxophone. That's not to say that it's the best, nor even the most important - it's just the horn around which the most mystique and rumour has flown. Most of it's nonsense - but some of it carried enough weight to make this horn the definitive professional model for all of its 20 year run...and, for many players, right through to today. Whether you're fan of the marque or not, you have to admit it's an impressive achievement.

I've spent most of my professional career attending to the whims and foibles of these noble horns - not to mention the whims and foibles of many of their owners...some less noble than others...and over those long years I like to think I've built up something of a relationship with this unique and endearing horn.
And 'relationship' is a very apt word because, more than any other marque, Selmer MkVI owners often talk about their horns in much the same way that people talk about their partners. There's often a story about how they met, how long they've been together, the trials they've been through - and, on occasion, how they've sometimes been tempted (and even succumbed) to try other horns but have always returned to their 'one true love'.
Even those players who've found a new love in their playing life will often speak of their old MkVI with genuine affection.

I've always liked a good MkVI tenor - but, and this is important, I've never liked one enough to want to own one. So while I have a great deal of respect and admiration for this particular instrument, I'm also not so smitten that I can't see through the sultry charms that hide the inevitable compromises that all saxes suffer from.
In this respect I hope it means that I can provide a balanced perspective, as I always try to do.
We shall see...

It's a common misconception that this horn was revolutionary. It was not - it was a product of evolution. Just ask any player who owns either the Super Action (or, as it's more commonly known, the Super Balanced Action or SBA), which preceded the MkVI - or the Balanced Action, or BA, which preceded the SBA. It might help to think in terms of a growing child; Selmer's early models would cover the years from birth to early teens - and adolescence begins with the BA. The SBA covers late teens...the beginnings of maturity, and the MkVI represents 'the coming of age', when the 21st birthday is marked. It's not the same as what came before, but it is...if you get my drift.

And Selmer came of age in 1954, when the first MkVI rolled off the production line.

From the SBA before it, the MkVI inherited a raft of modern features; ribbed construction, a detachable bell, a distinctive circular bell brace, a swivelling octave key mech, offset key stacks, adjusters on the Bis Bb/G# and a set of adjustable bell key guards. In terms of build quality the body was very well put together. Individual pillar bases were of a good size, the soldering was neat and tidy and the attention to detail remained pretty good throughout its build life.
Selmer MkVI tenor sling ringThe body also boasted a few improvements, such as an adjustable metal (later plastic) thumb hook and a large flat (though plastic) thumb rest - and there were, of course, tweaks to the ergonomics and to the bore/toneholes.
It also inherited the lousy sling ring (oh well, at 21 I guess you still have a few zits). It's small, and thin, and if I had a pound for every time I'd had to build up a worn ring with silver solder or flip the ring 180 degrees, I'd have £73.50. We don't talk about the 50p one...
To be fair, the MkVI wasn't the only horn to be plagued by chewed sling ring syndrome - and to be even fairer there simply weren't any nylon sling hooks around back then. Even a decent one was just a non-locking hook with (if you were lucky) a bit of plastic tube over it...which split and fell off after about twelve gigs.
Worse still were those rudimentary locking clips, made from square-section steel (often used for shoulder straps on bags), which could eat their way through a brass sling ring in less than a couple of years.
If your sling ring looks anything like this one, it's worth getting it sorted as soon as you can. It's not an expensive job - whereas sorting out the damage to a horn that's fallen off its sling most definitely is.

The circular bell brace was something of a radical design statement in its day. For a start, it was removable...or at least partially so. The bell side is fixed to its stay but the body side is held on with a bolt. This, coupled with the detachable bottom bow joint, made it relatively easy for repairers to take the bell off the body in the event of either section requiring repairs due to severe impact damage. Whether this feature was designed with repairers in mind or as a means of speeding up and cutting the cost of production, we may never know. Maybe a bit of both.
Selmer MkVI tenor bell braceThe ring is offset, and this too was a neat feature. A great many horns of the period had simple, fixed bell braces which were fitted more or less in line with the bell. With the body stay being placed in amongst the lower stack toneholes, a hefty impact would often drive the stay into the body - putting a large dent into it and distorting the surrounding toneholes. The ring brace diverts the force of the impact to the side of the body tube, making any damage that much easier to repair. The ring itself is also able to absorb an impact, and it's not uncommon to see an old Selmer with a slightly oval ring (as this one is). It's not a major problem - it's quite possible to set the bell keys up to accommodate a small amount of distortion in the ring, and it's equally possible to have the ring rounded out again (there are special tools just for this job).

The detachable bell can be something of a double-edged sword inasmuch as the bottom bow joint often gets a bit leaky over time. It would have been sealed originally, but with many of these horns getting on for 50+ years old, the seal will have broken down. At best this leads to a loss of power and response in the bell notes - at worst it can lead to near complete failure of the notes below low C.
It's easy enough to fix - a workable (and cheap) solution is to remove the joint clamp ring and wrap the joint face with PTFE tape and refit the ring over it, but the best bet is to have the bell section taken off and a suitable sealant applied to the joint faces before reassembly.
If you suspect your bottom bow joint might be leaking you can wrap some PTFE (plumbers) tape or clingfilm over the clamp. This'll seal it up for at least as long as it takes you to test whether the bell notes play any better, and it's easy to remove when you're done.

Speaking of bottom bows, while Selmer experimented with the dimensions of the bottom bow on the alto, the tenor was progressively tweaked at the other end - with several changes made to the bore of the crook throughout its run. The first models had the narrowest bore - noticeably smaller than the preceding SBA series - and as the years passed the bore got wider and wider. How this affected the playability of the horn is open to (much) debate, but the general consensus seems to be that the earlier the model, the more 'introspective' it's likely to be - and the later the model, the more 'brash'. However, I wouldn't use that as any kind of guideline when seeking out a MkVI tenor simply because of the variability between individual examples. I've played as many bright and punchy late '50s examples as I have mellow late '60s models.

Selmer MkVI tenor octave mechAs well as the body tweaks, the keywork also had a refresh over the earlier SBA, and one of the most important was the redesign of the octave key mechanism. The essential part (the swivelling mech) remained much the same, but the touchpiece was made broader and flatter - along with its accompanying thumb rest. The touchpiece was also offset to the right, which offered players more choices when it came to hitting the high notes - with many players finding it a great deal easier being able to push the thumb forward rather than have to roll it upwards to operate the mech.
It's generally a very reliable mech, though the long rod screw which runs through the swivel section is prone to knocks, and the whole thing tends to get rather rattley when it wears. Fortunately it's a reasonably easy job to overhaul the mech - and a common modern upgrade is to fit Teflon tubes to the pivot points on the swivel. This quietens the mech and makes it smoother in operation - and many modern swivelling mechs are built this way as standard.
Another source of noise is the loss of buffering between the connection from the touchpiece lever to the swivel, as well as wear in the point screws on which the touchpiece lever pivots. Again, these are simple problems to correct but it certainly never hurts to keep the whole mech well lubricated. Even on a worn mech, a drop of decent oil will quieten it down by 50%.

Another concession to ergonomics was the introduction of the tilting table on the bell key cluster.
I've always been in two minds about this feature - but then I cut my chops on horns that had non-titling bell maybe I just got used to the idea.
Selmer MkVI tenor bell keysPerhaps the biggest drawback of the tilting table is that its position makes it very prone to damage from knocks - and because of the interconnectivity it often means that rather than one key being knocked out of alignment, the whole mech seizes up.
Like the octave mech, the tilting table tends to get a bit noisy over time. Most of this is down to losing the buffering on the pin that extends off the low C# touchpiece and sits within the u-section connection to the the low Bb touchpiece - but wear in the Bb touchpiece pivot is also a major source of rattles. Like the octave mech, keeping it well lubed helps, including a drop of oil on the rollers from time to time.

The compound pillar (on which the bell keys are mounted) separates the low C#/B/Bb keys from the G#, and is fitted to the body via a reasonably large base. It's perhaps not as large as on many modern horns, but as I don't see too many MkVIs with knocked over compound pillars, I think it's fair to say it's beefy enough.

The side keys feature ring and pin connectors on the side Bb/C keys.
Nothing wrong with these - in fact they're marvellous, as long as you keep the buffers on the pins in good order. They're simple, slick in operation and - most importantly - quiet. So it's a bit of a puzzle why Selmer later switched to a far more complex ball and socket connector for the side keys. This was a terrible move - the ball and socket connectors are notoriously noisy, and even keeping them well-lubed won't help quieten them that much...though it will help to slow down the rate of wear.
Selmer MkVI tenor side keysTo do the job properly, though, you really need to remove the connectors and lubricate them with a stiff grease - and if you decide to do this (and it's not hard) you have to be extremely careful not to lose the little ball joint. These connectors were so awful that at one time there was even an aftermarket mod available that disabled them (the Oleg side key might even still be available). That said, it's possible to improve matters by having Teflon tubes fitted to the mechanism, though it's quite a fiddly job.

What's even more of a puzzle is that throughout the MkVI's run, Selmer fiddled and tweaked with various aspects of the design and yet left this dire feature untouched despite it being widely acknowledged that these connectors (shown below, right) were bloody awful. Thankfully they came to their senses in later years and reverted to a simple fork and pin connectors for later models...though it didn't stop other manufacturers from using the design (yes, Yamaha, I'm talking about you).

Selmer MkVI tenor later side key connectorIf you look carefully at the side key shot above you might notice that there are no adjusters on the top stack, and nor are there any on the bottom stack.
You might suggest that no other horns of the period had this feature, but Selmer experimented with such things on the BA series - though it was dropped on the SBA and never reappeared. This is a great shame - a set of regulation adjusters really helps when setting up or tweaking the action, and on an old (and typically worn) horn, it can make the difference between being able to easily dial in some bias to accommodate a bit of wear and tear, or forking out for a major rebuild.
And major rebuilds are often required on horns as old and well-used as a typical MkVI - and I'd even go so far as to say 'especially' on MkVIs.
Whether it's down to the design of the keywork, or the alloy used, or simply the fact that MkVIs see a lot of use, it seems to me that they suffer far more from wear and tear than other makes of horn - which makes it all the more vital that owners maintain a regular lubrication regime.
Here's what happens if you don't.

In the animated gif below you can quite clearly see a significant amount of free play in one of the top stack pillars. It might not look like much, but this much lateral movement means that no matter how well set the pads are, or how precise the corks are, the stack will always leak.
Sure, it's possible to compensate for this much wear - but it leads you to some pretty awful choices, any of which mean that at some point you'll have to press down harder on the keys, or put up with a weaker tone...which is not good. Adjuster screws allow you (or your repairer) to play the horn and make adjustments 'on the fly'. It won't be perfect, but it's a damn sight better than the alternative.

Wear in pillarFor the geeks among you, the original rod screw measured out at places. It's hard to see in the shot, but the rod screw was just as worn as the pillar - there were visible steps in it where the key barrels had worn the steel away. I made up a new rod - at 2.9mm, which was just large enough to fit through the pillars with just a touch of lapping in (in which a very fine abrasive liquid, such as Brasso, is used to ensure a snug and even fit). The key barrels were then reamed and lapped to size and the action returned to its former, precise glory.

Not that the keys mounted on point (or pivot) screws will give you quite so much trouble - being proper point screws they're reasonably easy to adjust when it comes to taking up wear and tear.

Rounding off the action you get a full set of Mother-of-Pearl touches (including an oval inset on the G# touchpiece) and a set of blued steel springs to power it. I should add that these springs are brilliant and should only ever be changed when absolutely and unavoidably necessary. Seriously, I regularly work on Selmers that have seen decades of hard gigging, and apart from the occasional tweak to restore a bit of zest to them, the springs are fine. Leave 'em well alone.

A couple of plusses and minuses to round things off.
A nice touch is the use of nickel silver highlights, such as on the crook receiver clamp and the G and side top E key barrels.
I've heard it said that these two key barrels were made of nickel silver to impart a little extra stiffness - but, frankly, that makes no sense at all. If they did (and they don't), they'd be far more effective on the bell keys - where key flex is much more of an issue.
Not that it's especially prevalent on the MkVI. It's not the stiffest action I've come across, but neither is it the weakest.

Not such a nice feature is the rounded touchpiece for the front top F key. It's OK, and it's at least got a pearl touch, but it's not exactly terribly slick in action.
And speaking of top F - a top F# key was available as an optional extra (later to become a standard fitting). It wasn't the case, as is often thought, that it didn't exist until well into the '60s. It wasn't a universally welcome addition though, and some players felt that it exacerbated an already occasionally iffy low B.

Selmer MkVi tenor sax 141xxxAnd finally there's the finish.
Examples with intact, original lacquer are very hard to find these days - not because the lacquer was particularly bad but simply because it wasn't as tough as today's epoxy-based finishes. Relacquers are common, if only because it used to be standard practice to do so when overhauling the horn. There's much debate about the pros and cons of relacquered MkVIs - but, and this is a big but, provided it was done carefully it should have no impact on the playability of the horn. Personally I'd sooner have one that had a tatty original finish than a sparkly new one - but that's only because I quite like a horn that looks like it's been around a while.

Various finishes were available including fully silver plated or a combination of a lacquered body and plated keys - and even some coloured lacquer finishes were an option, though these are really rather rare.
According to official sources, the MkVI was finished in clear lacquer as standard - but horns shipped to the States were unfinished, and the lacquer applied there was of a darker hue. It was also quite common for relacquerers to use a darker shade.
The model pictured here dates from 1964, and has its orginal clear lacquer finish.

So that's the mechanical stuff dealt with. Essentially the MkVI tenor is a well-built horn with a host of neat features and a couple of minor flaws - and I doubt many (sane) people would argue with that.
And now comes the hard it plays...

First up, the feel.
This is a no-brainer really. The MkVI (and to some extent the BA and SBA before it) set the benchmark of what a modern horn should feel like.
The ergonomics were as good as it got in the day, and streets ahead of what little competition remained in the '60s. Even today, against computer-aided design and modern technology, the Selmer's action still stands out as one of the best.
Sure, it's common to see examples peppered with rubber palm and side key risers (like the example on the right) - but that's true even of pro-spec Yamahas and Yanagisawas. There'll never be a one-size-fits-all action; the best you can hope for is to build an action that pleases most players.
But more than this, it's the design of the keys and the associated springing that really sets the MkVI apart from the competition - and in that I include modern Selmers. When set up right, the action really flies. It's snappy, responsive, fast and light - in which respect perhaps only the Conn 10M could keep up with it (until the advent of the Yamaha 61/62 series).
If there's a 'but', it's this; as I noted earlier, Selmer's keywork seems to wear quicker than other marques - and owning a MkVI with a worn action is a bit like driving an E-Type Jaguar that keeps backfiring. It makes no sense, and people will point and laugh at you.
Keep it well lubed, and have it checked regularly. If you keep on top of it it'll save you big time in the long run, and it'll mean you're always getting the best out of one of the finest horn actions ever built. And if you're buying one...give those keys a damn good wiggle. Replacing a stack screw can cost you around £60 a pop - and having the action swedged (a technique that compresses the key barrels to take up the wear) is very labour intensive, and thus expensive.

Next up is the playability.
Tonewise I'd describe the MkVI tenor as being 'confident'. Now, I realise that'll mean diddly-squat to anyone who hasn't yet played one of these horns, but I'm willing to bet that anyone who has is thinking 'Uh-huh'.
In fairly mundane terms the horn has a generally rich tone with a slight lean towards the warm, a well-rounded midrange and a clean but not too edgy top end. Being really picky I'd say that the midrange often gets a bit 'boxy', and sometimes the top end doesn't seem to have quite enough cut - but this has to be tempered with what I call the 'Selmer effect'.
This is where things get a bit difficult - because the Selmer effect is extremely hard to describe...but when you hear/feel it, you'll know what it is immediately. It's as though someone's sprinkled a handful of fairy dust over the horn. It twinkles. No, really, it does.
A good MkVI tenor has a sort of glitter surrounding each note. I guess a sound engineer would describe it as a bit of high-midrange distortion, and a hi-fi buff might compare it to the sort of 2nd harmonic distortion you get from a valve amp. It's not a bad thing, at all.
And then there's the low-end 'whoomph'. Again, hard to describe, but it's almost a percussive effect from the bell notes - when you hit a subtone B/Bb, you can almost feel the horn kick back at you.

Now, I realise I've probably made a complete pig's ear of describing the tone - but you just try finding a definitive description.
They tried to achieve this on one of the saxophone forums, but the thread ran to thirty pages...and still no-one really nailed it.
Part of the problem - if not all of it - is that these horns are so variable. I mentioned the bore tweaks at the start of this review, and suggested that they weren't a very reliable indicator of how a horn built in a particular year would sound - and this is true of any MkVI. There's simply no way to tell how one will sound without blowing it.
And the difference can be staggering. It's often said that the early models are the best - those under the 100,000 serial number mark (known as 5 digit Selmers) - but I've played some real dogs from that period. Similarly, it's said that the very late models were mere shadows of their former selves...but again, I've played some real gems from this period.
Unlike any other horn out there, you have to take each MkVI as an individual - as though each one was made by a completely different company.
Pick up a Conn, a Martin, a Yamaha, a fact any other horn you like and there's a very good chance that it will blow just like you'd expect. You might occasionally find a very good example, but you'll rarely find any particularly bad ones.

And it's not that the 'bad' MkVIs sound all that bad - it's just that they don't have that certain something that makes the difference between a horn that plays...and one that sings.

So far, so good - but the MkVI tenor has a few skeletons in its closet.
I wouldn't, for example, describe it as having an even tone. For example, it's fairly common to find that that the A is a little dead compared to the B and G, and there's sometimes a notable change in tone going from mid F to E...and the mid D tends to be a bit muted, as does the low B.
The tuning can be pretty variable too, with some players finding it a struggle to bring the bell notes in tune...while others lose control at the top end. In fairness some of these complaints very often relate to mechanical problems (leaking pads, bell joints, worn action etc.), but by no means all of them.
And then there are those who say that the MkVI is a jack of all trades but a master of none. It's perhaps a bit harsh, but there's some truth in it. It succeeds by being 'good enough' to cover all the bases - but where it really shines is in the jazz idiom. In many ways this form of music perfectly matches its individuality...and as most jazz players tend to be less than shy about sharing their opinions, it serves as the basis upon which legends are built.
But then this is what makes the MkVI tenor what it is. It's inherently flawed, but it's precisely these flaws that give it its character. It's not a horn where the tone and the tuning comes 'factory set' - and although it most certainly has an 'in house' sound, it still requires the player to steer both the tone and the tuning.
It also perhaps explains why, despite the obvious popularity of the horn, Selmer has never really reissued it. Sure, they've made 'homages' to it - but never 'the real deal'. And they're probably very wise not to do so, because everyone would complain about the tone not being consistent and the tuning being awful. The MkVI is what it is, and was what it was.

In summing up, then, I'd say that you first learn to play the saxophone...and then you learn to play the MkVI.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015