Selmer SA80 III tenor saxophone
Guide price: Around £4000 when new
Date of manufacture: Late 1990s
Date reviewed: May 2015
Selmer's take on the industry standard tenor
Browse any saxophone forum and sooner or later
you'll come across a discussion about why Selmer discontinued the
MKVI, and why everyone thinks it'd be a good idea if they started
making them again. I can see their point, but at the same time I
can also see Selmer's point - which is that they didn't stop making
it, they simply improved it.
Let's be clear - the MKVI was a flawed horn, and throughout its
production life it was tweaked and fiddled with. So it made sense
to draw a line under it and bring out a new horn, utilising all
the experience and long-term testing that went into the previous
model. Had that been all they'd done they might have got away with
it...but the successor to the VI (the MKVII) never achieved the
status of its predecessor...in spite of sales apparently being quite
good in it's relatively short run (just six years).
It wasn't until the arrival of the SA80 series in 1980 that things
began to look up (at least in terms of popular appeal), and with
the advent of the series II (mostly cosmetic tweaks) in 1985 it
looked like Selmer might have finally shaken off the ghost of the
MKVI and brought a worthy replacement to the market. The longevity
of the production run certainly seems to confirm this, and the series
is still in current production in the guise of the Jubilee Series
(more cosmetic tweaks). It also served, along with later models
such as the Series III and the Reference horns, to cement Selmer's
position in the marketplace as the producer of what many regard
as the world's finest saxophones.
So let's pop one on the bench and see if it lives
up to expectations...
The construction is the usual fare for a modern
horn - you get a detachable bell, a triple-point bell brace, adjustable
metal thumb hook and adjustable bumper felts on the bell key guards.
The octave key thumb rest is a slight letdown in that it's a flat
plastic affair...though it's nice and large. Unlike the sling ring...which
is a touch on the mean side, being both small in diameter and lacking
The horn has a semi ribbed construction - sometimes
described as 'mini rib' construction. Rather than having the pillars
mounted on two long ribs running down the body, one for each of
the stacks, they're broken up into several smaller plates with individual
pillars dotted about here and there. I guess this gives some of
the advantages of fully-ribbed construction (cheaper to manufacture
and fit, adds stiffness to the body tube) and some of single pillar
construction (lighter weight, easier to remove pillars in the event
of severe impact damage). Personally I've no real preference either
way - but any reference to 'improved tonal response' will, of course,
be pure bunkum.
Nicely-sized bases on the single pillars, though, which bodes well
for reliability. They're nicely soldered too - all neat and tidy
(unlike some of the recent Yamahas I've seen).
contrast to the mean and fiddly sling ring, the bottom bow clamp
is just pure beef.
I really like the design. It's a two-piece affair rather than just
a single split ring, which makes it easier to remove cleanly. Single
split ring clamps are quite tricky to remove and refit, and great
care has to be taken to avoid scratching the finish on the body
when doing so. The two-piece clamp is far more efficient - and it's
quite a hefty bit of metal too, which means it's rather less likely
to get knocked out of shape if the horn takes a tumble.
As with most horns these days, the toneholes are
drawn. All nice and level, but rather rough on the rims. Not exactly
burred, but still quite sharp - if you drag a fingernail over the
rim it'll shave the nail with ease. Sharp or rough tonehole rims
can lead to sticking pads, and over time they can accelerate pad
wear - so it's worth having them looked at when you have the horn
serviced. If your horn suffers from sticking pads, and the lighter
fluid trick doesn't seem to cure it, it'd be worth dragging
some fine grade carborundum (minimum 800 grade) paper over the tonehole
rims. Simply cut a suitably sized strip from the sheet, slide it
grit side down between the tonehole and the pad, bring the pad down
lightly and withdraw the paper. Repeat a few times then clean the
tonehole rim and pad with lighter fluid.
There's a nice design touch on the aforementioned
bell brace, which has offset feet on the body mountings.
There's a sound mechanical principle behind this feature which should
be apparent to anyone who's ever tried to bang a bent nail into
a piece of wood. Simply put - any force applied to the bell (from
a knock or a drop) will pass down the bell brace and into the body.
horns often had just a plain rod of brass to serve as a bell brace,
which mean that any impact to the bell was shunted straight into
the body...usually around the G# tone hole.
Over the years bell braces got larger, and were moved more to the
side of the horn. This position, coupled with larger mounts on the
body, served to distribute any impact force and thus prevent (or
at least lessen) major body damage. The offset feet on the SA80's
brace add another level of impact protection insomuch as the brace
itself is more likely to act like a bent nail and deform rather
than shunt an impact through to the body. In theory, anyway. It's
an imperfect science with many variables, but it's at least nice
to see someone making an effort.
The lacquered finish is good. There are one or
two blemishes here and there, but on a horn of this age that's pretty
much par for the course these days. I'm guessing it's a gold lacquer
finish, though if it is it's quite a light shade of gold - in a
certain light it almost looks like clear lacquer. It's what I'd
call 'subtle gold', which is no bad thing.
On to the keywork now, and like the body it's
neatly put together and finished.
I was especially pleased to see a teardrop-shaped touchpiece for
the front top F key as well as proper mother-of-pearl touches on
the main stack keys - as well as the side F# and G#. The stack key
pearls are concave, but the Bis Bb pearl is domed - which makes
for a smoother roll on and off the key. There's an anti-whip/protector
fitted over the side top E/F# key barrels, which is a very useful
feature on these long and exposed keys.
also get a tilting bell key table mounted on a substantial semicircular
compound pillar. It's a reasonably beefy looking affair, and it's
detachable - which makes things a little easier should the horn
ever need any repairs to the body tube in this area (it's a common
place for creases to form after a heavy fall).
The design of the bell key spatulas is worthy of mention - the tilting
link on the C# spatula is very neat and slick in action, and rather
than being a piece of box-section brass, it's more or less solid
save for the small hole that sits over the pin that comes of the
C# key. This is a particularly vulnerable key, so anything that
strengthens it against the inevitable knocks and dings is a good
Another nice feature is that the Bb touchpiece swivels in two planes.
On most horns the swivel merely works in the horizontal plane (the
key tilts backwards and forwards), but this one also tilts in the
vertical plane (outwards and inwards). You'll be hard put to see
it in action, but it's why they've been able to do away with the
standard box section connection to the C# key...instead of the back
and forth motion taking place in the connection, it's all handled
by the extra swivel on the low Bb key. Very nice indeed.
rather less keen on the adjuster beneath the low Bb touchpiece that
regulates the balance between the low B and Bb keys.
I get the idea - the relationship between these two keys often needs
tweaking - and when it does it's usually something you have to have
three or four goes at (or more) before you get it just right. On
most horns it's a simple plate or tab - and you adjust it with a
very careful tweak with a pair of smooth-jawed pliers. Easy-peasy.
On this arrangement you're supposed to slacken off the locking screw,
adjust the height of the plate and retighten the screw. It's then
that you check the regulation of the bell keys and see that there's
a tiny chink of light coming from one of the pads...so you'll have
to make another adjustment. Undo the screw, make the tiny adjustment
(yeah, right) then retighten the screw...hoping that the mere action
of tightening the screw up won't put the regulation out by a fraction...which
It's an arse of a design, and I bet that more than a few repairers
have simply resorted to bending the bar on which the adjuster screw
And for geeks - if you look just to the rear of the tip of the adjuster
tab (with the green felt on it), you can see the secondary swivel
point for the Bb touchpiece.
On a similar theme there are simple fork and pin
connectors for the side Bb/C keys, and while this a huge improvement
over the ball and socketed joints that appeared on older Selmers,
they've chosen to bugger it up by the addition of a very curious
'adjustment' feature for the two key cups.
There are many things wrong with this feature, the biggest of which
is that it's really not necessary. How many of you have ever felt
the need to adjust the opening heights of your side keys? And of
those few who have, how many times have you had to adjust the keys?
the vast majority of players, setting the opening heights of the
keys is a one-time operation (usually done by your local, trusty
repairer...assuming you don't much like the factory setup). I suppose
a minority of players are going to be of a standard that means they
can detect whether a key height needs tweaking to advantage - but
there really isn't much you can't do with the aid of a bit of sandpaper
(or, if it goes wrong, a piece of cork and some glue). That's assuming
they have the mechanical nous...it certainly doesn't follow that
a great player knows how to tweak a horn...or should even be allowed
to handle a screwdriver unsupervised.
Really, it's just easier to take your horn to repairer and have
them tweak the action - and then the job's done.
And then there's the design of the feature. All
they've done is to saw a slot in the foot of the keys. To open out
the slot (and so decrease the opening height of the keys) you poke
a screwdriver into the slot and give it a bit of a twist. To close
the slot (and thus increase the opening height) you'll have to get
a pair of pliers over the key. Either way it doesn't sound very
good - which is why, presumably, later models were fitted with a
proper adjustment screw.
It's still just as pointless a feature, but at least there's less
chance of a player mauling their expensive horn.
Having gone to all the trouble of putting this
daft feature on the horn, Selmer completely neglected to put any
adjusters on the main stacks...where they'd actually be very useful.
I could be wrong but the body octave key pip appears
to be permanently fixed to the pillar plate that sits over the hole
(as opposed to being fixed directly to the body). It should still
be possible to remove the pip, but you'd have to remove the entire
plate with it. If that's the case it's a bit of a nuisance as there
are certain jobs, such as repairs to dents/bends around the top
stack, where access is only possible after removal of the pip. Having
the pip as part of the pillar plate turns it into a much more involved
and potentially messy job. On the plus side it's unlikely that the
pip will ever come loose, as they sometimes do...but as a fix for
an occasional problem it seems a bit overkill. I've not yet had
to remove a body pip on one of these horns, so I may yet turn out
to be mistaken. No doubt someone will write in and let me know either
The point screws are of the bullet-headed
type (which is good), but sprung inserts or bushings are fitted
in to the ends of the key barrels (which isn't). I'm really not
a fan of this idea (for reasons described in the article on point
screws) - it's overly-complicated, fussy, imprecise and just another
thing that's likely to go wrong down the years.
But there were far more important things to worry about...
wasn't at all happy about the angle of a couple of the point screws.
The one shown here is the top E key upper pillar (just below the
body octave key cup). You can see from the lines I've drawn in just
how far off centre the point screw is. The face of the pillar, where
it butts up against the key barrel, is fine (as denoted by the faint
red line) - so it's not the case that the pillar's been drilled
correctly and then fitted askew, rather the pillar is fine but the
hole for the screw has been drilled through at an angle. As a result,
the point screw sits at an angle.
This was one of two such pillars I spotted (the
top F# upper pillar was also offline). How many more might be like
this? I don't know, I only dismantled the upper stack on this job
- but there shouldn't have been any.
Sure, in the great scheme of things this anomaly isn't going to
make much of a difference. Both of the affected keys are normally
sprung closed, and have small pads fitted to them - so it's unlikely
that an off-centre point screw will lead to a leak. But it'll certainly
mean there's more stress on the end of the key barrel, and over
the years this will lead to a greater amount of wear than on the
Take a look at how the E key fits against the pillar. You can see
that the end of the key barrel is more or less flush with the face
of the pillar - as it should be - which means that discrepancy in
the point screw's angle is being taken up by the screw socket in
the end of the barrel. Don't forget that this Selmer uses sprung
inserts, so not only is the bore of the insert being worn, but so
too is the bore of the barrel in which the insert sits. That's a
double-whammy...twice the wear, twice the effort to fix.
not ideal, on any sax at any price - but this is a four grand plus
Selmer. It's also not like it's an invisible fault. OK, it's reasonably
hard to see what's going on when the key's mounted between the pillars,
but I don't think it's unreasonable to expect Selmer's quality control
personnel to have caught this one. It's certainly not possible for
an assembler to miss it...when you're fitting the key there's a
very obvious 'What the f***!?' moment as you wind the screw in.
Someone, at some point, decided this was OK - and the most polite
thing I can say about it is that it's not good enough.
One other curious feature is that the top stack
uses a pointed rod screw. Most horns use a rod that runs right through
the top stack keys (with the Bis Bb and G keys mounted on point
screws). The Selmer terminates the rod with a point just before
it enters the A key barrel - and with a corresponding point screw
at the other end of the A key it means this key is effectively mounted
on point screws. It's no big deal - it's just easier to adjust for
wear on point screw mounted keys than those on rods, so it's more
of a feature for the repairer than the player.
Aside from the issue with the wonky point, and
the sprung point screw barrels, the rest of the action was a tight
as a drum. Not bad going considering the age of the horn - and even
the octave key mech (standard Selmer swivel design, naturally) showed
little or no signs of wear. Granted, this horn hasn't seen a great
deal of professional use, but it's still impressive.
There's a decent set of pads fitted, but they're
fitted with nickel plated steel reflectors - and many had spots
of rust on them. To use steel for reflectors - which are exposed
to a regular cycle of wetting and drying - is a completely bonkers
idea. OK, so they're plated - but anyone who's ever owned a car
with chromed steel trim or who has an old tin of paint in the shed
knows that, sooner or later, the rust creeps through the paint/plating.
You could argue that by the time rust seriously attacks the reflectors,
the pads will be well past their best - but on this horn the pads
themselves are doing very well...it's just the reflectors that are
looking a bit shabby.
I think the pertinent question here is 'Why?' Why use plated steel
when just about everyone else uses nickel or brass reflectors? These
won't rust. I'm still pulling Gordon Beeson pads out of saxes that
were repadded 50 years ago - the pads are usually shot to pieces,
but the plain nickel reflectors are still absolutely fine. I guess
it's down to cost, it's bound to be a bit cheaper to use nickel-plated
steel than plain nickel or brass - and if the horn only cost a few
hundred quid I could see the sense in the economy. But it doesn't,
it costs the best part of four grand...which makes it a bloody stupid
up the action is a set of blued steel springs. It's inevitable that
comparisons are going to be drawn against this horn and the MKVI,
and part of what made the MKVI such a renowned horn was its action.
It really was rather good - and when you've made something that
good it makes sense to keep on making it. Now it's one thing to
change the tone of a horn, and there are reasons why this happened
- and it's never a bad thing to refresh the ergonomics here and
there...but they should never have changed the spring geometry (they
made many of the springs shorter). It's what gave those old horns
such a lively, light, precise feel.
In use the action feels fine. It doesn't quite
have the zip and snap that some other horns have, and that the MKVI
had - but with some careful tweaking it can be made to feel pretty
good. Not brilliant...but pretty good.
The sprung barrels don't help much - but let's have a bit of perspective
here. If you've ever handled a properly set up MKVI, or a Yamaha
or just about any other decent horn, you may have noticed how 'immediate'
the action feels. The moment you press a key, it moves - with a
smooth, clean feel - and when the pad hits home, the key stops dead.
It's a small thing, but for someone who spends all day, every day
tweaking actions to get the best out of them, it matters.
But here's the thing - such an action can only last so long before
wear knocks the edge off that feel. Sure, you can keep the horn
regularly maintained, and this will ensure the action remains nice
and tight...but how many of you do that? The sprung barrels in the
Selmer will never allow the action to be set up that tightly, but
by the same token nor will they allow it to become that worn...at
least until the cylinders inside the barrel wear (and then all bets
So, if we say that a well set-up MKVI has an action that's 100%,
we can say that the SA80's action, at best, is 90%. Once the MKVI's
action starts to wear it progressively drops percentage points,
and you can probably say that it hangs around 85% before any further
wear starts to cause significant problems. This is where the SA80's
action wins out - it's still at 90%...and it's likely to stay at
that level for a considerable period of time, even without maintenance.
That's the choice; go for a horn that can have a superb action,
but can only maintain it if you keep up the servicing - or go for
one that has a reasonable action, but will maintain it even if you
don't keep up the servicing. It's a tricky one, I'll admit.
The ergonomics are good though, and I doubt many
players will complain about the layout. I certainly didn't have
any problems - though you may have noticed from the opening shot
that the owner of this horn has a full set of key risers on the
palm keys. This isn't uncommon - you simply can't make an action
that will suit everyone, and there'll always be players (of any
horn) for whom the side keys seem to be a little on the low or high
side. No problems with the bell keys, and in particular the action
of the tilting table was noteworthy. Very slick. Even though my
own preference is for a non-tilting table, I really liked the feel
of this one. Likewise, the domed Bis Bb pearl really helped, as
did the teardrop touchpiece on the front top F key. It took decades
for Selmer to drop the kludgy old rounded pearl design on this key...and
all I can say is it's about time too.
Tonewise the Series III is surprisingly bright.
That's not bright, per se, rather it's bright in comparison to the
I've heard it said that the Series II is more 'laid back', and I'd
be inclined to agree - though I'd perhaps say that it makes more
of an effort to capture the tonal glory of the old MKVI.
In fact, I've always felt the SA80 II series comes the closest to
'the Selmer sound' since the demise of the fabled MKVI, at least
where Selmer tenors are concerned. It's got that classic mid-range
bloom coupled with a nice dollop of low-end oomph...although I feel
the bell notes don't quite have as much 'glitter' as I'd like. Oh,
it's there - that slight fizziness around the notes - but it's not
as pronounced as you'd find on a good MKVI. And that's perhaps why,
tonally, I've always considered this horn to be a fair replacement
for those players who either can't find a decent MKVI or who want
that Selmer sound without quite so much of the baggage. In other
words it's not a perfect horn. Whether that's by accident or design
(hopefully the latter) makes no odds, what's important is that the
horn captures the essence of the Selmer sound and delivers it without
quite so many of the foibles of its legendary predecessor. It's
not a bad compromise at all, and credit where its due - Selmer have
done a pretty good job in retaining the typical in-house sound while
balancing it with a need for more evenness throughout the range
and more precise tuning. It's no mean feat.
However, the Series III takes things a tad further
- and not necessarily in the right direction.
For example, the 'focus' is interesting. I define this as the spread
of sound (not tone) that you hear/feel when blowing. Some horns
feel like they fill a room with a single note, others feel like
they project to very specific areas of that room...and still others
feel like they wrap the sound around the horn itself. The Selmer
seems to me to have quite a broad spread. It's not the widest focus
I've heard, but it's definitely not an introspective horn. However,
while the sound has this nice spread, the tone is rather more focussed...so
I got the sense that although the horn was pushing out a roomful
of sound, the sound itself seemed a bit pinched.
Up against my TJ
RAW the Selmer seems more brash - but here's the interesting
thing...the RAW's sound is more directional, more focussed - but
the tone is more complex. It's also a bit darker, and a bit smoother.
I suspect the comparison would be closer with a Series II.
Up the top end it's a bit tamer (or perhaps calmer)
than the VI, but in return there's a nice sweetness to the tone.
Not a bad exchange.
I noticed some unevenness in the tone over the range, especially
around the mid D to G area, with just a hint of a growl around the
G# - though nothing a spot of long note practice wouldn't sort.
It faded once I'd been playing the horn for an hour or two, and
on picking it up the next day it had completely gone. It's all in
I think it's safe to say that it's more even than the Series II,
and yeah, I'd say that the stock tuning has been dialled in with
a bit more solidity - which probably accounts for the extra brightness.
It's often touted that the SA80 II series is more
suited to classical playing - and, frankly, that's complete rubbish.
To be fair, I can see where the notion comes from because the Selmer
is quite a 'middle-of-the-road' horn tonally. That's no bad thing,
it makes it a very versatile horn, and such horns tend to respond
very well to mouthpiece/reed/crook tweaks. In other words, if you
like the tone out of the box, you're sorted - if you almost like
it, there's plenty of room to tweak it to your preference.
I'd say the same is true of the Series III, though the starting
point is going to be on the slightly brighter side - and I guess
you could see that as a drawback or an advantage depending on your
own tonal philosophy. Personally I've always found it easier to
tame a bright horn than to brighten up a dull one.
Not that any of these impressions really matter
- because at this level all that matters is what you
feel you get out of the horn, and if you have to rely on someone
else's impressions, you're probably not ready for such a horn. Harsh,
I know, but fair.
Would I have one though? Well no - mostly because
I look for something else in a horn...but if I wanted that 'Selmer
thang' I'd look to an early MKVI or, more likely, an SBA - even
though it would mean putting in some work to overcome the wildness.
But that's really the point, it's the 'problems' inherent in the
earlier models that make them what they are...and if you design
them out you end up with something that isn't quite the same. Better,
worse or just different? That's the question...
Something else to consider is that none of the other manufacturers
have been sitting on their hands since the demise of the MKVI. Indeed,
there are many more makers now, and they've all been working hard
to build horns that have a good balance between tonal complexity
and accuracy of tuning. In other words, there's a hell of a lot
more choice out there.
And then there's the build quality. I really don't
like the sprung inserts in the key barrels, I feel it's a gimmick
that will come back to bite your arse in later years - and it effectively
limits how slick the action can be made. Then there's the springing...the
older Selmers all had superb actions, there was no reason the change
it. And finally there's those bodged pillars with wonky point screws.
A careful inspection when buying will go some way to avoiding any
similar examples (make sure all the key barrels line up squarely
against the pillars). All things considered, I think I'd like a
bit more for the asking price.