Selmer Mark VI: Legends (Myth Busting!)


I had a whole bunch of good, “Those don’t exist!”-type pictures I was considering for the “banner,” before settling on the above. The pictures above are of a Selmer Mark VI soprano and sopranino in black lacquer, contributed by an SOTW regular. These horns have generated probably the second most amount of e-mail over the years (#1 was, “Did Saxtek sell that Eb contrabass Sarrusophone?”). Yes, Selmer did have colored lacquer available on the Mark VI for just a couple years. I’ve seen pink, blue, black (the above), and white. Blue seems to be the least common choice: I’ve only seen one of those, whereas I’ve seen at least two of each of the other colors. Also, the most common pitch I’ve seen with colored lacquer is tenor. You could also call up Selmer and have them put colored lacquer on a Mark VI you had bought originally in lacquer.

Continuing …

Legend: 5-digit serial number horns are the absolute greatest Mark VIs for a variety of reasons.
Me: This legend comprises a bunch of stuff. Let me try to take it from the top.

I first want to mention that this is primarily about altos and tenors, though: all other pitches of the Mark VI might be considered to be “the best” during this time period (1954-1964), but they’ve never been considered either the best Selmer horns, as in the case of the baritone (the SBA’s supposed to be better), or the best ever made, like the sopranino, soprano and bass (get a Yanagisawa for the high horns and an Eppelsheim for the bass).  The alto and tenor are really the horns that built the VI reputation.

Fact: There is a spike in Selmer prices for horns with a 5-digit serial number.
There’s an approximately $1200 markup on altos in this serial number range. The amusing thing is that the most expensive VI I’ve ever seen sell — a tenor, for $16,000 — had a six-digit serial number.  I’ve done some research on this, in the past, and there is a noticeable spike in some six-digit serial numbered horns, too, but not as dramatic as the spike for 5-digit horns.

Fact: Selmer tweaked the design of the VI throughout its model run. Tweaks were specifically made to the bow, neck (I’ve seen about 5 different Mark VI necks) and bell.
This doesn’t mean that there were tweaks to make you sound any better/play more in tune, though. One would assume that Selmer would have chucked any design that really sucked, in other words, a later VI should have all the improvements. That, also, doesn’t mean that the “fully tweaked” design is better for you: you might play better with the shorter bow or the “type 1” neck. It’s possible this latter group just is really vocal about these changes and that’s why the 5-digit horns are worth more.

Unconfirmed: Selmer used a different brass composition on the 5-digit serial number horns, incorporating melted down WWII artillery shells.
There’s a twist I heard about, recently, when I was cruising YouTube: maybe there were some melted church bells in the mix, too.

There’s no practical way of proving this, because Selmer either doesn’t know or isn’t talking. Furthermore, one would more likely assume that the Super (Balanced) Action, produced from 1946 to 1954 — i.e. right after WWII — would be the logical candidate to have been made out of WWII material.

I’ve wasted a lot of electronic ink on talking about one of the great ideas behind the saxophone: provided you get the proportions correct, it’ll sound like a saxophone. That’s why we can have saxophones that are made out of wood (an Evette-Schaeffer straight soprano from around the 1890s), plastic (the Grafton Acrylic Alto and the Vibratosax), bronze (several folks; notably Yanagisawa), copper (several folks; notably Buffet’s S3 Prestige), sterling silver (either partially, like the King Zephyr Special and Super 20s, or completely, like a single set of Bueschers), or brass — and you can plate it with lots of different things, then.

For what it’s worth, I do think that the material that a horn is composed of or even plated with can make a difference in the tone quality, but not as much as a lot of folks seem to purport. In other words, I don’t think that you can make a Mark VI out of a Monique by plating it gold, but you may be able to make a Mark VI sound darker with heavy gold plate. Remember, it’s the proportions: the Monique doesn’t have good proportions and the VI does.

One of the other things that’s not taken into account is the condition of the horns being tested. A beat-up six digit Mark VI that needs all new pads will obviously sound worse than a completely overhauled 5-digit horn.

Wrapping all this up, you have a high-end professional sax that was made primarily by hand more than 50 years ago. This means that there’s a lot of variance between the horns that you compare. All of the VIs I’ve played were what I’d consider “extremely good.” That even goes for the really beat-up VI tenor I played in high school. If your VI isn’t working well for you, it’s probably not the serial number that the horn has that’s causing the problem. Maybe you need to get some work done on the horn. Or a different neck. Or different mouthpiece, ligature and/or reed. Remember, 80% of what your horn sounds like is because of you. The other 20% (or less) is determined by your equipment, unless your equipment has mechanical problems.

Legend: The low A horns (alto and baritone) are more stuffy and difficult to play than their low Bb counterparts.
Me: Not that I’ve noticed. I think it’s more probable that the horn you’re playing leaks or you’ve got some mouthpiece setup problems.  However, low A horns do get a little hit in value.  Which is good if you’re looking to buy.

There is a bit more to this.

There are two ways of extending the bell range on a saxophone.  The easiest is to take an existing horn, cut up the bell and add a non-conical section for the low A.  That’s the route that Conn took with their 11M: it’s a 10M with an inserted piece of brass.  The more difficult way is to make an entirely new conical bell.

The saxophone is a conical bore instrument.  If you happen to shove a straight bore part on there, somewhere, you’re screwing up the mechanics of the thing.  In practice, this means that a low A on up to, say, C# could be a bit stuffy because you’ve screwed up the bore.  This idea has gotten enough play that some musicians eliminate the middleman and own both a low Bb and low A baritone.  Some folks that own 11Ms try to work around it by removing the physical low A key.

I’m way more pragmatic and not rich, so I bought a low A bari.  I used the low A enough that it was worth it and Yamaha didn’t (and doesn’t) have low Bb baritones.  However, the Yamaha has another bit of interestingness: the YBS-52 (which I bought) has a two-piece bell.  The 62 has a one-piece bell.  The bell notes on the 62 did respond better than on the 52, but not enough for me to pay almost double for the horn.

So, what that means to you is that IF you’re looking for the best VI and there’s a low A horn and low Bb horn with approximately the same serial number and in approximately the same condition, the low Bb horn will probably be better.  But not by very much.

In the somewhat recent past, there was enough price differential in the low A altos that you could get a low A horn and have it overhauled by a good tech for the price of the low Bb horn, which means you’d end up with a better horn.  This trend has been easing.  I did a brief Google search and saw numbers for low A altos in the $6000 to $7000 range.  That’s pricey.  Of course, they’re not SELLING at that price ….

Legend: The horns with an altissimo F# key are more difficult to play (resistant) and have intonation problems.
Me: The former, I haven’t experienced. The latter may be true, but you’d be only talking about the altissimo notes. If you think that the altissimo F# is the cause of your intonation problems, you’ve got an easy fix: cork the F# key closed or just don’t use it — after you make sure that it’s repadded and not leaking.  In other words, I can’t understand how this could be a real problem.

Legend: There were only 200 low A altos made.
Me: Probably a lot more than that.

I’ve done sax research for a long while and I don’t have to look very hard to find one of these. Seriously; no problems. I had 24 of them on saxpics.com, including gold plated models with altissimo F# models, the “rarest” model. This either means that I’m insanely good at finding them, because I’ve seen over 10% of their total production run, or more than 200 were made.

(I just checked eBay.  There are three being sold there, at the moment.  One’s pretty minty, too.)

Legend: Plated and lacquer VIs suck. De-lacquered/stripped VIs have a better, freer sound.
Me: Don’t do this to your horn. Please.

While it’s possible that finish or build material does impact your tone, there’s no scientific evidence to support that. If anything at all — and this is based on FLUTE research — the overall thickness of the horn’s body and weight impact the tone, making the tone a tad darker. However, we’re talking significant numbers, like exchanging a nickel plated headjoint for a much more weighty solid silver one, not adding .0001″ or so to your horn during lacquering or plating.

Many folks (including me) will see the statement “stripped” (when referring to horns, at least) and walk away. That means your horn’s value is diminished. Now, if you have a horn that’s got 1% lacquer remaining and you decide to get your horn chemically stripped, then replated one of the standard Selmer platings, you’ve added value.

Legend: The horns with an “M” serial number are better than the ones with an “N” serial number.
Me: Allow me to quote Bear from Cybersax.com:

I sort of glanced off your question about the ‘M’ prefix that started with Mark VI models, eh? The real answer is, “I don’t know for certain what the ‘M’ means.”

Since [the “M” prefix] first appeared as a prefix to the Mark VI serial numbers — but only when the instruments were of the Mark VI design — there is the obvious presumption/assumption that the ‘M’ might indeed be a model indicator. Assumptions are dangerous, though. For instance, Conn adopted an ‘M’ prefix for all its saxophone serial numbers in 1925. It would be easy to associate that ‘M’ with the introduction of the ‘real’ Chu Berry models that also occurred at that time. Fact is: Conn used one serial number sequence for all its woodwinds, so the boom in instrument sales of the early 1920s created a need to be able to differentiate between instruments (clarinet, flute, bassoon, saxophone) as a matter of post-sale customer support. In this case the Conn ‘M’ prefix was a code that stood for ‘saxophone’ (I’ll leave it to your imagination why an ‘M’ and not an ‘S’). Since my last parts order from Selmer took in excess of six months for them to to fill, I really doubt their motives for prefixing the Mark VI serial numbers with an ‘M’ were based on customer service concerns. What I do know with certainty is that when you are armed with the above knowledge, that ‘M’ serial number prefix has little relevance when faced with the task of distinguishing a Mark VI from the SBA or Mark VII Selmer models.

You realize, of course, this doesn’t quite answer the question.

There are essentially two views on this and Bear is essentially a proponent of the first view: the letter had some book-keeping significance, but that’s it.  There are folks that have horns with an “N” serial number that say their horn is the best ever made and there are folks that have horns with “M” serial numbers that say their horn is the best ever made.

The second view is that the “M” prefix had no real significance until the introduction of the Mark VII: Mark VII horns with an “M” prefix serial number had a Mark VI body and Mark VII keywork.  This is a popular theory on SOTW and other forums.  Unfortunately, I’ve not heard of someone breaking out some calipers and doing measurements — if that would even be valid: we do know that Selmer tinkered with the design of the VI throughout the entire run, so measurements could only be guesstimates.

However, the interesting thing is that the theory of “M” serial numbered horns having VI bodies might be correct.

The Mark VII was originally introduced in 1974, between serial number 220,801 and 233,900 (according to Selmer’s serial number list and their website).  However, the oldest Mark VII I’ve seen is s/n 236,105, which is from 1975.  Modifying a comment in the above SOTW thread, “What happened to all the Mark VIIs from 1974?”  It could be that the serial numbers are wrong on the Selmer website (again) or someone at Selmer said, “1974 is the date we put out all that promo material on the VII, thus that’s the introduction date!” and the first Mark VII didn’t roll off the assembly line until 1975.

A few months back, a gentleman posted a s/n M205,117 Mark VII on SOTW.  That’s from 1972.  How’s that for a nice kick?  Well, as is mentioned in the above Selmer linky, the Mark VII was in development for three years.  This could be a prototype.  It could also be a VI that someone threw some VII parts on.

These things, together, lead me to believe that it’s possible that “M” does indicate “Mark VI Body.”  According to several of the above linkies, the “M” was phased out completely around 1977 for alto and tenor, so that’s your latest cut-off date.

In any event, the really important thing is that if you’re trying to pin your hopes on a Mark VII being a VI with kewl ergonomic keywork, playtest the heck out of it first.  Even if it’s NOT a VI, you might end up liking it, especially at the price: the one or two VIIs I’ve played were quite nice horns.  Probably the only other side effect of me pointing this out is that 1977 and earlier Mark VIIs will go up in value.  Hopefully not as much as what happened to the SMLs ….

One Comment

  1. Francesco
    August 5, 2015

    Hi,

    Please note that to say “serial number” French use the word “matricule”.
    So most likely the “M” stays for “matricule”, just as “N” might stay for “number” in later series, when Selmer was more internationalized.

    Concerning MarkVII, I do own two of them: one 206xxx in silver and one 259xxx in lacquer. They are both great instruments.
    The 206xxx is most likely a prototype, but it has the shape, the keys and the proportion of a MarkVII, significantly different from a MarkVI.
    However, the body is slightly lighter than the 259xxx, so maybe is either slightly thinner or the material is slightly different.

    I saw a lot of late MarkVI and early MarkVII, and I definitely think that the story of the “hybrids” is an urban legend.
    The two models have very diffrent proportion, bore and layout, so it is not possible to have MarkVII mechanics on a MarkVI body.

    My 2 cents
    Regards

    Francesco

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