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The Selmer Mark VI

The horn that really needs no introduction -- it's the most famous horn on the planet. If you've never played one, you're missing out on the (arguably) best horn ever made. Let's be honest.

A lot of the Mark VI's were ordered with optional keywork, plating, etc., so it's very much like there are no two VI's exactly alike.

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The really interesting development with the introduction of the Mark VI is the first widely-available low A alto. While the low A alto isn't a new idea - some sources suggest that A. Sax himself created this variant - AND Selmer themselves sold low A horns around the time the 22 or 26 was available -- this was the first "large production" of any low A altos.

I have seen a lot of these horns -- and even played a couple -- and can conclude from this that there are many more than the 200 or so that is generally rumored. However the configuration of low A with altissimo F# (Selmer catalog #52AF) is probably the least common and the least common finish was gold plate.

Speaking of interesting finishes, Selmer started experimenting with colored lacquers, for a brief time, during the VI model run. These horns are fairly rare and do include white, black, and possibly red ("rose") and/or blue.

If you see a Mark VI with colored lacquer, go ahead and take a look, but beware of imitations. A factory colored-lacquer horn will have the engraving "cut" through the colored lacquer, revealing the gold lacquer below.

Officially, there were no Mark 7 sopraninos, sopranos or baritones. They continued with the name of Mark VI up to and including part of the Super 80 era and were made with Mark VI tooling, with sometimes a bit different keywork (hence the approximate serial number ranges, above).

There is, however, the occasional "Mark 7 era" bari, etc., that is actually labelled "Mark 7". In all the instances I've seen, these horns are simply "stock" VI's with different engraving and sometimes slightly different keywork: there are no bore changes. (For more, info, see my page on the Mark 7.)

I've also heard more than one person insist that the first few horns of these pitches labeled "Mark VII" are "really" Mark VI's with different keywork. I can't confirm that without checking out one of these horns with a caliper and seeing if the bore size and tonehole placement is identical, but it's something interesting to consider if you're in the market for one of these pitches. Allegedly, this is also true for the early S80 sopranino, soprano, baritone and bass.

Best Horn Ever?

I've played at least a dozen Mark VI's in all pitches except sopranino and bass, and I've come to a few conclusions about why the VI is the most popular and best horn ever made:

  • The world's most economical and most ergonomic keywork (OK, maybe a Buffet S1 is a bit better, but Buffet based their keywork design on Selmer's). Almost all modern horns base their keywork on the Mark VI.
  • Decent intonation. See below.
  • Very good timbre and quality of tone. Projects, but not strident.
  • Quality construction. The VI is a very rugged horn and, even when badly damaged, can be repaired and be put in almost new shape fairly easily.

In my polling, the Mark VI never rates as the BEST horn in any single category, but it is (arguably) the best all-around horn: the Mark VI was not designed as a specifically big band horn (like the Conn M series), specifically as a jazz horn (like the King Super 20), or as a classical horn (like the Buescher Aristocrat series). The Mark VI can fill all of those roles EXTREMELY well, but it doesn't necessarily do them the best: I much preferred my Buffet Dynaction alto for classical work and I thought that my gold-plated True Tone bari might have been the best sounding bari for classical, but the VI blew those horns away (sorry; pun intended) because the VI had so much better keywork, feel and response that it drowned out the main advantages of my other horns, tone and better intonation.

Old Wives Tales

There are a few "old wives' tales" about the VI. I mention them here for sake of completeness, not necessarily because they're true:

  • Horns with a five digit serial number are the best (see the discussion, below)
  • Horns made after 1965 have a different quality of brass and, because of this, have worse timbre. (One story is that early VI's are made from melted-down artillery shells. Again, see the below discussion.)
  • Horns made after 1965 or so have less elaborate engraving because the head Selmer engraver died (this may actually be true).
  • French-assembled horns have more elaborate engraving, stretching to and including the bow, sound better and are worth more (again, see below).
  • Low A altos and silver low Bb altos have terrible intonation, worse than other VI's (rather shaky).

... and here's one that's actually true: some VI's have rather poor intonation. This is due to the fact that the VI is hand-finished and hand-assembled. Some just don't sound as good as others. The vast majority have good intonation, tho.

Europe or USA?

There are really two items that become very dominant in "VI Lore": where the horn was assembled (Europe or the US) and what the serial number range of the horn is.

Regarding the location issue, there DO appear to be some distict differences between US or Europe-assembed horns, but before we address that, I want to state very plainly that NO MARK VI's WERE FABRICATED IN THE US. The VI was completely manufactured in Europe and then shipped to the US, where Selmer (USA) folks would disassemble/reassemble and "finish" the horns. Here's a full list of what Selmer (USA) would do (I got this from one of the SOTW Forum regulars, Bari Martin):

  • The horn would be disassembled and inspected. Shipping damage would be repaired. This is a change from when Selmer (USA) was just shipped parts.
  • Springs, pads and felts would be removed.
  • The horn would be polished and lacquered or plated.
  • The horn would be reassembled and "regulated" (swedged, etc.).
  • The horn would be engraved.
  • The horn was play tested and the serialized neck was matched up - if it existed. Sometimes necks were swapped for "optimum results".
  • The horn would be "graded" according to playability.
    1. Reserved for Selmer Artists and other special uses.
    2. Reserved for Selmer favored major outlets (NY, LA, etc.).
    3. For regular music store sales. There is no mark of any kind to indicate grade.
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(While I can accept most of this list, I tend to discount the "grading" portion, as there's really no way of proving it.)

Have you ever seen a Mark VI with a neck that had a serial number on it? Horns with a serial number stamped into the neck are US-assembled, only. Some French-assembled horns do have a (partial) serial number etched into the inside of the neck, but only the US-assembled ones are stamped.

In any event, the serial number only made a brief appearance, and the serial numbers weren't on a consistent range of horns (like s/n 100xxx to 105xxx), so if your VI doesn't have a serial number on or in the neck, it doesn't mean that it's not original.

    European horns also seem to have:
  • Much more elaborate engraving, sometimes stretching onto the bow. Additional engraving was about a $50 option, so don't use this indicator as the end-all, be-all.
  • Sometimes NO engraving. This was a European fad for awhile and you'll see lots of other contemporary European horns that lack engraving. Again, I'm pretty sure you could order a horn from Selmer (USA) without engraving other than the Selmer stamp, so, again, this isn't your only indicator.
  • Two additional finish choices: lacquer body with nickel-plated keywork or (very rarely) lacquer body with silver-plated keywork.
  • A somewhat lighter colored lacquer and a lighter sound. The latter may just be due to how the horn is "set up" -- i.e. key height and pad/resonator choice.
  • Almost always an altissimo F# key. This was a $30 or so option, though, so don't use this indicator as the end-all, be-all.
  • The body-tube-to-bow segement unsoldered. In a sense, this is intentional, because of the Selmer-patented "Removabell" joint, but a couple of repair techs I browsed seem to indicate that the lack of solder causes problems with the D and lower.

5 Digit

Now, there's A LOT of "VI Lore" regarding serial numbers and how 5-digit serial numbered horns are THE BEST thing that's out there. This is an argument that is entirely unwinnable. Here's what folks generally say:

  • The length of the bow changed throughout the VI run, and the horns during a specific s/n range are the best.
  • The length and/or bore of the neck changed throughout the VI run, and the hornsduring a specific s/n range are the best.
  • The composition of the brass changed around s/n 150K, and got much "softer", making the tone more diffuse.
  • Averaging things out, the best overall horns were produced from around 80K to 90K and/or 105K to 140K: these horns had the best neck-to-bore and bore-to-bow ratio with the best brass composition.

(By the bye, no one really says anything about horns OTHER than the alto and tenor, so sopranino, soprano, bari and bass players are largely excluded from this conversation. In other words, we bari players can sit back and discuss the relative merits of low Bb vs. low A and not worry about the alto and tenor players :)

There does seem to be some evidence that the bow and neck dimensions did change somewhat during the VI run on the alto and tenor, but NO ONE I know has pulled out calipers and checked - not to mention that nobody's done a specific gravity/density/composition test on the brass. Additionally, when I see comments on the sound of the VI from a specific serial number range, I also see wonderfully vague terms and a bit of a sales pitch: "s/n 191K? The sound is less 'open' on those, making it more difficult to play jazz. Oooh. Bad mojo. Tell ya what: How 'bout knocking a grand off that price and I'll take it off your hands..."

I tend to think that it's a disservice to both owners and players to say that there's any one "magical serial number range" for the VI. As previously mentioned, Selmer played around with the design of ALL their horns and added patented designs almost as soon as the US/French patent office published 'em.

ALWAYS PLAYTEST BEFORE YOU BUY. I tend to think it's enough to say that a VI is one of the best horns ever produced. If you can buy one inexpensively, get it. If you have a choice of 15 from different serial number ranges, try 'em all and take the one that you feel sounds and plays the best.

In my very not-so-humble opinion, I prefer the VI's that have a "hook-and-eye" mechanism for the chromatic Bb/C and altissimo E/F vent. Others have a "ball bearing"-like mechanism that clicks - loudly - unless you use key oil regularly, but the lack of this feature wouldn't break a deal for me.

I haven't played hundreds of VI's, just about a dozen. I've liked them ALL, and some were in exceptionally bad condition. I also tend to think that if, say, the Balanced Action was more popular, I'd be talking about how horns with a 21K serial number are better than those with a 26K serial number.

That's just my opinion. I could be wrong.

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