This post comes from guest contributor, Tim Hecker. Feel free to leave a comment below.
The Selmer Mark VI- regarded by many as the finest saxophone ever made and shrouded in so many legends the truth is nigh impossible to uncover, represents for me the harbinger of one of the saxophone’s darkest eras in terms of design and construction. Merely stating that you think this legendary horn is enough to garner funny looks from fellow musicians, but today I will go into detail as to why I find the Mark VI to be so distasteful.
Walk into any music store today, and you’ll be bombarded with marketing for dozens of different brands of saxophones- Yamaha, Yanagisawa, P. Mauriat, Jupiter, Eastman and of course Selmer- amongst others. What is it that all of these saxophones have in common? They are all carbon copies of the Selmer Mark VI, some given fancy feature names and styling elements to disguise their common heritage. Does this mean that these saxophones are all junk? Of course not! I play Cannonball saxophones as my primary instruments, and I have enjoyed many Yanagisawa and Mauriat horns as well. What, then, is my big complaint? My issue is that the constant pandering to the mythic design of the Mark VI has eliminated the design competition that made our instrument great.
So what does that mean? Well, around the 1920s the saxophone burst into popularity in a frenzy of scandal and novelty music, accompanied by jazz and various orchestral attempts that were not as successful. From the 20s then through around the 70s, brand competition was fierce. From Conn and Selmer to Buescher and even oddball brands like Couesnon, new design features were going gangbusters. Beveled or rolled or drawn tone holes, proprietary register key systems, assorted key layout for different ergonomics- all of these made it matter what you chose to play and offered comfortable options for people who didn’t like certain features. With the Mark VI revered as being the end all and be all of saxophones, we are in a dry spell for innovations. This, however, is only one of my complaints.
Let’s talk about the Mark VI itself. Legendary though it may be, this horn is not immune to quality control issues and lemons. Mark VI’s have a reputation for being fairly inconsistent- I often hear guys discussing ‘good’ serial number ranges, debating whether the engraving affects the quality of the horn (I’ve heard it said that the horns were disassembled to be engraved and that unengraved horns are more desirable.) Having played a few, the inconsistency jumped out at me the most. I’ve played a perfect example of a Selmer Mark VI, and a terrible one. Neither horn had flawless intonation. Neither horn felt especially good to me- in fact, I think Conn’s pinky table cluster felt faster and better, all things considered. Again, I feel the need to stress that no horn is immune to issues such as these- I merely intend to contest the fact that the Mark VI is a god amongst saxophones.
The Mark VI is just a horn. Every horn is really, just a horn. Some are built better than others, yes- but in elevating the Mark VI to a divine pedestal, we have lost sight of the fact that it did us a great disservice in killing off a lot of the diversity that made vintage saxes special- after all, good or bad it’s just another horn.