Without a doubt, the most famous and sort after saxophone around the world is the Selmer Mark VI. But why?
Over the last 20 years, prices for Mark VI alto and tenor saxes have climbed to as high as [$16,000 USD]. Whole websites and blogs are dedicated to listing the ultimate serial number range for the “perfect” Mark VI and collectors seek out horns from lofts and under beds around all corners of the globe.
How did this one model saxophone become such an object of desire and is there any truth to the myth?
Where the story began
The Mark VI was first produced by the Selmer company in 1954. It was the sixth new model to come from the factory since they began making saxophones in 1922 and boasted a bunch of new design features.
Although the Selmer designs had been improving, from the release of the revolutionary Balanced Action model in 1936 through to the Super Balanced Action horn, the Mark VI brought the best combination yet of key work, tone and intonation.
In fact, some would argue that the Mark VI was the ‘perfect storm’ of design improvements, and the new key designs from the Mark VI are still the benchmark for most new horns these days.
Selmer produced the Mark VI until 1974, making thousands of instruments during the twenty year run. During this time there were many slight improvements made and, as each instrument was built by hand, there were slight variations from one horn to the next.
In 1974 the last alto and tenor Mark VI horns rolled off the production line, and Selmer launched the new Mark VII. Although it took 3 years to develop the new model and it included changes to the octave mechanism, spatula keys, neck and bell, the Mark VII never received the same welcome as the Mark VI and is generally considered as less desirable.
The Mark VI was used by many of the great players who came up through the 1950s, like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. Of course, these players were buying a new “modern” horn at the time, without knowing the myth that would surround the instrument in years to come.
“Players were changing to the Mark VI because the feel of the keywork and the intonation was so much better,” says legendary repair man Emilio Lyons, who has rebuilt horns for players like Stan Getz and Phil Woods.
As these players inspired the generations that followed, the Mark VI became part of the legend that needed to be replicated, along with the mouthpiece (and sometimes lifestyle!) Even from the 1970s, players like David Sanborn and Michael Brecker were huge advocates of the Mark VI and that continues today.
Undoubtedly the Mark VI is a very good horn and was significant when it first came out. And, today for many players the Mark VI is the only choice if you are a ‘serious’ sax player.
However, over the years many myths have been perpetuated by players about the Mark VI ranging from the ‘perfect serial number list’ to the bodies being made from recycled WWII artillery shells. Many even wholeheartedly attest to the fact that a Mark VI is a better sound than any other horn although many blind tests have proved otherwise.
Either way, as the horns have become more sought after, the prices have increased dramatically making the Mark VI not only an object of desire, but also a status symbol for many.
But does the myth of the Mark VI have any scientific grounding?
Steve Crow has personally owned several Mark VI saxes and has rebuilt hundreds as one of the top repairers in England. “Personally I first fell in love with the look and the romance of the Mark VI,” Steve explains. “Thinking about where a beautiful old horn like a Mark VI has been brings it to life for me - even the smell when you open the case is great”.
Although in comparison to modern horns, the Mark VI does take some getting used to, for many it’s the feel when playing one that is most important. “I’ve always felt the Mark VI has a certain ‘resonance’ when I play,” says Steve. “That feedback through the horn is so important to inspire you as a player - it’s one of the strengths of the Mark VI in my opinion”.
Whether there is any scientific reason for why the Mark VI may be more ‘resonant’ than newer horns is still up for debate. There were, however, clear design differences between the Mark VI and Mark VII saxophones that have a real quantifiable difference in sound and feel.
Although the Mark VI and the Mark VII share the same body tube dimensions, the neck and bell differ in size and shape. “Whereas changing the saxophone neck doesn’t affect the sound to the audience, it does have a big impact on the ‘feel’ of the horn to the player,” says Steve. “Changing the bell though, does make a big impact on the projection and warmth of the sound”.
Another consideration is the fact that the Mark VI bells were hand drawn using a different process to modern horns. This gave each horn an individual characteristic unlike the consistency you get from horns manufactured with modern techniques.
Living with a Mark VI : John Helliwell - Supertramp
I bought my first Mark VI tenor brand new in 1964 and used it right through till 1997, when I replaced it with a (new) one from 1960! I love my Mark VI tenors. The sound has a great focus and the horn really takes whatever I give it. I’ve used horns constantly on tour with Supertramp and besides the usual maintenance, both have been great reliable instruments. Actually I ended up selling my original VI to Laurent Hunziker in France who performs with “The Logical Tramps” - a tribute band. So that horn is also still being used to perform Supertramp tunes!
Of course choosing a 40-60 year old sax as your ‘daily player’ has it’s own challenges. It’s a bit like using a classic car as your daily commuter. You need to expect more maintenance unless your horn has a complete overhaul and rebuild by a good repairer.
Understandably many horns of this age have had a lot of use, and this can affect not only pads and corks, but alignment of the body, and wear on the keywork. Even the main body tube itself can be bent over years of playing. The good news is that everything can be put right on a quality horn like a Mark VI.
“Although it is a popular myth that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Mark VI horns, it really just depends on how well the horn is repaired,” says Emilio Lyons. “Because the Mark VI was built so solidly, a good repairer can bring any horn back to perfect playing condition that will last another 50 years,” he says.
However at the prices that Mark VI horns fetch these days, you could argue that it’s a risky venture taking one out on tour with you. Many London players these days prefer to use a newer horn on shows or tours and leave their precious Mark VI in the practice room.
Is it for you?
Unfortunately one of the main hurdles to overcome when buying a Mark VI these days is the price. With so many great quality new instruments on the market these days, prices for new horns are quite competitive. Often you will pay more for a good condition Mark VI than a brand new instrument.
However, buying a Mark VI is an investment unlike most other saxes, and a well looked after horn will appreciate over time.
For some people the authenticity of the original lacquer is an important factor. Many collectors will only look for horns with as much original lacquer as possible and reject horns that have had the lacquer ‘stripped’ or have been replated.
However, from a player's perspective it should be all about the sound, explains Emilio. “I’ve gold plated Mark VI saxes for Ray Charles and Stan Getz and they loved the horns - they played perfectly,” he says. “If a horn is replated properly, then it doesn’t affect the sound at all”.
Owning a Mark VI saxophone is like owning a part of musical legend. And, it’s a great instrument to play and enjoy, regardless of whether you appreciate the history of great players who have used these horns, the sound and playability, or just the sheer beauty of the instrument.
Regardless of whether you buy into the myths of the Mark VI, it is a beautiful instrument and a part of musical history that will hopefully stay with us for years to come.
Emilio Lyons: http://www.emiliolyons.com
Steve Crow: www.stevecrow.co.uk
The Saxophone Corner blog: http://felixssaxophonecorner.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/the-mark-vi-mystique-myths-and-facts.html
Selmer France: http://www.selmer.fr