Horns in my Life:
1968 Selmer Signet Tenor Sax
by Paul D. Race
In the early fall of 1968, in my junior year of high school, I was carrying my first (Elkhart) tenor saxophone out of the bandroom with a bell-grip football hold - the "approved way" to carry a curved saxophone - when another student slammed the door into me, snapping the neck off at the joint. By then the poor thing was pretty beat up - having lost most of its finish and needing several pads and at least one spring. Still, any repair person worth his or her salt could easily have resoldered the neck joint and replaced the worn pads and springs for 5-10% of the cost of a replacement horn. That was not to be.
At the big music store in Dayton, the one all the band directors recommended, the sales guy told my parents that the Elkhart was far too damaged to save (which I now know is a lie). Besides, I'd "outgrown it," meaning that if I'd stuck with saxophone this long, I probably deserved a better instrument. In years to come, I got to know most of the sales guys there, and heard the same pitch every time a used instrument came in, even if it only needed a few dollars worth of repair. "If you love your child, you will buy him/her a better instrument."
Then they would take the "write-off" in trade for a tenth of its value, sell an expensive upgrade, spend $30 fixing up the "write-off" instrument, hit the case with a vacuum and air freshener, then sell the repaired "write-off" as "reconditioned" for 2/3 of what the same horn would cost new. To keep my friends from being "taken" in this way, I have long told all of my friends and students to take their instrument repairs to stores that are run by talented and conscientious repairpersons. (Most decent repair people look at a damaged horn and think “Poor Baby.” Most salespeople look at a damaged horn and think “Cha-ching!” Imagine taking a sick pet to your vet only to hear, “You deserve a better pet than this. Let me put this one to sleep and sell you an upgrade.”)
But back in 1968, I was barely sixteen years old and no one in our family was wise in the ways of the music store world. The truth was that I didn't deserve a better horn. In the late 1960s, guitar was cool and saxophone was not - and every bit of practice time I put into guitar-playing was robbed from the saxophone (and Chemistry homework, but that’s another issue).
Frankly, my sax-playing was coasting on what I had accomplished in earlier years, when I had a regular practice regimen. Ironically, I still held "second chair" in the sax section, coming ahead of kids who were taking lessons. So I never felt like I was falling behind, but, the truth is, I never put much thought into getting better, either. My old Elkhart, as I learned later, was really made by Buescher using the same line and many of the same features as the classic Buescher “True Tones.” Had it been repaired and adjusted, I would have done well enough with it until the end of high school. Buying a new horn in the middle of marching band season was certainly less than optimum.
But the guy behind the counter was the “expert,” and we had no other place to go.
What a "Signet" Was Not
Back in 1968, most kids who upgraded their saxophones upgraded to Selmer Paris horns. We didn't call them Mark VI or whatever numeral was valid at the time, because only one model was available through the music store at any given time anyway. The Selmer Paris saxophones had a dark gold lacquer all over (not just on the body) and a distinctive octave mechanism on the neck that sported an engraved "S" worthy of Superman. So you could spot them a mile away (that was before the offbrands began copycatting everything). They had extra support (“ribs”) for the rods to protect intonation for the long term. Best of all, they played rich full tones as easy as slicing butter with a hot knife. True saxophone students lusted after the Selmer Paris more fervently than Ralphie lusted after a Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story.
The downside was that Selmer Paris saxophones also cost a lot of money. And I had an older sister in a private college that had discontinued her promised 100% support (in spite of excellent grades) because the school had decided its mission was to subsidize underqualified parochial school graduates instead of gifted students who had come up through the public school system (God forbid!).
What a Signet Was
For about 70% of the price of a Selmer Paris, you could get a Selmer Signet, a horn that nobody ever heard of (not unlike the Elkhart tenor I started out with). Now that I know the thing's lineage, I have more respect for it. Selmer had recently bought out Buescher, whose "intermediate" saxes were good enough to be used by a lot of pros. So, when Selmer bought Buescher in 1963, they began using tooling from the Buescher True-Tones and certain ergonomic features of the Aristocrat to make their student line (Bundy). And they used tooling from Buescher’s Aristocrat horns to make their "intermediate" line - the Signet. Now that I've compared Aristocrats and other Bueschers to my Signet, I see many similarities that I "should" have noticed sooner, including the low B and Bb pads on the left side of the bell and the shape of certain keys.
At this point I would say that for all intents and purposes, the first-generation Signer IS an Aristocrat - the Buescher pro horn that was first designed in the 1930s and tweaked several times before 1963. To put it into perspective, the first Aristocrats competed very well against the contemporary Conn Artist 6M & 10M (“Naked Lady”), Martin Handcraft Committee, King Zephyr, and first-generation Selmer Balanced Action.
Ten years later, I learned that with the right mouthpiece, a first-generation Signet in good shape could hold its own with just about anything out there. But at the time all I knew was that I was getting a new horn that cost more than a Les Paul or D-18 (the instruments I was really lusting after), and it wasn't even the same horn my friends had.
The poor Signet went through the rest of that marching band season. That winter, it served me well enough to keep second chair, beating out Selmer Paris-equipped kids who took lessons. It also took me into the school "jazz band" which met once in a while, but never really got off the ground. Regarding jazz, Dad got me some jazz solo books that I struggled with, and I made up some jazz tunes by myself, but there weren't many places to play or learn jazz after the "jazz band" was discontinued.
One of the assistant band directors complained about my sound in both marching and jazz band, but, again, he had no recommendations for fixing it, and I was certainly too ignorant to improve on my own. That said, the saxophone ensemble I was in won a 2 at state competition that year.
As a brief aside, the summer between my junior and senior year, classmate Tom Benner, who had been a closet jazz clarinetist for years, tried to start a swing band, using piles of charts he had inherited from family members in "the business." We only met two or three times, during which practices I showed more ignorance than prowess, for example, not really understanding how to convert the chord names over blank measures into listenable solos. When I heard Tom double on sax and hit notes WAY above the notes I knew about, I realized that there was a world of stuff I didn't know about the saxophone. But there was still nowhere to learn it. Tom, by the way, went on to have several music and music-related careers throughout his life.
In my senior year, after one more season of marching band abuse, the Signet helped me win a 2 in ensemble competition and a 1 in solo competition. During a student event later that year, three of us - a trumpet, tenor, an trombone, held a whole high school assembly captive for a rendition of Bill Moffat's "Joshua," which was a lot of fun. So, again, in spite of one assistant band director's justified, but nonspecific nagging, I was satisfied with how well I was doing.
Until I tried out for Wright State University's music program. When I was allowed into the program, there were two caveats - I had to get better fast on saxophone, and I had to get an alto, since tenor wasn't a "serious" instrument.
A Detour to Alto
So less than two years after buying me an upgrade Tenor I really didn't need or deserve, my parents had to buy me an alto. Once again, they opted for the Signet, and I took the thing home, Brillhart mouthpiece and all and tried to make the adjustment to a smaller horn.
It never happened. But during my stint as a music major, I made friends who had a band that played Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears-style music. Sudden tenor sax was cool again. After my freshman year at WSU, the alto Signet went to my sister, and the tenor Signet started coming out to play again.
The Signet Tenor Meets Rock and Roll
After a less-than stellar year as a music major, I didn't go back to college for two years. In the meantime, I went through several bands. The first looked promising, but it fell apart because of infighting just as we were starting to gig regularly and earn more than "pizza money." The next one ditched the brass section when the drum, bass, and guitar decided to move to California to get rich and famous (that didn't work out for them either). The next one went through several practices and broke up when the lead singer decided to hike Europe for a year. You get the idea. I don't include the names of ANY of those bands because they were all idiotic names that I had no input on and which - after this interval - require far more explanation than they're worth.
Attempting to make a living in a regional rock band may sound silly today, but this was before Karaoke and "night-club" DJs. Several Dayton area rock bands, many of whom were run by friends, were making decent living playing bars and school dances all over the region. We had friends in "Trudy and the Hopplestreet Exit," "Sunny Goode Streete," and "The Elders." "Green Lyte Sundae," which included friends of friends, had a national radio hit with a cover of "Chelsea Morning." And there was quite a bit of "cross-pollination" with Cincy - several of their working bands had a following in Dayton and vice versa. And the Dayton bands more or less owned the smaller cities to the north - Piqua, Tipp City, etc.
On top of that, there were dozens of other, now forgotten Dayton-area bands that survived and made at least some money for one or two years.
During this time, I learned the tenor parts to most Chicago songs as well as the sax solos and bass, keyboard, and guitar parts to many other songs. But I also learned some rudimentary improvisation - after all, taking extra instrumental solos was one way to stretch two hours worth of songs into a three-and-a-half-hour gig without resorting to the ubiquitous, generic "Blues in G." A few of my own compositions found their way into some of the bands' repertoire's as well, each minor, temporary success encouraging me to take bigger risks on a future in music, investing more money and time - many of you know the drill.
Where's the Brass?
But by 1972, most of the bands with big brass sections had started downsizing. BS&T was becoming less popular; Chicago started recording guitar-based ballads reminiscent of David Gates’ Bread. Besides, splitting gig money three or four ways is better than splitting it seven or eight ways.
I went from being a sax player who doubled on rhythm guitar, bass, or keyboard, to being a rhythm guitar player/BGV who doubled on keyboard and base, or some other combination that put sax fourth down on the list, if it was even on the list. During this time, I was ever learning, ever more flexible, ever hopeful that sooner or later I was going to stumble into or assemble the "right combination" that would stay together long enough to pay off the PA at least. But I kept hitting wall, after wall, after wall. Some of you know exactly what I mean.
Then my best friend from the most promising band got "saved" or "rededicated" (depending on your theology) at a youth outreach run by a charismatic Church of Christ youth leader. The band had already broken up, but the change affected me nonetheless.
A year later, after being invited to many Christian ("Jesus music" concerts) and spending hundreds of hours arguing with my newly evangelical old friends, I realized they were right and "took the plunge" myself.
Another Detour From Sax
After the dust settled, and I'd prayed about it, I began writing and singing Christ-centered songs in Christian settings. Coffeehouses, churches, festivals, street fairs, you name it. The "Jesus Music" of that time was mostly guitar-based, so the Signet stayed in its case for a few years.
During those days (mid-1970s) I re-enrolled at Wright State (an English major this time) and joined a church that had a very lively praise service every Sunday night. Electric guitars, bass, and drums backed up the more traditional piano and church organ, but was a lot of fun, and spiritually refreshing. Then the young people who played most of those instruments all went off to college or seminary, or the mission field at the same time, and Sunday night services became way more traditional - too traditional for my taste.
Isn't the Saxophone "The Devil's Instrument"?
One night as I was praying - bemoaning really - about the lack of energy in the service that I used to look forward to, I felt a "nudge." If there had been words, they have sounded something like, "Stop missing the people who've moved on and start replacing them." My guitar skills, such as they were, were suited for acoustic and rock styles, but hymns used way more complicated chord progressions. So one Sunday night, I brought my old Signet tenor, and started playing along with the organ and piano. At the time, most of my repertoire of improvisational styles was left over from my Rock and Roll days. So if you can imagine a boogie-woogie bass line being added to "This is the Day" and other choruses of the day, you have some idea.
At first, I received no feedback of any kind. For all I knew I was just embarrassing myself and the rest of the church. But a few weeks later, a trombonist joined me and took over the base lines. I started making up countermelodies like the ones I had played all those years ago in marching band. Soon a trumpet and a soprano sax joined in. For a while, our Sunday night worship services sounded more like a "Traditional Jazz" (Ragtime) revival than anything else. Then a drummer and bass player came "out of the woodwork," and a high-schooler started bringing his electric guitar. For the next seven years or so, our church had the "kickingest" Sunday night services of any in the community. Ralph, Ron, Tim, and the others who came and went - though our paths have since taken us far apart, I hope we get to jam together at the heavenly throne as we once jammed at the earthly altar.
That was where I really learned to improvise on sax. The din was loud enough that if I was unsure about something and played quietly, nobody could hear any mistakes. But I had developed the lung power to be heard all over the (800-seat) church if I wanted to. Unlike my early attempts at Jazz and Swing, I now had the music theory background to figure out, and to anticipate, 95% of the chord progressions.
On the other hand, I let my sight-reading skills slide, since there wasn't any music for what we were doing anyway. I would stand where I could see the organ player's left foot. She would always tap the bass note lightly as soon as the next song was announced, just to make sure she was ready to go. I would turn around and tell the rest of the band "Ab" or whatever the key was. And away we would go.
Music Store Blues
Sometime in that era, I worked at a music store for a year. All of those years that I had been an aspiring musician, I had always thought that if I worked in a music store, I could get all the gear I wanted wholesale. That part was true. What was also true was that I made so little money, it was all I could do to afford guitar strings, even at half price.
By then, the poor Signet's pads had seen better days. So I ordered everything I would need and repadded it myself. The result was not too bad, but I don't think I'd want to take that on again if I can help it.
I also got a chance to try out a Selmer C* (pronounced “see star”) mouthpiece on the horn. To me, the mouthpiece made it play and sound like an entirely different horn. I did "blind" sound checks with my coworkers, and they could all hear a substantial difference, as well. So it wasn't "just me." Turns out that the bore of the Signet isn't that different from the bore of those Selmer Paris horns I was envying all those years ago - the real difference in sound and "flow" had a lot to do with the mouthpiece as anything else.
All of which begs the question: why did Selmer package an instrument based on Buescher’s most popular professional horn with a $10 mouthpiece?
And another question, why didn't any of the band directors or saxophone tutors who criticized my sound suggest an upgrade?
However you figure it, it's a funny feeling to realize that you'd spent 10 years sounding like a duck on alto and nearly as bad on tenor when there was a single, simple fix. That said, finally being able to get a really nice sound out of the thing helped me learn to play with more expression, as well.
Moving On Again
Shelia and I moved to another, smaller church, in the early 1980s to take a youth ministry position. From that point on, I often led worship, using my guitar. I was lucky to get the Signet out more than a couple times a year. But even now, when I get a chance to play, especially if I have kept in any kind of practice, it all comes back. And the ability to make up suitable background parts and countermelodies on the fly skill overlaps into other instruments.
I still play whenever I can, which is usually 20 times or less a year. But it's something.
About Signet Saxophones
Thirty years after my Signet alto went back to my sister, I know quite a bit more about it than I did as a 20-year-old. I’m posting this for the benefit of folks who own or are considering owning one of these homes.
To my knowledge, there are two basic kinds of Signet saxophones - the Buescher-engineered version and the glorified Bundy II version.
As I learned later, the first generation of Selmer Signet saxophones came soon after Selmer acquired Buescher in 1963. The Buescher Elkhart student horns (based on the last versions of the Buescher True-Tone) were relabeled “Selmer Bundy.” The Buescher Aristocrat III was more-or-less relabeled “Selmer Signet.” (Sadly, the Buescher 400, whose engineering was foreshadowed in the short-lived Aristocrat IV, was discontinued forever. Selmer probably figured that the 400, which cost about as much to build as the Selmer Paris Super Balanced Action and Mark VI horns, would compete with those premium lines.)
To my knowledge, there are two basic kinds of Signet saxophones - the Buescher-engineered version and the glorified Bundy II version. Indicators that you have a Buescher-engineered Signet:
- S-shaped brace between the body and the bell
- Low B and Bb pads on the left side of the bell (as you’re playing the horn)
- Low B and Bb pads protected by heavy wire, not stamped sheet metal.
At the same time this line was being produced, Selmer was continuing to make the top-line Selmer (“Paris”) Mark VI, which incorporated all the best engineering and ergonomic features they could. The Signet filled a need for folks who had outgrown their Elkharts or Bundies or Conn “Shooting Star” Directors, but weren’t necessarily ready to spend the value of a small car on their next horn.
Then, in 1967, Yamaha began producing “student line” horns that included many of the ergonomic features of the Mark VI, Selmer’s top of the line French-manufactured horn, and which sounded good to boot (something Buescher, Selmer, and Conn could have accomplished by putting decent mouthpieces in with their student horns, but chose not to do.). No, a Yamaha student horn wasn’t exactly a Mark VI clone, but it was more playable and had better tone that the US-made student horns. Other contemporary student saxes followed suit, using the Mark VI as a baseline.
There was a growing sense in the school band community that the import companies had made an “end run” around Selmer’s starter horns. Faced with the possibility of losing the Bundy’s overwhelming dominance of the student market, woodwind designer and technician Ralph Morgan made several improvements to the Bundy. These mostly involved playability, such as angling the pinky keys to be easier to play, moving the button keys to allow a more natural hand position, etc. Other improvements like stronger posts and a heavier octave key mechanism provided increased durability. That improvement also kept the intonation more consistent as the horns aged. Many folks believe that the tone improved as well.
The Bundy II was a success at first. But Yamaha’s horns kept getting better, and other players entered the market, and they gradually lost traction. Today the “brand bigots” snicker when the name comes up, but I know lots of folks who’ve taken the time to put a C* or something on a Bundy I or II and been surprised at how well they play and how good they sound.
Selmer eventually gave the Bundy II lines other names, since the original Bundies had fallen into disfavor and the name “Bundy” was dragging the new and improved line down with it. But the Bundy II and its successors went a long way toward closing the gap between Selmer’s student-line and professional horns. (In fact, a properly-reconditioned Bundy II will outplay and outlast any of the $300-1100 Chinese horns flooding the internet today.)
What does this have to do with the Signet saxophones? Now that the Bundy engineering had improved, there was no reason to continue the Buesher-designed “intermediate” Signet line. (As a parallel, you might remember that when Chevy was forced to upgrade to be more competitive with the Camry, there was no room left in GM’s stable for the Oldsmobile line.) For a time, the Signet line continued in name only - later Signet saxes were essentially upgraded Bundy IIs with better quality control and a different finish.
Signs that you have a Morgan-engineered (Bundy II-based) Signet:
- The brace between the bell and the body is not shaped like an S.
- The low B and Bb keys are on the right side of the bell (as you’re playing the horn).
- The right pinky keys are tilted for easier playing.
- The low B and Bb keys are protected by a stamped sheet brass guard (like the Selmer Mark VI) instead of heavy wires.
Either Signet, if it hasn’t been abused, will play great with practice and the right mouthpiece. I prefer the first-generation version, maybe because I “cut my teeth” on Buescher-designed horns. But I recently got my hands and one of my Selmer C* mouthpieces on an early-1980s Bundy II that had been set up properly and was very pleased with the tone and intonation I could get out of it. (I’m guessing that 90% of the people who “diss” this horn have never tried it with a real mouthpiece.) So I would not rule out a Morgan-engineered Signet that can be restored to playability.
What I learned from the Signet Tenor
This was the horn I learned to play rock and roll on, to improvise on, and to lead a "horn section" on. In addition, improvising my own countermelodies all those years gave me a lot of insight into arranging in general. The downside is that I get frustrated with boring arrangements, such as the sort of thing where the only things happening for eight measures or more are chord changes.
I also learned not to underestimate any horn or any player. The difference between "struggling" and "succeeding" might be more simple than you'd imagine.
Finally, when I get a new (to me) saxophone, the first thing I do is to try out better mouthpieces with it, so I don't get stuck with another $12 mouthpieces holding me back.
If you have or had a sixties or early-seventies Signet Tenor sax and want to add anything or tell your own story, please get in touch - I'll be very glad to hear from you.
Enjoy your music!
Here are write-ups on other horns I’ve loved.
The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.
Other Articles you may find helpful include:
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