Horns in my Life:
1970 Selmer Signet Alto Sax
by Paul D. Race
By the time I tried out for Wright State University's music program, I had owned an Elkhart tenor sax, which I beat to death, and a Selmer Signet tenor sax, which had survived two marching band seasons and still played well enough to win a 1 at a state contest.
Because Miamisburg High School made you choose between choir and band, I had never sung in a choir, nor could I play piano or sight-sing with solfege - two skills all the other applicants seemed to have. But I had picked up a lot of general information about music by playing sax and (more recently) guitar. Besides, the program was only about a year old, and they were apparently willing to scrape the bottom of the barrel. 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.
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. At the time my sister, who owned a Conn Director “Shooting Star” alto, was playing the school's baritone sax in the band. I think, though neither my sister nor I remember clearly that, since she wasn't playing the Conn, my folks "traded it in" in for the alto sax they bought me. Once again, they opted for a Signet. I took the thing home, $15 Brillhart mouthpiece and all, and tried to make the adjustment to a smaller horn.
It never happened.
Music is Work
I learned quickly that music majors spend 22-25 hours a week in class, which in any other discipline would give you 22-25 hours of college credit per term. But class piano, sight-singing, choir, and band only counted for one hour of credit, even though they each take up three or four hours of every week. So you're only - technically - in a 15 or 16-hour program. As a student who had mostly coasted through high school, I was not prepared for the amount of discipline such a program would require.
Plus there were logistic issues. In 1970, Wright State University had four buildings around a grass-covered "quad," and a new dorm that held about 350 students. Period. The music program was so new that the professors weren't given offices on campus. Instead the offices and practice rooms were in an old farm house over a mile away "as the crow flies." To take their music lessons, students with cars had a 2-3-minute drive across the campus. Students without cars had to schlep their horns for a twenty-minute walk through the woods, rain or shine.
I did not miss any lessons, but I didn't carry my alto to the "music building" every day for practice like I should have.
Useful Instruction Needed
My sax professor, a woodwind man himself, was surprised that I didn't have better tone, intonation, or expression. "You should be better than this by now." He would say. But that's all he would say. I realized that I sounded like a duck half of the time and there was "something missing." But he didn't seem to know how to help me. Week after week I would deliver a technically perfect, but less-than-inspiring recital of that week's assignments. And week after week he would shake his head and say "You should be better than this by now."
By the way, the same fellow was also my music theory instructor. So it's not surprising that, week after week, he would play each student's assignments on the piano, then tell most of them, "You should be better than this by now," with no remedial instruction. One week he was out, and the other theory instructor took over his classes. I learned more from Dr. Poff in a week than I learned from the other fellow in the whole term. But maybe he was having a bad year. I know I was, scholastically, at least.
It was the Best of Times; It was the Worst of Times
Truth be known, and unhelpful "teaching" aside, I never really made the adjustment to alto. I could play the notes, but I couldn't "feel the music" if that makes any sense. And that was nobody's fault but mine. I should have made time to practice. I couldn't practice in the dorm without bringing down the wrath of other students, but I could have found some place to practice.
And to be even more honest, my studies in general began suffering. My high school had been a "cliquey," stratified place where I had few friends. In WSU's dorms and music program, I made lots of friends who - not knowing me during my high school days - had no idea I was a "band dork" to be shunned or ridiculed for the amusement of one clique or another. Unfortunately, many of my new friends were more interested in partying than studying, and it didn't take me long to fall into bad habits.
One set of friends, who were actually decent students, had a rock band that played Blood, Sweat, & Tears and Chicago-style songs. At some point the band's leader, Mark Magee, asked me if I could play tenor, and I said yes. So I brought my tenor to campus, then jammed with Mark and a couple other band members the next time they were on campus. Suddenly sax was cool again. Just not alto sax.
The March of my freshman year, I came down with severe bronchitus and missed about two weeks of classes. I kept all the symptoms of a bad cold until the end of the quarter, coughing through all of my classes, barely sleeping, etc. I probably wouldn't have got the cold if I hadn't already been "pushing it" sleepwise and hanging with chain-smokers (and smokers of other substances). But I was a little behind in most of my classes already, and the cold was the "tipping point." I left WSU with two incompletes (that I later made up) and a warning from my sax teacher to get some serious practice in before next fall.
As an aside, for the next twenty-some years of my life, I would come down with a long, debilitating cold every spring. Then my workplace became truly non-smoking, and I never had that problem again. Not to imply a cause-and-effect relationship or anything.
Back to Tenor
Back to 1971, by the time my freshman year was completed, I was a member of a promising, frequently working, local rock band, and I didn't see as much value in returning to school that fall as my parents did.
The Signet alto went to my sister, replacing her student Conn. I think she played it in her senior year of high school. I went back to college later, but as an English major, and I never played that horn again. I did find many other uses for my Signet tenor, and for other saxes I've owned since, as the other articles in this section describe.
Years later, my sister and her husband went through a tough financial year, and she sold it for a decent price. She offered it back to me for the amount she was going to get locally, but I didn't have the money, the need, or the space for it.
So, somewhere in the mid 1980s, a saxophone student in the greater Detroit area acquired a like-new Signet alto saxophone for about the cost of a new student-line horn. I hope he or she had a teacher who knew enough to replace the cheapie Brillhart mouthpiece that made the thing sound like a duck call the whole time I owned it. Because, now I know that it was a heckuva horn that deserved a better mouthpiece, and, frankly, a better first owner.
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 Buescher True-Tone with Aristocraft ergonomic updates) 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 horn, would compete with those premium lines.)
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, the Signet filled a need for folks who had outgrown their Bundies (or Conn Directors), but weren’t necessarily ready to spend the value of a small car on a Selmer Paris (Mark VI or VII).
By the late 1960s, Yamaha was producing “student line” horns that included a similar bore and many of the ergonomic features of the Mark VI. No, a Yamaha wasn’t a Mark VI clone, but it was more playable and had clearer tone than other student horns on the market.
There was a growing sense in the school band community that Yamaha 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. These mostly involved ergonomic improvements borrowed from Selmer’s pro horns, 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. To some extent those improvements also kept the intonation more consistent as the horns aged. Many folks believe that the tone improved as well.
The Bundy II was a huge success, and the only reason that most Bundy IIs you come across are unplayable is that most of them were abused and neglected by their student owners. I still am not a huge fan of the Bundy II, but they definitely closed the gap between Selmer’s student-line and professional horns.
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. 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. Personally, I prefer the Buescher-engineered Signets, but that is my opinion only.
Signs that you have a Morgan-engineered (Bundy II-based) Signet:
- The brace between the body and bell is a circle, not an S shape.
- The low B and Bb pads are on the right side of the bell.
- Low B and Bb pads are protected by stamped sheet metal.
Eventually, it became obvious that the Signets were redundant. There just wasn’t as big a tone and playability gap between the student and pro line as there had been. So the Signet line was discontinued.
I recently got my hands and one of my Selmer C* mouthpieces on an early-1980s Bundy II that had been set up properly. I 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 or its Signet equivalent 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 Alto
Despite my less-than encouraging lessons, I really did hone my sight-reading and fingering chops the year I played it.
A few years later, after I'd learned how to improvise on tenor, someone handed me a Selmer Mark IV alto at a jam session and I had no trouble "owning" the horn, for an hour, that is. So I do regret that I didn't really connect with the alto back in 1970-71. I have been doubling on alto a lot recently, and wish I had given my old Buescher-engineered Signet the attention it deserved.
If you have or had a late-sixties or early-seventies Signet Alto 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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