School of The Rock


Horns in my Life:

1970s Selmer Mark VII Alto

by Paul D. Race Selmer Mark VI Alto

I’m not going to say much about this one, except that one belonged to me at one time. Most of the other horns I’ve listed are student model or intermediate horns, and there are certain folks who judge your value as a sax player based entirely on the brand of horn you brought to your most recent gig. Or who list the horns they own as a kind of “credential” to validate their playing, as though spending the value of a good used car on a horn automatically makes you a better player. 

Did I sound better on this horn the few times I played it?  Of course.  Was I a better sax player when I played it?  Of course not.  In fact I “cut my (improvisational) teeth” on an intermediate horn - a Buescher-designed Selmer Signet tenor that still sounds great and meets most of my gigging needs.  But I did think it was worth explaining to critics that, while I know what a difference a pro horn can make to your sound, I also know that you can learn to play, and play well on any well-made, playable horn with decent intonation.  (Yes that still rules out a lot of horns.)

That said, I will also attest that everything you’ve heard about Selmer Paris saxophones is true. Blowing is as natural as breathing.  Intonation is fantastic.  Getting a great tone that makes strong men weep is like slicing butter with a hot knife. 

The Mark VII was an update from the Mark VI, which was an upgrade from the Balanced Action (BA) and Super Blanced Action (SBA), earlier Selmer attempts to redesign the sax for easier play, more consistent tone, and better durability. One of the most obvious updates is that the low B and Bb pads were moved to the right side of the bell (from the player’s perspective).  This, in turn made the left pinky keys easier to push. Other features made the instrument  more sturdy.  For example, most of the posts are not mounted to the body directly - they’re mounted to brass plates (“ribs”) that are then mounted to the horn.  The extra support helps keep the posts from being jarred out of line.  That’s one reason intonation on a 50-year-old Selmer top-of-the-line sax is often as good as new. 

Note About Mark VII Haters: Folks who thought the Mark VI was the best possible saxophone ever were appalled when the Mark VII came out.  Though they complain loudly about tone differences, there are just as many differences in tone between on Mark VI and another as there are between the Mark VI as a class and the Mark VII as a class - and even those are usually the kind of thing you could “fix” with a change of mouthpiece or even embouchure.  The most measurable changes related to key placement.  Folks with small hands or used to Mark VI placement complained that it was harder to reach certain keys. 

Frankly, compared to any other saxophone ever made, the Mark VII was still a very well-designed, playable horn, with all of the musical qualities and possibilities as the Mark VI.  It just wasn’t a Mark VI.  Neither were its successors, the 80 Series I, II, and III.  The Reference 54 reincorporates some of the Mark VI characteristics that people whined about losing when the Mark VII came out, and hopefully will steal back some of Selmer’s market share from companies that have been making better copies of the Mark VI than Selmer has.

Let me just say this:  Every Selmer Paris saxophone made since the Balanced Action was the best model of saxophone you could buy anywhere from anybody that year   (at least until Yanagisawa really got up to speed in the last several years, then you could say “was arguably the best model. . . . “).

In fact, there are many individual Mark VIIs, and Series I, II, and III that sound better than individual Mark VIs (even some of the coveted “5-digit” horns).     

Note about Mark VI Imitaters: When Japanese companies like Yamaha started making saxophones in 1967, they copied all the Mark VII ergonomic features that they could without increasing their costs, plus they introduced some improvements of their own. Eventually Selmer had to follow suit on their student horns, which is why the Bundy II looks a lot more like the Mark VI than the original Bundy (based on Buescher True-Tone designs) ever did.

Nowadays, Yanagisawa makes Selmer copies that are arguably as good as the originals.  At the high end they cost as much as the Series III and Reference models that Selmer is still making.  As much as I respect the Mark VIs (and the BAs, SBAs, and Mark VIIs) for what they were, and what some of them still ar, if I needed a state-of-the-art horn right now and money was no object, I probably wouldn’t spend too much time sorting through overpriced half-century-old relics with questionable history and condition.  Unless a no-brainer came across my path,  I’d probably try out a Selmer 80 Series III, a Selmer Reference 54, a comparable Yanagisawa or two, and decide among them.

On the other hand, if any of the horns mentioned in this article comes across my path for a price that I can justify paying, I won’t lay awake nights worrying about which horn has the best G# location or whatever. 

Enjoy your music!

Paul Race

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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