History of selmer alto saxophones

Written by steven knight, ascap
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History of selmer alto saxophones
(Bell of a Selmer Mark VI Alto Saxophone, Public Domain)

Since the creation of the Series 22 in 1921, Henri Selmer Paris has been one of the world's finest manufacturers of professional-level saxophones. Saxophones represent more than half of Selmer's manufacturing output. Musicians who have performed on Selmer saxophones include John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Rickey Ford, Ron Blake and Stan Getz.

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The Beginning

The first Selmer Paris saxophone, a Series 22 alto, was created on December 31, 1921 at the peak of the saxophone craze in the United States. The instrument features one of Henri Lefvre's new manufacturing techniques. Tone holes were drawn, instead of welded on the instrument, to eliminate leaks. The Series 22 is replaced by the Model 22, which included an entire family of saxophones including the C melody tenor saxophone which was especially popular with jazz musicians. Francois Combell, a Republican Guard saxophonist, becomes one of Selmer's testers. The factory produces 30 instruments per month during 1922. In 1926, Selmer introduced the Model 26, featuring an engraved new logo and "wishbone" shaped neck key. This was followed by 1929's Model 28, featuring a larger bore. Adolphe Sax & Co. was acquired in 1929, adding the saxophone inventor's Paris workshops under the Selmer banner.

Improvements of the 30s and 40s

Selmer continued to improve its saxophone offerings in the 1930s with the "Super Sax Selmer" series. "The "Cigar Cutter" model, called such because of the octave key's shape, was released in 1930 with a solid nickel silver neck and V-shaped guard. With the popularity of radio and recordings came the "Radio-improved" model in 1934. In 1936, the large-bore, large-belled "balanced-action" model was introduced, becoming the example of future saxophone manufacturing with its redesigned, ergonomic keys. Two models, a short or long bell, were offered. Most musicians preferred the easier-blowing short bell, but the lower range of the instrument played slightly high. Selmer was able to compete with American saxophone manufacturers, capturing a share of the American market with this model. Improvements to the keywork system increasing player comfort were features of the "super balanced" saxophone, introduced in 1947.

The Mark VI

The year 1954 would turn out to be a turning point for Selmer Paris. The Mark VI, considered by some as the company's greatest saxophone, marked a return to a smaller bore instrument. Produced for more than 20 years, it featured a redesigned octave key and plastic thumb rests. Its flexibility, projection and superior tone quality proved popular with saxophonists worldwide. The harmonic key was offered for the first time, and a limited production of instruments with a low A key were produced. Some saxophonists to this day disagree with the company's 1973 decision to discontinue production. "It was time for the instrument to evolve," said Selmer Paris on its website. "Even if this model is thought of today as a great collectors item, it had its imperfections and was in need of changes." The company said the entrance of Japanese manufacturers to the market influenced its decision.

The Mark VII and beyond

Selmer Paris continued developing improvements for its saxophones, releasing the Mark VII in 1974. On the advice of French Republican Guard saxophonist Michael Nouaux, the keywork and octave key systems were redesigned, and only alto and tenor models were commercially produced. The 1980s would see the start of a new era of Selmer Paris saxophones; the Super Action 80 series. Selmer released the first of the series in 1981, attempting to match the keywork of the Mark VI with the acoustics of the Mark VII. Further improvements were made to the Super Action 80 Series II, introduced in 1986. The Super Action 80 III soprano, alto and tenor saxophones would be released in the 1990s. The 500,000th Selmer saxophone, a Super Action 80 Series II alto, was manufactured on July 19, 1993 at the Paris-based workshop. Selmer recreates the best of the old with 21st century manufacturing techniques with the "Reference" series. The 34 tenor, inspired by the "balanced action" series and the 54 tenor, inspired by the Mark VI, were released in 2001. The alto, with its keywork and acoustics reminiscent of the Mark VI, was released in 2003.

Conn-Selmer

Henri Selmer Paris saxophones are distributed in the United States and Canada by Indiana-based Conn-Selmer, Inc. Although Selmer USA manufactures its own line of student-quality saxophones, it is a separate division of the company. Conn-Selmer, Inc. is a subsidiary of Steinway Music Instruments, Inc.

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