I've recently been looking for an upgrade for my tenor, which I've put up for sale here. My horn plays brighter than the sound I'm going for, so the search was initiated. The first phase of the search was to determine what kind of tenor I was going to end up on, so I played a number of different makes and models. I played a couple Conn 10Ms, a couple Kings, some modern horns such as the Rampone, Viking, Yamaha's Custum Z and EX, Buffet, and Yanigasawa, some less common vintage horns like the Dolnet, Kohlert, and SML, and various of Selmer's models like the Super, Balanced Action, Super Balanced Action, Mark VI, Mark VII, the Reference horns, and the Series III. Every horn on the list here has it's merits but ultimately a couple of the Mark VIs I played had the most draw for me.
Since starting my search for a Mark VI I have now played 17 Mark VIs including my own in just the past few weeks. The reason why I'm blogging is that out of all of those Mark VIs only a few have really been fantastic. It was actually a little off putting to play so many horns and have so many play just OK. After a while I began noticing some definite patterns, and I wanted to share them because they can be helpful to others searching for a VI. Following is a laundry list in no particular order of some of the patterns I've found. Some of these I had heard hearsay of, but hadn't played enough horns to prove true or false for myself. Others were complete surprises to me.
- Mark VI's tend to play darker in earlier vintages and brighter in late vintages. I found that I enjoy the various timbres of the VI throughout it's years of manufacture, however I find the late Mark VI's (maybe starting around the 200xxx) sound to be too bright or thin for me to enjoy. There are definite exceptions to these trends (see the third bullet point), but I did find this to generally be true.
- VI's tend be more free blowing or have less resistance/back pressure in earlier vintages and have more resistance/back pressure in later vintages. Again, there are exceptions to this this trend (see next bullet point).
- Structural damage to the neck like pull downs or patches can lower the resistance or back pressure of a horn, and they can also affect the timbre of a horn. Horns with neck repairs are less predictable in terms of both timbre and resistance.
- A well regulated and well set up horn makes a big difference. Some of the horns I tried out I was unable to make a great evaluation of because the key heights were set up badly or the pads were leaking badly. I knew I couldn't afford the price tag of a horn and an overhaul though. A well cared for horn will give a much clearer indication of it's full potential than a horn that hasn't been kept up.
- Relacquered saxes generally play thinner than their original lacquer counterparts. The relacquered horns tend to have diminished tone color in some aspect or other (not always predictable). That absence can often be heard and usually felt in the vibrational feed back of the air column while playing.
- Lacquer does seem to have some effect on the horn's tone, most likely the small added weight on the neck. You can experiment with this by yourself just by adding a small bit of electrical tape to the part of the neck just past the cork. You'll hear a noticeable difference.
- Structural damage (ex. out of round body tubes, body tubes that aren't completely straight) can result in a less responsive horn. By less responsive I mean the sound can be muddied. For example the beginning of each note isn't as clear or distinct as it could be.
All of this being said, the two best VIs I've played both prove and disprove my observations. The best horn I've played was a 110xxx with nearly all of it's original lacquer with no structural damage. The other fantastic horn I played was a 106xxx which belongs to Dave Wilson, which had only some of it's original lacquer, and had some repairs. The 110xxx was for sale, but unfortunately was out of my price range. You can find it here on USA Horn's website.
Moral of the story? You very well might have to try a number of saxophones before you find what really suits you. Though there are exceptions, you'll have a good shot at the best of the best with something that hasn't suffered major repairs or a relacquer. Good luck!