Hunting Down That Elusive, Perfect, Mark VI

Selmer Mark VI Alto Saxophone

Alto 67xxx Source:

A conversation I was involved with in SOTW got me thinking. Why is that vintage saxophone prices have fallen through the floor, yet Mark VI prices have held steady, and in some cases have continued to increase?

The knee-jerk answer that quickly gets thrown out is that collectors drive up the prices, but I’m not so sure about that. A quick glance through the completed eBay sales shows that the Mark VI saxes that have actually sold, were not in mint condition. They had been played, and many of them had been played a lot. Many were not in the kind of condition that one would think a collector would be interested in. But who knows, perhaps collectors do buy them?

I just can’t see sax players coughing up more than $5,000 for a 5-digit alto, or more than $8,000 for a tenor. Or maybe they are? I know I wouldn’t be. But then I don’t get this whole obsession with serial numbers anyway.

We know the Mark VI design changed slightly over the course of their 20+ year production run. For example, according to tech Steve Sklar, neck openings, neck bore, and neck rings were fiddled with on the altos.

However, I have played many of my friends’ and colleagues 5-digit horns. These horns may have felt different under my fingers, and may have sounded a bit different to start, but within a few hours of playing, they sounded just like me playing on my 6-digit Selmers. I certainly couldn’t tell the difference, nor could the other sax players in the room.

Why is that? That’s likely because the further we get away from the source of our tone—our chest cavities—the less tinkering with gear is going to have an effect on said tone. This goes back to an article I wrote a while ago.

Changing your horn is the least effective way of changing your sound. If you really want to change your sound, you have to start with what’s closest.

I always work with my students to ensure that the fundamentals of a good saxophone sound are established, before going on to the next phase of chasing down a different tone. If a person already has a great mouthpiece, reed, and horn set-up, but still has an inadequate sound, then the culprit is likely breathing. (Providing of course that the horn and the accessories are in good condition.)

If, on the other hand, a person wants a particular type of sound—say darker or brighter—then trying different reed, mouthpiece, and ligature combinations might be in order. Another option to consider is a replacement neck.

I use 2 necks on my Mark VI tenor. The original neck sounds like a Mark VI should. The Unison Master Piece neck brightens the horn greatly, and gives it a modern, edgy sound, when combined with my current resos.

So what does this all have to do with Mark VI prices you ask? Well, I personally believe that those people who are digging deep into their wallets and shelling out boat loads of cash for these 5-digit horns are over paying. They are paying for the chance to play the same horn, within the same serial number range, that their favourite saxophone player played. Somehow they have come to the conclusion that if the buy horn XXXXX, they will sound or play like brand name player Y from the past.

Selmer Mark VI Tenor Saxophone

Mark VI Tenor Serial #: 57XXX Source:

We all have a deep-seated desire to emulate our heroes, but buying a sax that is just a few serial numbers away from theirs is the least effective way to do so. If you don’t believe me, think of Charlie Parker playing the Grafton. He still sounded like Charlie Parker. Parker also played a different horn regularly—since he was in the habit of pawning his horns. Despite this, he still sounded like Charlie Parker.

If a player wants to buy a Mark VI, I think that’s great idea. They’re great horns… Just don’t let the serial number chase be the deciding factor. Play test horns. I realize that in today’s world many (most?) Mark VIs are now sold via the Internet. This makes it hard to try before you buy.

However, I would strongly encourage anyone who is looking to buy a Mark VI to go and try a bunch first. Like anything else that’s valuable, it is worth waiting for. Don’t jump at the first one that comes along.

Take your time, and try some 6-digit horns. Try some 5-digit horns that aren’t for sale. Try some that belong to your friends and band mates.

Recognize the fact that while you might notice some differences immediately, many of those minute differences will likely fade away as you get used to the horn, and your tone comes through. Then ask yourself, is it really worth spending $6,000 on an alto, when you can get just as nice a one for $2,000 less? Or do you want to spend $12,000 on a tenor, when you can get one for 1/3 of the cost, that will do the job just as well?

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

© 2011, Helen. All rights reserved.


Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.


  1. Only Mark VI I’ve had extensive playing time on actually belonged to a friend of mine’s sister; her pop bought it for her when she was in high school in the ’80’s for like $500.00 bucks. I don’t remember exactly what the serial # was, but it was five digits & when I looked it up at the time & I remember it dated to about 1960. She didn’t play anymore so I had it on semi-permanent loan.

    At that time all of my alto sax playing experience was on vintage American horns, my two favorite altos being a 50’s Conn 6M (from after Conn ditched the rolled tone holes & micro-tuner neck) & an early ’30’s “True Tone” Buescher. I also had a ’50’s Martin Indiana with rivet pads that was the first decent sax I had ever owned.

    I have to say that Mark VI was one of the best altos I ever played. She’ll never sell it, but I’ve got the first option if she decides to.

    Thing is, I can’t say I liked it more than the True Tone or the Conn I had*, in fact, tone-wise the Conn and the VI were almost identical. I would A/B/C those three horns for people** using the same set-up (a modern Meyer 5M/M) and folks could pick out the True Tone as a different horn, but they thought I sounded the same on the VI and the Conn. The Conn and the VI even played the same, to me, the Conn being a bit easier speaking in the LH palm keys, and intonation was very good on both.

    That Conn cost me about $450.00. At the time (10 years ago) the VI could have brought $3000.00 easy; the lacquer was ugly but otherwise it was in superb mechanical shape.

    After that here and there I’ve played probably a dozen+ different VI altos, mostly from later serial #’s, and using the same mouthpiece. What usually strikes me is that they sound much brighter than my friend’s did.

    I’ve only played one VI tenor, in a shop in North Carolina. I was there to check out a ’40’s Buescher 400, and tried out with it a VI they had, an early ’50’s Conn 10M, and a Cannonball “Mad Meg”. They all sounded great, but the only obviously superior point for the VI was the altissimo. The horn just raced up into it, clear and open. Otherwise it was a choice between preferred tone and playing feel & I was happy (and less poor) taking the 400 home with me.

    So. What’s the deal? I think it’s the same deal as why Gibson “Les Paul” guitars from the late ’50’s go for $40,000.00 +. You can buy a new electric that plays and sounds as good, but all those famous Rock & Rollers played Les Pauls making all that classic music. And the VI’s have got a boatload of jazz culture gold stars from the music of those times and the people who played them.

    So essentially I agree with you!!

    I’m just glad I played all kinds of vintage horns before I ever got hold of a VI – it’s easier on my wallet.

    *I’m very sax-friendly, ergonomically speaking. Sure the VI felt great, but very few saxophones I’ve played felt so odd or uncomfortable that I couldn’t enjoy playing ’em. The older saxes can feel very alien to players who came up on VI’s or clones.

    **They were “blindfold” tests – or at least I would make the listeners face away while I played. Also, that VI had the standard brown plastic domed pad set-up.

    • Hey there T.K.

      Interesting to read about your experiences with the alto and tenor VIs. It seems to me that the later model altos do seem to naturally be a bit brighter, but can be toned down.

      Mine is one of the last VIs—actually it was made during the time of the Mark VII already—but it is through and through a VI. Compared to my friend’s 5 digit, it might have been a tad brighter. However, when my friend played my horn (we were in a sax quintet together, and he used my horn quite regularly), he sounded no different on it than he did on his. He actually preferred mine, despite having owned his since new. Oh, I should mention, he was a tech, so his horn was maintained.(Hans passed away last year, hence the past tense.)

      With regards to altos, I’ve never really found my “alto voice” on my VI, despite owning it for 30 years. About 6 years ago I found a late model 6M with an underslung octave key in a pawnshop. This horn finally allowed me to find my true alto voice. It and my Mark VI are different like night and day. There’s no comparison. I use the same set-up on both (Runyon Custom 8 with a spoiler usually, Fibracell reeds, with a Rovner lig), and with it, for the first time ever, I feel like I can play alto like a true alto player, rather than a tenor or baritone player doubling on alto.

      Having said that, a well respected pro player and friend of mine, likes my sound on the Selmer, and thinks I should be playing it all the time. He believes that my alto tone is almost as good as that of my tenor, and if I worked on it for solo work more, I would be a killer alto player. Go figure. :scratch:

      That just proves in my mind, that what we hear, and what everyone else hears, can be very, very different.

      In the end, saxophones, just like the rest of the gear that we constantly seem to obsess about, are just 1 of the tools that assist us in achieving our sound. I think if people kept that in mind, the sax playing world might be a saner place.

      Speaking of saner… Or not… I like your example of the Les Paul guitar. How about that for a reality check? Anytime we want to bitch about Mark VI prices, we just need to be thankful we’re obsessing about trying to emulate the sounds of guitar players of the old rock ‘n roll days. 😈

      Edit: I realized I left out some critical words in my comment originally. I just added them now. My apologies.

  2. It boils down to this…

    Would you rather have your five-digit Mark VI, or would you rather have, say, a Keilwerth AND A CAR? That’s what these price differences amount to for most people.

    • +1

      Yup… That probably sums it up as well as I’ve seen it anywhere Mal-2. However, after owning a Toneking Series III for 6 months now, I gotta’ tell you, if players tried some (in good repair) with an open mind, and play-tested them against some six VIs (also in good repair), I think more JKs would be sold than VIs. But the VIs mythology will always win out sadly.

  3. Well most people think the Mark VI saxophone are the best ever made. Will i pay 5k plus for one HELL NO. I have been looking around for a deal on these saxophones in the 2.5-2k range and have found none. The least you could get one of these today is about 3500+ not including a overhaul or maintenance when you buy it used. Every day i ask myself why should i buy one there are better saxophones in the market like a yas-62 or other Selmer brands. Most people who are selling them think they are gold. I replied to a craiglist add for a 3800 Mark vi alto, and it was in a shitty condition. Some of the pads where out of shape, 50% out of the advertised 90% lacquer was gone and he still wouldn’t budge on the price. I would happily pay for a 3800 Mark VI that was in a good condition but for a piece 😡 of shit like that i would only throw him 1500 so i could overhaul it myself. I thought this was bad but most people are selling the same condition horn for 6k. I know the economic times are bad but you don’t have to rip off musicians for a horn that insanely overpriced.

    • Welcome to my site Will.

      Sorry I haven’t replied Will. Actually I did, but as I was proof-reading my lengthy reply, I accidentally hit the back button on my keyboard, and lost my entire comment! Some days I can be a real idiot. Long story short, I didn’t have time to retype the entire thing. My apologies.

      I’ll try and capture the overall message again here….

      Yes, there are lots of horns as good as or better than the Mark VI. I personally am not a fan of the Yamaha brand, so that’s not what I would get, but to each their own.

      If you’re looking for a killer vintage horn, the JK Toneking and The New King horns are great options. They are very different than the Selmers, and do sound different, but ergo-wise, I like the Toneking Series III horn just as much as my Mark VI. Sound-wise, I like it better than my Mark VI. It has a unique character, with a different tone altogether than the VI. If you have a chance to try one, I’d suggest you give one a play test. Maybe you’ll like what you’ll hear.

      The prices of VIs are ridiculous, and nothing pisses me off more than people who make money off the backs of musicians. Now, if a horn is in primo shape, and has just been restored, that’s one thing. (I still wouldn’t pay 15K for one, but that’s just me.) But if a horn is in dire need of an overhaul, has been around the block a few too many times without seeing a tech in decades, and is in horrible shape cosmetically, and the owner still thinks he ought to sell it to someone for 7K because it’s a 5 digit VI, that’s where I get really annoyed. I have the option to not buy said sax of course, but this type of sales does tend to set a trend. People start to believe that their fire burnt, former lamps, or garbage dumpster finds should bring in the big dollars. This ultimately pushes these horns even further out of the price range of the average working musician.

      I wish you luck in your quest for a VI. If you look for the high serial #s, you might find yourself one or the other. The other thing to consider too, is to buy one from a vintage sax dealer like World Wide Sax, Vintage, or PM Woodwinds. Their horns have all been rebuilt, and will not need any work. You might spend more money upfront, but you know you won’t have to spend any when you get the sax. It will come exactly as advertised, with no unwanted surprises. When I buy online, that’s the route I’ve always chosen.



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