Selmer Reference 54 Saxophones – The Best New Sax Around?

11th May 2020

The Saxophone market is awash with various manufacturers all producing a variety of different models. Yet, amongst all the noise (ahem!), there is a core group of top models which we feel lead the pack by some distance. At the peak of this group is the Selmer Reference 54 Alto and Tenor Saxophones.

In this blog we look at some of the competition, the Selmer ‘story’, and what it is about their sound that just ticks all the right boxes…

When we seek to measure the ‘greatness’ of something it’s always relevant to its competition. Whether we’re talking musical instruments, sports players, cars or whatever it may be. In this instance, if you’re looking for a premium level new Saxophone I’d suggest this would be a worthy list to consider:

We’d all have our own favourites in this list, and there’s a host of amazing options above. But, as someone who’s been doing this for nearly 20 years and played hundreds, if not thousands of Saxophones, here’s my admission: When push came to shove, and I had to put my own hand in my pocket to buy a new Tenor in 2015, I bought the Selmer – and am delighted I did!

Why Selmer?

So, now I’ve nailed my colours firmly to the mast, let’s try and get into the pertinent question of why? For me, it’s all about tone, just check out the sound Simon makes on this Tenor in the video demo above at 01:14. Within 5 seconds I could tell you blindfolded that this is a Selmer Ref 54. I’ve sat with Simon many times in our videos and he sounds great on everything, BUT, I’ll always remember this video we shot and how that Selmer sound was just was so rich, fat and luxurious and filled the room immediately.

But why? Modern Selmer’s haven’t always received critical acclaim from players, and from me either. In fact, until they made the changes in about 2014 across the range, you could argue that modern Selmers were stodgy and not much fun to own or play. There had been quality issues (and admittedly there’s still only one winner in French vs Japanese manufacturing but they have improved greatly), strikes within the workforce, the threat of closure and more. However, from the depths of despair, they made a raft of subtle changes, didn’t really tell anyone (communication is not their strong point!) and suddenly we noticed Selmer’s coming through that played absolutely beautifully.

What Changed?

I mentioned in the video that essentially Selmer took their Saxophones on a crash diet. They kept the special blend of brass that has been one of the key ingredients for years which helps produce ‘the’ Selmer sound. However, they lost various bits of unnecessary weight from around the bell/bow and bow/body bands. They also removed some of the plates running down the tube that the pillars were previously soldered onto. Out of nowhere, these Saxes suddenly had a zest about them that we’d been dying to hear for years, talking of which…

The ‘Vintage’ Elephant In The Room

I know there will be those of you out there reading this who remain firmly in the “you can’t play jazz without a Selmer MKVI” camp. That’s no problem, but we’re now seeing vintage Selmer’s either go for silly money, or (and this is more usual) starting to show their age. Owning a vintage Saxophone is commonly an expensive ongoing affair and you have to be braced for all the ‘peculiarities’ of ageing keywork, odd and intermittent problems, and slightly challenging intonation problems. No such issues with our Ref 54…

But…£5,000+ How Can That Be??

Making Saxophones is a time consuming and costly job. If you imagine there are over 300 working parts to be made, many in multiple stages, and that each part is hand-fitted and adjusted by highly skilled workers, then you’re starting to see how the cost can creep up. If we take the Reference 54 (or any of the aforementioned competition), you are looking at a vast number of worker-hours to produce these fine instruments, AND the cost of raw materials is as high as it ever has been.

So, can a Saxophone really cost nearly as much as a car? Yes is the short answer, and if you look at what sort of car you get for that money and how long it may last, I’d argue your Saxophone purchase, that could last you 50+ years and actually earn you money, looks pretty sensible.

In Summary

There’s a mountain of caveats here of course, and “each to their own” is very much my motto. However, I would say that if you’re looking at a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, and value the pure velvety nature of the Selmer Saxophone tone palette, then the Reference 54 in either Alto or Tenor, would be the kindest gift you could ever give yourself…trust me, I did it!