Notable design characteristics of the padless sax include left bell keys, not seen in the Selmer line for several years prior to the introduction of the padless. With the Balanced Action, introduced in 1936, Selmer began the tradition of right bell keys in their French built saxophones. Another design feature of the padless is the teeter-totter style chromatic F# (often referred to as the F# trill key). This is purely a Buescher touch, since Selmer always used the rotary design on their altos. The spatula clusters for both left and right pinkies are all Buescher, as well. The large bell keyguard, however, is straight from the Radio Improved, the last French Selmer built with left bell keys. Also notable is the ‘S’ shaped bell-to-body brace, which seems to shout out ‘Selmer’ — especially in conjunction with the distinctive back key guard. This is merely a cosmetic effort to suggest Selmer, however, because upon detailed examination, this back keyguard is the only clearly traditional Selmer design characteristic on the instrument. The body tube is early Aristocrat and the keywork is virtually identical to Buescher stencil saxophones of the period.
These Buescher stencils had the Aristocrat body tube, but as much True Tone (1920′s) keywork as could be used, given the left bell keys. Though the name is Selmer, the extent of functional Selmer mechanical content in these instruments is strictly related to the padless cup/tone hole interface. The rest is typical late 1930′s Buescher stencil sax. The very nice Buescher ‘ElkHart’ student sax is virtually identical to the padless design mechanically, the padless interface mechanisms notwithstanding. That comparison isn’t intended to degrade the padless saxophone, but rather to point out that it was a dressed up experiment expediently conducted on the very strong base of a proven Buescher sax design. The padless was not truly a Selmer design except in the concept of the padless interface. In all other material respects the padless was a Buescher stencil.
The padless interface consists of a heavy brass rim soldered onto a shorter (than usual on padded saxes), extruded straight tone hole. The total tone hole height is the same as on conventional saxophones, as is the inside diameter. Otherwise, there would be tone and intonation issues. Inserted into a groove in the added rim (which extends approximately 1/8th inch outward from the normal tone hole wall) is a rubber grommet that looks very much like the material used to make the seals on canning jars. The key’s interface (substituting for a pad cup) is simply a thick metal disk just slightly larger in diameter than the modified tone hole rim. The total diameter of these disks (and the tone hole interface underneath) is wider than the normal pad cup in the smaller diameter keys and about the same in the larger ones. The noticeable difference between a normal saxophone pad/tone hole interface and those on the padless is that there is little overlap of the pad disk/cup over the padless grommet rim. The padless interface must therefore be a much more precise mechanism if it is to work. There is little tolerance in the padless design for error in the alignment between disk and seal. This contrasts the conventional pad & cup, where a considerable overlap of the tone hole rim results in a working tolerance in a cup’s position over the tone hole. Likewise, the hard surfaces of both disk and rubber grommet have no flex or spring equating to that of a leather pad surface through which small out-of-plane errors are absorbed. This lack of tolerances means that the padless key disc (they aren’t really ‘cups’, and the term ‘pad’ doesn’t apply) must be in exact alignment with the tone hole rim, plus be in plane with the tone hole grommet, in order to seal correctly. The padless design may be amazing, but it is also quite unforgiving from a technical point of view.
The closest parallel to the padless design in a padded saxophone tone hole interface is the Conn Reso-Pad, which has a metal ring inside the pad rim. This rigid rim tauntly stretches the leather surface, as in a drum head, keeping the Reso-Pad’s surface ‘in plane’ with itself. The result is a more precise closure and seal, and an accompanying improvement in response — IF the pad surface and tone hole remain in parallel planes. Keeping the two surfaces in plane is not as problematic as it may seem with the Conn setup because the pad ‘floats’ on a bed of shellac or other heat sensitive adhesive. By softening the adhesive with a little heat the pad surface can be gently pressed or pulled as required to bring it into plane with its tone hole rim. With the padless mechanism such easy adjustment isn’t possible. Intuitively, the key disc/cup would need to be bent back into plane with the tone hole rim should it become misaligned. The padless mechanism seems especially vulnerable to small bumps or nudges that would not affect the play of a conventional padded saxophone since small misalignments are often absorbed by the pads. On the padless, even a small nudge to the disk might cause a gaping leak that would halt play.
It would be interesting to see if the original service materials on this design comment on a recommended process for restoring the disc and tone hole rim into plane with one another, since the techniques we use on padded saxophones would likely damage the rubber seals. If there is an ‘old hand’ in the audience who can relate for certain how this was intended to be done we would appreciate hearing from you. Bending sax keys to make play adjustments starts one down a rather slippery slope. Such practice is only permissible on conventional instruments when it is apparent that the cause of a play adjustment issue is damage that bent the mechanism to start with. In that case the argument for bending keys is that the tech is simply returning the mechanism to factory design tolerances.
Certainly you have to assume that these padless instruments left the Buescher plant with all the interfaces aligned and ‘in plane’, so if you found a leaking interface on your padless sax what alternative is there but to bend the key to again seal properly? That is a very distasteful prospect. Such issues must surely have played a part in the decision to discontinue the padless line. Regardless of maintenance and repair issues, these are lovely instruments, and they remain a fascinating detour along the path of saxophone development.
Thank you for your interest in this rare Selmer “Padless” alto saxophone. Your serious offer to purchase the completely original instrument & case (no mouthpiece) will receive our utmost consideration.
God, give us the grace to not be tempted to bend things that are not already bent, the courage to straighten things that must be straightened, and the wisdom to distinguish which is which …
you will of course recognize this as a paraphrase of Niebuhr’s noted ‘Serenity Prayer’