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Were Selmers really that good?

MichaelHorowitzMichaelHorowitz SeattleAdministrator
edited August 2006 in History Posts: 5,896
With the average price of a vintage Selmer above 20K these days, one has to wonder what exactly people are paying for? Are the original Selmers so superior in tone and playability to anything made since that they can warrant such stratospheric prices? I think most people would agree that few guitars sound so good that they're worth that price. You're mostly paying for an increasingly rare historical artifact that has more symbolic value then anything else.

However, there still seems to be a strong sense in the Gypsy jazz community that Selmers had some magic sonic proprieties that are lacking in other guitars. I've lost count of how many luthiers claim to build guitars to "exact" Selmer specs. I've played about a dozen Selmers, and only four of them were any good. One owned by Fapy Lafertin, and two owned by the Limbergers, and one owned Nous'che Rosenberg. The others ranged from mediocre to outright terrible.

Fapy's guitar was especially nice, and I could see paying a little more for an instrument like that. But you have to keep in mind, Fapy owned over 30 Selmers in his life, sold all the mediocre ones and kept the best one.

Ted and I were talking the other day about how after Django, most Gypsies in Paris played Favinos. There were plenty of Selmers to be found in Paris throughout the 50s-80s. But the vast majority of Gypsies seemed to prefer Favinos (Matelo, Boulou, and Elios Ferret; Rafael Fays; the young Bireli Lagrene; Philippe Nedjar (not a Gypsy, but a pro), Ninine and Mondine Garcia, etc.) I know some played Selmers, but it seems to be the minority.

Why was the Selmer for the most part abandoned by Gypsies? Were they just not as good? Part of the reason is probably that Selmer type guitars in general don't hold up well over time. The Selmers probably became increasingly difficult to keep in good playing shape, and were replaced by newer guitars.

Anyway, I'd appreciate ideas any of you might have on this subject.

-Michael
«13

Comments

  • langleydjangolangleydjango Langley, WA USA✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 99
    Substitute " 1954 Les Paul" or "Pre-CBS Stratocaster" or "pre-war Martin" for Selmer and watch history keep repeating itself.

    It is a social phenomenon not musical (although some will deny this until the bitter end).

    Supply and demand. >1000 selmers+Django+50 years=$25,000
    Less than, maybe 500?, people on the planet can play the same brand of guitar that Django played. They'll probably hit $50,000-$100,000 in our lifetimes.

    If I had the cash I'd buy one too. My kids would be very happy.

    But of course they weren't made by Keebler elves in an old tree. There are easily a dozen (plus++) luthiers right now who make better guitars than Selmer ever made. But Django didn't play an AJL did he?

    Why did gypsy's abandon them? Because they were just old guitars. In 1978 I probably would have chosen a new Favino over a beat-up Selmer also.
  • fraterfrater Prodigy
    Posts: 763
    Certainly there are many Selmerwrecks out there. But the good ones... maybe it's just a matter of suggestion but Fapy and Stochelo don't sound the same to my ears when not playing their Selmers...
  • marinmanmarinman New
    Posts: 6
    In the 80's i sometimes visited Louis Gallo in England and play his Selmer collection, the last time i saw him(and to my delight) Fapy turned up to say hello,Aparently this is where Koen,Vivi and he used to hang out in the "Waso" days.we spoke of the pros and cons of selmer V the rest and without doubt Selmer, sound wise has a certain "magical" escence that has not(can not?) been reproduced it's been described in many ways that we have all heard ,bark,ping,etc but my favourite is "CRUMP". I have been lucky enough to play several originals and nothing compares.At that time a good one would cost about £3000 how does that sit today?( i had the chance to buy a large oval hole with a crack the full length of the "matching" on the back for £500 at that time and couldn't raise the cash....bugger!!) If you know anyone who owns or knows someone who owns an original, track it down and beg to play it, until then you will always wonder.......
  • kimmokimmo Helsinki, Finland✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 165
    With the average price of a vintage Selmer above 20K these days, one has to wonder what exactly people are paying for? Are the original Selmers so superior in tone and playability to anything made since that they can warrant such stratospheric prices? I think most people would agree that few guitars sound so good that they're worth that price. You're mostly paying for an increasingly rare historical artifact that has more symbolic value then anything else.

    I've only played one and it felt magic. It had old worn-out strings and a huge neck, and I was very suspicious about the playability at all when I first held it. The owner (Mano Drey?? sp?) took my guitar and we played one tune.

    It was one good guitar!

    Even with those almost rusty strings THE sound was there - without pressing or forcing. This took place in an outdoor cafe beside a noisy road near the Fontainebleau/Avon station, but I had no problems being heard. And yet - even the owner admitted that most of its current retail value comes from two factors:
    1) Django played Selmers
    2) only a limited number was ever produced.

    If I liked the guitar so much, why do I agree with Michael and the owner about the pricing being based on historical and symbolic value more than quality and usability? Simply because I have yet to play a guitar that's justifiably worth +20k (or even +10k) only by being superior in sound, look and feel.

    But was that Selmer better than the current high-end guitars (3000-5000€/$)? Maybe. For such a brief test drive I can't say. But very good it was.
    Ted and I were talking the other day about how after Django, most Gypsies in Paris played Favinos. There were plenty of Selmers to be found in Paris throughout the 50s-80s. But the vast majority of Gypsies seemed to prefer Favinos (Matelo, Boulou, and Elios Ferret; Rafael Fays; the young Bireli Lagrene; Philippe Nedjar (not a Gypsy, but a pro), Ninine and Mondine Garcia, etc.) I know some played Selmers, but it seems to be the minority.

    And some played Ovations. I had one in the early 1980s and it was probably my biggest mistake ever, I wouldn't take one again even if I was paid for it. And yet, afterwards it's not that hard to explain Ovation's popularity among the Gypsies in the eighties: weak bass range (more selmerish than the other flat-tops int hat respect) and in its day an advanced easy-to-use piezo pickup.
    Why was the Selmer for the most part abandoned by Gypsies? Were they just not as good? Part of the reason is probably that Selmer type guitars in general don't hold up well over time. The Selmers probably became increasingly difficult to keep in good playing shape, and were replaced by newer guitars.

    No, they don't hold up well. The 14-fret long neck didn't have any metal reinforcements, so they in time took the shape of a yellow tropic fruit. Thin bent top is also prone to cracks and other damages. To my knowledge those gypsies who played Favinos played new Favinos, so its more new vs old than brand-1 vs brand-2. A guitar is musician's tool, so a new and faultless is better than old and damaged.
  • zavzav Geneve, SwissNew
    Posts: 94
    Hey, Michael!
    Ted and I were talking the other day about how after Django, most Gypsies in Paris played Favinos. There were plenty of Selmers to be found in Paris throughout the 50s-80s. But the vast majority of Gypsies seemed to prefer Favinos

    Some weeks ago I started to think just about the same. ;-)
    Actually, what are the main differences between that *magic* old Selmers and Favino guitars: in overall tone, volume, response, etc, etc? You guys, played a lot both of them, sure could tell some most important things!

    Thanks!
    Anton
  • dennisdennis Montreal, QuebecModerator
    Posts: 2,116
    kimmo i assume you tried the selmer that mano brought at samois last year; i personally thought it was merely average... if it were any other brand i dont think i'd pay more than 2000 bucks for it.

    however, stochelo's selmer (504) is pure gold, really easy to play, awesome tone...
  • kimmokimmo Helsinki, Finland✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 165
    Hi Dennis!
    dennis wrote:
    kimmo i assume you tried the selmer that mano brought at samois last year; i personally thought it was merely average... if it were any other brand i dont think i'd pay more than 2000 bucks for it.

    Yep, that's the one. Like I said, it was a brief trial in the middle of noisy traffic. But considering the rugged looks, sturdy neck and the fact that the strings were probably years old, I thought it was awesome.

    Merely average used guitar - but you could pay 2000 for it?
    dennis wrote:
    however, stochelo's selmer (504) is pure gold, really easy to play, awesome tone...

    I can only imagine...
  • gypsyjazzergypsyjazzer Brewood, United KingdomNew
    Posts: 67
    I bought my first gypsy jazz style guitar as an 'impluse buy' after dropping in one lunchtime on Bob Clay, a well-known dealer who used to live in Birmingham, England.

    Bob dealt in guitars as a sideline to a successful taxi business in Birmingham, specialising in jazz guitars, and in particular gypsy jazz instruments. He was a keen Django fan, although he never mastered the guitar himself, and switched to double-bass before illness and various other problems arose. Last I heard he was living in Cyprus.

    Anyway, that first day I called in to see Bob he had several gypsy jazz guitars 'in stock' including some well known British hand-made examples. After trying each of these guitars he then opened a battered old-fashioned black case for me, and produced a JP Favino from France - I didn't know squat about gypsy jazz guitars back then in the late 1990's, but I did know Selmer's came from France, Django played in Paris, and this music was all about 1930's France.

    Believe it or not, this gem was the cheapest of the lot - I think it was £550 or £650, the equivalent of either $770 or $910. Bob rated the newer hand-made guitars as the better choice, but it was 'no contest' for me, and I came away with the Favino - one of my better 'life decisions'.

    The guitar is great and always elicits praise from whoever tries it, but (and finally to the point of my story), Bob also had an oval hole Selmer for sale at that time for £5,000 ($7,000). I thought this was far too expensive at that time (I know - not one of my best 'life decisions'), so I pointed a friend of mine, Paul Chester, towards it and Bob.

    Some months later Paul, having bought the guitar, brought the Selmer over to my house for a get-together, and although the Favino was, and still is a tremendous guitar, as soon as it was in direct comparison with the Selmer it was no contest. The Selmer was clearly superior. It had that elusive 'extra 5%' that is so difficult to achieve that make the difference between the very best, and the top flight - ask any sportsman, businessman or artist. To get into the top 10 is hard, to be Number 1 requires that 'extra 5%' that calls for 100%+ more effort, skill ability etc.

    To be that exceptional is very hard, for example, who of you reading this actually thinks any of the current stock of great players equal Django? Do you believe any of them will be remembered in the same way Django is some fifty years after they die?

    Having a genuine Selmer is a direct link with Django's era, something that it's very hard to put a price on. Again, ask any owner of say, a classic racing car - driving a 1950's Ferrari sports car makes you 'part' of what you are trying to achieve. In that contect it doesn't matter whether a Selmer sounds better or worse than a modern instrument - it's a real connection to the era you are attached to and trying to emulate. I'm extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to play several Selmers and Selmer Maccaferris, and I can only say it makes me feel great every time I do so.

    Finally, if you ever get the chance to buy a Selmer I can only say I bought several guitars from Bob over the years after that first Favino, and I recall what he always used to say when I was 'hovering' over a purchase - "What's the problem? I know it's a lot of money, but when I last checked they were still printing money, but 1930's Selmers............"
  • StringswingerStringswinger Santa Cruz and San Francisco, CA✭✭✭✭ 1993 Dupont MD-20, Shelley Park Encore
    Posts: 426
    I have played 4 Selmers, at least that many Favinos, lots of Duponts, Parks and other well made Gypsy guitars. I can say that 3 of the 4 Selmers that I played were very good (the 4th was very beat and clearly needed lots of work), but I have played Duponts, Favinos and Parks that were as good (or better) than the Selmers. That being said, the Selmer is probably a better investment vehicle than the others, but IMHO would make a foolish gigging instrument (Why risk a 20K+ guitar on the bandstand?)

    The most valuable guitars are not necessarily the best playing or sounding guitars but were played by musicians of historical signigicance (Selmers played by Django, Flametop Les Pauls played by Clapton, Page and others, pre CBS Strats plyed by Buddy Holley and others etc.) and they are rare. Would I like to own a Selmer or a D'Angelico. Sure! At todays prices they are simply too rich for my blood. I'll leave them to the investors and play well made guitars like my Dupont or my L-5 that I can take to the gig (though with a watchful, careful eye).

    The Selmers and D'Angelicos will probably appreciate faster than my Dupont and L-5 because of their scarcity. They are just too valuable at todays prices for me to consider purchasing and using them, and that is the measure of the real value of a guitar to me.

    Cheers,

    Marc

    www.hotclubpacific.com
    "When the chord changes, you should change" Joe Pass
  • aa New York City✭✭✭✭
    Posts: 800
    If you've played one of those 80k Sstromberg's, you might think that tone and price have an indirect relationship.
    Www.alexsimonmusic.com
    Learn how to play Gypsy guitar:
    http://alexsimonmusic.com/learn-gypsy-jazz-guitar/
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