Charles-Frederic Selmer died in 1878 leaving sixteen children; five surviving to adulthood. Brothers Alexandre and Henri Selmer (2 of the survivors) were 4th generation musicians when they graduated from the Paris Conservatory of Music in the late 1800s as clarinetists. An important part of being considered a professional musician included the necessary skills to make their own accessories and the ability to repair and modify their own instruments. Before widespread industrialization, musical instruments and accessories were hand made. By 1900 Henri Selmer had established a reputation for his reeds and mouthpieces. He opened a shop at Place Dancourt in Paris to meet the growing demand for these accessories and soon repair work and customizing led to the manufacturing of clarinets. By 1920, Henri had diversified into the manufacture of double reed instruments, including oboes and bassoons.
In 1931 Classical performing artist and inventor Mario Maccaferri (see the separate section on Mario Maccaferri) had developed ideas for creating a louder and more sonorous guitar. He had a background in lutherie and had built several prototypes. Ben and Lew Davis, who managed Selmer’s London dealership, were impressed. They introduced Maccaferri to Henri Selmer. With assurances from the Davis brothers and based on Maccaferri’s reputation with Master Luthier Mozzani, Monsieur Selmer proposed constructing a run of the instruments at the Selmer manufacturing facility at Mantes-la-Ville, near Paris. If they were accepted by the public, they would manufacture more of them.
An atelier opened under Maccaferri’s direction. He drew up the plans for the guitars, oversaw the building of molds and jigs. Numerous workers took part in the building of the shop and received training from Maccaferri in his production techniques. On May 6th, 1932, patent #736,779 was registered in Paris, entitled “Perfectionnements aux violons, guitars, mandolines et autres instruments à cordes.” Its résumé proposed:
The Maccaferri model Selmer with the large D-shaped soundhole (grande bouche), was originally designed to accommodate Mario Maccaferri’s patented Internal Resonator. The basic 1932-33 D-hole guitar has 12 frets and a 648mm (25.5″) scale, with a “classical-width” 2” fingerboard. Necks on the early Selmers were generally large. Most of the necks were walnut but there were a few produced with maple bodies had maple necks. The backs and sides were generally laminated rosewood and the tops always French spruce. There are very few remaining examples of the original guitars with the internal resonator intact. Part of the reason is relatively poor initial construction but when you consider that the early guitars were favored by musicians that viewed the instruments as working tools, it is easy to imagine how roughly they were treated. The general condition of the instruments can be seen in YouTube clips of the day. The internal resonators were quite delicate and if jarred loose would rattle. It appears that many of them were ripped out of the instrument through the conveniently large soundhole.
Immediately after Maccaferri’s departure from Selmer, the company responded to the demand for a 14 fret instrument. Jazz Manouche used every part of the fretboard and the new guitars had the amazing ability to sound just as loud on the upper register as it did on the lower. This was very different from a traditional flat-top guitar that gets noticeable softer as you work higher on the fretboard.
The new design occurred without Maccaferri’s input. The modèle Jazz had a small vertical oval soundhole, and no resonator. The same body design was used, and the same materials. The shift of the neck to a body joint at the 14th fret moved the bridge closer to the soundhole. The removal of the resonator and the new bridge location required a new bracing pattern. Around late 1933, after a handful of transitional models, it was offered with the longer 670mm (26.4″) scale. Following Maccaferri’s departure, his name and patent numbers for his resonator were eliminated from the headstock engraving and his credit was removed from the internal label. Ironically, Maccaferri never knew Reinhardt.
Once it was available, this was the model that Django preferred. Almost all Selmers made after 1933 are the modèle Jazz. Though most Selmer guitars, early and late, were of laminated Indian rosewood with walnut necks, there exist a few very late ones with solid rosewood necks and a few rare all-mahogany or birdseye maple guitars with matching maple necks. Selmer tops were always solid French spruce. By l939, Selmer had added Django Reinhardt’s name to the headstock, though only a few rare guitars actually bear this inscription.
Django Reinhardt’s last Selmer guitar was #503 – built in 1940. Upon his death, his widow donated it to the museum of the Conservatoire Nationale in Paris, now at the Cité de la Musique, where it is proudly displayed with Stéphane Grappelli’s violin.
Selmer – US
Alexandre Selmer moved to America and became the principal clarinetist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra between 1895 to 1910. To supplement his income, In 1902 Alexandre opened a store in New York City as an American distributor for his brother’s instruments and accessories. The Selmer line of products won a gold medal for their clarinets at the 1904 Worlds Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. This provided a real boost to both reputation and sales. In 1918 Alexandre returned to Paris to assist in the family business, leaving their U.S. interests in the hands of his employee George Bundy. Bundy was a businessman, not a musician, and expanded retail and distribution, carrying instruments from other companies such as Ludwig-Musser, the Vincent Bach Corporation and Martin (wind instruments).
Bundy also expanded into flute manufacturing, hiring George W. Haynes (from a family of well-known flute makers) to design the Selmer flute. Bundy’s genius was finding the right talent to design instruments and then setting up manufacturing wherever he could find an existing pool of experienced labor. Selmer flute manufacturing briefly moved to Boston, Massachusetts; existing home to several reputable flute makers. Bundy also hired Kurt Gemeinhardt, a young craftsman from Germany, to assist in the design of Selmer flutes. By the early 1920s, Bundy moved the manufacturing facilities from New York City to Elkhart, Indiana. Elkhart was already home to several other instrument makers with another existing skilled labor pool. The New York facility remained in operation solely as a retail store and distributor until 1951.
In 1927 or 1928 Bundy purchased the American business from the Selmer brothers. The resulting business was named Selmer USA. Though technically a separate business, the Henri Selmer Co. of Paris and Selmer USA remained the exclusive distributors of each other’s products. The French company concentrated on high quality, expensive instruments for the professional musician, while the Selmer USA concentrated on mass-produced student grade models. After 1941, many of the American instruments were produced under the Bundy brand name.
Carl Dimond Greenleaf and C.G. Conn, Ltd.
During the 1920s C.G. Conn Ltd. owned the Elkhart Band Instrument Company (1923-7), the Leedy Company (1927-55), a manufacturer of percussion, 49.9% of the stock of H. & A. Selmer (1923-7), and two subsidiaries, the Continental Music Company and the Pan American Music Company.
Carl Greenleaf was president of Conn (wind instruments) from 1915 to 1949. He was an astute businessman and sensitive to market trends. Greenleaf noted the gradual extinction of the small town brass band. The big touring bands such as the Sousa band were also in decline. He knew that in order for the industry to survive, band programs had to be promoted in schools and colleges. He developed a close relationship and steady communications between the industry and music educators. With the help of educators such as Joseph E. Maddy and T.P. Giddings, they helped introduce band music into the schools. Greenleaf organized the first national band contest in 1923 and helped make possible the founding of the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan. In 1928 he founded a Conn National School of Music which trained hundreds of school band directors. The whole industry benefited from his foresight. It was Greenleaf who was responsible for the structure of school music programs to this day.
Conn-Selmer, Inc. is a manufacturer and distributor of concert band, marching band, and orchestral instruments. It is currently a subsidiary of Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc. and was formed after Steinway bought musical instrument manufacturers The Selmer Company and C.G. Conn.
Selmer – United Kingdom
Selmer – United Kingdom was created in 1928 under the leadership of two brothers, Ben and Lew Davis. The arrangement was similar to Selmer USA in that Selmer UK was independent from the Selmer Brothers but had an exclusive agreement for mutual distribution of products. Selmer UK focused on licensing, importing and distribution rather than manufacturing. By 1939, Selmer UK had become the largest company in the British musical instrument industry.
In 1935 Selmer UK began producing sound reinforcement systems under the Selmer name. In 1946 they expanded their manufacturing facilities by purchasing another P.A. company called RSA. By 1951 they were manufacturing electric organs and in 1955 they gained the exclusive licensing rights to manufacture Lowrey organs and Leslie organ speakers for the UK. They were also the primary importers and distributors for Höfner guitars, a well-known German guitar company, from the early 1950s through the early 1970s. In 1967, Höfner actually produced a small range of semi-acoustic and acoustic guitars for Selmer UK. These carried the Selmer logo and most had a Selmer “lyre” tailpiece. Model names included the Astra, Emperor, Diplomat, Triumph and Arizona Jumbo.
With the rise in popularity of skiffle music and the arrival of American blues and rock‘n’roll in the mid-1950s, Selmer UK began producing guitar and bass amplifiers. In the early 1960s, despite Selmer’s apparent market domination, The Shadows’ and The Beatles’ endorsement of Vox amplifiers relegated Selmer guitar amplifiers to a distant second place in sales. The management of the company viewed its role as that of supporting established professional musicians (‘real ‘ musicians) and not the passing fads of the pop culture. By the mid 1960s this had proven itself as a bad business strategy.
By the early 1970s, the devalued Selmer UK had been purchased by Chicago Musical Instruments (CMI), then the parent company of Gibson Guitars. Selmer was distributing Gibson instruments in the UK at the time. Marshall guitar amplifiers had cornered the English pop music amplifier market, and the Selmer manufacturing facility was an expensive drain on the parent company’s resources. During this period, the Selmer range of Treble & Bass 50 & 100 valve amplifiers appeared to be stylistic relics from pre-1959. The decision was made to move the manufacturing facility to a disused 1914 brush and coconut matting works factory complex in rural Essex. This was a disaster, coupled to an uninspiring reworking of the Selmer range of speaker cabinets and the introduction of a poorly designed range of solid state power amplifiers.
The company was bought and sold several times and finally acquired by Norlin Music USA. Norlin was a (Panamanian conglomerate) holding company convinced there was great profit in supplying the pop culture with musical instruments. Unfortunately, they knew nothing about the musical instrument business. Ironically, Norlin also owned Gibson Guitar at the time. The management adopted a marketing strategy allowing distributors to arrange short-term loans of Gibson instruments to musicians as a way to have the instruments seen on-stage and sampled by performing musicians. The instruments were freely loaned to just about any musician or band who asked. In reality, the expensive musical instruments were loaned, damaged, and returned unsold to the UK warehouse. There were no qualified luthiers on staff and only mild attempts were made to repair the damaged instruments. The distribution agreement with Gibson in Kalamazoo, Michigan did not allow for warrantee repairs under these circumstances. At one time in 1977 there were over one thousand damaged, broken and disassembled Gibson guitars stored in an unheated warehouse in Braintree, Essex.
The factory in Braintree was also involved in the manufacturing of Lowrey keyboards from KD kits imported from CMI in Chicago. These instruments were technically advanced but the quality was poor compared with keyboards beginning to reach European markets from Japan. Norlin decided to import a low cost Italian designed organs and market them as Selmer products by catalog. This time the problems occurred from damage during shipping. The return rate was large and expensive. Norlin Music (UK) then tried various cost-cutting measures that only made the quality matters worse. In 1976, Norlin Music Inc., faced with mounting debts, began dismantling Selmer UK piece by piece, until the only remaining facility was a repair center for Lowrey organs with a single employee. This finally closed in the early 1980s.
Special thanks to:
François Charle’s book on Selmer guitars
April Dougal Gasbarre for information and the company history.
Research by Leonard Wyeth
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