7 Saxophone Types: Facts, Repertoire, Buying Advice

The saxophone was invented by Antoine-Joseph Sax, a Belgian instrument maker, in Paris, 1846. Sax, a highly versatile expert, helped to create numerous wind instruments. Sax was also a skilled clarinetist who could quickly put his inventions to the test. Sax, a highly versatile expert, helped to create numerous wind instruments. 

His main customers were the brass brands, to whom he supplied a vast family of brass instruments known as saxhorns after its creator in the 1840s. Along with them, Sax invented a new type: saxophones.

Many instruments inspired them. A saxophone, for example, features a single reed like a clarinet, a conical tube like an oboe, and a Boehm-type key system.

Since the reed, although being constructed of metal, saxophones are classified as woodwind instruments because they belong to the clarinet family.

Sax developed their exterior form with the top portion turned towards the player, a straight sound tube, a U-shaped bottom section, and an inverted bell.

The sopranos, on the other hand, are typically straight like clarinets.

Saxophones were initially made in different sizes! Later, eight have been emphasized, most notably those in the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone registers.

The instrument is still primarily employed in brass bands, jazz, and popular music, although it may also be found in symphony orchestras on occasion.

Bizet, Ravel, Prokofiev, and other composers have written notable solos for the alto saxophone.

There are about 14 known types of saxophones of different sizes and tonal ranges. In this article, we will talk about the most common types: the sopranino saxophone, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, and contrabass saxophone. 

Saxophone family members

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Sopranino Saxophone

One of the tiniest members of the saxophone family is the sopranino saxophone. It is 30 cm [12 in] long and 33 cm [13 in] in length with the mouthpiece. The sopranino saxophone is tuned to E♭ and sounds an octave higher than the alto saxophone.

The sopranino saxophone has a pleasant expressive tone, and although being one of the least frequent saxophones in use today, it is still manufactured by many major musical instrument makers.

The symphonic piece Boléro, composed by Maurice Ravel, is the most famous example of the sopranino in use.

Even though Ravel requested a soprano saxophone in the key of F, this member of the “concert” family of saxophones never achieved widespread appeal and is no longer manufactured.

The symphonic piece Boléro, composed by Maurice Ravel, is the most famous example of the sopranino in use. Even though Ravel requested a soprano saxophone in the key of F, this member of the “concert” family of saxophones never achieved widespread appeal and is no longer manufactured. 

Violent Femmes, a rock band from Los Angeles, has integrated sopranino saxophone into their live performances and their most recent recordings in recent years. In the song “I’m Not Gonna Cry,” saxophonist Blaise Garza uses a curved sopranino saxophone, taken from the album “Hotel Last Resort,” which was released in 2019.

Sopraninos, unlike other saxophones, are not typically bent due to their tiny size. However, if you look for that classic curved saxophone look, Orsi is one manufacturer you might want to check.

A rare instance of the tiniest member of the saxophone family is the sopranino saxophone by Orsi [above], with its even more distinctive curved shape. Imagine how much time and effort goes into making such an amazing miniature sax!

Soprano Saxophone

Modern soprano saxophones with a high F♯ key range from concert A♭3 to E6 [written low B♭ to high F♯] and are thus tuned one octave above the tenor saxophone, which is a transposing instrument pitched in the key of B♭. The instrument sounds a major second lower than written on the score.

The soprano saxophone features all keys found on the other saxophone family members, except for the low A on some baritones and altos. In B♭: sounds a major second lower than written.

Soprano saxophones were initially tuned from low B to high E♭, but a low B♭ mechanism was introduced in 1887.

By 1910, virtually all saxophones, including sopranos, were keyed to low B♭. During the 1920s, it became standard practice for sopranos to sing in the key of high F.

The high F♯ key was first provided as an option on certain sopranos in the 1950s, and by the 1970s, most professional-level soprano saxophones were equipped with a high F♯ key as standard.

In today’s world, almost all soprano saxophones are keyed to high F♯. Some contemporary professional sopranos, such as those manufactured by Yamaha, Yanagisawa, and Selmer, may also include a high G key adjacent to the F♯ key as an option.

Aside from that, experienced musicians may use the altissimo register, which enables them to cover these notes and play even higher notes, often independent of the keyed range of their instrument.

The majority of sopranos produced since the 1990s have detachable necks, with one straight and one downward-curved neck being included in the package.

While playing, a straight soprano must be held high and outward, enabling it to project effectively and result in a more dynamic look throughout the performance, if done correctly.

A curved neck allows the instrument to be held somewhat lower while still maintaining a correct mouthpiece angle.

This makes it simpler to utilize a music stand and decreases tiredness in the right arm for certain players who play with their right arm.

Some players also think that a curved neck provides the soprano a warmer, less nasal tone, but this is a matter of dispute within the group of musicians.

However, some players, technicians, and engineers prefer one-piece sopranos over detachable sopranos.

The neck receiver/tenon system is prone to excessive wear and can develop leaks over time, impairing the instrument’s playability if not corrected.

As a result of some players’ preference for curved necks, one-piece instruments are occasionally bent during manufacturing above the octave key, a common occurrence in the violin industry [e.g., the Yamaha YSS-62R and YSS-82ZR].

Several saxophone manufacturers also produce fully curved sopranos, similar to a small alto saxophone but straighter neck/crook.

These are sometimes referred to as “saxellos” because they resemble the somewhat rare King Saxello [a soprano saxophone pitched in Bb key].

Every variation has the same keys and range as the conventional straight soprano. Some players feel that the warmer and less nasal sounds produced by curved and tipped-bell sopranos are preferable.

Because of the higher pitch of the soprano saxophone is more sensitive to intonation than the lower saxophones. As a result, a musician must have more proficiency with breath support, tongue and soft palate posture, and embouchure than with the lower saxophones [collectively known as voicing].

It also has a lesser tolerance for improper care than lower saxophones. Many experienced players and instructors disagree with these views, believing that soprano is either intrinsically out of tune or more challenging to play than lower saxophones.

A rare variant of soprano saxophone pitched in C also exists though it was not officially produced for almost a century.

Listeners often mistake the soprano saxophone with the oboe due to its propensity to sound similar to it. However, when an oboe is unavailable, the soprano saxophone is often utilized in its place.

The soprano saxophone is mainly utilized as a solo and chamber instrument in classical music, but it is sometimes used in a concert band or orchestra. It is a member of the saxophone quartet and takes the lead.

While not as well-known as the alto and tenor saxes in jazz, the soprano saxophone has played an essential part in its development.

Jazz soprano sax greats include 1930s maestro Sidney Bechet, 1950s pioneer Steve Lacy, and John Coltrane, who began his historic 1960 album My Favorite Things.

Alto Saxophone

The alto saxophone, often known as the alto sax or just the alto, is smaller than the tenor sax but larger than the soprano saxophone.

The alto sax’s tonal center is Eb. It is an octave higher than the baritone sax and a fourth higher than the tenor sax. It has a two-and-a-half octave range, ranging from concert Db3 [the D♭ below middle C to concert Ab5 [or A5 on altos with a high F♯ key]. Alto sax altissimo begins at F#6 and may be extended by an octave or more.

A musician may expand the instrument’s range to concert C3 by placing their knee or foot in the bell when required.

The alto saxophone is a transposing instrument, which means that notes sound a major sixth lower than they are written.

The written range, like with other saxophones, is B♭3 to F6 or F♯6. Above that, the altissimo register starts at F♯6 or G6 and goes higher.

The altissimo range of the saxophone is more challenging to manage than that of other woodwinds and is typically reserved for experienced performers.

Like the previous sax instruments in this list, the alto saxophone was developed the saxophone in the mid-nineteenth century by Adolphe Sax. The initial set of designs included an instrument that resembled the contemporary alto.

During World War I, Marcel Mule considered the pioneer of the French Saxophone School, performed alto saxophone in the military band – the alto was often the main instrument in that setting. Mule performed with several orchestras and established the Quator de la Garde Républicaine quartet after his military duty.

Mule rewrote Mozart and other composers to suit the sound of his ensemble since there was no music composed for saxophone quartets.

The alto saxophone is known to ad some improvisation magic to pop and jazz tunes. Would you please not take my word for it? Just have a listen to the four-bar opening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” for a brief burst of magnificent alto saxophone sound.

Listen to Charlie Parker if you want to consider if the alto saxophone is the ideal jazz improvisation tool.

The options available to musicians searching for a professional alto saxophone are many. Yamaha, Keilwerth, Yanagisawa, and Selmer are some of the most well-known makers of professional alto saxophones. In the alto category, both companies offer high-quality products.

Other smaller manufacturers, such as P. Mauriat, or Jean-Paul are also producing saxophones of high quality.

If you are a beginner saxophone player, a great option that is recommended by experts and won’t make a hole in your wallet is the Jean Paul USA AS-400 Student Alto Saxophone.

For players with a higher budget, the Yamaha YAS-875EXII Custom Series Alto Saxophone is a fantastic choice providing a rich sound and quality built.

And finally, for professional sax players, Keilwerth’s SX90R designs are among the most visually arresting instruments available on the professional alto market.

Tenor Saxophone

A medium-sized member of the saxophone family, the tenor saxophone is the most often used saxophone today, along with the alto.

The tenor is written in the treble clef as a transposing instrument, sounding an octave and a major second lower than the stated pitch [while the alto is written in E].

Modern tenor saxophones with a high F key have a range of A2 to E5 [concert] and are tuned one octave lower than the soprano saxophone. Tenor saxophonists, tenor sax players, and saxophonists are all names for people who play the tenor saxophone.

The mouthpiece, reed, and ligature on the tenor saxophone are bigger than those on the alto and soprano saxophones. It may be identified visually by the bend in its neck or crook near the mouthpiece.

The alto saxophone lacks this feature, and its neck extends directly to the mouthpiece. With its “husky” but “bright” tone, the tenor saxophone is most known for its ability to mix nicely with the soprano, alto, and baritone saxophones.

Like other saxophones, the tenor saxophone is made of an almost conical tube of thin brass, a kind of metal. The larger end of the tube is slightly flared to create a bell, while the smaller end is linked to a single-reed mouthpiece similar to that of a clarinet. 

Between 20 and 23 tone holes are placed at regular intervals along the bore; these are covered by pads that may be pushed into the holes to create an airtight seal. There are also two tiny speaker holes that, when opened, disturb the instrument’s lower harmonics and cause it to overblow into the higher register. 

The pads are operated by pressing several keys with the left and right hand’s fingers; the left thumb controls an octave key that opens one or both speaker holes. The original tenor saxophone design used a distinct octave key for each speaker hole, similar to the bassoon.

Although a few novelty tenors have been built straight,’ like the smaller members of the saxophone family, the cumbersome length of the straight design means that nearly all tenor saxophones have the saxophone family’s distinctive ‘U-bend’ above the third-lowest tone hole. 

The top of the tenor saxophone is similarly curved, above the highest tone hole but below the highest speaker hole. While the alto is often bent just through 80–90° to let the mouthpiece sit more comfortably in the mouth, the tenor is typically bent somewhat further in this region, including a small S-bend.

The tenor saxophone mouthpiece is quite similar to that of the clarinet: a roughly wedge-shaped tube, open along in one side and covered in use by a thin piece of material made from the stem of the Arundo donax cane, commonly known as a reed.

The reed is shaved to an incredibly thin point before being clasped over the mouthpiece with a ligature. When air is breathed into the mouthpiece, the reed vibrates, creating the acoustic resonances needed to create music from the instrument. 

Because the mouthpiece is the region of the saxophone with the most form and style flexibility, the instrument’s timbre is mainly influenced by the size of its mouthpiece. The mouthpiece and reed design have a significant impact on how a saxophone sounds. 

Classical mouthpieces tend to create a warmer, rounder tone, while jazz mouthpieces tend to produce a brighter, edgier tone. Plastic, ebonite, and different metals such as bronze, brass, and stainless steel are utilized to manufacture mouthpieces.

The tenor saxophone’s mouthpiece is proportionately more prominent than the alto’s, requiring a correspondingly larger reed. 

Because of the stiffer reed and the higher airflow needed to create resonance in the bigger body, the tenor sax requires more lung strength but a looser embouchure than the higher-pitched members of the saxophone family. 

Because the reed used in the tenor sax is close in size to that used in the bass clarinet, the two may be readily swapped.

Baritone Saxophone

The baritone saxophone is an instrument in the saxophone family, bigger and lower-pitched than the tenor but smaller and higher-pitched than the bass.

Like all the other instruments in this list, the baritone saxophone is a single-reed instrument. It is popular in concert bands, chamber music, military bands, large bands, and jazz combos. Other groups that use it include rock bands and marching bands.

It is a transposing instrument in the key of E♭ that is tuned an octave and a major sixth lower than written. It is one octave lower in pitch than the alto saxophone. The range of modern baritones with a low A key and a high F♯ key is C2 to A4.

Its music, like that of all saxophones, is written in treble clef. By chance, it is feasible to read music written in bass clef at concert pitch by reading as if it were a transposing part in treble clef and imagining there were three more sharps [respectively three fewer flats] in the key signature.

A similar technique enables instruments in the key of B♭, such as the tenor saxophone, to read concert pitch tenor clef.

E♭ is the standard pitch for modern baritone saxophones. It is the most common low-pitched saxophone as the bass and contrabass saxophones are rarely used today.

The baritone saxophone is a conical tube of thin brass. It features a larger end that is flared to create a bell and a smaller end attached to a mouthpiece. The baritone saxophone, like the clarinet, has a single-reed mouthpiece. To lower it to a reasonable height, a loop at the top of the body, also known as the “pigtail,” in two U-shaped sections of tube called the upper bow and spit bow.

Baritone saxophones are usually available in two models: low A and low B♭. Despite the prevalence of the low A horn, some players choose to utilize B♭ horns due to the additional weight of a low A horn bell personal choice for a specific antique instrument. Some players think that low A horns sound inferior in the low range, although this is debatable.

Because of the relatively large mass of the baritone saxophone [5.0 to 9.1 Kg. or 11 to 20 pounds], depending on the manufacturer’s choice of material and structural designs, and whether it has a low A key, harness-style alternatives to neckstraps that distribute the instrument’s weight across the user’s shoulders have been developed.

There are many types. Each distributes weight differently over the saxophonist’s neck, collarbone, and shoulder blades. Many marching saxophonists prefer this technique due to its ability to reduce fatigue. Those who primarily play the instrument by sitting may hate the reduced capacity to move one’s upper body with a harness.

Some contemporary instruments are also equipped with floor peg mounts, similar to those used on bass clarinets, to minimize weight on the player’s neck while sitting.

The baritone saxophone is a common instrument in saxophone quartets, jazz music, and military bands. And if you’re a Simpsons fan, you should know that Lisa Simpson plays the baritone sax.

If you’re looking to start learning to play the baritone saxophone or looking for an upgrade, have a look at the current deals on Amazon below.

Bass Saxophone

The bass saxophone is one of the most prominent saxophone family members, larger than the more popular baritone saxophone. The contemporary bass saxophone is a transposing instrument tuned at B♭, one octave lower than the tenor saxophone.

Although C bass saxophones have initially been designed for symphonic usage, contemporary instruments are in B♭. This places them exactly a fourth below the baritone and an octave below the tenor.

Music is written in treble clef, like with the other saxophones, with notes two octaves and a major second lower than written. Like most other saxophone family members, the lowest printed note is the B♭ below the staff, which sounds like a concert A in the first octave [51.9 Hz].

Benedikt Eppelsheim, a German wind instrument manufacturer, has produced bass saxophones to low A, comparable to the extension in the baritone saxophone. This produces the sound of a concert G in the first octave [49 Hz].

The bass saxophone is rarely often utilized, although it may be heard on specific 1920s jazz recordings, in free jazz, saxophone choruses, and on occasion in concert bands.

Between WW I and WW II, the bass saxophone was prominent in jazz combinations and dance bands, mainly supplying bottom lines and sometimes taking melodic solos. This period produced notable players like Billy Fowler, Coleman Hawkins, and Otto Hardwicke.

The bass saxophone is sometimes employed as an instrument in concert ensembles, usually in pre-1950 arrangements. It is most often heard in saxophone choirs, particularly those founded by teacher-soloist Sigurd Rascher.

It is seldom employed in orchestral music, but there are a few instances. William Henry Fry’s Holy symphony Hagar In the Wilderness is the first known piece to use it [1853].

Blaise Garza, a touring member of Violent Femmes since 2004, and Kellie Everett, a member of The Hooten Hallers since 2014, are two prominent instances of bass saxophone usage in current rock music. Here is an example of DEEP SCHROTT bass saxophone quartet performing live in the open air in 2020.

Contrabass Saxophone

Contrabass Saxophone. Source: Pinterest.

The contrabass saxophone is the saxophone family’s second-lowest-pitched surviving member.

Are we talking about huge? The contrabass saxophone is twice the length of tubing as a baritone saxophone, with a bore twice as wide, standing 1.9 meters tall [6 feet 4 inches], and weighing about 20 kilograms, or 45 pounds. 

The instrument is tuned in the key of E, one octave below the baritone saxophone. It sounds one octave below the baritone and two octaves below the alto sax.

The contrabass, like other saxophones, has a playing range that extends from a low B flat to a high F, or about two and a half octaves, but some contemporary models reach down to a low A and up to a high F sharp. 

The contrabass saxophone enjoyed an increased interest in recent years. Although they are still very uncommon, perhaps owing to their high cost, three manufacturers currently make contrabass saxophones: Benedikt Eppelsheim of Munich, Germany; Benedikt Eppelsheim of Berlin, Germany; Brazil, and Romeo Orsi Wind Instruments of Milan, and J’Elle Stainer of So Paulo.

The sound of the contrabass saxophone has a lot of acoustic presence and a vibrant tone because of its big body and broad bore. Depending on the player and the mouthpiece and reed combination utilized, it may be smooth and mellow or harsh and buzzy. It has a warm, rich, and expressive middle and upper register.

Because its lowest tones vibrate so slowly, it may be difficult for listeners to discern individual pitches near the bottom range. Instead of hearing a well-defined melody, listeners may listen to a succession of rattling tones with minimal pitch definition.

However, when these tones are augmented by another instrument playing at the octave or fifteenth, they sound sharply defined and have a lot of resonance and presence. Depending on the range of the song, the contrabass saxophone doubles the baritone saxophone at the same pitch or an octave lower in certain modern jazz/classical groups.

While few symphonic pieces explicitly call for the contrabass saxophone, the rising number of contrabass saxophonists has resulted in a growing solo and chamber music corpus.

It works very well as a basis for big saxophone groups. For example, renowned saxophonist Sigurd Raschèr (1907-2001) used to play the instrument in his Raschèr Saxophone Ensemble.

Since 2004, the rock band Violent Femmes has used the contrabass saxophone in their live performances and their most recent recordings.

Saxophone FAQ

Q: Is the saxophone hard to learn?

A: The saxophone should have a clear tone on the first day. If the sound isn’t producing, your jaw may be compressing the reed and mouthpiece. The saxophone’s mouthpiece is known as the embouchure. That element of learning the saxophone has a significant effect on tone quality. This talent takes years to acquire and requires a lot of instruction. Is learning to play the saxophone hard? Truthfully, some individuals will understand the saxophone more easily than others. A good illustration is the smaller-handed, and smaller-mouthed kids should not take saxophone instruction.

Q: Which saxophone is best for beginners?

A: Because it is the most popular saxophone, the alto saxophone is the ideal choice for beginning players. To get started on the alto saxophone, it’s essential to become acquainted with the instrument’s distinctive sound by listening to music, particularly jazz, where you’ll most likely hear an alto saxophone being played.

Q: Is saxophone good for your lungs?

Those who are familiar with woodwind instruments, particularly clarinets, will adjust to the saxophone quite fast. Fortunately, saxophone fingering is less complicated than other woodwind instruments. A saxophone’s most significant difficulty is that it doesn’t provide immediate satisfaction. It takes quite a bit of time and practice to be able to create excellent tone quality.

Students are upset because they sound like amateurs after the first two months. Unreasonable expectations may lead to disappointments. Remember that eight-year saxophone veterans still have a lot to learn!

Q: How much does a saxophone cost?

A: Beginner saxophones typically start from $400 to as high as $1,200. Step-up or intermediate saxophones ranges usually from $1,300 to $2,800. The entry-level pro saxophones are still used mainly by advanced players starting from $3,000 and above.

Conclusion

As we have seen, the saxophone has a unique sound that may be used in various genres, including classical, jazz, soul, blues, current, pop, rock, and marching bands. 

To play jazz, pop, or rock, it’s important to start with a formal teacher and classical material. With this kind of training, you will develop strong reading and technical foundations. Practice is the key!

While mastering any instrument is difficult, make sure you enjoy the journey! As your instructor instructs, put in the necessary time practicing your instrument. Then, towards the conclusion of your practice session, try improvisation or perform your favorite song.

Regularly including this essential step will help you remain motivated. In addition, reflecting on your passion for the saxophone can help you avoid irritation and stay optimistic while you practice.

With powerful tones that enable you to express emotion and exhibit your own style and originality, the saxophone may fit any musical taste.

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