If you’re shopping for saxophones, but aren’t quite sure what you’re looking for, or how to tell the difference between one model and the next…
You’ve come to the right place.
Because in this ultimate guide, you’re about to get a crash-course in everything a new player would care to know, when starting out on this instrument.
So here’s what we’re about to cover:
In this Article:
- Choosing Between the 4 Saxophones Sizes
- Is the Saxophone a Brass or Woodwind Instrument?
- A Closer Look at the Mouthpiece and Reed
- The Best Saxophone Brand
- A transposing instrument
- Key Takeaways from this Article:
Choosing Between the 4 Saxophones Sizes
While there are many different saxophone sizes, the 4 most common ones which you MUST know are (in order of size):
Their popularity is due mainly to the fact that they cover the most common note ranges in an orchestra/big band, and are also easiest to play.
Sopranissimo (the smallest), and Subcontrabass (the biggest) on the other hand, are quite uncommon, and difficult to play.
Whichever you choose though, its good to know all 4 models share the same fingerings, so if you can play one model, you can at least kind of play them all.
Now up next, let’s take a closer look at each of these sizes…
ALTO Saxophones: The Best Option for Beginners
Undoubtedly the most common and versatile sax of all…
The alto sax can be seen across almost all musical genres, from jazz and classical music to rock and pop.
Some say its pitch is similar that of a female voice, (while the tenor is closer to a male’s).
Due to its smaller size and playability, it’s the ideal choice for beginners and children.
This is why you’ll find a lot of beginner sax models in this size.
So here are some good models I recommend checking out:
TENOR Saxophones: The Best Option for Intermediate/Advanced
One step up in size from the alto sax…
The tenor saxophone produces the same range of notes, but at a lower octave.
While it’s a bit more difficult to play for beginners, it tends to be the most popular choice among experienced players, due to its preferred sound.
Which is why it’s the most common sax you’re likely to hear on records and live performances.
It’s quite common for players to start out on alto, then graduate up to tenor after building up their skill set.
So here’s what I recommend:
SOPRANO Saxophones: A Great Secondary Instrument
For you 3rd most likely candidate, we have the soprano sax, which comes in 3 designs (all sound basically the same):
- Straight w/ Curved Neck
Everyone seems to agree that the soprano sax hardest to play of the 4, and definitely not a good choice for beginners.
It’s also less popular in music, and rarely found outside of classical and jazz.
As it turns out, the range of the instrument which doesn’t really go well with louder, catchier genres such as rock or pop.
Probably for this reason, players typically choose the soprano sax as their secondary instrument, to either alto or tenor.
Meaning you won’t see many players on both alto and tenor, but you see lots on both alto and soprano, OR tenor and soprano.
John Coltrane for example – who is originally a tenor saxophone player – is famous for playing the soprano on many of his popular tunes including “My Favorite Things” and “Afro Blue”.
So if this is the saxophone size that currently appeals to you, here’s what I recommend:
BARITONE Saxophones: The Rarest of the Four
As the least common of the 4 saxophone sizes…
You might find the baritone saxophone unnappealing simply because of its large size and uncommonly low pitch.
The main upsides though, are that its easy to play, and easy to maintain pitch (unlike the soprano).
The most well-known examples of bariton players include Gerry Mulligan, Cecil Paynes and Pepper Adams, all of which are jazz musicians.
Beyond these 3 though, they’re extremely rare to come by, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a primary unless you’re really looking to stand out from the crowd.
But if that’s your thing, here’s what I recommend:
- Mendini by Cecilio – (Amazon)
Is the Saxophone a Brass or Woodwind Instrument?
While you might imagine the sax as a brass instrument (since it’s made of brass), it’s actually a woodwind.
Because the defining factor between these two classes of instruments is the REED.
Woodwinds have them, but brass does not.
And players with any decent level of experience on woodwinds know that the reed/mouthpiece is by far the most important part of the instrument.
So up next, we’ll give it a closer look…
A Closer Look at the Mouthpiece and Reed
As a total beginner, the reed and mouthpiece won’t be a primary concern right away…
But as soon as you start gaining experience with the instrument, they very quickly will be…
And will be the main part(s) you’ll want to customize as you begin to develop your own sound.
And to do this, there are 4 parts you’ll need to understand:
- Tip Opening Size
- Chamber Size
- Reed Strength
So let’s look at each of these separately, starting with…
1. Tip Opening
Which refers to the distance between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece.
When air is blown into the mouthpiece the reed vibrates against the mouthpiece. The air then goes through the saxophone body and ends up creating sound.
Different mouthpieces will have different tip openings, depending on their facing curve (shown by the green arrows on the image on the right).
In the image on the right, the first mouthpiece has a short facing curve, leading to a small tip opening whereas the mouthpiece on the second image has a long facing curve, leading to a large tip opening.
Mouthpieces manufacturers measure the tip opening in millimetres or 1/10th of inches and the difference between the smallest and the biggest opening is never greater than 2mm.
But this difference is enough to drastically change the sound, and tip opening sizes usually range from 1.10mm to 3.10mm.
- A small tip opening – requires less air and effort to produce sound, which is easier to play.
- A big tip opening – requires more air and effort to produce sound, which is more difficult to play
In terms of sound though, many players prefer a big tip opening because the sound is deeper, warmer and allows for greater control, such as bending the notes.
So the general rule is that beginners should play on a small tip opening, while advanced and professional players play on a big tip opening.
However, some sources say that a large tip opening with a softer reed is actually easier to play than a small tip opening with a hard reed, so expect to find conflicting opinions on that subject.
2. Chamber Size
which refers to the size of the hole in the mouthpiece.
The size of the chamber influences the speed at which the airflow travels to the body of the saxophone.
- In a small chamber the air goes through faster resulting in a more projecting and cut-through sound
- In a big chamber the air goes through slower resulting in a mellower sound
So the most common advices are that if you want to play in a loud funk/rock band, you might be better off with a small chamber…
Whether if you intend to play jazz or classical music you might prefer a big chamber to get a mellow, round sound. As an example, Ravel’s Boléro is a pretty good depiction of that sound.
– which refers to a special kind of “roof” on some mouthpieces.
Up until the 1930’s, the saxophone was pretty much only used in classical music which required a round and clean sound.
Original saxophones all had a “straight baffle” mouthpiece.
But with the emergence of jazz and big bands, saxophonists started modifying their mouthpiece to obtain new sounds.
That’s when they found out that by modifying the airstream they could change the tone, and this was done by changing the baffle’s shape.
The baffle is basically the roof of the mouthpiece chamber and can be more or less sloped, which modifies the size of the opening in which the air enters.
- If the opening is large the airflow has a lot of space and doesn’t need to travel fast, resulting in a rounder, mellower sound.
- If the opening is small the airflow must travel faster, resulting in a brighter, more projecting sound.
Got it? Good.
Among all the characteristics we’ve covered so far, reeds are probably the easiest one to change and modify…
Which is a good thing considering you’ll be replacing them rather frequently.
Indeed, being inexpensive, you can straight away buy several different types to experiment.
Expect to replace them regularly. The typical lifespan of a reed varies from a week to several months, depending on the model and on your playing.
Signs for when it’s time to change your reed are a chipped tip, a cracked reed or even black mold.
Reeds are ordered by strength, referring to their hardness.
Brands usually have their own classification system, but usually the bigger the number, the harder the reed.
So what type of reed should you use? Well the general consensus is that:
- Soft reeds – are usually recommended for beginners as they don’t require much effort to play. They produce a bright sound with lots of harmonics.
- Hard reeds – require more effort to play but produce a mellower, deeper sound that many saxophonists prefer.
Now, a common myth you hear when starting the saxophone is that all the greatest saxophonists play or played with large tip openings and hard reeds…
But that is simply NOT true. It all depends on the sound you’re looking for, and the truth is your embouchure (the way your mouth grabs the mouthpiece) is the most important factor, NOT the strength of the reed.
The Best Saxophone Brand
Now, most saxophonists agree that the best brand is SELMER Paris (not to be confused with Selmer USA which sells high-end Chinese and Taiwan made saxophones) which handcrafts each and every saxophone in Paris.
This brand however doesn’t make student saxophones, so expect very (very) high prices.
They did however launch a “low-cost” brand caled Seles. Now, by low-cost I mean $2k saxophones instead of $5k/$6k or more for regular Selmer sax.
So basically we’re talking high-end vs. best possibly human-made instrument, with no price constraint.
A transposing instrument
Saxophones are transposing instruments, meaning that if you play a C on a saxophone and a C on a non-transposing instrument (like the piano), you’ll hear 2 different notes.
Now, not all saxophones are tuned the same:
- The alto and baritone sax are in Eb — one and a half step above non-transposing instruments.
- The soprano and tenor are in Bb — one step under non-transposing instruments.
This means that if you play a C on a piano, you’ll have to play an Eb on an alto/baritone sax and a Bb on a tenor/soprano in order to hear the same note, and this process is called transposing.
That is also the reason why musicians use the term concert C when referring to the “real” C, as opposed to the tenor/alto C.
Key Takeaways from this Article:
In order of size from small to large, the 4 common sizes are Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone
The Alto Saxophone is the most common size to start with, because it is easiest to play.