So you wanna learn how to play the saxophone, huh?
Let’s face it, we all considered playing it at some point in our life.
We all have in mind the image of a lone saxophonist playing in a foggy street of New York City at night… Right?
And there’s just something unique and fascinating about its sound, the musicians who play it, and even its shape…
And, unlike the vast majority of musical instruments, the saxophone is a fairly recent invention, which might be one of the reason it is so versatile.
So whether you want to learn to play that cheesy 80’s lick, or become the next John Coltrane…
I have in today’s in-depth article everything you need to know to get started on the saxophone…
As well as to take your playing to the next level if you are already a confirmed musician.
Then let’s start.
Anatomy of a Saxophone
Even though it is mainly made of brass, the saxophone is not to be confused with brass instruments (which have no reed, such as the trumpet).
Its sound is produced by blowing into a mouthpiece and making a reed vibrate against this same mouthpiece.
The bigger the body, the lower the sound
The saxophone is made of 4 main parts:
- The mouthpiece
- The neck
- The body
- The bell
Depending on the model you’re looking at, all these parts vary in size.
And so, next up…
There are many different saxophone sizes, but for this article I’ll cover the 4 most popular ones :
These sizes cover the most common range of notes used in an orchestra/big band, and they are also the easiest models to come by, as well as the easiest to PLAY.
Indeed, try looking for models such as a sopranissimo or a subcontrabass saxophone and tell me how it went…
And if you ever do manage to find one, try to play it. These instruments are extremely difficult to play, due either to their size and the technique required to play them.
So back to our 4 models: among them, 2 are especially popular:
- The alto sax – which has a bright, higher pitched sound, and…
- The tenor sax – which has a fuller, deeper sound.
These are the 2 models you hear the most, inside as well as outside of jazz and classical music.
Now, alto and tenor sax play the exact same range of notes, meaning their lowest and highest notes are the same. The only difference is their pitch, and some people say the alto’s pitch is similar to the one of a female voice, whereas the tenor’s pitch is similar to the male voice.
Check out this video to hear the differences between these two for yourself:
How to choose a saxophone size
Before making a decision, know that all 4 models share the same fingerings, meaning that if you can play one model, you technically can play all of them.
Choosing a specific type of saxophone essentially comes down to these factors:
- Who are your favorite musicians
- Which sound you like the most
- What music genre you want to play
But let me tell you right now, the LEAST obvious choice here is the baritone sax, and that’s because it’s only very rarely played as a solo instrument…
Meaning you probably won’t ever find a “regular” band with a baritone sax, unless it is a saxophone band or a big band.
Got it? Good, now let’s look into each model with more details.
Undoubtedly THE most common sax of all…
The alto sax is very often the first choice for beginners and children, because:
- It’s small and light enough to be comfortably held by a child
- You don’t need to make a tremendous effort to produce a sound when you start
- It’s easier to handle than a soprano sax, thanks to the neck and shoulder strap
Probably the most versatile saxophone of all, you’ll hear it in absolutely all music genres, from jazz and classical music to rock and pop.
If you’re looking for the most affordable and widespread option to start with, you can’t go wrong with an alto.
A bigger instrument, the tenor saxophone produces a lower and deeper sound and therefore requires more air to be played… Which can be challenging for beginners.
You’ve probably heard it dozens of times in famous 80’s pop rock recordings (remember that line in George Michaels’ Careless Whisper?)
Now, for some reason the tenor sax seem to be a little bit more popular than the alto among more experienced musicians…
In jazz for example, the truth is that you do see more tenor players than alto, and many players that start on the alto end up switching to the tenor after a while…
The most common reason being them preferring the sound of the tenor.
So now that we’ve covered the two most popular models, let’s learn more about the two less popular models, starting with the…
Everybody seems to agree that the soprano sax is the hardest saxophone to play out of the 4 models, and that’s because:
- Being the highest pitched saxophone, it’s very difficult to keep playing a consistent note
- All its weight is supported by the right thumb (though this can be improved with a curved soprano)
- The mouthpiece is also the smallest of all models, making it more difficult to play
All these factors often lead to frustration and giving up the instrument, and that’s why many teachers advise NOT to choose a soprano as your first sax.
Furthermore, the soprano sax is rarely found outside of classical and especially jazz music, probably because of its pitch, which doesn’t really go well with louder, catchier genres such as rock or pop.
There are 3 types of Soprano saxophones:
- Straight – which is the most common one
- Curved – which some prefer because you can use a strap on it and it’s easier to mic
- Curved-neck – which some musicians prefer because of its weight-distribution
Now, sound-wise, the only real difference between these models lies behind the saxophone, meaning the audience won’t hear anything, but you might.
Also, be aware that on curved models, some keys closer to the bell might be harder to reach for big hands.
The peculiar thing about the soprano sax is that you rarely see saxophone players who play it as a primary instrument, but rather a secondary instrument. Probably because of the difficulties I mentioned earlier.
Also, you’ll most probably never see saxophone players playing both alto and tenor, but you do see a lot of players playing 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 tunes such as “My Favorite Things” or “Afro Blue”, which are among his most famous ones.
As I said earlier, the baritone sax is the least obvious choice:
- Because of its size and weight
- Because of its very low pitch
However, most sources agree that it is no more difficult to play than the tenor.
In fact, being such a low pitched instrument, it is relatively easy to keep playing in tune, unlike the soprano.
Saxophone players whose primary instrument is the baritone are very rare and musicians such as Gerry Mulligan, Cecil Paynes or Pepper Adams are pretty much the three major figures of this instrument and are all jazz musicians…
Which might actually be an advantage as you will definitely not have much competition if you choose baritone as your primary instrument…
But on the other hand not many bands look for, or need a baritone saxophone, so definitely also take that into consideration
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.
Got it? Then let’s move on…
Mouthpiece and Reed
When buying your first saxophone you won’t necessarily worry about which mouthpiece and reed it comes with…
But the truth is, these 2 parts have a CRUCIAL influence on the overall sound, and it’s good to know you can change them if you want to.
So here are the sound influencing factors of a mouthpiece:
- The size of the tip opening – which refers to the distance between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece.
- The size of the chamber – which refers to the size of the hole in the mouthpiece.
- The baffle – which refers to a special kind of roof on some mouthpieces.
- The reed strength – which refers to the density of the reed.
So let’s now take a look at each of these characteristics with more details.
1. Tip Opening
To understand why the tip opening is important, let’s first see how sound is created on a saxophone:
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
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.
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.
Student or Professional sax?
There are 2 big ranges of saxophones:
- Student saxophones – which are made of cheaper materials, but aren’t necessarily bad.
- Professional saxophones – which are aimed at advanced/professional players and often have many handmade parts.
If you compare these 2 types of saxophones on the image on the right, you can’t really notice blatant differences…
But if we look at the details, some differences do appear:
- The materials – the metal used in professional sax is often denser
- The neck bore – it is usually larger in professional saxophones
- The construction – mainly the keys, which can be used in “single post” construction (on student sax) or used in “ribbed” construction (on pro sax)
Single post construction means the keys are individually attached to the body of the saxophone, whereas ribbed construction means they are first attached to a “rib”, adding weight and rigidity to the saxophone.
And all of these little improvements share 2 common goals:
- Reducing the weight and…
- Improving the sound
Check out this video to hear the difference between a student and a professional saxophone for yourself:
For this list, I’ll order the saxophones by range (student/professional) and size.
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.
Student Saxophones UNDER $1,500
- Mendini by Cecilio – (Amazon)
Intermediate/Professional Saxophones ABOVE $1,500
So there you have it guys, an exhaustive guide to the saxophone. Hopefully you now know enough to choose the right one for you.
‘Til next time.