The saxophone is one of those instruments that catch the eye and the ear of anyone lucky enough to be up close to one. Officially, it is a member of metal woodwinds, but it is often confused with with brass instruments. The saxophone was created way back in the 1840s by Belgian flautist, Adolphe Sax, and has a deep history seeded in the working classes of the 19th century.
Coal miners sought a distraction from the hard, and oftentimes depressing atmosphere of labor. Cue in the historical phenomenon, the British Brass Band movement. Jazz bands everywhere began to adopt it as a staple piece of equipment. It soon became clear that the sax was here to stay. So it was, and the sax would continue to undergo structural changes, eventually becoming the masterpiece that you can see all over the world today. If you wish to learn how to play the saxophone, and get those most out of your learning experience, we recommend familiarizing yourself with all the unique components of this incredible instrument.
Materials Used in Manufacturing a Saxophone
Saxophones are primarily made of brass. Brass is made of a composite alloy of metals like copper, zinc, nickel and tin.The common saxophone is most likely made of about 70% copper and 30% zinc, which gives the sax that signature yellow brass color. The zinc is beneficial to process, as it makes the metals more malleable at lower temperatures.
A custom (and more expensive) made saxophone can be made of both silver and brass alloys at varied percentages. It gets even more detailed in it’s metal work, because manufacturers will use different types of brass for each working part of the sax. At a staggering count of 600 parts, that’s a lot of incredible detail! Small levels of phosphorus or arsenic may also be used to when the tubing is being applied. If you thought that was a lot, just wait, we aren’t done yet. The very important thing that holds it all together, the screws, are stainless steel. Cork lines the joints and water keys. We will take a look at those a little later.
The Structure of the Saxophone
Each working part of the sax is created and assembled, one piece at a time. At first glance you can easily spot the first four fundamental parts: the curved piece is the neck, also known as the mouth pipe. Below the neck is the body, the signature U-shaped bow, and the round, flared bell. If you look along the length of the instrument, you will also find 25 tone holes.
There are six different types of saxophone available. Based on sound, as follows: sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones. To make it easier to remember, think smallest and highest pitch as soprainio and largest and lowest pitch as bass. Let’s take a closer look at each of these components.
The neck of the saxophone contains many intricate parts. First up is the mouthpiece. If you are part of an orchestra ensemble or an up and coming rockstar, choosing the right mouthpiece is essential. Check out this in-depth guide to finding the right mouthpiece for you. The mouthpiece consists of a tone chamber and the lay which is the opening between the mouthpiece reed and its tip. Mouthpieces are typically marked with a letter and numbers to denote the width of the lay.
When searching for the perfect sax, keep in mind that the material the mouthpiece has no effect on the actual sound produced. You can choose from glass, metal or ebonite. The saxophone mouthpiece uses a single bamboo reed attached by a ligature which is attached with screws made of either metal, plastic or leather. You can choose from a hard reed or a soft reed. The signature bright, perky sound you hear is created by the vibration of the reed when air (your breath) is forced past it. As the air travels through the body, it becomes amplified.
Next piece is the plastic resonator. Resonators are attached to the finger keys pad by a rivet. These resonators reflect sound back into the bore of the saxophone, giving you many ways of manipulating just one breath! This is called ‘free blowing’ Then they are coated in nickel to reinforce its durability and to give it a signature shine.
The ‘crook’ is an essential part because it connects the mouthpiece and the main instrument body together At the top of it is a cork which is important for tuning the instrument. The tone changes depending on where the mouthpiece is positioned on the cork. The other end of the crook is a metal joint that fits into the main body of the saxophone. It connects with a screw to keep the crook in place.
The keys of a saxophone come in two different types. The first option is the closed standing key. These keys are held together by a spring when the instrument is not being played. As you press the key, the hole it was covering is opened. The second is the open standing key which are help open until it is pressed, after which the hole is covered when played. Each saxophone key has a special pad at the end of it, which gives each hole an airtight seal when played, which gives a ‘note’ played.
This part is one that is easy to spot. It’s the long metal tube that comes down from the neck. It gets wider as it curves upwards into a ‘bell’. There are tiny holes drilled at specific intervals into the side,which creates ‘notes’ So when all of the holes are closed,the sound created by your reed becomes amplified. When the holes are left open, the sound produces an altered note.
Ready for Lessons?
Now that you are armed with the knowledge of what makes a saxophone work, you are ready to take on some lessons! Salabert Les Sons features an excellent guide book to all things woodwind related. Any serious saxophone player also has a few of our achievement books in their arsenal. We offer dozens of lesson books with CD to choose from! Good luck and happy playing!