All About the Saxophone Family

saxophone family

The Saxophone Family

The saxophone is a relatively new instrument that was invented during the 1840’s by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian musician and instrument maker. The saxophone, patented in 1846, is a member of the woodwind family, usually made of brass, and played with a single reed mouthpiece, similar to that of the clarinet. The saxophone is used in classical music, military and marching bands, jazz and contemporary music, including rock and roll.

There are fourteen different saxophone types, but the four most popular are soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. Each instrument has a different size, range, and is used in different types of music.  Let’s take a look at each one.

The Most Popular Saxophone Types

The soprano saxophone may be curved or straight in shape. It is regarded as an instrument for experienced musicians, and not for beginner students. Like the tenor saxophone, this instrument plays in the key of B flat, and is the highest pitched of the saxophone instruments. The soprano saxophone can give off a variety of tones, depending on its shape and how it’s played. This instrument requires quite a bit of practice to master, and is often used in jazz. Kenny G is probably the most famous soprano saxophonist.

The alto saxophone is generally regarded as the saxophone for beginning students. The alto saxophone is medium in size, approximately 24 inches in length, which makes it easy to hold, especially for younger students. The smaller mouthpiece also helps the beginning student master the instrument. The alto saxophone has a curved shape and it plays in the key of E flat. This is the instrument you’ll find students learning for the school band.  Professional jazz musicians love the alto sax – Charlie Parker and David Sanborn are among many famous players.

The tenor saxophone is what most people have in mind when they think of a saxophone because it is commonly played in jazz and rock and roll. The tenor saxophone is a relatively large instrument, a foot longer than the alto sax, with a large mouthpiece, and long rods and tone holes. The characteristic bend in the neck crook helps to produce the instrument’s full-throated tone. This instrument is popular for modern day jazz and rock because it plays in the key of B flat, a traditionally easier key for horn players. Among the many famous tenor saxophonists are John Coltrane and Stan Getz.

The baritone saxophone, sometimes referred to as the “bari sax,” is the largest of the four primary saxophones. The deep bass sound of the instrument is often featured in jazz solos. The baritone saxophone, because of its size, requires that the musician wear a harness to help support the weight of the instrument. The baritone is tuned to E flat; sometimes an extension is added to play the horn in a low A, thus increasing its range. Gerry Mulligan was a famous bari saxophonist in the 1950’s and today’s Leo Pellegrino of Too Many Zooz is known for his solo work.

Other Types of Saxophones

Historical notes suggest that Adolphe Sax envisioned an orchestra entirely made up of saxophones and that is why his patent included so many sizes and ranges.  While the saxophones described above are the most popular, these three are still in use:

The sopranissimo is the smallest saxophone, just twelve inches in length.  It is difficult to manufacture because of its small size and challenging to play.

The sopranino, also known as the soprillo, is the next size up from the sopranissimo. Ravel’s famous composition, Bolero, includes the sopranino sax.

The bass saxophone was the first saxophone introduced to the public by Adolphe Sax in 1841. It is a very large instrument with twice as many feet of tubing as the baritone. The bass sax is most often heard in jazz and rock and roll; of note, the Rolling Stones have featured the solo bass in some of their music.

The remaining seven saxophones, listed below, are largely obsolete.

  • Mezzo Soprano
  • Contrabass
  • C Melody
  • Slide Saxophone
  • Saxello
  • Connosax
  • Subcontrabass

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