So You Want to Play the Saxophone…
Or maybe you’re a saxophonist with some experience looking for a refresher before you upgrade to your next horn. You might even be a parent or teacher, in need of a little advice before choosing your child or student’s first sax. Whatever the case, you’ll find some valuable information in this guide to help you make the right decision. A saxophone is a fairly complex instrument, so there’s a lot of ground to cover – but that doesn’t mean it has to be daunting. Just relax and read on, and enjoy your introduction to this iconic and rewarding instrument.
Table of Contents
- The Saxophone: An Overview
- A Sax for Every Skill Level
- Details & Specifications
- Buy vs. Rent
- Brands, Recommendations and Closing Thoughts
The Saxophone: An Overview
The roots of the saxophone can be traced back to mid-1800s Belgium, when it was invented by a well-known instrument maker named Adolphe Sax. It enjoyed a slow but steady increase in popularity, which was later kicked into overdrive when the saxophone was picked up by musicians like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. This gave the sax its foothold on the jazz, pop and rock genres, making it one of the only woodwinds that can be found in virtually every style of music. It may seem odd that the sax is classified as a woodwind in the first place since it’s usually made of brass, but when it comes to classification, it’s all about the mouthpiece – and there’s nothing brass about a saxophone’s reed.
Straddling the boundary between woodwind and brass is only one of the things that makes the saxophone unique. Another is its versatility. With a saxophone, you can achieve everything from low tuba-like peals to warm and mellow horn sounds or a light and articulate trill similar to a clarinet. This is made possible by the instrument’s ability to scale in size: when Adolphe Sax designed it, he wanted the saxophone to be a whole family of instruments, not a single model. Of the 14 different sizes that Sax originally patented, there are five which are commonly used today (as well as a few more that are rare, but not unheard-of). Those five are the alto, tenor, soprano, baritone and bass saxophones.
For beginners, the most common way to begin playing saxophone is with the alto sax. This version is tuned to Eb, positioned two and a half steps above the tenor. Because the alto saxophone has a compact, easy-to-play key layout and needs a smaller amount of air than larger instruments to play, it’s great for developing basic skills and techniques. When you’re playing saxophone in a school band, chances are high that most of your bandmates (as well as yourself) will be playing the alto.
Another benefit of the alto saxophone is the sheer amount of music that exists for it, especially in the classical repertoire. But it’s got plenty of versatility, too, with a lot of jazz musicians taking advantage of it upper ranges. Look to Charlie Parker for an example: his fast fingers and creativity helped to make the bebop sound what it is today – almost entirely on an alto saxophone.
If you’re looking for the gold standard of jazz instruments, a tenor saxophone could be the choice for you. With its Bb tuning and familiar looks, the tenor sax sits comfortably between the alto and the baritone in this instrumental family. Although the tenor is larger than the alto, it’s still manageable enough to be approachable for a beginner, so if you’re up for a slightly bigger challenge and looking for a more jazzy sound than the alto, consider taking the tenor for a spin.
While the alto is two and a half steps above the tenor, the Bb soprano saxophone takes the next position up, tuned another two and half steps over the alto. The soprano’s smaller size tends to mean a smaller price tag, which might make it attractive for a beginner – but take care. Its higher pitch and more precise nature can make it a very challenging instrument to master, especially as a first step into the world of saxophones.
Allora AAAS-301 Student Alto Saxophone. Learn More.
Where the soprano sax shines is delivering richness and fullness for music played in higher registers. It’s a natural fit for orchestras and concert bands, and has even found an occasional place in jazz through musicians like John Coltrane. The soprano saxophone is also special in terms of its design: since it is a smaller instrument, it’s often built in a straight configuration, without the curved bell you would expect to find on most saxes. But there are some models that do “preserve the curve,” which gives players the freedom to choose their favorite type.
The baritone saxophone is the lowest-pitched of the “big four” varieties. Tuned to Eb, this instrument can be found in classical music, and occasionally in jazz, where it’s known for its solo sound. But the true home of the baritone sax is undeniably in traditional R&B as well as rock ‘n’ roll, which make great use of its rich, honking tone.
The size of a baritone saxophone makes it a tougher instrument for beginners than an alto or tenor sax, and those smaller horns may be better options if you’re setting out specifically to play the saxophone. On the other hand, if your goal is simply to play a low-sounding brass or woodwind, the baritone sax may be a wise choice since it’s a bit more mobile than tubas and other instruments in the segment.
If you’re shopping for a baritone saxophone, it’s important to take durability into account. These are bigger instruments, which puts them at a higher risk of receiving knocks, dings and scratches. Good-quality lacquered brass is the best bet for material, and keep an eye out for models that include a strong floor peg – you’ll thank yourself for it anytime you play the horn while sitting down.
Even less common than the baritone sax is the bass saxophone. Tuned to Bb, it’s a full octave lower than the tenor sax, and basses are large enough that they’re almost always played from a seated position. The usual places to see bass saxophones are in classical arrangements or saxophone ensembles. Their size and deep voice makes them a rare sight outside of those occasions, and they’re not particularly beginner-friendly. However, if you’re a skilled player of smaller horns, a bass saxophone is a good candidate for expanding your skillset.
For the adventurous musician, there are yet other saxophone varieties you might explore. Higher than the soprano is the sopranino saxophone, and on the other end of the scale, even the very large bass sax is dwarfed by the contrabass and the very rare (and enormous) subcontrabass saxophone. These instruments are hard to find – in fact, subcontrabass saxes are usually only made by custom order. While these exotic saxophones offer a lot of unique character, they’re definitely best approached by an expert.
A Sax for Every Skill Level
No matter which of the saxophone varieties you decide to play, there will be a second big choice to make: the level of your instrument. Those levels are student, intermediate and professional, and narrowing the options down to one of these three will be an important step on the path to your new saxophone.
Student Level Saxophone
As the name suggests, student saxophones are designed specifically for beginners. They’re easy to play, affordable and built with an emphasis on accuracy so that you can easily learn notes and tunings. A good student saxophone will sound pleasant even when played with unrefined technique. Do keep in mind, however, that quality still matters. As affordable as student saxophones are, they’re not all created equal and it’s worth taking your time to find the one that gives you the best value for your hard-earned dollar.
Intermediate Level Saxophone
Once you have a handle on the basics of the instrument, you’re ready to move on to an intermediate saxophone. These instruments can produce tone that approaches the quality of a professional sax, but without some of the higher-end frills. You’ll find that the keys and action will feel smoother and more responsive than those found on a student saxophone, and typically these horns have a handsome but simple appearance, with good-quality finishes but not many cosmetic details such as engraving or handwork.
If you’re searching for the next step after your student saxophone, look for an intermediate model. Or, if you’re an experienced player picking up a new kind of sax that you haven’t played before, consider one of these for learning the differences from your practiced instrument before taking the plunge to the professional level.
Professional Level Saxophone
Just like the other two grades of saxophone, the name is self-explanatory when it comes to professional saxophone models. Designed and built to meet professional needs, these instruments deliver the best intonation, tone and response. They’re usually visually striking, with hand-engraving, hand-hammered keys and similarly crafted details. They also offer the most luxurious finishes, from clear and colored lacquers to gold or silver plating.
Every material in a professional saxophone, from the metal alloys and solders to the key surfaces and pads, is among the finest available. But, as you would expect, that also means a steep price tag to match, which is one reason why a professional sax is not the best choice for a beginner. If you’re an experienced pro, these are the horns to look at. For those just starting out, opt for a student or intermediate sax instead, until you’ve built up enough experience to take advantage of the perks of a pro model.
Details & Specifications
Now that you have a handle on the general types of saxophones and their quality grades, it’s time to look into some of the more specific things to watch out for when you start shopping for your instrument. These are the details that will help you sift through the finer points of your options, allowing you to choose the perfect saxophone for you.
Materials & Finishes
The traditional material for saxophone bodies is yellow brass, and that’s by far the most common that you’ll find on today’s instruments. There are some alternatives, however, especially when it comes to bells and necks. It’s not unusual to see a saxophone with a brass body but a different metal for the bell, neck or both. Some of these other metals include bronze, copper and sterling silver. While these alternatives will darken the tone of the horn, they also affect the price and may require special handling. For these reasons, they’re usually found on professional saxophones. You will be less likely to see exotic metals on an intermediate model, and much less likely to see them on a student model.
On most instruments, the brass is coated with a clear lacquer to protect its surface. But you may have other finishes to choose from depending on the horns you like. For instance, some saxophones use a similar lacquer but with colors or pigments added to create a different hue. Others may be silver or even gold plated. Some may have fatigued finishes meant to look like antique or vintage instruments. And finally, an option that is becoming more and more popular is nickel or black nickel plating.
Here are some of the traits that make specialty finishes different from the standard lacquers:
- Black lacquer or Matte finish: These finishes are physically heavier than clear lacquers or gold plating, and the added weight on the saxophone body will give the instrument a thicker sound. This makes them the preference of many tenor saxophonists.
- Silver plating: Similar to black lacquer, silver plating increases the saxophone’s weight. But silver is harder than any lacquer, and that hardness adds volume and projection, resulting in an instrument that really makes itself heard.
- Nickel plating: A step above even silver in terms of hardness, nickel is the plating of choice for players in need of maximum projection and sound. Nickel-plated saxophones are popular with jazz performers as well as many bands.
- Copper and Bronze: These metals may be found in the finish, or they may be part of the saxophone body, neck or bell itself. They are softer and heavier than brass, which darkens the timbre of the horn and creates a mellow, “covered” sound.
One feature that you will notice when looking at saxophones is that they are described as having either “ribbed” or “non-ribbed” construction. This is referring to the way that the posts are attached to the body. The posts are small knobs that stick out from the main body of the instrument, providing attachment points for the key system. In a ribbed construction, these posts are soldered or brazed to flat pieces of brass, which are in turn attached to the saxophone itself. These “ribs” help to strengthen the posts so that the instrument will better hold its adjustments.
Non-ribbed construction is usually seen in student saxophones and sometimes in vintage American-made models. In these instruments, the posts are attached directly to the body. Although that does mean sacrificing a bit of strength, it also makes the saxophone more affordable and shaves off some weight, so it has its advantages as well.
Although the general key layout is standardized for all saxophones, there are certain additional keys and features that you will find only on some models. These may be to help play notes at the edges of the instrument’s range, or simply to make a note easier to play. Here are the typical ones that you can expect to encounter:
- High F# key: Most modern saxophones have this key, which allows you to much more easily play an altissimo F#, meaning an F# above the high C.
- High G key: Typically found on soprano saxophones, this key simplifies the playing of an altissimo G.
- Front F key: A saxophone with this key allows you to play an altissimo F with your index finger.
- C# resonance key: Selmer Paris Series III alto saxophones are known for this key, which improves the clarity of the middle C#.
- Low A key: This key can be found on most modern baritone saxophones.
- Tilted spatula: The spatula is the pinky key. If the spatula is tilted, it means the angle has been adjusted to give your finger a better grip on it.
With a saxophone, it’s important to note that if the sound isn’t quite what you want, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire horn is a no-go. Changing the neck can make a huge difference in the instrument’s tone and responsiveness, so if you have a saxophone that’s almost right but seems just slightly off, this may be the only change that you need to make.
Should I rent or buy my saxophone?
If you’re unsure of how much time you can commit to the saxophone, you might want to consider renting one. This is also a great option for children, since they have a tendency to change their minds frequently. If this happens, you can simply exchange the saxophone for another instrument at no extra cost. You may also be interested to know that there are many rent-to-own programs available that allow you to earn credit towards owning a saxophone as you make regular rental payments. Some shops even let you put your credit towards buying a professional sax if the youngster you’re buying for decides that they want to continue playing it into high school. Note: Accidents can happen, which is why you should definitely go with Damage Coverage when you rent an instrument. These monthly fees are fairly inexpensive, and the peace of mind is worth it when you consider how much a saxophone can cost. If the saxophone you’re after is for an experienced player (high school age and up), purchasing one makes the most sense. In the long run, this is a cheaper alternative compared to renting. Asking a saxophone teacher about which brands are the best is an excellent way to be sure your first decision is the right one.
Want to learn more about renting a saxophone? Click here to read the Saxophone Rental Guide. Ready to rent? Music & Arts offers only the best brands at competitive rates! Click here to learn more about renting.
Previously Owned vs. Brand New
It’s all too easy to forget, but buying a used horn is a completely viable option. If you decide to go that route, it’s critical to do your research beforehand. Thankfully, most in-store and online music retailers have their saxophones checked over by a repair technician. With that in mind, you need to be careful with buy, sell and trade sites, since you might not be receiving all the info you need on the sax being sold. In the end, just make sure that the saxophone you’re about to purchase was looked over by a professional to ensure it’s in top working condition.
Brands, Recommendations and Closing Thoughts
There are a great many brands to choose from, whether you’re buying your first saxophone or adding to your growing collection. Yamaha, Selmer and Allora are three examples of well-known brands, and each of them makes its fair share of strong models. Another brand to keep an eye out for is Yanagisawa, which makes saxophones so well-built that they’re almost like buying a grade above the label – but you can expect to pay a premium for that quality. Or consider P Mauriat: they’re a newer brand that offers exceptional quality per dollar spent.
As long as you research the options carefully, you can’t really go wrong no matter which name is on the label. The single best piece of advice that you can receive before buying a saxophone is to inform yourself. Use this guide to get started, narrow down the options to your favorite handful, and then dive into reviews, testimonials and other sources of information to whittle the list down until you’re left with that one perfect instrument.
Remember that nobody else can make the choice for you. Every musician is different, and there’s no need to play a certain saxophone just because your friend does, or your brother does, or even because your favorite professional player endorsed it. Forming your own preferences is crucial to finding the best saxophone, so get to know yourself first and you’ll be well on your way to picking out a horn you can cherish for years to come. Return to Buyer’s Guide Homepage Check out this video for more information about the saxophone:
My son really wants to play the saxophone, so I’m looking for the right kind for a beginner. It’s good to know that you can buy horns used as well as new. I’ll make sure to go through a music store to do this! Do you think that it would be pretty easy to find a used Yamaha saxophone in good condition?
Hi Patti, glad to hear your son is interested in learning the saxophone!
There’s several options for a beginner:
-Buy a new or used student level instrument
-Rent a student level instrument
Because the player is just starting, i would recommend renting first. Kids have a tendency to change their minds, and investing in an instrument like a saxophone can set you back even if it’s used/like-new. Music & Arts offers a great rental program that allows you to apply your payments toward purchase later on, but you can return at any time. Great peace of mind.
If you are set on purchasing a used instrument, be sure to have it checked out by a licensed repair technician before purchasing. There are lots of moving parts and pieces that make a saxophone work, so it’s good to know the repair cost before investing.
Hopefully this helps! Let us know if there’s anything else we can do.
Thank you for mentioning the baritone saxophone. I, like most beginners, started with the alto, but after my first year moved to the baritone. The good thing is that both of the instruments are in E flat, so it is very easy to migrate between the two. Overall, I would recommend buying a alto, and renting a baritone to get a feel for it after a year of playing.
My grandson has decided he wants to play the alto saxophone. Can you give me several options on buying and renting. He has missed his first year of music with changing schools and hopefully he will be able to catch on quickly. Thank you. Brenda McKenzie
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