About the Saxophone

Invention and History

Saxophone in Music

Playing the Saxophone




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Making a Sound on the Saxophone


The saxophone is actually quite easy to learn to play, probably because it was designed fairly recently in the scheme of musical instruments. What actually prevents students from picking up the saxophone at a young age is its awkward physical nature. The saxophone is rather heavy and requires the use of a neck strap in addition to the player's hands to hold the instrument. It is also quite wide to wrap one's hands around, and this prevents children with small hands from being able to play it. For these reasons, it is best to start learning the saxophone around ages 10-11.

Once you can physically handle the saxophone, however, it is relatively simple to get started. The fingering system is very easy to understand and tone production is much easier than with most wind instruments. The main challenge of the saxophone lies in controlling its intonation. Because it is a conical bore instrument, it does not have the stability of pitch that a cylindrical instrument may have. Also, each different pitch of the saxophone has its own unique timbre or tone, and this makes it hard to grasp its intonation. With a good teacher and some hard work, though, great intonation is definitely possible.

Of the original 14 variations of the saxophone, four are most commonly used. These are the Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor, and Eb baritone saxophones. All of these saxophones use the same fingerings, and only slight modifications of the embouchure are necessary to switch from one saxophone to the next. The Bb Soprano is the smallest and highest pitched and has arguably the most unique sound, but also is the hardest to control intonation-wise. Famous players of this instrument include Sidney Bechet, Steve Lacy, Kenny G and Dave Leibman. The Eb Alto is the saxophone almost everyone starts on due to its comfortable size, and is the most popular saxophone across the globe. This is the instrument the great Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Johnny Hodges played. From here students can stay on Alto or move up to the Bb Tenor. The tenor is where things start to get large to hold, but this is the saxophone that is the most recorded and performed with. John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bob Berg, Michael Brecker, even President Bill Clinton all played this variation of the saxophone. Lastly is the Eb Baritone. This horn is huge (about 4 feet tall) and weighs about 15 pounds. The size of this horn gives it a very powerful sound and the extra curves in its neck give it a distinctive growl not found in other saxophones. This instrument is for those who like to play low and deep and provide a band with a strong bottom end. Famous players of the Bari-sax include Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Ronnie Cuber, and Gary Smulyan.

My favorite thing about learning the saxophone is all of the great repertoire out there to learn; there are books written for saxophone featuring almost every genre. From great classical sonatas and etudes to numerous collections of famous songs from jazz, rock and pop, there is surely plenty of music to keep you excited and busy!

Saxophone Family

In this photo of the saxophone family, the man is included to give a sense of scale. Photo: Andrea Easton


Saxophone at a Glance

Saxophone Family Members:
Soprano Sax, Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Bass Sax, Contrabass Sax

Earliest to start:
9/10 years old

Instrument Cost New:

Instrument Cost Used:

Rental Cost:
$185–$230 per school year

Pad and reed replacements, Adjustments

Things to Consider:
A popular instrument that is fairly easy to learn and a good choice if you want to play jazz. If you are interested in a band or jazz group, consider the tenor or baritone sax.