The saxophone is a relatively modern instrument. Invented in 1846 by the Belgian instrument-maker Adolphe Sax, it was created to be the most powerful woodwind and the most adaptive of the brass family, filling the middle ground between the two sections in the orchestra. It was originally designed in two different key groupings: one for orchestra (pitched in C and F), and one for use in military marching bands (pitched in Bb and Eb). However, the instruments for the orchestral series never really took hold, and modern saxophones are all pitched in Bb and Eb. While somewhat rare, some C soprano and C melody saxophones do still exist.
The modern saxophone family consists of four commonly-played instruments: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone saxophones; and three instruments that are not commonly played: Sopranino, Bass, and Contrabass saxophones. When you are learning how to play the saxophone, remember that all use the same fingerings, which are a cross between the Boehm fingering system for oboe and the fingering system used on flute and upper register of clarinet. The similarity in fingering is why many professional saxophone players will also “double” on clarinet and flute.
The Soprano saxophone is in the key of Bb, and is the highest sounding of the saxophone family. It is straight like a clarinet, although there are some curved sopranos that were mostly made in the 1930s and 40s. Soprano is not usually played as a primary instrument by saxophonists. It’s traditionally a double for many tenor sax players. Famous soprano players include John Coltrane, Grover Washington Jr., Wayne Shorter, Kenny G and Steve Lacy.
Alto saxophone is the smallest of the “curved” saxophones, and the most common instrument for beginners, due to its small size that is perfect for little hands. The Alto is in the key of Eb. Originally designed to replace the violin and viola sound in marching bands, today it is primarily used in pop music, classical and jazz. Some famous alto sax players to listen to are Charlie “Bird” Parker, Cannonball Adderly, and David Sanborn.
Tenor sax is in the key of Bb and it’s the “middle” saxophone in terms of pitch. Some people think the tenor sounds most like the human voice. Many famous tenor saxophone players double on soprano saxophone, including John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Grover Washington Jr. The Tenor sax was used extensively in 1950s rock and roll, and today is played primarily in rock, funk, pop and jazz music. Many young tenor players begin with the alto saxophone and transition to tenor when they get a little older.
Baritone sax is the largest and lowest sounding of the common saxophones. It is in the key of Eb, like the alto, but is pitched one octave lower. The “Bari” was originally created to replace the acoustic bass for use in marching bands. Today it is another saxophone that is not commonly played. It’s used predominantly in section playing in a traditional big band or horn section. Gerry Mulligan made the baritone sax a voice in combo jazz back in the 1950s and 60s. Dave Matthews Band bari player Leroi Moore is an example of a contemporary baritone saxophone player today.
Choosing The Right Saxophone
Choosing which member of the saxophone family to pursue is a personal choice. Many beginners who want to learn how to play the saxophone opt for alto as their first instrument because it’s the easiest to play with small hands. All of the saxophones are played using the same fingerings, so once you have learned them, you can play all of the saxophones. After you’ve been playing for a while and have some proficiency, give the other saxophones a try! You may find yourself drawn to the expressiveness of tenor, the lyrical beauty of the soprano or even the low-end power of the baritone. It’s all a matter of finding your “voice.”
The saxophone is a versatile instrument that can be found in every style of music from classical to zydeco. It is expressive and almost human in its timbre. As you are learning how to play the saxophone, listen to many different saxophone recordings to hear how the instrument is used. It will help you to find your voice. It’s an easy and fun instrument to learn that you can spend a lifetime mastering!
Photo by Army Recruiting