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Different Types of Saxophones… and Their Famous Players!

27/07/2023

Featured image: Creative Commons License by Gottlieb, William P.

The saxophone is a hugely iconic instrument that is extremely popular for its beginner-friendly design and great dynamic and timbral range. There are many different types of saxophones, but usually, only four are commonly seen. So which ones are they and why are there so many different types of saxophone?

Key takeaways

In a rush? Here’s a run-down on the different kinds of saxophone out there.

Saxophone TypeMain FeaturesOur Recommendation
SopranoThe smallest and highest in pitch, the soprano is the only sax to have a straight body, unlike the rest which are curved.Trevor James 'The Horn' Soprano Saxophone
AltoThe most commonly used, the alto is usually chosen for jazz and classical ensembles.Alto Saxophone by Gear4music
TenorWith a rich tone, the tenor is used across a wider range of genres, including rock and funk.Buffet 100 Series Tenor Saxophone
BaritoneThe largest and lowest in pitch, this is usually reserved for saxophone ensembles.Rosedale Baritone Saxophone by Gear4music

Alongside the four main saxophones, there are numerous unique types that sit in various pitch ranges above and below the standard ones. We will talk about them a bit later in this article!

History of the sax

Adolphe Sax

Creative Commons License by Ferdinand Mulnier

The saxophone is a relative newcomer to the wind instrument scene. It was invented in the early 1840s by Belgian inventor and instrument maker, Adolphe Sax, who had plenty of experience playing woodwind instruments and was a maker of Ophicleides, a type of keyed brass instrument.

He began working on the saxophone with the desire to create an instrument that had the dynamic power of a brass instrument, but the agility of a woodwind instrument.

Plus, he wanted the instrument to overblow at the octave, rather than a twelfth like the clarinet. This would mean that the fingering remains the same in both registers.

His original patent included 14 instruments -split into two groups of seven. One group was pitched in Eb and Bb, and the other was F and C. Eventually the Eb and Bb tuned instruments prevailed as the standard. Both groups included various pitched instruments, from sopranino to contrabass.

The instrument wasn’t perfect at first, the original keywork design made some legato passages and wide intervals difficult to perform. Over time the design would evolve to overcome these limitations.

Initially, the saxophone was adopted by small classical ensembles as well as military bands. Some composers experimented with the instrument in their pieces but it failed to gain widespread use.

Enthusiasm for the instrument within classical music circles waned a little in the late 1800s, but during the early 20th century the saxophone began to find popularity amongst vaudeville and ragtime bands.

Eventually, jazz developed which skyrocketed the prominence of the instrument.

Different types of saxophones – the four main types

Soprano

Kenny G playing the soprano saxophone

Creative Commons License by Prayitno

The smallest and highest-pitched common saxophone is the soprano saxophone. Pitched in Bb, this sax sounds a perfect fifth higher than an alto and an octave above the tenor.

Sopranos often differ from the rest of the sax family by their straight-bodied designs, compared to the curved design that the rest have. You can still get curved-bodied sopranos if you want one, they’re not as common though.

Often, straight-bodied soprano saxes come with two necks, a straight one and a crooked – or curved – one. These are usually supplied depending on the performer’s preferences and playing situations. Some players prefer a curved neck for playing sat down and a straight neck when standing.

The soprano isn’t as commonly used as the other saxophones and usually features as a soloist’s instrument in jazz bands or in saxophone ensembles.

 

Famous players of the soprano sax:

  • Charlie Parker
  • John Coltrane
  • Kenny G

 

Our recommendations:

Straight neck – Trevor James ‘The Horn’ Soprano Saxophone

  • Great student instrument
  • Two necks included
  • Some may find the keys a little stiffer than other models

Curved neck – Grassi SSPC800MKII School Series Soprano Saxophone

  • Adjustable thumb rest allows for the most comfortable position
  • Leather pads with metal resonators enhance sound and feel
  • A more expensive beginner model

Alto

Benny Carter playing the saxophone

Creative Commons License by Rob Bogaerts (ANEFO)

The alto is the second smallest saxophone and the most commonly played. It’s tuned to Eb and sits in the range between soprano sax and tenor. Like the tenor and baritone, the alto features a curved body with the bell facing upwards.

It’s a common fixture in jazz ensembles and classical ensembles too, with many repertoires in both traditions written for it. Alto sax is favoured by beginners because of how easy it is to play.

The instrument doesn’t require the amount of air that larger saxophones need nor does it require the precise technique that the soprano needs.

Of course, like all instruments, it becomes trickier when you reach higher levels. But as a starter instrument, it’s ideal.

 

Famous players of the alto sax:

  • Benny Carter
  • Cannonball Adderley
  • Paul Desmond

 

Our recommendations:

Alto Saxophone by Gear4music

  • Great and affordable introduction to alto sax
  • Fully ribbed body can withstand loads of practice and rehearsals
  • Heavier than average – might be too heavy for younger players

Yamaha YAS280 Student Alto Saxophone

  • An extremely strong B-C# mechanism produces an easier low-end response
  • Made from brass for a rich, warm tone
  • Includes a professional-quality 4C mouthpiece

Tenor

Lester Young playing the saxophone

Creative Commons License by Gottlieb, William P.

The tenor saxophone, pitched in Bb, boasts a rich, warm tone, striking a balance between the alto and baritone sax. It features a brass construction, a flared bell, and a larger mouthpiece with a thicker reed, and thanks to its versatility, it shines across jazz, classical, rock, funk, and popular music.

This kind of sax is well suited to intermediate and advanced players or those with experience in similar woodwind instruments. It demands dedication in breath control, embouchure, and finger dexterity. Having said this, there are some tenor saxophones that are designed to make playing easier for beginners.

 

Famous players of the tenor sax:

  • Lester Young
  • Sonny Rollins
  • Ben Webster

 

Our recommendations:

Buffet 100 Series Tenor Saxophone

  • Excellent intonation, great for beginners who want a high-quality instrument
  • Easy blowing response makes it ideal to learn with
  • Full-bodied tone courtesy of premium pads and metal resonators

Tenor Saxophone by Gear4music

  • Great intonation and evenness throughout the registers
  • Boasts precision-drawn tone holes – something that’s normally reserved for higher-end models
  • Reinforced body makes it robust enough to take to and from lessons and gigs

Baritone

Leo Pellegrino playing the baritone saxophone

Creative Commons License by Fortunenooky (Yikmun Photography)

The baritone is the largest of the commonly seen saxophones and it produces the lowest notes with its deep and booming tone. Because of its large design, the baritone isn’t suitable for small children wanting to learn the sax, rather, they’re played by seasoned saxophonists or ambitious adults who want to learn.

Like the soprano saxophone, baritones are usually seen in wind or saxophone ensembles and big bands. More recently, baritones have also become popular in rock groups.

Playing baritone sax can come with some difficulties. Firstly, it’s size. You will probably struggle to get used to it at first if you’re quite small. It’s also heavy – so that might take some getting used to! However, some baritones do have endpins, like cellos and double basses, to support the instrument.

And with its bigger size comes more effort; the baritone requires a lot more lung power in order to force air down the much longer pipework.

 

Famous players of the baritone saxophone:

  • Lisa Simpson!
  • Leo Pellegrino
  • Gerry Mulligan

 

Our recommendation:

Rosedale Baritone Saxophone by Gear4music

  • Wide range of notes available
  • Rugged construction
  • Much more expensive than other saxophone types
  • Requires much more lung capacity than smaller saxophones

Other types of saxophones

Sopranissimo

The sopranissimo, or soprillo, saxophone, is the smallest saxophone possible. It plays an octave higher than the soprano and is always a straight-bodied instrument. It’s very small, only around a foot long. Repertoire isn’t common for this instrument; only since the 2010s has it really been feasible to produce such a small saxophone.


Sopranino

Slightly larger than the sopranissimo, the sopranino saxophone is the second smallest saxophone possible. It plays an octave higher than the alto and is also usually a straight-bodied instrument, though, like the soprano, there are curved ones. Sopraninos often feature in saxophone ensemble works as well as classical repertoire. In fact, Ravel’s Bolero features a sopranino sax part, along with many other saxophones.


Bass

The bass saxophone is one of the lowest-pitched saxophones. It looks very much like a larger baritone and plays an octave below the tenor. Like many of these less common instruments, basses don’t usually feature in ensembles by default and are often called for in specific pieces by composers.


Contrabass

The contrabass saxophone is even lower than the bass. Again, this looks like an almost comically oversized baritone sax and plays an octave below it. This is a very rare instrument, only a few manufacturers actually produce them. As a result, it’s not often called for in pieces.


Subcontrabass

The subcontrabass saxophone is the lowest in the saxophone family, pitched an octave below the bass sax. It was conceived when Adolph Sax originally designed the saxophone, but its size made it unfeasible to produce with the technology of the time. It wouldn’t be until 2010 that a playable instrument would be successfully constructed. As you may expect, the repertoire for this instrument is practically non-existent.


C Melody

This sax was part of the original lineup of saxophone designs. While F and C instruments are typically overlooked in favour of Bb and Eb instruments, this kept the C Melody sax’s status as a sort of niche instrument. What makes the C saxophone interesting is that it’s not a transposing instrument. This means you can read any sheet of music made for another non-transposing instrument without any trouble.

How does a saxophone work?

A saxophone is essentially a pipe of which you change the length by pressing keys down and covering the holes. The instrument’s body consists of the bell, which amplifies the sound, the neck (or crook) to which the mouthpiece attaches, and the mouthpiece, which you blow into to produce sound.

The mouthpiece is a fundamental part of the saxophone, and you can spend hundreds of pounds on mouthpieces made of various materials with different properties.

Since its invention in the 1840s, the sax has always been crafted from brass – despite being classified as a woodwind instrument! It’s made of brass because this alloy is extremely resistant to rust, making the instrument as durable as possible, and it’s easy to work with.

If you want to find out more then check out our article on upgrading your saxophone.

Buffet Alto saxophone

FAQs

What are the 4 main types of saxophones?

The four main types of saxophone, from the lowest pitched to the highest, are:

  1. Baritone
  2. Tenor
  3. Alto
  4. Soprano

There are other less common instruments that are higher than the soprano and lower than the baritone. In general musical settings, you’re most likely to see these four instruments.


What is the best type of saxophone for beginners?

The best saxophone for beginners is the alto saxophone. This is because it doesn’t require huge amounts of air and it’s not too big or heavy for beginner players. If you have your heart set on another instrument though, you should go for it!


What are the 14 types of sax?

The original 14 types of saxophones were categorised into two groups of seven instruments. One group were tuned to either Bb or Eb and the others were either F or C. Each of these groups was to composed of the contrabass, bass, baritone, tenor, alto, soprano, and sopranino saxophones.

Final thoughts

If you’re looking to learn the sax or just have an interest in woodwind instruments, hopefully our guide to the different types of saxophone has enlightened you on some of the workings and history of this stunning instrument! It’s a fixture in jazz music and big bands, and now, performers of rock and pop are starting to include sax in their performances too.

If you’re a beginner, we recommend the alto sax. If you’re feeling ambitious or you’re looking for an upgrade, try another type that suits your style!

 

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