A visual assessment of the saxophone may make you think that it is a brass instrument. Yet, it is not for it is a wind instrument, despite being made usually of brass. It is a woodwind instrument because it has the oscillating reed made traditionally of woody cane that makes the sax’s sound. The saxophone is a relatively new musical instrument being patented only in 1846 by its inventor, Adolphe Sax. Sax was a flutist and clarinetist when he designed the sax. Hence, the saxophone got its name from him.
The saxophone is an often-used musical instrument in many musical ensembles. You’ll see the saxophone in concert bands, solo repertoire, chamber music, military bands, jazz bands, marching bands, and even contemporary music. You will also see the saxophone used in melody or solo instrument or as a part of the horn section in popular music.
List of Saxophone Types
Since its invention by Adolphe Sax, the saxophone has undergone many innovations. It now comes in various sizes and forms likewise. Nevertheless, we can still categorize the saxophone family into four major types: Tenor, Baritone, Soprano, and Alto. Besides, there are other recognizable subtypes of saxophone within its extended family. Here’s a short description of the four types and subtypes of saxophones:
If you are curious about the biggest saxophone in the world, you should look for the subcontrabass saxophone. This type of saxophone features an almost exaggerated size. It is about 10 feet tall; thus, it is taller than Yao Ming or Tacko Fall.
When it comes to sound, it produces very low notes. Some of these notes are so low that they are almost inaudible. Yet, the subcontrabass is powerful and loud. It is as loud as the loudest brass instruments.
However, you will seldom find a subcontrabass saxophone nowadays because it is scarce. As such, you will more often not find a subcontrabass as a beginner saxophonist.
2) Contrabass Saxophone
Second to the subcontrabass in size is the contrabass saxophone. This saxophone is around 6 feet tall. If you like to play it, you need to play it horizontally. You can play it upright, however, if you are seated. The contrabass saxophone is more often used than the subcontrabass saxophone. You will sometimes find the contrabass played by great jazz players.
A novel quality characterizes this contrabass saxophone. Moreover, it creates a vast, resonating sound, and as such, beginner players should not play this type of saxophone. Besides, you need to have too much air to play this instrument correctly.
3) Bass Saxophone
The bass saxophone is not as large as those of the contrabass and subcontrabass. Yet, it is still large enough compared to other smaller wind instruments. It measures around 4 feet tall. You will seldom find this type of saxophone played on many occasions. Yet, some jazz players sometimes play this saxophone.
The bass saxophone was relatively popular in the early part of the 20th century for providing for jazz big bands low-end sound. You will not get the chance to play this type of saxophone as a beginner. You can play it if you are a seasoned musician with a larger lung capacity.
4) Baritone Saxophone
The baritone saxophone or bari sax is larger than the tenor saxophone and has a lower pitch than the tenor saxophone. It is, however, smaller than the bass saxophone. The bari sax is the lowest-pitched sax among the commonly used saxophones.
It is around three feet high and weighs about 12 to 35 pounds. It is bulky, yet it is manageable. You will find the bari sax having a low A. However, you can also find some with as low as Bb. And it’s capable of hitting the altissimo upper register too.
5) Tenor Saxophone
As a medium-sized saxophone, the tenor is one of the two most commonly used saxophones. Pitched in Bb, it is more popular than the alto saxophone. You will hear its sounds on many jazz and pop recordings. Many well-known tenor sax players include Michael Brecker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Clarence Clemmons.
As a beginner, I think you can handle this type of saxophone because players of various sizes can handle it. Moreover, you will often see it in military bands and marching bands. It creates a crisp sound that is perfect for the harmony and rhythm part.
6) Alto Saxophone
The alto saxophone is pitched in Eb and is one of the most commonly used saxophones at hand. It is handy and is easy to learn, and affordable. Most saxophone players, of course, might have started with the alto saxophone for a start. It is the go-to saxophone if you want to learn the saxophone. It is also easy to tune.
You will often see the alto saxophone used in concert bands, popular music, marching bands, solo repertoire, chamber music, military bands, swing music, and jazz combos. Once you’ve learned the alto saxophone’s fingerings, you can transition to any saxophone.
The alto saxophone played a prominent role in jazz development. Some influential jazz musicians who thrived in using the alto saxophone included Don Redman, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Carter, and many more.
The alto saxophone is designed for playing melodies. It creates a mid-level sound that is clear. You will often hear the alto saxophonist as a soloist.
7) Soprano Saxophone
The soprano saxophone creates a higher-register sound as compared to other saxophone types. As the third smallest saxophone, it comes with a straight shape. Thus, it may look the same with the clarinets and the recorders.
The soprano saxophone is not easy to learn and is not so much recommended for beginners. Moreover, it requires a precise mouth position (embouchure) to play it successfully. You will find soloist jazz players who play the soprano saxophone. You will also find a soloist in classical music who plays the soprano saxophone. Kenny G, for example, plays the soprano saxophone more often.
8) Sopranino Saxophone
You will find the sopranino saxophone looking like the soprano saxophones. Nevertheless, it is smaller than the soprano saxophone. Moreover, you will find the sound of the sopranino saxophone with a bit higher notes.
As a type of saxophone, the sopranino saxophone is a specialty saxophone. It is only used more often to bring a unique color to a song. Thus, this saxophone is more often used by jazz players. It also excels in its improvisation.
If you’re a beginner, you’ll find the sopranino saxophone challenging to handle. Hence, experts will not recommend this type of saxophone for beginners.
As a Bb Soprano saxophone, it comes with a unique form. It was first introduced in 1924 to 1925. At present, you will notice that the Saxello comes with a half-turned bell characterized by a curved top. The Saxello offered added comfort, enhanced tone, ease of playing, along with a better flash.
The Saxello got its patent on November 2, 1926, as an improvement to the King Saxophones. You will find the Saxello with satin silver made, though you will also find some with artist engraving and gold plating.
The Tubax is an improved saxophone, designed by Benedikt Eppelsheim, a German instrument maker. It comes in both B♭ or C subcontrabass or E♭ contrabass sizes. Besides, Tubax is a portmanteau of tuba and sax. Hence, it is called Tubax.
The E♭ contrabass was the first tubax size developed by Eppelsheim. It is more compact than the contrabass saxophone, though it has the same register as the regular contrabass. It is more compact because its tubing is folded several times more than the standard contrabass sax. However, it blends well with other types of saxophones, and you can play it with better agility than the different sizes of saxophones.
On the other hand, only one C model of subcontrabasses has been manufactured, despite having several B♭ subcontrabasses in use. The Swiss Thomas Mejer bought this solo C subcontrabass model in 2002. He had used it for recording with Peter A. Schmid.
Experts debated whether the Tubax is really a saxophone because its bore isn’t as wide as the other saxophones. Moreover, its tubing is thinner compared to standard saxophones. Some experts say that the Tubax is a class of its own. However, others still believe that it should belong to the saxophone family.
There is a considerable similarity between the Tubax and the sarrusophone, a double-reed musical instrument family. Moreover, it has the same range as the sarrusophone, though some tubaxes bear a high G. Nevertheless, the tubax comes with a broader bore compared to the sarrusophone. Compared to the average saxophones, the sound produced by the tubax is a bit honky.
11) Mezzo-soprano Saxophone
Another instrument that belongs to the saxophone family is the mezzo-soprano saxophone. It is also called F alto saxophone. Set in the F key, it is pitched one tone over the alto saxophone. Compared to the E♭ alto, the Mezzo-soprano almost has the same sound and size. Nevertheless, its upper register appears to be sounding like a B♭ soprano.
You can count with your fingers those mezzo-soprano saxophones because only very few exist. Only produced in 1928 and 1929, they did not become popular and did not sell well because they were rolled out during the Great Depression.
Thus, the C.G. Conn Company, the company that manufactured the mezzo-soprano, reduced and limited its production to the popular models of saxophones. The mezzo-soprano is a rare saxophone species, being the only one pitched in the Key of F aside from some baritone saxophone pitched in F.
12) C-Melody Saxophone
Another type of saxophone is the C-Melody Saxophone, which is a non-transposing musical instrument. It was rolled out in 1910 up to 1920. It was not a popular musical instrument, and soon, it faded from the popular scene.
At present, a few C-Melody saxophones are still being produced. However, it is not practical to own this type of saxophone. Yet, if you collect instruments like this, you can still avail of a vintage 1920 C-Melody Saxophone for a certain price.
13) Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI)
If you want to create saxophone sounds sans a saxophone, you can always use the Electronic Wind Instrument or EWI. It is a wind controller type that acts as an electronic musical instrument—invented by Nyle Steiner, who first developed a working model of EWI in the 1970s.
The concept of Nyle Steiner was soon grabbed by Akai, a Japanese company, which soon released a few models. The top models, as of the moment, include the EWI4000S and EWI5000. Both come with a built-in digital synthesizer.
Moreover, these instruments sound like a clarinet or a soprano saxophone. The contemporary EWIs come with different modes, including oboe, flute, and saxophone fingering modes. They also come with a silicone mouthpiece and air pressure sensors.
These contemporary EWIs necessitate less breath control than the actual saxophones. Moreover, you can adjust their breath sensitivity parameters. You can quickly learn to play The EWI if you are already knowledgeable of the saxophone. Some well-known players of EWI include Bob Mintzer and Michael Brecker.
The objective of this article is to enable you to familiarize yourself with the various types of saxophones. I hope you have understood each saxophone’s unique applications and learn to recognize a kind of saxophone from another. Many saxophone players have a main saxophone instrument that they play, though they can play different saxophone types. Most saxophone players will have the alto, soprano, or tenor sax as their primary instrument.
With the right knowledge of saxophones’ types and subtypes, you can quickly choose the right kind of saxophone as a beginner. Aside from knowing the different types, it will help if you know the various factors to consider when selecting a saxophone to zero in on the right type of saxophone for your use.