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The saxophone provides a wonderfully rich, warm sound to many genres of music from jazz, classical, and rock. It was made popular in the USA in the late 1800s and early 1900s when it was used in vaudeville performances and jazz music that developed in New Orleans. Surprisingly, this popular instrument comes in many different types.
While some types of saxophones are more common than others, it is important to understand all types of saxophones to find the right one for you and your music style. Read on to learn all about nine different types of saxophones and how they compare to one another.
The 9 Types of Saxophone
Adolphe Sax, the creator of the saxophone, actually developed 14 different saxophones beginning in the 1840s. Production of the saxophone did not begin until the 1890s when brass instrument manufacturer C.G. Conn began producing the saxophone.
While there are actually 14 types of saxophone in total, some of those types are variations from the main nine types: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, sopranino, sopranissimo, C-melody, and contrabass.
Most Common Types of Saxophone
Four of them are by far more common than the rest. The four most common types of the saxophone are:
These are the four types of saxophones that are used in contemporary music genres. Professional players who play the alto sax include Kenny G., Dave Koz, Boney James, and of course, the great John Coltrane. They are also in use in classical and rock music.
A few rock songs you may be familiar with that have the sax in them are Urgent by Foreigner, Turn the Page by Bob Seger, and Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins from the hit movie Top Gun.
Remaining Types of Saxophone
While the types above are the most popular, the remaining five types of saxophone have their own brilliance, as well. The remaining five types of saxophones are:
The main differences between all the different types of saxophones come down to their size, sound, pitch, shape, pricing, and the materials used in the process to manufacture the different saxophones.
Each different type of saxophone has its own advantage and disadvantage, depending on the player's goals and what type of music the player is using the saxophone to produce.
The many different types of saxophones are available from multiple brands and manufacturers. Some respected saxophone brands are:
- P. Mauriat
- Selmer Paris
As with most things, professionals and students do not require the same level of quality from their instruments. Luckily, the many different kinds of saxophones come in a wide variety of price ranges. A couple of affordable brands include Allora, Etude, and OPUS USA.
Of course, if you are learning the saxophone, there is always the option of leasing an instrument. A well-maintained used instrument can usually be reasonably inexpensive to purchase.
Just pay attention to what you are purchasing. That may take some studying of saxophone drawings and components so that you know how they should look and feel, especially in used instruments you might find in pawn shops or second-hand stores.
1. Alto Saxophone
This is the most common type of saxophone, and is the version that is most frequently played in jazz, classical, and rock music. It is pitched in Eb, slightly higher in pitch than the C-melody and the tenor.
Alto is the sax that most school bands use because it is ideal for beginner players due to its size and its advantages.
A few notable jazz artists who play the alto are Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright, Walter Beasley, the great John Coltrane, Eric Darius, Richard Elliot, Kenny G, and Kirk Whalum.
The advantages of the alto sax are:
- It is easy to control for new students.
- The alto has a high-quality design.
- Made from quality materials, it is durable against everyday wear and tear.
- A professional feel and appearance.
- It can play in many music genres.
- The price range is decent, especially for students.
The disadvantages are few and include:
- The tabs can be finicky.
- For some, the weight can be a little too heavy.
The price of the alto sax varies. For students, the average price is around $300. Students do not need to purchase the fanciest equipment starting out. Professional alto saxophones' average price begins around $1,800 and goes up to about $7,300.
2. The Tenor Saxophone
You may recognize the sound of the tenor sax in various music genres, as with the alto sax. It has been used in jazz, R&B, rock, Classical, and many more.
The tenor saxophone is the most popular among saxophonists for its lower pitch in the B key. It is larger than the alto sax and requires more air to blow through it to produce sound.
Some of the differences between the tenor and the alto are in size. Other differences that may not be noticed are the tone of the music.
Some of the main advantages of the tenor sax are:
- The 62-inch neck gives a better perfect pitch sound and better airflow.
- It has contoured keys for quick finger action.
- With a narrow bore, you have more easy control and prompt response.
- Each keyguard has fully adjustable screw cap stoppers.
- Reasonable price range depending on where you buy and materials used to make it.
The disadvantages are:
- The length of the neck can make it damage-prone.
- Complicated maintenance for some players.
- The price range is a bit on the expensive side for most nonprofessional players.
Notable players of the tenor sax are John Coltrane, Clarence Clemons, and Coleman Hawkins.
Marching bands and military bands often utilize the tenor sax because it produces a full but crisp sound that's great for rhythm work and harmony.
The price range begins at around $500 and goes up to about $4,900.
3. The Soprano Sax
The soprano sax has a different shape than other saxophones. Instead of being curved, it is straight. The body looks very similar to a clarinet or recorder. Because of the form, you must use the correct mouth position when playing the soprano sax.
It is typically used by soloists in smooth jazz or classical music by artists like Kenny G. The soprano sax sounds excellent when hitting the high notes with its pitch in key of B.
The advantages include:
- Quality craftsmanship means durability.
- Great for jazz artists as it can hit the high notes.
- Comfortable, ergonomic keys.
- Made with a brass alloy, it is lightweight.
- It has a decent price range that will fit most budgets.
The disadvantages are:
- Not a beginner's instrument.
- The length can make tuning difficult.
- You must be able to use the correct mouth position.
The price range for the soprano sax begins around $200 and goes up to about $5,000 depending on the materials and where you buy it.
4. The Baritone Sax
The baritone sax is also used in a wide range of genres. It produces low notes that are pitched in the key of E.
It is bulky at three feet long and weighs between 13 and 35 pounds, but it is manageable. Second or third-year students usually pick this saxophone style; it is not for beginners as it requires a large amount of lung strength.
Because the baritone saxophone is on the bulkier side, it is not commonly played in marching bands, but for the player with a stronger upper body, a bari sax should be no problem. The baritone sax is usually found more in classical music bands, as well as jazz standards and military bands. Concert bands are also known to use a bari sax.
The advantages of a baritone sax include:
- Its versatility for a wide range of genres.
- The baritone provides a tremendous low sound.
- Easy to use.
The disadvantages are:
- Its big bulky size and weight.
- Cost as it can be pretty expensive.
The price range for the baritone sax begins around $1,100 and goes up to about $5,600 depending on whether you purchase new or used.
5. The C-Melody Saxophone
The C-Melody sax has a muted sound compared to all the other saxophones, particularly when a vintage mouthpiece is used on this saxophone. It is larger than an alto but smaller than a tenor with a concert pitch.
This style of sax made initially for orchestral music was popular in the early 1900s played by prominent artists like Rudy Wiedoeft and Frankie Trumbauer, but today, it is uncommon.
The advantages of the C-melody sax are:
- Players do not have to transpose sheet music the way they need to with other saxophones, which means they can read and play along with piano, guitar, flute, or other instrument sheet music.
- The muted tone could accompany church hymns.
- Songs were written specifically for the C-melody sax that was influenced by the dance music of the 1920s.
The disadvantages of the C-melody sax are:
- Repairs for C-melody sax can be complicated as parts may not be available since they are no longer common today.
- No longer common saxophones
- Reeds, mouthpieces, and other components may not be available and may not be interchangeable with modern saxophones.
Because they are no longer common, the price range starts around $500 and goes as high as $1,400.
6. The Bass Saxophone
The bass saxophone is a rather large instrument measuring four feet long and weighs around 24 pounds. It is not for beginners as it needs a large lung capacity and is pitched in the B key.
During the 20th century, in the short period of time between World War I and World War II, many jazz artists would use the bass saxophone to produce quality low-end sounds. The deep throaty sound made it popular for the time and ensured its place in jazz, classical, and rock music.
Many notable players have loved the bass saxophone over the years. In classical music, it was used by players like Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, and Louis-Antoine Jullien, but popular jazz saxophonists have loved it too.
The bass saxophone even has its place in rock music! Some notable rock musicians who use the bass sax are Angelo Moore, John Linnell, Alto Reed, and Ralph Carney.
The advantages of the bass saxophone are:
- It has an excellent low-end sound.
- Used for several musical genres.
The disadvantages of the bass sax are:
- It has a large size and heavyweight.
- The player needs a large lung capacity.
- It is expensive to purchase.
- This sax is not for beginners.
The price of a bass sax depends on whether you purchase new and where you make the purchase. Prices for new start around $5,000 and go up from there. It is not as popular today, and only a few merchants make them.
7. The Sopranino Saxophone
The sopranino is straight like the soprano but is smaller than the soprano. It is also an octave higher in sound pitched in the key of E. This particular sax is not as popular as the alto or tenor sax.
This sax is not a good choice for beginners because it requires lip strength to play a sweet melodic sound.
The sopranino shines in jazz for improvisation pieces like you would find in funk music. It also is played in rock and classical music.
A few artists who play the sopranino sax are James Braxton and Anthony Carter. Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull played it on two albums, A Passion Play and War Child. Garth Hudson played one in the movie titled The Last Waltz.
The advantages of the sopranino are:
- The sopranino can be played in several music genres.
- It makes a beautiful melodic sound when played well.
- The smaller size makes it lightweight.
The disadvantages are:
- The smaller size can make it challenging to fit your fingers on the tiny keys.
- It requires lip strength.
- It is not for beginners.
The price of a sopranino ranges begins around $550 and goes up to about $3,500, depending on the maker, if it is new or used, and where you purchase it.
8. The Sopranissimo Saxophone
The sopranissimo sax or soprillo is one of the lesser-known saxophones. As the smallest and highest pitched saxophone, this soprillo is pitched a whole octave about the soprano saxophone.
Because of its small size of just 12 to 13 inches long, it was not produced until the mid-2010s. It is the smallest of the saxophones.
The disadvantages are:
- Its small size ensures that the keys only go from low B to a high E.
- The price is high due to less demand for it.
- It needs precision and a small mouth position for proper playing.
A few artists who play the sopranissimo are Nigel Wood, Peter A. Schmid, Randolph D. Emerick, and Todd Groves.
9. The Contrabass Saxophone
The contrabass sax is the second largest in the saxophone family. It is six feet four inches tall and weighs in at 45 pounds. Due to the size, unless sitting down to play it, it must be held horizontally. For this reason, it is not played as much as the baritone, soprano, tenor, or other saxophones.
It has a low deep pitch one octave below the baritone sax. It is pitched in the key of E. Usually played by virtuoso jazz artists, it can also be played in classical and rock music.
The advantages of the contrabass saxophone include:
- A deep rich tone.
- Great for improvising but also has many pieces that it can play.
- It does well with jazz, classical, and rock genres.
The disadvantages are:
- The player requires an extra-large lung capacity.
- It is expensive even for used instruments.
- Its huge size, the second largest in the saxophone family.
- It is heavy, weighing in at 45 pounds.
- Not for beginners due to lung capacity needed and bulkiness of instrument.
The price on the contrabass begins around $300 for a used one and goes up to about $10,000.
The Subcontrabass Saxophone
If the contrabass is the second largest, what is the largest? It is the subcontrabass saxophone.
It is almost absurd due to the size, which is taller than even NBA players. Its overall height is about 10 feet tall. The subcontrabass sax makes the lowest notes of all saxophones, some barely audible to the human ear. Due to its size and low notes, it is rare to find it being played by anyone.
As far as price, it is nearly impossible to find any for sale to get an idea of the price range for this instrument or if it is even still in manufacturing.
10. Bonus: The Strange Looking Tubax
A strange hybrid saxophone is known as the tubax. It is the strangest looking of all the items on this list. As its name suggests, this instrument is a combination of a tuba and a saxophone. This instrument was developed in 1999. It is available in both E contrabass and B or C contrabass.
Even with its small size, it can play well with other saxophones. It can also be played with surprising agility for such a small size.
- The tubax has a reedy sound compared to the similar contrabass.
- The tubax is not quite as loud and pronounced as the contrabass above.
- The tubax has the advantage over the similar contrabass in its airflow, however.
A few Notable tubax players are Randy Emerick, Jay Easton, Scott Robinson, and Fred Bayer.
Thomas Zoller, Andreas van Zoelen, Vinny Golia, Chaya Czernowin, and Guy Barker have all composed pieces for the tubax.