The saxophone is a popular instrument for beginning musicians because of the appeal of its music, its cool appearance and its relative simplicity. It is easier to get a decent tone on the sax in the beginning than on other woodwinds. The fingering is the same from one octave to another, so it is relatively simple to learn to play.
There are four different sizes of saxophone – soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. Most beginners start on the alto saxophone, because the size is more comfortable for younger players and it also requires a little less air to play than the larger tenor and baritone saxophones.
Playing The Saxphone & Saxophone Music
When the saxophone was patented by Adolphe Sax in 1846, it was used in military bands. Originally, there were 14 different sizes of saxophones! By the 1920s, it was being added to dance bands, and by the 1940s, big bands typically included 2 alto saxophones, 2 tenor saxophones and 1 baritone sax, with the alto and tenor often providing a solo voice. Saxophones are now used mostly in jazz, concert and marching bands, but occasionally a composer includes saxophone in an orchestra piece.
Saxophone players read music on the treble clef even though the tenor and baritone sax sound more than an octave below written.
The saxophone is a transposing instrument. That is, music written out for saxophone is transposed – raised or lowered – to a different “key”. Because of this, the note played sounds as a different note than the note written on the page of printed music. This is done so that the fingerings can be the same on different sized instruments of similar design. Players of these instruments, then, can switch between similar instruments without learning new fingerings.
The Soprano and Tenor Saxophones are “B-flat” transposing instruments. When a player reads a “C” on the page of music and fingers the note as “C” on the instrument, it sounds as “B-flat”, a step lower. (The Alto and Baritone Saxophones are E-flat transposing instruments.) Saxophonists and players of other transposing instruments get quite used to this. What this means, though, is that a flutist or pianist or violinist (all non-transposing instruments) cannot play along with the saxophone player using the same piece of printed music. Because the saxophone music has been transposed to another key, their music would appear different, even though the notes would sound the same.
Because saxophone players learn fingerings that are similar to the fingerings on the flute and on other types of saxophones, they often play multiple instruments. The clarinet is also a common cross-over instrument for sax players, as both instruments have similar sound production.
Where To Buy A Saxophone
Saxophones are available at both large music stores and smaller specialty stores that carry woodwind and other band instruments.
See “Where To Buy Musical Instruments” for general buying advice on:
- Buying in a Specialty Store vs. “Big Box” Stores
- Buying Online vs. In-Person
- Renting vs. Buying
- Buying Used Instruments
How To Buy A Saxophone
The relative cost will depend on the quality of the materials used, amount of handwork, quality of detailing, quality of tone, intonation and responsiveness.
Most saxophones today are made of brass and finished with a protective coating of clear lacquer. Different colored lacquers are available that change the appearance, but don’t affect the tone. Some vintage models, as well as some new ones, may have silver, nickel, gold or other plating that may also give them a different tone.
When buying a saxophone, consider the workmanship, tone and feel. Examine the pads to make sure they cover the holes completely and are soft to the touch. Resist the temptation to buy a very inexpensive off-brand instrument.
Used instruments can often be a good value. Have a teacher or experienced player check the instrument out for you to be sure it is in good playing condition, as repairs can be expensive. Watch out for dents and re-sodering. Check the condition of the pads.
Sample Saxophone Prices
$400 – 700
$800 – 1,700
If you are buying your instrument from a specialty music store, inquire about a trade-in policy. When your student is ready for a larger or higher quality instrument, they will often give you a good portion of the original instrument price back when you trade it in.
Saxophone Accessories: What Else You’ll Need
A good quality case, music stand and metronome are recommended for all instrumentalists. A sax player will also need a good neck strap or harness, reeds, a reed case, cork grease and a cleaning swab.
Reeds come in different grades according to strength. Higher numbers equate to stronger, harder reeds. Most beginners use softer reeds, such as a “2” and then move to stronger reeds, which produce a better tone, as they progress.
Sax Care and Maintenance
Tune the saxophone first when playing with other instruments by pulling the mouthpiece out or pushing it in to increase or decrease the length of the instrument.
Hold your saxophone by the bell. Be careful not to bend the keys or bump them out of alignment.
Assemble the instrument gently. Never force the parts together or put stress on the neck. If needed, rub a small amount of cork grease into the cork to allow the parts to slide together more easily.
After playing, disassemble the parts carefully. Remove the ligature and reed from the mouthpiece and store the reed in a case. Swab out the mouthpiece, then replace the ligature and cap before putting it back in the case. Drain any excess moisture out of the body. Then remove any remaining moisture inside by inserting a cotton drop swab and pulling it through the horn while holding the keys closed to remove any moisture inside. Don’t leave the swab in the body. Replace the endplug to protect the octave key.
Clean the outside of the instrument with a clean cotton cloth to remove fingerprints and oils.
Remove the neck strap and store the sax in the case. To prevent damage to the keys, don’t keep extra items or music in the case. Be sure the instrument and case are dry before closing the case, as humidity can damage the pads.
Once a year or so, take the saxophone to a reputable repair shop for servicing to keep it in good playing order. They will inspect, clean and oil the instrument, adjust keys and replace pads if needed.