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The 4 Most Common Types of Saxophones


Developed by musical instrument designer Adolphe Sax in Belgium in the 1840s, saxophones were designed to combine the best qualities of brass instruments, such as the trumpet or trombone, with traditional woodwind instruments, such as the clarinet or oboe. Despite being made primarily out of brass, saxophones are categorized as woodwind instruments because, like clarinets, the predominant catalyst through which sound is generated when playing the saxophone is the reed.


When Sax originally designed the saxophone, there were fourteen different variations of the instrument. However, today, that number has been distilled down greatly to six types of saxophones. From there, only four of those remaining six types are still commonly played in modern musical contexts. In pitch order from highest to lowest, they are the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones.


So, the natural question then ariseswhat are the unique characteristics of these four different saxophones, and what makes each type so special? Additionally, many aspiring saxophone players often wonder—which saxophone is right for me, and which should I learn to play?


Today, we’re going to help answer those questions by diving into the differences between the four most common saxophone types:





The soprano saxophone is the smallest of the saxophone family, and is often confused with the clarinet by the undiscerning eye. Unlike its familial counterparts, most soprano saxophones feature a linear architecture, and lack the familiar bell curve that most saxophones are recognized as having. Despite often being visually mistaken for a clarinet, the soprano saxophone has a much fuller, louder, and more midrange-focused tonality by comparison.


Tuned to B-flat, the soprano is one of the more difficult saxophone types to play, and is particularly arduous to intonate properly. Therefore, it is not necessarily the best instrument on which to begin your saxophone studies.


Furthermore, because it is not typically a standard fixture in most concert, jazz, or swing big bands, the soprano saxophone is more commonly the secondary instrument of most seasoned sax players, rather than the primary.






Unlike the soprano, the alto is a great saxophone to pick up if you’re beginning your musical journey and learning to play for the first time. Tuned to E-flat and pitched slightly lower than the soprano, the alto is great for introductory players because, unlike some of the larger horns, it is small, lightweight, and easy to grip.


Additionally, it is relatively easy to generate a pleasing, in-tune musical tone on the alto, unlike some of the more finicky horns like the soprano. Therefore, most first-time students are able to begin performing simple melodies and tunes after only a few short lessons, and often quickly gain confidence and experience positive results.


Alto saxophone is also prevalent within concert and jazz bands, and can often be heard in styles ranging from jazz to blues, classical, pop, rock, and beyond! Famous alto saxophone players throughout history include Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Marcel Mule, Eric Marienthal, as well as many others.


While he’s skilled on many instruments, master jazz saxophone player and ArtistWorks instructor, Eric Marienthal, primarily performs on the alto saxophone, and currently occupies the lead alto chair in Grammy-Award winning jazz/fusion big band, Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band.


LEARN MORE: Want to learn from a jazz saxophone master like Eric Marienthal? Try a free online saxophone lesson now!






The tenor saxophone is slightly larger and deeper sounding than the alto; however, like the alto, it has become a prevalent instrument across a wide variety of popular musical genres. It features a deep, rich tonality that can easily fill a room while simultaneously projecting through a dense band mix. This unique blend of sonic elements is what makes the tenor saxophone so alluring.


Due to its larger size and lower B-flat tuning, the tenor requires the player to push more air through the instrument in order to generate a smooth, clear note. As a result, it isn’t always the ideal instrument for first-time wind players or younger musicians with smaller lung capacities. That being said, it is certainly an instrument worth quickly graduating up to.


The tenor has been the instrument of choice for many saxophone legends throughout history, including John Coltrane, Stan Goetz, Sonny Rollins, and Frederick Hemke, and, like the alto, has become a tonal staple across genres ranging from jazz to classical and beyond.






The deepest and boldest of these four common horns, the baritone is the largest saxophone that you’ll come across in most modern ensembles. Tuned to low E-flat, the baritone has a raw, organic tone that will bring a thick, full low-end to any musical context in which it is featured.


As the largest of the saxophones, the baritone requires a huge volume of air in order to produce a note, and, therefore, is one of the more difficult horns to play. Consequently, it is often not recommended for beginner saxophone players, who are typically encouraged to begin with the alto or tenor as an alternative.


Nonetheless, there are countless fantastic musicians who have made their mark playing the baritone saxophone, including Cecil Payne, Pepper Adams, Serge Chaloff, and more!





Have you always wanted to learn how to play jazz saxophone? Through our comprehensive online saxophone lessons and Video Exchange Learning platform here at ArtistWorks, you can learn from internationally-renowned players, like Eric Marienthal, and get personalized feedback on your playing.


Eric’s course starts with the basics and teaches everything from beginner jazz saxophone to advanced performance techniques and jazz standards. So, whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced sax player, all levels are welcome and all students will grow and improve their skills as saxophonists and musicians!


Try out some free music lessons here and see what makes ArtistWorks courses some of the best online music lessons around!



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