Saxophone Types: 4 Common Types & Other Sax Family Members

With its wide range of notes and versatility, the saxophone can be played in various musical genres, from concert bands and jazz to classical music. There are many saxophone types, each with unique characteristics and designs.

4 Common Types of Saxophones

photo showing the different types of saxophones

The saxophone is a solo instrument and a part of the woodwind family. There are four different kinds of saxophones in the market today, from the deep, rich tones of the bari sax to the bright and punchy sound of the alto sax. There is a saxophone for every musician, whether a beginner or a seasoned pro.

1. Soprano Saxophone

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The soprano saxophone belongs to the saxophone family, founded around 1840 by Belgian instrument manufacturer Adolphe Sax. Sax received a patent for the saxophone family from the French government on June 22, 1846. However, its development may have begun as early as 1838.

The lowest possible note with all finger holes covered on the soprano sax is an A-flat3. The highest possible note varies from player to player but is typically described as an E flat 6. Within that range, it is entirely chromatic.

Of the four most common saxophones, the soprano is the lightest and has the highest pitch, an octave higher than the tenor and a fifth higher than the Alto.

The soprano saxophone, tuned to B-flat, is notoriously tricky to learn and intonate properly. As a result, it might not be the best option for a beginner.

2. Alto Saxophone

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It is similar in size to the baritone saxophone but has a higher pitch range. The alto saxophone is played with a single-reed mouthpiece and is typically pitched in the key of E-flat. It is a popular instrument in jazz, big band, and military band music.

It is played by pressing down various combinations of keys and levers to change the pitch of the notes. The key layout is similar to that of other saxophones, but the alto saxophone has a slightly smaller finger span, making it easier for beginners.

The alto saxophone has a bell flared outwardly and is located at the bottom of the instrument. The bell amplifies the sound and gives the saxophone its characteristic tone.

3. Tenor Saxophone / Tenor Sax

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The tenor saxophone is the second-largest saxophone in the family. It is bigger and heavier than an alto sax, and its crook is slightly more curved. The bell alone accounts for over half of the instrument’s total height. It is one of the easiest instruments to play in this family.

The tenor saxophone’s distinctive tone, which is both warm and sharp, sets it apart from other saxophones. The tenor saxophone’s range includes notes from Ab2 to E5, even though it is most commonly played in the key of Bb. A standard tenor saxophone is 34 inches long, 7 inches wide, and 12 inches tall.

Some of the famous tenor saxophone players include: 

  • Lester Young
  • Coleman Hawkins
  • Ben Webster
  • John Coltrane 

4. Baritone Saxophone

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The baritone is the largest and the heaviest of the four different types of saxophones, weighing 15-20 pounds; therefore, not recommended for beginners. 

However, due to the similarities in fingering, those who play the alto or tenor saxophone should have little trouble learning to play the baritone.

The baritone saxophone’s tone is precisely one octave lower than the alto and a perfect fifth lower than the tenor because of its key of E flat. Many modern baritone saxophones have a low A in their range, making them the lowest-pitched saxophones.

When looking for a baritone sax, remember that having access to a low A will likely be helpful in many of today’s ensemble performances. Some musicians, especially those who perform jazz solos in small ensembles, enjoy using an older baritone saxophone that only goes down to B flat.

Some of the famous bari sax players include: 

  • Gerry Mulligan
  • Cecil Payne
  • Hamiet Bluiett

Other Members of the Saxophone Family

While there are only four common types of sax, the list doesn’t end there. There are more than ten sax types apart from the four mentioned above. These saxophones all sound different and have different tonal qualities. Depending on the context, they have multiple applications.

1. Sopranissimo Saxophone

Because of its compact size and high pitch, the sopranissimo sax is the highest-pitched saxophone. Besides, “soprillo,” “piccolo,” and “little pic” are all names for it.

The length of this instrument is hardly more than 30 centimeters, making it even more diminutive than the sopranino. Due to its high E note, this instrument is pitched an octave above a soprano saxophone.

The octave key on the sopranissimo mouthpiece is a distinctive feature of this instrument. Even though it’s not how a saxophone is typically played, doing so is for the best possible sound quality.

While the sopranissimo’s theoretical concept was available in the 1990s, it wasn’t until the middle of the 2010s that a functioning prototype could be produced due to the instrument’s tiny size. These days, a tenor saxophone performance is more about the show than substance.

2. Sopranino Saxophone

The Sopranino sax was initially first produced in 1920. However, this saxophone has never made it in mainstream music. Like the alto saxophone, which is one octave lower, and baritone, which is 3 octaves lower, sopraninos are E-flat.

Only the soprillo saxophone has a higher pitch than sopranino. This is because, at B-flat, it has a higher octave than the soprano sax.

Mastering the sopranino demands a lot of facial force and skill due to the instrument’s tiny mouthpiece and reed. Although the results will be magnificent in the hands of a virtuoso, beginners should keep off.

Sopranino sax reeds are available from all the main reed producers in various girths (Vandoren, Legere, Alexander, etc.). This saxophone has a smaller version of the mouthpiece compared to its counterparts. This can be a challenge in terms of technique and embouchure.

3. Bass Saxophone

It has a larger body and lower pitch than the more common baritone saxophone, making it one of the lowest-pitched saxophones.  When played in B-flat major, this saxophone is an octave lower than the tenor and a perfect fourth lower than the baritone.

Like the other saxes, the bass saxophone plays music written in treble clef. However, the notes are played in two octaves and a major second lower on the instrument. B-flat major is the lowest written note below the staff, which sounds like a concert A♭1 in the bass’s case.

4. Contrabass Saxophone

The contrabass saxophone was included in the original saxophone family, as evidenced by both Adolphe Sax’s 1846 patent and Kastner’s contemporaneously published Methode für saxophone.

In 1849, Sax displayed everything from a contrabass to a sopranino instrument at his exhibition. Contrabass saxophones saw a renaissance in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

There are presently three manufacturers of the contrabass saxophone. However, despite this fact, the instrument is still challenging to find and somewhat expensive. 

The contrabass saxophone has a powerful, resonant tone that results from the instrument’s large body and broad bore. However, what you get from playing depends on your mouthpiece and reed. 

 Although contrabass sax is fun to play, starting lessons on the most common saxophone types is always advisable.

5. Subcontrabass Saxophone

Adolphe Sax developed the subcontrabass saxophone in 1846, dubbing it the “sax bourdon” after the lowest organ stop. Eppelsheim, a German instrument manufacturer, produced a full-size subcontrabass saxophone in 2012.

There were a lot of complications in the development of this saxophone. A full-functional one was reached in the 21st century. Due to the complexity of the task at hand, a novice is unlikely to be interested in taking it on.

Both tubaxes are made by German luthier Benedikt Eppelsheim, although the smaller one is a “subcontrabass saxophone,” as Eppelsheim calls his B-flat instrument. They were both manufactured in 1999. Its range is similar to that of a bourdon on a saxophone, whereas that of a contrabass on a smaller, E-tuned tubax.

6. C Melody Saxophone

Adolphe Sax made a series of C and F saxes with orchestral performance in mind. Once widely played, this instrument has fallen into obscurity (maybe largely thanks to the efforts of Rudy Wiedoeft and Frankie Trumbauer).

Compared to an alto saxophone, a tenor saxophone is on the smaller side, while a C melody sax is on the larger side. Most of these types bore the same size and taper as stretched alto rather than a tenor. The instrument is reminiscent of a compact tenor saxophone with a more elongated bell when viewed from the side.

Most C-melody saxophone types have curved necks (like the tenor saxophone). However, C.G.Conn did manufacture one with a straight neck (more similar to the alto). Standard practice dictates engraving the letter “C” either above or below the serial number on C melody saxophones.

Conclusion

The saxophone is a versatile and beloved instrument, from the smooth and mellow sound of the alto sax to the powerful and expressive tone of the tenor sax. Whether you’re a beginner or a professional player, there is a saxophone out there that is perfect for you!

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