The saxophone was created around 1840 by the Belgian instrument maker, clarinetist, and flutist Adolphe Sax. Saxophones are used in many different styles of music, including classical music, jazz, chamber music, rock and roll, and can be seen in concert bands, military bands, big bands, and marching bands.
A saxophone (or the sax) is a woodwind instrument with a conical body usually made of brass. Although the saxophone’s body is made of brass, it is not a member of the brass family. Saxophones are single-reed instruments and produce sound with vibrations from a reed and a mouthpiece.
Saxophones are made in various sizes and are either in the key of Bb or Eb.
There are nine different types of saxophones:
- The Sopranissimo
Keep reading to learn more about the different types of Saxophones!
The Sopranissimo Saxophone
The sopranissimo saxophone, also known as the piccolo saxophone or the soprillo saxophone, is the smallest type of saxophone.
🎵 Note: The instrument is only 12 inches long without a mouthpiece and 13 inches with the mouthpiece attached.
The sopranissimo saxophone is pitched in Bb, and they were finally able to be produced in the mid-2010s due to their small size. The mouthpiece is very small, requiring a musician to use and maintain a small embouchure, making the sopranissimo saxophone difficult to play.
You will only find this kind of saxophone in a standard band or orchestra if a piece of music requires it. If you are looking to buy a sopranissimo sax, they are manufactured by the German instrument maker Benedikt Eppelsheim, and they cost $3,400.
Check out the video below to see and hear what this tiny saxophone sounds like!
The Sopranino Saxophone
The sopranino saxophone is the second-smallest type of saxophone, and they are in the key of Eb.
Adolphe Sax’s patent for his instrument included an F sopranino saxophone (which was called the mezzo-soprano saxophone). Still, there are no known examples of this F sopranino having been built.
Most sopranino saxophones are straight like a clarinet because of their small size. However, the brand Orsi does produce the only curved sopranino saxophone on the market.
These saxophones have a sweet sound but are one of the least common types of saxophones used today.
🎵 Note: The most significant piece of music that uses the sopranino saxophone is Boléro by Maurice Ravel. The original score calls for a soprano saxophone in F, but the Eb sopranino saxophone is used instead. Many people mistake the sopranino saxophone for the clarinet during its solo in the song.
The average price for a sopranino saxophone is around $3,800. Check out the video below to see and hear a sopranino saxophone!
The Soprano Saxophone
The soprano saxophone is the third-smallest instrument in the saxophone family and has a very high pitch. The soprano saxophone is a transposing instrument that is in the key of Bb.
Fun Fact: During the 1920s in the United States, some soprano saxophones were created in the key of C, but they are no longer used and are incredibly uncommon to find.
A soprano saxophone has the same keys as the tenor saxophone and a skilled musician can reach the altissimo register and play in an even higher range than the instrument was built to produce.
The soprano saxophone comes with a curved neck or a straight neck version.
The straight soprano saxophone requires a musician to hold the instrument outward and vertically while playing to project the sound better.
A curved neck soprano saxophone allows the instrument to be held slightly downwards, making it easier to play if you use a music stand.
🎵 Note: Soprano saxophones are often utilized in saxophone quartets and solo or chamber instruments. Occasionally a concert band or orchestra may use a soprano for some pieces of music. While the alto and tenor saxophones are popular in jazz music, the soprano saxophone has been used back in the 1930s and 1950s.
The price of a soprano saxophone ranges between $1,000 – $6,000. One of the most recognizable soprano saxophone players is Kenneth Bruce Gorelic, better known as Kenny G. Check out the video below to see and hear Kenny G using his soprano saxophone!
The Alto Saxophone
The alto saxophone is one of the most common saxophone types that is used in popular music, chamber music, marching bands, jazz bands, concert bands, and military bands.
The alto saxophone is in the key of Eb and is considered a transposing instrument with an altissimo register.
🎵 Note: The altissimo register is the uppermost register woodwinds can play in; altissimo is also known as the “high register.”
The alto saxophone played a major role in the development of jazz music thanks to musicians like Charlie Parker, Paul Desmond, and Jackie McLean.
The prices of alto saxophones usually start at around $900 and can cost over $5,000 for a professional alto saxophone.
Check out the video below for a fantastic 8th-grade alto saxophone player performing Flight of the Bumblebee!
The Tenor Saxophone
The tenor saxophone, like the alto saxophone, is one of the most commonly used members of the saxophone family. It is heard in popular music, chamber music, marching bands, jazz bands, concert bands, and military bands.
The tenor saxophone is in the key of Bb and is considered to be a transposing instrument.
Tip: You can tell the difference between the tenor and alto saxophone by looking at the neck of the instrument. A tenor saxophone has a curved neck, while the alto does not.
The tenor saxophone’s mouthpiece, ligature, and reed are larger than the alto and soprano saxophones. The tenor saxophone’s mouthpiece is similar to the mouthpieces used to play the clarinet.
🎵 Note: Because the tenor saxophone has a large body and requires a stiff reed, a musician needs to have a strong airflow and greater lung capacity.
The good news is that the tenor saxophone uses a looser embouchure than smaller saxophones. Check out the video below to hear and see a tenor saxophone in use!
The Baritone Saxophone
The baritone saxophone is the largest and the lowest-pitched saxophone that is commonly used. The baritone or bari sax is in the key of Eb and is also considered a transposing instrument.
Tip: The easiest way to identify a baritone saxophone is the unique loop in the neck of the instrument called the “pigtail.” There are two versions of baritone saxophones; one version can play low A, and the other version can play a low Bb.
A baritone saxophone is heavier than the alto and tenor saxophone. They can weigh anywhere from 11 to 20 pounds depending on the design and metal used in their construction. Due to its weight, a baritone saxophone uses a harness-like neck strap that is worn over one shoulder instead of a standard neck strap.
This distributes the weight of the horn across the shoulder instead of the neck only, and students who play the baritone saxophone in their marching band tend to prefer this strap style.
🎵 Note: Many saxophone players prefer to use the form of baritone saxophone that is capable of a low Bb because musicians feel it sounds much better than the other.
Along with the soprano, alto, and tenor saxophone, the baritone saxophone is the fourth horn used in saxophone quartets.
Many jazz saxophone players use the baritone sax as their main instrument in ensembles. This saxophone is featured in Motown, funk, blues, ska, and soul bands.
A baritone sax is very expensive and can cost around $5,500.
Two famous baritone saxophone players were Clarence Clemons, the baritone saxophone player in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and Lisa Simpson from the show The Simpsons plays the bari sax.
Check out the video below to hear a unique take on Paganini’s Caprice NO.24, usually performed on the violin.
The Bass Saxophone
The bass saxophone is believed to have been the first type of saxophone that Adolphe Sax built. The bass saxophone is a transposing instrument, and it is in the key of Bb. In the original patent, Sax had for his instruments, a bass saxophone in C was included.
This bass saxophone in C was intended for use in orchestras, but hardly any were built or used as intended. If you want to buy a bass saxophone, it will cost anywhere between $5000 to $29,859 for a professional horn.
🎵 Note: The bass saxophone is not a commonly used instrument, but it has been used in jazz music from the 1920s, in saxophone choirs, and sometimes in rock music.
Fun Fact: One well-known musician who plays the bass saxophone is Colin Stetson. Stetson uses extended saxophone techniques, including multiphonics or playing more than one note at a time, microtones, altissimo, and growling, which means vocalizing into an instrument to create a unique sound.
Stetson has recorded and performed with artists like Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, BadBadNotGood, LCD Soundsystem, and many more.
Check out the video below to see and hear Colin Stetson and his extended techniques on the bass saxophone.
The Contrabass Saxophone
The contrabass saxophone is an enormous instrument that stands at 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs a hefty 45 pounds. This giant saxophone was part of the original patent that Sax had in 1846, which is pitched in Eb.
In 1849, Sax presented the contrabass saxophone at music exhibitions and was included in Patrick Gilmore’s American Band in 1892.
The Evette-Shaeffer company made several dozen contrabass saxophones for US military bands at the start of the 20th century. By the Great Depression, the contrabass saxophone craze ended, and this already rare instrument wasn’t seen that often.
🎵 Note: The contrabass saxophone is said to have a very rich tone thanks to its large size. The sound can be harsh and buzzy or smooth and mellow depending on the mouthpiece, reed, and musician playing the contrabass saxophones.
A contrabass saxophone is incredibly expensive and starts at $15,000 for a vintage one, and a new contrabass sax will be around $28,000.
The rock group The Violent Femmes has included a contrabass saxophone in its recordings and live performances since 2004.
Musician Blaise Garza plays in unison with the bass guitar on the band’s 9th album. The deepest tones produced by the contrabass saxophone vibrate so slowly that it is often hard for listeners to tell the difference between individual notes at the end of its register.
Check out the video below to hear and see a contrabass saxophone in action!
The Subcontrabass Saxophone
The subcontrabass saxophone is the largest horn in the saxophone family. Surprisingly, this saxophone behemoth was part of Sax’s original patent, but it was never built.
The subcontrabass saxophone is a transposing instrument in the key of Bb, and the sound is incredibly deep.
Fun Fact: The first playable subcontrabass saxophone was built in the 21st century, and it was built in 1965. It looked like a movie prop, not an instrument someone could play.
In 1999, the German instrument manufacturer Benedikt Eppelsheim created the tubax, which is what he describes as a “subcontrabass saxophone.”
🎵 Note: The horn has the same pitch range as Sax’s original patent, but there is a lot of debate in the music world if the tubax is truly a saxophone.
In 2013, the Brazilian instrument manufacturer J’Ekke Stainer created a full-size subcontrabass saxophone that costs $30,000. This horn stands at 9 feet tall and weighs 63 pounds.
Check out the video below to see Attilio Berni playing the J’Elle Stainer subcontrabass saxophone!
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