Looking to get started playing saxophone?
This beginners guide will take you through the main different types of sax – soprano, alto, tenor & baritone – and give you some tips on where to start when it comes to learning saxophone.
Compared to a lot of instruments, the saxophone is one of the easier ones to learn.
The keys were designed for easy, logical use, the mouthpiece is less complex than it’s orchestral counterparts and playing in tune with a good tone is feasible within a few practice sessions.
Basically, this single-reed member of the woodwind family is a good bet if you’re looking to learn a new instrument!
In this guide we’ll talk about each of the 4 main instruments in the saxophone family and let you know some basic considerations when planning to learn it.
We’ll also suggest some specific saxophone brands and recordings to check out and cover the main highlights of the history of the saxophone (hint: it was invented in the 1840s by Adolphe Sax as an orchestral instrument, before taking over the jazz world!)…
So if you’re looking for some help getting started with the saxophone, you’re in the right place!
Table of Contents
How Easy Is It To Start Learning Saxophone?
In terms of learning the saxophone, it’s one of the easiest instruments.
The scales run up and down the keys, making it perfect for beginners or people who are switching from the piano or other woodwind instruments with similar technique.
The saxophone fingerings come almost as second nature, with the sound getting deeper as more holes in the instrument are covered in order from top to bottom.
There are four common types of saxophone to choose from, plus a bunch of crazy ones that we’ll show you at the end of this article!
Alto and tenor saxophones are the most common for beginners, for reasons we’ll go into below, but all 4 have their unique style and attractions, regardless of whether you’re a complete beginner or have been playing music a while…
How much does a saxophone cost?
When it comes to buying a saxophone, you generally have two choices: new or vintage.
Buying a new saxophone
If you’re just getting started with playing sax, a new saxophone is the safest and easiest option.
Prices for brand new, factory-built saxophones are pretty consistent and you have the guarantee that it’s going to work exactly as it should.
Not to mention the fact you can order one today and have it delivered to your front door in as little as 24 hours, along with all the necessary saxophone accessories.
As with many things, you do get what you pay for to a certain extent.
A basic, beginner saxophone will allow you to get familiar with the instrument and start learning to play.
If this is your goal, you can find brand new alto saxophones – including all the basic accessories – for less than $400.
If you’re looking to buy a saxophone with a little more longevity, you can find entry-level saxophones for under $1000 from more established names in the business, including Conn-Selmer, with their 711 alto sax and the Jean Paul’s 400 tenor sax.
In our opinion, the best student saxophone available – in terms of price vs quality – is the Yamaha YAS-280
And, as you head up the pricing chart quite a bit, arguably the most popular brand for professional players is the legendary manufacturer Selmer Paris ; their Reference 54 & 36 saxophones are an excellent modern instrument!
One thing to mention, though: despite what you might think, plastic saxophones are pretty much a think of the past and only worth considering if you’d buying a toy for a 3 year old!
Buying a vintage or second-hand saxophone
When it comes to vintage saxophones, things get a little more complicated, which is why it’s highly recommended to start with a new sax.
Whilst there are prices you’d expect to pay for each brand and model, these old horns are at a premium as they are usually not manufactured anymore.
The pricing is also affected by the nuances of their sound, which means you need to be extremely comfortable with playing saxophone to make that decision.
As an example, whilst you might find a good vintage horn for $5000, there are top quality vintage Selmer saxophones which have sold for as high as $40,000!
All that to say: if you’re buying vintage, make sure you try out the saxophone in person (or at least ask a pro to do it for you) and look at a few options before committing!
What about saxophone rental?
Sometimes, especially in the case of beginner children, it might be worth considering renting a saxophone.
It’s not a long-term solution, as those monthly payments start to add up very quickly, but if you’re really not sure it’s going to be a long-term hobby, it could be worth considering.
Saxophone rental costs can start as low as $40 a month, depending on the type of saxophone and where you’re hiring it from.
However, with brand new beginner saxophones costing less than $500, we feel it’s worth making the commitment. You can always sell them second-hand if you stop using it and buying a new sax online avoid the need to travel to a local store, go through the options and check out their rental agreement.
With all that said, here’s our rundown on the 4 main types of saxophone you might choose to start with.
Whilst there are some more eccentric members of the saxophone family (including the massive contrabass and the beautiful but under-appreciated C Melody), there are four common ones that most beginner saxophone students choose:
- soprano sax
- alto sax
- tenor sax
- baritone sax
We’ve rounded up some key info on each, along with some recommended listening if you want to hear what the instrument sounds like…
NB: the order of the keys and the musical notes they correspond to are the same on every saxophone, which is why more advanced players generally switch between at least different instruments in the family.
Getting to know these ‘fingerings’ is an important starting point for every amateur saxophonist and you can download a free saxophone fingering chart here.
Often straight (resembling a clarinet in shape), the soprano saxophone has one of the highest ranges of all saxophones and is the third-smallest member of the sax family, following the soprillo and sopranino.
It uses the same fingerings as any other saxophone, but the instrument is more difficult to keep in tune, which is why it’s rare for beginners to start with this.
It’s in the same key (Bb) as the tenor saxophone, which is why you often see sax players playing those two, ahead of baritone and alto – which are both in Eb.
Beginners who decide to choose a soprano saxophone may want to try a few different mouthpieces on their saxophone to find one that feels right and helps produce the best tone. If the tuning is an issue, it’s also worth trying different reed strengths. As a reminder, the lower numbers (such as #2) will be easier to play.
Recommended beginner soprano sax models
- Yanigasawa S-WO1
Soprano saxophone listening guide
Listen to John Coltrane’s famous soprano saxophone playing from the early 60s…
- Audio CD – Audiobook
- English (Publication Language)
- 01/13/2008 (Publication Date) -...
Patented in 1846, the alto saxophone is the most common saxophone on the market and is often found in school bands, marching bands, orchestras and jazz bands.
The most likely reason for this is that it’s a good mix of easy-to-blow and easy-to-hold and has a good mid-range sound.
Generally, the alto is a good place to start if you’re a total beginner, like the idea of playing a recognisable saxophone, or are inspired by some of the jazz greats who played that instrument. Also, assuming budget is a consideration, the alto saxophone’s size is smaller than it’s tenor counterpart, meaning it’s also cheaper.
Best Alto Saxophone for Beginners
You can find our in-depth reviews of the best beginner alto saxophones here or check the table below for the quick version.
Hint: our overall favourite which combines affordable pricing with good quality is Yamaha YAS-280!
|Yamaha YAS-280||Possible the most-recommended beginner saxophone of all time and with good reason!||Check Price|
|Jean Paul AS-400SP||A great mid-priced beginner sax with optional silver-plating||Check price|
|Jupiter JAS710GN||A well-known and established student sax manufacturer with advanced features||Check Price|
|Kaizer 1000 Series||A durable and versatile entry level sax||Check Price|
|Mendini by Cecilio||The complete beginner set up: saxophone + all accessories at a great price.||Check Price|
Alto saxophone listening guide
Check out Cannonball Adderley, a popular alto saxophonist in the 1950s and 60s.
The tenor saxophone looks very similar to the alto, but a little bigger. As such, it’s heavier to hold, has a larger mouthpiece and reed and takes more air to make a sound.
For adults, this shouldn’t pose any issue, but it’s a valid consideration if you’re looking for a beginner saxophone for a child or young student.
If you’re inspired by jazz, the tenor saxophone is arguably the most popular solo instrument in the style, with many of the jazz saxophone greats opting for this instrument.
As mentioned earlier, it is also in the same key (Bb) as the soprano, so alternating between those two – even on the same gig or practice session – is not too difficult.
The Best Tenor Sax for Beginners
You can find our in-depth reviews of the best beginner tenor saxophones here or check the table below for the quick version.
Hint: our overall favourite which combines affordable pricing with good quality is the TS-400 Jean Paul USA!
|Jean Paul USA TS-400||the serious saxophone beginner||Check Price|
|Yamaha YTS-26||state-of-the art manufacturing||Check Price|
|Mendini by Cecilio||complete beginners on a budget||Check Price|
|Jupiter Intermediate||a solid, long-term saxophone||Check Price|
|Selmer TS711||saxophone history at an affordable price||Check Price|
|Glory (Black & Gold)||younger beginner students||Check Price|
Tenor saxophone listening guide
For amazing tenor saxophone recordings, listen to Sonny Rollins, one of the most influential jazz saxophonists in American music history.
The baritone (or ‘bari’) saxophone is the largest of the 4 common types of saxophone, with an easily-recognisable curved neckpiece that circles back on itself before going into the classic saxophone shape.
This is a large instrument, even for a grown adult (when used in a seated position, it nearly touches the floor) and can be difficult to carry!
Due to it’s deep, dark sound, it’s less common as a solo instrument and tends to be most-used in large ensembles, such as big bands and jazz orchestras. That said, there are some notable jazz legends on this instrument and it can produce a range of sounds not heard on the other saxophones.
If you’re a complete beginner, this would be an unusual first instrument, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t brake the mould and give it a go! That said, an easy way into it would be to first choose the alto saxophone (which is in the same key, Eb) and then switch to the baritone a little later.
Recommended beginner baritone saxophone models
- Jupiter JBS1000
Baritone saxophone listening guide
Hear the best of the baritone saxophone with Gerry Mulligan, one of the leading jazz baritone saxophonists.
As you’ve no doubt seen, the saxophone looks pretty complicated and is made up of a lot of different parts.
Whilst most of these are built in when you buy a new instrument, there are some that you should be aware in terms of upgrading your horn or making it easier to play.
Beginner Saxophone Mouthpieces
When you buy a new saxophone, it will generally come with the basic mouthpiece from the manufacturer.
Whilst this will be sufficient to get you started – just like a beginner-level sax – you will want to upgrade this at some point, as it can have a surprisingly important effect on your sound.
There are a huge number of options and a great starting point is to check what mouthpieces the jazz greats used.
Our tip if you’re just getting started: If you want to get started right away with a more established jazz mouthpiece, Meyer make some excellent all-round mouthpieces and are used by many of the greats, old and new.
- Rubber alto saxophone mouthpiece - #7MM
- Tip opening: 0.081"
- Excellent and clear response ranging...
- This along with being very easy-blowing...
- A Ligature and Mouthpiece Cap are...
Beginner Saxophone Reeds
Saxophone reeds may be the smallest part of your saxophone set-up, but they too can have an impact on your sound.
And it’s not even as simple as just finding your favourite brand; due to the fact that they’re a natural product, they are not all made exactly the same, so in a box of 10, you may like some more than others.
To learn more about your choices when it comes to this topic, we put together this overview of the 5 best saxophone reeds for playing jazz.
Our tip if you’re just getting started: Vandoren Java reeds are a solid choice for jazz and choosing a low number (ie a 1.5) will offer less resistance than other choices.
- More flexible than Traditional and V16...
- Vibrates over a longer palette producing...
- Also available in other strengths
- Every reed sealed in 'Flow Pack' to...
Round up: which beginner saxophone is right for me?
We hope this quick run through has been useful for you!
Whilst there are other ‘specialist’ saxophones out there, these four are the most common and should provide you with ample choice. If you’re a complete beginner, your best bet would be to go for alto or tenor – with a preference for the smaller alto if the player is a young child.
If you’re looking for the easiest and most affordable way to get started, buy a new beginner model for under $1,000 which will be enough to really make progress and check your commitment to the instrument.
If you’re looking to splash out a little more, Selmer are generally considered the best saxophone manufacturers in the world.
Lastly, if you’re looking for more advice on saxophones – including reeds, mouthpieces, famous players and educational resources – you can find all our sax guides here.
If you have any further questions – or feedback on which you decide to use – let us know in the comments section!
Here are some of the ‘crazy’ saxophones out there:
International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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Last update on 2021-06-11 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API