We’ve already shared some in-depth content on the best tenor saxophones & alto saxophones for beginners, but in this guide we’re going to look at some of the more advanced instruments for playing jazz on, as well as accessories and gear which can upgrade the sound.
When it comes to buying a saxophone for jazz, or even just upgrading your current horn, there’s an enormous choice out there.
Do you buy a vintage classic, steeped in jazz history, or a brand new saxophone built with precise modern manufacturing methods?
And, once you’ve chosen a horn, what about the mouthpiece, reeds and even ligature that you pair it with?
There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of ‘best saxophone for jazz’ as it’s personal to each individual player, but there are some important considerations (which we’ll take you through in this guide) as well as some industry leaders that can’t be ignored – starting with these top choices:
|Yamaha Custom Alto Saxophone YAS-82Z Lacquered|
Yamaha's high-quality manufacturing at a great value price point.
|Check Price on Amazon|
|P. Mauriat Le Bravo (Matte Finish)|
Rose brass with a matte finish, this sax doesn't just play great, it also looks the part!
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|Selmer Paris Reference 54|
Part of Selmer's "Reference" range which combines modern manufacturing with the spirit of the vintage Mark VI.
|Check Price on Amazon|
We’ve included some examples of the instruments chosen by the jazz greats, so keep an eye out for the preferred saxophone of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond and more.
If you want to dive into that in more detail, we’ve published an in-depth look at the horns, mouthpieces and reeds of 10 of the best jazz saxophonists of all time.
We’ve included a range of prices but, as with most things, you get what you pay for.
That said, some saxophone models offer greater value for money than others.
You shouldn’t expect to see a huge difference in your playing just because you purchase an expensive instrument. And, equally, if you heard a world-class saxophonist play a student horn, they wouldn’t suddenly sound terrible!
The key is to get the best saxophone you can and then to put in the hours in the practice room to make it sound as good as possible!
How to choose a saxophone for jazz
Things to consider when testing out a new saxophone include:
- Does the build quality feel good?
- Does it produce a nice, well-rounded tone?
- Does it play evenly across the whole register?
- How is the intonation?
It’s also worth reading reviews & guides online, and seeking the advice of professional players.
It’s often possible to take a saxophone on trial before making a decision on whether or not you buy it, so it could be really useful to play it for an extended period yourself and also seek a second opinion if possible.
There are, of course, some advantages to buying a brand new saxophone, but looking at second hand options could provide the chance to grab a bargain.
Many professional players opt for vintage saxophones, usually for their perceived natural tonal quality, and perhaps a sense of character and history.
Historic models that are particularly sought after include the Conn M Series, the Beuscher 400, the Selmer Balanced Action and the Selmer Mark VI, perhaps the most famous saxophone ever made.
However, the quality of vintage instruments can vary widely and they can be trickier to maintain.
The key-work on pre-Mark VI Selmer instruments tends to feel considerably different, so beginner and intermediate saxophonists would probably be well advised to stick with a solid modern horn.
So, with that in mind, here are 5 of the best saxophones for jazz being manufactured and widely available today, followed by some top tips on the gear to pair them with…
Five Of The Best Saxophones for Playing Jazz
Whilst a great jazz musician can sound great on any instrument, there are a certain set of saxes that lend themselves particularly well to jazz.
Here are our top picks, based on feedback from the Jazzfuel community…
1. Selmer Paris Reference 54
Perhaps the most well known manufacturer of high quality saxophones, Henri Selmer founded the company in Paris in 1885.
The Reference 54 is a modern take on the arguably the greatest sax of all time, the Selmer Mark VI, which began production in 1954 and was played by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond and many other greats.
A matte lacquered finish gives this an ‘antique’ look and its warm, focused sound is informed by the great horns of the past, but various elements are redesigned for the modern player, including smoother keywork.
As the most expensive instrument on this list, it certainly doesn’t come cheap, but this could be an excellent alternative to a vintage saxophone: it is arguably both more reliable to maintain and more ergonomic to play.
A Reference 36 model is based on the 1936 Selmer Balanced Action.
Mark VI Spirit!
|Selmer Paris Reference 54 Tenor Saxophone|
A modern instrument with the sound and feel of the legendary Mark VI sax from the 1950s
|Check Price on Amazon|
2. Yamaha 82Z Custom
Whilst they may not have the name prestige of a brand like Selmer, Yamaha saxophones are known for making excellent quality saxophones at a considerably lower price.
The Custom has been their top-of-the-range series since 2002, and the free-blowing, wider-bored Custom Z is particularly well suited to jazz (while the Custom EX is considered to be more of a classical saxophone).
Available in a range of lacquered finishes, Phil Woods began playing one of these later in life, having played a Selmer Mark VI for many years previously. Yamaha also make very well regarded student and intermediate saxophones.
|Yamaha Custom Alto Saxophone YAS-82Z Lacquered||Check Price on Amazon|
3. Mauriat Le Bravo
Mauriat are a relatively new name to the saxophone world, but have swiftly established a reputation for products – hand-hammered with French brass in Taiwan – that compare favourably to more established brands.
The Le Bravo is an intermediate instrument: ideal for advancing students, but also suitable for professionals on a budget. With a stylish satin gold lacquer finish and a solid nickel silver neck, it has a punchy, more contemporary tone that makes it an ideal saxophone for jazz.
Mauriat also offer a number of more expensive professional saxophones, including the popular vintage-inspired PMX range.
|P. Mauriat Le Bravo Intermediate Alto Saxophone Matte Finish||Check Price on Amazon|
4. Yanagisawa WO20
With a rich, warm sound, they are endorsed by a number of big names in the jazz, classical and pop worlds. This model is an upgrade on the 992 model, having received several considered tweaks to improve how it plays on an ergonomic level.
5. Rampone and Cazzani R1 Jazz
Rampone and Cazzani is a small family business that has been hand crafting instruments in a village in the Italian Alps for almost 200 years. The R1 saxophone range is made specifically with jazz in mind using big bore geometry, and offers a number of customisable options.
The elaborately engraved body is available in a variety of different metals, each of which has specific tonal characteristics. Rampone and Cazzani are much less well known than other brands on this list, but this could be a great option for those looking for something different; a modern horn with real personality.
Of course, when it comes to getting the right sound for you, it’s not just the instrument itself which makes the difference.
In fact, there’s a whole range of gear and saxophone accessories which can improve the tone and playability.
If you’re upgrading your set up, or just investing in a great instrument to get started, it’s worth diving deeper into some of these topics listed below:
When it comes to setting up your instrument for jazz, the saxophone reed can make a surprisingly big impact on your sound and style.
The best way to find the perfect reed for you is to experiment with different products and strengths: find out what feels and sounds best with your skill and experience level, the type of music you play, and the mouthpiece you use.
What feels good in a reed is a very personal thing: Cannonball Adderley played a fairly soft reed (around a 2), while it’s been suggested that Charlie Parker used a hard reed (possibly even a 5!).
In any case, we’ve rounded up the most popular saxophone reeds in jazz here.
Saxophone ligatures might get a lot less attention than your choice of reed or mouthpiece, but they play a subtly important role in getting the sound you want as a musician.
We rounded up some of the key styles and ligature brands for you to check out here.
It may be small, but the saxophone mouthpiece can play a vital role in getting you towards the sound you want as a jazz musician.
As anyone who has tried a range of these will know, the difference between an ebonite Meyer mouthpiece compared to a metal Otto Link is enormous!
We made an in-depth guide to the best mouthpieces for jazz here.
OK, so using a saxophone mute isn’t a consideration for upgrading your sound on a gig, but if it allows you to put in the hard hours required to improve your tone and playing skills, it’s worth thinking about in our opinion!
We covered the different types of saxophone mutes – and how effective (or not!) they are – here.
Last, but certainly not least (especially for someone who’s just dropped $5000+ on a vintage horn!) is the question of which type of saxophone case to buy.
There’s a surprising range out there, both in terms of quality and style, and we ran through some of the best here.
So that’s it: the best saxophones for jazz, plus some considerations of gear and accessories to pair them with.
Hopefully it’s provided you with some good additional insight into your choices; let us know in the comments section if you have recommendations to add yourself.
If you’re looking for suggestions or tips on mouthpieces and reeds, too, head over to our saxophone homepage here.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!