In this article we’re diving into the story of arguably the largest woodwind instrument played today: the contrabass saxophone.
Despite its niche appeal (it sounds a full octave lower than even its rumbling cousin the baritone sax) it has been used on some famous recordings, as we’ll show you.
First, let’s go back to basics…
There are four members of the saxophone family that we see and hear relatively often:
These are the instruments – especially the alto and tenor sax – which dominate many of the greatest albums in jazz history.
However, there are other saxophones outside of this quartet; intriguing instruments that sound either extremely high or extremely low. If we continue going deeper (bigger) into the saxophone family, we next find the bass saxophone, followed by the giant contrabass sax.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at this fascinating, rarely seen musical instrument, and at some of the musicians who’ve played it.
The Contrabass Saxophone
All of the modern-day members of the saxophone family are transposing instruments, pitched in either E flat or B flat.
Like the alto and baritone saxes, the contrabass is an E♭ instrument, meaning that when it plays a C, this sounds the same as an Eb on the piano.
In terms of size and weight, the contrabass is an absolute giant.
The baritone saxophone is considered to be rather big and unwieldy – it’s not something you’d want to carry around on foot for long – but the tubing that makes up a contrabass is twice the length of a baritone!
The contrabass is occasionally played with just a neck strap – it was originally intended to be used in marching bands, amongst other things – but is more commonly held upright with a sax stand to take the weight.
It weighs approximately 20 kilograms and stands at around 1.9 metres in height.
It uses the same fingering system as all the other saxophones so, in theory, any saxophonist should be able to play one, although, as you’d expect, it requires rather more air than its smaller cousins!
The Contrabass Sound
Like most saxophones, the contrabass’s playing range goes from a low B flat up to a high F, so around two and a half octaves (although some modern versions go down to a low A, and up to a high F sharp).
Its written, concert pitch range – the range that it would sound on the piano – is D flat 1 (almost three octaves below middle C), up to to A flat 3,which lies a few notes below middle C.
It sounds an octave below the baritone, and two octaves below the alto.
Because the range is so low, the human ear often finds it difficult to distinguish between the contrabass’s pitches when it is playing in the lower register!
With its huge bore, the contrabass has a big, powerful tone which can sound particularly impressive in large spaces with sympathetic acoustics.
Like the other saxophones, it can sound reedy and harsh, or soft and mellow, depending on the player and the reeds and mouthpiece setup.
Because of its eye-catching size, contrabass performances often provide a real spectacle: it’s not the easiest instrument to manage physically!
“It draws as much attention to itself tonally as it does visually. The resonance and depth of sound, floor-board rattling power, and deep range of this instrument (its lowest-sounding note is the lowest C-sharp on the piano) inescapably makes its presence known.” Saxophonist and historian Paul Cohen
Contrabass sax players and use in music
Let’s be honest: the contrabass is not seen often.
It’s rare to meet a saxophonist who owns a contrabass, so composers and arrangers tend not to write for it, and it is not typically used as part of jazz ensembles.
However, it does occasionally appear in the hands of specialists.
Scott Robinson, a New York-based saxophonist who is well known for making use of unusual wind instruments, owns a contrabass.
He has played it on film soundtracks and in various jazz settings, including on the tracks “Ko Ko” and “Basso Profundo” from his album Thinking Big, on which he also plays baritone, bass and C melody saxophones, amongst others.
The instrument was first conceived of as part of Adolph Sax’s original collection of saxophones, with the intention being that it would provide low-end timbres in orchestral settings, as well as with military bands.
However, the saxophone never really caught on as an orchestral instrument, and the contrabass, like other members of the saxophone family with extremely high or low ranges, gradually fell out of usage.
The contrabass did, however, feature in a number of dance bands in the 1920s and ‘30s.
It has also often been used in saxophone choirs – large ensembles consisting solely of various saxophones – and occasionally in contemporary classical music groups.
The American folk punk band Violent Femmes often features the contrabass played by the actor and musician Blaise Garza.
Contrabass Saxophone Manufacturers
Until relatively recently, buying a vintage model was the best way to get hold of contrabass saxophones, and there were only limited numbers available.
Although, as you’d expect from such a large, specialist piece of equipment, they certainly don’t come cheap..!
Thanks for reading!
If you’re looking to check out more sax-related content, head over to our saxophones 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!