In this guide we’re going to be looking at the different types of saxophones, from the ones you’ll most likely be familiar with already, to some of the more unusual instruments out there.
We’ll also highlight some of the most famous musicians who’ve played each of these, with some suggestions of where you can listen to each of the different members of the saxophone family in action.
There are, of course, the 4 most common types of saxophones in use today:
- soprano saxophone (highest pitched)
- alto saxophone (most common beginner instrument)
- tenor saxophone (common choice, especially in jazz)
- baritone saxophone (lowest pitch)
But that list expands to 9 if you include the full saxophone family of the 21st Century (plus a bonus addition if you read to the very end!) which, starting with the highest pitch and working our way down, looks like this:
The saxophone was invented by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian living in Paris, in the early 1840s who originally conceived it as an orchestral woodwind instrument.
It never took off as a standard member of the orchestra, but features heavily in a number of famous pieces by the likes of Shostakovich, Debussy and Glazunov, and there is a recognised school of classical saxophone playing epitomised by Marcel Mule and his teaching at the Paris Conservatoire.
The range of different saxophones out there means it has been used widely in music: from military bands and concert bands to pop, rock, ska and many more besides.
It’s jazz music, though, with which the saxophone is most closely associated.
From the early jazz of New Orleans and Chicago, through the big band and bebop eras, the modal and free jazz revolutions and beyond, various members of the saxophone family have been ever-present.
Adolphe Sax’s original design imagined a family of 14 saxophones, including some pitched in C (concert pitch) and F.
However, the varieties of saxophones in standard use today are all pitched in either E flat or B flat.
This means that they are transposing instruments: when an E flat instrument plays a C, that note sounds as an E flat on the piano; when a B flat instrument plays a C, that note sounds as a B flat on the piano.
The 4 Most Common Types of Saxophones
Let’s get started with the four most popular saxophones to play…
Unlike it’s larger counterparts, the soprano sax is usually straight, rather like a clarinet. However, some manufacturers also make curved sopranos, which look like miniature altos.
The soprano is the lightest and highest-pitched of the four most common types of saxophones, sounding one octave above the tenor and a fifth above the alto and is a B flat instrument.
If played poorly it can have a somewhat piercing, nasal quality, and it is actually notoriously challenging in terms of breath control and intonation in comparison to the alto and tenor.
The soprano has an interesting place in the history of jazz. Sidney Bechet, one of the first major jazz soloists of the 1920s, was a clarinettist and soprano saxophonist, who was notable for his virtuoso sweeping arpeggio figures and wide vibrato-laden sound.
But following that, the soprano played little role in the swing, bebop, cool jazz or hard bop schools of the 1930s-’50s.
John Coltrane sparked something of a revival for the instrument on his 1960 album My Favourite Things, using the instrument to intense effect on a number of subsequent recordings with his classic quartet.
John Coltrane was the first of a long line of tenor saxophonists who “double” on soprano: Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Joshua Redman and Branford Marsalis are other examples.
Steve Lacy is a rare example of a saxophonist who exclusively focuses on soprano, while Jan Garbarek’s haunting tone on curved soprano is a classic sound in European jazz.
The soprano is not a standard member of the big band saxophone section, although the alto or tenor parts may sometimes “double” on it. It features in a typical saxophone quartet and often appears as a solo instrument in classical and chamber music.
The alto is the most commonly-played type of saxophone and the instrument that most beginners start to learn on.
It’s an E flat instrument, and is pitched higher than the tenor and lower than the soprano.
Like most saxophones, its range goes from B flat below the stave to the F sharp an octave above the top of the stave, so around two and a half octaves.
In concert pitch this translates to the D flat below middle C at the bottom end,up to the A just above the stave .
Perhaps the most famous exponent of the alto sax in jazz is Charlie Parker, who helped birth bebop in the mid 1940s.
It’s also been heard in the hands of swing era stylists Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges, avant gardists Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, and funky smooth jazz stars Grover Washington Jr. and Gerald Albright.
The alto is also the solo saxophone of choice in classical music – much more so than the tenor.
Notable orchestral pieces include Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone in E Flat major and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances From West Side Story, which contains an alto feature.
The standard big band lineup includes two alto saxophonists, with the “lead alto” part playing a particularly important role in spearheading the five-person saxophone section.
Concert bands, military bands and classical saxophone quartets also commonly include alto saxophones.
It was swing era saxophone player Coleman Hawkins who helped introduce the tenor sax as a jazz instrument in the 1920s and ’30s, paving the way for Lester Young and Ben Webster to set the big band era alight with Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s respective bands.
Since then the tenor has become arguably the archetypal jazz saxophone.
Sonny Rollins’ clever thematic improvising built upon Parker’s bebop innovations, while John Coltrane brought a spiritual fire to jazz in the 1960s, having made his name in Miles Davis’ seminal hard bop quintet during the previous decade.
Dexter Gordon’s relaxed bop, Stan Getz’s cool Brazilian collaborations and Wayne Shorter’s mysterious modal jazz are three more instantly recognisable tenor sounds in jazz. Since then, the likes of Michael Brecker, Chris Potter, Mark Turner and Melissa Aldana have brought the instrument into the 21st Century.
The alto’s slightly bigger and deeper sounding sibling is a B flat instrument. Its playing range is the same as the alto – low B flat to high F sharp. In concert pitch it ranges from A flat a 12th below middle C, up to the E that sits a 12th above middle C.
The tenor saxophone makes up two fifths of the standard big band saxophone section, and one quarter of a classical saxophone quartet.
It also has a regular place in a military band, concert band and in rock, pop and ska settings.
The baritone is the biggest saxophone that is regularly heard in a jazz setting.
It’s pitched in E flat and sounds one octave lower than the alto, or a fifth lower than the tenor.
One difference with regards to its playing range, in comparison to the alto and tenor, is that many modern baritone saxes go down to a low A, so one semitone lower than the standard B flat.
Much modern ensemble writing makes use of this particularly punchy low note, especially in big bands, where there is typically a bari sax at the bottom of a five-person saxophone section.
The instrument is also heard in military bands, concert bands, classical saxophone quartets and in funk, soul and motown horn sections. Afro-beat artist Fela Kuti often included two baritones in his band.
It is heard less frequently as a jazz solo instrument than the alto and tenor, but there are some notable exceptions to this.
Gerry Mulligan’s cool, light improvising was inspired by Lester Young, while Harry Carney was one of the great improvisers in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Pepper Adams led a fantastic hard bop group with the trumpeter Donald Byrd, while Gary Smulyan has played with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and various small groups.
Other jazz baritone players include Ronnie Cuber, Joe Temperley, Cecil Payne, Charles Davis and the more avant-garde leanings of John Surman and Peter Brötzmann.
Uncommon types of saxophones
Whilst Adolph Sax originally conceived 14 saxophones, only 9 are still manufactured and used today.
So that leaves us with 5 lesser-known types of saxophones to check out, starting with the smallest and highest pitched of them all…
The sopranino saxophone is an E flat instrument, sounding an octave higher than the alto and a fourth higher than the soprano.
It’s relatively uncommon to meet a saxophonist who owns a sopranino, so most composers or arrangers do not write for the instrument at all.
Like the soprano, it is usually straight, but some brands, including the Italian company Rampone & Cazzani make a curved model.
Perhaps the most prominent use of the instrument is in Ravel’s famous orchestral piece Bolero. The part was originally written for one of Adolphe Sax’s original creations pitched in the key of F, but these are no longer manufactured, so it is transposed and played on an E♭ sopranino instead.
It has also occasionally been used by jazz musicians, usually of the more experimental stripe. These have included Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and Jon Irabagon.
The sopranissimo, also known as the soprillo or the piccolo saxophone, is half the length of a soprano saxophone and sounds one octave higher.
It was not part of Adolphe Sax’s initial design, and in fact has only been produced in the last few decades.
They are very rarely seen, although the German manufacturer Benedikt Eppelsheim makes one, and they may occasionally be used in contemporary music.
They have a slightly smaller range than the other saxes: they only go up to a high E, whereas modern versions of the other saxophones usually go up to high F sharp.
Jumping to the other end of the spectrum, the enormous bass saxophone is a B flat instrument: it’s a fourth below the baritone saxophone and an octave below the tenor.
These type of saxophones are rarely used in ensembles now, but were featured in a few orchestral pieces during the mid-19th Century, around the time when some were championing the saxophone as a new star of the orchestra.
It was also included in a few 20th Century musical theatre shows, including the score for West Side Story.
The bass sax was actually popular for a time in jazz bands during the 1920s.
Adrian Rollini played the instrument on classic Bix Beiderbecke recordings such as “Jazz Me Blues” and Otto Hardwick, who is best known for his association with Duke Ellington, also sometimes played the instrument.
Interestingly, in 1920s jazz and dance bands the bass saxophone would sometimes be played by a tuba or double bass player rather than a regular member of the sax section. This was the case with Min Leibrook, a tuba and bass saxophonist who played with Beiderbecke and Paul Whiteman.
The instrument is also occasionally used in concert bands, saxophone choirs, rock bands and by doubling jazz saxophonists.
James Carter, Scott Robinson and Peter Brötzmann have all played basses across various styles.
The rarely-seen contrabass is twice as long as a baritone saxophone and sounds one octave lower. Like the baritone, it is pitched in E flat.
Towards the bottom of the register its pitches sound so low that they can be difficult to distinguish from one another for the human ear!
It may occasionally appear in saxophone choirs and new music ensembles, and the American rock group Violent Femmes have used it on recordings and in live shows.
Jazz saxophonists Anthony Braxton and Scott Robinson, who are both specialists and experts when it comes to playing unusual instruments, have both recorded with the contrabass sax.
Adolphe Sax designed and patented a sub-contrabass saxophone, which he called the saxophone bourdon, but never managed to build it.
It’s pitched in B flat, sounding an octave below the bass saxophone and two octaves below the tenor.
More recently the German company Benedikt Eppelsheim, which specialises in saxophones at the extreme ends of the size spectrum, has made the subcontrabass a reality with its Tubax model.
However, there is some debate about whether this is even a member of the sax family. Although it uses standard saxophone fingerings, it has a narrower bore and thin tubing compared to the other members of the family.
The tubax is also available pitched in C or E flat (which is the same pitch as the Contrabass).
Bonus #1: C Melody Saxophone
The C Melody saxophone is often missed off when people list the members of the saxophone family, as it is so close in pitch to the tenor; it is, as the name suggests, in the key of C, just one whole tone above it’s more popular cousin.
This means that it is in ‘concert pitch’ and, unlike most types of saxophones, is not a transposing instrument: a C played on the C melody saxophone sounds the same as a C played on the piano, flute or violin.
This has its obvious benefits, and the C melody was popular in America during the early part of the 20th Century as a ‘parlour’ instrument: players could gather around the piano and share sheet music to the popular songs of the day without having to transpose.
This type of of saxophone is also noted for having a slightly muffled tone, so it is well-suited to playing at home without disturbing the neighbours!
However, the 1929 Wall Street Crash led to a huge decline in instrument sales, then the saxophone sections of the big band era helped further popularise the alto and tenor, and the C melody almost disappeared from usage.
Frankie Trumbauer played the C melody, which sounds higher than the tenor but lower than the alto, on a number of classic ’20s recordings with Bix Beiderbecke.
Bonus #2: Sax-a-Boom
The Sax-A-Boom is a rare alto saxophone-shaped toy instrument which features pre-recorded musical loops on each of its eight buttons.
Popularised by actor and musician Jack Black of Tenacious D fame, it was developed in the late 1990s by Shoot the Moon II LLC and produced by DSI Toys Inc, but it was discontinued not long after.
Of course, this type of saxophone is unlikely to make an appearance on most stages around the world, but it’s a cool ‘party piece’ addition to the collection of any true entertainer-saxophonist..!
Thanks for reading this guide to the main types of saxophones; we hope you’ve found some useful ideas in here!
The alto is by far the best choice for younger students (on account of its smaller size) but, for adults, the tenor can be an equally good option based mainly on personal preference.
And, lastly, don’t forget to mark your calendars for National Saxophone Day each 6th November!