At first glance, the saxophone can look rather dauntingly complicated.
In addition to the mass of keys, palm keys, springs and rods, it’s an instrument of multiple parts, which need to be put together correctly.
In fact, a saxophone is made up of over 600 different components!
It’s not so bad once you get the hang of it, though – the fingering system is actually very similar to other members of the woodwind family – like the flute, the recorder and clarinet – and you’ll soon learn how to put it together.
Depending on where you purchase a new saxophone from, most of the essential parts of the instrument should be in the case and ready to go from the outset.
You may, however, need to buy or upgrade some parts, particularly if you’ve bought a second hand instrument.
In this article we’ll take a look at all the different bits of the saxophone – big and small – to help give you a deeper understanding of these wonderful instruments.
The body is the biggest and heaviest part of the saxophone.
Despite the fact that the saxophone is made of brass, it’s a member of the woodwind family. That’s because its fingering system and the way that a sound is produced is similar to the likes of the clarinet, bassoon and flute, rather than brass family instruments like trumpet and trombone.
One of the key features of the saxophone is the body’s conical shape (meaning cone-shaped: it gets wider from top to bottom).
This allows the saxophone to produce an expressive, horn-like sound with qualities not dissimilar to the human voice.
The body is made up of three sections.
1) The Tube
This is where most of the saxophone’s keys are.
The fingers on the left hand operate the keys on the top half of the tube, while the right hand fingers operate the keys on the bottom half. The saxophone has 25 tone holes: these are covered by the leather pads underneath the keys when the fingers press the keys down.
Different notes or pitches are produced by different combinations of tone holes being covered. Most of the keys are finished with mother-of-pearl at the point where the finger makes contact with them.
2) The Bow
Next, the bow is the U-shaped bend of the saxophone at the lowest point of the instrument when it is held upright.
However, it is worth mentioning that not all saxophones have this.
Alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxophones all have curved bodies, but soprano and sopranino saxophones are (usually) straight, so don’t have a bow.
3) The Bell
The curved bow allows the bell to point upwards.
The bell is the flared part of the tubing, the widest part of the instrument, at the end of the saxophone.
There are some keys on the right hand side of the bell called the bell keys, which operate the saxophone’s lowest notes.
The left hand operates some ‘palm keys’, which are used in the saxophone’s highest register, while there are some ‘side keys’ to be operated by the right hand towards the bottom of the tube.
The “spatula keys” are the flat keys that sit to the left-hand side of the body. They are operated by the left-hand little finger and are used for playing G sharp, C sharp, low B and low B flat.
On the back of the body you’ll find a small metal ring, which your neck strap will clip on to. Below that is the thumb rest, a small curved piece of metal or plastic where the thumb on your right hand will help support the instrument.
The saxophone’s body is usually coated with a clear or coloured acrylic lacquer, although some models now come with an unlacquered finish for a vintage look.
The Saxophone Neck
The neck, or the crook, as it is sometimes called, is a curved piece of tubing that plugs into the top of the saxophone’s body.
Again, the smallest saxophones – the soprano and sopranino – are the exceptions here, in that they usually do not have detachable necks.
All other saxophones arrive with a neck in the case, and this will generally be made from the same material and lacquer as the body.
Occasionally people buy a separate neck so as to have a mismatched saxophone and crook – this can make a considerable difference to the instrument’s tonal colour – but it is relatively uncommon to do this.
The saxophone’s upper octave mechanism is located here – that’s the key on the top of the crook, which is connected to the thin piece of metalwork which wraps around the bottom of the neck.
The other, thinner end of the neck is wrapped with a piece of cork, which is where the mouthpiece is placed.
How far onto the cork the mouthpiece is pushed alters the pitch of the instrument slightly, so this can be adjusted to make sure that the saxophone is in tune.
If the mouthpiece is pushed further onto the cork, the tube is effectively shortened, so the pitch will be slightly higher, or sharper. If the mouthpiece is left towards the end of the neck, the tube is effectively made longer, which makes the pitch lower, or flatter.
The Saxophone Mouthpiece
The saxophonist blows into the mouthpiece to make a sound. When the instrument is assembled, it is pushed onto the cork-wrapped end of the neck.
Saxophone mouthpieces are most commonly made from ebonite, which is a kind of hard rubber.
They are also sometimes made from metal or, occasionally, other materials such as wood.
For such a small item, the mouthpiece can have a major impact on the saxophone’s sound, and upgrading the mouthpiece that comes with a new saxophone – especially with student models – can make a huge impact.
There are mouthpieces that are designed to give a darker sound, which tend to be used in classical music or certain types of small group jazz, while others offer a brighter sound that might be more appropriate for funk, soul or big band playing.
Others are regarded as versatile all-rounders – “blank canvas”-style mouthpieces that can be used in any style or setting.
There are hundreds of options out there, so it’s worth doing some research.
The differences in sound quality tend to come from the mouthpiece’s “tip opening”, which is the size of gap between the tip of the mouthpiece and the reed, and internal factors such as the “baffle” (a sloped section of the mouthpiece roof) and the size of the chamber (the mouthpiece’s hollow interior).
It’s also worth mentioning that if you buy a second hand saxophone, there’s a good chance that it won’t come with a mouthpiece, so you’ll need to buy your own.
If you want to dive deeper into the topic of mouthpieces (and particularly the best ones for playing jazz), you can find our guide on the topic here.
Like the clarinet, the saxophone is a single-reed instrument (unlike the oboe and bassoon which are ‘double-reed’ instruments).
When the player blows into the mouthpiece, the reed, which is attached to the mouthpiece, vibrates to produce a sound.
The reed is traditionally made from cane, a hollow-stemmed plant which is then cut down to size.
The flat back of the reed is placed against the flat underside of the mouthpiece. Reeds have a thicker end, which tapers towards a thin tip, which is rounded to match the shape of the mouthpiece’s edge.
The reed’s tip is quite delicate and can easily become chipped, so it’s important to handle it very carefully.
In fact, it’s best to hold the reed from at the thicker heel end, and to avoid touching the tip with your hands at all if you can.
Reeds are the one part of the instrument which need to be replaced regularly. One reed might last for a few weeks before its quality and sound starts to decline, depending on how much it is played.
Reeds come in different ‘strengths’, which refers to the thickness of a reed.
A thicker or “harder” reed – a 3.5 or a 4, for example – will offer more resistance than a thinner or “softer” one, such as a 2 or a 1.5, which most beginner saxophonists might start with.
The style of music and the width of the mouthpiece tip opening used also have an impact on which reed strength and model might be most appropriate.
Synthetic reeds are now also available.
Whilst these might offer more consistency and value for money by remaining playable for much longer, most professional players continue to prefer the sound quality at traditional cane reeds provide.
For more on saxophone reeds, check out our pick of the best here.
The saxophone ligature is a device that holds the flat edge of the reed against the flat underside (also known as the “table”) of the mouthpiece.
It typically has one or two screws that can be tightened or loosened as necessary.
Ligatures are traditionally made from metal – usually brass, perhaps with a gold or silver lacquer finish – but may also be made from fabric or even wood.
Thanks for reading and hopefully this has given you a better idea of the key parts of the saxophone and answered some of your questions about how to set it up.
If you’re looking for more, check out our beginner’s guide to saxophone or our round-up of the best tenor and alto saxophones to buy.
Alternatively, dive into our profiles of some of the best jazz saxophone players of all time here.