So you’re chosen a great beginner instrument and equipped it with a solid saxophone reed and a nice mouthpiece. Read on for everything you need to know about the sax keys and how they are going to help you play any song you want!

They might not be the most eye-catching part of a saxophone, but those pearly white keys play a vital role in allowing the player to string together a tune!

Whether you’re playing soprano, baritone, tenor or alto sax, we’ve put together everything you need to know about this topic, including the often asked question of how many keys a saxophone has..!

What is the purpose of the saxophone keys?

The purpose of the saxophone keys is to close the tone holes on the saxophone through various combinations of finger positions.

Through this action, along with embouchure and air pushed through the instrument, sound is produced, and pitch is altered with different finger position combinations.

The saxophone is a beautifully crafted instrument with a standard of 23 keys.

It’s a woodwind instrument (despite its brass like outer shell) and, like most woodwind instruments, one must use a combination of finger positions to sound one note.

This ‘combination’ of finger positions is the same on all the popular saxophone ranges from the soprano down to baritone  – and beyond.

Hand Positions

Essentially, the saxophone can be divided into two sections.

There is an upper section, closest to the neck and mouthpiece region of the instrument, and there is a lower section, closet to the bell of the saxophone.

The left hand is positioned in the upper section, while the right hand is positioned in the lower section of the saxophone.

With the right hand, insert the thumb into the hook located at the back of the instrument.

The right hand and thumb are used to navigate the instrument to the musicians preferred embouchure aligning.

Similarly, the left-hand thumb is placed on the thumb placement at the back of the saxophone in the upper section of the instrument.

The thumb should be placed comfortably and close to the octave key (or ‘register’ key) for optimum movement.

On most standard saxophones there are white pearl-like buttons in both the upper and lower sections. The upper section has three white buttons (excluding the smaller, bis Bb, button).

The lower section also has three white buttons; the index, middle and ring finger of both hands are to be placed on each of these keys.  

Now that we have placed the thumbs and three other fingers, what do we do with our pinky fingers?

The pinky fingers on both hands should be placed on the “platform” of keys in the same position as the pinky fingers.

Many players make the mistake of lifting the finger in the air or resting them on the bell of the instrument. This should be avoided at all costs.

The left pinky finger must rest on the platform of the low Bb, B, C# and G# keys in preparation for those notes. Similarly, the right-hand pinky should rest on the low C and Eb keys.

The anatomy of this instrument is the same regardless of whether you’re playing alto or tenor saxophone, or even one of the most unusual types.

How Many Keys Does a Saxophone Have?

The standard modern saxophone has 23 keys.

The upper section (left hand position) has access to five padded keys, three palm keys, four pinky keys and the octave key.

The right hand has access to three padded keys, two pinky keys and five palm keys which includes the altissimo high F# key.

Saxophone Fingering Explained

Although there are 23 standard keys on the saxophone, this does not mean that there are only 23 notes available.

Each note on the saxophone must be played using a combination of these keys.

Read on for a more detailed guide to the found main categories of saxophone fingering positions, or download a free PDF visual guide here.

Saxophone fingering chart

The Standard Notes

Starting from the left hand: placing the first finger we have note B.

If we add one finger at a time down to the right hand the notes will continue to A, G, G # (added left pinky) F (natural), E, D and Eb/D# with the pinky finger on the top Eb/D# key.

Using the second finger on the left hand (middle finger) we get C.

If you play G on the left hand (fingers 1+ 2+ 3) and add the middle finger on the right hand you get note F#.

If you were to add and hold the octave key down with any of the above-mentioned notes, you will get the octave (pitch) higher of that exact note. i.e., G with the octave key now becomes High G

The Palm Keys

On the left hand we have three palm keys sticking out. These keys are to be used with the octave key. The one sticking out the most is High D.

High D added with the smaller one in front becomes High Eb/D#.

This added with the right-handed top palm key becomes High E. The High E added with the third left hand palm key becomes High F.

There are three different ways to play the Bb. The first way is to play A (fingers 1 + 2 on the left hand) plus the middle palm key on the right hand

Alternative Fingering

Just like enharmonic equivalents, there is more than one approach to a note.

An easier way to play the High F is to play High C and add the index finger to the front key above the B key.

If you have the option, add the palm key on the right hand closest to the lower of the three palm keys. Adding this key will give you altissimo F#.

Another alternative finger is the bis Bb key. This note is played by placing the index finger on the first pearl-white and smaller pearl white key on the left hand simultaneously.

An alternative fingering for F#, also known as the chromatic fingering of F#, can be played with G on the right hand, the first finger on F and the ring finger on the alternative palm key for F#

Other Sax Fingerings

Low C is played in conjunction with low D but with the right pinky added and placed on the lower of the two external keys.

From Low C, one can play Low C#, B and Bb by adding the left pinky to one of the four pinky keys on the left hand platform.

Ben is a professional musician and qualified teacher. His music journey started at the age of 8. As a woodwind specialist, Ben has been involved in many wind bands, concert bands and smaller ensembles, acting as the first chair and sectional leader of saxophone and clarinet sections respectively over the past 10 years.

Apart from playing in various bands and ensembles, Ben has led his own jazz band groups over the past 5 years and has assisted brass and woodwind ensembles before becoming a band conductor himself.

Discover Jazz
Discover Jazz

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!