Whilst there are without a doubt four main types of saxophones in this family of instruments, a handful of additional ones (both bigger and smaller) are seen more sparingly, including the fascinating sopranino saxophone we’ll talk about in this article…
When it comes to saxophones everybody thinks of the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone.
But take the high-pitched soprano and shrink it a little more and you’ll have the sopranino saxophone, the second smallest in the sax family, behind only the soprillo.
As we’ve already covered in our guide to saxophone history, Adolphe Sax obtained his patent for the instrument in 1846 which listed 14 variations.
The initial collection was made up of the Eb sopranino, F sopranino, Bb soprano, C soprano, Eb alto, F alto, Bb tenor, C tenor, Eb baritone, Bb bass, C bass, Eb contrabass, F contrabass and the Bb sub-contrabass – although not all of these were ever built.
If we look at the most famous saxophone manufacturers in history, they began producing the sopranino sax in the early/mid 1920s.
The first was Gus Buescher’s True Tone model in 1922, closely followed by C.G. Conn’s New Wonder – series I and Selmer Paris’s Modele 26.
Whilst the sopranino has been used in a range of situations it never made it into mainstream music.
It’s omissions, for example, from the swing bands of the day mean most American manufacturers focused on their baritone, tenor and alto saxophone models.
Perhaps most famously, Ravel’s Bolero (written in 1928) originally called for an original sopranino saxophone (in the key of F) and is usually performed on the modern Eb sopranino or Eb alto saxophone.
Playing the Sopranino Saxophone
Sopraninos (pictured here) are transposing instruments.
As with the alto (1 octave lower) and baritone saxophone (3 octaves lower), they are in Eb.
In terms of pitch, they are beaten only by the soprillo saxophone which, in Bb, and sounds an octave higher than the soprano sax.
Whilst the sopranino can be a very sweet-sounding horn in expert hands, the small size of the mouthpiece and reed requires strong facial muscles and a high level of expertise.
Sopranino saxophone reeds are available from most of the major manufacturers (Vandoren, Legere, Alexander…) and utilise the same range of thicknesses as the others.
Similarly, the sopranino mouthpiece is simply a smaller version of it’s family counterparts – although that in itself can cause issues in terms of embouchure and technique.
The Sopranino Saxophone Today
Today, the sopranino is not the most commonly used saxophone they are available from most of the major saxophone brands (Selmer Paris, Yanagisawa, P. Mauriat, Rampone & Cazzani, etc)
Due to their small size sopraninos are usually straight, although Italian manufacturers Rampone & Cazzani and Orsi have made curved versions.
Generally, in terms of key-work, sopraninos are go up to a high E (Yanagisawa’s SN-981 for example), although some of them are keyed to high F# as per most other modern saxes.
Given their incredibly high pitch, though, these extra couple of top notes are pretty unnecessary!
Sopranino Saxophone Players
Whilst it’s rare (or even unheard of in our experience) to find a musician who is primarily a sopranino players, many use it as an addition to their main instruments.
Wess Anderson from the Wynton Marsalis Septet and Jazz At The Lincoln Center Orchestra plays sopranino often, as heard below performing John Coltrane’s masterpiece Resolution from A Love Supreme.
Thanks for reading!
If the talk of technical challenges and eye-watering high notes has not put you off, we’d recommend trying out this rare but fascinating instrument!
As many players have already found out, it’s fun to play a ‘nino!
Tobias Meinhart is an award-winning saxophonist and composer based in Brooklyn, NY. Born in a small village in rural Bavaria, Germany, Tobias Meinhart has spent the last 15 years carving out a career in the international jazz scene. He performs regularly at New York’s most prestigious jazz clubs (Blue Note, Smalls and Birdland) and tours internationally with his own band.