Whilst it may not be as widely-used as its alto & tenor counterparts, the soprano saxophone – aka ‘the straight sax’ – has been an important addition to many legendary jazz recordings.
It’s great choice for the modern saxophonist who wants to expand his or her range so, in this article, we’re going to look at some of the most famous players of the instrument and highlight our recommended picks for buying a soprano.
The soprano saxophone is the third-smallest member of the saxophone family, with the littlest models being the sopranino and soprillo saxophones. However, of the four commonly played members of the saxophone family – soprano, alto, tenor and baritone – the soprano is the smallest and highest-pitched.
Unlike the larger saxes, its body is typically straight, although curved sopranos (which look rather like miniature altos) are also available.
Due to its relative lightness and portability, people commonly make the assumption that the soprano might make the ideal starting saxophone for beginners.
However, the instrument is actually notoriously unforgiving, requiring a trained embouchure to manage its sometimes rather challenging tuning. As such, most beginners would be well-advised to start with the alto saxophone.
That said, with practice the soprano can make a beautiful sound that can be at home in any setting, from raucous New Orleans-style jazz, to European concert music, ethereal contemporary jazz, and plenty more.
This article will take a look at some of the musicians who helped popularise the instrument, as well recommending six of the best soprano saxophones currently available to buy new, across a range of price points.
Table of Contents
Famous soprano saxophone players
New Orleans native Sidney Bechet was one of the very first major soloists in jazz. He started life as a clarinettist but made the soprano saxophone his primary instrument after discovering it in London.
His distinctive tone is marked by an extremely wide and expressive vibrato.
Steve Lacy began his career playing Dixieland before moving into more experimental terrain. He’s a rare example of a saxophonist who exclusively played the soprano and his album, The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, refers to the instrument’s distinctive shape.
Miles Davis bought the great tenor player John Coltrane a soprano saxophone while the pair were on tour in Europe in 1960, and the somewhat piercing sound of the smaller sax worked perfectly with Coltrane’s intense modal experiments during this period.
His version of “My Favourite Things” is probably the most famous soprano saxophone recording in jazz.
There’s a long history of saxophonists – and particularly tenor players – “doubling” on soprano as a second instrument; Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Joshua Redman and Branford Marsalis are all part of this tradition.
Part of the reason behind this is the fact that both the tenor and soprano are in the same key of Bb. As such, it’s easier for improvising musicians to switch between these two horns compared to the alto saxophone, which is in a different key (Eb).
The Norwegian’s otherworldly, ethereal tone on the curved soprano, and distinctly European approach to jazz, is perhaps the archetypal sound of ECM Records.
Grover Washington Junior
A pioneer of the radio-friendly smooth jazz genre, Washington Junior played soprano saxophone, as well as alto, tenor and baritone.
Kenny G might not get much love from jazz musicians for his ultra-smooth commercial style, but it’s hard to disagree that he brought the soprano saxophone to the consciousness of millions of people around the world.
He’s recognised as one of the best-selling artists of all time, with more than 75 million album sales worldwide!
The soprano sax in other styles of music
The soprano saxophone is a member of the standard saxophone quartet line-up in classical chamber music, and 20th Century composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos have written works to feature the instrument.
It’s not a standard member of the orchestra, but is featured as an extra instrument in a number of orchestral works, including Maurice Ravel’s Boléro.
It also features occasionally in pop and rock music, with the Afrobeat artist Fela Kuti providing an example of its use outside of the jazz and classical spheres.
Six of the best soprano saxophones to buy new
Whilst buying a second-hand saxophone (vintage or otherwise) can be a good way to get a good deal on an instrument, it’s not without its risks.
As such, unless you’re an experienced player with good local connections to a saxophone shop, buying a brand new instrument – complete with warranties and guaranties – is highly advisable.
As such, we’ve highlighted 6 soprano saxophones well-worth considering from beginner through to professional level.
The Yamaha 280 alto and tenor saxophones are acclaimed as some of the highest quality beginner saxophones on the market. However, the Japanese brand does not make a soprano version in this series, with the YSS-475II instead being its most affordable version of the smaller horn.
This intermediate saxophone isn’t especially cheap – it’s priced at a similar level to some professional sopranos – but Yamaha instruments are known for their excellent design and build quality, and the Yamaha 475 shares a number of features with the professional Yamaha Custom EX saxophone.
It has an adjustable thumb rest for optimal comfort, while laser engraving on the gold lacquer makes for a clean, stylish look.
- Custom style Bb spatula
- Adjustable thumb rest
- High F# key
- Advanced body taper
- Lower vent tube
Thomann TSS-350 Soprano Sax
If you’re looking for a super low-risk way to see if the soprano sax is for you, European manufacturers Thomann have developed their own brand of incredibly low-budget beginner instruments.
The Thomann TSS-350 soprano comes in at a fraction of more established brands and, whilst you of course wouldn’t expect the same level of quality compared to an established intermediate or professional horn, it’s an interesting option to check out.
Rampone & Cazzani R1 Jazz Soprano
Rampone & Cazzani are not among the most famous saxophone brands, but this boutique family company has been quietly crafting excellent saxophones in the Italian alps for more than 150 years, so this could be an interesting option for the player wanting something a little bit different from a professional-level soprano.
Unusually, the Rampone & Cazzani R1 Series is designed specifically for jazz. It uses Rampone’s signature “big bore geometry” and has an unlacquered finish for a wide-open sound.
It has an elaborately engraved body and is available in a variety of metals – including solid silver, solid copper and gold-plated – which all offer specific tonal qualities.
In addition to the classic model, Rampone & Cazzani also make a curved version of the R1 soprano and a semi-curved ‘Saxello’-style model.
Selmer Paris SA80 Series II
Selmer Paris is perhaps the most illustrious name in the world of saxophone manufacturing.
The French brand have been making woodwind instruments since 1885 and have crafted some of the most iconic saxophone models of all time, including the famous Mark VI, and have been played by all manner of legendary artists.
As a result of this best-of-the-best reputation, and the fact that they continue to do the majority of their craftsmanship by hand in a factory outside Paris, their saxophones are some of the more expensive products on the market.
The Selmer Super Action 80 Series II soprano is a long-time favourite of professional classical and jazz players, and is noted for excellent intonation and a tone that is rich with harmonic colour.
Handmade in Japan, Yanagisawa have established a reputation as one of the leading manufacturers in intermediate and professional saxophones.
Whilst they make the full range of saxophones, it’s the Yanagisawa soprano which gets the most attention from established players – especially those also playing alto or tenor – as an excellent choice of second instrument.
There are a range of horns to choose from, our top pick is the Yanagisawa S-WO10 Elite Soprano Sax which comes in a gold lacquer finish, a choice of straight and curved attachable necks and their classic hand-engraved finish.
Elkhart 100SS Soprano Saxophone
Originally based in Elkhart, Indiana, the company now focuses on making products for the student market, with their brass and woodwind instruments often bought in bulk by schools and music services.
As one of the cheapest soprano saxophones on the market, it’s a great choice for the student learner on a budget, but Elkhart instruments have been praised for offering superlative value for money.
Traditionally, sopranos were made of a single piece of tubing, but modern models may have detachable necks. The 100SS is in the latter category, and comes with two neck options: a straight neck and one which is slightly curved.
Conn-Selmer Avant DSS200 Soprano Saxophone
The instruments manufactured by Conn-Selmer have little connection to the more illustrious Selmer Paris company.
But in recent years the American brand has carved out a reputation as a maker of student and intermediate products that provide excellent value for money, becoming the USA’s largest manufacturer of band and orchestral instruments (although production largely takes place in China).
The DSS200 is made from high quality materials – it’s available in resonant red brass or with silver plating – and is designed with smooth ergonomics in mind, making it perfect for the advancing student or budget-conscious professional. It comes with a professional-standard ebonite mouthpiece made by Rosseau.
Thanks for stopping by and hopefully this gave you some good insight or inspiration for playing the soprano saxophone!
If you’re looking for more info about the sax, you can find all of our articles on the topic 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!
Last update on 2021-01-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API