4 Types of Saxophones: Descriptions, Differences, and Similarities
The saxophone is among the most popular non-electric musical instruments available to music enthusiasts. It is also a relatively new invention, as it only came into existence in the latter years of the 19th century.
History of the Saxophone
In 1846, a Belgian instrument maker called Adolphe Sax invented and patented the saxophone. He intended to create a woodwind instrument that could project sounds like brass instruments. Sax based his invention on the clarinet, with the notable distinction being the saxophone’s conical shape.
Anatomy of the Saxophone
Although many saxophones are made of brass, they are classified as woodwind instruments. This is because the sound they produce comes from a reed, rather than a brass mouthpiece. Most manufacturers use brass, bronze, copper, and nickel to make these instruments. However, newer models are now using carbon fibre and different types of plastics.
Saxophones have 20 to 23 openings, depending on the size. Each of these openings has a corresponding padded key that controls it. The mouthpiece is usually made of plastic, while the reed is made using cane.
The Four Main Types of Saxophones
Over the years, instrument makers have made significant tweaks to the saxophone’s original design. The four major types of saxophones used in contemporary music are soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. It is easy to switch different saxophone types because they all have similar fingerings.
Modern saxophones are either Bb or Eb transposing instruments. When you play the C on a Bb saxophone, it produces a note that sounds like a concert Bb. If you play the C on an Eb instrument, it produces a concert Eb.
Soprano saxophones are the smallest of the four types. They are Bb instruments, meaning that they produce the highest pitch. Experts consider them a secondary instrument – for this reason, they are not included in standard band sets for jazz and other forms of classical music.
Because of their short length, there is little margin for error when tuning soprano saxophones. This is why beginners have a hard time while using this instrument. Instead, the clarinet is more favourable to newbies.
Alto saxophones are popular because they are affordable, easy to master and have the right size. Most players prefer this saxophone when beginning because it does not require much expertise when tuning. You can start playing tuneful notes even after a few weeks of learning.
The alto sax is an Eb instrument, meaning that it produces a low pitched sound. Due to its popularity, it is available in multiple choices for beginners, intermediate, and advanced users.
Tenor saxophones are as popular as alto saxophones. However, their larger size and lower Bb pitch enable them to add more depth to the music. There is a little difference between playing an alto sax and a tenor sax – the latter requires you to blow more air through the mouthpiece to produce sound. Otherwise, everything else is similar.
On the downside, tenor saxophones are unfavourable to children because they need more air to produce sound. It is also the reason why beginners prefer alto saxophones over them.
If you want a sax that produces deep, powerful sounds, you need to invest in a baritone saxophone. It is the largest of the four main types and popular among jazz and funk musicians. Due to its large size, this Eb instrument requires a lot of air to produce its full range of notes.
Because of its expensiveness, it is highly unusual to find an amateur saxophone player using a baritone sax. Instead, it is mostly used by professional bands and musicians.
Other Types of Saxophone
Besides the four main types mentioned above, there are many other types of saxophones. However, they are not as popular, and you are unlikely to see them in use.
Some of the lesser-known saxophones are sopranissimo, sopranino, bass, contrabass, and subcontrabass, in order of increasing size. It is worth noting that these products have exorbitant prices, which is why people rarely purchase them.
Another rare type of saxophone is the C-Melody saxophone. Between the 1910s and 1920s, its makers marketed it as a non-transposing instrument that allowed you to play it alongside a piano without transposing. However, it never gained popularity among players. Although some are still in production, it is not a practical instrument – most of the people who buy it do so because they treasure history.
Lastly, there are electrical wind synthesizers. Although these do not have a design that resembles saxophones, their working mechanism is similar to saxophones.
What Else Do You Need?
After purchasing a saxophone, you will add other accessories to get the best out of your new instrument. Luckily, most manufacturers include this vital equipment in the saxophone’s packaging.
The reed is perhaps the most important part of a sax because it produces sound. It is extremely fragile, which is why you need to purchase several of them in case the original gets damaged. When choosing the reeds, ensure that they are compatible with the mouthpiece. The space between the reed and the mouthpiece affects the quality of sound produced by your saxophone. If you find it difficult to pick a reed, consult the technicians at your local music store.
Another useful accessory is a neck strap. Although most models come standard with this feature, you can purchase a strap that fits you better at your local dealer.
If you enjoy glancing at your saxophone while not playing, you will also need to acquire a music stand.
Each saxophone has its best use case – a typical jazz band has two tenors, two altos, and one baritone. Soprano saxophones rend to be overlooked because they produce the highest-pitched sounds.
Moreover, the saxophone is an ensemble instrument that is featured across multiple genres. Some of the popular names who have used it include Sade, The Rolling Stones and Billy Joel. More recently, artists like Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, Jason Derulo, Lady Gaga and Fifth Harmony have all featured the saxophone in their productions.