The Saxophone Family
The saxophone is one of the newest instruments in the woodwind family, invented in 1840 by Belgian Adolphe Sax and patented in 1946. First designs were made in wood like clarinets, but Sax soon turned to manufacturing in brass.
Arguably, the saxophone is the most flexible of reed instruments: classical, jazz, rock, pop – it is used in all musical genres. This flexibility is extended by being made in a range of eight sizes which overlap in pitch, alternating between the keys of B♭ and E♭. Those keys were chosen to match those used in military brass bands of the mid-1800s.
Going from the highest pitch to the lowest, they are:
sopranino saxophone in E♭
soprano saxophone in B♭
alto saxophone in E♭
tenor saxophone in B♭
baritone saxophone in E♭
bass saxophone B♭
contra bass saxophone in E♭
and finally the sub contra bass saxophone in B♭.
It won’t surprise you that the instruments at the extremes are rarely encountered, the four most commonly used are the Soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. The alto is the preferred instrument for students because of its size and ease of playing.
The soprano saxophone is made in straight and curved designs, which have slightly different sounds – the curved being less nasal. The first musician to make a name for himself using the straight version was Sidney Bechet in the 1920s. In France he was known as “le roi de la carrotte” – yes, the French nickname the straight soprano sax a carrot! More recently Google’s top-searched saxophonist Kenny G is the richest instrumentalist in the world. (read our blog post about Kenny G HERE).
The alto saxophone, as mentioned earlier, is the most popular with students (and their teachers) because of price and ease of playing, compared to the others. There are dozens of notable players, but ranked in the Google search top ten are Charlie Parker, Candy Dulfer, Dave Koz and Grover Washington Jr.
The tenor saxophone is probably the most commonly played amongst professionals. They say, “If you throw a Dime off the Empire State Building you are bound to hit a tenor player busking.” This instrument is more forgiving on intonation, the bigger the saxophone the easier it is to play in tune. The Google top ten includes five tenor players, John Coltrane, Chris Potter, Wayne Shorter, Clarence Clemons and Stan Getz.
The Baritone Saxophone is the least played out of the main 4 instruments. By the nature of the instrument being low in pitch the majority of the time it is played in the lower register. Typically weighing over 5kg, it is 2kg heavier than a tenor too. On the Google fame list, Gerry Mulligan is the first baritone player at number thirty!
Whether you play or just listen, the saxophone’s popularity is only beaten by the guitar and drums.