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12 Different Types of Saxophones Explained

Musician playing saxophone.

Our soon-to-be grade 5 son is slated to start band and has chosen the saxophone. We’re excited for him. He’s excited.

Musical instruments are a great pursuit for kids starting young or a bit later.

Here’s our guide about your saxophone options.

Saxophone, a single reed, woodwind instrument was originally invented in Paris some 100 years ago mainly to be used in military bands and orchestras. Back then, it was never used as an orchestral instrument by most composers; however, today, it holds a significant position in most styles of music.

Also known as Sax, this popular and distinct instrument was invented in the 1860s by a man called Adolphe Sax, hence the unique name “saxophone”. He went on to invent 14 different types of saxophones that were categorized according to their size from smallest to largest. Interestingly though, the keys of all the types are in the same place, so if you learn how to play one instrument, you will be able to play them all.

History of the Saxophone

When Adolphe Sax set out to create the saxophone, his central idea or purpose was to create such an instrument that would contain the power of brass and the tone quality of a woodwind. He basically wanted to blend together the symphonious sounds of both brass and woodwind instruments.

Keeping that goal in mind, a large bass saxophone was his first creation, which had a very distinct conical shape. This was followed by the development of the ‘saxophone’ on March 20, 1864.

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Adolphe went on to stage an event called “Battle of the Bands” in order to promote and endorse his new creation. This battle took place between the conventional French infantry band and another band that used his instrument. The latter won the contest which resulted in a lot of resentment and hostility towards him by several musicians and instrument manufacturers to an extent that they refused to accept the saxophone as an instrument.

This kind of reaction and response didn’t allow the saxophone to be used in an orchestra setting, which was the sole reason behind its development. However, this didn’t last for long because soon various composers came on board with the idea of using the saxophone as an orchestral instrument since they were highly impressed with its sound quality.

Soon after that, the saxophone began to be considered as a greatly versatile instrument, and many composers and musicians started incorporating it in their pieces and also used it in various musical styles.

The popularity of this incredible instrument experienced a major boom in the 1900s during which its true value and potential was realized by a variety of jazz musicians. It later went on to become one of the greatest and most popular solo woodwind jazz instruments particularly due to artists like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Although both these musicians had a wholly different style and unique sounds, it actually managed to show how versatile and flexible this instrument is.

Anatomy of the Saxophone

Although the saxophone was created with a unique blend of the brass and woodwind, it technically belongs to the woodwind family. This is primarily because the mouthpiece of this instrument is made from reed and not brass.

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The mouthpiece is the main part of the saxophone through which sound is produced. The quality of the final sound significantly depends on the mouthpiece because there is a vast difference between the production of sound when the sax is used in a rock band and when it is used in a symphony orchestra, for instance.

Most saxophone bodies are made using copper, bronze, nickel, and brass, but several manufacturers have gone on to experiment with a number of other raw materials like carbon fiber and even plastic.

Types of Saxophones

There are several types of saxophones that are used in today, all of which vary in sizes and tones. After its development and production, the saxophone has undergone a great many changes and modifications which is basically what led to its numerous types and categories.

Below is a list of the most common and popular types of saxophones used in this age and time.

Soprano Saxophone

Soprano saxophone

This is one of the smallest types of saxophones that can have either a straight or a curved shape. The difference of shape has generated a lot of debate among saxophone players because some say that those with a curved neck result in a warmer and a less nasal tone.

Soprano saxophones are also believed to be the hardest to play, so they are not recommended for beginners. This is primarily because they can be tricky to control and often require great effort and energy on the players’ part to make the most of them.

This instrument is a Bb instrument which means it plays in the key of B flat. This makes it the highest pitches of all saxophone instruments which further allows it to produce a variety of tones. It is majorly used as a solo instrument in classical music but may also be sometimes used in orchestra and concert bands.

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Some of the most notable soprano saxophonists include Christina Rall, Mariano Garcia, and Carina Rascher, to name a few.

Alto Saxophone

Alto saxophone

This is one of the most commonly played saxophones and is an excellent choice for beginners. It is the perfect instrument to start your saxophone journey with since it has a medium size and is very easy to hold.

It sports a curved shape and is an Eb instrument which means it plays in the key of E flat. Although it is larger than a soprano saxophone, it still has a decent weight and is easy to carry.

The Alto saxophone is popularly used in military bands, jazz bands, marching bands, and also concert bands and chamber music. It also requires less puff and finger stretching which makes it a quieter instrument compared to other saxophone types.

Some popular alto saxophonists include Marcel Mule, Otis Murphy, Harry White, and many others.

Tenor Saxophone

Golden tenor saxophone

This is the most popular type of saxophone that is widely played in jazz and rock music. It is larger than an alto saxophone with a large mouthpiece, and longer tone holes and rods. Unlike an alto sax, the Tenor Saxophone has a characteristic dip in the neck that sets it apart from other saxophones.

It is a Bb instrument that plays in the key of B flat, making it the best choice to be used in modern-day jazz and rock. However, after its development, it initially gained significant popularity in the military band since it was majorly designed for these bands.

It also went on to be used in classical music and was considered as a standard instrument in concert bands.

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The tenor saxophone experienced a major popularity wave in the United States, much of which came from those military bands that were there during the time of the American Civil War.

Baritone Saxophone

Bright bass baritone saxophone

This is one of the largest in size among the previous three mentioned saxophones and produces a very deep bass sound. It is an Eb instrument and is played in the key of E flat.

It is also called the “bari sax” and is considered to be a specialist instrument. Because of its large size and heavy weight that can go up to 35 pounds, the baritone saxophone requires all its players to wear a harness while playing the instrument in order to support its weight.

Several models of this instrument have an extension attached to the end of its horn which gives them the name “low A baritone”. Much like the other saxophone types, this is also shaped like a conical tube that is made out of thin brass. It has a single reed mouthpiece similar to a clarinet and consists of a wider end.

The baritone saxophone is commonly played in concert bands and also used in jazz bands, classical music, chamber music, and military bands.

Sopranissimo Saxophone

The Sopranissimo Saxophone has been given the title of “the world’s smallest sax” and also has the nickname “Soprillio.” It is a transposing saxophone that has the size of a piccolo and plays in the key of B flat. The only exception with this instrument is that it contains complete keys that allow it to range from low Bb to high Eb.

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Interestingly, while it is the smallest in size, it is actually the highest pitched saxophone ever known to this date.

Not only is that true, but the incredibly small size has been so difficult to construct that only recently an actual Sopranissimo saxophone was produced. The size also doesn’t allow the use of other existing parts to the extent that even the upper octave key had to be placed in its mouthpiece during construction.

This instrument is only 12 inches in length, and its mouthpiece extends to just 13 inches. This requires the players to use a tight embouchure, which is basically defined as the shaping of the lips and the use of facial muscles in a way that perfectly aligns with the mouthpiece of the instrument.

Sopranino Saxophone

Muslady Sax,Bb Soprano Saxophone Brass Woodwind Instrument

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This is another small-sized saxophone and produces a very sweet, melodious sound. However, despite that, it is not commonly used in today majorly due to its small size.

The Sopranino saxophone plays in the key of E flat, and the sound that it produces is an octave higher than that of the Alto saxophone. This type of saxophone is considered to be the most representative of all instruments in the saxophone family because of its expressive sound that is often termed as “juicy”.

The common uses of this instrument include orchestras, classical musical and jazz.

Bass Saxophone

Black and white bass saxophone

This saxophone produces a sound that is an octave below than that of the tenor saxophone. The Bass Saxophone is considered to be one of the largest members of the saxophone family, even larger than the popular baritone saxophone.

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The history of this saxophone goes back to the 1800s when Adolphe Sax presented this instrument in 1841 at an exhibition in Brussels. It is pitched in Bb which means it plays in the key of B flat.

In today’s time, the Bass saxophone is not exactly a commonly used instrument however, you will see it being used in several saxophone choirs, a few 1920s jazz recordings and even in free jazz.

This saxophone is often used in concert bands but is rarely used in orchestral music.

Contrabass Saxophone

The Feather Contrabass Saxophone Pickup with Flexible Micro-Gooseneck by Myers Pickups

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This is one of the largest types of saxophones to exist and is twice the length of the baritone saxophone. It is also the second lowest-pitched member of the saxophone family. While it is one octave below the baritone saxophone in terms of sound, it is incredibly heavy and weighs approximately 45 pounds.

The Contrabass Saxophone is played in the key E flat and is often referred to as ‘once in a lifetime saxophone.’ It stands taller than an average human, reaching to a height of almost 6 feet 4 inches and exudes great elegance and grace.

Not only does this saxophone look impressive but produces a fine, rich tone and carries an exquisite acoustic presence. The tone, however, can range from melodious and soft to harsh and rough, which greatly depends on how the player uses it.

In recent times, there has been significant growth in the number of contrabass saxophonists, resulting in a definite increase in chamber music and solo music literature. This saxophone is also particularly famous among those woodwind players who look for an extreme or an ethereal kind of a tone.

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Subcontrabass Saxophone

The Feather Subcontrabass Saxophone Microphone with Flexible Micro-Gooseneck by Myers Pickups

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Unlike other saxophones, the Subcontrabass saxophone is one that Adolphe Sax did plan to build but never got around to its construction. This saxophone is a transposing instrument that plays in the key of B flat.

The suncontrabass sax produces sounds that are an octave below that of the bass saxophone and two octaves below the tenor saxophone.

Interestingly, until the 1990s, no playable and genuine subcontrabass saxophone was made or produced. However, a much playable and real such saxophone was developed in 1999 by an instrument manufacturer from Munich, Germany, called Benedikt Eppelsheim.

While this instrument has the same fingering process as that of a contrabass saxophone, its conical-shaped bore is narrower, compared to a regular saxophone. In September 2012, the development of the first-ever subcontrabass saxophone was completed that stood 7 feet 5 inches tall.

C-Melody Saxophone

An old C-melody saxophone

As the name suggests, this saxophone is pitched in the key of C and is often referred to as a “C tenor” in the UK.

Although the C-Melody saxophone is not much commonly used in today’s time, it gained significant popularity back in 1900, particularly due to the works of Rudy Weidoeft and Frankie Trumbauer.

In terms of size, this saxophone is smaller than a tenor saxophone but larger than an alto saxophone. Most of the C-Melody saxophones have curved necks with a shape similar to that of a tenor saxophone.

One of the defining characteristics of this saxophone is that it is not a transposing instrument which means that players and musicians could read music notes without having to transpose. This proved to be a major selling point for this instrument as compared to several other types of saxophones.

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Tubax Saxophone

The Feather Tubax Saxophone Pickup with Flexible Micro-Gooseneck by Myers Pickups

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This is comparatively a newly designed and modified contrabass saxophone that is pitched in the tune Eb and produces a sound that is one octave below than the baritone saxophone.

Compared to a conventional contrabass saxophone, the Tubax saxophone consists of a narrower bore which means that it requires a lesser amount of air to blow in. The narrow bore makes it very easy to play this instrument softly even in the lowest register.

This saxophone is folded four times which makes it almost 114 cm high. While this size is not bigger than that of a baritone saxophone, it’s actually twice its tube length.

A defining feature of the Tubax saxophone is that it has a special vent key that facilitates overblowing and can be controlled by the left thumb of the musician. This allows musicians to play different tones and ranges without having to shift or use too much of their facial muscles.


The Feather Conn-O-Sax Saxophone Microphone with Flexible Micro-Gooseneck by Myers Pickups

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This was believed to be a very bold and innovative take on the saxophone instrument which was developed by Conn, an American instrument manufacturer in 1928. The goal behind the creation of the Conn-O-Sax was to create a new voice for all the saxophonists.

This model consisted of elements of the two double-reed instruments called the heckelphone and the English horn. It was pitched in the key of F and had a straight neck with an emphasized bulb shape from the bottom. The Conn-O-Sax also had a custom mouthpiece and a highly extended range.

All these innovations resulted in a very unique instrument characterized by great technical versatility and distinctive visual appearance. However, despite that, this saxophone didn’t gain any popularity in the marketplace at large.

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Since its original version, the Saxophone has embedded itself in music as a crucial part of multiple genres. With multiple musical applications, this extremely unique instrument is not going away any time soon.

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