The saxophone has been through a bit of a roller coaster ride in the realm of popular music. Ever since the technological explosion of recorded music, it has made its mark on a variety of musical genres. The heyday of the sax is quite potentially the 50’s and 60’s period. During this era, the saxophone was blowing the lid off bebop and heavily used in the rock n roll that took the world by surprise.
While always present in popular music the sax peaked again in the 80’s and then kind of hit a wall in the early 90’s; with adult contemporary disguised as light jazz. Unfortunately, modern hip hop and electronic dance music haven’t had much of a spot for the instrument (and when it is used, it is a sample or synthesizer patch!). No worries though, the saxophone is always playing in jazz and soon enough it will find another resurgence in future music styles. Clearly, woodwinds have potential now as Lizzo is inspiring a whole new generation to pick up the flute. Let’s hope the sax is next!
Saxophone History and Basics
Speaking of woodwinds they have been around for a very long time; archaeologists have dated some to be from 40,000 years ago. In that incredibly long time, we have innovated with wooden reeds and new materials to make them from.
One particularly famous Belgian clarinet and flute player decided he alone was going to invent a whole new family of woodwinds! Adolphe Sax patented multiple reed blown instruments made of conical brass in the 1840’s. Some of these early examples are not recognizable while a few became the standard saxes we see today.
Originally Adolphe created instruments in the pitches of F and C, later adopting the standard Eb and Bb that we have today. Because the saxophone is a transposing instrument, it creates a lot of confusion for beginners. If a pianist, guitarist, and bassist all sit down to play a song they can all work off the same notes and chords. If a sax player joins in, and they play the same notes, it will not sound right.
One reason this came about was to keep fingerings similar across all woodwinds. Sopranos and tenors are in Bb (an octave apart) while altos and baritones are in the key of Eb (also an octave apart). When playing with other musicians a saxophonist must have transposed sheet music. Otherwise, they will be transposing in their heads.
That way your saxophone, whether in Bb or Eb, will play in the correct key of its bandmates. Transposing instruments require a little more than a paragraph to explain, but as a beginner just keep this important fact in mind. Later you can dive a little further into it.
Saxophones initially held the interest of the classical music community and especially military bands, but then they nearly disappeared forever. Just like in modern times they had highs and lows, and it was early 20th century America that revived and reveled in the sax.
Saxophones were suited to the dynamic and technical playing of early ragtime, soon being adapted to jazz, big band, and swing. Of course, many instrument makers made improvements to Adolphe’s original design. By the 1940’s the basic styles and sizes of the saxophone had been fully formed into what we now consider to be the basics of the instrument. As a beginning player, you are likely considering one of the following sizes to play; soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone.
While there are technically two smaller sax sizes, the smallest in common use is the soprano. It is pitched in the key of Bb, an octave higher than the tenor. It is comparable to a Bb clarinet and has a similar tone to the oboe, even occasionally used in place of one. Years ago soprano saxophones were very pricey and not mass-produced.
These days it is a lot more affordable and common to purchase. A beginning sax player shouldn’t start on soprano. This saxophone can be difficult to play properly intonated notes. Unlike many string instruments, with brass and woodwinds, we have a variety of ways to get a note to sound proper. With a soprano sax, there are multiple factors like tongue position, embouchure, and even alternate fingerings that can affect your intonation.
This is the most common size sold, they can usually range from 4-6 lbs. The alto is pitched to Eb and is a great length for an average size tween/early teenager. In school bands, there is generally a large alto section, a few tenors, and perhaps a baritone or two if lucky. One quick note about all sizes is they share the same fingering. If you can play one you know the notes on the rest (this is one reason they are pitched differently). If you are unsure what to gift a complete beginner, then the alto is usually your safest bet.
The tenor is pitched in Bb and can weigh about 6-8 lbs., it is the second most common size in most student bands. Besides the size difference, the tenor has a curve in the neck, unlike the alto. The tenor size also uses a larger mouthpiece, reed, and ligature (altos and sopranos use the same sizes).
These all have to be larger as there is a much bigger brass conical tube on the tenor to blow the air through. If a student is a little taller than their classmates, they will often be asked to play tenor, as too many end up on the alto. Otherwise, some kids have to grow into playing this larger size saxophone. If you are wondering which common size, alto or tenor, will get you more work later, both are about the same. Perhaps choosing a tenor though will help, as there are always more alto players.
Length is added to the baritone by not just curving the bell-like other saxes, but also curving the added neck tubing. The baritone is the most commonly used lowest-pitched sax. It is pitched to Eb and can weigh above 11 lbs., clearly not for very small people. Posture is, of course, important with any instrument but very large items like the bari sax will need extra care taken to be sure it is not creating too much strain.
In early grade school bands it is not common to see this size, often students can play it near their mid-teens. It is an essential instrument in military bands, early rock, and pop-rock as its lower register is perfect for cutting through the guitars and drums in the mix.
Of course, there are more sizes than the usual four purchased above. However, these other saxes are more for novelty purposes. The sopranino and sopranissimo are very tiny and not always with practical use. The larger size saxophones are the bass, contrabass, and subcontrabass.
The bass is occasionally used in bands and orchestras, while the contrabass and subcontrabass are simply too heavy to lug about. These other sizes, especially the larger ones, are cool to hear and see, but they aren’t saxes you will ever likely be used in gigging! Obviously when too small or too big a saxophone has trouble playing clear intonated notes.
Mouthpiece, Reed, and Ligature
The first and most essential part of any woodwind is the mouthpiece. On instruments like the flute, there is only the mouthpiece, but with saxophones, we need a reed and ligature to attach it. By blowing on the reed, it vibrates. And it’s those vibrations that are amplified through the rest of the sax.
Reeds are simply thin strips of material that can be made from many things, those made from metal are found in harmonicas and accordions. In woodwind instruments, we use wood reeds mostly made from cane, for saxes only a single reed is necessary. It is attached to the mouthpiece with the ligature which holds the wood reed on without ruining the vibrations. Reeds come in sizes 1-5 with 1 being the softest and 5 the hardest. For beginning saxophone players soft reeds are always the best.
Neck, Cork, Octave Key
The necks can vary in size based on which kind of saxophone, but all the necks have a cork allowing them to be connected to the mouthpiece (using cork grease to help put it on and seal the air in). The first padded note we see on the neck is the octave key when first troubleshooting sax problems and issues it is always wise to check the octave key spring and pad first.
On the main body, we have the pads, keys, key pearls, and the thumb hook to help us hold the saxophone. After the air passes through our mouthpiece and neck it is turned into specific notes with various combinations of open and closed keys. The octave key is on the body and uses a spring to open the octave on the neck. Pay attention to the springs on your sax as there will be times when they will pop loose.
It is the type of minor repair that a beginner can do once they have been shown. Another important part of the body is the neck strap ring connection, without a strap attached it will be difficult to balance and hold the saxophone. In fact, don’t try playing it without a neck strap! Get to know the body well by pressing each key and watching which mechanisms move and which tone holes open and close.
The bow connects our body to the bell. There are also a few tone holes on the bow along with key guards to protect them from damage. A bow guard covers the very bottom as the bow is one of the most common areas for damage. With a bad neck strap or carelessness, it is not hard to put a couple of large dents in the bow.
The final part of the saxophone is the bell, which also has tone holes and key guards. The other most common spot for damages is the flare of the bell, this part is often nicked, dinged, and bent. Another potential area of damage is the inside where the bow joins the body and the bell. Here corrosion can be heavy from the gross but obvious saliva running down the body of the saxophone.
Picking a Saxophone
If you have not already purchased or been gifted a saxophone then you are likely in the market for one. There are some basic rules when buying any musical instruments, and the main point they all come back to is price. The music industry is huge, it is worth billions of dollars because everyone dreams of playing music.
What this means is a lot of non-playable garbage is sold out of every major online retailer. You get what you pay for and woodwinds require a lot of care in their creation. Being cheap on a ukulele or student guitar isn’t the end of the world, but being cheap on a sax might destroy your or your child’s chances of playing. Yes, it is true, if your budget is not high enough you will get a lemon of a sax and guaranteed failure.
If you are on a very serious budget, then below we have some of the cheaper saxes that will get a student by. Go any lower and run the risk of having an unplayable instrument.
The Merano Bb Silver Soprano is on the bottom end of the soprano budget. Yes, there are many cheap sopranos out there but beware they will have many problems. Generally, a beginning student will not be playing a soprano so we will be getting them a more intermediate instrument anyways.
The Jean Paul AS-400 is perfect for beginning and intermediate students, the reviews show many happy customers at a reasonable price.
The Jean Paul TS-400 is getting near the lower end of what you want to spend on a tenor. As a bigger saxophone, it will cost almost twice as much as an alto.
Finding a cheap baritone will never happen, plus you don’t want that cheap! The Mendini MBS 30L is the starting amount to spend to get a decent and playable instrument.
Golden Standard Saxophones
If money is no object then you will clearly want to get an incredible saxophone, here are some of the best examples in all four sizes.
The Yamaha YSS-475II is hardly the priciest soprano out there, they can get incredibly high! However, for beginning and intermediate students, this model would be top of the line!
The Jupiter JAS710GN with gorgeous nickel plated keys and brass lacquered body, this incredibly expensive student sax will hopefully have an exceptionally talented student playing it!
The Selmer STS280 is not only a professional saxophone its black lacquer gives it’s a unique look compared to the normal polished brass. The kind of instrument any musician would love to show off!
Wow! This is how crazy baritone saxophones can get! This Yamaha YBS-62 is a beautiful piece of work. Many of us can’t afford this but we can at least close our eyes and imagine how great it sounds!
Premium Beginner Saxophones
Ok, so as a beginner perhaps you don’t want the cheapest, yet it’s also a bit silly to jump into the best of the best right? Instead, we can find some middle ground on premium beginner saxes that are perfect for a new student.
The lower prices for a premium soprano are still going to be quite high. A Selmer SS600 will be about the right budget for a premium soprano. At least if a beginner is going to play a soprano, they will know the build will not be affecting their intonation.
The Yamaha YAS-280 is a beautiful and pricey student model with an included high F# and front F auxiliary keys.
The Jupiter JTS710GNA is at the lower side of premium prices, but with a sax like this, you can guarantee your student will have a proper tenor to play on.
The Cecilio BS-380L will almost set you back a few grand but that is a good price to spend on a bari sax. Generally, a student will be moving from one sax to the baritone as they have grown. If they are good at sax and love playing it, this will be worth every penny.
Saxophones don’t have that many add-ons, the main things to worry about are the mouthpiece and the neck strap. Yes, they sell cleaning kits and other items to get your cash, but you can easily put together a cleaning kit yourself. The neck strap and the mouthpiece are where you want to buy the best you can. While there are many great mouthpieces out there the ones you may want to look into are the more affordable Yamaha 4C or even the pricey Selmer S80C*. Mouthpieces come in a wide range of prices. You may find that the very expensive ones are difficult to play, so perhaps, in the beginning, stick to a midgrade one like the 4C.
When it comes to neck straps, we aren’t concerned about brand names, just that they are comfortable, sturdy, and they completely clip on to the sax ring. The last thing you want is for that saxophone to drop to the ground as you watch your money circle the drain! Reeds are another accessory you will want to research. As a beginner you will have to use the softer lower-numbered reeds, then build your strength and skills up to play harder and higher number reeds. There are also other kinds of reeds made from plastic and other materials, you may find you eventually want to try these different sounds out.
How to Hold and Play the Saxophone
The first step to holding your saxophone is to have a proper neck strap. Just like cheap saxophones exist so do cheap accessories for saxes, many student neck straps do not even have completely closing clips. A good neck strap is essential, one that securely fastens to the saxophone and one that is comfortable around the neck. If this means extra padding, then that’s fine, whatever it takes.
There is no right or left-handed way to hold the saxophone, the left hand always goes on top and the right hand on the bottom. The left index finger goes at the top stack of the keys and the right index starts the bottom stack of keys off. You can either place your fingers flat on the keys or curve them as if you were getting ready to play a stringed instrument. This is going to be a personal preference at the end of the day. There are plenty of arguments that curling your fingers is better, but as always you will find many players do fine with their own style.
If you are a beginner the best way to start is sitting, work on standing later after you can at least play it. Make sure to be in a suitable chair allowing for proper posture, clearly the wrong style of chair can make holding your saxophone to the side impossible. Use the fingering chart below to find the easy fingering of the middle C note. Now comes the part that isn’t always easy to describe, how to get a decent sound created! To be clear as a beginner you are going to make honks and wails plenty before getting a good sound. Sometimes playing your sax far away from any listeners is the best thing. It helps to not worry about what others think.
First, put your bottom lip over your bottom teeth and place them barely on the reed. Use your top teeth to bite down on the top of the mouthpiece. Your lips will create a seal, so all air is passing through the reed and into the horn. This process of using your lips, facial muscles, teeth, and tongue to create sound and different tones is known as your embouchure. Your embouchure can greatly affect your tone, the mouthpiece too far in your mouth, too tight of a grip with your teeth, lips not sealed right, and many more factors can make your playing great or awful.
It is honestly not the easiest topic to describe in words, and even a seasoned musician teaching you may have a tough time accurately describing good embouchure. Your goal is to get the simple C note to sound in tune as it should without any major defects in the sound. Use your diaphragm to play and don’t puff your cheeks, let the air come from deep within. The first problems you encounter will likely be just how much air to use, and the second will be a squeaky reed. The reeds do break easily and if you break it make sure to change it as you are only making the saxophone more challenging.
Once you are comfortable with the C note attempt a few other notes, of course, the simple ones. At the moment you will maybe be able to copy the fingerings of all the notes, but you will not be able to play them. It will take time in training your embouchure and airflow to properly hit high and low notes. Plus in the beginning your mouth will be sore, don’t over practice or you may be turned off from the pain. The constant vibrations of the reed will likely leave you a little irritated but with moderate and appropriate practice this feeling will go away fast.
Basic Songs for Beginners
When playing most instruments the first practice songs should be the easiest songs that you have known all your life. This is why traditional tunes and children’s songs are the most common in beginning student books. Yeah, these songs may be cheesy and not rocking and jazzy at all, but you know them and that’s the important part. As a student, if you are just learning to read music and play the sax you want something familiar. We almost all know Twinkle Twinkle, which is the same melody as the ABC song and Baa Baa Black Sheep. By learning just a few traditional tunes you can almost know them all!
Another important aspect of traditional and basic songs is they don’t have much range. This is good, as a beginner, you can’t jump between octaves well yet, so you want the easiest musical intervals as possible. There is also every chance that you are learning how to read music and these kids’ songs have very simple time signatures, half and quarter notes, and no complicated keys. The first thing to learn on sax or any instrument is a few notes leading up to a simple song. Being able to play anything, especially right away as a beginner, is a great self-esteem booster that will keep you playing.
After learning some traditional tunes and children’s songs then it is wise to start learning your scales. Once you have a good grasp on your notes start dabbling in your preferred genre of music. If you want to play bebop or funk than learn all your scales and extended chords for comping. If your goal is to play in a ska band than you need to learn to play staccato and how to transpose music for the whole horn section! It is fine to have grand musical goals, as long as you start slow and practice it’s only a matter of time until you get there.
How to Clean Your Saxophone
There are many important steps to cleaning your sax, which you always want to do after playing. They are pricey instruments and their metals and the chemicals in your saliva just frankly clash over time. With brass and woodwind instruments cleaning is not only for looks and upkeep but also for simple hygiene. The best way to keep a clean sax is too start by not getting it dirty as much as possible. As in very basic ideas like NOT EATING BEFORE PLAYING!!! Woe to the school band class that meets after lunch! Brush your teeth before playing, it’s good for your sax and your gums.
Even if you keep a clean mouth you will be getting an incredible amount of spit inside your sax, it is gross but a fact of band life. After playing you will always want to use a swab to clean the neck and body out. Swabs can be found in many cleaning kits or bought plain. Honestly many of the band cleaning kits are overpriced and can be bought individually for a better price. Both the neck and body will need a separate size swab. Some swabs are made so when you spin it down the body, they get under the pads better, these are known as pad saver swabs and are great to use.
Cleaning Pads and External Maintenance
Cleaning the pads isn’t necessary every time. However, on occasion, you will want to take special pad cleaning paper and run them under the pad after you lightly close the key. Keep the mouthpiece especially clean, carefully remove the ligature and reed and run the hard plastic part under warm water. DO NOT let the mouthpiece become so encrusted that it requires intensive cleaning as that is just horribly disgusting. The reed can also carry bacteria so running it under water and lightly wiping with a swab or toothbrush is helpful. Reeds will be used repeatedly for a while so keep them in good shape.
You will also want to use a polishing cloth on the entire exterior to get rid of fingerprints and smudges. Never use any kind of household cleaner on it, who knows what they might do to brass! Occasionally the instrument will need to be oiled around the springs and the screws tightened. Almost all of the basic maintenance of the saxophone is within the capabilities of a new student. Watch your teachers or online videos of repairs and you will be able to do it yourself in no time at all. Now as for changing corks and pads? Well maybe get to be a better sax player before learning the tough repairs!
If you bought a saxophone for your child and are wondering if they like it, watch how they take care of it. Playing ability is not always a sign of how much potential an aspiring musician might have. Some students need to “grow” into proper positioning and embouchure, so not playing the best isn’t always a negative sign. When a kid is really into music, they will take great care of their instrument. The happiest band kids are the ones who fastidiously clean their horns after each practice. The saxophone is a versatile and amazing instrument to play, keep it clean and it will keep you happy for many years to come!