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The alto saxophone has a unique charm—a singing quality that inspires many woodwind musicians to select it as their specialty. The tonal center of the alto sax is Eb. It is an octave above the baritone sax and a fourth above the tenor sax. Its range spans two and a half octaves, from concert Db3 to concert Ab5. Alto sax altissimo starts at F#6, and can extend another octave or more.
The saxophone was invented by Adolphe Sax in the middle of the 19th century, and an instrument closely resembling the modern alto was in the first group of designs. Marcel Mule, considered the founder of the French Saxophone School, played alto saxophone in the military band during World War I. In that context, the alto was often the lead instrument. After Mule’s service, he played with numerous orchestras and formed a quartet called Quator de la Garde Républicaine. Since there was no music written for saxophone quartets, Mule transcribed Mozart and other composers to fit the sound of his group.
Soon, popular composers like Gabriel Pierre, Florent Schmitt, and Alexander Glazunov began writing music for Mule’s quartet. Mule’s group did much to establish the credibility of the saxophone, and led him to head the saxophone program at the Paris Conservatoire. He also toured with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The alto remains essential in contemporary classical in pieces ranging from the traditional to the avant-garde.
For just a moment of beautiful alto saxophone sound, listen to the four-bar intro of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” For some more involved study of the alto’s charm, seek out “Groovy Samba” by Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. And if you want to ponder whether the alto saxophone is perhaps the ultimate jazz improvising tool, listen to Charlie Parker. A nicely curated collection of Charlie Parker recordings can be found on Ken Burns Jazz: Charlie Parker. There are lots of boxed sets and collections available, but if you’re curious about Charlie Parker, the Ken Burns collection is nicely mastered and selected. Other alto jazz greats include Phil Woods, Paul Desmond, Art Pepper, Benny Carter, and Woodwind & Brasswind friend and favorite, Jim Snidero.
The sweetness of the alto saxophone makes it a natural for what has been called smooth jazz. The history of this groove-oriented genre is often traced back to Grover Washington’s alto sax work, and the records he made for the CTI label. Spyro Gyra’s “Morning Dance” from 1979, whose melody is played by Jay Beckenstein on alto, is often cited as an early smooth jazz hit.
Grover Washington’s breezy alto sax sound found its way into the ears of millions with his Bill Withers collaboration, “Just the Two of Us.” The lyrical ache of Grover’s alto made the track irresistible, and it earned a Grammy in 1981 for Best R&B Song. To this day, many leading saxophonists in smooth jazz are alto players. Dave Koz, Gerald Albright, Eric Marienthal, Mindi Abair and many others have found the alto’s timbre to strike the balance between joy and reflection that is at the heart of the best of smooth jazz.
Alto saxophone is not just for easy listening though. Some of the great intellects of jazz, those who perform at its outer edges, have chosen the alto. Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and other legends of the avant-garde are among the alto’s famous innovators.
The major manufacturers of professional alto saxophones are Yamaha, Keilwerth, Yanagisawa and Selmer. There are other smaller manufacturers making instruments of professional caliber as well, notably P. Mauriat. Each have quality products in the alto category.
The Yamaha YAS-875EXII Custom Series Alto Saxophone is a responsive instrument with a colorful sound well-suited for the classical player. The Selmer Paris Series II Model S2 Jubilee Edition alto has a thin, beautiful design and is 100% handmade in France. Yanagisawa has a beauty in the WO37, which features a solid silver main tube. Keilwerth’s SX90R designs are among the professional alto market’s most striking instruments, and P. Mauriat’s Master, Influence, and System 76 models are all worth considering. Musicians looking for a professional alto saxophone have a lot to choose from.
A student alto saxophone can be put together with accessories for under $500. The Woodwind & Brasswind house brand, Allora, offers a well-received student instrument called the AAA-301. Other good student sax brands include Etude, Bundy, and Prelude.
If you need help selecting an alto saxophone, be sure to read our Saxophone Buying Guide. If you need help with accessories, we have a Saxophone Mouthpiece Buying Guide and a Saxophone Reeds Buying Guide. You can also gain a wealth of knowledge through our saxophone articles like Tips for Becoming a Saxophonist and Saxophone Essential Care and Cleaning.
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