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When Adolphe Sax set out to invent a new instrument, he wanted to create something that bridged the gap between the brass section and the woodwinds. The result was the saxophone which couples a strong vocal quality with woodwind-like agility and provides an ideal balance. While the saxophone is made of brass, it is classified as a woodwind as its sound is produced by the oscillations of a single saxophone reed. The saxophone has the mouthpiece of a clarinet, the body of the now outdated ophicleide, and the acoustic properties of the French horn. Each saxophone has 20-23 keys. The keying for the left hand is modeled after the keying of the oboe and the right-hand keying is closely related to Boehm's system for the clarinet. The u-curved shape of the alto saxophone and tenor saxophone has become iconic to the instrument and while soprano saxophones and sopranino saxophones are traditionally made without a curve, some have come to adopt the u-shape as a sort of testament to the saxophone.
Flutist and clarinetist Adolphe Sax worked in his father’s instrument shop making ophicleides and clarinets. In 1846 he patented the saxophone with seven different models in two groups. The orchestral series in the patent never really took off but the saxophones in B flat and E flat designed for military bands became immediately popular and are the predecessors to most contemporary saxophones. After the patent expired, some improvements were made by various other instrument makers including the addition of an extra key, the extension of the bell, and other minor changes that that made the fingering more accessible.
The composer Hector Berlioz was one of the first people to be introduced to Sax’s new instrument. In 1844, he included the saxophone in an arrangement called “Chant Sacre” at a concert of choral work. Later that year, the saxophone made its first orchestral debut at the Paris Conservatory in the opera “Last King of Juda.”
Initially, the saxophone was most popular for what it was intended for, as a military instrument. It has since become an integral part to concert music and big band and will also be found in symphonies, operas, choral music, and chamber music. Since it is closely related to two sections of instruments, it is often chosen to double a woodwind or brass instrument.
In contemporary times, the saxophone is usually performed as a solo instrument with a rhythm section. It is also used in a sax quartet or as part of a big band. Marcel Mule and Daniel Deffayet were saxophone professors at the Conservatoire de Paris who led respected saxophone quartets and the Mule quartet has served as an example for many acts following it. However, some non-traditional quartets exist such as James Fei’s Alto Quartet composed entirely of alto saxophones. Saxophone groups may even contain as many as 52 saxophonists like the group Urban Sax. Other influential and well-known saxophonists include John Coltrane who was part of Miles Davis’ quartet and Stan Getz whose quartet recorded the 1960s popular song “The Girl from Ipanema.” Today’s preeminent jazz saxophone quartet is the World Saxophone Quartet and saxophones can also be heard in pop and rock music with groups like Pink Floyd.
Today, brands such as P. Mauriat, Yamaha and Yanagisawa stand out as some of the best in the world. Woodwind & Brasswind offers a wide selection of alto, soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones under those brands and many more. Find your perfect saxophone whether you are new to the instrument or a seasoned professional. If you need additional assistance choosing a saxophone, read our Saxophone Buying Guide or an article like Saxophones by Yanagisawa. You can also stock up on saxophone accessories or read up on them in articles like A practical guide to using and not abusing reeds.
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