When Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone, he wanted to bridge the gap between the brass section and the woodwinds. The saxophone couples strong vocal quality with woodwind-like agility. Its body is brass, yet the saxophone is a woodwind instrument. That is because the oscillations of a single saxophone reed produce its sound.
Sax design combines elements from other instruments. The saxophone has a clarinet mouthpiece and its body is like the now outdated ophicleide. The result is acoustic properties like the French horn. Each saxophone has 20 to 23 keys. The left-hand keying is similar to oboe keying. Right-hand sax keying is like Boehm's clarinet keying system. The U-curved shape of the alto saxophone and tenor saxophone has become iconic to the instrument. Soprano saxophones traditionally do not have 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. However, the saxophones in B flat and E flat designed for military bands became popular right away. They are the predecessors to most modern saxophones. After the patent expired, other instrument makers made some improvements. That included the addition of an extra key, the extension of the bell, and other minor changes that that made the fingering more accessible.
Composer Hector Berlioz was among the first people introduced to Sax’s new instrument. In 1844, Berlioz 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.”
At first, the saxophone was most popular as a military instrument. Over time it became an integral part of concert music and big band music. Symphonies, operas, choral music, and chamber music often include the saxophone. It ably doubles a woodwind or brass instrument. That is because to the two instrument sections are so closely related.
In modern music, there’s often a single saxophonist with a rhythm section. Sax quartets and big band music also use the sax. Marcel Mule and Daniel Deffayet were saxophone professors at the Conservatoire de Paris. They led well respected saxophone quartets. Their Mule quartet serves as an example for many acts following it.
Many non-traditional sax quartets also exist. James Fei’s Alto Quartet is composed entirely of alto saxophones. Groups may even contain as many as 52 saxophonists, like the group Urban Sax. Other influential and well-known saxophonists include John Coltrane. He was part of Miles Davis’ quartet. He also worked with Stan Getz, whose quartet recorded the 1960s popular song “The Girl from Ipanema.” Today’s preeminent jazz saxophone quartet is the World Saxophone Quartet. Many pop and rock music groups like Pink Floyd also sometimes feature the saxophone.
Today, sax makers 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 from those brands and many more. Whether you are new to the instrument or a seasoned professional, you will find the perfect saxophone here. If you need additional assistance choosing a sax, read our Saxophone Buying Guide. For even more detiled information, check out Saxophones by Yanagisawa. While you're here, don't forget to stock up on saxophone accessories by browsing related products. You can also read about saxophone reeds on The Music Room. You’ll find articles like A Practical Guide to Using and Not Abusing Reeds.
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