The Saxophone Family
Created by Adolphe Sax in the mid-19th century, there are more than a dozen types of saxophones across nearly the entire orchestral range and in several different keys (F, G, C, Bb, Eb) that have been created in that time. Each of these instruments fills a specific role within many different ensembles and many different styles of music. The five most common saxophones in use today are:
- Soprano (Bb)
- Alto (Eb)
- Tenor (Bb)
- Baritone (Eb)
- Bass (Bb)
With these additional four types making up the rest of the modern family of 9 saxophones:
- Sopranissimo (Bb)
- Sopranino (Eb)
- Contrabass (Eb)
- Subcontrabass (Bb)
Anatomy of a Saxophone
While there are many types and models of saxophones, they are all similar in their basic construction and primary components:
What level of saxophone is right for me?
Made with the new player in mind, student/beginner models are made easier to play and produce sound on while making it simpler to learn the fundamentals. They are often made lighter weight to make it easier for younger students to handle.
Once a student has progressed beyond the fundamentals, they and the music they play will outgrow the beginner models and demand a higher level of performance, sound, and responsiveness. Intermediate models improve on the quality and facility of the instrument and begin to add in features that will help to further improve the player’s ability and skill.
These instruments are made for experienced and capable college players and professional musicians. Made to the highest level of quality, they are extremely responsive, producing superior tone and intonation through the entire range of the instrument. These instruments also display the highest degree of the instrument-maker’s craft, including hand-engraving and finely adjusted and hand-hammered keys, in addition to the more common clear and gold lacquer they can also be plated in gold and silver for an instrument as distinctive and impactful as the music it creates.
Saxophone Body Materials
While the majority of saxophones are lacquered brass, there are a variety of metal and finish options available to meet the specific aesthetic, tonal and musical needs of each performer and each with.
By far the most common and traditional material used in the construction of modern saxophones, the brass body and keys are covered in a clear of gold-colored lacquer. Brass instruments tend to be slightly lighter than other materials and as such is even almost always used in beginner and intermediate models.
Black Lacquer/Matte Finish
In addition to its distinctive visual style, black and matte lacquer finishes are heavier, adding not only weight to the instrument but to the sound itself, creating a fuller, and more rounded tone.
Taking tone a step further, silver plating adds additional weigh to the instrument, in in addition to the fuller tone associated with black lacquer and matte finishes, silver plating creates a more centered, pure tone and in the hands of a professional can project much more clearly and with greater volume over more traditional materials.
When it comes to projecting a bright and sound that’s impossible to ignore, nickel plating is a popular choice. A favorite of many jazz performers due to its ability to stand out from the background, nickel is the hardest metal plating typically available.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from nickel plating are copper and bronze. The softer metals produce much darker, richer tones in addition to the fullness provided by the extra weight.
Each saxophone model from beginner to professional covers the basic key “stacks” common to all saxophones. Higher level models many have additional or optional keys depending on the model’s options and the specific needs it meets for the performer.
High F# and High G
These two right palm keys allows the playing of the altissimo F# and G (above High C) without stepping into overtones and can be especially useful for trills in this range.
Front F / Fork F / Alternate F
Often simply referred to as the “fork,” allows the playing of a Altissimo E and F (above High C) using the left hand and is frequently the starting point for overtone altissimo. Extremely useful for arpeggiated passages.
On the other end of a saxophone’s range from the High F#, G and fork keys, the Low A key allows the playing of the Low A (Below Low C) with the left thumb. A must-have for most baritone saxophones, though it can be found on other types as well.
In addition to the better grip that tilting the left hand spatula (often referred to as the “pinky keys”) can provide, the increased angle can also make a significant impact on performing quick transitions from C# to B and Bb; making the changes easier as well as smoother musically.
The mouthpiece holds the reed and is the point on the saxophone where the sound is produced. Saxophones have a wide variety of mouthpieces available, made of an equally wide variety of materials, and each can provide a distinct sound, responsiveness and timbre. Most beginner and intermediate model saxophones come with mouthpieces included, while many professional models will leave mouthpiece selection in the hands of the performer.
When it comes to sound production, the reed is the very heart of the saxophone. Reed type and material vary widely and are subject to a great degree of personal preference in more experienced players. Giant cane is the most common and traditional material used in their production, however they can be coated in or made entirely out of synthetic materials as well, and each with a unique sound. Reeds also come in a range of “hardness,” measured on a scale from 1 to 5; the lower the number, the softer the reed. While a professional player may prefer harder reeds for the quality of sound they produce, beginner players will typically benefit from starting at lighter strengths.
The ligature holds the reed to the mouthpiece. The type and material can have an impact on the functioning of the reed, in addition to the player’s personal preference. There is a wide variety of material used in their construction including all metal, leather/metal combinations, carbon fiber, and synthetic materials. Caps are used to cover the mouthpiece, ligature and the attached reed to protect them from damage. They are typically made of impact resistant plastic.
As with mouthpieces, these items are typically included with beginner and intermediate models, though it may be left to the player’s discretion for the professional models. For help finding the right ligature for you, check out our guide to choosing a ligature.
As shown in the image above, the neck sits between the mouthpiece and the main body of the saxophone. All saxophones come with a neck at the time of purchase. However, more professional players may prefer to replace the stock neck with more custom options. Custom saxophone necks can be plated in a variety of finishes and can produce a significantly different tone depending on the internal construction and material used.
As with any instrument, proper care for a saxophone improves the performance and the lifespan of the instrument. Cork Grease is used to make the attachment of the mouthpiece to the neck and its adjustment easier while still ensuring the seal is air-tight. Key oil is used to ensure the many moving pieces of the saxophone remain fast and responsive. Mouthpiece, neck and body swabs, snakes and pad-savers can prevent buildup inside the instrument and help prolong the life of the pads on the saxophone keys.
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Every saxophone purchased, whether for the professional or the beginner, needs to take into account the performer’s ensemble needs, age, and skill level to ensure years of satisfaction. When buying a beginner’s first instrument, it is very often beneficial to speak to the student’s band director or private instructor before making a final buying decision.
No matter what type or category of saxophone you are looking for, Woodwind and Brasswind has been meeting the needs of students and professionals for over 40 years. Each purchase is backed by Woodwind & Brasswind's 100% Satisfaction Guarantee, giving you 45 days to decide if the instrument is right for you. If it’s not everything you need it to be, you can return it for a full refund.* While making sure you found the right instrument is important, making sure the price is right matters, too, and Woodwind and Brasswind’s 45-Day Price guarantee means that even if you find the same model saxophone for less elsewhere, we’ll make up the difference. As musicians of all levels have done for decades, you can buy from Woodwind and Brasswind with complete confidence that you received the best instrument for the very best price.
*All returned woodwind and brass instruments are assessed a $10.00 sterilization fee. Instruments priced over $3,000.00 are assessed a $20.00 fee. All mouthpieces are assessed a $4.00 fee.