There are many types of saxophones, but four are most common. They are the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone. Other types that are seen less often include the bass saxophone and the C-melody sax. Most of the saxophone music we hear in jazz and rock music is played on the tenor sax, but the others are used frequently, too.
The highest pitched (of the four) is the B-flat soprano saxophone. There is a smaller, higher sax called the sopranino, but it is not seen often. The soprano sax is gaining in popularity, and can be heard in popular background music, such as elevator music. It has that distinctive saxophone sound, but in a higher pitch. The soprano sax can either be straight, like a clarinet, or have a curved bell like other saxophones.
The E-flat alto saxophone is common in school bands and elsewhere. It has a higher pitch than the equally familiar B-flat tenor saxophone. You can tell these two common types of saxophones apart by looking at the size and the neck piece. The tenor saxophone is larger and has a crook in the neck piece. The alto saxophone, which has a higher tone than the tenor, has a straight neck.
The E-flat baritone saxophone is much larger than the other types of saxophones. It is so large that players need to wear a harness to help support the weight of the instrument, which rests on a stand on the floor. It has a deep bass sound and is sometimes featured in jazz solos.
Of the less familiar types of saxophones, the C-melody saxophone was marketed a number of years back as an alternative to the alto or tenor which would not need its music transposed. These horns are often sought by collectors of vintage saxophones.
The following is a more elaborate article I wrote on the different types of saxophones.
TYPES OF SAXOPHONES – SOPRANO, ALTO, TENOR, BARITONE, ETC.
Saxophones come in varying shapes and sizes. There are many types. The inventor of the saxophone, Antoine-Joseph (Adolphe) Sax patented 14 of them in 1846. They were the E flat sopranino, F sopranino, B flat soprano, C soprano, E flat alto, F alto, B flat tenor, C tenor, E flat baritone, B flat bass, C bass, E flat contrabass, F contrabass and subcontrabass. While the subcontrabass was patented by Adolphe Sax he never built it. Models of the instrument have been created but they were unplayable. Other types were created since then including the C-melody saxophone, Conn-O-Sax, F Mezzo Soprano, F baritone, and the sopranissimo (nick-named the world’s smallest saxophone or soprillo).
For the purpose of this article, we shall focus on the four types of saxophone widely used today. From the smallest instrument with the highest pitch to the largest instrument with the lowest pitch, they are the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone.
The soprano saxophone is pitched in the key of B flat. It is one octave higher than the tenor. Some versions are curved while others are straight. Most of today’s sopranos are made straight or straight with a slight bend in the neck, bell or both. While there are curved ones today, these were more common during the 1930s. They look like small altos and have a richer, more “saxophone-like” sound than straight sopranos. In terms of intonation, straight sopranos are usually better. If you’re just starting out on the saxophone, a soprano saxophone would not be the best choice for you. Try an alto instead. Sopranos are generally seen as the hardest saxophones to play and master. The small mouthpiece and difficult tuning can make life hard when you first start playing. Also, there is not much music written for this type of saxophone as compared to the alto for instance. The soprano is very popular in Jazz music. Popular players include Jazz musicians like Sidney Bechet, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, and Joe Farrell, as well as smooth Jazz saxophonists like Kenny G and Dave Koz.
The other type of saxophone we shall look at is the alto saxophone. It is pitched in the key of E flat and plays exactly one octave higher than the baritone.
This is a medium sized saxophone and one of the most commonly played. The alto is the perfect choice for a beginner because of its comfortable shape and size. Later on, an alto player can always move on to the other types of saxophones since the fingering for all saxophones is basically the same. Compared to the tenor, it’s easier to play. Some altos are very cheap to buy and rent. Most altos are curved in a backwards “J” shape but some of them come in a straight model with a slightly tipped bell. The alto is very common in jazz bands and many symphonic bands as well. Popular manufacturers include Yanagisawa, Selmer, SML, Vito, Cannonball, Jupiter, and Yamaha. The role played by the alto during the Swing Era cannot be ignored; the instrument played a leading role in the evolution of Jazz. One of the most influential bebop pioneers of the 1940s was Charlie Parker, an alto saxophonist.
Next in line we have the tenor saxophone pitched in the key of B flat. It plays exactly one octave lower than the soprano saxophone.
This type of saxophone is larger than the alto, the mouthpiece is larger, and the rods and tone holes are longer. Due to the length of its neck it is very prone to damage. The instrument is popularly believed to be the signature instrument of modern Jazz, but is also used in rock and pop as well. While most beginners start and should start on the alto saxophone, if you prefer the tenor and think you can handle it, by all means go for it. It is really just a bigger version of the alto. Both instruments use the same fingerings. I probably would not advise children to start on the tenor, but for adults it’s perfectly fine. Famous tenor saxophone players include Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Lester Young, and Sonny Rollins.
The final type of saxophone we shall take a look at is the baritone. This is the largest among the common types of saxophones. It is pitched in the key of E flat and plays exactly one octave lower than the alto. Music is written not in the bass clef, but the treble clef. Unlike the other types of saxophone, the baritone saxophone normally comes with a very beneficial low A fingering. Since this is an E flat instrument, low A translates to concert C. Actually, there are two types of baritone, one ranging to a low A and the other to a low B flat. Due to size of this instrument, it is very difficult to play and carry around, especially for children. It is the most abused of the saxophone family and is very prone to problems like tone hole damage, rod damage, body twists, and large dents. In addition, it is very expensive. Notable past and recent performers include Pepper Adams, Hamiet Bluiett, Harry Carney, Gerry Mulligan, John Surman, and Joe Temperley.
Other Types Of Saxophones
- The Sopranissimo (Soprillo) Saxophone
- The Sopranino Saxophone
- The Bass Saxophone
- The Contrabass Saxophone
- The Subcontrabass Saxophone
Further Reading On Saxophones
- The History of the Saxophone
- Parts of a Saxophone
- Armstrong Saxophones
- Famous Saxophone Players
- Saxophone Fingering Chart
- Vito Alto Saxophone
- Vintage Martin Saxophone