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This is probably the question I get the most from folks who want to start playing the saxophone - which saxophone is best (or easiest) for a beginner to learn—alto or tenor sax?
So, let’s talk about it.
The short answer—there is not that much of a difference between the alto sax and the tenor sax playing-wise. They are both equally as easy or hard for beginners to play although the alto is, arguably, a bit easier, fingering-wise. Beyond ease of learning, there are differences such as size and weight, blowing effort required and the big one—tonality that might determine your choice. Besides this, you really can start with either.
In fact, most saxophonists eventually end up playing both.
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Which Saxophone is Best for a Beginner? / Which type of saxophone is easiest to learn for a beginner, alto or tenor sax?
Should you learn to play the saxophone on the alto sax or tenor sax?
Personally, I don’t think there is that much of a difference between the alto and the tenor sax playing-wise. They both play equally as easily or hardly.
You simply have to make a choice and put in the time to master either.
As a beginner, of course, your primary focus is most likely ease of learning. But you are probably reading this because you want to know the subtle differences beyond learning that make a huge difference later on.
Let’s see what some of those differences might be and how they might tilt the scale on one side or the other for you as you get started.
The 5 Essential Differences Between Alto Sax and Tenor Sax that Every Beginner Must-know
#1 — Alto Sax vs. Tenor Sax Sound
Another thing you should consider is which tone you like the best.
Do you enjoy listening to the lower, deeper tones of tenor sax or do you prefer to listen to the higher, brighter tones of an alto?
This is really one of those things you chalk down to personal preference.
The tone of the alto sax is different from that of the tenor. The register of the alto saxophone (the smaller version) is, as I understand it, very close to the female human voice.
This is also quite apparent when you listen to it.
From the way it sounds, the timbre of it, and the range of it, the tenor is really close to the typical human male voice.
Besides appearance, the tonality is quite easily the main difference between an alto and tenor sax.
Funny enough, you’ll see most female sax players gravitate towards the alto and most of the male players, at least the ones I know, even if they start on alto slowly gravitate towards the tenor sax.
This happened to me also. I started on alto, then picked up the tenor out of curiosity, but I slowly found out that I play more comfortably on tenor, and that I just like the sound of the tenor sax more, perhaps because the tenor feels a bit deeper, lusher, lower and thicker whereas the alto feels sharper, brighter, a little higher even edgier.
This is really the main difference.
#2 — Alto Sax vs. Tenor Sax Fingerings
First I am going to prefix this by saying that even though the alto sax is an E flat instrument and the tenor sax is a B flat instrument mechanically the notes and fingerings are the same for all saxophones.
The fingerings—where you place your fingers on the keys—for a C on an alto sax, for instance, is the exact same fingering for the C on tenor. Again, they have the same fingerings.
This means that you can easily go back and forth between the alto and tenor, or even soprano and baritone because they all have the same fingering positions.
So, when you learn how to play one saxophone, you’re more or less learning how to play all of them.
That said, however, the spaces between the keys are a little bit different. The keys on an alto sax are slightly closer together than the keys on a tenor sax. So if you have tiny hands it might be a little bit more comfortable for you to play alto (or at least to start with that).
The alto sax keys are closer together because the saxophone is smaller.
My personal experience from playing alto is that it’s a bit easier for it, fingering-wise. Everything is a little bit closer together, making it easier to grab, easier to hold and play up and down faster.
But this is really just a hairline difference because anything you can do on the alto you can on the tenor with pretty much the same mechanics. And I have big hands, so for me, the alto feels a like I’m pushing my hands together a bit whereas the tenor gives my hands a bit more space, more pleasurable.
These two are really the main differences, any song you can play on the alto you can play on the tenor even though the voicing is different.
#3 — Alto Sax vs. Tenor Sax Size and Weight
The second thing to consider is the weight of the alto vs. the tenor.
Would you prefer the lighter alto or the heavier tenor sax?
Clearly, the tenor sax is bigger and heavier. I personally started with the alto but later switched to the tenor.
If your small, and in middle school, for instance, your neck will get tired on the tenor sometimes but it is not unbearable. And besides, you’ll be having so much fun!
So definitely consider the size and weight before you decide where you want to start.
#4 — Alto Sax vs. Tenor Sax Blowing
Remember how we said the tenor sax is bigger?
The tenor sax needs more air than the alto.
Because the tenor sax is bigger, it’s mouthpiece is bigger and air has further to travel as compared to the alto.
Which means you need to blow more and harder to get the same notes on a tenor than on an alto sax—it needs more air.
#5 — Alto Sax vs. Tenor Sax Transposing
Because the alto sax is an E flat instrument and the tenor sax is a B flat instrument, the voicing is completely different, so as far as transposing goes, they are very different instruments.
It’s a different tonality that you are tuned in but other than that all repertoire is really available for both these saxophones.
Most people eventually play both.
Which is easier alto or tenor sax? / Which type of saxophone is easiest to learn for a beginner, alto or tenor sax?
As I said my personal experience from playing alto is that it’s a bit easier for it, fingering-wise. Everything is a little bit closer together, making it easier to grab, easier to hold and play up and down faster.
Other than that, nobody’s the wiser.
Why is the alto sax considered a beginner saxophone?
Part of it could be to the age most people first pick up a saxophone, or any musical instrument for that matter.
In the end, it boils down to what mood you want to create, what sound you want to create, what kind of feeling you want to create. So you pick whatever saxophone you like best based off of that and put in the time to master it.
There’s really no rules or guidelines beyond that that anybody can give besides that it’s personal taste.
Someone once asked which is the more authentic American Jazz voice of the two?. Trivial as it may be… what type of saxophone is best for jazz? Cannonball Adderley is a great jazz alto and Coltrane is a great jazz tenor (and also on the soprano sax by the way).
The answer really is that all saxophone types have been used for great jazz records.
I would say, play the alto for a while, play the tenor for a while, exactly as I did—see what you like. I gravitated more towards the tenor than the alto but maybe for you, it will be the other way round.
Heck! You might even end up liking soprano later, or even something like contrabass. To each their own.
Wouldn’t be so much fun any other way.