Today I want to talk about how hard it is to learn to play the
saxophone, especially completely on your own without a tutor.
It the question I get the most from other instrument players,
especially guitars and piano players, and from people considering
playing the sax in general.
Even online I get a lot of emails of people asking, hey, I’m
considering playing the saxophone, but could you tell me how hard it
is… how long it will take me to get anywhere on the instrument… how
long will it take me to do this…or that…?
The short answer—how hard it is a relative question because it depends
on what you are staking it up against. Whether you are comparing it to a
guitar, piano, trumpet or violin, for example. In comparison to other
instruments, I would say that the saxophone is in the range of the
harder instruments to get started on, but not as hard as the trumpet to
get anywhere with. On a professional level, any instrument, even guitar,
is as hard as you make it.
Let me explain.
Is the Saxophone more difficult to learn than other musical instruments?
I said that comparing instruments is a very relative thing. It is also
quite difficult because you have to make a lot of sweeping
assumptions, but I will attempt it because that is how people new to
most instruments assess difficulty.
I know that’s how I did it.
But on a professional level, you can make any instrument as difficult
as you want. Any instrument can be incredibly hard to play. You really
can do things on any instrument that others find incredibly difficult to
Still, the saxophone is one of the harder instruments to get started
on, but on the harder hand, once you get started and you are in the
groove, the instrument is beyond magical.
So, if it really depends on what you are stacking it up against and who
you ask, is learning to play the saxophone difficult compared to
playing the trumpet?
#1 — Which is easier to play, Trumpet or Saxophone?
The trumpet and violin have the reputation that they are the hardest
instruments in existence to really play at a high level.
That’s true, for the most part.
In order to keep your tone with a trumpet—just to get anywhere with
that instrument really, you need at least three hours of practice every
Otherwise, don’t even bother starting!
The saxophone, on the other hand, is a one-note instrument, so it’s
not as hard as the trumpet to keep your tone. With half an hour or an
hour a day of practice, you will be able to get a consistently good tone
after a year or two.
A good tone translates as what people would describe as a mature tone.
Something pleasant to listen to.
That’s means before that year or so, it’s probably ill-advised to play
a lot publicly, because the sound is just not nice enough yet for most
people to enjoy listening to.
As far as instruments go, the trumpet and violin often come out top as
the hardest according to most musicians on a professional level. But,
again, it depends on who you ask.
#2 — Saxophone vs. Piano difficulty
The maturity of tone really makes a big difference when you contrast
it with something like a piano for instance. You can look at a piano
as having its own music that is consistent inside of it.
The notes are perfect no matter who presses the keys.
The saxophone is on the other end of the spectrum in this regard. It
is really you creating the sound. So if you can’t do, or don’t have
well-developed technique doing it, it won’t come out the same.
And, people love the sound of the saxophone.
Going purely by the number of people that look me up after a show, and
tell me how much they love the sound of a sax or say it’s just one of
their favorite instrument, is quite a lot.
I suppose that appreciation of sound is the sort of thing you notice
instantly when you are playing the saxophone.
That’s really something that makes the saxophone one the instruments
(same as the trumpet or violin), where it takes quite a bit of time and
effort, in the beginning, to get somewhere.
But once you start somewhere—the journey as you figure it out, more or
less—is so much fun.
As far as studying music goes, of course, the sax is a one-note
On a piano, you can play many keys at the same time, where you have a
left hand and the right hand where you have a bass part and a melody
part, you are doing two things at the same time, right from the
A saxophone, in that regard, is a melody instrument. You’re not that
concerned with harmony at all, with things such as progressions and
The saxophone is really an instrument for the solos and the melody.
That chops away a certain degree of difficulty right there, although, in
order to play well you still have to understand harmony.
You just don’t have to develop any skill of playing harmony as directly
on the saxophone as on a piano or guitar. So in that regard, the
saxophone is slightly easier.
#3 — Is Saxophone harder than Guitar?
It really does take quite a bit of effort to do anything with the
saxophone that an audience can even start to appreciate
Whereas with a guitar or piano, you can learn some chords and within a
day you are playing your song and it’s really nice to listen to, or
you can just play some chords and it’s already nice music.
But as with anything, there are people who play with guitar and the
things they play are incredibly difficult to do, even with decent
So on a professional level, all instruments are equally hard.
How long does it take to master the saxophone? / How long should I practice saxophone for?
I put quite a bit of study into the horn, that’s true. In fact, the
neighbors threatened to ask my mother to move once when I was living
out West. She said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to
put in at least 11 to 15 hours a day. I did that for over a period of
3 or 4 years.
As I said earlier, shoot for at least half an hour of practice a day
and you should be able to get a consistently good tone after a year or
Is it possible to self learn saxophone? / Can you learn the saxophone on your own without a personal tutor?
In fact, I will do more than just tell whether it is possible to self
learn a saxophone. I will give you ten common things (habits, if you
like) that hold back saxophone self-learners.
The 10 Things That Hold Back Saxophone Self-Learners Every Beginner Needs to Avoid
#1 — Being “Too Careful” With Your Expensive Saxophone
Now, this might sound a little strange, but what I’ve noticed that
there’s one theme that’s particularly common with beginners,
especially those trying to self learn the saxophone at a young age.
Almost everybody who learned to play an instrument when they were
little, develops an unhealthy carefulness, a fear of the instrument
They are kind of afraid to touch the instrument, to see them as just fun
objects, probably because they’ve had the experience of parents tell,
when they were little and impressionable, to be careful with the
Getting too careful with the instrument really holds self-learners back
It’s very important as a self-learner that you see your instrument as
something that’s fun, something that you can play around with without
fear of “spoiling”.
#2 — Not Understanding the Basic Mechanics of Your Saxophone
Most self-learners, I find, do not take the time to really understand
their saxophones. Most skip over the part where they need to understand
how the instrument works.
Understanding the basic mechanics of your saxophone is crucial. Things
such as how it produces sound and how it is designed are really
important to know because once you understand how your saxophone works
you eliminate a whole lot of problems, fear or too much carefulness.
As a self-learner, take the time to understand your instrument every
chance you get.
Many beginners, especially self-learners, send me messages related to
not understand their saxophones—such as getting things such as weird
sounds when they are playing, or that they think something is broken—all
Most of the time, all I really have to do to help them with this is to
just tell them how the instrument works.
Weird as it sounds.
Things such as how it produces sound.
As soon as they understand how the instrument works, how it produces
sound, it’s very easy to locate and fix problems on your own. It’s
easier to know, for instance, if a spring is broken, or if maybe one of
your tone holes is leaking.
Most problems are very easy to at least find, then you can go to
your repairer and say, “Look, this particular thing is broken, can you
fix it?” It gets pretty cheap that way, and you have some power for
yourself—you know exactly what’s going on, so you are not at their
Many little problems, such as a spring that’s lost some tension, you
can easily fix yourself.
As a self-learner, you really cannot skip the step of really getting to
know your saxophone.
Playing an instrument where you keep hearing a weird sound and don’t
know what’s going on eats at your subconscious like a motherfucker!
#3 — Thinking You Need to Be Able to Read Sheet Music to Play Your Saxophone
This is the motherlode.
Most self-learners seem to think that learning to play the saxophone,
is somehow linked to how well or fast you learn to read sheet music.
That the two go hand-in-hand.
That is absolutely not true.
You really have no reason to put off learning the saxophone until you
learn to read sheet music.
In fact, you can learn to play the sax surprisingly fast by ear,
pretty much just goofing off and playing what you hear. Actually, you
develop a pretty good understanding of your instrument and hand
technique this way surprisingly fast.
Learning to read music and play off the sheet from scratch generally
takes upwards of a year or at least two years of slow gradual
Many self-learners, even students with tutors, combine the two,
especially in classical style saxophone schools, and all they do is play
off the sheets, play off the sheets.
As a self-learner, you want to spend a lot of time away from reading
Pick up your sax and play whatever tune comes to your head, or play
along to the radio and you’ll make very fast progress that way.
Separate the two learning curves, because if you combine learning the
sax and learning to read sheet music, your development will be much much
longer. Your ability to learn to read music will hold you back on the
saxophone a lot.
I find that most people, especially the more musical people, can learn
to play little songs very easily. In fact, using just finger charts,
you can learn to play little songs in minutes, literally.
It’s really not that difficult. And you can learn hundreds of songs that
way before ever reading a single note.
Now I am not saying that you completely side-step reading, it’s a great
way to open yourself up to a lot of other music, and to play new songs
with other people, but, early on your focus should be on learning the
play the saxophone.
Learn these two things separately.
#4 — Playing Alone for Far Too Long
Wait, probably wondering how playing alone can hold you back.
Isn’t that the whole point of self-learning the saxophone?
Let me explain.
Many self-learners are usually pretty scared to play with other
people, and for good reason—they haven’t really mastered the instrument.
So they wait for far too long.
Learning the saxophone, understandably, takes quite a bit of time.
And it’s natural to be nervous when playing with other people—you don’t
want to mess up other people’s music.
But still, it’s very important to play with other people, because if
you don’t you confine yourself to this whole other path of evolution
away from getting better faster.
Find a local free improvisation workshop or something similar and go
there. Your little melodies are nice but you really need to master the
instrument if you want to play professionally.
You need to play with other people because from that you learn a lot
that will really help you bridge the gap between playing alone and
playing with other people.
Find something like a little band or anywhere you can play in little
sessions with other people. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself playing
with a lot of people.
I believe it was Sonny Rollins, one of the absolute masters of the
tenor saxophone, that said that playing with other people for an hour
is worth about four weeks of playing alone, and I really believe
Get out there as soon as you can even if you feel uncomfortable. I
would say that if you’ve been playing for upwards of three weeks,
that’s good enough. Get out.
If you are serious about practicing, find some local music events,
venues or workshops, join, meet with local musicians, be open about the
fact that you’ve just started and then go from there.
This will enormously boost the speed of how much you can get better and
you’ll be glad for it.
#5 — Getting Hung Up on Technical Details, Accessories
This is a subtle trap that even I fell into at the very start.
As a beginner, we are all just too aware that for the first year or
year and a half you’re just not going to sound really really great.
The saxophone isn’t just one of those instruments like a piano where it
doesn’t matter who presses the key because it always sounds the same.
You really do have to put in the work and soldier through the learning
curve just to get to a point where other people will start saying that
you’re starting to sound okay now, or that you sound really nice.
That’s just something we all have to get over.
Something that happens to a lot of self-learners is that instead of
being honest and accepting that it will take some time, they think what
they need is an expensive mouthpiece, or a more expensive saxophone, or
this other type of reed, or ligature or whatever it happens to be.
You tend to go, especially if you have the money, into this obsession
with tuning your setup.
Early on, you do not need that amazing instrument, that, to be honest,
you can’t really work yet.
All you need is a good solid instrument to learn on.
All you need is a good solid student saxophone to play on for a year, or
a year and a half, and really practice it to get to a point where you
can really appreciate the differences.
Where you can put a different mouthpiece on your saxophone and actually
feel the difference—feel what it does, and how the sound changes.
Most of these things are not accessible to a beginner because all
sounds are alike. You can really discern the nuances.
You can’t overcome a beginner’s inexperienced technique by buying a
lot of gadgets. It really doesn’t improve your playing and it’s really a
massive waste of your time.
Resist the temptation.
#6 — Sticking With Only One Music Genre
This is, in many ways, similar to playing alone for too long.
If you were not self-learning, for instance, and you went and got a
tutor instead, the first thing you’ll notice is that they have some
method books and most of those things focus either only on jazz or
In general, people tend to go in the direction of one genre,
especially once you start to good at playing jazzy or classically, and
stay in that.
While the reasoning is that once you get good at something it makes
sense to keep doing that, it’s actually way better to really push
yourself in the other directions as well.
Do not get bogged down by some of the numerous myths swirling around in
the musical world. Such beauties as, you know, classical players can’t
play jazz, jazz players can’t play classical and things like classical
people can’t play blues.
From my experience, all of that is utter bullshit. Some of the
greatest saxophonists, trumpeters, and pianists have spanned across
A classical style saxophonist is only bad at jazz if they haven’t
practiced it at all. So yes, they are bad at it, because they haven’t
practiced it. This goes for any genre.
This is something that begins at the very beginning because right from
the start, we tend to focus on what we like until we are good at that,
and then we keep moving in that direction neglecting everything else.
You will be a much more rounded player—a much better saxophonist, and
you’ll develop much faster if you very consciously push yourself, to not
only stay confined in one specific genre.
Keep mixing it up, right from the start.
#7 — Not Knowing or Learning Any Piano
I know what you are thinking. You are trying to learn saxophone here,
Most saxophone self-learners don’t learn any piano. And no matter how
strange that sounds, not knowing the piano will hold you back
Why should you learn the piano?
It has a lot to do with music theory.
The piano is really one of the very few instruments that lay out all
the notes in the 12-note system in use in virtually all popular music
today. It’s one instrument where you can see all of it.
I am not saying that you need to know enough piano to play something
like Beethoven or Mozart or something demanding like that. Far from
All you need to have is just a little bit of experience playing the
piano. Something like five lessons with a piano teacher or following
some online courses will usually suffice.
All you need to do is just get the basics down, such as playing some
chords on the piano, being able to play a little harmony here and there,
which isn’t really that difficult to do (you can learn that in a few
This is what will help you immensely later on as soon as you start
getting into music theory. Music theory is something that you have to
get into if you want to start improvising if you want to be able to solo
It is essential knowledge.
Music theory can get a little difficult, but if you play just a little
piano, that’ll make it a whole lot easier and much more palatable.
#8 — Not Knowing Your Intervals
A half step between two notes—no matter what key, no matter where on
the keyboard you play it from—always sounds like danger is coming!
If you don’t know your intervals, by heart, and you can recognize them
by ear, it will make music theory way, way, harder than it really
And it’s actually insanely easy to learn the intervals.
It’s a very simple trick that you can learn in, say, a week of
two-hour daily practice, and you will then never forget it, and it
will open up a whole world of music theory for you.
I know so many people who struggle with music theory for years and once
I explain it this to them, the whole theory just straightens out and
starts to make a lot more sense.
This is really important stuff.
If you do not know your intervals, it will not just hold you back
immensely, it will hold you back in a way that can’t quite put a
finger on exactly what it is that’s holding you back yet it’s very,
very, easy to learn.
#9 — Not Playing More Freely
This one kind of envelopes some of the other points we mentioned above.
Most self-learners don’t play freely enough.
The result of that is (you won’t believe) very advanced players—players
that I have met, and I know for a fact have played upwards of 8
years—who can play Charlie Parker solos right off the sheet
extremely well, yet when you tell them to play freeform, they completely
Simply can’t do it.
And it’s because even though they can play anything off the sheet,
they are not truly in sync with their instrument.
Let me explain.
If I sing a note and say to you now sing that same note, almost
anybody can pretty much sing that same note right away.
Quite easily actually.
You don’t have to look for it in your voice box, you just grab the right
one and sing it right out.
The same thing happens when you remember a melody from a TV show or song
that you like, and you never have to search for the notes, no matter
how complex the melody might be because your mind and voice box are
completely in sync.
And you’ve probably learned that over lots and lots of years unless you
are quite young.
That’s what I am referring to as being in sync with your instrument.
The only way to do that is to treat it like a body extension. As
something that you use all the time.
The exercise that I want to give you for that is this:
Imagine a melody in your head. After you imagine it, try to play it on
the saxophone only once without making a mistake. If you make a mistake
repeat it the correct way. Then move on to another melody and play it
out without a mistake and keep at it.
Over time, you’ll find that you’ve actually brought your mind in sync
with your saxophone.
Eventually, you will find that if you hear something on the radio, and
grab your saxophone, you play it as easily as you sang that melody with
your voice after hearing it just a couple of times.
That’s what you need as a self-learner—playing freely.
#10 — Not Taking Control of Your Own Learning Curve
The last thing on this list sorta reflects back to your whole learning
experience from a time far into the future—that is not taking control
of your own learning curve.
As a self-learner, only you know what will challenge you a lot. Only
you can push yourself to find it. And only you can push yourself to do
I feel that this is a hand point to put across to you eloquently,
succinctly, yet it is the thing that saves you the most time because
it hits your learning curve directly.
If you let other people tell you how to learn, on average, it will
take anywhere from four to six years to acquire just average saxophone
Many people that get average skill in the year, or year and a half, a
timeline that I keep mentioning are not only self-taught—they push
themselves really hard.
And, these are the sort of people who when you hear play you think
they’ve been at it for five or six years. But no, they’ve been playing
for just a year!
There’s a lot of things I can point to and say that that’s why they’ve
learned so fast, but, by far, the most important reason they have
learned so fast is that they took control of their learning curve.
They simply are not satisfied with people telling them this or that is
what you should do or focus on for this month or the other. They
control their learning curves. Anybody that’s ever gotten anywhere
fast with a saxophone is doing that all the time.
No saxophone teacher or number of courses can do that for you.
Any bar you walk into, or anywhere you start playing, people just love
the sound of the saxophone.
People seem to love bands that are accompanied by saxophones, people
seem to love saxophone solos, I suppose because the voice of the
saxophone is very close to the human voice.
People love just it.
That’s all I really have to say about ease or difficulty or learning the
saxophone right now.
I hope I didn’t demotivate you.
I think it’s a great instrument and I have completely been in love with
it since I started listening to jazz as a teenager. And, I can
wholeheartedly recommend putting any effort when getting started on this
I hope that gives you some indication of how long to wait and what
amount of effort you have to put into it.