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In this guide will introduce you to the saxophone family of woodwind instruments.
There are many different types of instruments in the saxophone family — five of which are commonly used and familiar to most people, the rest of which are somewhat rare, extremely rare, or completely unheard of by most people.
Let’s start with the most common types.
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The 5 Common Instruments in the Saxophone Family
Here are the most commonly used instruments in the saxophone family in order of pitch — highest to lowest.
- E♭ Sopranino Saxophone
- B♭ Soprano Saxophone
- E♭ Alto Saxophone
- B♭ Tenor Saxophone
- E♭ Baritone Saxophone
#1 — E♭ Sopranino Saxophone
There are two versions of this instrument — a straight version, and a curved version which is extremely rare and very difficult to play in tune.
The straight sopranino saxophone is played out in front of the player the same way a clarinet is played.
The Sound of the E♭ Sopranino Saxophone
I’ve started with the highest-pitched instrument of the common saxophones in use. Sopranino saxophones are the highest in pitch in the most commonly used saxophones.
#2 — B♭ Soprano Saxophone
There also two versions of this instrument — a straight version, and a curved version. The straight version of the soprano saxophone is very common.
The straight soprano saxophone is also played out in front of the player the same way a clarinet or a straight sopranino saxophone is played.
Soprano saxophones are very easy to get, but unfortunately, they are a little bit expensive. Cheap soprano saxophones, on the other hand, are notoriously difficult to keep in tune.
Generally, soprano saxophones are difficult to keep in tune, especially if you are brand new to music, but if you’ve been playing the clarinet, go for the soprano.
The Sound of the B♭ Soprano Saxophone
The B♭ soprano saxophone is lower in pitch than the sopranino saxophone. This instrument is pitched the same as both the trumpet and the clarinet.
Again a very high saxophone, but not quite as high as the sopranino.
#3 — E♭ Alto Saxophone
This is, perhaps, the most commonly heard and seen of all of the saxophones.
Whereas soprano saxophones are not good to start with, because they are difficult to keep in tune, alto saxophones are perfect to learn on.
Perhaps, because of its size, it’s easy for kids — 10, 11 and 12 years old — to pick up, it’s very easy to play, it’s relatively cheap, and perhaps because they’ve been used forever.
The Alto Sax is a very versatile sax. So if you are a beginner saxophone player, go for the alto sax.
The Sound of the E♭ Alto Saxophone
The E♭ alto saxophone is lower in pitch than the soprano saxophone.
It is one full octave lower than the E♭ sopranino saxophone.
Again a relatively high saxophone, but not quite as high as the soprano.
#4 — B♭ Tenor Saxophone
The tenor is an iconic instrument in the history of jazz, blues, rock ‘n roll, contemporary, and pop music.
Perhaps the most famous tenor sax song is the Pink Panther song.
If you are a beginner saxophonist, maybe wait until you are 12, 13, or 14 years old before picking up the tenor because, quite simply, it’s big and heavy if you are a 10-year-old.
And physically, your hands won’t be big enough.
The Sound of the B♭ Tenor Saxophone
The B♭ tenor saxophone is lower in pitch than the alto saxophone.
It is one full octave lower than the B♭ soprano saxophone.
The tenor is a bigger instrument compared to the alto — there is a size difference, therefore it is a lot deeper.
You can go fairly low with this saxophone.
#5 — E♭ Baritone Saxophone
The baritone saxophone is a very large instrument, and it is the lowest in the commonly used saxophone family.
It’s nearly double the size of the alto. They are very expensive, not as well known and are used mostly in jazz bands and orchestras.
Bari saxes were very big in the 1960s Soul.
The Sound of the E♭ Baritone Saxophone
The E♭ baritone saxophone is lower in pitch than the tenor saxophone.
It is one full octave lower than the E♭ alto saxophone, and two full octaves lower than the E♭ sopranino saxophone.
Rare and Unheard-of Instruments in the Saxophone Family
Here’s a list of some rare and unheard-of instruments of the saxophone family.
- The Tubax Contrabass and Subcontrabass Saxophones
- The E♭ Contrabass Saxophone
- The Slide Saxophones
- The F Conn-O-Sax
#1 — The Tubax Contrabass and Subcontrabass Saxophones
The tubax is a new instrument. It has been made for about 20 years by the brilliant German instrument maker Benedikt Eppelsheim.
The tubax is available as both an E♭ contrabass saxophone, and a B♭ or C subcontrabass saxophone.
The contrabass has a slightly different shape to make it more compact.
The E♭ contrabass saxophone has a range one full octave lower than a baritone saxophone.
Although it looks big and bulky, what is amazing about this instrument is that it is one of the easiest playing instrument in the entire saxophone family, and it is a great sound horn.
#2 — The E♭ Contrabass Saxophone
The E♭ contrabass is the lowest of all the saxophones. It’s an enormous, 6'6” instrument was made in the first part of the 20th century.
About 25 of these were made, we know of about 12 left now, so it’s fair to say it is an extremely rare instrument of the saxophone family.
The E♭ contrabass saxophone is one full octave below the E♭ baritone saxophone.
It was first used by the U.S. military as a marching band instrument in the early part of the 20th century. Its size proved impractical, even for the military, and the later replaced it in the early 1920s with the E♭ contrabass sarrusophone.
Needless to say, the E♭ contrabass is magnificent in stature and quality of sound but you need huge lungs and big hands.
They are fairly rare, I don’t see them too often.
#3 — The Slide Saxophones
Slide saxophones were a series of saxophones made by manufacturers in the 1920s. The most functional of these were the slide soprano saxophones with two octave keys.
Most are played with the same basic mechanism as a trombone but, others, such as the slit slide saxophone made by King Musical Instruments in the 1920s, are played by sliding your hand on a leather strap.
#4 — The F Conn-O-Sax
This innovative instrument was made by Conn in the late 1920s.
They advertised this instrument for about a half year in 1928, but nobody bought it because it is in the key of F, it looks a little strange, there was no music written for it at the time, and the depression hit the next year.
So it became instantly rare. About 20-25 can be tracked down today.
It has a range from low A to high G and it requires its own special mouthpiece to sound, as it does, like an English horn.
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of rare saxophones, but it gives you a pretty good idea of what’s out there of the saxophone family.
There is, for instance, a smaller saxophone than the sopranino called the Soprillo saxophone, and then there is the smallest of the bunch — a Pocket saxophone, there is a Bass saxophone, there’s a Contrabaritone… the list goes on.
Suffice to say, this should give you a fairly good idea of the saxophone family.