There are 4 main types of Saxophones. The Soprano Saxophone, Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone and the Baritone Saxophone. However, the entire saxophone family is made up of a total of 10 different types of saxophones and in this complete guide you will learn about all of them.
So, with that said let's have a look at the main types first and then I'll give you a summery of the obscure and less popular types of saxophones as well towards the end of this article.
Table of Contents
The Saxophone hierarchy
There are many similarities between the parts in a choir and the 4 main types of saxophones.
In the choir you have the sopranos singing the top parts, below them are the altos still in the upper register. Moving down to the Tenors which usually are male singers with deeper yet strong voices and finally the Baritones (or basses) that sing the base notes.
The same applies to the different types of saxophones. Ranging from the lowest (Baritone) to the highest (Soprano) range like this:
- Soprano Saxophone (Treble range)
- Alto Saxophone (Upper mid-range)
- Tenor Saxophone (Lower mid-range)
- Baritone Saxophone (Bass range)
Different pitch depending on the type of saxophone
Written music for a Piano, a guitar, a flute or a bass is often referred to as “Concert Pitch”. That simply means that those instruments are C instruments. The saxophones on the other hand can be either Eb instruments (E-flat) or Bb instruments (B-flat) depending on the type of saxophone.
To summarize the transposition of saxophone it looks like this:
- Alto Sax and Baritone Sax are Eb instruments
- Soprano Sax and Tenor Sax are Bb instruments
It's really useful to learn how to transpose saxophone when you want to play together with other musicians.
All Saxophones use the same fingerings
When you have learned how to finger notes on a saxophone you basically can play any type of saxophone as they all share the same fingerings. There are however some differences when it comes to how you master the sound and embouchure on the different types of saxes which you will learn more about below.
The Soprano Saxophone
The soprano sax is “heard” in the treble range and is a high pitched saxophone. There are both straight and curved soprano saxophones. The standard straight soprano sax looks almost like a shiny clarinet. However, the sound is nothing like the clarinet even if they both share partially the same shape and fingerings. Playing the soprano is a lot of fun, but in my experience of playing the saxophone for the past 35 years, I'd say it's the hardest type of saxophone to master. Mainly because of the tiny mouthpiece where small adjustments to the embouchure make a big difference in the pitch making it harder to play in tune than other saxophone types.
The fingerings are the same for all saxophones so when it comes to the soprano being harder to play than other saxophones it has more to do with tone control and playing in pitch. The mouthpiece is smaller and small adjustments of the embouchure makes big changes to the pitch on the soprano sax.
Tip: A common used technique to get a better sax sound is to add vibrato which covers up much of variations in the pitch. It's always good to develop tone control, but using a vibrato can be helpful in smoothing out the pitch a bit.
There are many famous soprano saxophone players and I'm including two of my favorites here, so that you can hear what it's all about.
In this video you will hear Dave Koz, an amazing artist, composer and sax player, playing the soprano saxophone with his trademarked smooth sound:
Probably the most famous saxophone player of all time is Kenny G. He's sold over 75 million records and has been featured in pretty much every elevator in the world. He also holds the record for the longest note ever played while circular breathing and he's also a great musician. In this video you can here him playing the mega hit “Songbird” which catapulted him to the main music scene back in the 90's. The recording is from 2022 and he's still going strong with his smooth jazz sound. I love it!
The Alto Saxophone
This is the most common saxophone for saxophone beginners and works great for both children and adults. A common misconception is that only beginners play alto saxophone and that you should change to another type of saxophone when you become a better sax player.
This is simply not true. In my experience as a saxophone teacher it is much easier to get started with Alto Saxophone in comparison to the other types of saxes. IF you want to play other saxophones when you learned the basics that's totally fine of course. But the misunderstanding that you are “supposed to” switch saxophone type is wrong.
I would say it's more common that you would switch to another type of saxophone if you start in a band or become a member in an orchestra where a certain type of saxophone is needed.
The benefits of starting with the Alto Sax as a beginner are way more than just the size and weight. Learning how to use the correct embouchure and developing tone control will also be easier on the alto compared to the other sax models.
All this combined makes the Alto Saxophone perfect for beginner students.
Here are a couple of my favorite Alto Saxophone players that I think you will enjoy listening to as well.
Now, my love for Candy Dulfers playing style go way back. She's a superstar on her own and i think she is awesome. Listen for your self in the video. Both her solo and the solo by Jan Van Duikeren on flugelhorn are great!!
In this video you hear Gerald Albrights well recognized Alto Sax sound that you can recognize a mile a way. I really dig his sax sound as one player to another. Not comparing myself to him but his phrasing and melodic solos are in my opinion among the best of the best.
The Tenor Saxophone
The tenor saxophone is a beast of it's own. You can often hear tenor saxophone i Rock music playing a screaming solo or as part of a Jazz band playing both melodies and as part of a horn section.
The tenor sax has a bit more weight to it as well as a larger mouthpiece. That makes it most suitable for adults. The keys are bigger than on the soprano and alto as well, making it impossible for a child's hand to reach all the fingerings on the tenor.
There are many examples of famous tenor saxophone players like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, but I've included two videos with two of my favorite tenor sax players.
Here you'll hear the amazing Michael Brecker in one of his more laid back performances with the Brecker Bros, the band he had with his brother.
In this second video you will hear the southing tenor sax of the amazing Kirk Whalum. He used to play with Whitney Houston and if you ever heard the mega hit “I will always love you” the sax solo i played by Kirk.
The Baritone Saxophone
The Baritone saxophone is the largest saxophone in the “four main piece” family. You can often hear Bari sax as part of a horn section i funk bands like Tower of Power or in a big band matching the lines of the bass trombone.
The Baritone Saxophone was made popular and “main stream” by saxophone greats like Garry Mulligan.
However, the famous Gerry Mulligan proved that the baritone saxophone could also be the main attraction in the band. He's well known within the Jazz genre as the Baritone sax player.
Here's a sample of Gerrys playing with the tune Satin Doll:
There's also been a few Baritone sax players like Leo in the video below who have made the Bari sax more mainstream.
Listen and compare the 4 types of saxophones
This recording is from a performance with some of the best saxophone players in the world saluting former president of the United States, Bill Clinton with a killer blues featuring all sax players. Listen to the sax players you will hear how the Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Baritone saxophones sound in comparison. You will also notice how different the same type of saxophone can sound depending on who is playing it.
Less known types of Saxophones
Besides the four main types of saxophones (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bari) there are six more types of saxophones that we need to cover. So, rounding of this complete guide to saxophone types here is the entire list of saxophones:
- Sopranissimo sax – Highest pitched saxophone. Rare.
- Sopranino sax – Very high pitched. Think “Aladdin” flute
- Soprano Sax – High pitch
- Alto Saxophone – Perfect for sax beginners
- C Saxophone – Less common but can play same notes as piano
- Tenor Sax – popular in rock and jazz music
- Baritone Sax – low end in big bands
- Bass sax – larger and lower
- Subcontrabass sax – Rare and even lower pitched
- Contrabass sax – Extremely rare and lowest pitched saxophone
There are similar instruments to Saxophone that share the type of mouthpiece, fingerings and mechanics. It's safe to say that Adolphe Sax has inspired other instrument makers to keep building of the foundation that comes from the saxophone instrument.
In conclusion, the saxophone family is quite varied in its range. From the highest pitched sopranissimo to the low pitched sub contrabass saxophone. The main four saxophones, the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, are most common and can be heard in a variety of musical genres. The benefit of learning the fingerings on one type of saxophone is that it translates to all saxophones.
So, now you have a complete overview of the entire saxophone family with the main four saxophones as well as the less known saxophone types. I hope you enjoyed the videos with the great sax players above as well.