Learn the history of the Saxophone. Easy explanation by saxophone teacher.

History of the Saxophone

Written by Greger Hillman, Saxophone teacher and music educator

The saxophone was invented by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in the mid-19th century. It's become one of the most popular woodwind instruments in many different genres of music. From jazz to classical and even contemporary pop, the saxophone has a unique sound and versatility that can be molded after the style of music.

From my own experience of being a saxophone player for the past 35 years I'd say it's the best woodwind instrument, but hey… I may be a bit biost.

Still, In this article you will learn more about the history of the saxophone so that you can see for yourself how this Saxhorn (the first namne of the sax) turned into the Saxophone and became one of the most popular woodwind instruments of all time.

The Invention of the Saxophone

Adolphe Sax, a Belgian instrument maker, invented the saxophone in the 1840s. The first design was a hybrid between a woodwind and a brass instrument. His goal was to create an instrument that could play in both the woodwind and brass sections of an orchestra. However, after several iterations the saxophone became an “all woodwind” instrument with a mouthpiece using a reed.

The saxophone reeds comes in different materials these days, but back in the yearly 1900's it was always made out of cane. There's a common misconception that the saxophone is a brass instrument. However, the reed on the mouthpiece is what makes the sound and therefor it's a woodwind instrument.

The curved neck, attached between the mouthpiece and the saxophone body, helps the air travel throughout the horn. However, it also has the octave key which is important in order to play notes in two octaves on the saxophone. There are actually some saxophone notes that you can play in three octaves by using the palm keys on the upper part of the instrument. . The saxophone was patented in 1846 and was first presented to the public at the 1841 Paris Exposition.

The saxophone quickly gained popularity among musicians and composers, and it was soon incorporated into various types of ensembles, including orchestras, chamber music groups, and military bands. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the saxophone began to be embraced by jazz musicians, with jazz saxophonist Earl Bostic credited with popularizing the instrument in the genre.

Different Types of Saxophones

There are 10 types of saxophones, but only four of them are used by mainstream musicians. The other six types never found a natural place in orchestras and bands but there are some enthusiasts that collect and play the more rare models as well. However, the most common types include:

  • Soprano Saxophone: This is the highest-pitched saxophone and has the range of high F to low Ab in concert key. It is the smallest saxophone and is commonly used in jazz and classical music.
  • Alto Saxophone: This is the most popular saxophone and is known for its warm, rich tone. It has the concert key range between high Eb to low Db and is often used in jazz, classical, and popular music.
  • Tenor Saxophone: This saxophone has a concert key range of F to Ab and is known for its powerful, soulful sound. It is often used in jazz, blues, and popular music.
  • Baritone Saxophone: This is the largest saxophone and has the concert key range of high Eb to low C. It is commonly used in jazz and popular music.

Famous Saxophonists and Their Impact on the Instrument

There are many great examples of talented and well recognized saxophonists that have had a significant impact on the instrument and the way it is played. I curated a short list of examples that also include some of my personal favorite saxophone players of all time:

Clarence Clemons

He is most known for being the saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. His powerful rock sound playing melodies and solos were a defining aspect of the E Street band's sound.

John Coltrane

He was a jazz saxophonist who is widely considered to be one of the greatest musicians of all time. His playing style and innovations in technique and improvisation have influenced countless saxophonists over the years.

Stan Getz

He was a jazz saxophonist known for his smooth, mellow tone and his ability to play with a great deal of expression and emotion.

Charlie Parker

Parker, also known as “Bird,” was a jazz saxophonist who was a major figure in the development of bebop music. He is considered one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time.

Sonny Stitt

One of my personal favorite jazz saxophonists and well known for his great technique and melodic solos. He was a big part of the bebop scene and was considered one of the best saxophonists of his time.

Saxophone in Music Video

The saxophone has also been featured in many music videos, such as “Careless Whisper” by George Michael and “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. However, Kenny G has to be the one saxophonist that have had the single biggest commercial success with his original smooth jazz music selling over 75 million copies back when selling records and CD's still where a thing.

More on the history of the saxophone

There's so much to explore in the history of the saxophone but this is as far as I'll go. If you however want to dive deeper I can recommend that you have a look at these resources:

Also read: More resources to Learn Saxophone

Saxophone teacher online Greger Hillman

Written by Greger Hillman

Greger Hillman is a saxophone teacher with +36 years of experience playing saxophone. 

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