A Guide To The Different Types of Saxophones

Written by Laura Macmillan
Last updated

When you picture a saxophone, most people will think of an alto or tenor saxophone. These are the two most common types and they’re found in almost every genre of modern music. The saxophone was first invented in the 1800s by a Belgian instrument inventor named Adolphe Sax. Since then, the instrument has been developed and tweaked with the modern version of the instrument being a far cry from the earliest models when it comes to intonation and design. 

In this post, we’re going to learn about all the other types of common and uncommon saxophones that exist today. Let’s jump in.

The Saxophone Family

Four Saxophone

If you are new to the instrument, you may not know there are multiple styles of the saxophone that come in a number of different shapes and sizes.

They are arranged by size and are structured in the same way voices are stacked in a vocal choir: Soprano, alto, tenor, bass etc..

Although some of them differ in their shape and size, they all have a similar design, use a single reed mouthpiece and consist of conical tube with keys and hole covers with a flared bell at the end. 

Common Saxophone Types

The following are the four most common versions of the saxophone used in concert bands, jazz ensembles, some classical music and pop acts around the world:

The Soprano Saxophone

The Soprano Saxophone

The Soprano Saxophone is the highest-pitched of the common saxophones.

It’s a transposing instrument and is in the key of Bb which means that when it plays a C, what actually sounds is a concert pitch Bb.

It plays in a similar range to a Bb trumpet or Bb clarinet with its range being from around A♭3 to E6 depending on the musicians ability.

The Soprano has a unique design in that it is the only saxophone that’s bore is straightened out, although you can find some rare versions of the other saxophones made this way.

You’ll often find the soprano sax used in smooth jazz which is thanks to Kenny G, the artist that made it very popular in the 80s. 

The Alto Saxophone

The Alto Saxophone

Up next we have the Alto Saxophone which is in Eb meaning that when you play a C on it, it sounds a concert Eb.

The alto sax is the most popular saxophone for beginners due to its convenient range and its size which is small enough to accommodate the small hands of children first learning to play it. 

The alto sax is also very popular in jazz music with one of the most well known jazz musicians in history being Charlie Parker.

Charlie Parker playing the Alto Saxophone

The Tenor Saxophone

The Tenor Saxophone

The Tenor Saxophone is very similar looking to the alto, but is larger and lower in pitch.

The tenor is in Bb like the soprano sax but is pitched an octave below.

On first glance it looks almost identical to the alto, but with a closer look you’ll see it’s the first saxophone in the family to have a curved neck.

Although not as common for beginners, the tenor sax may be the most widely-used saxophone, especially in pop, rock, and jazz music.

This is because its range is almost exactly that of a male singer and has a darker tone quality make it a sonic fit for almost any genre.

Many saxophone players consider the tenor to be the hardest saxophone to play from a control standpoint, but the rewards when it comes to tonal options and range are almost endless.

The Baritone Saxophone

The Baritone Saxophone, often referred to as “The Bari” is the lowest in pitch of all the common saxophones and is voiced an octave lower than the alto in Eb.

It’s considerably larger than the other types of sax we’ve looked at so far and is about four feet long from end to end.

Its low pitch helps it function in the same way that a baritone singer does in a vocal quartet holding the bottom of the harmony as support.

Don’t let this fool you, though as the baritone sax has an extremely rich tone quality when it is used as a lead voice. 

One of my favorite baritone players is probably jazz musician Gerry Mulligan (check him out) but the most famous Baritone player of all time is actually fictional.

It’s the instrument that Lisa Simpson from “The Simpsons” is known to play on the show.

Lisa Simpson playing the Baritone Saxophone

Uncommon Saxophone Types

If you know all about the kinds of saxophones aove, you can talk to just about anybody about the instrument.

But, there are some more rare types of saxophone that have been made over the years, including the following:

The Sopranino Saxophone

The Sopranino Saxophone (CC BY-SA 3.0)

You may have deduced it by its name, but the Sopranino Saxophone is a smaller version of the soprano but is pitched an octave higher than the alto sax.

It’s most commonly used in film scores, modern classical music, and some big band recordings.

The sopranino is very small (about 12 inches long) so it requires some finger dexterity to be able to play.

The C Melody Saxophone

The C Melody Saxophone (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The C Melody Saxophone is unique amongst the saxophone family due it being the only saxophone that plays at concert pitch.

This means when it plays a C, it sounds a concert C.

It was fairly popular at the turn of the century and into the 1920s and 30s but is not as common today although you may still hear the instrument from time to time in a trad jazz ensemble. 

The Bass Saxophone

The Bass Saxophone

It’s much easier to go bigger with instruments than to make them smaller, and that’s why the Bass Saxophone exists.

It’s so big, it’s generally played while resting on a stand with the neck curving all the way down to about halfway down the body .

It’s pitched a full octave below the tenor sax, giving it a rich supporting sound perfect for concert bands and larger jazz ensembles.

The Contrabass and Subcontrabass Saxophones

And lastly, just when you thought they couldn’t go any bigger, there is the Contrabass and the Subcontrabass Saxophone

These massive saxophones stand at around 6 feet 4 inches and 7 feet 5 tall respectively.

The contrabass sax is pitched a full octave below the bari and the subcontrabass is an octave below the bass sax.

There is very little material composed for these versions of the saxophones and they’re mostly seen as collectible items.

Some famous manufacturers, like Conn, have made quality versions of the Contrabass, though.

Contrary to popular belief, the contrabass was part of the original saxophone family created by Adolphe Sax!

Summing Up The Different Kinds of Saxophones

If you are like most people new to the saxophone, you probably thought there were two or three versions of the instrument.

Don’t worry, it’s a surprise to most that there are at least 8, not counting some experimental sax designs.

But, it’s a good idea for new players to start playing on either the alto or tenor sax before branching out to some of the others.

These are the two that are most common, so they have the most material to learn on.

They are also the most manageable size-wise.

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.