Types Of Saxophone: The Complete Guide (With Examples)

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  • Learn about the different types of saxophones
  • Find out which saxophone is best for first-time learners
  • Discover what kinds of music can be played on the saxophone
  • Keep it in the woodwind family! Learn about the different types of flutes

From cute and small to large and tall, sassy brass to concert hall class, the saxophone takes many shapes, sizes, sounds, and roles in the music world.

The flexibility and facility of the instrument make it one of the most desirable to play – but also one of the most complicated (not to mention its equally complicated history!). 

Every saxophonist has an opinion on what the ‘right’ setup is – but really, it’s less about right and more about what sound you want to achieve.

But deciphering this idea could take hours – not to mention years – with all the options you have ahead of you. So, where to start? 

Let’s start at the beginning.  


In the 1800s, Adolphe Sax, an impressively talented Belgian instrument maker, aspired to create an instrument that combined the power of a brass instrument with the facility of a stringed instrument and the nuances of a woodwind. Talk about ambition!

In 1841, Sax began working on his first experimental model; a ophicleide-like brass instrument called the bass horn. The invention was not well received in his native Brussels.

In Paris, however, he received much praise and recognition for his work from the infamous French composer Hector Berlioz: “the saxophone…is the most beautiful low voice known to this day.” 

In 1846, Sax acquired two patents for his designs: one set of saxophones intended for orchestral purposes and the other set intended for military bands, both sets which contained a range of voices, from subcontrabass to sopranino.

And thus, about fourteen types of saxophones were born, with the intention of creating an entire orchestra of saxophones alone.

Today, however, there are roughly six in widespread use. And just to be clear, saxophones officially belong to the woodwind family – despite being made of brass! 

The complete types of saxophones are listed below in pitch order from low to high: 

  1. Subcontrabass
  2. Contrabass
  3. Bass
  4. Baritone
  5. Tenor
  6. Alto 
  7. Soprano 
  8. Sopranino
  9. Sopranissimo or Soprillo

Since the late 20th century, German instrument maker Benedikt Eppelsheim has produced the sopranissimo or soprillo saxophone as well as a contrabass and subcontrabass saxophone.

These instruments are not commonly played and are fairly rare, but they have been included in this list for completion. As if the saxophone world could get more niche! 

This article will chiefly discuss the four most common saxophones used in performance today: soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone.


By the laws of physics, the size of the instrument is reflective of the range of pitches that each saxophone is capable of producing.

For example, the bass saxophone is the largest of the saxophones, with pitches so low that they do not fit on a typical stave in treble clef. In contrast, the sopranino is the smallest and the highest. 


Saxophones are transposing instruments, but not all saxophones have been created the same.

Historically, Adolphe Sax created all of the saxophones in C; however, they now are pitched in E♭ or B♭ in an alternating fashion. 

  • Subcontrabass in B♭
  • Contrabass in E♭
  • Bass in B♭
  • Baritone in E♭
  • Tenor in B♭
  • Alto in E♭
  • Soprano in B♭
  • Sopranino in E♭
  • Sopranissimo or Soprillo in B♭

Adolphe Sax also intended to build saxophones in C and F. While the C version was built, the F version was not, despite its intended usage in a number of compositions of the time.

It’s also important to note that while the natural frequencies of the instruments vary, the fingerings for producing different notes remain the same across all six types.

Therefore, switching between instruments is very common and not exceedingly difficult.

But, it is important to remember then that the parts for instruments of different keys (i.e. a B-flat vs. an E-flat instrument) cannot be exchanged; they require another transposition. 

Where to start? Let’s choose a horn.

The Four Most Common Saxophones

1. Alto Saxophone (Best for Beginners)

 The most commonly chosen saxophone for beginners is the alto saxophone.

This is the natural choice for beginners, considering that it is medium size and allows you to learn fundamentals of techniques that can later be adapted and applied to both larger and smaller saxophones.

Of course, there is a myriad of brands that produce quality saxophones. Both Yamaha and Selmer fight for the top brand spot – and the two camps are staunchly divided.

Yanagisawa and P. Mauriat also create solid choices yet are more niche. Also, it is important to consider that the saxophone community regards specific horns by certain makers to be of higher quality.

For example, Yanagisawa horns are a common choice for soprano saxophonists. 

For beginners, it is easy to recommend any student model created by either Yamaha or Selmer, although the Yamaha may be more budget-friendly. 



A Yamaha and Selmer student models, from top to bottom, respectively.

The saxophones pictured are both alto saxophones. Use them for visual comparison with the size and shape of the following images: the tenor, baritone, and soprano saxophones.

The E-flat alto saxophone may as well be considered the lead saxophone in both the jazz and classical worlds.

In the jazz world, there are generally two altos in a big band – and the lead alto was historically the leader of the band.

In the classical world, most of the major works, such as sonatas and concertos, as well as the bulk of the orchestral parts for the saxophone, were written for the alto. 

This may be related to the fact that it is the most commonly played instrument, in addition to being the choice for beginners.

But why has it historically been the choice for beginners? It’s hard to know. Perhaps it’s because it was the ‘middle’ size of the family.

Perhaps because it was the first size Adolphe Sax produced. Maybe it’s because it best mimics the vocals range of the human voice.

Whatever the reason, the alto saxophone provides a grounding point for beginners to learn the proper technique that can then be modified and applied to smaller and larger saxophones.  

2. Tenor Saxophone (Second Most Commonly Played)

The B-flat tenor saxophone is a little larger than the alto saxophone. As such, it requires a larger mouthpiece and reed, it’s a little heavier to hold, and it requires more air to produce a sound.

For these reasons, its often not used as the beginning instrument, but it is great as a secondary instrument. 

If you’re inclined to be a jazz musician, the tenor is likely the most popular saxophone in the scene and the most popular solo instrument in the genre.

Many of the jazz saxophone ‘greats’ chose this instrument over the others. 


A tenor saxophone. Notice the increase in size and the curve in the elongated neck of the instrument. 

3. Baritone Saxophone (Largest of the Four Most Common Saxophones) 

Although much more common as a solo instrument, the E-flat baritone saxophone is undoubtedly one of the anchors of the saxophone’s legacy.

Who could forget the opening solo to Moanin’ by the Charles Mingus Big Band? The bari, as it is colloquially called, is as iconic as they come. 

The bari is easily recognizable, not just due to is size but also to its neck, which curves back onto itself, unlike any of the smaller saxophones.

Its deep, dark sound can be rich and smooth or bright, inquisitive, and thunderous, making it a righteous choice for larger ensembles in both the jazz and classical genres, military style, and statement-making chamber and solo pieces. 

The bari would be an unlikely choice for a first saxophone to play, but it’s an easy transfer from alto to this instrument.

Just make sure you invest in a rolling case and a harness (in place of the more common neck strap) and avoid stairs! 

  A baritone saxophone. Note the length and the extra ‘loop’ in the neck of the instrument. 

4. The Soprano 

Soprano saxophones are the smallest and also the highest pitch saxophones in common use today.  

Similar to the baritone, the soprano has had some curvature adjustments made to its body: since the 1990s, soprano saxes have been made such that they have straight bodies.

While there are sopranos that do have the classic saxophone curvature, they are much rarer. 

Soprano saxes are more inclined to have soloist material attached to their repertoire, regardless of the genre.

They’re used in classical and jazz, military bands, pop music – you name it (I cringe every time someone associates Kenny G with this instrument – boo). 

Since soprano and tenor saxophones are both B-flat instruments, you often see performers use these horns interchangeably – and more commonly than performers using alto and baritones interchangeably. 

However, let it be known that control and facility are much more difficult due to the size of the instrument. Outstanding technique on the alto is a must before playing soprano.

Tuning and extended techniques can prove to be very difficult, and the embouchure must be adapted to a much smaller position, making the playing very hard on the facial muscles.

Not to mention the tendonitis that can develop from tension while holding the soprano downward and outward while playing. Be careful, friends! 


Soprano saxophones. The curved soprano exists but is not very common. One will more often see straight-style sopranos.

Now that we have discussed the horns themselves, you should also know the other elements you’ll need to play and hone your sound.

The sound you achieve is partially a result of all of your setup components.

The components for saxophones are as follows: 

  • Brass Horn
  • Mouthpiece 
  • Ligature
  • Reed

All of the above components play a key role in defining your sound, much like acoustic guitars’ body, strings, and shape.

It is also important to note that there is no perfect combination of these things; there is only different!

It is also important to consider that your component choices may be dependent on the style(s) of music that you would like to play and the techniques required of those genres. 

Speaking of technique, the sound you achieve is partially a result of, well, your technique! The first important thing to know before learning to play the saxophone is exactly how it produces sound.

With this knowledge, you’ll be a much more intelligent player – even if its your first time. 


The saxophone is a part of the woodwind family or instruments that use a column of vibrating air to produce the sound waves we perceive.

How is this achieved? Hold on tight for a bit of a physics dive. 

Acoustics of the Saxophone Horn

Between the reed and the mouthpiece, there is an aperture, and applying precise airflow pressure through this aperture creates an oscillating airflow, thereby producing a sound.

Too little airflow does not allow the reed to vibrate, and you’ll hear air passing through the aperture like a hiss.

Too much airflow and the back pressure will force the reed to shut over the aperture, producing no sound. 

When the proper airflow is provided, the frequency, or pitch, that can be heard is the natural frequency of the air in the saxophone body.

In physics, the saxophone body is considered to be a conical pipe that is closed on one end (by the player’s mouth).

Applying airflow into the pipe produces a standing wave, and the reflections within the body add constructively. 

So now you can achieve sound! Yes! The physics of it makes it sound very simple, but applying proper airflow is all about the physical feel.

You’ll know what you’re supposed to do when you feel it, and you’ll be aided by using proper embouchure techniques. More on this in a bit. 

Acoustics of Tone Holes

Now, how do we produce different pitches rather than just the natural frequency of the horn body?

The keys on the saxophone cover what is called “tone holes,” and the combination of open and closed tone holes helps to create different pitches.

Opening and closing a series of tone holes on the saxophone causes the oscillating air to change its natural frequency, thereby changing the pitch.

For example, the lowest note of the saxophone is produced by closing all tone holes. The highest notes are achieved by using an octave key.

The octave key interrupts the airflow such that the frequency of the standing wave within the horn is doubled, raising notes then keyed by the tone holes up one octave! 

It is also possible to achieve two octaves above by using extended techniques to produce altissimo notes or notes above the keyed range of the saxophone. Things to look forward to! 

Producing Your Tone

Okay, this all sounds very simple, but let’s remember there is always a key to achieving the finesse: the embouchure.

Your embouchure is the way in which your mouth applies pressure on and around the reed via the mouthpiece. Your embouchure helps to dictate the resulting sound emanating from your instrument. 

For any given note, the air pressure and your embouchure can be varied to produce soft, bright, mellow, loud, brassy, classy – well, you get the picture. Air pressure and embouchure decide your tone. 


The airflow charts above demonstrate how the combination of breath control and embouchure will affect the vibrating airflow inside the body of the saxophone.


How can you produce different kinds of tones? Tones are varied by producing harmonics or pitches that contain far more than just the primary frequency.

If the pressure increases on the reed due to airflow or embouchure, the pitch produced is no longer purely a sine wave.

In this way, it’s like a stringed instrument: when you pluck one string, you mostly hear the fundamental pitch, but the harmonics above this pitch are also present and audible.

Where a string player simply has to play or pluck the string, woodwind players need to create these harmonics by varying air pressure and embouchure. 


Are harmonics desirable? 

Yes. No. Maybe. It depends on the music you play and the tone you like! More jazz players prefer the brighter sound produced with many harmonics, whereas classical players often prefer a smoother, pure tone

Of course, the components of your saxophone also play into the production of your tone and by extension, the amount of harmonics you produce – but they can only do so much.

So much of your sound is achieved by your technique, so put your focus there first!  

What Kinds of Music Is The Saxophone Most Commonly Used? What Can I Play?  

The general public tends to associate the saxophone with jazz music, as well as with military marches and band music. This fact is rooted in Adolphe Sax’s success with the French military bands of the 1800s. 

In the 1800s, military bands were symbols of power; however, the French military band lacked strength and vigor.

Sax believed that his instruments would be able to help transform the image of the French military bands.

Initially skeptical, the French adopted his instruments and reveled in the results. The efficacy of his instruments impressed other regimental bands, who soon commissioned Sax’s talents and instruments.

Through military bands, the saxophone eventually arrived in New Orleans, where it became a key component in forming early jazz.

Today, saxophone plays an integral role in jazz ensembles of all sizes and genres, ranging from big band to bebop to smooth to cool to Latin and everything in between.

Examples of music by the jazz masters of a saxophone can be found here

However, the saxophone can be used in almost any genre, as its flexible voice allows for its color to change and transform to fit any style of music.

This makes it a desirable instrument to play since you are able to participate in many kinds of performances and ensembles.

It has been widely featured on pop, rock, and electronic tracks and continues to slowly infiltrate the average listener’s playlist in many ways.

Classic saxophone solos have been sampled and used on pop, hip-hop, and rap tracks for a vintage vibe. We see you, Jalen Santoy!

Historically An Ugly Duckling & Devil Child

One place where the saxophone is not often heard is in the orchestra. But why? The saxophone has a very rich tradition in classical music as a solo instrument, in addition to classical saxophone quartets.

One might even call it the bastion of contemporary classical music. The orchestra, though,  still exhibits a limited repertoire that includes the saxophone, and it is believed that Sax himself is partially to blame. 

While the invention was praised for its facility, the synthesis of brassy and elegant in one sound providing a brand new collection of voices and producing a new color, political issues within the musical community, collusion between the instrument makers and musicians of Paris, and Sax’s own dynamic personality all combined to prevent the successful introduction of the saxophone into the orchestra.

Further, the sound became misunderstood, but even more, misunderstood was the instrument’s image.

The saxophone’s association with American popular music led the instrument away from classical music, eventually destroying any hope of establishing a place in the orchestra.

For example, its inclusion in Vaudeville shows and other pop culture references and movies, in which its heated cries color passionate scenes, made the instrument seem lowbrow and excessively ~sensual~. Cue the solo from George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” 

Supplementing this idea, classical composer Olivier Messiaen, among many other composers and conductors, claimed that the sound was representative of bad character; it elicited an air of sensuality and indulgence that did not have a place in classical music, which was considered high art.

Its sound called morality into question, hence earning its title “The Devil’s Horn.” The decadent, wicked sound became a hallmark of “Western” music and ideals; the instrument was banned in Stalin’s USSR and the Empire of Japan and condemned as profane by the Vatican in Italy.

Finally, its affiliation with jazz led to an association with racial and ethnic groups that were considered “degenerate” in Nazi Germany.

Considering that Germany is regarded as the birthplace and consequent omphalos of classical music, this did not bode well for Sax. 

And yet, classical saxophone is a thriving art in conservatories and in large cities with a populous of contemporary classical musicians.

For example, check out The New Thread Quartet for an example of classical saxophone quartet music and Gary Louie for an example of a typical classical soloist career. You too can play classical, if you wish! 

What Kinds of Ensembles Can I Perform In? 

Evidently, this depends upon your genre of choice! The saxophone is included in a myriad of groups, including but not limited to: 

  • Small jazz groups (i.e. trios, quartets, quintets) 
  • Large jazz groups/jazz big bands 
  • Rock/pop/indie bands 
  • Cover bands 
  • Touring bands for pop artists
  • Demo track freelance musicians (that’s right – step into a studio and read through a brand-spankin’ new piece of music or song before this artist becomes famous) 
  • Military bands (i.e. army/navy, etc.) 
  • Concert bands/wind ensembles/wind orchestra
  • Orchestra (rare! but coveted!)
  • Film scoring orchestra (becoming more popular!) 
  • Chamber ensembles (classical – lots of really cool opportunities to work with a wide variety of instruments)
  • Saxophone quartets
  • Saxophone ensembles (for example, the Eastman Saxophone Project – one of very few of its kind!) 
  • Solo (very common in the classical world, but can be applied to any genre!) 
  • Make it up! As my teacher used to say, “it’s only music. It can be serious, but it’s intended to bring joy.” 

Wrapping Up 

If this guide didn’t intrigue you about the Devil’s Horn, perhaps you’ll have to try one out for yourself.

Our recommendation: start with an alto or a tenor, likely a student model from a major brand like Yamaha or Selmer.

While there are many specialist saxophones and components out there, beginners need the standards because the playing field is equal.

Excellent saxophone playing is about the mechanics and the technique; the components are really just added tone shapers. 

Use this guide to steer you toward the music you wish to play, a base model horn you wish to play, but most importantly, toward a teacher who will provide you with the proper foundations for good embouchure, good tone, and extended techniques to make playing your own – because that’s what playing the saxophone is truly all about. 

Before you go, check out our guide to Types of Musical Instruments; The Complete Guide!