Adolphe Sax, apart from a few instances, is known for creating all the different saxophones that we see prevalent today and that can be found in almost every reputed music store.
How many different saxophones are In the saxophone family?There are currently six common saxophones: bass, baritone, tenor, alto, soprano, and sopranino. There have been 14 different saxophones types, and some of them, while not mass-produced, are extant today, such as the mezzo-soprano and melody sax (C sax). The rest are relatively unknown.
In this article, we'll discuss the different saxophone family members, including both the primary ones and their lesser-known relatives.
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How Did We Get The Saxophones That Are Known Today?
We just stated there used to be 14 types of saxophone, of which six remain active and widespread.
The saxophone appeared first as a possible substitute for the bass clarinet. As a matter of fact, it was supposed to be a type of clarinet that would overblow at an entire octave instead of the less intuitive twelfth. Over time, Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, managed to build an entire woodwind family that would stand on its own.
Sax also devised other instruments, like the saxtromba and the saxtuba, but they didn't get the necessary exposure for mass acknowledgment and acceptance.
The saxophone would become patented in Paris in 1846. Sax's idea was to create an entire orchestra of saxophones that would blend the other woodwinds with the brass, which is why he went out of his way in designing saxophones in different shapes and sizes that could play in a myriad of pitch ranges.
The saxophone was never completely embedded in an orchestra framework for various reasons. You will find its use in some academic works by composers likeRichard StraussorMaurice Ravel. Regardless, the instrument never fully got enough “respect” from classical composers and arrangers, maybe inferable from its whimsical tone.
Military bands, nonetheless, did make extensive use of these woodwinds. Sometime later, more popular forms of music, such as ragtime and jazz, would adopt the saxophone as one of their prime instruments. This acceptance was, perhaps, owing to its uncanny ability to emulate the dynamics and expressiveness of a human voice better than its peers.
To this day, only six of these saxophones are widespread. We mentioned the sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. Others have made rare appearances in modern times, such as the C saxophone (which is midway between the alto and tenor), the F saxophone (or mezzo-soprano), the contrabass, and subcontrabass.
What Are The Four Primary Saxophones?
The primary saxophones are the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. These are considered primary because they're designated as standard inclusions in mainstream musical formats.
The soprano is currently deemed the third-smallest saxophone in the family, just below the sopranino and the soprillo (the latter is more recent).
Built in the key of B♭,their fundamental pitch range goes from concert A♭3 to E6. While most sopranos have the same key layout as the other saxophones, some models include a High G key sitting together with the High F♯.
While being extremely portable and light, the soprano is not very beginner-friendly because of the challenging embouchure needed to keep it in tune.
The alto is great for amateur musicians who are just getting started in the saxophone. This is because of its relatively lightweight body and its few embouchure demands when compared to those of the soprano.
It's the smallest saxophone featuring a U-shaped bow as a staple design and has a rounder overall tonal profile than the smaller soprano. The neck is correspondingly curved to increase playing comfort.
The alto is made in the key of E♭, with a pitch range from concert D♭3 to A♭5. This range enables the alto to play the lead in many instances.
The alto saxophone was key in the early stages of jazz, with figures likeCharlie Parker,Art Pepper, Cannonball Adderley, Benny Carter,andJohnny Hodgesgiving the instrument a solid reputation.
It's larger than the alto but smaller than a baritone. It has a distinguishing crook at the neck and a larger bell than that of the alto.
The tenor's tone lies between the sharper alto and the warmer baritone, with a sound being described as a mix of husky and sharp, which gives additional flavour to bebop and hard bop pieces.
The pitch range goes from concert A♭2 to E5, and the saxophone plays in the key of B♭.
Some of the most prominent tenor players in history areJohn Coltrane,Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz,Joe Henderson,andMichael Brecker. Coltrane's“Giant Steps” –considered by many as one of the most challenging jazz pieces to improvise over – features a tenor.
It's the largest primary member of the saxophone family, with a long bell that's almost as tall as the body. The design includes a loop (or pigtail) at the top, before the neck and mouthpiece.
Baritones are very heavy and not easy to maintain and clean. Some models come equipped with a spit valve to make their cleaning easier.
The bari's pitch ranges from concert D♭2 to A♭4 and is made in concert E♭.
The baritone sax is typically used as accompaniment, and it's less likely to be featured as a solo instrument, albeit it still was capable of being spotlighted for solos by players such asGerry MulliganorSerge Chaloff. Harry Carneyis regarded as one of the first recorded baritone sax soloists in jazz, notably with theDuke Ellington Orchestra.
The baritone is showcased, in like manner, in classical works such asStrauss' “Sinfonia Domestica”,Ives'“Symphony No. 4”, andBartok's “The Wooden Prince”.
Reasoning Behind The Triumph Of The Soprano, Alto, Tenor And Baritone Saxophones
Part of the reason that these endured as the main saxophones has to do with the commonality of their range. However, historical reasons are far weightier than many people realize.
Other saxophones falling within the common range from the lowest baritone concert note to the highest soprano one (D♭2 – E6) could have easily been deemed as primary members. We speak of the C saxophone and the F saxophone.
The C saxophone was, in fact, one of the most popular saxophones back in the 1920s, when saxophones were at their peak in terms of popularity. This was because the C was not a transposing instrument, meaning that they were written in concert C and matched the pitch of the piano. Hence, they were very easy for practicing alongside keyboard instruments.
When theGreat Depressionhit, saxophone manufacturing was cut significantly, particularly by companies such asC.G. Conn, and the biggest manufacturers of C saxophones eventually faced bankruptcy.
By the turn of the 1930s, the rest of the big manufacturers restricted production to only the ones used predominantly in military bands, to wit, the ones in the key of B♭and E♭.
In this context, the Big Band format arose, using these saxophones solely in lieu of the rest of the members. As the format increased in popularity, apprentice musicians would rush to buy these saxophones to learn how to play them. In light of this, when manufacturers attempted to resume production of C saxophones, their demand was already severely lacking, for the public had largely lost interest in them.
Mezzo-sopranos suffered roughly the same fate, though hit even harder due to the fact that they were not nearly as popular as the melody C saxophones, to begin with.
What About The Sopranino And Bass Saxophones?
Sopranino and bass saxophones, albeit not enjoying the same popularity as their primary counterparts, are still frequently utilized by artists and ensembles, which is the reason why they're still actively produced and sold nowadays.
The sopranino is so small and light that it doesn't require a neckstrap ring. Some Yanagisawa and Selmer models, among others, are still manufactured to this day.
One of the reasons behind its lack of popularity, compared to the other saxophone types, is the difficulty in maintaining a tune (more challenging than the soprano in this regard).
Regardless, sopranino has earned some recognition thanks to the work ofEdward Pogson, Carla Marciano,andJames Carter.Jethro Tull's frontman, multi-instrumentalistIan Anderson, would likewise include the sopranino in some of the band's oldest albums, includingA Passion Play and Warchild. Ravel also famously enlisted a sopranino, tuned in F, for his “Bolero,” which when out of production.
Sopraninos currently are only found in the key of E♭ –an octave higher than the alto – with a playing range from concert D♭4 to A♭6.
The bass saxophone rose in prominence due to the low output generated by the upright bass at that time. The most ordinarily-used instruments for filling the lower notes in harmony were the bass saxophone and the tuba, together with the bass.
Since the advent of electrified amplifiers, however, the upright bass basically singlehandedly fulfilled the role of providing sound at the low end. In contrast, the bass saxophone became a rarity that would be embedded occasionally in unconventional formats. Avant-garde musicians, for example, make sporadic use of bass saxophone for obtaining eccentric ranges and tonalities.
To give other examples:
- Anthony Braxton, ofChick Corea Trio'sfame and who is known to be prone to experimentation, has also utilized bass saxophone from time to time.
- Stan Kenston'sorchestra, furthermore, employed this instrument as part of his ensemble.
- Additionally,Leonard Bernstein, in an attempt to blend aspects of jazz in a classical framework, added the bass saxophone in his “Prelude Fugue And Riffs”.
The bass is designed in the key of B♭,an octave lower than the tenor and a perfect fourth lower than the baritone. The playing range is from concert A♭1 to E4.
The saxophone is still manufactured by companies such asSelmerandBenediktEppelsheimand, to this day, is actively constructed.
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What Are The Rarest Saxophones Nowadays?
As of today, the rarest saxophones in existence, apart from the mezzo-soprano and the C saxophone, are the soprillo, contrabass, and subcontrabass saxophones. Although these are of little interest for most saxophone enthusiasts, we find them worthy of at least a summarized explanation.
The soprillo, although blueprinted by Adolphe Sax, would not be materialized until the 2010s, and it requires extreme prowess and strength on the part of the player to deliver stable notes. It's currently produced by Benedikt Eppelsheim exclusively.
In its earliest days, the contrabass was still a rarity, though it managed to be listed on Patrick Gilmore's roster in 1892. It was in the production line from the time Sax invented it until the Great Depression. In recent decades, these saxophones were resurfaced from the hands of J'Elie Stainer in Brazil, Romeo Orsi in Italy, and Benedikt Eppelsheim in Germany.
The subcontrabass would not come into material existence until 1999 when Benedikt Eppelsheim came up with the first B♭subcontrabass (also calledtubax). It's currently available in C, B♭,and A. However, its playability is virtually non-existent, being able to render only a few audible notes.
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