Assorted Saxophones
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Saxophone Buying Guide

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How to choose the right saxophone to match your skill level, music and budget

Table of Contents

Should I rent or buy?
The saxophone: a versatile family of instruments
Which quality level of saxophone is right for me or my student?
Specifications and upgrades
The Advantages of Buying Online
Need to know more?

You might be in the market for a new saxophone for a number of reasons. Maybe you’re looking for a great beginner’s model for yourself, a family member, or a student. Perhaps you’ve been playing for some time and are considering an upgrade. Or maybe you’re an alto or tenor sax player looking to broaden your range with a second sax-family instrument.

Whatever your reason for buying a new sax, the selection process can be daunting. This guide will help you sort out the possibilities and find the instrument that best meets your needs.

Should I rent or buy?

If you’re shopping for a beginning student, you may be tempted to rent an instrument since your student’s commitment is unproven. There are some good reasons to opt for a purchase instead. These include:

  • Long-term rental fees can add up quickly. A very playable student-level saxophone can often be purchased for less than the cost of a year’s rental.
  • A well-chosen student instrument that is well cared for will retain its value and usually return a substantial part of its purchase price when sold used or traded in for an intermediate saxophone.
  • Rental instruments may be a bit worse for wear with nicks, dents, and scratches. You’re also liable for any damage on a rented saxophone.

The saxophone: a versatile family of instruments

Since its invention by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in 1840, the saxophone has gone on to become perhaps the most-featured wind instrument in both pop and jazz. Catapulted to prominence in the popular consciousness by virtuosos like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Parker, the sax also helped define the rock ‘n’ roll sound early on, and it still finds itself equally at home in a nightclub, at a rock concert or in the symphony hall. The wailing saxophone of Clarence Clemons Jr. helped shape the muscular sound of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

Saxophones have enormous versatility. From the gruff honking tones of the baritone sax to the warm and mellow tenor sax sound, to the bright and articulate alto and soprano saxophones, these instruments cover a wide range of pitches and conjure musical moods that range from raucous to restful. You’ll hear saxophones and their distinctive voicings making huge contributions in countless genres including R&B, soul, reggae, salsa, pop, and of course, jazz. They’re also an important part of the wind section of orchestras and marching bands and continue to be among the most popular instruments for budding elementary, high school and college musicians.

Some advanced players learn to be proficient with a number of different voicings. However, many saxophonists hone their skills on one particular saxophone type, developing their own, distinct solo voice.

It’s important to decide which saxophone is right for you. We will explore some characteristics of each of the most popular voicings and discuss some buying considerations for each.

Alto saxophones

The alto—tuned to Eb, two-and-a-half steps higher than the tenor saxophone—is far and away the most common starter instrument in the saxophone family. Its more compact key layout and need for a little less air make it a solid choice for the younger student. In elementary and high schools, altos typically represent the largest share of the saxophone section.

Other factors making the alto a popular first saxophone is its generally lower cost as well as the wealth of classical repertoire written for the instrument. Moreover, most of the skills that will be learned on the alto are readily transferable to other saxophones.

Conn-Selmer Prelude as711 Student Alto Sax
A gold lacquer instrument with rocking keys, the Conn-Selmer Prelude is designed to give the beginning student a strong start.

Intermediate and professional players looking to expand their skills would do well to consider the alto sax as well. Even jazz players who have little interest in the alto’s status as a classical mainstay will find a lot to love—many jazz greats have found their signature sound in the instrument’s higher range. Charlie Parker, whose fleet-fingered technique and inventive phrasing still sets the standard for modern jazz players, helped shape the sound of bebop nearly exclusively playing an alto sax.

Even though the cost of an alto can be lower, it’s important to remember that craftsmanship and materials are critical to the instrument’s tone, intonation, playability, and durability. While these factors might seem less important for those who are just starting out, just the opposite is true. Keep in mind that an instrument that doesn’t stay in tune, is difficult to play, or breaks easily can quickly discourage a student from progressing on the saxophone and enjoying their experience.

View Musician’s Friend wealth of high-quality student, intermediate, and professional alto models from trusted brands here.

Tenor saxophones

Selmer Paris Reference 54 Tenor Sax
The Selmer Paris Reference 54 Tenor Saxophone is crafted with high-quality materials such as leather pads and blue steel springs, and offers both easy playability and centered tone for the professional musician.

The tenor saxophone is the one most closely associated with jazz players, as it is a mainstay in that genre. It is tuned to Bb and has the familiar, curved body style. Since it is not as large or heavy as the baritone or bass sax, the tenor is somewhat easier for young beginners to play. However, with its relatively large, curved shape, it still is quite susceptible to damage, so it’s important to make sure the body is built from durable materials.

Shop the complete Musician’s Friend selection of tenor saxophones.

Bass and baritone saxophones

Although there are saxophones capable of producing even lower frequencies, bass and baritone saxophones are the lowest-pitched instruments in the saxophone family that you will find commonly played.

The bass models are tuned to Bb, one octave below the tenor sax. They are very large and almost always played in a seated position.

While it’s less common to hear bass saxophones in pop or jazz music, you can find them in classical arrangements or as part of saxophone ensembles. So while their use is rarer, you might find your skills in high demand if you can learn to play the bass saxophone proficiently.

Baritone saxophones, on the other hand, make a regular appearance in several types of music. They are often used in classical, and a number of jazz players have incorporated them as a primary or secondary instrument for a distinct solo sound. Their honking, deep tones continue to be an important part of the sound of old-school R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.

Baritone saxophones are tuned to Eb, two-and-a-half steps higher than the bass saxophone’s tuning.

Bundy BBS-3 Baritone Sax
The Bundy BBS-3 Baritone Sax is a student model with quality, lacquered brass construction that can hold up to many years of service in the high school band room.

For players who are just starting out, bass or baritone saxophones have the advantage of being relatively mobile, compared to other low-sounding instruments such as tubas. However, they can sometimes be difficult for younger players to reach the complete range of keys, particularly with bass saxophones.

Baritone saxophones are often played standing, using a strap to help the player position this larger instrument. With their large bodies, baritones are particularly prone to taking some damage, so it’s important to look for a model that is built for durability—typically one made from quality lacquered brass. With bass saxophones or baritones that you plan to be playing in a seated position, it also might be wise to look for a model that includes a sturdy floor peg, as this will support the instrument and protect against damage from contact with the floor.

See the complete line of baritone and bass saxophones available from Musician’s Friend.

Soprano saxophones

Allora Vienna Series Intermediate Semi-Curved Sax
The Allora Vienna Series Intermediate Semi-Curved Saxophone offers a unique body style. With its straight neck it can project more clearly than many curved models. Its curved end gives it the warmer tone characteristic of curved instruments.

Like the alto, the soprano saxophone can be a somewhat less costly instrument than other members of the saxophone family. This is in large part because its smaller body requires less material to construct. However, it’s important that you don’t base your decision to pick up a soprano sax on cost alone, especially if you are a beginner. Because the soprano sax is a smaller, higher-pitched instrument than its alto cousin, it can be a considerably more difficult for a beginning player to produce a good sound from. Achieving good intonation and staying in in tune are skills that usually develop somewhat more slowly in soprano sax players.

That said, the soprano saxophone is an excellent choice for those who want to produce a rich, full sound in the higher registers. The soprano is tuned to Bb, two-and-a-half steps higher than the alto, and it fits in particularly well with orchestras and concert bands. Notable jazz players such as John Coltrane have included the soprano saxophone in their repertoire as a means of expanding their tonal coloration options.

Although soprano saxophones are more typically built with a straight body, curved instruments are also available for those who prefer them. You can find soprano saxophone models in both styles for players of all levels at Musician’s Friend.

Which quality level of saxophone is right for me or my student?

Regardless of which type of saxophone you settle on, you will need to choose among three instrument quality levels: student, intermediate, or professional. To make shopping simpler, you can quickly filter your search results when shopping at Musician’s Friend to only show the models in the level you’re interested in. Just click the appropriate level in the Subcategories sidebar. You can further narrow your search by brand, price, customer ratings, and type of finish to narrow down the models to focus on.

Student saxophones

Jupiter 787GL Deluxe Tenor Sax
A gold lacquer finish, power-forged keys, and a tone that’s on par with pricier models make the Jupiter 787GL Deluxe Tenor Saxophone a strong choice for a student.

Manufacturers have put a lot of attention into producing starter instruments that are affordable while offering the musicality that will keep a neophyte committed to developing his or her skills. Good student saxes feel comfortable to beginners and are capable of producing pleasing tone quite easily. If your child’s commitment to the saxophone is uncertain, a student model makes sense. In three years or so, you will be ready to trade up to an intermediate instrument, and provided the student model is still in decent shape, its sale or trade will help to underwrite the cost of the new saxophone.

Keep in mind, of course, that lower cost does not mean dirt-cheap. Make sure you buy a reputable brand of instrument constructed with musicality and playability in mind. Nothing will kill a student’s interest in playing more than an instrument that doesn’t sound good or is unusually difficult to play. You can find a great selection of high-quality student saxes on Musician’s Friend.

Shop for student alto saxophones here.
Shop for student tenor saxophones here.
Shop for student soprano saxophones here.

Intermediate saxophones

Yaginasawa A-901 Artist Alto Sax
The Yaginasawa A-901 Artist Alto Saxophone brings professional handwork touches and rich tone to an intermediate instrument.

As the name implies, intermediate models straddle the area between student and professional instruments. Although the key work and action may feel similar to a professional instrument, the intermediate horns usually do not produce quite the fullness of tone typical of pro models. They usually have less handwork than professional instruments and lack the deluxe cosmetic detailing of their higher-end brethren.

If you’re looking for a solid step up from a student-level sax, Musician’s Friend has a wide range of models for you to choose from.

Shop for intermediate alto saxophones here.
Shop for intermediate tenor saxophones here.
Shop for intermediate soprano saxophones here.

Professional saxophones

Yamaha YSS-875EX Custom EX Soprano Sax
The Yamaha YSS-875EX Custom EX Soprano Saxophone features a lower vent tube for reduced key noise and a revised key post rib plate for improved resonance.

Professional saxophones offer a significant step up in tone, response, and intonation. There is usually a lot of handwork, such as hand-hammered keys and elaborate hand engraving, on the bell. The metal alloys, solders, and other materials used are of the highest quality, resulting in advanced playability and full expressiveness.

Shop for professional alto saxophones here.
Shop for professional tenor saxophones here.
Shop for professional soprano saxophones here.

Specifications and upgrades

We’ve covered the different saxophone voicings and levels to consider. Now let’s take a look at some common details to look for in a sax and some additions to consider.

Body construction

Saxophones have either ribbed or non-ribbed construction, with most modern instruments being ribbed. This refers to how the posts (the knobs that protrude from the body to hold the keys) attach to the body. Individual posts are attached to plates or sheets of brass with high-temperature solder or brazing material. These rib assemblies are then attached to the saxophone body with lower-temperature solder. Ribs strengthen the bond between the posts and the body helping to keep the instrument in adjustment longer.

Student saxes and vintage U.S.-made horns are traditionally non-ribbed. This isn’t necessarily a negative, as the instrument is a little lighter and may be easier in terms of tone production for students.

Materials and finishes

Most saxes are made with yellow brass bodies. Some instruments are available with bodies, bells, and/or necks made of bronze, copper, or sterling silver. These alternate materials darken the tone, add cost, require careful handling, and are geared towards the professional player seeking a distinctive tone and look.

The standard finish for most saxophones is a clear lacquer. Today, the saxophonist can choose from an array of alternate finishes including colored or pigmented lacquers, silver plate, “antiqued” or “vintage” finishes, nickel-plate, or black nickel-plate.

Additional keys

Most modern saxophones have a high F# key, though it is possible to play the note without the key. A growing number of soprano saxophones offer a high G key, though again, the note is playable without the key. Selmer Paris Series III altos include a C# resonance key for improved clarity of middle C#. Low A keys are now seen on most baritone saxophones.

Saxophone necks

If you aren’t getting the tone you want out of your current saxophone, but you are otherwise happy with the instrument, one upgrade to consider is a new saxophone neck, which can drastically alter both sound and responsiveness. Take a look at the full line of saxophone necks available from Musician’s Friend.

The Advantages of Buying Online

Better Prices

You will typically pay much more for an instrument in a music store, and you may be confronted by pushy salespeople. Our Lowest Price Commitment means that we will beat any verified price from a US dealer.

More Choices

It seems counterintuitive to say that you will find a better saxophone shopping online, but it’s true. You can shop around independently, read reviews, gather recommendations, and make an informed choice unaffected by the bias of a salesperson. And the selection at Musician’s Friend is far greater than what you’ll find at the typical music store.

More Time to Decide

You can take advantage of our 45-Day Satisfaction Guarantee to test out your new saxophone. That’s a lot more time than you’ll have to try out an instrument in a store! You can bring your instrument to your music instructor and/or a technician who doesn’t have a vested interest in its sale for their assessment.

Need to know more?

If you are still unsure which saxophone best fits your needs, give one of our friendly Gear Heads a call at 800-449-9128. They will answer all your questions and help you find the saxophone that’s right for your situation.

Tags: Saxophones

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