Saxophone Buying Guide

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 saxophone—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 Alto Saxophone 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.

Selmer BS500 Baritone Saxophone
The Selmer BS500 Baritone Saxophone is popular with school music programs due to to its solid construction that shrugs off student handling.

For players who are just starting out, bass or baritone saxophones have the advantage of being relatively mobile, compared to other bass-clef brass and woodwinds 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 find potential models to focus on.

Student saxophones

Jupiter JTS710GN Student Tenor Saxophone
The Jupiter JTS710GN Student Tenor Saxophone is built for the serious student who is developing into an advancing player in need of its excellent mechanical operation and tone production.

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

P. Mauriat PMSA-57GC Intermediate Alto Saxophone
With its remarkably warm voice, deluxe appointments and an upgraded accessory package, the P. Mauriat PMSA-57GC Intermediate Alto Saxophone offers exceptional value.

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.

Parts of a Saxophone

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 877-880-5907. They will answer all your questions and help you find the saxophone that’s right for your situation.

Tags: Saxophones


# Kaleb Bakken 2017-01-24 08:31
Hello, I am a sophomore in high school and I have been playing the tenor sax for 5 years now and its rental and am deciding to buy my own... I would like to know which type of metal would last the longest but at a cheap price. Can u help me?
# Martin 2016-12-16 23:04
I played alto saxophone 6 yrs. but haven't played for 22yrs. And what to pick it back up. Would like to go with a tenor, but feel I may need to start back with an alto. Either way what are the guality of some of these cheaper intermediate brands. And should I start back w/ an alto?
# Gabby 2016-12-14 11:39
Hi, I'm Gabby. I am currently a senior in highschool and I am needing a baritone saxophone this year but most definitely next year for college. I have a state audition this February of 2017 and I did not know if I could get a bari before. I need help on choosing the right bari with good sound for a cheap price, I'm trying to find cheap and good; not cheap and bad. If anyone could help me, that'd be great. Thank you!
# CarrieS 2016-12-08 08:11
Hi I am currently a junior in high school and I'm still playing the alto saxophone that I started on. I'm thinking of purchasing a Yamaha Alto Sax Custom Z YAS-82z that I found for a good price. does anyone know if it is a good brand? I want to make sure since I'm going to start auditioning for college bands next year. Thank You!
# Danielle 2017-01-04 20:04
Yes the Alto Sax custom Z is a great instrument and highly praised for its rich tone and appearance. Yamaha is extremely well-known for its craftsmanship and price in just about every musical category, so it is definitely a great brand.
# Dan 2016-12-04 09:20
Hi everyone, I am really new to the saxophone world. I would like to buy this amazing instrument but have no clue on where to start with... I have read few things, and since it's also quite expensive, I would feel more confortable if some experts can provide any useful tips on the first purchase. I will play just to enjoy the sound of it.. I am 34 and I also suffer from asthma so, I am not even sure if I could perform anything decent but for me it's a kind of challenge at the moment. I will also try the hard way, at least at the beginning, by looking at youtube videos to learn.. Thanks in advance! All the best! Dan
# Quinn Ouyang 2016-10-24 16:21
Is there any alto saxophone that will produce excellent tone quality that would last from high school through college? I have tried a few Yamaha and a Yanagisawa saxophones. Both are pricey but are fit for me. Any suggestions?
Also, I definitely would need a mouthpiece upgrade. I currently play a Yamaha 4C. Any suggestions for a mouthpiece that will do well on jazz and classical?
# Milagros 2017-01-27 15:18
Try a Selmer Paris S80 Series Alto Saxophone Mouthpiece. They make amazing sound.
# Jim 2016-10-27 11:00
Any sax that fits you and can produce a quality tone will work for you. You will have to try them. Yamaha is good. Cannonball too. Your 4C mouthpiece is very closed in terms of tip opening. You should upgrade to a more open tip. A 6 will probably work good for you. Maybe 7. There are hundreds of mouthpiece companies out there. Expect to spend a few hundred buck for a really nice piece. I currently play a Theo Wanne Gaia 7.
# Pamela Barrows 2016-06-05 12:28
I'm an older player and have a Yamaha YAS-52 which I've had for about 20 years. I had it reconditioned last summer and it was fine until just recently. My tone is not as nice as it used to be. I use a Rousseau mouthpiece and #2 Vandoren reed. Suggestions?
# Jim 2016-10-27 11:02
A Yamaha 52 is a popular horn, even today. Hang on to it. Older yamahas are sought after. The first thing you should do is try different reed/mouthpiece combinations. Sometimes that helps a lot. Try a harder reed to. #2's are really soft.
# Quinn Ouyang 2016-10-24 16:14
20 years?! Yes, I'm not the best saxophone person ever, but I seriously recommend purchasing a very, very high quality saxophone. Wearing any instrument for this amount of time will certainly degrade the sound a bit. I also find it suprising that you would use a #2 reed, considering many older players would use a #3 or #3 1/2, but then there are special cases :) I would recommend a Yanagisawa saxophone if you would like to purchase. They are one of the best modern saxophone makers I have ever come across!
# Jenn 2016-05-10 07:25
Looking for a tenor sax for my soon to be freshman for high school marching/concert/jazz band. An aquaintance has a Selmer Si[blocked] 154 for sale. Can you give me any information about it? Thank you.
# Mark Spaulding 2016-04-15 06:19
My son currently plays a Yamaha YBS-52 Baritone Saxophone- he wants to upgrade to a Professional Baritone Saxophone but is not sure of what brand and wants to try several before buying. Is there a way to do that?
# Jim 2016-10-27 11:06
There isn't anything wrong with a YBS-52. It is an older horn, but well respected in the saxophone community. It is considered a "pro" horn, if you want to go there. Just an older model. Get it seen by a good tech. It is fine. Don't waste the money on a Yanagisawa, Selmer, etc.
# Quinn Ouyang 2016-10-24 16:15
I am not a saxophone expert, but given that if your son wishes to continue on his journey to participate in music, I would recommend searching brands first before trying out multiple baritone saxophones. Trying out multiple saxes can be a hassle. I personally would recommend Yanagisawa, this brand is generally for professionals and will do extremely well. A little on the pricy side. Or you can simple go for a professional Yamaha model. Both brands produce excellent saxophones.
# Krin 2016-04-11 12:32
Is the selmer ts600l aristocrat a good quality tenor sax?
# Tony 2016-03-29 08:56
I am a high school senior and currently play the school's baritone sax in their concert band. I am planning on auditioning for a college marching band in June, with a tenor sax. What type of tenor sax would be best for a college marching band?
# Jacovia Cartwright 2016-03-29 09:36
Are you going to be a music major? Also, what brand are you playing now?
# Tony 2016-03-29 12:43
I am not going to be a music major, and it is not required to be in the school's marching band. I am currently playing a Selmar Bundy baritone sax, which is the high school's sax. Not sure what brand their tenor sax is, but I have played it a bit throughout my four years in high school band and will not have a problem making the transition from bari to tenor.
# Brenda 2016-03-03 10:34
Hi, good afternoon. I'm trying out different alto saxophones, I'm a older college student and I've been playing the saxophone since 1985. I had a Lauren alto saxophone for 31 year. I'm trying the Allora Intermediate and the P. Mauriat intermediate. Which one would give me a very nice quality jazz sound to it and that's easy to put in the shop for repairs. They both have a nice sound to it, so it's a hard decision. Hope your having a great day.

# dLc 2016-02-24 13:57
I am in high school and I've been playing the same alto sax since 4th grade which is a Bundy II. I have been looking to upgrade but I want to keep my old one for marching band. I want a new alto that would be a good step up from the bundy which is a student to a more professional type. Any brands or models?
# Jacovia Cartwright 2016-03-28 16:41
I'd try to go for the Yamaha or Selmer brand. The bundy is a great saxophone though, depending on which model you have.
# JohnB 2015-12-18 22:50
Ok I noticed I used there instead of their my mistake.
# JohnB 2015-12-18 22:49
I want to learn to play the sax. I have since I was in elementary school. I'm 28 now and because I had an accident 3yrs ago and suffered a TBI I'm disabled with plenty of time to dedicate to learning. I know I want a tenor because I prefer there sound to the others and when I learn enough to start I would like to play jazz.
# Jackiepwc 2016-02-09 21:34
To # JohnB,
I'm not trying to discourage you, but the tenor sax is extremely difficult to handle. I had to give up band because they needed a tenor and I just couldn't handle it! I tried for over a year, but it was exhausting and I dreaded getting it out of the case. I am only 5'2" so it might be different for you. I hope your TBI didn't cause any balance or strength problems. Your right, the sound is beautiful but it's a whole body experience! Best wishes, Jackiepwc
# Luke 2016-12-30 14:51
I would hesitate to make a comment like that. I know plenty of people who have no problem handling a tenor. I'm personally with you on that though, I much prefer alto and soprano, but I've managed even with bari before. It's just so uncomfortable dealing with the larger horns. Curse my tiny hands!
# DeShawn Threatts 2015-11-11 17:28
i have a question, I have been playing my tenor sax since i was in 6th grade, now im in 8th and is thinking about doing marching band in H.S., but i don't know what is a good brand or model for it. My brand is slade.
# Jacovia Cartwright 2016-03-28 16:39
A yamaha or selmer model would do you just fine.

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