2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical Instruments

The saxophone ( colloquially referred to as sax) is a conical- bored instrument of the woodwind family, usually made of brass and played with a single-reed mouthpiece like the clarinet. The saxophone is commonly associated with popular music, big band music, and jazz, but it was originally intended as both an orchestral and military band instrument. Saxophone players are called saxophonists.


The saxophone was developed circa 1840 by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian-born instrument-maker, flautist, and clarinetist working in Paris. Although he had constructed saxophones in several sizes by the early 1840s, he did not receive a 15-year patent for the instrument until June 28, 1846. It was first officially revealed to the public in the presentation of the bass saxophone in C at an exhibition in Brussels in 1841. Sax also gave private showings to Parisian musicians in the early 1840s. He drew up plans for 14 different types of saxophones, but they were not all realized.

The inspiration for the instrument is unknown, but there is good evidence that fitting a clarinet mouthpiece to an ophicleide is the most likely origin (Sax built ophicleides among other instruments in the late 1830s). Doing so results in an instrument with a definitely saxophone-like sound. The Hungarian/Romanian tarogato, which is quite similar to a soprano saxophone, has also been speculated to have been an inspiration. However, this cannot be so, as the modern tarogato with a single-reed mouthpiece was not developed until the 1890s, long after the saxophone had been invented.

Sax's intent, which was plainly stated in his writings, was to invent an entirely new instrument which could provide bands and orchestras with a bass to the woodwind and brass sections, capable of more refined performance than the ophicleide, but with enough power to be used outdoors. This would explain why he chose to name the instrument the "Sound of Sax." In short, Sax intended to harness the finesse of a woodwind with the power of a brass instrument. However, as Sax often offended rival instrument manufacturers, the resulting prejudice toward the man and his instruments led to the saxophone not being used in orchestral groups. For a long time, it was relegated to military bands, despite Sax's great friendship with the influential Parisian composer Hector Berlioz.

For the duration of the patent (1846-1866), only the Sax factory could legally manufacture or modify the instruments, although this and Sax's numerous other patents were routinely breached by his rivals. After the patent expired in 1866, many different manufacturers introduced competing models, including many different modifications to Sax's original design.


The jazz saxophonist Klaus Doldinger playing the tenor sax
The jazz saxophonist Klaus Doldinger playing the tenor sax

The saxophone's bore is effectively conical, giving it acoustic properties more similar to the oboe than to the clarinet. However, unlike the oboe, whose tube is a straight-line cone, most saxophones have a number of curves. In the smallest sizes ( soprano and sopranino), straight instruments are more common than curved ones, but larger-sized instruments all appear with the familiar curve in the instrument's neck and bow. (A few straight alto and tenor saxophones have been made as novelties. A few straight baritone and C melody saxophones have occasionally been made as custom instruments, but were never mass-produced.) There is some debate amongst players as to whether the curve affects the tone or not.

Key system

Saxophones have a "normal" range of approximately two and a half octaves. Any notes above this range are considered to be part of the altissimo register. Notes are fingered using a key system of tone holes, keys, and pads. A saxophone has 21 to 23 keys, depending on whether it has a high F♯, a high G, or a low A key. (Since 1970, the high F♯ key has become common among intermediate- and professional-level instruments, while the high G key is found on only a few modern sopranos.) When pressure is applied to a key it opens or closes one or more of the tone holes by lifting or lowering a pad. The pads, usually made of leather, cover the tone holes when depressed, forming an airtight seal and thereby lengthening or shortening the vibrating air column, thus raising or lowering the pitch produced.


Nearly all saxophones are made from brass. (They are categorized as woodwind instruments, however, not as brass instruments; despite the categories' names, an instrument's category is determined not by the materials used, but by the method of tone production.)

Brass is used to make the body of the instrument; the pad cups which hold leather pads; the rods that connect the pads to the brass keys, and the posts that hold the rods and keys in place. The screw pins that connect the rods to the posts, and the springs that cause keys to return to their place after being released, are generally made of steel, or on inexpensive saxophones, aluminium. Since 1920, nearly all saxophones have key touches (smooth decorative pieces placed where the fingers will touch the instrument) made of either plastic or mother of pearl.

Other materials have been tried with varying degrees of success, as with the 1950s plastic saxophones made by the Grafton company and the rare wooden saxophones. A few companies, such as Yanagisawa, have made some saxophone models from bronze, which is claimed to produce a warmer sound. Some manufacturers have made saxophone necks or entire instruments out of sterling silver.

Nickel silver also has been used; some manufacturers, including Selmer, Yanagisawa, P.Mauriat, Keilwerth, and BG, have made instruments of nickel silver. Some say these instruments have a brighter or more powerful sound.

Surface finish

After completing the instrument, manufacturers apply a thin coating (of clear or colored acrylic lacquer, or silver plating) over the bare brass. The lacquer or plating serves to protect the brass from corrosion, and gives the instrument a very pleasing appearance. Several different types and colors of surface finish have been used over the years.

  • Prior to 1930, instruments were typically available with three types of finishes:
    • bare brass (without lacquer or plating),
    • silver plating, or
    • gold plating. (Since gold will not adhere to bare brass, gold plating requires that the instrument first be plated with silver; the gold plating is then applied on top of the silver.)
  • Some 1920s instruments were made with a silver plated body, and bell and/or keys that were gold-plated.
  • Between 1940 and 1960, some instruments were plated with nickel as a cheaper (and non-tarnishing) alternative to silver.
  • Between 1970 and 1990, some King brand instruments were made with lacquered body and silver-plated neck and bell.

Clear or gold-colored acrylic lacquer is the most common finish used for saxophones today. Lacquer can also be other colors; sometimes a black or brightly colored lacquer is used for visual effect. Most manufacturers will accept special orders regarding plating and colour of lacquer, allowing a player to obtain a uniquely colored instrument.

It is possible that the type of lacquer or plating may enhance an instrument's tone quality; the possible effects of different finishes on tone is a hotly debated topic. Many say that lacquer or plating has no effect on the sound, while some research shows that there are differences. Silver or gold plating is thought by some to impart a "darker" timbre (less high partials) to an instrument; some say that darker colored lacquer might have a similar effect.

A bare brass instrument will naturally tarnish, turning a dark brown and/or green colour. The tarnishing of the brass affects only the appearance; tarnish has no effect on the saxophone's playability. If the owner desires to change the instrument's finish, the instrument can be disassembled and chemically stripped of its lacquer or plating, then "relacquered" or replated with the same or different material. Opinions vary on whether this process harms the instrument or affects its tone.


Two mouthpieces for tenor saxophone; the one on the left is for classical music; the one on the right is for jazz.
Two mouthpieces for tenor saxophone; the one on the left is for classical music; the one on the right is for jazz.

The saxophone uses a single reed mouthpiece similar to that of the clarinet, but the saxophone mouthpiece has a wider inner chamber and lacks the cork-covered tenon of a clarinet mouthpiece. Mouthpieces come in a wide variety of materials, including vulcanized rubber (sometimes called rod rubber or ebonite), plastic, and metal. Less common materials that have been used include wood, glass, crystal, and even bone. Metal mouthpieces are believed by some to have a distinctive sound, often described as 'brighter' than the more common rubber. Some players believe that plastic mouthpieces do not produce a good tone. Other saxophonists maintain that the material has little, if any, effect on the sound, and that the physical dimensions give a mouthpiece its tone colour. Mouthpieces with a concave ("excavated") chamber are more true to Adolphe Sax's original design; these provide a softer or less piercing tone, and are favored by some saxophonists, including students of Sigurd Raschèr, for classical playing.

Jazz and popular music saxophonists often play on high-baffled mouthpieces. These are configured so the baffle, or "ceiling," of the mouthpiece is closer to the reed. This produces a brighter sound which more easily "cuts through" a big band or amplified instruments. While high baffles (and the resulting tone) are commonly associated with metal mouthpieces, any mouthpiece may have a high baffle. Mouthpieces with larger tip openings provide pitch flexibility, allowing the player to "bend" notes, an effect commonly used in jazz and rock music. Classical players usually opt for a mouthpiece with a smaller tip opening and a lower baffle; this combination provides a darker sound and more stable pitch. Most classical players play on rubber mouthpieces with a round or square inner chamber.


Alto and tenor sax reeds (Frederick L. Hemke brand).
Alto and tenor sax reeds ( Frederick L. Hemke brand).

Like clarinets, saxophones use a single reed. Saxophone reeds are wider than clarinet reeds. Each size of saxophone (alto, tenor, etc.) uses a different size of reed. Reeds are commercially available in a vast array of brands, styles, and strength. Each player experiments with reeds of different strength (hardnesses) to find which strength suits his or her mouthpiece and playing style. Strength is usually measured using a numeric scale that ranges from 1 (soft) to 5 (hard). Unfortunately, the scale is far from standardized between brands; for example, a Rico #3 reed is decidedly softer than a Vandoren #3. Beginners usually start on a #2 or #2.5 reed, and move up to a #3 as they gain ability and more muscle control. Advanced players typically use #2.5 to #4, depending on their choice of mouthpiece and individual preference. In general, players who use a mouthpiece with a wider tip opening will tend to use softer reeds, and those who choose a mouthpiece with a narrower tip opening will tend to use harder reeds.

Members of the saxophone family

Ten members of the saxophone family. From largest to smallest: contrabass, bass, baritone, tenor, C melody, alto, F mezzo-soprano, soprano, C soprano, and sopranino.
Ten members of the saxophone family. From largest to smallest: contrabass, bass, baritone, tenor, C melody, alto, F mezzo-soprano, soprano, C soprano, and sopranino.

The saxophone was originally patented as two families, each consisting of seven instruments. The "orchestral" family consisted of instruments in the keys of C and F, and the "military band" family in E♭ and B♭. Each family consisted of sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass and contrabass, although some of these were never made; Sax also planned--but never made--a subcontrabass (Bourdon) saxophone.

Common saxophones

In music written since 1930, only the soprano in B♭, alto in E♭, tenor in B♭ and baritone in E♭ are in common use - these form the typical saxophone sections of concert bands, military bands, and big-band jazz ensembles. The bass saxophone (in B♭) is occasionally used in band music (especially music by Percy Grainger) and big band orchestrations (especially music performed by the Stan Kenton " Mellophonium Orchestra").

The vast majority of band and big-band music calls only for E♭ alto, B♭ tenor, and E♭ baritone instruments. A typical saxophone section in a concert band might consist of four to six altos, one to three tenors, and one or two baritones. A typical saxophone section in a jazz band consists of two altos, two tenors, and a baritone. Occasionally a band or jazz ensemble will perform a piece that calls for soprano saxophone - in this case it is common practice for one of the players from the alto section to switch to soprano for that piece.

Most saxophone players begin learning on the alto, branching out to tenor, soprano or baritone after gaining competency. The alto saxophone is the most popular among classical composers and performers; most classical saxophonists focus primarily on the alto. In jazz, alto and tenor are predominantly used by soloists. Many jazz saxophonists also play soprano on occasion, but nearly all of them use it only as an auxiliary instrument.

The soprano has regained a degree of popularity over recent decades in jazz/pop/rock contexts, beginning with the work of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane in the 1960s. The soprano is often thought of as more difficult to play, or to keep in tune, than the more common alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. A few bass, sopranino, and contrabass saxophones are still manufactured; these are mainly for collectors or novelty use, and are rarely heard - they are mostly relegated to large saxophone ensembles.

Rare saxophones and novelty sizes

Of the orchestral family, only the tenor in C, soprano in C, and mezzo-soprano in F (similar to the modern alto) ever gained popularity. The tenor in C, generally known as the C melody saxophone, became very popular among amateurs in the 1920s and early 1930s, because its players could read music in concert pitch (such as that written for piano, voice, or violin) without the need to transpose. Although the instrument was popularized by players such as Rudy Wiedoeft and Frankie Trumbauer, it did not secure a permanent place in either jazz or classical music. The C-Melody was manufactured well into the 1930s long after its initial popularity had waned, although it became a special order item in the catalogs of some makers. The instrument is now a commonly encountered attic or garage sale relic, though since the 1980s a few contemporary saxophonists have begun to utilize the instrument once again. A similarly sized instrument, the contralto saxophone, was developed in the late 20th century by California instrument maker Jim Schmidt; this instrument has a larger bore and a new fingering system so it does not resemble the C melody instrument except for its key and register.

Also in the early 20th century, the C soprano (pitched a whole step above the B♭ soprano) was marketed to those who wished to perform oboe parts in military band, vaudeville arrangements, or church hymnals. C sopranos are easy to confuse with regular (B♭) sopranos, since they are only approximately 2 centimeters shorter in size. None have been produced since the late 1920s. The mezzo soprano in F (produced by the American firm Conn during the period 1928-1929) is extremely rare; most remaining examples are in the possession of serious instrument collectors. Adolphe Sax made a few F baritone prototypes, but no serious F baritones were manufactured. E♭ baritone saxes made to high pitch (A = 456) exist, and are sometimes mistaken for an F baritone on first sight, as the high pitch model will be noticeably smaller than a low pitch one. There are no known specimens of the bass saxophone in C, the first saxophone constructed and exhibited by Sax in the early 1840s. The only known F alto made by Sax known to exist is owned by retired Canadian classical saxophonist Paul Brodie, and was found in France. Lastly, despite Ravel's scoring for a sopranino saxophone in F in Bolero, no specimen is known to exist or to have been built by Sax or any other maker.

There is a rare prototype slide tenor saxophone, but there were not many made. One known company that produced a slide soprano saxophone was Reiffel & Husted, Chicago, ca. 1922 (catalog NMM 5385).

Construction difficulties mean that only recently has a true sopranissimo saxophone been produced. Nicknamed the Soprillo, this piccolo-sized saxophone is an octave above the soprano, and its diminutive size necessitates an octave key on the mouthpiece.

Related instruments

A number of saxophone-related instruments have appeared since Sax's original work, most enjoying no significant success. These include the saxello, straight B♭ soprano, but with a slightly curved neck and tipped bell; the straight alto; and the straight B♭ tenor (currently not in production; until recently, made only by a Taiwanese firm and imported to the United States by the L.A. Sax Company). Since a straight-bore tenor is approximately five feet long, the cumbersome size of such a design hinders both playing the horn (particularly when seated) and carrying it. King Saxellos, made by the H. N. White Company in the 1920s, now command prices up to US$4,000. A number of companies, including Rampone & Cazzani and L.A. Sax, are marketing straight-bore, tipped-bell soprano saxophones as saxellos (or "saxello sopranos").

Two of these variants were championed by jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who called his straight Buescher alto a stritch and his modified saxello a manzello; the latter featured a larger-than-usual bell and modified key work. Among some saxophonists, Kirk's terms have taken a life of their own in that it is believed that these were "special" or "new" saxophones that might still be available. Though rare, the Buescher straight alto was a production item instrument while the manzello was indeed a saxello with a custom made bell.

The tubax, developed in 1999 by the German instrument maker Benedikt Eppelsheim, plays the same range, and with the same fingering, as the E♭ contrabass saxophone; its bore, however, is narrower than that of a contrabass saxophone, making for a more compact instrument with a "reedier" tone (akin to the double-reed contrabass sarrusophone). It can be played with the smaller (and more commonly available) baritone saxophone mouthpiece and reeds. Eppelsheim has also produced subcontrabass tubaxes in C and B♭, the latter being the lowest saxophone ever made.

Another unusual variant of the saxophone was the Conn-O-Sax, a straight-bore instrument in F (one step above the E♭ alto) with a slightly curved neck and spherical bell. The instrument, which combined a saxophone bore and keys with a bell shaped similar to that of a heckelphone, was intended to imitate the timbre of the English horn and was produced only in 1929 and 1930. The instrument had a key range from low A to high G. Fewer than 100 Conn-O-Saxes are in existence, and they are eagerly sought by collectors.

Among the most recent developments is the aulochrome, a double soprano saxophone invented by Belgian instrument maker François Louis in 2001.

Bamboo "saxophones"

Although not true saxophones, inexpensive keyless folk versions of the saxophone made of bamboo were developed in the 20th century by instrument makers in Hawaii, Jamaica, Thailand, Indonesia, and Argentina. The Hawaiian instrument, called a xaphoon, was invented during the 1970s and is also marketed as a "bamboo sax," although its cylindrical bore more closely resembles that of a clarinet. Jamaica's best known exponent of a similar type of homemade bamboo "saxophone" was the mento musician and instrument maker Sugar Belly (William Walker). In the Minahasa region of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, there exist entire bands made up of bamboo "saxophones" and "brass" instruments of various sizes. These instruments are clever imitations of European instruments, made using local materials. Very similar instruments are produced in Thailand. In Argentina, Ángel Sampedro del Río and Mariana García have produced bamboo saxophones of various sizes since 1985, the larger of which have bamboo keys to allow for the playing of lower notes.

Writing for the saxophone

Music for all sizes of saxophone is notated using treble clef. The standard written range extends from a B♭ below the staff to an F or F♯ three ledger lines above the staff. There are a few models of soprano saxophone that have a key for high G, and several models of baritone saxophone have an extended bore and key to produce low A. Notes above F are considered part of the "altissimo range" of any sax, and can be produced using advanced embouchure techniques and fingering combinations. Sax himself had mastered these techniques; he demonstrated the instrument as having a range of just beyond three octaves up to a (written) high B4.

In the mid-twentieth century, some players resisted learning how to play in the altissimo register; Many articles written during this period referred to the use of altissimo notes as a stunt, "faking," or employing "false fingerings." But there is nothing "fake" about the altissimo register; like any other woodwind instrument, the player simply employs the third and subsequent harmonics to extend the instrument's range. On the saxophone, however, the mastery of these harmonics takes more effort than on other woodwinds. There was a historical belief that the saxophone's range ends at high F and that Adolphe Sax had stopped promoting the extended range only due to its perceived difficulty.

Nearly all saxophones are transposing instruments: Sopranino, alto and baritone saxophones are pitched in the key of E♭, and soprano, tenor and bass saxophones are in the key of B♭. Because all instruments use the same key arrangement and fingering to produce a given notated pitch, it is not difficult for a competent player to switch among the various sizes. When a saxophonist reads and fingers a written C on the staff on an E♭ alto, the note sounds as E♭ a major sixth below the written pitch. A C played on a B♭ tenor, however, sounds as B♭ a major ninth below. The E♭ baritone is an octave below the alto, and the B♭ soprano is an octave above the tenor. The following discussion refers entirely to the notes as written, and therefore applies equally to all members of the saxophone family.

Since the baritone and alto are pitched in E♭, players can read concert pitch music notated in bass clef by reading it as if it were treble clef and adding three sharps to the key signature. This process, referred to as clef substitution, makes it possible for the baritone saxophone to play from parts written for bassoon, trombone, tuba or string bass. This can be useful if a band or orchestra lacks one of those instruments.

Most baritone saxophones produced since 1980 have an extra key that allows the player to play a low A (concert C), but earlier baritones and other sizes of saxophone do not (except for some basses and a few rare altos made by The Selmer Company). Composers who call for a low A when writing for baritone saxophone should be aware that many players will not be able to play the note for lack of the necessary key.

Early on, most composers stayed away from composing for the saxophone due to their misunderstanding of the instrument. However, around the turn of the twentieth century, some people (many from the United States) began to commission compositions for the instrument. One prominent commissioner was Elise Hall, a wealthy New England socialite who took up playing the saxophone to aid in her battles with asthma (at the behest of her husband, a doctor). Though she did commission many pieces, the works didn't originally feature the saxophone very well (probably because she decided to demonstrate herself the saxophone's ability - her skills were less than admirable by most accounts). Subsequent versions, however, have been arranged to better feature the saxophone, such as the "Rhapsodie" by Claude Debussy.

Pictures at an Exhibition - The Old Castle

Arguably, the most famous Saxophone solo in the so-called 'Classical' repertoire has to be The Old Castle from the orchestral work Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. Originally written for piano, an orchestral arrangement was realized by Maurice Ravel in 1922.

Percy Grainger

The Australian composer Percy Grainger championed the Saxophone during his career, using different saxophones in his many compositions and arrangements.

Classical music for the saxophone became more common during the course of the twentieth century. Many present-day composers have written for the instrument. For example, American composer Philip Glass wrote a Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra in the 1990s.

Use in ensembles

Besides functioning as a solo instrument, the saxophone is also an effective ensemble instrument, particularly when several members of the saxophone family are played in combination. Although only occasionally called for in orchestral music, saxophone sections (usually encompassing the alto, tenor, and baritone instruments, but sometimes also the soprano and/or bass) are an important part of the jazz big band, as well as military, concert, and marching bands.

Ensembles made up exclusively of saxophones are also popular, with the most common being the saxophone quartet.

Saxophone quartets

The saxophone quartet is usually made up of one soprano, one alto, one tenor, and one baritone. This instrumentation is often referred to as "SATB." The second most common quartet instrumentation (found most often at the middle school level) is two altos, a tenor, and a baritone (referred to as "AATB"). A few professional saxophone quartets feature non-standard instrumentation, such as James Fei's Alto Quartet (four altos) and Hamiet Bluiett's Bluiett Baritone Nation (four baritones).

There is a repertoire of classical compositions and arrangements for the SATB instrumentation dating back to the nineteenth century, particularly by French composers who knew Adolphe Sax. The Raschèr, Amherst, Aurelia, Amstel, and Rova Saxophone Quartets are among the best known groups. Historically, the quartets led by Marcel Mule and Daniel Deffayet, saxophone professors at the Conservatoire de Paris, were started in 1928 and 1953, respectively, and were highly regarded. The Mule quartet is often considered to be the prototype for all future quartets due the level of virtuosity demonstrated by its members and its central role in the development of the quartet repertoire. Organized quartets did indeed exist prior to Mule's ensemble, the prime example being the quartet headed by Eduard Lefebre (1834-1911), former soloist with the Sousa band, in the United States circa 1904-1911. Other ensembles most likely existed at this time as part of the saxophone sections of the many touring "business" bands that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In jazz music, saxophones are usually heard as members of a jazz combo or a big band, but one professional avant-garde jazz group, the World Saxophone Quartet, has become known as the preeminent jazz saxophone quartet. The Rova Saxophone Quartet, based in San Francisco, is noted for its work in the fields of contemporary classical music and improvised music.

Larger saxophone ensembles

There are a few larger all-saxophone ensembles as well. The most prominent include the 12-member Raschèr Saxophone Orchestra Lörrach, the 9-member London Saxophonic, the 9-member SaxAssault, the 6-member The Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra, and Urban Sax, which includes as many as 52 saxophonists. Very large groups, featuring over 100 saxophones, are sometimes organized as a novelty at saxophone conventions.


Many believe it is relatively easy to become a competent saxophonist, especially when transferring from other woodwind instruments, but a considerable amount of practice is usually required to develop a pleasing tone colour and fluent technique.

Playing technique for the saxophone is subjective based upon the intended style (classical, jazz, rock, funk, etc.) and the player's idealized sound. The design of the saxophone allows for a big variety of different sounds, and the "ideal" saxophone sound and keys to its production are subjects of debate. However, there is a basic underlying structure to most techniques.

The fingerings for a saxophone do not change from one instrument to another. Here, notes on a treble staff correspond to fingerings below.
The fingerings for a saxophone do not change from one instrument to another. Here, notes on a treble staff correspond to fingerings below.
Fingerings typically appear with the left and right hand side-by-side.
Fingerings typically appear with the left and right hand side-by-side.


In the typical embouchure, the mouthpiece is generally not taken more than halfway into the player's mouth. The lower lip is supported by the lower teeth, and makes contact with the reed. The playing-position is stabilized with firm, light pressure from the upper teeth resting on the mouthpiece (sometimes padded with a thin strip of rubber known as a "bite-pad" or "mouthpiece-patch"). The upper lip closes to create an air-tight seal. The "double embouchure" in which the upper lip is curled over the upper teeth is not commonly used in modern times, however each player may eventually develop his/her own variation of the basic embouchure style in order to accommodate their own physical structure.

Three things are imperative to a full and quick-speaking sound: appropriate air pressure which is aided by diaphragm support, correct lip/reed contact allowing the reed to vibrate optimally, and perhaps most importantly a high tongue position within the mouth. This provides focus to the player's air stream and thus to his/her sound. The player's diaphragm acts as a bellow, supplying a constant stream of air through the instrument.


Saxophone vibrato is much like a vocal or string vibrato, except the vibrations are made using the jaw instead of the diaphragm or fingers. The jaw motions required for vibrato can be simulated by saying the syllables "wah-wah-wah" or "tai-yai-yai." The method which is easiest and brings the best vibrato depends on the player. While most will say vibrato is not vital to saxophone performance (as its importance is inferior to proper tone quality), many argue it as being integral to the distinct saxophone colour. Classical vibrato can vary between players (soft and subtle, or wide and abrasive). Many Classical players look to violinists as a model for their sound. It has been suggested that this follows the example of Marcel Mule of the Paris Conservatory, one of the early proponents of Classical Saxophone playing. Jazz vibrato varies even more amongst its users. Fast and wide vibrato is used by older "swing" style players, while some modern players use almost no vibrato except on slow ballads. Typically, less vibrato is used at faster tempos. Players just starting out with vibrato will usually start out slow with exaggerated jaw movements. As they progress, the vibrato becomes quicker until the desired speed is reached. A vibrato can be produced also by controlling the air stream with the tongue. This is more difficult than the jaw vibrato, but often produces better results.

Tone effects

A number of effects can be used to create different or interesting sounds.

  • Growling is a technique used whereby the saxophonist sings, hums, or growls, using the back of the throat while playing. This causes a modulation of the sound, and results in a gruffness or coarseness of the sound. It is rarely found in classical or band music, but is often utilized in jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, and other popular genres. Some notable musicians who utilized this technique are Earl Bostic, Boots Randolph, Gato Barbieri, Ben Webster, Clarence Clemons and King Curtis.
  • Glissando is a sliding technique where the saxophonist bends the note using voicing (tongue placement)and at the same time slides up or down to another fingered note. This technique is sometimes heard in big band music (for example, Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing") and, rarely, in orchestral music, e.g., George Gershwin's " Rhapsody in Blue." A glissando can also be created using the tongue to control the airstream and holding the embouchure immobile.
  • Multi phonics is the technique of playing more than one note at once. A special fingering combination causes the instrument to vibrate at two different pitches alternately, creating a warbling sound.
  • The use of overtones involves fingering one note but altering the air stream to produce another note which is an overtone of the fingered note. For example, if low B♭ is fingered, a B♭ one octave above may be sounded by manipulating the air stream. Other overtones that can be obtained with this fingering include F, B♭, and D. The same air stream techniques used to produce overtones are also used to produce notes above high F# (the "altissimo register").
  • The technique of manipulating the air stream to obtain various effects is commonly known as "voicing." Voicing technique involves varying the position of the tongue, causing the same amount of air to pass through either a more or less confined oral cavity. This causes the air stream to either speed up or slow down, respectively. As well as allowing the saxophonist to play overtones/altissimo with ease, proper voicing also helps the saxophonist develop a clear, even and focused sound throughout the range of the instrument. For a thorough discussion of voicing technique see "Voicing" by Donald Sinta and Denise Dabney.

Electronic effects

The use of electronic effects with the saxophone began with innovations such as the Varitone system, which Selmer introduced in 1965. The Varitone included a small microphone mounted on the saxophone neck, a set of controls attached to the saxophone's body, and an amplifier and loudspeaker mounted inside a cabinet. The Varitone's effects included echo, tremolo, tone control, and an octave divider. Two notable Varitone players were Eddie Harris and Sonny Stitt. Similar products included the Hammond Condor.

In addition to playing the Varitone, Eddie Harris experimented with looping techniques on his 1968 album Silver Cycles.

David Sanborn and Traffic member Chris Wood employed effects such as wah-wah and delay on various recordings during the 1970s.

In more recent years, the term " saxophonics" has been used to describe the use of these techniques by saxophonists such as Skerik, who has used a wide variety of effects that are often associated with the electric guitar, and Jeff Coffin, who has made notable use of an envelope follower.


Manufacturers of saxophones include Buffet Crampon, Cannonball, Julius Keilwerth, Leblanc (Vito brand), P.Mauriat, Roland (Jupiter brand), Selmer, Yamaha, Yanagisawa.

Of these, Keilwerth, Selmer, Yamaha, and Yanagisawa are sometimes called "the big four" as they are considered the most established saxophone manufacturers. Some brands and models have dedicated followings; perhaps the most legendary model ever produced was Selmer's Mark VI, manufactured from 1954 through 1975.

Past manufacturers no longer producing saxophones include Buescher, Conn, Holton, Martin, SML, the H.N. White Company (King brand), and York. Although these companies no longer exist or no longer produce saxophones, the rights to several of their brand names have been bought by modern corporations, so it is not uncommon to see a new "Conn" or "King" brand instrument for sale, despite the fact that both factories ceased production many years ago.

Stencil imports

Many inexpensive saxophones are manufactured in China, Taiwan, India, Pakistan and Brazil. They are often modeled after Selmer designs, and vary greatly in quality, from poor to excellent. These anonymous manufacturers supply companies worldwide, who then test the instruments and stencil (engrave a brand name on) them before selling them to stores. Examples include the Selmer Prelude "TS701" (China), Elkhart "SXTD" (Taiwan), Trevor James "The Horn Rev II" (Taiwan) and "Largo Australia" (China).

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