A bit about playing the saxophone

The saxophone family ranges from the absolutely gargantuan subcontrabass to the teeny-tiny soprillo. Here are both extremes in action….

Here’s the whole tribe en masse (excluding the soprillo & subcontrabass);


However, there are only four in regular use; the soprano, the alto, the tenor and the baritone. The bigger they are, the lower they sound (and vice versa!).

sax family

Of these, the alto is most frequent choice for beginner players. Sometimes, however, people come to me with a yen to start playing a particular size of sax; a tenor, say, or a baritone. That’s fine too; you can learn to play on any of them, and once you’ve learned one, swapping to a bigger or smaller one is a relatively pain-free process!

The sound of the saxophone is produced by the sax reed vibrating against a slot that’s cut in the mouthpiece:

saxophone reed and mouthpiece
A mouthpiece with the reed held in place by the ligature. When the reed vibrates as it is breathed on, it opens and closes against the mouthpiece.
A mouthpiece with the reed removed, showing the slot against which the reed vibrates and that allows air to flow through the sax.







The pitch of the sound becomes lower or higher depending on how long or short you make the ‘tube’ of the instrument.

Think about a set of panpipes for a moment;

pan pipes

Here you have a set of little tubes of varying sizes, and the player has to move his or her lips from one to the other to change pitch and play a tune; the longer the tube, the lower the note. With a sax – and most other woodwind instruments – changing pitch is achieved by having one long tube with holes in it and lengthening or shortening the tube by progressively closing or opening those holes with keys controlled by your fingers:

sax without keys
A tenor sax body without its key mechanism.

If you’ve ever tried the recorder, or a tin whistle, you’ll be familiar with this process, and if you’ve already mastered the recorder, learning the sax will be a doddle because the sax is essentially a power-assisted recorder, and uses very similar fingering:

recorder fingering

The same applies if you’re already a flautist or a clarinetist. By the way, goodness only knows where the old idea of ‘learn the clarinet before you play the sax‘ came from.
Believe me – the clarinet is a far more awkward customer to get to grips with (as is the recorder, for that matter)!

Most people think the ‘difficult bit’ at the beginning of playing a sax will be getting a note out of the thing. Nope; that’s the easy part. The ‘difficult’ bit when starting out is simply getting used to holding the sax, and feeling comfortable with it. It takes a little time, but it’s a great stage to reach on your playing journey when this:

complicated tubing

transforms itself into this:


or possibly, even this………

contrabass sax

or maybe, somehow, the sound of one sax just doesn’t quite match the sound you hear in your head……..