A Complete Guide to the Saxophone

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The saxophone, which is often called the ‘sax’, belongs to the woodwind instrument family. These instruments are crafted out of brass and are played with a single reed mouthpiece, which makes them similar to a clarinet.

In 1840, Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone, and introduced two series of seven instruments each according to their sizes in alternating transposition.

The saxophone is a very versatile instrument, as it is employed in fields as diverse as military marches and concert bands, classical music and jazz related events. Players of the saxophone are called saxophonists.

In India, the saxophone was introduced as Carnatic music, where the instrument has been modified to fit with the South Indian music style. Dr. Kadri Gopalnath is one of the pioneers of the saxophone in Carnatic Music and is also internationally renowned.


History of the instrument and its Origin

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  • The invention of the most powerful of brass woodwind instruments; the saxophone, was invented in the year 1846 by a Belgian instrument maker, clarinettist and flautist, Adolphe Sax. Before inventing the sax, Adolphe had also improvised the bass clarinet.
  • Besides this, he also developed ‘ophicleide’ which was a large cone-shaped brass instrument that was popular in those days. The overall experience with ‘instrument making’ enabled him to enhance his skills and invent the first version of the saxophone.
  • Adolphe Sax was determined to create an instrument that would have the best elements such as the conical brass body of the Ophicleide, single reed mouthpiece of the clarinet and acoustic properties of the clarinet and horn.
  • Sax produced different sizes of the saxophone and therefore, applied for a patent of his series on June 28, 1846 which had two categories comprising of seven instruments that ranged from sopranino to contrabass. He then went on to find the most suitable keys for his saxophones.
  • His patent expired in the year 1866 and this is what led to the boom of many other instrument manufacturers and saxophonists who enhanced the key work and design and came up with their own distinct versions. The first notably modified version was by a French manufacturer who added an additional key that extended the range by one semitone to B♭. This extension is very common in the modern designs of the saxophone, along with other small alterations such as alternate fingerings that enable a player to play more swiftly.
  • Selmer introduced new changes in the saxophone in the 1930s and 40s as he added offsetting tone holes and revamped the octave key system.
  • However, the most revolutionary, yet temporary alteration was the entire reshuffling of the saxophone key work by M. Houvenaghel of Paris in the 1950s who introduced a number of notes (C♯, B, A, G, F and E♭) which could be flattened by a semitone once the right middle finger is pressed. This enabled the diatonic scale. However, the key work did not gain popularity, and became dysfunctional with the passage of time.


Construction and Components

The different components that make up the Saxophone 

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 Saxophones are crafted from brass, which is an alloy of copper, zinc, nickel and tin. The brass can be moulded in varying ratios, as some manufacturers use particular brass blends for the various parts of the saxophone. The keys are plated with nickel to make them strong and lustrous.  

  • Mouthpiece: It is the part of sax through which the musician blows in order to produce sound. The mouthpiece also has two main parts – the tone chamber and the lay. The mouthpieces are usually marked with a letter that denotes the lay’s width.
  • Reed: The reed is affixed to the saxophone and its vibration produces the sound. These reeds are made out of bamboo that is grown in South of France.
  • Crook: The mouthpiece and main body of the instrument are joined by the crook. On top of the crook is the cork that helps to tune the saxophone.
  • Saxophone Keys: There are two types of keys; open standing and closed standing. The closed standing keys are closed with the help of a spring when the sax is not used, while the open standing keys are opened by a spring and get close only when a key is pressed.
  • Saxophone Tube: This is a long metallic tube whose width enhances at one end. It has specific spots on a side where holes are drilled to produce notes. It is the cone shape of the sax that produces the octave overtones. 

There are certain types or models of the saxophone that are available:

  • The Military/Primary Saxophone Family produces instruments in B♭ and E, while the Orchestral Family has alternating instruments in C and F, which were patented by Adolphe Sax. Here are the various types of saxophones and their corresponding octaves: 
# Saxophone Key Sounds an octave higher than
1 Sopranissimo B♭ Soprano
2 Sopranino E♭ Alto
3 Soprano B♭ Tenor
4 Alto E♭ Baritone
5 Tenor B♭ Bass
6 Baritone E♭ Contrabass
7 Bass B♭ Subcontrabass
8 Contrabass E♭ ##
9 Subcontrabass B♭ ##

The Saxophone also has some unusual variants as follows:

  • Saxello: These were not significantly successful as sopranos.
  • Contralto Saxophone: It was developed by Jim Schmidt, an instrument maker from California.
  • Soprillo Sax: It is a small or piccolo-sized instrument that has an upper speaker hole in-built within the mouthpiece.
  • Soprano Sax
  • Stritch and Manzello
  • Conn-O-Sax
  • Tubax
  • Aulochrome is the latest saxophone variant; it is a double soprano saxophone that was invented in 2001 by an instrument maker from Belgium known as François Louis.


Cultural Context

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  • The saxophone is a member of the reed quintet that comprises of a bassoon, a bass clarinet, a saxophone, a clarinet and an oboe.
  • The popularity of the saxophone first emerged with the military band, for which it was actually designed. Although, the German military ignored the saxophone, the Belgian and French military bands used the invention by Adolphe Sax to the hilt.
  • Till this day, most of the Belgian and French military bands have at least a quartet of saxophones of the keys E♭baritone, B♭tenor, E♭alto and B♭ In fact, these four saxophones are perhaps the most popular out of the series of saxophones that he had created. The British military bands also include at least two saxophonists one the tenor and alto. Also, the saxophone has got hugely popular in military bands that it is used around the world.
  • Later, the saxophone also became a part of the concert band that requires E♭alto saxophone, the B♭tenor saxophone, and the E♭baritone saxophone. The saxophone is also employed in chamber music like the reed quintet, saxophone quartet and various other chamber instrumental combinations.
  • Although most of the international exposure of the saxophone comes through the military bands in the world, but it has gained an iconic stature owing to jazz.
  • The saxophone managed to get through jazz when the military bands were stationed in New Orleans and most of the jazz bands sourced these instruments from the military band.
  • Initially, the saxophone was a part of the ensemble as it blended it pretty smoothly and later the sound of the instrument was moulded by individual players such as Frankie Trumbauer, Sidney Bechet, and Coleman Hawkins who showcased how captivating the sound of the saxophone was.
  • Today, many people claim that the sound of the saxophone is nearest to the human voice and this is owing to the various players who elevated the saxophone from being merely a part of the ensemble to become the lead instrument in a jazz concert.
  • This laid the foundation of the saxophone as it started emerging in other music genres, besides being the signature sound of jazz music. The early blues bands were also influenced by the saxophone and eventually it was assimilated into Doo Wop, Rhythm and Blues, Motown and Pop and Rock music over the years.
  • The punch and power of the saxophone sound made it the soul of Latin forms of music that is incorporated in high energy dances such as Mambo, Cumbia, Merengue, Reggaeton and Salsa.
  • Although, the Saxophone was never a permanent component of the orchestra, it has however, acquired a measure of success in chamber music and small classical ensembles which includes contemporary classical music.
  • In India, the musicians have been attracted to the magnetic sound of the saxophone, particularly its ability to mimic the sound of traditional singing.
  • The Japanese too have been enamoured by the Saxophone ever since Cannonball Adderley went there to record in 1960s.
  • At present, Europe has a flourishing scene of improvised music that is heavily dependent on the saxophone for uniqueness and versatility. In the United States, the Saxophone is becoming prominent in movie soundtracks.
  • John Coltrane, Sam Rivers, Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders are eminent saxophone players who led to the avant-garde movement because of their creative pursuits in the instrument during the 1960s. The saxophone players came up with free, harmolodic and modal jazz that removed their boundaries and gave them enough ground to explore and create. The biggest creation of this movement was playing non-western ethnic sounds on the saxophone, such as African sounds.
  • In present times, the World Saxophone Quartet is the leading jazz saxophone quartet. 


Interesting Facts

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From being the star in big bands, solo performances and jazz, the Saxophone has come a long way.  Here are some interesting facts about this instrument:

  • There are 8 different sizes of saxophones in the sax family; the high pitched ones are called the ‘Sopranino’, the moderately middle tones ones are called the ‘Alto and Tenor’, while the lowest pitches saxophones are called ‘Baritone, Bass, Contrabass and Sub-Contrabass’.
  • All four sax members are used today, namely, the Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. The Alto and Tenor are the most popular.
  • Although one would think that the sax is similar to the clarinet, the fingering of the former is much easier.
  • The saxophone was firstly introduced in jazz music.
  • Gene Ammons, the founder of the Chicago school of Tenor Sax, performed the feat of recording The Big Sound and Groove Blues in one day in 1958.


The Indian Touch 

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: He is a saxophonist from India and has been amongst the pioneers of the instrument in Carnatic Music from South India. Born on 11th December 1949 in Mangalore.Dr. Gopalnath was fascinated by music at an early age and was inspired by his father who was also a musician. He once observed a saxophone being played in the Mysore Palace band and immediately decided to master it himself. It took Gopalnath almost 20 years to understand and master the complexities of this western wind instrument. He was eventually given the title “Saxophone Chakravarthy” owing to his prowess in the instrument.  

Gopalnath modified the alto saxophone in order to make it appropriate to play Carnatic music, and thus, he started been called as ‘Carnatic Music Genius” by the doyen of Carnatic Music – Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.  

Gopalnath first played the saxophone at the Chembai Memorial Trust; however, it was the Bombay Jazz Festival in 1980 that proved to change things for Gopalnath as John Handy a jazz musician from California offered Gopalnath to play alongside him. The combination of pure jazz and Carnatic music was an instant hit with the audience and Gopalnath went international as he participated in many noted festivals across the globe such as the International Cervantino Festival in Mexico, Berlin Jazz festival, Jazz Festival in Prague and BBC Promenade Concert in London amongst many others.  

Gopalnath has many albums to his credit such as the Southern Brothers that he recorded with jazz flautist James Newton. He also produced an audio-video presentation ‘East West’ which is a fusion between Western and Indian music forms.  

Gopalnath also gave the saxophonic instrumentation in a Tamil film called ‘Duet’ whose music was composed by the widely acclaimed AR Rahman.

Gopalnath collaborated with Rudresh Mahanthappa, an American saxophonist and composer and came out with the album ‘Kinsmen’ in 2008.

Gopalnath has been awarded with many titles and honours, out of which the Asthana Vidwan of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Kettam, Sri Sringeri Sharadha Peetam, Sri Ahobila Mutt and Sri Pillayapatti Temple are the most cherished. He was also bestowed the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 2004. 

Important championships covered in some of India’s leading metropolitan cities

  • Sawai Gandharva Sangeet Mahotsav: Held in Pune and Maharashtra since 1953 during the month of December.
  • Teen Prahar: Held in Mumbai and is organised by the Banyan Tree.
  • Swami Haridas Sangeet Sammelan: Held in Mumbai since 1952.
  • Sabrang Utsav: Held in Delhi since 1968.
  • Chaturprahar: Held in Mumbai.
  • Qutub Festival: Held in Delhi.
  • SwaraZankar Music Festival: Held in Pune.                                                                                                             


  • Reeds:  This is very important as you should have additional reeds in standby.
  • Reedholder
  • Cork Grease
  • Chromatic Tuner
  • Metronome
  • Music Stand
  • Cleaning Kit which includes a body cleaner, a mouthpiece brush and a neck cleaner.



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The widely acclaimed saxophonist Kenny G established the feat of holding an E-flat for more than 45 minutes in the year 1997. In order to achieve this, he practised a technique by the name of Circular Breathing which helps the player maintain a steady air stream flowing through the saxophone even while he is breathing. Acclaimed American Jazz saxophonist and composer, Charlie Parker started playing the saxophone at the age of 11. He performed with a King ‘Super 20’ saxophone which was specially made for him in 1947.


In a nutshell 

Saxophone is a popular instrument in modern classical fusion music and is very easy to learn. If you know some interesting facts about the saxophone or have a question about this musical instrument, then do feel free to ask us in the comment section below! At YoGems, we have experts who can counsel you on saxophone and provide you with trainers and instructors who can guide you with playing the saxophone.



Shivangi Gupta is a Content Writer Expert at YoGems. With years of experience in writing blogs, articles and guides, she writes about every sport. Also, she is good at sports and expert in shooting and won numerable awards at various events. She started receiving shooting training under her father at the age of 6. To get updated with her posts, stay tuned to the website.