Buying Guide: Saxophones
Setting out to purchase a saxophone can be a daunting process. This guide will help you sort out the possibilities and find an instrument that meets your needs.
First, a little overview and history:
Since its invention by Adolphe Sax in 1841, the saxophone has gone on to become perhaps the most featured wind instrument in pop and jazz. Modern saxophones come in a range of voicings. The most popular from high to low are the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. The soprano and tenor are tuned in Bb while the alto and baritone are pitched to Eb. Though advanced students may learn to play all four instruments, typically saxophonists settle on one instrument with which they will develop their own distinct solo voice.
Musical from the get-go
Unlike neophyte flautists and clarinetists, the beginning saxophonist usually can produce a credible, musical tone during the earliest learning stages. Within the standard ranges of the various saxophones, notes can be produced relatively easily, even before the student has developed his or her embouchure (the optimal lip position required to produce the best tone) and breathing technique.
Buying the first instrument
The alto saxophone is far and away the most common starter instrument. Its smaller key layout and need for a little less air make it a solid choice for the younger student. Other factors making the alto a popular first saxophone are its generally lower cost as well as the wealth of classical repertoire written for the instrument. Most of the skills that will be learned on the alto are readily transferable to other saxophones. In elementary and high schools, altos typically represent the largest share of the saxophone section.
Regardless of which type of saxophone you and your student settle on, you will need to choose among three instrument quality levels: student, intermediate, and professional.
The student saxophone
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. Most student horns 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 horn is still in decent shape, its sale or trade will help to underwrite the cost of the new sax.
As the name implies, intermediate models straddle the area between student and professional instruments. Though the key work and action may feel similar to a professional instrument, the intermediate horns usually do not produce the full tone of pro models. They typically evidence less hand work than professional instruments and usually lack the deluxe cosmetic detailing of their higher-end brethren.
Professional saxophones offer a significant step-up in tone, response, and intonation. There is usually a lot of hand work 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.
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 for the student to blow.
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.
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.