You’ve decided to start learning the saxophone… But which type of saxophone? Would alto or tenor be the best saxophone for beginners?
Tenor vs. alto saxophone, soprano vs. baritone saxophone – confusing, isn’t it?
Here, we’ll uncover the following:
- What are the common saxophone differences to consider
- How to get started with your alto and tenor sax
- Which saxophones should you avoid as a beginner
The Saxophone Family
Now, whatever inspired you to start learning saxophone, you’re going to be faced with the question of which saxophone to start playing. I get this question quite a lot because I’ve taught thousands of students through Sax School.
It’s really important to look into alto vs. tenor sax carefully, so I’m going to take you through the different saxophones and the pros and cons of learning from them.
There are four main saxophones that you’re mostly going to come across in a music shop or playing in a band. The big difference between the different saxophones is size and weight. And that can be super-important when it comes to how easy they are to play.
The saxophone family has the same fingering system (get our Finger Chart here). This means that the way you put the fingers down to make the notes is exactly the same, whether you’re playing a soprano, alto, or tenor saxophone right through to the bari sax.
Now they don’t sound the same. They obviously sound higher or lower, but they’re also in different keys, meaning that when you press down three keys on a tenor saxophone, it’s going to sound different from pressing down three notes on an alto saxophone.
That’s something that you learn later on. It doesn’t really matter when you start, and it shouldn’t really have any impact on your choice of a saxophone.
The soprano saxophone is the baby of the saxophone family. The soprano saxophone has a higher sound because it’s smaller. Some soprano saxophones are bent, like an alto, and some are straight and sound slightly different. While it’s small and looks easy to handle, the soprano saxophone is also really tricky to play!
Now, while a lot of people are tempted with a soprano sax when they just get started, I really suggest that it’s not the best thing to do. Starting on a soprano saxophone is challenging. And the reason is that the soprano mouthpiece is the smallest mouthpiece of all the saxes that we’re looking at here today.
And that means that it takes a lot more control to get a good sound out with your embouchure or mouth muscles. Think about how hard it would be to catch a golf ball from a really long throw, as opposed to catching a beach ball. A beach ball is easier to catch because it’s bigger. A golf ball is really tiny.
Well, it’s a bit like that with playing the saxophone because the soprano mouthpiece is very small, so it takes very small movements to control it as opposed to the alto, the tenor saxophone, or even the bari sax.
Now, some soprano saxophones might be nice and small, and they’re compact. But I wouldn’t suggest that you start on this one. This is, in my opinion, a better saxophone to move to once you’ve got your skills together.
The baritone saxophone is the big daddy! It sounds super-cool (think Lisa Simpson or Leo P), but it’s also heavy and needs a lot of air, and like the soprano saxophone, the baritone sax is not great for a complete beginner.
Alto vs. Tenor Saxophone
That brings us down to the alto vs. tenor sax. Now, these are the two most common choices for people when they’re starting out. As I mentioned, all saxophones have the same finger mechanism and the same mouthpiece system as well. They all have a mouthpiece, a reed, and a ligature, and we make the sound effects the same way, even though the mouthpiece is different sizes. The main difference between tenor and alto sax is the sound that the saxophone makes, how heavy it is, and how it suits you physically.
For most adult learners, the alto or tenor saxophone is a great choice. These are the easiest to learn. And tenor or alto saxophones that you’re going to see most commonly in an ensemble. So if you get to play in a community band, alto or tenor saxophone is going to be an easier choice for you.
If you can’t decide, I suggest you opt for the new alto saxophone, just because it’s a little bit easier to manage. It’s a great way to develop your skills because the mouthpiece is a nice, easy size that suits everybody.
For younger players, I always recommend they learn to play the alto saxophone because it’s easier to manage. It’s smaller, and it’s lighter. It’s easier to carry and handle. If you’re a smaller person, you might find the alto suits you better too.
The thing that I’ve noticed from so many students coming through Sax School is that most people will start on one saxophone and then progress to another saxophone. So if you do start on the alto saxophone, after six months, you might be ready to transition onto a tenor as well, or maybe add a soprano sax or bari sax into your repertoire.
Read our review of a great Jean-Paul beginner alto sax here.
The tenor saxes are bigger than the alto but are another really popular choice for a beginner sax player. Tenor saxophones have larger reeds compared to the alto saxophone. The tenor sax has a full, deep, and rich sound, while the alto sax has a higher-pitched sound.
Tips for Buying a Saxophone
Now, whatever saxophone you choose to start with, there are a couple of things that I think are super important.
The first thing is to make sure you get the best saxophone that you can afford. It doesn’t need to be a pro-level instrument made by popular brands, but you should try and get a good one. Talk to your local music shop and get some advice from them because there’s a good chance that they’re going to be giving you support with that woodwind instrument when it needs maintenance or repair.
And don’t forget that you don’t need to buy a new saxophone. Used Saxophones are actually definitely worth considering because a good, well-maintained saxophone will last a really long time. I’ve had my saxophone for 30 years! And it’s done thousands and thousands of gigs and been around the world twenty times. A good, well-maintained saxophone will last a long time.
You can get our free saxophone buying guide from our LOCKER – just sign up below.
Support for Learning Saxophone
The second thing is super important. You must make sure that you get some great resources and support from professional musicians when you’re learning. Unless you’ve got the support of a great teacher, a great community of players in the music industry, and some excellent learning resources, it’s easy to get frustrated and stop playing. And we really don’t want that.
I want you to keep going with your playing with the music written with sax. If you want to know how to learn to play the saxophone, Sax School is here. Our membership community is such an important part of learning. People can get involved with thousands of players from all around the world and get support and feedback, which is really important.
Now to help get you started, I’ve got a saxophone lesson called the Ultimate Saxophone Toolkit. These are some of my favorite lessons, and there are a bunch of things in there to get you started, including a Quick Start Guide to Saxophone that’ll get you up and playing notes and a great tune super fast. It’s free.
It’s been used by thousands of players, and everyone loves to use it – it will really help you.
Whichever saxophone you start with, keep practicing and have fun.
Disclaimer: Some links are “affiliate links,” which means Sax School may make a small commission on any sales.