Getting started on saxophone can be confusing. Here are the answers to some commonly asked questions.
Generally if you are 10 years of age or older you will be big enough to start playing the Alto saxophone. For younger students the Alto is definitely the best choice. Even though the Soprano sax is smaller it is much harder to play and requires more control in you mouth. If you are big for your age then perhaps you could start a little younger but you need to be able to hold the weight of the saxophone and have enough puff to make a sound! Some teachers recommend starting on recorder first to get the general idea of the fingering as the notes on the descant or soprano recorder are the same as low register of the saxophone.
The Alto is generally the best size saxophone to start on for the beginner player. Even though the Soprano is a smaller instrument it requires a lot more control and is tricky to make quick progress on for the beginner saxophone player. The tenor is much heavier than the Alto so is more suitable to an adult or tall teenager to start on. The great thing about saxophones though is that the fingering (or way you play the notes) is the same on all of them so once you get the hang of an Alto for example, it’s relatively easy to then switch to a tenor, soprano or baritone.
I have met fantastic players who have small hands – it really just comes down to getting used to the instrument. However, you may be better starting on the Alto first as the keys are closer together than on a Tenor.
There is a wide range of starter saxophones on the market. You can pay as little as £170 for a new student instrument up to more than £800 for some of the more established brands. Although you can expect some difference in quality over this price range, many of the cheaper instruments will offer very good service for a beginner saxophone player at a more accessible price. These days the difference in quality in this price range is minimal as most brands manufacture their instruments in this price range in China or Taiwan. The other thing to consider is that as your playing develops you will probably want to progress on to a more advanced instrument or perhaps change from Alto to Tenor so it may be worth considering a starter sax as a first step on your musical journey.
Every saxophone will need a “tune up” from time to time. Saxophones have serviceable parts like pads and corks that with regular use will require adjustment and possible replacement. If your saxophone begins to be hard to play, or some notes won’t sound properly then you will probably need to get it serviced. The good news is that getting your saxophone repaired is inexpensive (probably less than £40) and if you take good care of your instrument you may only need to do this once every year.
There are many local instrument repairers in the UK. Your local music shop can generally recommend a good repairer. If you have taken good care of your instrument then most problems that occur are easily fixed and not very expensive.
Reeds come in a range of sizes starting at 1½ and going up in ½ steps to around 4. The numbers indicate how thick the reeds are cut and so how hard they are to play. As a beginner saxophone player you should start on a size 1½ reed and move up to a size 2 when you find blowing very easy. If you are practicing hard you will soon find that your sound is quite thin with a size 1½ reed – this is a good sign that it is time to move onto size 2. As you develop as a player you will find the size that suits you best and is a good match for your mouthpiece. Another thing to consider is that you will probably break a lot of reeds when you are just getting started – reeds are very fragile and do wear out so expect a good reed to only last around 1-2 weeks or less if you are playing regularly.
There could be a number of reasons for this. First start by checking your reed is on correctly, is wet and doesn’t have any major chips or cracks in it. Then be sure that when you play you have your bottom lip over your teeth (your bottom teeth should never touch the reed). Also, try experimenting with using less mouthpiece when you play. Sometimes too much mouthpiece can cause squeaks. And finally, if all these don’t fix the problem then there is a chance that your sax needs the care of a repairer!
There are some excellent instructional DVDs that can give you pointers to get started but perhaps the best thing is to combine this with some lessons from an experienced teacher to get the fundamental skills right. When learning an instrument it is really important to get the basic skills right at the start to give you the best chance of having success later on.
One of the best upgrades to consider with a beginner saxophone is changing the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece is the first place the sound is created on the saxophone and it’s quality can make a massive difference not only to the sound you create but how easy your sax is to play. Most saxes (even some intermediate or advanced saxes) come shipped with a basic mouthpiece. While this is ok to get you started, you will probably find upgrading it will make a big difference to the quality of your sound and how your sax feels when playing. There are loads of mouthpieces on the market. For a beginner saxophone player you might consider either a Yamaha 4C (about £30) or a Selmer C* (about £80). Both of these are made of plastic / bakealite and are widely considered as excellent mouthpieces. As your playing develops you should experiment with other brands and sizes to create your own sound. In general mouthpieces made or plastic or bakealite (black ones) are good for a more controlled, classical smooth sound, whereas metal mouthpieces (either gold or silver / chrome) will give you a much brighter and louder sound. Do some google-ing to discover what mouthpiece your favourite player uses!
This is a very good question. It can be hard to know what to look for if you are new to saxophone. Bad examples of lower priced instruments generally suffer from poor build quality (as you might expect) . Have a close look at the saxophone for faults in the lacquer / plating, also look for bent or crooked keys and obviously any dents or signs of abuse. A new sax should always be checked and “set up” before delivery to you. If you are having trouble playing a new sax don’t hesitate to take it back and get an experienced repairer to check it. By and large most problems on saxophones an be easily remedied by a good repairer. To make things more complicated, price isn’t always a good indicator of quality either. These days there are some excellent lower priced saxes and some over priced instruments with issues so always look for some reveiws from friends or on the internet if you are unsure.
A decent instrument that is well cared for and regularly maintained should last for several years. Many students progress right through their grades on a decent student instrument some progressing to university level. Eventually as your playing develops and budget allows you may choose to upgrade to a professional instrument and when you reach this point you will be better able to decide what is the right instrument for you.
Most saxophones will come with all you need to start playing. You will need to buy more reeds though when starting out as they are easy to break. Each reed may only last a week or so with regular playing. Size 1½ is good to start with. A music stand is always useful and makes it easier o have a good posture while practicing. There are also some excellent “Learn to play” books available from music stores that would complement the instructional videos on this site.