So you want to learn to play saxophone? Great! Here’s what you need to know when buying your first saxophone.
There are loads of beginner saxophones out there but choosing one can be confusing. Here’s our guide to how to buy the best beginner saxophone for you.
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New vs Used Beginner Saxophones
You can get a great deal on your first saxophone by buying a used instrument. This can mean you get a better quality sax for your money.
A well maintained used sax can play just as well as a new instrument. Check out this blog post on buying used vs new for our top tips on how you can get reliable instruments at an affordable price. Some of the lower prices mentioned in this article may be offered by retailers selling used saxophones.
Alto saxophone or tenor?
If you are just starting your journey with saxophone playing then you may be wondering which size to choose. For young students we generally suggest starting with alto saxophones. Alto is a smaller instrument which is easier to manage and lighter for younger learners.
However for adults the common saxophone starter instruments are either alto or the larger tenor. Provided you have a quality instrument from one of the main saxophone brands adults will feel comfortable on either size. You can learn more about how to choose between alto and tenor here.
Baritone or soprano saxophone?
Some students are tempted to start learning on other saxophones too. Generally we don’t recommend starting your saxophone journey with soprano saxophone. Although it is a smaller instrument which appeals to some learners, it can be more challenging to get accurate intonation and good tone for beginner players.
If you are a fan of players from the jazz world like Gerry Mulligan or Pepper Adams, you may be tempted to start with the larger baritone saxophone. The basic fingering system for baritone saxophone is exactly the same as tenor saxophone or alto, but the bigger size and weight does make it more challenging to learn for beginner players.
Understanding beginner alto saxophones
Saxophone sellers and reviews have different definitions of “beginner saxophone”. So, recommended prices can range from as low as £400 ($500 USD) to as high as £1200 ($1500 USD).
The best beginner alto saxophones have the same basic design as a professional saxophone but generally there are two main differences.
Firstly, even the best beginner saxophone will often be made from lower quality materials. This can affect the sound quality you can get from the instrument and also the durability. Often saxophones in the more affordable price ranges are made from yellow brass, which is cheaper to produce and makes a brighter sound. In contrast professional instruments are often built from gold brass which has a more rich sound and can also make the saxophone more free blowing.
Mechanism and build
The other big difference is the mechanism and build quality. Even the best alto saxophone brands will build their more affordable instruments very quickly – this helps to keep the prices lower. Now these days with improvements in manufacturing you can expect a high quality design in just about all saxophones across the range. However it’s reasonable to expect more care and attention in the assembly of a professional saxophone than a budget sax.
It’s a bit like comparing a Mercedes Benz with a Kia. Both cars will get you from A to B. Both have 4 wheels, doors, engines etc. Both are safe and reliable, however the overall experience in the Mercedes is more refined and (hopefully) it will last longer (although those Kia cars are pretty great value!).
Beginner saxophone features
Nearly all quality instruments from the best saxophone brands will have common features like steel springs, rocking table keys and accurate intonation. Plus your new saxophone will include a neck strap, mouthpiece and mouthpiece cap. You will have everything you need to get stuck into your practice sessions, or to play with your local jazz band, marching bands or community orchestra.
Top beginner brands like Conn Selmer and all Yamaha instruments are made with quality materials and excellent design. Some models even have pro features like an adjustable thumb rest.
Your sax will also come with a case but there is a huge range of styles here. Look for one that includes some pockets for your accessories and avoid soft cases. They just don’t protect your sax enough.
Do I need a pro alto sax to start learning?
Something our students often ask is are they better to just go for a better quality instrument first rather than starting with a budget sax and then updating. Our suggestion is this really depends on your budget. Of course as with all musical instruments, you should go for the best quality saxophones you can afford. A good instrument will make learning easier and sound better. This means your saxophone will last much longer for you and more importantly, you’ll have more fun playing it!
However an affordable instrument can still be reliable and last for years. I know plenty of pro players who still use student models as daily “work” saxophone.
Best alto saxophone to play
Regardless of what you choose from the student saxophone market, it’s super important that the saxophone is well “set up”. This means that the mechanism has been adjusted to make sure it all works correctly. A saxophone repairer can help you with this which is worth considering especially if you buy a used instrument.
What accessories are included?
Always check what is included with your saxophone. You will need a mouthpiece, reeds, ligature and a neck strap straight away so look for deals that include these. It’s also useful to have a case for your sax, and extras like cork grease are handy too. Of course, you can buy all of these things separately, but it’s great if they are included in the price.
What about best beginner tenor saxophones?
If you prefer to learn on tenor sax, you should be looking for all the same features as alto. Generally a tenor saxophone will cost slightly more than an alto, but they are bigger! Check out our brand and model suggestions below.
Saxophone model names
All those letters and numbers in saxophone names can be confusing. Usually, the name comes from the brand (Yamaha/Jupiter), followed by a 3 letter code to show the brand and type of sax (YAS = Yamaha Alto Sax, JTS = Jupiter Tenor Sax), then the model of sax (YAS 280 series or JTS 500 series. Other examples might be the YAS 62 or JAS 1100 series). After that, the extensions can refer to the colour or to the type of accessories such as the case (as it is for the Jupiter JAS 500 A / JAS 500 Q).
Here is our selection of the best options from the UK and U.S. Most are also available in both countries.
Best Premium Beginner Sax – UK
Yamaha YAS 280 / YTS 280: Price range Alto GBP £800 – £1170 // Tenor £1290 – £1674
Most UK reviewers and outlets list this as the best beginner option. It has a great mechanism to help with harder fingerings (for example, rollers in the left pinky finger keys). The action of the keys feels good.
As you would expect with a big brand such as Yamaha, these saxophones are well constructed and set up. You will usually get a Yamaha 4c mouthpiece with your sax which is a great choice for a beginner, as well as a reed, and cork grease. Some retailers provide extra accessories such as a beginner’s DVD.
This good quality, well made saxophone, along with the good quality mouthpiece, gets you a smooth, pure, flexible tone.
This sax has a high price, going up to £1070 for alto and tenor £1674 for tenor for silver plating. Also, some retailers don’t provide a neck strap, which should be expected at this price.
Hanson V: Price Range Alto from GBP £930 // tenor from GBP £1170
Hanson are a British company, probably best known for their pro horns. The V series are British designed saxophones, manufactured using high tech, modern engineering which means they provide great consistency in both the mechanism and the finish.
In fact I know many pro players who continue to play on these mid-range horns because they sound great and they are reliable and durable.
These saxophones have a higher price than other beginner saxophones. However, you may find it’s worth the investment as this saxophone will last you many years into your playing career.
Best Mid-Range Beginner Sax – UK
Jupiter JAS-500: Price range Alto GBP £580 – £770 // JTS500 Tenor GBP £830 – £1050
This Jupiter sax is very similar to the Yamaha YAS 280 in terms of quality, . The key mechanism is not quite as good, but it’s is well set up.
You’ll usually get all the accessories you need, including a mouthpiece in the style of a Yamaha 4C (but not the 4C unless specified). You’ll also get an ABS Case (JAS-500-A) or a Backpack Softcase (JAS-500-Q).
This sax has a strong tone like the Yamaha, although the sound is a little more limited.
While the price is less than for the Yamaha, this is still quite a lot to spend on your first saxophone. The mouthpiece you get may be a “generic” mouthpiece rather than a specific brand, although it’s worth checking this with the seller.
Trevor James Classic Horn II: Price range Alto GBP £500 – £820 // Tenor £780 – £1225
Trevor James have really developed a name for themselves over the last 15 years. These saxophones are similar in quality to the Jupiter saxes. They have great setup, ergonomics, and construction. There are some great deals available with low prices (£500-£600) even on new saxophones.
With most deals you’ll get all the accessories you need, and look out for the variety of finishes on offer.
Soundwise, this sax has a great strong, clear tone and it’s easy to play.
These beginner saxophones usually come with a standard Trevor James 4C “style” mouthpiece, rather than the better quality Yamaha 4C mouthpiece.
You may pay more for different finishes such as a colour change, which won’t affect the sound. However, a better quality metal will get you a better sound, so look out for the silver option, for example.
Best Cheap Beginner Sax – UK
Elkhart 100 Series (100AS): Price range Alto GBP £270 – £520 // Tenor £530 – £600
This is a well-established saxophone for beginners, and it’s super-cheap. It comes in many colour options (e.g. green, blue, pink) as well as a standard finish. Despite the low cost, this sax is well assembled and set up.
You’ll usually get a case, mouthpiece, and ligature with your saxophone.
Compared to other beginner saxophones, the Elkhart 100 series has a more restricted tone. However, when you’re starting out, you probably wouldn’t notice this limitation. There are also some intonation issues, which can mean you find it harder to play in tune across the range of your saxophone.
This saxophone is made from yellow brass throughout, compared to others which have a brass body with gold lacquer. This can affect the tone, but is part of what keeps the price low.
Again, with this sax you can expect a generic mouthpiece rather than a specific brand. It may not include a neckstrap or reeds either, so check with the seller.
Best Premium Beginner Sax: U.S.
Mauriat PMSA-57GC / PMST-56GC: Price range Alto $1500 – $1900 // Tenor $1900 – 2400
These saxophones are extremely well made and has a beautiful tone. It has high-end finishes such as full leather pads and metal resonators.
You’ll usually get all accessories you need with your sax, and some retailers provide optional packages for Jazz and Classical setups, such as a quality mouthpiece, ligature and set of reeds.
This option has a very high price tag at $1299.99 USD (£1010 GBP)
Most basic packages will include a generic mouthpiece, and you’ll have to pay extra for branded option which is disappointing with a saxophone at this price.
You might find the reed you get with your sax is synthetic. Lots of players like synthetic reeds, but as a beginner, a cane reed might be better for you.
TIP: Also look out for the P.Mauriat PMSA-180; a slightly better, newer sax that can sometimes be found at similar prices (second hand) to the 57GC.
Best Mid-Range Beginner Sax – U.S.
Selmer Prelude AS711: Price range Alto $470 – $1460 // Tenor $850 – $1250
Selmer is a well recognised and trusted brand. This saxophone has an excellent, rich tone and intonation – especially for this price.
Because there are loads of this model in circulation, they are easy to find and you can find some great deals on price, between $800-$900 for a tenor. This sax comes with different lacquer types, with some gold, some standard, and some dark, so make sure you check what you’re getting.
Overall you can expect great quality with this sax although it is possible to find occasional discrepancies.
Some new models can be far too expensive so be sure to shop around. This saxophone usually comes with generic mouthpiece or none at all, so bear this in mind when you are looking at the price. Even new models may not come with all accessories needed, so again, make sure you check with the seller.
Best Cheap Beginner Sax – U.S.
Jean Paul AS400 / TS400: Price range Alto $300 – $600 // Tenor $590 – $800
Jean Paul is a recognised brand for beginner instruments, and even when you buy new, you can get a really cheap deal.
They offer good attention to detail with the set-up and ergonomics, plus a strong tone and good intonation.
You’ll usually get all the accessories you need with the saxophone. Unusually in this price range, these saxophones have a gold lacquer finish and you can get an optional upgrade to silver plating.
The tone you can achieve on this saxophone will be limited by the generic mouthpiece that comes with it. This means you’ll probably want to upgrade the mouthpiece to something like the Yamaha 4C quite soon.
With such a low price, it’s inevitable that some details might get overlooked so you might find you’ve got a thick cork or a sticky key that needs attention.
Your sax may come with a 2.5 strength reed which may be too strong for a beginner, so you might want to swap this for a better choice. Check out our YouTube video for more tips.
Think carefully before you upgrade to silver plating. It will improve the tone, but unless you plan to keep your sax for three years or more, it may not be worth the higher price.
Yamaha YAS23 / YTS23: Price range Alto $400 – $1000 // Tenor $800 – $1300
This is probably the top recognised saxophone brand for alto saxophone and tenor saxophone. Yamaha are renowned for their professional instruments like the legendary YAS62 and the “23” range shares the same heritage and development process. The YAS23 / YTS23 range has now been replaced with the updated YAS 280 / YTS 280 range mentioned above.
Yamaha offers top quality in the crafting, setup, and ergonomics of this sax, and it’s built to last. When combined with a branded mouthpiece it also has excellent tone and very accurate intonation.
You can get a really great deal by buying this sax second hand, because there are so many in circulation.
Most of these saxophones on sale are used, which isn’t a bad thing, but make sure to read descriptions thoroughly and check all accessories. It fact, new examples are often far too expensive so a well maintained, good used sax is a great option for a beginner player.
I hope this helps you choose the best beginner saxophone for you. And when you’re ready to start making fast progress on your saxophone, get a 14 day free trial of Sax School here. See you inside!
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