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What is a Saxophone?

Saxophones are commonly featured in jazz bands.
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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 20 August 2014
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The saxophone or sax is both a family of instruments and a single instrument that belongs to the single reed group of woodwinds, which also includes clarinets. Saxophones are used primarily in bands, big bands, and jazz bands, but also featured in some 19th and 20th century orchestral works, as well as in wind ensembles and woodwind choirs. Unlike clarinets, which are generally constructed primarily of wood, saxophones are made of metal, often brass. Despite this, they are considered a woodwind rather than a brass instrument.

The single reeds that are members of the saxophone family are as follows, arranged from lowest to highest.

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  • Contrabass and subcontrabass saxophones in Eb and Bb respectively are also substituted by the specially designed versions known as tubaxes.
  • Bass saxophones in Bb range an octave below the tenor saxophone, and the ambit is similar to that of the bassoon.
  • Baritone saxophones in Eb sound approximately an octave below alto saxophones.
  • Tenor Saxophones in Bb sound an octave below soprano saxophones.
  • Alto Saxophones in Eb sound a fifth below soprano saxophones and an octave below the sopranino.
  • Soprano saxophones in Bb are an octave above tenor saxophones. They are the lowest saxophone to have a straight body. Soprano saxes were popularly made in the key of C in the early part of the 20th century. These saxophones were non-transposing instruments.
  • Sopranino saxophones in Eb extend the range of the soprano saxophone upwards.
  • Soprillo saxophones in Bb are manufactured by the same company that makes the tubaxes. Their range is an octave above the soprano saxophone.

All the saxophones, regardless of their size or transposition, have the same fingering system. They also all have a “break” – where the transition in fingering can present a problem for the player who is not expert. The saxophone was invented by Adolph Sax in about 1840.

The fingering and techniques for the saxophone are similar to those for the clarinet, and many clarinetists double as saxophonists. The instruments have three parts. The bell, bow, and keys are all part of the body of the saxophone. The neck joint connects the body to the mouthpiece assembly, which consists of the mouthpiece, the ligature, the reed, and the cap. The back of the body has a place to clip the neck strap, used to support the heavier instruments for ease of playing.

There are many well-known saxophone passages. French composer Maurice Ravel’s Bolero include a striking saxophone part, as does George Gershwin’s Am American in Paris. There are many noted saxophonists, whose numbers include Sidney Bechet, Bill Clinton, John Coltrane, Jimmy Dorsey, Stan Getz, John Harle, Woody Herman, Charlie “Bird” Parker, and Lisa Simpson.

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