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Saxophone Buying Guide – How to Pick a Saxophone

The saxophone has a special place in my heart. It was the first instrument I learned to play way back in grade school. I started on the alto sax and eventually moved up, or down rather, to the tenor saxophone.

One of my favorite songs that the school band played was Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood.” It was so much fun swinging to the hook in that song, “do be do be do be do be do wah.” Learning the saxophone also gave me a great understanding of rhythm and melody.

However, by the time high school rolled around, and I had found my father’s old Epiphone acoustic guitar in the attic, my sax playing days were behind me.

I wish that I knew then what I know now…

It was a little difficult to keep playing sax when the only songs I got to play were the ones the Band Director picked. If I knew then that the sax could be played like it is on The Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar,” George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” I might have taken a different musical path.

After all, it was the foundations that the saxophone gave me at a young age that helped me develop my own music preferences, skills, and playing styles. Had someone given me a Saxophone Buying Guide like this one all those years ago, who knows where I may have ended up?

A Little Saxophone History

A Little Saxophone History

The modern saxophone traces its root to Belgium in the mid-1800s. That is when and where a well-known instrument maker named Adolphe Sax invented the first saxophone. The initial reception was underwhelming. People didn’t quite know what to make of it.

A Hybrid Instrument?

In some ways, you could call it a hybrid because it’s a mix between a woodwind and brass instrument. Typically the body is brass, and that helps give it that distinct sax sound. However, the mouthpiece and reed are, without a doubt, 100% woodwind.

Thanks to its unique design and construction, the saxophone is one of the most versatile instruments around. Adolphe designed the saxophone with the idea of creating a whole family and not just one model. He had designs for 14 different kinds of saxophones.

But, today, there are four main saxophone models and some that are not so well-known. For this Saxophone Buying Guide, I am focusing on the big four models.

Types of Saxophones

Like many other woodwind instruments, there are several types of saxophones out there. Each one has a certain kind of sound, albeit one that is still distinctly a sax sound. Each type of saxophone requires different skill levels to play, and each has a fairly consistent price range.

So, what are the different kinds of saxophones? Well, one thing that helps identify the sound each saxophone type will make is in the name. I will start with the saxophone with the highest pitch and work down the register.

Furthermore, each sax type can be divided into student, intermediate, and professional levels. Each level reflects an increase in the quality of materials and construction. As a result, the price goes up for each level, often in substantial amounts.

The Soprano Saxophone

Right away, you can see with the name that this is a soprano instrument. Meaning the pitch is in the higher ranges. The tuning for soprano saxophones is Bb. This is the same pitch as trumpets and trombones. So, that should give you an idea of how high-pitched a soprano saxophone is.

The soprano is also the smallest saxophone. And the appearance is closer to a clarinet rather than a traditional sax shape. It’s long-ish and straight with a bell at the end. But unlike the black and silver colors of a clarinet, the soprano sax is shiny brass.

What do they cost?

Generally, a new student level soprano sax starts as low as $200 and then goes up from there. But, a pretty common range is $300 – $500. Intermediate level soprano saxophones are likely to run between $1000 and $2000.

For professional level soprano saxophones, you can expect to pay between $2000 and $3000 or even higher. Furthermore, the price goes up quite a bit for name brands like Yamaha, Allora, or Selmer for all the levels.

What Does the Soprano Sax Sound like?

Of course, the soprano sax sounds best when playing music in the higher register. It allows the fullness of the instrument to be on display. This also means that it fits well in orchestras and concert big bands. However, it is at home in Jazz music as well. Just listen to Sidney Bechet to get a feel.

Unfortunately, the soprano saxophone is very often associated with Soft Jazz and Muzak, commonly known as “elevator music.” But don’t let that stereotype put you off the soprano sax. Just use it as a reference point for how a soprano sax sounds.

The Alto Saxophone

The Alto Saxophone

Next up, or should I say down, is the alto saxophone. When people think about a saxophone, this is typically it. The alto saxophone tuning is Eb, which is the same as most clarinets.

Here you find the standard sax shape and sound that most people will recognize. The alto sax is the best beginner saxophone because of its size and its price. But, it is not limited to just students.

All That Jazz

When you hear Jazz music, you are more than likely listening to the alto saxophone. This is the instrument that basically invented the genre and then expanded upon it.

Pretty much all of the great saxophones players started on an alto sax. John Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, Stan Getz, and Ornette Colemen all played the alto sax. And let’s not forget the Father of Bebop, Charlie “The Bird” Parker.

How Much Does an Alto Saxophone Cost?

One of the great things about alto saxophones is they are the most widely produced, and there are numerous manufacturers that make them. As a result, the alto sax tends to be a more affordable option.

When talking about a new alto, the price normally starts at $300 – $700 for a student level one. Intermediate level altos will retail somewhere between $400 and $1000. While professional level alto saxophones start around $1000 and work their way up in price to $3000 for the top-of-the-line models.

Want a real bargain on a student level alto saxophone complete with case, tuner, ten reeds, neck strap, and cleaning equipment? Then take a look at this Mendini By Cecilio Eb Alto Saxophone.

The Tenor Saxophone

Next is the other most common saxophone that people think of and recognize the sound of. It can be a little hard to tell the difference between alto and tenor saxophones, but they are there.

Tenor saxophones are the gold standard of Jazz music. And they make up a sizeable amount of the rock and roll saxophone scene too. A little bigger than the alto sax, so the sound is thicker, and it’s tuned to Bb due to the longer neck.

The Blues Saxophone and Much More

Additionally, because the tuning is lower than the alto sax, a tenor sax has a more jazzy, bluesy sound. Some of the most famous jazz tenor saxophone players are people like Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins.

Both John Coltrane and Stan Getz would also play the tenor saxophone rather than the alto sax to get a more bluesy feel to the music. Not surprisingly, tenor saxophones are the most commonly used saxophones in blues music.

And the tenor sax has impacted the rock scene as well. For some serious alternative rock featuring the tenor saxophone, have a listen to the album Cure for Pain by Morphine.

The Cost of a Tenor Saxophone

As you can imagine, the larger size of a tenor saxophone means it costs more than an alto sax. However, just like the alto sax, it’s a popular instrument, and there are many different manufacturers, so the price is still reasonable and affordable.

The starting price for a student level tenor saxophone is about $400 – $800. Intermediate level tenors saxophones range from $500 to $1200, and the professional level tenor saxophones kick off at roughly $1100 and can go as high as $5000. Remember that brand name saxes fall in the upper price ranges.

But if it’s a great deal on a student level tenor saxophone starter package you are after; you’re in luck. Have a gander at this Cecilio Tenor Saxophone that comes with all the essential saxophone accessories you need.

The Baritone Saxophone

Last but not least is the big guy. The baritone saxophone is quite a beast, and you would recognize it the moment you saw one. You might think this hunk of metal is only used by jazz geniuses, but you’d be wrong.

An Odd Duck

The main genre where you will most likely find the baritone sax is Old-school R&B, Funk, and Classic Rock n Roll. This is due to its luscious, honky sound. Those background “baa rap bap” sounds you hear on old Motown records are from baritone saxes.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra had some great baritone sax players. Al Green used them on his hit Love and Happiness. Some modern examples are Perfect by Ed Sheeran and the R&B homage Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.

Of course, the baritone saxophone got its start in the orchestra. Its low pitch made it a great addition to the “bass” or backing section of an orchestra. Alongside bassoons and cellos, the baritone sax added to the bottom-end of many Classical music pieces. Oddly enough, it’s only occasionally found in jazz.

Prices for a Baritone Saxophone

I bet you already figured out that baritones are the most expensive saxophones. The average starting price range for baritone saxophones, including used ones in good condition, is about $1000 – $2000. And that’s for the student level ones.

With brand new intermediate level baritones expect to pay well over $2000. And for the professional level baritone sax, you may need a second mortgage. I’m only half-kidding. You’re looking at a minimum of $3000 with a range that reaches $9000 for the premium stuff.

Saxophone Buying Guide – Renting vs. Buying a Saxophone

What’s the Best Saxophone to Buy

It’s a big question without a lot of easy answers. First of all, renting a saxophone is usually cheaper than buying a new saxophone. But, it may cost more than buying a used saxophone. And buying a used saxophone can come with all kinds of additional costs down the road.

As a general rule, it is best to rent a saxophone for beginners and students. Once they become comfortable playing and make a commitment to the saxophone, then you can consider buying a saxophone. If you’re lucky, the place where you rent it will offer a rent-to-own plan as well.

The one thing to keep in mind about renting a saxophone is the old “you break it, you buy it” policy. Therefore, it’s a good idea to rent a second-hand saxophone if you can . That way, if any accidents occur, you won’t be paying the cost of a brand new saxophone.

Where To Rent a Saxophone

The first place to check is your local music store. If it is a store that offers saxophone lessons, it’s almost a given that they will rent saxophones too.

If that fails, you can try at the Guitar Center nearest to you. I know what you’re thinking, but doesn’t Guitar Center just sell guitars. Most of their locations have all kinds of instruments for rent and lessons as well.

Finally, there is the internet. It has got everything, hasn’t it? Two popular online options for renting a saxophone are the websites Music Rental Central and Sax Rentals. And you can always just search online for saxophone rentals in your area.

Buying A New Saxophone vs. Buying Used

If you want to buy a saxophone, you will have two options; new or used. Of course, buying a new saxophone means it is in tip-top shape, comes with a warranty, and often is part of a whole sax kit.

A new saxophone package usually includes a case, cleaning cloth, neck strap, a set of reeds, and valve lubricant, as well as the sax itself. It’s good value, but it will more often than not cost more than a used saxophone.

However, buying a used saxophone means that the best you can hope for is a case included in the deal. It is true you can find used saxophones that are way cheaper than new ones, but there are reasons for this. Reasons that often end up costing you later on.

Downsides of Buying a Used Saxophone

The first problem is that you might not be able to find one. Second-hand saxophones are often snatched up the moment they are put on the market. The second problem you might face is that you got a dud. This is especially true when buying online from places like eBay or Craigslist.

Unless you know how to properly inspect the condition and quality of a used sax, you can’t be sure of what you’re getting. There are literally moving parts on a sax! Plus the parts that don’t move, or at least shouldn’t.

Therefore, if you are set on buying a used saxophone, get one from a licensed music shop. That way, you will have some peace of mind that it is in proper working order and won’t fall to pieces after you try to play it.

What’s the Best Saxophone to Buy?

The short answer is, “different strokes for different folks.” Some people want to play that low-down, funky, honk-honk of a baritone sax. And some people want to be Kenny G. maybe.

Anyways the easiest way to determine the best saxophone for you is to assess your skill level. If you never played a note, go for a student level alto or tenor saxophone. After a few years, you can upgrade to an intermediate level model. And if you make it big, upgrade to professional.

Finding the Right Sax to Match

For young children, it is usually best to start them on a student level alto sax. You can try a soprano sax with kids, but the embouchure control may prove too difficult. A tenor will work, but make sure it’s not too big for the child. And unless the child is freakishly huge, avoid the baritone sax until middle or high school.

Likewise, if you played a different woodwind instrument in the past, you might feel comfortable with a tenor or alto sax. Perhaps even a soprano sax, but people who have experience with brass instruments may find the soprano more to their liking. The mouth control stuff, you know.

If you ever played bassoon or bass oboe, you should have no major issues getting the baritone sax down pat. But former trombone and tuba players might also take to the baritone like a fish in water. It all boils down to you, and eventually, your wallet.

Looking for a Great Saxophone or Sax Accessories?

We have you covered. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best Soprano Saxophones, the Best Yamaha Saxophones, the Best Selmer Saxophones, and the Best Beginner Saxophones you can buy in 2023.

Also, have a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Saxophone Reeds for Jazz, the Best Saxophone Mouthpieces For Jazz, the Best Alto Sax Mouthpieces, the Best Tenor Sax Mouthpieces, and the Best Saxophone Neck currently on the market.

And don’t miss our handy guides on Is Saxophone Hard to Learn and 10 First & Easiest Songs You Should Learn on Saxophone for more useful information.

Saxophone Buying Guide – Final Thoughts

The saxophone, in all its variations, is a fantastic instrument. Likewise, it’s one of the easier orchestral and/or big concert band instruments to learn. The embouchure requirements are not as difficult as a trumpet or flute. The fingering and the way you hold a sax are not as strenuous as with a violin or cello. Plus, the sax fits with a wide range of musical genres.

It shouldn’t require too much effort to find the right saxophone for you. There are plenty of options out there at reasonable and affordable prices. There are loads of songs you can learn to play on the sax, so you will never run out of new material to work on.

Furthermore, the musical knowledge and skills a saxophone can impart make it a great all around instrument for people of any age or skill level.

More Than Just Music

I said at the beginning I played sax in the grade school band. And not only did it teach me a lot about music, but it’s also how I met one of my best friends. For young people learning an instrument in a school band, the social aspects are often overlooked.

For parents who may worry about their children not having enough friends, get them to start playing the saxophone. Or some kind of instrument in the school band. They will make friends, I assure you. Just be ready for squeaking honks when they first pick one up.

Until next time, let that music play.

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