Ok so I play the alto sax. I was wondering are the key fingerings the same for the other types of saxophones and whats the difference in difficulty in playing them?
The whole point of the sax family is to make the fingerings the same for the same written note. This explains why they are usually pitched as E flat and B flat. You finger a C the same way in each, but it will be transposed automatically.
As far as difficulty, I don’t pay sax well enough to answer that part of your question.
I have a soprano and tenor, and I’ve played alto and baritone. My primary instrument was the tenor. I found the alto and tenor pretty much the same as far as difficulty. The baritone takes more air and some of the lowest notes were a little tough to hit. The soprano is definitely more challenging for me - it takes a tighter embouchure to get clean sounds on the notes, and I’m more used to the tenor.
But that’s my personal experience, and it’s probably based on what I played the most. Kenny G would probably tell you the soprano is easy. Each one requires a slightly different embouchure and amount of wind, but I’m not sure it makes one more difficult than the other. They’re just different.
There are some minor differences between them - the most common is that a baritone sax will often have a low-A key so you can play a half-step lower than the low Bb. A high F# key is also on other models depending on the make, year, etc., but basically the fingerings stay the same.
My experiences (alto/tenor/baritone, and recently clarinet) are the same as Troutman - that embouchure & amount of air is where the differences are. The bigger saxes require more air and the smaller saxes require more control of the embouchure. The air is not a big deal, just breathe between fewer notes, but the embouchure can take some time to become comfortable with. I’ve switched between saxes on monthly, weekly, and daily timeframes at different points in my life and it seems that you do remember this stuff deep in your brain somewhere and it comes back fairly quickly, so I wouldn’t be afraid of trying a different sax for a while.
Some of the embouchure stuff is just physics - the higher notes have more frequencies between them so if you are, say, 1% off on a high note on a soprano it can be far more awful-sounding than 1% off on a low bari sax note. Because of this you could probably say that the smaller the sax, the more difficult it is, just because the inherent problems of trying to play each note in tune become more apparent. Notes at the high and low end of each horn are the trickiest to get to sound at the beginning, but really most of the time with a new size of sax is just trying to get a decent saxophone-like sound out.
I picked up clarinet recently after a 20-year absence, and when listening to recordings of myself in the first couple of weeks, it sounded like some weird kind of soprano sax, which was sort of funny but not really what it’s supposed to sound like. But it’s getting better. Your mouth and throat and lips all combine in their own strange way to give you your sound, and it’ll eventually work itself out, assuming you sounded fine on one type to begin with.
All that said, if you have perfect pitch, switching between Bb and Eb horns might cause you some distress. However, I do not have that problem, so I couldn’t say if it is actually an issue.
I started in fifth grade on alto, and then in middle school switched to bari.
For tenor and soprano, the same fingering produces the same note, except on the tenor it will be one full octave lower than on the soprano.
Same is true for alto and bari: identical fingerings on the bari produce a pitch one full octave lower than on the alto. Switching between the two was relatively easy for me.
Tenor/Soprano saxes, the note you hear will be different from what you’re used to for any given fingering on your alto. Finger a “C” on a tenor/soprano sax, and you’ll hear a concert B-flat, whereas the same fingering on an alto/bari produces a concert E-flat.
I tried playing tenor sax for a short time, but the alto/bari finger/sound associations were so strong that when I played tenor, it was very difficult for me to reconcile the pitch I heard with the fingering I was applying.
Looking for interesting sax music? Pick up The Tiptons, particularly their “Tsunami” album. Good stuff.
I was a sax player from 6th grade up through 2 years of college, so I’ve got some experience in this area. I played alto sax for a couple years before I picked up tenor, played that for a couple years, then went back to alto until I quit band (scheduling conflicts at university! c’est la vie).
The fingerings are the same on all saxophones (alto, tenor, bari, soprano). So a G is played the same on every sax (holding down three left fingers), but it will sound different depending on the size of the instrument. Without getting too complex here, a G on an alto and bari will be the same note, but a higher octave on one than the other. And the same goes for tenor and soprano. This is because alto and bari are pitched in the same key (E flat), and tenor and soprano are pitched in the same key (B flat).
The primary difference between the ease of playing each instrument is twofold: embouchure and weight. Obviously, the smaller instruments are lighter. This isn’t a major concern unless you play bari, though, especially if you’re in marching band or some environment where you have to carry it a lot. My friend in high school marched bari sax for 4 years and it fucked her back up REALLY bad. I marched alto and it wasn’t bad at all, though. I *still *don’t know how the hell she carried that thing.
Embouchure means, essentially, how you hold your mouth and blow. The smaller the instrument, the harder you have to squeeze your lips to make it play. Embouchure is the hardest part to master, and larger instruments have a more relaxed embouchure (but take more air). If you move from a larger sax to a smaller sax (from bari to tenor, or tenor to alto, etc), you will find your mouth much more tired than you’re used to. And if you move from a smaller one to a larger one, you will find yourself blowing too fast (and clenching your lips way too much) until you get used to it again. But the bigger ones take more air, so it’s a tradeoff. Eventually it becomes automatic, with enough practice.
If you’re just starting on sax, alto is the most mainstream/cheapest way to go. But if you have the ability to afford a tenor, I’d recommend it–it’s not too heavy to play comfortably, and the embouchure is looser and easier for a beginner to get right. Between the two instruments, though, altos get to showboat more often in jazz solos (if that’s your thing). Definitely don’t start on a soprano unless you already have sax experience, they’re more advanced instruments in terms of embouchure. For a beginner, a soprano will be exceedingly difficult to play.
Yea I’ve been playing since the 6th grade too. So I do have a bit of experience. I’ve did a little marching throughout high school and concert band. I probably have more for jazz improb though. Thanks for the info all!
Moved to Cafe Society from General Questions.
I remember how embarrassed I was the first time I played in the school jazz band back in the day. I was a pretty good alto player in concert band my freshman year and was recruited as a tenor player in jazz. I was told “hey, the fingering is the same so you’ll have no problem”. Well, I grabbed a school-owned tenor right before practice, got some basic instruction from the director on how to read jazz notes, and before the whole band was told to give it a shot. Well… I started to play…except I didn’t. Couldn’t make a peep out of the thing. I was told to go to the practice room and figure out what was wrong…pretty embarrassing. I was convinced the horn was broken…I was wrong.
Embouchure people, embouchure. So important. After I got used to playing the thing it was no problem going back and forth between horns. I never was as good playing tenor though. Probably partially due to having to play a student horn and probably, quite frankly, never being quite as good at jazz.
Very true. It’s said the embouchure must be “tighter,” but it’s actually your throat opening, combined with oral cavity size (controlled by arching the back of your your tongue), as much as the forward mouthparts.