Following our recent post, we decided to analyze which saxophone is best for jazz. Across the years, saxophonists experimented a lot with this instrument, but nowadays there are two predominant saxes dominating jazz. You can choose between an alto sax and a tenor one, and the decision only depends on your style.
What professionals use
In the old days of Early Jazz, professional players used any kind of saxophone they could get their hands on. In that period of Ragtime, they all had their unique style, but players like Coleman Hawkins managed to make the Bb tenor sax a prime choice for the voice of jazz.
He influenced generations of jazz saxophonists to play using a Bb tenor. However, in big bands of that time or orchestras, there were many kinds of saxes used, from Bb sopranos to Eb altos and Eb baritones. The Bb tenor, however, had a good range and a loud sound too, which was essential in a big band.
In the 1940s modern jazz appeared and it was in those times when players using Bb tenor, Eb alto and Eb baritone saxophones put their mark on jazz and music in general. Each of them had a distinctive voice and style, and they managed to create unique sounds.
This led to the appearance of soft jazz in the 1950s and ‘60s, where the Eb alto was the central piece of a music ensemble, but the Bb tenor voice was still up there for some talented players. Over the years, these have become the most predominant saxophones in jazz and most songs are written for them.
You occasionally get some players using a Bb soprano saxophone, but that is a rare sight, and it’s mainly used in rock, pop, or technopop. With that in mind, it’s clear that the Eb alto and the Bb tenor have established themselves as the ruling kings of jazz, and it depends on you which of them you want to play.
Some things about the alto sax
With that in mind, it might be important for you to know the difference between the two, and how each of these saxophones has its place in jazz. Fortunately for a beginner, the most common way to start playing the instrument is using an alto sax.
That is an advantage if you’re looking to transition to jazz because you already know how the instrument works and you don’t have to work that much to improve your technique. The alto saxophone is tuned to Eb, and it has a tonality sitting two and a half steps above a tenor saxophone’s tonality.
The alto has an easy-to-play key layout, and it’s a very compact instrument, making it ideal for beginners. It also requires less air to be blown in it, and that is why it’s also good for children. Developing your technique with this instrument is a lot easier. That is also why most school bands make use of the alto sax predominantly.
Because it’s such a popular instrument and the music played on it can be easier, there are also a large number of music pieces written for this instrument. You can find anything from the classical repertoire to jazz, of course. This makes it a great instrument because you can always learn new stuff on it.
The alto offers great versatility, and professional players have taken advantage of this over the years. Charlie Parker, one of the most influential bebop artists, used this to create the sound that he has become famous for. The alto will help you improvise and will be a great creative tool for you.
What about the tenor sax?
Some consider that the tenor saxophone is the gold standard in jazz because of its characteristics. In terms of range, it is tuned in Bb and it sits between the alto saxophone and the baritone.
A tenor saxophone is larger than the alto, and that makes it a bit more difficult to play, but it can still be used by a beginner. Because it can provide a different jazz vibe, you might consider playing this instrument.
The tenor sax is better at blending in with the other instruments, and with other saxes, thanks to the tone that it has which is bright and husky at the same time. It uses a larger mouthpiece, reed, and ligature, and that is why it requires more blowing force to be used.
Some of the best saxophonists have used the tenor, and if you want to be like Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins, or John Coltrane, you must at least try to play this instrument.
Similarities and differences
One thing that these two saxophones have in common is the fact that they are transposing instruments. That means that you can’t produce the same sound like a piano on them, following the same written music, because they have a different pitch.
For example, a partiture where the C note is written isn’t interpreted as a C by a tenor or an alto saxophone. But that is not the only thing they have in common. They also work the same, which should be true considering that they are basically the same instrument.
You find the same key positions for both saxophones, the same fingerings, they have the same number of notes, and they both work using a reed and a mouthpiece. Because they are so similar, many professional players learn playing both of them. This ensures the player is more versatile and can play different parts in a band.
Furthermore, by learning to play both instruments you get the chance to experiment with two slightly different worlds, each of them with its own flair.
Not all things are the same when comparing the two saxophones, and one of the main differences is the note register that they each play in. The alto is tuned in an E-flat tonality, and that essentially means that the C on a written piece of music should be transposed in an E-flat when played on the alto sax.
Being an octave lower than that, the tenor saxophone has its music written in B-flat, and that means that the written C will be played as a B-flat. This difference can be mainly observed when you try to play the music that was written for one of the instruments, but you play it on the other instrument.
Accessories and others
In case you’re wondering if you have to get more accessories for a certain saxophone, don’t worry, they all require the same things. You will only need the essentials and that includes the reeds (but be careful, there are different kinds of reeds for different saxophones). You will also have to find the right mouthpiece for you and don’t forget to get a carrying case to protect your instrument and a cleaning cloth.
The reeds are somewhat important because there are certain models made particularly for jazz. But fortunately they aren’t that expensive and you can always practice with them and see which type of reed is best for you.
Also, don’t forget that no matter the saxophone you’re using, you will need to know how to play it to make it work. For that, you will probably need a teacher, as it’s difficult to learn by yourself. Your teacher will probably suggest you buy an alto saxophone too because those are easier to play. With his or her guidance and a good sax, you will be able to create some great-sounding music.
What should you choose?
At the end of the day, this is a choice between two very similar instruments. On one hand, you have the very popular tenor saxophone that has been used with great effect by many professionals across the years.
On the other hand, you have the alto sax. The latter mentioned one is better for younger students because it requires less force to be used, and a tighter embouchure. From a technical point of view, the alto is easier to play, and beginners will certainly appreciate that. That’s why we would recommend you to start with this type of saxophone if you’re at the start of your career.
Once you get used to how the instrument plays you can move on to the tenor saxophone. In terms of actual things that you could do with each of these instruments, there isn’t that much of a difference, but you should certainly try both of them to see which one is best for you.