Saxophone Overview and History

Sax PatentThe saxophone was invented by Adolphe Sax in Belgium in 1840. Adolphe learned his father’s craft and soon surpassed his talent. When he was fifteen, he made a clarinet and two flutes out of ivory, which was almost impossible. By twenty years of age, he created a brand new fingering system for the clarinet- that is the system we use today. He also reinvented the bass clarinet. He was actually the first to fuse piston valves into what is now called a bugle. He was a master instrumentalist. He could play every wind instrument very well. He had a vision to create a completely new instrument that would blend the power of a brass instrument with the nuances of woodwind instruments. He won two patents for its design in 1841. His dream was for the saxophone to become a key part of the orchestra. The main problem was that his design lacked precise intonation.

In 1846, Adolphe Sax won two patents for his designs: One for a set of saxophones intended for the orchestra and the other for a set of saxophones intended for military bands. Each set consisted of a range of sizes from the small sopranino to the giant subcontrabass. These two patents represented Adolphe’s two dreams for the saxophone. Although a few orchestral composers did write for the saxophone, it has not to this day lived up to Adolphe’s dream of being a key orchestral instrument.

Adolphe believed that his his saxophones, could turn the image of the French military bands completely around (his second dream). The French adopted his instruments even though they were at first reluctant. The result? Military bands from all over the globe wanted saxophones in their band! It was through those military bands that the saxophone made its way to New Orleans, LA, and became a key component in the formation of early jazz.

Where to Purchase

Local dealers are: The Music Academy of ChelmsfordUniversity Music, and Music and Arts.


Some instruments are written in concert pitch. This means that when that specific instrument plays a “C”, a “C” comes out. To transpose means that the player is playing an instrument that sounds a different pitch (higher or lower) than the pitch they are presently reading on the staff. Alto Saxophonists sounds a major sixth (six steps) lower than written. If you play a “C”, a “E-flat” is the sounding pitch. When directed to play a “Concert B-flat”, you will play a “G” to correctly play the requested note.

Tenor Saxophonists sound a major ninth lower than written. If you play a “C”, a “B-flat” is the sounding pitch (think down to a B-flat, and then down one octave from there). When directed to play a “Concert B-flat”, you will play a “C” to correctly play the requested note.

Baritone Saxophonists sound an octave and a major sixth lower than written. If you play a “C”, an “E-flat” is the sounding pitch. When directed to play a “Concert B-flat”, you will play a “G” to correctly play the requested note.

Saxophone Brands and Models for Beginners

Prelude by Conn Selmer AS711
Yamaha YAS26

Prelude by Conn-Selmer TS711
Yamaha YTS-26 Standard Tenor Saxophone

Saxophone Brands and Models for Intermediate Players

Yamaha YAS-480 Intermediate Eb Alto Saxophone
Selmer SAS280 La Voix II Alto Saxophone Outfit

Yamaha YTS-480 Intermediate Bb Tenor Saxophone
Selmer STS280 La Voix II Tenor Saxophone Outfit

Baritone saxophones are most often rented out by your school. If you are interested in purchasing one, please see your band director!

Instrument Assembly

Take your reed out of its case and start soaking the shaved part in your mouth to moisten it. Store your reeds in a proper reed case, not the little plastic case it comes in. A reed case will adequately dry out the reed when you’re done!

Step 1: Place the case on the floor or a table. These surfaces are much more sturdy so that you do not drop the pieces inside. Make sure that the latches open to the ceiling. Most cases have a thin lid and a thicker body. Open up your case.

Step 2: Place the neck strap around your neck.

Step 3: Place the mouthpiece on the cork part of the neck (be sure to work some cork grease on with your fingers before putting the mouthpiece on!).

Step 4: Pick up the saxophone by the bell, which has no keys. If you pick up the saxophone by the upper part of the instrument, you may damage it.

Step 5: Attach your neck and mouthpiece to the body of the saxophone. Then tighten the screw where the two parts join. This screw does not have to be too tight!

Step 6: While still holding the bell, hook the neck strap into the small loop on the back of the saxophone. ​

Hand Position and Posture

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Neotech Soft Sax Strap
Neck Strap

Saxophonists will sit forward and balanced in their chairs. Because the saxophone is somewhat heavy, there may be a tendency to slouch forward or to the side to counter the weight.  It is very important that the student has a functioning neck strap in order to maintain good posture. You may turn your mouthpiece to the right on the neck so that your head remains straight. You may put their neck strap on prior to putting together the instrument. Raise your neck straps before hooking the instrument on. Sit balanced and raise the neck strap until the hook is at their belly buttons. If you neck strap is adjusted properly, the mouthpiece will arrive at your embouchure without your head or neck having to crouch down low to meet it.

Right Hand: Your right hand thumb tip should be under the
thumb rest- do not go past your first knuckle! The fingers should be
moderately curved in order to avoid hitting any extra keys.

Left Hand: Your left thumb should rest at an angle so
that the tip can still press the octave key when needed. Like the
right hand fingers, the left hand fingers should be open to avoid
hitting the palm keys.

For young alto saxophones: It is encouraged that you hold your instrument on the right side of your body and not between your legs. Some players do prefer to position the instruments in the center (see above). The side of the leg (in combination with the neck strap) will help support the weight of the alto saxophone. Also, by sliding the sax forward, towards the knee, it improves the angle the mouthpiece enters the mouth. This extra support helps keep the weight off of the bottom lip thus allowing the reed to vibrate better and create a better tone. For tenor and baritone saxophones, your only choice is to position your instrument to the right of your body.

Embouchure and Sound Production

The “embouchure” (pronounced ahm-boo-sure) is the way a musician applies their mouth to the mouthpiece of their instrument. All wind musicians must work very hard to build muscle memory in the jaw and mouth so that your sound is consistently of good quality.

Correct Saxophone Embouchure

The saxophone mouthpiece enters the mouth at quite a straight and level angle to your body. On the saxophone, your air is directed between the reed and tip of the mouthpiece.

Step 1: The bottom lip of the sax embouchure can be less firm than the bottom lip of the
clarinet embouchure. It should be like a pillow just slightly covering the bottom teeth. Your top teeth will rest on the top of the mouthpiece approximately 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch from the tip. Be careful to not let your reed push down into the bottom lip.

Step 2: Your lips on the mouthpiece should have an “o” shape. Pressure should be even
around the mouthpiece like a rubber band.

Creating a sound: Insert the mouthpiece in your mouth. Top teeth gently bite down on the top of the mouthpiece. Your bottom lip forms a cushion over your bottom teeth (do not tuck your bottom lip in!). While keeping your lips sealed around the mouthpiece, move fast air through the reed and the mouthpiece. The vibration of the reed against the mouthpiece will create your first sound!


Articulation is the way your tongue makes contact with the inside of your mouth and with your instrument in order to change styles or note lengths. When tonging on a saxophone, your tongue will contact the reed naturally if you whisper the syllable “dah”.

Out of Tune Notes

Saxophone Flat
These notes are typically flat on the saxophone. “Lip it up” by raising the tongue and applying a bit more pressure to the reed with your lower lip.
Saxophone Moderately Sharp
These notes are typically sharp on the saxophone. “Lip it down” by lowering the tongue and applying a bit less pressure to the reed with your lower lip.
Saxophone Very Sharp
These notes are typically sharp on the saxophone. “Lip it down” by lowering the tongue and applying a bit less pressure to the reed with your lower lip.


Saxophone Fingering Chart

(Click here for an interactive saxophone fingering chart by Yamaha!)

Sax Fingering Chart 1Sax Fingering Chart 2

Maintenance and Care

It is important to swab your saxophone out after each practice session, concert, or rehearsal. I recommend purchasing a silk saxophone swab that you can keep in your case. Run it through your instrument to remove moisture after playing.

Reeds: Be sure that you are not using the same reed for too long! If you play every day, you will most likely go through one reed every 5-7 days. Playing on the same reed for too long can make your sound suffer, and you could actually get yourself sick!

Notable Saxophone Players

John Coltrane, tenor saxophone

Charlie Parker, alto saxophone

Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone

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A project by Allison Lacasse: 3rd year Practical Application project for completion of a Masters Degree in Music Education at the American Band College of Central Washington University (2018).