Choosing Your First Saxophone
By Michael Leopold Weber
WELCOME TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE SAXOPHONE
No other instrument quite captures the imagination like the saxophone. The saxophone permeates multiple genres, ranging from Jazz to Rock to Pop to Classical, with a menagerie of different playing styles, moods and emotions. The saxophone is the best instrument in the world (I might be a bit biased…) and extremely approachable for beginners! There is no better time to start learning the saxophone then right now! But the saxophone can seem, at first glance, a rather daunting experience. Well, have no fear because we at Sax.co.uk are here to guide you through this magical world of saxophones!
What does my money get me?
A question often fielded in store is “what does my money get me?” and much like everything in life, the more money you spend, the better the piece of equipment you will get. When you start on your saxophone journey, it is hard to tell the quality of the horn you are playing, as you won’t have a frame of reference. It is also hard to ascertain whether the initial issues with intonation (keeping the horn in tune) and playability are down to yourself or the horn, so it’s best to get a horn that you can be sure is playing optimally. Here at Sax.co.uk we only sell horns we are 100% happy and proud of, horns we are willing to put our reputation on and send across the world. All our horns go through a rigorous set up when they arrive to us and when they leave, so we can guarantee the horns play! For this blog, under each saxophone option I will break down the student horns into price brackets, to give you an idea of what your money is getting you!
Do I have to start on a student saxophone?
It all depends on yourself. Students horns, no matter the quality, are not designed to last forever. They will need upgrading at some stage. If you are looking for a saxophone to last you forever, or want something very special, you can go straight in with a professional horn and have just as much fun learning and discovering!
What size should I buy?
Saxophones come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the extremely small and high pitched Soprillo right through to the behemoth that is the Contrabass. When looking at our first sax however, we really want to be focusing on the main four, the Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Baritone.
The soprano is the smallest of our big four, and possibly the most punishing. The soprano in fact shares a lot of similarities with the clarinet, in the fact they’re typically straight rather than curved (there are curved sopranos also on the market, they look like tiny altos and they’re amazing), and play in Bb (if you are interested in clarinets, we have good news! Clarinet and Flute London is here to take care of all your Clarinet and Flute needs!) Of all the core saxophones, the soprano is the most tasking for new players. The embouchure (the technical name for how you blow down the sax) is a lot tighter, due to the smaller size of the mouthpiece. This will mean that you will have to engage the muscles in your mouth a lot more to accurately play the range of the horn, which can be hard work even for a seasoned player! However, if the soprano is truly the sound want and desire, and you are willing to put in the work, then the soprano can be a richly rewarding experience!
Entry Level Student Soprano
If you are looking to dip your toe into the waters of soprano playing, this could very well be the way to go! Our Sakkusu range are made in China and perform very well for the cost. They come with all the accessories you will need to get playing and will serve you well! Now, this isn’t by all means the perfect soprano, it isn’t the most comfortable to play on the market and will be slightly harder work tuning wise, as this is a mass-produced factory horn, but if you are looking for a horn that you do not have to heavily invest in to see whether the saxophone or the soprano is for you, then this is the way to go!
Mid Level Student Soprano
The Selmer USA Liberty is quite the surprise package, and for under a thousand pounds, is a very capable horn. This horn is made in Taiwan, as are many intermediate and professional horns, and you can immediately feel the jump up in quality from the Chinese made horns. The keywork feels more ergonomic and fun to play. The horn is also constructed from Red Brass, rather then Yellow Brass. This means the copper content in the brass is higher, leading to a more resonant, fuller tone. The little touches aren’t quite there on this horn, it is still a little beastly to tame and though the keywork is fun to play, it can feel a little spongy, but these are minor issues in the long run. This is a very mature outing from Selmer USA, and a tremendous horn for players looking for a great quality, value for money piece of kit to get started with.
Top Level Student Soprano
At the very top of the student soprano range is the Avant 200. This horn is similar in many ways to the Selmer USA Liberty. Both sopranos are constructed in Red Brass rather than Yellow Brass, they are both made in Taiwan and are both a one-piece (some sopranos come with detachable necks, these ones don’t). What stands the Avant 200 out from the USA Liberty is in the execution of the smaller details. The key touches, though synthetic, feel comfortable under the fingers, the key work is snappy and responsive, and the tone is sweet and pure. This is the go-to student model soprano and will serve you comfortably and happily for a good amount of time!
The Alto saxophone is the go-to saxophone for new beginners, and the one we typically recommend learning on! The Alto moves away from the straight design and moves towards the iconic curved shape, though still relatively light weight and comfortable to maneuverer. Embouchure wise, the technique is not as hardcore as the soprano, and doesn’t engage the muscles quite as heavily from the start. It isn’t a cake walk by any imagination, you will still need to put the work in to develop and culture an interesting and captivating sound, the Alto just makes this easier from the get-go. Now, we at Sax.co.uk always recommend the alto for younger learners (in fact, if you have a smaller child [between 7-10, or smaller in stature and hand size] we recommend the Trevor James Alphasax as it is designed for smaller hands, but doesn’t have the full alto key work, so not much use for most players) but if you feel that you will eventually move onto another horn, or you simply prefer the sound of another horn, then it is still perfectly viable to learn on another sax!
Entry Level Student Alto
If you are still unsure whether the saxophone is for you, or you simply don’t want to spend six or seven hundred pounds, then the Sakkusu is the way to go! These horns are set up here at the Sax.co.uk workshops and play nicely, feel comfortable and produces a nice tone. The package includes case, Yamaha 4C mouthpiece, ligature, some reeds and even free online tuition by the fabulous Jim Cheek! It is the ideal set up for someone who is looking to dip their toes into the world of saxophones without heavily investing. Now, this isn’t the perfect saxophone. The sax isn’t the most comfortable to play and it does have the feel of a mass-produced saxophone. But this is to be expected for such an affordable sax. This is easily the best saxophone on the market under £400 and will serve any new player well!
Mid Level Student Alto
The Trevor James Horn is one of our most popular student saxophones here at Sax.co.uk, and for good reason! These saxophones are assembled in the UK and have a marked quality and playability from its Chinese counterpart. The finishing is particularly polished, with the keywork feeling light, snappy and comfortable to play. The package again includes case, mouthpiece, ligature, reeds and free online tuition by the fabulous Jim Cheek! This really is the next step up on student horns and your money does get you quite far. This again is by no means a professional horn, but for under £649, you are getting the full package with a saxophone that will serve you well for a good many year!
Top Level Student Alto
Sitting triumphantly at the top of the student tree is the Yamaha YAS-280. This is a model that has been popular with teachers and students for many years, and it is all down to the bankability of the Yamaha name. Yamaha produce high quality equipment within a whole host of industries, and saxophones is certainly one of them! The horn is excellently manufactured in Indonesia, and comes with a case, Yamaha 4C mouthpiece, ligature, reeds… and even free online tuition by the fabulous Jim Cheek! (that’ll be the last time I say this now, assume all Sakkusu/Trevor James/Yamaha horns will come with this package). The Yamaha is designed with students in mind, such as in the key guards near the bottom of the saxophone. Instead of being small and covering just a couple of tone holes, the key guard wraps around the whole bottom of the horn, in anticipation of taking a few knocks whilst you get used to the horn. The horn itself is a bit easier to blow then your standard alto, making those first few years of learning that bit easier. Now, that does mean that later in your playing journey the horn will lack a few tonal colours to accommodate for ease of play, and the key touches will still be synthetic and such. All of this aside, the YAS-280 is the gold standard of student horns and will happily see you through your learning journey.
A lot of customers here at Sax.co.uk often want to learn the saxophone because they love Jazz, and rightly so! Jazz is amazing! When they discuss what sounds they aspire to, we often hear about American greats such as Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz. All these players were Tenor Saxophonist predominately. Though we typically recommend you start your journey on the Alto, if your reason for learning and aspiring sound is of these Tenor giants, then there is nothing stopping you starting your journey on the Tenor saxophone. The Tenor is bigger and heavier, so will feel more cumbersome at the beginning, but the process of playing it is the same as all other saxophones. If your heart is set on the Tenor, then play away!
Entry Level Student Tenor
Yet again Sakkusu come up with the goods at the entry level. This saxophone is big, broad and full of life, and if you don’t have the biggest budget this is an ideal starting point! It is in every way a big, bold tenor, couple this with the accessories that come with it (as specified probably a few too many times earlier) and what you get is a good value package! Where this horn lacks are in the smaller details, it isn’t the most wonderfully finished, and like the alto is quite heavy. For under £500, you are getting an awful lot of saxophone, making the Sakkusu a great package for the absolute beginner who doesn’t want to invest too heavily at this early stage.
Mid Level Student Tenor
Much like its alto cousin, this horn is by far one of our most popular student options, and for good reason! The Horn has a big sound, big performance and feels fresh and polished to play. These saxophones come with the full package you have read about at least 4 times in this blog, fully kitting out any new and upcoming sax player in your life! I think the best thing going for this horn is its price. It really is a serious piece of kit and I have no clue how the it’s under £1000! It really is a great sax, so much so that we struggle to keep them in stock, so please call ahead if you are interested! As I have said previously, this isn’t a pro level horn and won’t have the same quality and tonal response as a pro horn, but pound for pound you are getting a responsive and reliable horn!
Top Level Student Tenor
For me this is a stand-out sax that costs less than the popular Yamaha YTS-280. In this horn you will find a noticeable increase in quality of tone, projection, smoothness of key action and overall satisfaction when moving up and down the range! The tone is centred, as is the intonation, and generally I couldn’t recommend it enough!
The final horn we will be looking at in this blog is the Baritone. The bari is the biggest of the main 4, and has a big and booming low voice, perfect for bass lines! Of all the saxophones, Baritone is the one I would least recommend learning on. Not only does the bari have the steepest starting point price wise (as you can imagine, given the size of the thing), they are incredibly heavy and cumbersome. The embouchure is by far the loosest of the main 4, as the mouthpiece and reed are by far the biggest. Though this makes the bari the easiest to make a noise down, but it is trickier to make a good sound, as shifting between higher and lower notes requires a lot of muscle engagement. Now don’t get me wrong, if you love the sound and look of the bari, then there is nothing stopping you cracking on and blasting away! But realistically the Bartione is suited for current players looking to push their repertoire further and further their playing credentials.
Entry Level Student Baritone
Yet again, the Sakkusu comes up trumps in the entry level market. It is the exact same idea as before; Chinese made horns that come with everything that you might possibly need for any up and coming Baritone player, a decent case on wheels (this is an invaluable extra for the sake of your back) and is fundamentally a decent horn. The horn is easy blowing and gives a big, meaty response without too much effort. The issues with this horn are identical to the other Sakkusu’s, the finishing isn’t amazing, and it is big and heavy compared to other models. Don’t let this put you off however, the horn is responsive for the money, and if you are looking to dip your toe into the world of Baritones, this horn is absolutely worth your time.
Top Level Student Baritone
The top end of the student spectrum will land you with the Conn-Selmer Avant 180. We move away from Chinese manufacturing and into Taiwanese, which improves both the materials and the assembly quality quite significantly. The horn has a lot more character then the Sakkusus also, it feels like a more mature, cultured horn to play and listen to. The keywork is light and ergonomic, the tone is superbly rich and complex for a student horn and is reliably built. What sets this horn apart from others at this price point (there are a couple actually, the Elkhart SXB and and the Jupiter JBS1000 to name a few) is the package it comes with. The case is on wheels and well designed for the horn and comes with a professional standard Rousseau JDX Jazz mouthpiece. What the Conn-Selmer provides is the ultimate Baritone for new players, upgrading from a base level or a back up horn for pro players.
So that’s a guide through the weird and wonderful world of saxophone! The one piece of advice I will give you is that the saxophone is a beautiful, rewarding instrument to play, so go and play it! Come into store and say hello, ask us anything and we can guide you through the very first notes in store. Come in and make as much noise as you want! (Don’t worry, the rooms are somewhat sound proof.)