Adolphus Sax (who also invented the bass clarinet) invented this soulful instrument in the 1840's. It was first exhibited in 1844 and was played by jazz greats such as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Recently, it has been making a comeback in ska music.

The Saxophone is a member of the woodwind family of instruments, despite its almost all-brass (or other form of metal) exterior. Plays on a single reed. Invented in the mid-1800's by Adolphe Sax. Typically regarded as a jazz instrument, but has found its way into many a concert Band. _Has_ crept its way into some orchestral pieces like Bizet's "L'Arlessiene".

Literally translated as "Voice of Sax."

The playable saxophone family and their key is as follows:

Sopranino (Eb)
C Melody Sopranino (C)
Soprano (Bb)
Alto (Eb)
Tenor (Bb)
C Melody Tenor (C)
Baritone (Eb)
Bass (Bb)
Contrabass (Eb)
Sub-Contrabass (Bb)

Except for the C Melody saxophones, they alternate in key from Eb to Bb. The C Melody's were created so that when someone wanted to play a piano piece or something else, they didn't have to transpose the whole thing.

To give you an idea of how big a Sub-Contrabass saxophone is, the bass saxophone has seven feet of large tubing. (I think there were two or three Octo-Contrabasses made, as well!)

But on a lighter side...

When he was 2 years old, he fell out of a second story window and fractured his skull.
When he was 6 years old, he mistakenly drank boric acid.
When he was 9 years old, he fell over a small cliff and broke his leg.
When he was 11 years old, he contracted measles and was in a coma for nine days.
When he was 14 years old, he broke his arm when he caught it in a carriage door.
When he was 19 years old, he was struck on the head by a falling brick.
When he was 23 years old, he almost died from the effects of tainted wine.
When he was 29 years old, Adolph Sax invented the saxophone.

I wonder how it feels for jazz pianists. Does the primary rush come from the rhythm they're keeping with the left hand, or is the real thrill those melodic trills they're playing with the right? Most of them look pretty damn happy, and they spend more time looking at their right hand, so I guess it's the high end that butters their biscuit. That's the end that thrills most folks like me, who play the guitar. It's a load of fun to play rhythm guitar, and I'm sure it's a ball playing bass. But it's when you get all wired up playing lead and get up into that higher register that things start to get magical. Watch the look on Eric Clapton's face as he gets into those tiny, tiny frets.

One of the most wonderful things that happens to a musician is when they get to actually play with folks who are a whole lot better than them. With me, it was usually sax players. The best pianists I ever played with were only above average. The best guitar players had some licks I didn't have, but I was not overly impressed with their skills. I guess I had been ruined when I got to see and hear Duane Allman lay hands on a six-string.

The great thing about a sax genius is how they hear it all. They hear the bass line that doesn't fit the song in any rational way, but fits just the same. They'll play that line as a sort of fill some nights. The bass player should notice this and nod -- not make eye contact -- just a slight nod, saying, "I hear you. Thanks." They hear the subtle ways the guitarist plays the rhythm, and they'll throw in a syncopation on some nights, way in the background where no one else really cares, to match that twist. Again, a nod is all that's required.

There are a few songs in a gig that you can't wait for, because it's your turn to shine. It's your turn to wait patiently, and in perfect tune, for that break you feel somewhere down deep inside. I can tell you that the most sublime moments I ever had playing live music were when I was in the midst of such a break, lost in the lines which made perfect sense to me at the time, and I would hear the veteran sax player chime in on a lick that I didn't even know I was going to play until I played it.

But he did.

A little known fact: the saxophone family was originally comprised of two sets. One, which is by far the most common today, was developed for use in wind bands, and is in the keys of Eb and Bb. The other is in C and F, and was intended to be used in orchestras.

The orchestral instruments never really caught on, so nowadays nobody uses the C or F, except for a handful of old C instruments. They're quite handy, since you don't need to worry about transposition - you play a C, and it comes out a C. By contrast, on a tenor sax in Bb, you play a C, and it comes out as a Bb.

Both of these families included everything from bass up to sopranino. I'm fairly certain that contrabass saxophones were not part of Mr. Sax's original plan, though they were added later - they're still quite rare. I've never had the good fortune of playing one, but the bass saxes I've tried have been quite a rush! Though not 7 feet tall, as stated, their 4 feet of very large tubing, and massive bell makes for quite an intimidating machine!

Unfortunately, the sub-octo-contrabass never *really* existed. Some ridiculously huge saxophones were built as promotions by factories, among them Conn, but they were never intended to be played, being simply a larger version of the other saxes - the keywork was not functional.

These days, saxes are used all over - not as much in popular music as they used to, and not as much in classical music as classical saxophonists would like, but they remain the main wind instrument in jazz, and can be heard occasionally in just about every other type of music in existence.

This is primarily due to the instrument's incredible versatility: a wide range of dynamics and timbres, from fuzzy whispers of sound to strident screeches, honks and blasts to lush silky sounds that put any violinist to shame. As well, a good player has the ability to manipulate the pitch immensely, making for some fantastic special effects. Indian musicians have begun using the saxophone in place of, or alongside, more traditional instruments, exploiting this aspect of it.

As well as all of these intriguing effects, saxophones can also play very quickly and with great agility, compared to similarly flexible instruments.

In short, the saxophone can be used just about anywhere, if the saxophonist has the technique, and the understanding of what he/she is doing. It's not a surprise that the instrument has become so well-known, and such a familiar cultural symbol in the hands of everyone from Lisa Simpson to Bill Clinton.

The sax is more than just another instrument. It's so much more than a vehicle for producing sound. It presents the highest level of complexity I have ever been presented with. Nuclear physics and quantum mechanics are noble pursuits and I must say that the two topics bested me in University, but the challenge they represent never consumed my entire soul the way that the never-ending study of this magnificent invention has.

It's so simple; a brass tube with a bunch of keys. All you have to do is blow into the end and out comes this wonderful sound. That's what you think. But then comes the day you pick it up and the first note that comes out squeals and screaches, removes paint from the walls and sends a small dog into fits of instanity. Immediately you start to wonder how the great saxophonists like John Coltrane and Michael Brecker take this hideously sounding hunk of metal and have it make music. I'm not talking about that pop "music" like Britney Spears or many of her little clones which is geared not towards the notes or the chord structure, or towards any complexity or imaginative thought but towards the video, the tits and ass designed to make men get hard and women get envious so they'll buy more exercise equipment. No, you wonder how these people can make music that climbs inside your head, your heart and your soul and paints the most incredible picture you've ever imagined.

If you're desperate enough and if it's grabbed hold of you hard enough, you study. You pick up that horn day after day after day, and you start to learn. Eventually you realize how the sax becomes an extension of yourself. You know that there will come a day when all you have to do is think your way through the horn and it will do anything you want it to. You learn that your breathing controls that sound. How your diaphragm exerts pressure is essential, how your larynx warps the airstream is vital, how the chamber in your mouth can manipulate the rate of reed vibration to get a darker or lighter tone, hit those altissimo notes or just make something sound weird. You learn what your lips do to make the pitch change, the reed to vibrate softer or harder. You start to realize that all of these things require decades to master and you haven't even started moving your fingers yet!

You practice your overtones, your scales, patterns, jumps, glides, pitch bends, intonation, experiment with warmth and growls -- your lips bleed but you don't notice until you look at the mouthpiece and realize that you've given more of yourself to the beast than you intended. But you didn't really give it -- the damned thing took it from you. It's become your obsession. You'll never be good enough! Once in a very rare moment you'll come across a day that works; everything happens for you. The licks come out, the ideas flow, the axe responds so beautifully that you can scarcely believe it hasn't been posessed by some sort of demon. The next day, the demon's gone. You're back to your old self, and the horn just doesn't shine the way it did the day before. Your old self is now a sieve, a shell. You've tasted greatness and you now find yourself lacking.

Much like the study of jazz the saxophone is the greatest thing in your life and, at the same time the most difficult and depressing piece of your existence. Nothing else, not even a woman takes me to the extremes of emotion like this beautiful and terrible instrument does.

Developed by Adolphe Sax as a woodwind instrument as previously mentioned, the saxophone is a term used for one of what is actually a single-reed instrument in a variety of sizes and ranges.

Once used in classical music, it's now mostly known as a wind instrument in jazz and early rock and roll, as well as reggae, ska and its various sub-genres including rocksteady.

Fundamentally, a saxophone is either a straight (in the case of most soprano saxes) or curved (in the case of about everything else) brass tube, sealed with leather pads triggered by spring-loaded keys. It follows the Boehms fingering as much as is possible so is somewhat easily picked up by players of the recorder, flute, and clarinet though each instrument has its own nuances in terms of how to cross the "break", the point where you go from the lower register of the instrument past the C represented by the third space in the treble clef and into the higher register.

Given that it IS a Boehms instrument, it's also a transposing instrument meaning that "C" played on the alto and baritone sax is concert pitched E flat, and tenors and soprano saxophones finger "C" but play B flat. It is therefore the responsibility of the composer to transpose parts from concert pitch or for the saxophonist to know which "keys" in his own instrument map to the concert pitch keys.

It used to be common practice to learn the clarinet first and then move over to the saxophone, but honestly given the differences in embouchure and the break it just makes more sense to start on the instrument these days.

The instrument has a surprising number of sound qualities, it's used in brash, cutting, sharp and bright ways in rock and roll to "cut" through a wall of guitar and bass with a gold-lacquered and brass mouthpiece, or dark and sultry with a hard rubber mouthpiece. Intriguingly, the mouthpiece is very important in terms of sound production and it being properly faced and matched to the player in terms of tip size and volume makes a giant difference. Vintage mouthpieces can fetch hundreds of dollars and any of a number of materials from rubber to crystal to brass have been purposed for this endeavor. The reed is made of cane and attached with any of a number of types of ligatures, taking over from the "tied on with thread" method which the instrument started with. The mouthpiece is slid onto the neck, which has a cork wrapper to seal the neck air-tight. The use of a Chap-stick style lubricant to avoid tearing or drying out of the cork is a necessity.

The reason for cane strengths is that a narrow tip requires a tighter embouchure and a harder reed, a larger amount of tip space can be matched with a softer reed to allow for wider dynamics.
Many saxophonists use a reed tool to face, edit, or otherwise customize the shoulder or thickness of the reed to make it ultra-playable. Synthetic reeds are now available which do not need to be moistened before use.

The instrument is usually slung around the neck with a strap that attaches to a loop brazed on to the back of the saxophone, and adjusted so the player can stand in a neutral position with the mouthpiece at mouth level. Heavier instruments like the tenor or baritone are sometimes attached to a chest harness to take stress off the neck, and contra-bass saxes are typically mounted on a stand.

To play the saxophone the lower lip is drawn over the teeth and placed on the reed, mounted on the underside of the mouthpiece. The mouth seals around the rest of the mouthpiece proper and tension is placed on the reed with the lower lip while air is blown past it. It is an easier embouchure to learn than the clarinet or trumpet but its execution affects everything from being in tune to the kind of tone to volume, so needs to be learned properly from a qualified teacher as quickly as possible. The note played is a function of the octave key (or overtone production, similar to a trumpet) and the keys used on the instrument to make it "longer" or "shorter" before air can escape, similar to a flute.

Care must be taken with this instrument. The keywork and the collection of blued steel springs and mechanisms are complex, delicate and easily nudged out of alignment or will shrink and leak. By definition the leather used in the pads will eventually degrade or cork used in the neck will shrink or tear, and leaks are the bane of the musician in some instances making the instrument unplayable. "Re-padding" an instrument involves its partial disassembly, the melting of the resin used to attach the pads, and new pads being added. Sometimes "re-floating" a pad is done, namely the careful use of a propane or butane torch to heat the resin to melting point, and then allowing it to solidify with the key pressed down, so that the pad adjusts and seals. Because this is expensive and error-prone (the decorative lacquer can burn) saxophonists are advised to disassemble and "swab" the instrument with a weighted cotton wicking assembly after every use. The instrument is also to be taken care of as being jostled, bumped, dropped or put in an ill-fitting case can damage or bend important structures.

The sax has come a long way. Modern saxes have more keys (the F# key under the D key is an example), better springs, and many now allow micro-adjustment with a tiny screw to avoid the need to "float" pads as often. But you will still find sax men carrying a small tool kit to do emergency field repairs.

For an idea of what the various sizes and registers are used for: Kenny G is the best known soprano saxophonist, putting out slightly out of tune, tinny schmaltzy songs. Should also mention Sidney Bechet, who not only was a soprano player but was instrumental in putting that instrument in jazz in the first place. Paul Desmond of the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Charles Parker are some of the best known alto saxophonists, whereas John Coltrane and most rock saxophonists play the tenor or even the baritone. The baritone is famously used to counterpoint many early rock and roll songs as well as the theme from The Muppet Show.

At or around the 1920s it was in vogue to have "C melody" versions of the alto and tenor meaning that you could play along with a pianist directly from their sheet music, but these never caught on and are mostly found in vintage stores and pawn shops.

Saxophones are almost always brass, although some have been made out of composite materials or even, disgustingly, cheap plastic for the learner. Avoid plastic saxophones. Please. Avoid. The finish on the other hand tends from the common-in-use golden lacquer, to silver or black nickel finishes. For a while in the 1980s it was in vogue to have colored finishes, but that's typically seen as gimmicky and only Cannonball produces a "Ruby" model these days, with the exception of many of a number of "starter" instruments on Amazon only worth hanging on the wall.

That being said, most saxes are from Taiwan these days. There's a certain amount of angst at the French finally giving up and Selmer, the "Gibson" of saxes having made many legendary models that command high prices on the used market - being acquired as a brand by a Chinese manufacturer. The ones that are forged there and hand-finished in the US remain usable, in fact useful instruments.

It remains an instrument in demand because unlike the piano or drums it is a tricky instrument to "sample" and play on a synthesizer. It comes out sounding like the "look at the sexy woman walk by" riff played poorly on a sampling keyboard, with obvious mod wheel bend, in a cut-rate Chinese kung fu comedy. But that hasn't stopped rap and hiphop from sampling heavily from the Blue Note catalog or grabbing sax squeals or growls as rhythmic "stab"s from classic recordings, and you can still hear the occasional blast from the past in modern music.

Many people who want to play the sax think a $300 model on Amazon is a good idea. Either that or the $400 used model in the pawn shop sold "as is". Problem there is, they're usually more trouble than they're worth. Shoddy materials, poor workmanship or the vicissitudes of age have rendered most of these instruments tricky or near impossible to play. Buy a reconditioned one from a reputable dealer if you must, but prepare to eat some cost. It is, however, totally worth it.

Sax"o*phone (?), n. [A.A.J. Sax, the inventor (see Saxhorn) + Gr. tone.] Mus.

A wind instrument of brass, containing a reed, and partaking of the qualities both of a brass instrument and of a clarinet.


© Webster 1913.

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