How to Play the Saxophone Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Play the Saxophone

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This entry intends to teach complete beginners how to play the saxophone. It does not aim to teach other aspects of music such as musical notation, rhythm and so on. It is assumed that the beginner is able to hum simple tunes and can sing the major scale: 'do re mi fa so la ti do'.

Introduction and Brief History

The saxophone, popularly known as the sax, is a woodwind instrument, although it is made of metal. It has a lovely, sexy tone, with more of an edge to it than the clarinet, to which it is similar in many respects. The sax is easy to play and is a good instrument for anyone above the age of 12 who wants to be able to bash out tunes without requiring any great musical knowledge. It uses a single vibrating reed strapped to one end of a long pipe which is narrow at the reed end and widens out along the length into a wide 'bell' at the other end. To make the saxophone more manageable, the pipe is bent into the characteristic 'S' shape, except in the very small saxes, which are straight like a clarinet.

Adolphe Sax, a Belgian instrument maker, invented the sax in 1843 in an attempt to make a bass clarinet that was easier to play and with a better tone. Sax's original saxophone was very big. He later produced a whole range of instruments of different sizes, including the smaller saxophones which are common today. Sax developed his instruments for use in military bands and they are still used in that capacity. In the 20th Century, the sax was adopted in jazz circles and became very much associated with jazz, swing and big band music. By the late 20th Century, its use had spread to most types of popular music.

The sax was never really adopted into the world of classical music. Having a tone somewhere between a clarinet and an oboe, it should fill a niche, but very few composers have written music for it: Ravel gives it a part in his orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, but that's about it.

Sax's original saxophones had a range of a little over two octaves. This range has been extended slightly in modern saxophones to about two and a half octaves, although special playing techniques can be used to get much higher notes. Modern saxes also have a more elaborate key mechanism to make them easier to play.

Choosing a Saxophone

Saxophones come in a number of sizes, the most common ones being the Alto and Tenor. The Tenor is a little bigger than the Alto and has a deeper tone. It is recommended that you start learning on the Alto, as it is the easiest to play and to carry. The smaller Soprano is cheaper and looks like it might be more manageable, but it is more difficult to play. New Alto saxophones cost anything from about £400 up to many thousands of pounds. However, you should be able to pick up a cheap second-hand one for a reasonable price.

Saxophones are made from metal which is normally lacquered to give it a gold appearance. Only the very expensive models are actually gold-plated. If your saxophone has been used a lot, the lacquer will have worn off in places. Don't worry too much about this: it makes the instrument look cool, and it is a sign that the sax has been well used, which means it must play reasonably well. If the instrument has a pristine look, it may be because it was rarely played, and this may be because it is unplayable!

The name Selmer is synonymous with saxophones. The Selmer company bought the Sax company in 1928, so they are 'direct descendants' of the inventor. Anything Selmer makes should be good, but will carry an appropriate price tag. Other reputable makers are Yamaha and Keilwerth. There are also many good companies in Taiwan producing student model saxophones, such as Jupiter.

Main Parts of the Sax

The body of the saxophone is shaped like the letter J. The bottom of the J is called the bow. The end of the J where it widens out is called the bell. There are holes along the length of the body which are covered with pads. These pads are controlled by keys which are pressed by your fingers. As well as the body of your saxophone, there are a few other bits you need:

  • Mouthpiece - the pointed tip to which the reed is attached, that goes in your mouth. Usually made of plastic or hardened rubber (a black plastic-like substance) but can be metal or crystal.

  • Reed - this flat piece of cane is the vibrating bit.

  • Ligature - a metal or leather clamp which holds the reed to the mouthpiece.

  • Crook or neck - a curved metal tube with a single pad on it. One end of the crook is lined with cork which fits into the mouthpiece.

  • Neck strap - the saxophone is too heavy to hold in your hands, so it hangs from a strap around your neck.

  • Bung - this fills the hole at the top of the saxophone when it is disassembled, preventing the opening from being damaged.

  • Cork grease - the cork needs to be lubricated with this to make a good seal and to prevent it from being damaged.

  • Cap - this is a protective cap that can be put over the mouthpiece to protect the reed while you are not playing.

Caring for the Saxophone

Because they are made of metal, saxophones are rugged and don't require a huge amount of care.

The most important thing in looking after your sax is not to lift it up by the crook - this part could easily become damaged and this would greatly affect the sound. The bell is much stronger and won't affect the sound very much even if you dent it, so always pick the sax up by the bell.

When you play, condensation builds up inside the instrument. This won't do the metal any harm, but it can damage the pads and it can make the sax smell bad, so you should dry it out after use with a special pull-through cloth. The cork should be dried and kept well lubricated with cork grease. The mouthpiece should be swabbed dry with a piece of tissue. The reed should be detached and allowed to dry away from direct heat, after which it should be replaced on the mouthpiece or stored in a special reed storage case.


Place the crook in the body of the sax and tighten the screw so that the crook is held in place. Put on your neckstrap. Lift the sax by the bell, not by the crook - you won't damage the bell. Attach your neckstrap to the hook on the back of the saxophone.

The Reed

The sound in a saxophone is produced by a reed, which is a flat piece of cane. It has a tip which is very thin. Great care must be taken not to touch this with anything other than your tongue, as you will damage it. In normal use, reeds have to be replaced every week or two, as they wear out. For a beginner, a reed should last a few weeks.

Reeds are graded by a number from 1 to 4. The bigger the number, the harder the reed. Hard reeds are more difficult to play but last longer and are louder. Beginners are advised to start with a soft reed, such as a 1½ or a 2.

Take a reed from its box and moisten it by sucking it. You should suck both ends of the reed so that it is really soaked, but be careful not to touch the tip with your fingers. Place the flat side of the reed against the mouthpiece so that it covers the hole. The tip of the reed should be exactly in line with the tip of the mouthpiece. Now carefully lower the ligature over the mouthpiece and reed. Clamp the reed to the mouthpiece by tightening the ligature. The ligature should be well along the reed, so that the sloping cut part of the reed is not covered by it.

Putting on the Mouthpiece

Put a little cork grease on the cork with the tip of your finger. Then attach the mouthpiece to the sax by pushing it onto the cork, twisting it slightly to prevent the cork getting damaged. About half the cork should be inside the mouthpiece. The reed should be on the underside of the mouthpiece, facing the ground when the sax is upright.

Holding the Saxophone

In order to hold the sax, you need to know where to put your hands. This is difficult to explain without pictures so read this carefully.

Left Hand

On the back of the sax is a round plastic thing that looks like a button, but doesn't move when you press it. This is the thumb rest. Put your left thumb on this.

On the front of the sax at about the same height, you will see four or five keys which are inlaid with pearl. If there are four, then the second one will be smaller than the others. You should ignore the small one. Put the first three fingers of your left hand on the other three pearly keys. If there are five pearly keys, then the third one will be smaller. In this case, ignore the first key (counting from the top) and the small third one. Put your three fingers on the other three keys. You now have your left hand in position.

Right Hand

On the back of the sax, lower down, you will see a large hook, called the thumb hook. Place your right thumb under this, so that the hook rests between your thumbnail and the first joint of your thumb. On the front of the sax, you will see three pearly keys. Put the first three fingers of your right hand on these. You now have your right hand in position.

Playing Position

Hold the sax in front of you, away from your body with the main part vertical. The strap should take most of the weight. It should be adjusted so that the mouthpiece is directly at your mouth. You should not have to bend your neck to reach it.

Making a Note

Cover your lower teeth with your lower lip. Place the mouthpiece in your mouth so that your bottom lip presses gently against the reed about half-way up. Close your mouth so that your top teeth press gently against the top of the mouthpiece. Now close your lips so that there is no gap around the mouthpiece. Tighten up the muscles in your cheeks slightly, so that your lips are held in place.

You are now ready to make your first note. Press down your left index finger so that the pad below it closes. Keep your fingers on the other pearly keys but don't press them down. Put the tip of your tongue against the tip of the reed. Now blow and release your tongue. You should hear a note coming out. It should feel like you are saying the word 'taw'. The 't' sound should give a crisp start to the note; this is known as 'tonguing' the note. It is possible to produce notes without tonguing, but you won't get a good tone, so you should tongue every note at the start.

Practise this note until you can produce a good note every time. You may have to play around with the position of the mouthpiece in your mouth until it sounds right.

Fingering Diagrams

The note produced when your fingers are in the following position is known as 'B'. The fingering chart for this is as follows:

B: 1-- | ---

In this fingering diagram, the vertical line in the middle separates the left hand (on the left) from the right hand (on the right). The 1 here represents the first finger of your left hand. The dashes represent the other five fingers, which are not pressed down.

If you try to play along with anybody else, you will find that what you call B is not the same as what they call B. The saxophone has different names for all the notes from the piano, because it is a transposing instrument. Don't worry about this for the moment.

Left Hand Notes

Now it's time for some more notes. The first ones to master are the ones which use only the fingers of the left hand.

C: -2- | ---

The above means that the left-hand second finger is pressed down, but all the others are up.

A: 12- | ---

G: 123 | ---

With these notes, you can play some simple tunes in the key of G. The notes G A B C form a sequence of the major scale: 'do re mi fa'.

Suggested tune:

'Merrily We Roll Along'/'Mary Had a Little Lamb':
B A G A B B B,
A A A,
B B B,
B A G A B B B,

Right Hand Notes

When you are happy with the notes using only the left hand, you can learn some notes using the right hand too.

F#: 123 | -2-

The # sign is called 'sharp' so that F# is called 'F sharp'. It means the note is higher in pitch than F, but since you haven't encountered F yet, don't worry about it for the moment.

E: 123 | 12-

D: 123 | 123

With these new notes, you should be able to play some tunes in the key of D.

Suggested tunes:

'When the Saints Come Marching In':
D F# G A, D F# G A,
D F# G A F# D F# E,
F# F# E D D F# A A G,
F# G A F# D E D

'This Old Man, He Played One':
A F# A, A F# A,
B A G F# E F# G,
F# G A D D D,
D E F# G A, A E E G F# E D

'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star':
D D A A B B D, G G F# F# E E D
A A G G F# F# E, A A G G F# F# E,
D D A A B B D, G G F# F# E E D

'Oh Susannah':
D E F# A A B A F# D E F# F# E D E
D E F# A A B A F# D E F# F# E E D
G G B B, A A F# D E
D E F# A A B A F# D E F# F# E E D

The Octave Key

You are still somewhat limited in what you can play, because you don't know enough notes yet. The next stage is to add some higher notes. The D you have been playing up to now is called 'first octave D'. It is played with all six fingers down. You are now going to play second octave D.

Beside your left thumb you will see a curved metal key called the octave key. You should position your thumb so that the end of it is sticking out slightly beyond the thumb rest and is over the octave key. You can press the octave key by rocking your thumb slightly. It only needs to be pressed a small amount. You do not lift your thumb off the thumbrest for this.

Play a D, then press the octave key. The note should jump upwards an octave to 2nd octave D. It will still be recognisably the same note but higher up. The fingering diagram for this uses 'T' to show that the thumb has pressed the octave key. There is also a little tick beside the name of the note to show it is in the second octave:

D': T 123 | 123

'Amazing Grace':
D G B A G B, A G E D,
D G B A G B, A B D',
D' D' B A G B, A G E D,
D G B A G B, A G.

Other Notes in the Second Octave

2nd octave D is identical to 1st octave D except that you press the octave key lightly. The same principle applies to all the other notes you have learned so far. So with a bit of practice, you should be able to play all the following notes:

D: 123 | 123
E: 123 | 12-
F#: 123 | -2-
G: 123 | ---
A: 12- | ---
B: 1-- | ---
C: -2- | ---
D': T 123 | 123
E': T 123 | 12-
F#': T 123 | -2-
G': T 123 | ---
A': T 12- | ---
B': T 1-- | ---
C': T -2- | ---

Suggested tune:

'How Much is that Doggy in the Window?':
D' G' D' B G E' D' B E' A
D' F#' E' D' C F#' E' D'
D' G' D' B G E' D' B E' A
D' F#' E' D' C B A G

Completing the Scale

You will hear if you play this that from G to G' is a normal major scale of 'do re mi fa so la ti do'. You will also hear that from D to D' is almost a normal scale; one note is wrong. The C sounds wrong. What you need to play a D to D' scale is the note C#.

C#: --- | ---

That is, you raise all your fingers for C#.

Suggested tune:

'Baa Baa Black Sheep':
D D A A B C# D' B A
G G F# F# E E D
A A A G G G F# F# F# E
G F# E E D

Some More Notes

At this stage you have learnt most of the notes in the main two octaves of the saxophone's range. There are a few gaps along the way. These are now presented here:

F: 123 | 1--

Bb: 12-- | Bb---

This note is called B flat. The little b is a flat sign. In standard musical notation, a special b with a pointed bottom is used. The Bb key which is shown here is one of the three on the side of the saxophone beside the index finger of your right hand. It is the lowest of these three. You should be able to press this key without removing the tip of your finger from the pearly pad where it normally rests.

G#: 123G# | ---

The G# key is in the group of four keys just beside your left little finger. It is the highest of the four keys.

Eb: 123 | 123Eb

The Eb is one of the two keys beside the right little finger. These two keys have rollers on them. The Eb is the higher of the two.

High D

The highest note you have played so far is C#'. The next note up is called High D. It uses a different technique. At the left side of the saxophone near the top are three keys that stick out a long way. They are called 'palm keys', because they are positioned around the palm of your left hand. The one closest to the back of the sax is the High D key.

To play High D, play a C# (octave key and nothing else), then add the High D key, using the third joint of your first finger.

D'': D--- | ---

Where to Go from Here

There's a lot more you can learn about the saxophone. It is capable of playing a few notes lower than the ones you've learned here and a lot of notes higher. It is also possible to play some notes such as Bb in a few different ways, known as alternate fingerings. And if you are going to learn the instrument seriously, it is a good idea to learn how to read music. The best way to do all of these is to find yourself a good teacher, although you can learn a lot of it from books.

You can find more information at the Woodwind Fingering Guide.

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