So I mentioned in my last post that I would post some info that will help those of you looking for a saxophone for beginners. Saxophones are an incredibly popular choice for youngsters who want to learn an instrument. Whether this is down to Lisa on The Simpsons, children having great taste in the Jazz greats, or because it just looks so cool, it doesn’t matter. The great thing is that youngsters are choosing to learn an instrument. For those that don’t know the sax is from the woodwind family and there are six different types of sax; sopranino, soprano, alto; tenor, baritone & bass which produce different pitches. Sopranino being the highest and bass the lowest.
Lets face it though, the sax is a very cool instrument not only in looks, but also for its distinctive sound. If you were looking for a saxophone for a complete beginner a few years ago, you would have struggled to find a sax below £400. The market leaders in the student saxophone market were Yamaha and Jupiter who do make very good saxophones. But £400 is a lot to ask of any parent on an absolute beginners instrument. Especially without knowing if little Jonny is going to enjoy playing the sax and it isn’t just a far fetched fantasy.
Nowadays, the would-be saxophone buyer is provided with plenty of choice for budget saxophones, which are mostly made in China. I can already hear your concerns, with the main concern probably to do with the quality. And in some cases you’d be right to question the quality and in others not. But when you’re not sure of what to look for, its a minefield! Before I explain about the things to look for, to help you, the image below shows you the names for the different parts of the saxophone. Click on the image to enlarge it.
As you can see the saxophone has complicated mechanics to it and are not easy to manufacturer and when you add into the mix the materials used, they are expensive instruments. Over the last few years though there has been an influx of cheaper saxophones imported form China. This has caused quite a stir amongst saxophone players and is still open for debate as to the quality of these imported saxophones from China. When these instruments were first imported a vast majority of them were of very poor quality. You’d find the instrument going out of tune very soon after playing it. Also the metals used were in most cases very soft causing important mechanics of the instrument to bend, or move and therefore caused leaks and affecting the sound.
Nowadays, there are still very poor quality saxophones being imported to the UK from China, but equally you will be find some of fantastic quality for around the £200 mark. Some retailers have been taking more care over choosing the factory making them, and in some cases will send an expert to oversee the manufacturing process. In fact you might find that some of these imported instruments will hold themselves up to the same level as some intermediate saxophones.
Anyway before you decide what budget you have, you need to decide which type of sax you are buying. The sopranino and soprano saxes are very difficult for absolute beginners to be able to make a good sound and bass/baritone saxes are much larger and would be very difficult for a younger player to hold up for a prolonged period of time. Also the keys are spaced further apart so would be difficult to play the full range of notes. Most absolute beginners start off with either an alto or tenor sax and then upgrade to their preferred sax once they have a good grasp.
Other considerations to think about are to do with the type of music you are playing. Here’s a general guide for you:
- Rock and Roll – Tenor Sax
- Classical – Classical Tenor Sax
- Jazz (all forms) – Alto or Tenor
That is only a guide, and as you can see from my list the sopranino/bass and baritone don’t feature much and are quite specialist. You’ll find that a lot of experienced saxophone players will have a variety of all of the different types because they are able to get the most out of them and understand the nuances of each one they have. So the general rule of thumb is don’t over specialize to begin with.
Back to choosing a budget sax, I would always recommend that you try out the saxophone first, or at least a demo display model. If you or your child do not play ask your sax teacher if you have one to come along with you and try it out for you.
There are several parts of the sax that you can check over before purchasing namely the reeds, mouthpieces and ligatures, keys and pads.
Keys & Pads
When you’re looking at the keys and pads, the really cheap models will have next to no padding on the keys. This can cause leaks and really affect the tone the sax makes. You can easily compare a more expensive model with a cheaper model and see the difference. Some imports will have given more attention to this detail as pads can be quite expensive to replace and are not generally covered by warranty be it for an import or a well known make.
Mouthpiece & Ligatures
The mouthpiece is as you might have guessed the part where you blow into the instrument. Most cheap imports will have mouthpieces that are of bad quality and will almost certainly chip or break very easily if dropped or not looked after properly. The mouthpiece plays a very important role in shaping the sound the sax makes. More so than the actually sax itself believe it or not. You can easily replace mouthpieces and for beginners I would recommend either Rico or Vandoren who specialize in saxophone accessories. Ligatures whilst being important as they hold the reed in place on the mouthpiece do not play any part in shaping the sound from a sax. You can get all kinds of fancy ligatures with slight variants but to begin with the ligature that comes with the sax should be fine.
Reeds are just as important to creating the wonderful variety of sounds you can get from the sax. The quality of reeds you get in a box is an unknown quantity to be truthful. Things you need to look for (and this might take some time to spot) include:
- Checking the exposed shaved or cut side to see if the grain is coarser than average.
- Bad quality reeds have inconsistent widths of grain.
- Checking if the reed is symmetrical e.g if one side is thicker than the other.
- Any discolouration of the grain.
A lot of beginner saxophones come as an outfit which should include all of these accessories as well as a case and maybe a neck sling if you’re lucky. Other accessories to think about buying would be a pad guard and a pull through which help maintain the cleanliness.
I’ve carried out a little research and came across a very good beginners range of saxophones supplied by Umbrella Music, called the Altone range. They come in complete outfit and have been tested thoroughly and are being used by the Waltham Forest Local Authority Music Service – so are being used by plenty of their school students.
Good luck in your hunt for a sax
PS: always buy your sax from a music instrument shop, not a general store. If you buy from a general store they will not be able to advise you.