School of The Rock


Which Saxophone is Better?

by Paul D. Race

Of course the title begs the question “better for what?”  The answer is that all saxophones ever made have something they’re more useful for than anything else.  Otherwise, folks wouldn’t still be making them.  If you’re fairly new to the world of the saxophone, but you know what kind of musician you are buying for and/or what kind of music will be played, the following discussion should help you narrow in on a particular kind of horn.  It’s all relative, of course - saxophone players love doing the unexpected - so for every general principle we propose, you will easily find at least one, if not a dozen radical exceptions.  But most of those players knew exactly what the “rules” were before they started breaking them. 

Other global principles worth knowing include:

  • All saxophones use the same fingerings.  So when a player picks up a larger or smaller horn, he or she can start playing the right notes immediately.  (That’s not the only adjustment, though - see below.)
  • Saxophones of different sizes have different sounds. The smaller the horn the sweeter it sounds (when played properly).  The bigger the horn, the “gutsier” it sounds.  Yes, the ranges between adjacent sizes overlap, but some folks with the chops to play any saxophone they want tend to stick with a particular size because that’s the sound they prefer.
  • The larger a saxophone, is the more air it requires.  Having grown up on Bb Tenor sax (the next to the largest sax in common usage), I was the person you wanted blowing up balloons for your kid’s birthday party.
  • The smaller a saxophone is, the more pressure and precision it requires.  That’s one reason that many folks find it easier to migrate from a smaller horn to a larger horn than vice versa. 
  • Like violin, cello, and trombone, all saxophones require practice and a “good ear” to play in tune.  Every note on every horn requires a slightly different approach.  A horn that requires less adjustment between different notes across its range is said to have good “intonation.”   
  • That said, all other things being equal, the smaller the saxophone, the harder it is to play in tune - all other things being equal. It’s why nobody starts out on Soprano sax. (Not even Kenny G.)

Because of all these factors and one listed just below, most teachers and mentors recommend starting on one of the mid-range horns - Eb Alto or Bb Tenor.  A helpful side effect when you’re shopping for horns is that there are millions of well-made Eb Alto and Bb Tenor saxophones on the used market for a fraction of what a new horn would cost.  Check out our Evaluating Used Saxophones article for tips on how to shop effectively in that market.

Saxophones for School Band

First of all, if you have a student starting band and he or she is small for their age, an Eb Alto saxophone is best.  If he or she is large for their age, or independently prefers the sound of a larger horn, consider Bb Tenor. 

Eb Alto is the “main” instrument in the saxophone series, the way Bb “soprano” clarinet is the main instrument of the Clarinet series.  This means that if your student decides to go on and study music, say, he or she will probably have to become profiecient on Eb Alto regardless.  Eb Alto is also more likely to find its way into classical orchestras (which usually have no saxophone altogether, unless a clarinet player “doubles” on it).  In ”big band” sax sections, the leader is usually an Eb Alto player.  In addition, it’s relatively easy to go from Eb Alto to any other instrument in the sax family. 

On the other hand Bb Tenor often gets more interesting parts, especially countermelodies that - in other settings - would be played by cello or lead guitar.   Bb Tenor is also more common than in Alto in classic rock and certain kinds of jazz.  In fact, it’s my favorite horn, because I can go from boogie-woogie base lines to screaming solos on the same horn.  Years of practice playing countermelodies and occasionally doubling the bass also helped me learn more about more aspects of music arrangements and - eventually - improvisation than most of my Alto-playing friends.  That said, when I started saxophone, my Bb Tenor seemed bigger than I was.  Go to a music store and hang one on your kid in playing position. If it looks like the thing is in danger of eating your child whole, opt for the Eb Alto. 

What about the other kinds of saxophones for school bands?  First of all, nobody starts on Eb Baritone sax - it’s huge and very expensive.  The other kinds - Soprano and C Melody are simply not supported in most band or orchestra arrangements.  If the kid shows up for band class with a Soprano or C Melody horn, there MIGHT be a first-year band book for the horn.  Depending on the curriculum used, there might even be a second-year band book.  But once the kid is in a band that plays individual tunes from sheet music arrangements, he or she will usually have no music to play, and you’ll be replacing the horn anyway.

Rock and Roll

In the early days of Rock and Roll, Bb Tenor sax was a mainstay of rock bands.  Part of that goes back to the fact that in pre-bass guitar days, the only other way to get a bass line was with an upright bass, which not every band could afford or had room for.  (In fact, the Dave Clark Five used an Eb Baritone sax, which could really pound out the bass parts.)   Also, the kind of lead guitar that we’re used to today hadn’t evolved yet, so the Bb Tenor would often take the solo breaks as well.  To get the volume needed to project across a crowded dance floor (and keep up with drums and early electric guitars), the players “overblew” their horns, creating a distinct rough sound that is sometimes labeled “honking,” “screeching,” and worse, somewhat analogous to, say, overdriven, distorted guitar solos of the late 1960s.

During that era, lots of kids who started on Eb Alto migrated to Bb Tenor to join rock bands - one case where the relative ease of moving to a larger instrument paid off.

Even after bass and lead guitars evolved to the point where the sax was no longer critical to a rock sound, bands continued to use them.  Bb Tenor was a mainstay of Chicago’s early sound, adding a rich texture to the brass section.  Creedence’s  John Fogerty would double on Tenor sax for solos on ballads like “Long as I Can See the Light.”  Later artists came to use Tenors mostly for pieces that had a retro sound, such as the sax solo in Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.”  (One exception is Paul Simon, who hired Eb Baritones for a vintage sound in songs like “Baby Driver.”) Thirty years later, not many bands use sax at all, but the ones that do tend to use Bb Tenor.  (I confess that I “cut my improvisational teeth” as a rock Tenor player back in the seventies when dozens of bands still used Bb Tenors at least part of the time.)

Eb Altos have had their place in rock as well.  Once saxes were no longer needed to provide bass lines, they tended to be used for fills and solo breaks.  And the higher range of Eb Altos seemed to suit many “light rock” songs, such as Carole King’s “Jazzman” and “I Feel the Earth Move,” as well as Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” Rock Alto does not have as distinctive or iconic a sound as Rock Tenor, though.  In some ways the tone and style of rock Alto has more in common with Jazz Alto than it has with Rock Tenor. 

Here’s an irony - Kenny G, who is often slammed by critics for being a mediocre Jazz saxophonist, is actually a great Rock saxophonist who started on Eb Alto before migrating to Bb Soprano.  That said, I still feel that Kenny G is at his best when he’s accompanying  pop and rock vocalists - that’s when his superlative Rock sax chops shine through.  It also demonstrated the value that a Bb Soprano sax can bring to Rock or Pop arrangements, when used appropriately.

The point is that either Bb Tenor or Eb Alto will give you a good start if you eventually want to go into Rock and Roll.  

The one saxophone family you don’t see on the Rock list is C Melody, and its kid brother C Soprano.  Why?  Because the ability to overblow your horn when you need to is a tool in every Rock sax player’s arsenal, and the C Melody’s narrow bore makes it much, much harder to overblow than the Eb or Bb horns.  They’re quieter, too, which is not a plus in Rock or Pop music.  One exception might be a band member who wants to “learn” saxophone to play a few solos here and there John Fogerty-style without necessarily becoming an expert.  If you have flute or clarinet experience, and will be reading untransposed charts, C Melody may be the way to go.  Just don’t expect to get that classic rock Tenor “growl” on the thing.


Early Jazz (sometimes called Ragtime) was as likely to use one kind of saxophone as another, but it didn’t depend on sax like early Rock did.  In the early Big Band era, pioneers like Coleman Hawkins gave Bb Tenor a Jazz voice, influencing two generations of Jazz saxophonists.  In the later Big Band era, sax sections like that in the Glenn Miller orchestra tended to have Bb Soprano, Eb Alto, Bb Tenor and Eb Baritone, although the once-popular C Melody was left out - it could not compete in volume, and its range mostly overlapped the much-louder Bb Tenor, making it redundant.   

When Modern Jazz started in the late 1940s, Eb Alto, Bb Tenor and Eb Baritone players all made their mark, each using the distinctive voice of their horns to evoke new, unique sounds. With the emergence of “Soft Jazz” (which dominated nightclub lounges for much of the 1950s and 1060s), the lilting voice of Eb Alto was just as welcome as the rich Bb Tenor voice.  No C Melodies were heard, and few Sopranos. Today, thanks to Kenny G’s work in Rock, Pop, and Technopop, a number of Jazz players have moved to or double on Bb Soprano as well.

That said, Eb Alto and Bb Tenor tend to be the classic “gateway horns” to Jazz sax playing, even it the player eventually transitions to Bb Soprano or Eb Baritone.


The growing popularity of praise choruses in modern Evangelical churches has birthed the emergence of “praise teams”  These are essentially guitar-based “light Rock” bands that tend to play in sharp-heavy keys.  The approach that your church’s worship leader takes to arranging the tunes determines what adjustments you’ll need to make.

Some churches used “store-bought” or computer-generated orchestral arrangements that have simple “saxophone parts” written out in the appropriate keys.  In that case, bring in your Eb Alto or Bb Tenor and prepare to see a lot of sharps, whole notes, and rests on the page - the arrangers have very little imagination.

Many praise teams work from piano/vocal sheet music or “lead sheets” - music with just the melody and the names of the chords. If you want to play sax on that team you have three basic choices:

  • Learn to Transpose “on the fly,” literally looking at one note and playing another
  • Learn to Improvise musical parts, making up your own parts like Rock and Jazz players often do.
  • Shop for a playable and affordable C Melody saxophone (probably the hardest of the three choices, really, and certainly the most expensive). If you are considering this route, check out our article on Shopping for C Melody Saxophones.

For an expanded discussion on playing saxophone in church, check out our article “Saxophones in Church?” 

Jams With Piano or String Bands

If you have already learned to play sax and you just want to have a sax on hand to play whenever your buddies strike up the piano or get out their guitars, mandolins, banjos, or ukuleles, C Melody may be your best bet, especially if they ever play from sheet music.  And you won’t drown them out, unless you’ve shopped for a $250-$300 mouthpiece and have massive chops. 

My C Soprano also has a reedy pipe-like sound that works well on Irish jigs and the like.  However it is more piercing than the C Melody, and some folks may not like the sound. 

I wouldn’t buy a saxophone just for this reason, but it’s nice if you already have one.

Reference Table

So here’s a table of best and possible suggested uses for each class of saxophone.  Again, you’ll see real-world deviations from this list, and these uses will change over time.  But it will hopefully give you some general direction. 

Range is from no stars (virtually never used in this genre, many obstacles to success) to four stars (most useful in this genre, few obstacles to success). 

The only reason Eb Baritone doesn’t have four stars in the School Band row is because it’s so big and expensive, nobody buys it for students - you have to count on the school band owning one in playable condition.


C Soprano

Bb Soprano

Eb Alto

C Melody

Bb Tenor

Eb Baritone

School Band




























Jams w/Piano or String Bands














By the way, the main reason I spelled out Eb Alto and Bb Tenor in this article instead of just calling them Altos and Tenors, is that we are also discussing C Melodies on this page.  C Melodies all play in the same key, but because their necks can be shaped differently, some look more like Altos and some look more like Tenors.  So the folks who sell them or write about them are constantly calling them “C Altos” or “C Tenors” as though the shape of the neck makes them different instruments.  If you go to a music store and ask for an Alto or Tenor horn, you will get an Eb Alto or Bb Tenor.  But if you’re in the used market, especially if you’re looking at older horns, you might come across an “Alto” or “Tenor” that is really a C melody.  Some eBay vendors have even mislabeled them on purpose.  That’s another reason to get an actual saxophone player involved when you try to buy a used saxophone. 

Other Resources

Other articles you may find helpful include:

Another resource, the Horns in My Life articles describe various saxophones (and one flute) with which I’ve made a personal connection over the last 45 years.  Some folks who’ve had similar horns will find it a helpful resource.  Others will just like to reminisce along with me.  On the other hand, if you come across one of these horns while you’re shopping for a saxophone and want to know more about it, you may find one or more of the articles helpful.

The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.


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