Alto or tenor saxophone?

October 19, 2019

By Jeremy Trezona

What's the best saxophone for beginners?

You probably know that the saxophone comes in 4 main types - Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Baritone. (Read more about that here)

But out of the 2 most popular saxophones, Alto and Tenor, which is the best choice for beginners?

Certainly a lot comes down to personal choice, but if you have no idea where to start, we've got you covered in this article!

Prefer to watch instead? Check out our YouTube video below!

Size differences

The most obvious difference between the two saxophones is the size difference - the tenor is larger than the alto.

The larger size produces a lower sound, in the same way that a tenor (male voice) produces a lower tone than an alto (female voice).

The larger size also equates to a heavier instrument, with the alto weighing approximately 2.5kg (5.5 lbs) and the tenor coming in at around 3.5kgs (7.7lbs).

For most students aged around 14 and up, the size and weight differences will not be a barrier to entry at all, but for younger students (13 and under) the alto saxophone is almost always going to be a better option.

alto saxophone

Check out the neck of the tenor saxophone. Notice it kinks slightly? That's the easiest way to visually identify a tenor from an alto, apart from the size.

It's important to note that the keys are also spaced further apart on the tenor saxophone, meaning that the player's hands have to stretch a little further to properly hold the instrument and reach the keys.

If you're at all concerned with the additional size and weight of the tenor, then your best option is to visit your local music shop and try it out for yourself!

Transposition differences.

If we play a C on the alto saxophone, we should get a C on the piano right? Well, not exactly..

Playing a C on the alto saxophone actually equates to an E-flat on the piano, that's 3 half-steps (semitones) away!

Therefore, we say that the alto saxophone is an E-flat (written as Eb) transposing instrument, meaning that if we're playing with other instruments (e.g. piano), we have to play music transposed for Eb instruments to play in the same key.

What about the tenor saxophone? Well, that's a Bb transposing instrument, meaning that a C on the tenor equates to a Bb on piano. Tenor players should play music transposed for Bb instruments.

(Don't worry if you're not quite grasping this whole concept yet! It's not an argument for alto or tenor, just a unique characteristic to be aware of.)

Tonal differences.

Every saxophonist sounds a little different - and there are significant differences even between saxophonists of the same 'type' (e.g. alto, tenor etc.)

One of the most rewarding parts of choosing the saxophone is that through listening and experience, you start developing your concept of your ideal tone (bright, punchy, warm, dark, mellow etc.) and gradually set upon a path to achieve that tone through practice, listening and your equipment choice.

That being said, there is certainly a 'core' element to the sound of an alto or tenor saxophone that will always remain constant, so I highly encourage you to check out as many examples of great saxophonists performing as you can, and start deciding for yourself which you prefer the sound of.

Here are just 2 examples of great alto and tenor saxophonists doing their thing:

Kenny Garrett is a legendary alto saxophonist who has a bright, punchy tone.

Joshua Redman is a critically acclaimed tenor saxophonist with a rich, warm tone.

Price differences.

Let's face it - price can be the biggest determining factor for many new students looking to start the saxophone from scratch!

By doing a quick search on the Sam Ash website, a large US musical retailer, we found the following prices for brand new beginner Yamaha saxophones:

Alto Saxophone (YAS-26): $2166 USD

Tenor Saxophone (YTS-26): $2734 USD

As you can see, the price differential for comparable Yamaha saxophones is almost $600, certainly nothing to sneeze at!

But it's important to note that buying brand new might not always be the best option for you.

Putting that same search into Craigslist or Gumtree (depending on your country) will almost certainly return results for less than half that price. As long as a saxophone has been well maintained, there's absolutely no reason why an older saxophone (10+ years old) can't get the job done just as well as a newer sax.

A quick note on vintage saxes:

When you're first starting out, be careful purchasing vintage saxophones manufactured before the 1970's. Whilst being sought after by some professionals, there are also plenty of examples of vintage saxophones that have not aged well, or are missing many of the ergonomic improvements that we would expect to see on the more modern saxophones.

Similarities between the saxes.

Although the main purpose of this article has been to highlight the differences between the alto and tenor saxophones, there's no doubt that these instruments have many more similarities than differences, so let's briefly go through them!

Same fingerings.

Want to play a B on alto saxophone? Easy! Just press the first finger down on your left hand.

Want to play a B on tenor saxophone? Easy! Just press the first finger down on your left hand.

Yes even though these two notes will sound a little different, the method for achieving them is exactly the same. In fact, the entire key layout is identical between all 4 types of saxophone.

Same techniques.

The breathing, mouth shape (called 'embouchure') and posture is also identical between the saxophones, meaning you can follow along with tutorials on the alto saxophone and easily convert them to tenor!

Highly transferrable.

In case it wasn't clear already, if you can play alto saxophone, you can play tenor saxophone - and vice versa! Starting on alto saxophone and moving to tenor is a pathway that many saxophonists take, rather than starting on tenor from the very beginning.

In conclusion...

Ultimately, choosing between the alto and tenor saxophone is a personal choice, so listen to as many recordings of both types as you can, and decide for yourself!

But, if you came here for a cold, hard opinion - here it is!

For reasons of price, availability, and depending on your age - size, the alto saxophone is generally the best choice for a beginner.

Looking to learn online?

Often the hardest thing about learning the saxophone is simply finding the right material to get you started (and help maintain your progress).

What techniques should I start with?
What songs can I learn?
How will I know what to learn next?

Thanks to the internet, these days anyone anywhere (at any age!) can start learning the saxophone at their own pace from home.

SaxTuition Beginner Series

Products like ours, the SaxTuition Beginner Series, are specially designed to get you started on the saxophone, and provide a complete package (with videos, an eBook and playalong tracks) to keep you motivated and on track.

In fact, the SaxTuition Beginner Series is now one of the most popular ways to learn saxophone online!

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