Band & Orchestra

The Best Saxophone

Saxophone players

Adolphe Sax grew up as the son of Belgium’s chief instrument maker. Before he had graduated high school, he already had made an ivory clarinet and two flutes. He then moved on to reinventing the modern trumpet. He invented the first saxophone, an instrument that he referred to simply as the bass horn when he was just 27 years old. Learning of the invention, the leading French paper Journal des Debats dubbed Adolphe’s inventions the saxophone.

Adolphe created two saxophones but the smaller one was a commercial flop. The French military band used the larger one to turn their whole program around. The instrument was so popular that militaries from around the world quickly came looking for the maker of the best alto saxophone in the world. The rest, as they say, is history as musicians still love the instrument.

Credit: Trevor James

Top Pick: TJ Signature Custom RAW Alto Saxophone

Designed to reduce key noise and bouncing with felt and cork in all the right places, this sax also has the proper point screws for more action, level draw tone hole, and a cup and touchpiece for smooth transitioning.

Why Trust Us

I have combed through many websites to bring you the very best saxophone recommendations. Of invaluable assistance was Mark Overton who spent over 20 years buying saxophones on an international basis.

I have also talked to numerous band directors including the person holding the most consecutive 1 ratings in UIL competition in Texas. Mike Brady still regularly helps with the high school bands as well as playing in an occasional concert band. I am a music player, although my chosen instruments are the cello and the piano.

I have raised two girls through the high school band program under Mike. I do not even want to think of the number of miles I have driven to attend band events at the local, regional and state levels. I also taught music lessons for five years and have taken music classes at the University of Northern Iowa.

Different Types of Saxophones

There are over five different types of saxophones. Most students will begin with the alto saxophone because its compact fingering makes it easier for smaller hands to master. This instrument is tuned to E flat. Most skills mastered on an alto saxophone are easily transferable to the other types.

Even the best alto saxophones are usually cheaper in price than other alternatives making them an outstanding choice for people who are interested in seeing if they like playing the instrument.

Tenor Saxophones

Jazz musicians have made the tenor saxophone a very popular choice. This instrument is tuned to B flat. It is vital to consider the quality of materials when shopping for a tenor saxophone because its unique curved shape makes it very susceptible to being hit, especially by new players. Musicians must master a larger fingering area when choosing this instrument.

Bass Saxophones

Bass saxophones are one of the rarest types of saxophones and are almost always played in a seated position. Like the tenor saxophone, they are turned to B flat but a full octave lower. They are mainly used in classical music.

Baritone Saxophones

Baritone saxophones are popular among players that love rock and roll along with rhythm and blues. These instruments are tuned to B flat. It is important to look for one with a sturdy floor peg to protect the instrument.

Soprano Saxophones

Experienced players produce a full rich sound on a soprano saxophone, but it is one of the most difficult instruments for an inexperienced player because of its higher pitch. It is tuned to an E-flat, just slightly higher than the alto saxophone.

Body Construction

The major difference in the saxophone’s body is whether it is ribbed or non-ribbed. This refers to how the keys are put onto the instrument. With non-ribbed construction, each key is individually soldered to the instrument’s body. In ribbed, several keys are soldered to a plate that is then attached to the body.

Ribbed instruments are slightly heavier than non-ribbed instruments. Almost all student-level saxophones have post to body construction because the added weight gives a warmer tone to the instrument. Professional models may have either because the buyer needs to consider other instrument design factors because if the instrument becomes too heavy, it can produce a dark tone.

Geometry

While you may think that all saxophones within a basic type have the same design, that is not true. Different saxophones have different bore sizes, which is the width of the neck where the mouthpiece goes on.

The smaller the bore the brighter the instrument’s sound. Large bore saxophones usually produce a warmer sound. Neither one is particularly better because it depends on the type of music that the player loves to play. For new players, a big bore saxophone is usually easier to play.

Materials

Most saxophones are made of brass with a coating applied to the top providing different looks. Buyers find a few saxophones made from red brass or a bronze alloy and these produce a darker sound. Instruments made with 95 percent silver or sterling silver have a sweeter sound without as much edge. Nickel-silver saxophones are better at playing higher harmonics.

Lacquers

Many musicians will tell you that the lacquer applied to the top of the instrument has no impact on its sound, while others will argue that it has a small impact. Instruments that have no lacquer require some special care so that they do not suffer from verdigris, which is kind of like a brass mold and they can develop red rot in more extreme cases.

Those that claim that it has a small impact find that a lacquered instrument has a warmer sound than a plated instrument. Gold or silver plated instruments produce a brighter sound while nickel plated instruments produce a more harmonic sound.

Our Recommendations

Saxophones come at many different levels. We have tried to include at least one choice from each level so that buyers have options that fit their needs. We feel that these alto saxophones will meet your needs the best.

Top Pick: TJ Signature Custom RAW Alto Saxophone

Credit: Trevor James

This alto sax was introduced to the market in 2015. TJ makes two models of this saxophone. The only difference is that the lacquer has been removed from the XS version. One of the biggest factors in making this our top choice is the meaty corkwork that helps to reduce the key noise and bouncing. Felt has been used in many areas where key noise would normally be a problem.

The second reason that we made this our top choice is the proper point screws. Unlike many manufacturers that use parallel screws or pseudo points, these allow the player to produce more action easily. The main stacks have regulation adjustors making tweaking this instrument at home easy. Under each buffer is a thick piece of sturdy cork further helping to reduce key noise and bouncing. The drawn tone holes on this model are extremely level.

This sax features a removable bell measuring 4 7/8 inches across allowing players to produce unusual sounds easily. The sling ring has much more meat than is found on many comparable models. The double arms on the lower stack keys help to ensure that the F and D cups do not twist off.

Transitioning from the B to the B flat is easily accomplished because of the slightly domed B key cup, while transitioning from C sharp to B on the lower octave range is also easily accomplished because of the beveled low B touchpiece. The pads and the blued steel springs are both great quality.

While the pearls are not real, they are great quality. Most of the posts are ribbed, the few stand-alone posts feature generous bases eliminating the need for repairs anytime soon. They also fit very snugly. The metal thumb ring is adequately sized so that even larger hands will not have trouble here.

The middle-of-the-road sound is excellent for most players who choose to play a variety of music, and those who prefer a particular style will find this instrument easy to adjust.

P. Mauriat Greg Osby Signature Alto Saxophone

P. Mauriat’s Greg Osby Signature Alto Saxophone looks great while producing excellent action. New players will adore how easily this alto sax responds from a dynamic standpoint. The manufacturer easily succeeded in its quest to produce a vintage-looking horn with modern consistent intonation.

While many modern saxophones have keys that are too high, the keys on this saxophone sit just right. Some players find that the action is a little tight for their personal preferences, but remember that it will loosen up over time.

Professional pads and gold-plated resonators help to reduce key noise and bouncing. The silver bell and bow, cognac lacquered body, and nickel-silver neck with a dragon-shaped bell provides this alto saxophone with a fantastic vintage look, as does the engraving. Making it even easier to play this instrument, most of the keys are also engraved so that fingers do not slip off easily.

The key touches on this saxophone are abalone, and the keys line up very nicely so that the player is not overly stretching when making rapid transitions from one key to the next. This instrument compares very nicely to the Selmer Balanced Action Alto Saxophone that is no longer made.

Yanagisawa WO20 Alto Saxophone

The Yanagisawa WO20 allows players to produce a great variety of different tones. This instrument has an adjustable F key so that altissimo harmonies can be easily produced. This is the only alto saxophone to have a C sharp and B table keys slider mechanism allowing players to more easily move between these two notes.

The pointed pivot screws help ensure that the hinge rods are an exact fit. Metal tone boosters help improve clarity throughout the instrument’s dynamic range. This instrument would place higher if it had adjustors on the main stack keys. The pads could be more airtight helping ensure that the tone sounds clear.

Yamaha YAS875-EX Alto Saxophone

Musicians have loved the Yamaha YAS875-EX since its introduction in 2005. This instrument produces outstanding tones with very nice clarity when played fortissimo and remains full throughout its dynamic range.

The G1 crook helps this instrument produce outstanding harmonics in the upper range. This instrument produces great responsiveness allowing the player to easily play the quickest pieces of music. Burgundy felt pads offset the looks of this silver instrument very nicely while helping to eliminate noise from the keys.

This instrument would have placed higher if it did not have a ball and socket arrangement on the B flat /C trill keys, as this arrangement will eventually wear out leading to costly repairs.

Windcraft WAS-110 Alto Saxophone

While not as well recognized as some best saxophone brands, beginning players and parents need to consider the Windcraft WAS-110 Alto Saxophone because this is an outstanding beginner’s instrument with a price tag to match.

The body features pillars fitted to straps ensuring that if the player knocks it around a little, the instrument will last. This instrument features many great assets normally found in much more expensive instruments including a removable bell, an arched bell key compound pillar, an adequate sling ring and an adjustable thumb rest.

This instrument also has an adjustable height adjustors for the main stacks. While the keys are hard plastic, they are placed correctly. The screw pins holding one key to the next are firmly soldered in place so that they can easily be adjusted.

The pivotal screws are some of the longest on any alto sax ensuring that the pivot happens around the screw and not the hole, so they should last a long time. This instrument fails slightly by giving slightly creamy sounds in the upper octave range.

Buffet 400 Alto Saxophone

Credit: Saxquest

Buffet 400 Alto Saxophone has a very tailored look with engraving on its body tube and crook. It features fully ribbed construction. The bell is held on by a sturdy two-piece clamp.

Unfortunately, some of the tone pads are not level particularly at the lower levels, although most can be compensated by the good foam pads on this instrument. The first Buffet 400 alto saxophones did not hold onto their lacquer well leading to brown and red spots on the instrument.

Players who like to roll their fingers will like the top F touchpad which is tear shaped. The B flat key is large, making it easy to roll from the B flat to the C. The key barrels are well drilled leading to very little free play in the keys. The tone of this instrument is definitely in the dark camp, and players must work to get air to move through it.

This instrument produces great sound control in the mid-range, but once pushed to either extreme it lacks some clarity. The top C begins to growl a little when this horn is played loudly.

Cannonball Gerald Albright Alto Saxophone

If you are looking for a very nice alto saxophone, then you need to consider the Gerald Albright Alto Saxophone as the manufacturer has paid a lot of attention to the little details.

Well-balanced springs, free-standing pillars have substantial bases and a generously sized thumb rest. This sax features a triple-annealed bell that some players believe allows them to produce a better sound.

The bell key guards have substantial feet ensuring that they perform flawlessly. Every fitting on this Taiwan-manufactured instrument is quality. The keywork is carefully thought out so that players can play comfortably all night long. There is even a helper spring on the G sharp key.

The pads are made of leather, so they should last awhile. The key pearls, however, are made of stone which can get slippery when wet. The key adjustors are off-center meaning they are more likely to rip off. While it may not be the smoothest alto sax you will ever play; this horn is very responsive.

Sources

Band Director Speaks [Telephone interview]. (2016, November 14).
Further Definitions. (2010, July 11). Saxophone Review: Buffet 400 Alto Sax. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://felixssaxophonecorner.blogspot.com/2010/07/saxophone-review-buffet-400-alto-sax.html
H. (2015, August 17). Top 7 Best Alto Saxophones. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://windplays.com/7-best-alto-saxophones/
Howard, S. (2014, April). Buffet 400 Alto Saxophone Reviews. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/Reviews/Saxes/Alto/buffet_400_alto.htm
Howard, S. (2011, July). Cannonball ‘Vintage Reborn’ TVR-SD/BR Tenor – Vintage AV/PC-L Alto – Stone Series GA5-B Alto. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/Reviews/Saxes/Tenor/cannonball_trio.htm
Howard, S. (2106, May). TJ SR Alto Saxophone. Retrieved November 14, 2016, from http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/Reviews/Saxes/Alto/tj_sr_alto.htm
Howard, S. (2012, June). Windcraft WAS-110 Alto Saxophone. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/Reviews/Saxes/Alto/windcraft_alto.htm
Howard, S. (2006, April). Yamaha YAS875-EX Custom alto saxophone. Retrieved November 15, 2016, from http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/Reviews/Saxes/Alto/Yamaha_YAS875EX.htm
Howard, S. (2013, November 05). Yanagisawa A-WO2 Alto Saxophone. Retrieved November 14, 2016, from http://www.shwoodwind.co.uk/Reviews/Saxes/Alto/yanagisawa_aw02.htm
Overton, M., & DuMars, J. (2012). Saxophone Buyer’s Guide. Retrieved November 14, 2016, from http://www.saxophone.org/resources/guide
Sollitto, Z. (n.d.). Putting P. Mauriat’s New Greg Osby Signature Alto to the Test. Retrieved November 14, 2016, from http://www.bestsaxophonewebsiteever.com/putting-p-mauriats-new-greg-osby-signature-alto-to-the-test/
Band Director Speaks [Telephone interview]. (2016, November 14).
Yanagisawa Alto Saxophone WO Series – Elite Model Bronze – Clear-Lacquer Finish. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2016, from https://www.long-mcquade.com/43033/Band/Saxophones/Yanagisawa/Alto_Saxophone_WO_Series_-_Elite_Model_Bronze_-_Clear-Lacquer_Finish.htm

Notable Replies

  1. I think these are all great Sax’s to recommend, except for one main issue my friend has with their Yamaha YAS875EX.
    On the right hand key stack the springs seem shorter and arranged a bit differently than other Sax’s we’re used to. This has impacted the snap back in a less than ideal way, in our opinion. Still a great instrument - but I definitely wonder at the change and why the makers decided on it!
    Something to keep in mind if anyone’s considering the YAS875EX, give it play though and see how it feels to you.

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