How many types of saxophones are there? Most people would instinctively say three or four, but the correct answer is 10! Below we rank the different types of saxophones from smallest to largest.
Different Types of Saxophones
The smallest and highest saxophones, sopranissimo saxes, are also known as piccolos and soprillos. But don’t confuse them with the smallest type of flute, also called a piccolo. Sopranissimo saxophones are rare, pitched in the key of B-flat, and play one octave above soprano saxophones.
Because of their size — only 12 inches long with lots of intricate mechanisms — Sopranissimo saxophones are extremely difficult to make. So much so that a true version of the instrument did not happen until 2010.
Sopranino saxophones are tuned to the key of E-flat and play an octave higher than alto saxes. Like the sopranissimo class, these instruments rank among the rarer types of saxophones. Marcel Ravel’s Boléro — an orchestral piece commissioned by Belle Époque vanguard Ida Rubinstein — is the most well-known composition that heavily features a sopranino saxophone.
Soprano saxophones are the third smallest of the sax family, and the smallest one widely played. Due to its piercing pitch, most works feature soprano sax solos rather than ensemble passages.
Nearly everyone who picks the saxophone for fifth-grade band starts off playing the alto sax. It’s one of the most common types of saxophones and pitched in E-flat. The Alto played a significant role in the evolution of jazz music and was the instrument of choice for several venerated musicians in the genre, including Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, and Paquito D’Rivera.
Tenor saxes are pitched in the key of B-flat and sound an octave lower than sopranos. They’re the second most popular saxophone, and the instrument’s master-player roster includes Stan Getz and Jessy J.
C Melody Saxophone
This uncommon saxophone is pitched to the key of C. Also known as a “C tenor” or “tenor en ut,” it’s about the same size as a regular tenor and enjoyed its heyday in the early 1900s.
Baritone saxophones — aka “bari saxes” — are tuned in the key of E-flat. They’re one octave higher than contrabasses and one lower than altos. Chamber music groups, military bands, concert orchestras, and jazz bands make ample use of the bari sax.
The third deepest saxophone, bass saxes, are pitched in the key of E-flat, play an octave lower than tenors, and one higher than subcontrabasses. To hear a bass saxophone in action, you’ll need to pick up some tickets for a saxophone choir or free jazz jam.
Also tuned in the E-flat key, contrabass saxophones are the second deepest sax and play an octave lower than baritones. Smaller folks may have difficulty playing the contrabass as it stands 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs a whopping 45 pounds!
Subcontrabass saxophones are the largest of the class and sound the most bourdon-esque. Only one instrument manufacturer produces the gigantic saxophone called a tubax, which needs a stand to play, and even then, some people argue it’s not a true subcontrabass. To date, only three playable and 100 percent authentic subcontrabasses have been built, and they range in size from 7 feet 5 inches tall and 9 feet 2 inches tall.
And there you have it, a detailed answer to the question, “how many types of saxophones are there?” Happy tooting! (But if you’re a parent of a young player heading into their first year of band, may we suggest some good earplugs.)