There is an absolutely crazy amount of content on the internet with saxophone lessons aimed at beginners, but from a lot of the videos I’ve seen they either get the basics wrong or they don’t explain things particularly well. I thought I’d therefore do a post providing some useful tips aimed at beginner saxophonists. That way you can get off to the best of starts!!
Here are 5 top tips for beginner saxophonists everywhere: –
1. Get yourself a decent entry level saxophone
I know this sounds expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be tempting to purchase a sax on amazon for around £200-£300, but I can’t stress enough that doing so is not a good idea. Most likely it’ll just be a waste of money as for that sort of money unfortunately the build quality and intonation will both be terrible. Please don’t do it!
The reason that this is number one in my top tips for beginner saxophonists post is that it is vital that you get off to the best possible start. Playing on a poor quality saxophone can be such a hindrance that I’ve known it cause learners to lose interest and quit unnecessarily, and it’s such a shame and completely avoidable!
For beginners I always recommend that they start on an alto saxophone and in an ideal world you’ll have an okay budget. That would mean you would be able to afford something like a Yamaha YAS-280, but at around £800 for a new instrument I do understand that it might be out of reach for some.
These saxophone do make such ideal beginner/entry level instruments though. Their build quality and intonation is very consistent, and when combined with a decent mouthpiece and reeds, such a sax will be able to do everything that most saxophonists will ever need it to do.
Another very reliable beginner level saxophone is the Jupiter JAS-500, and as it is usually about £100 cheaper than the Yamaha YAS-280 it is well worth considering. Again these saxophones are very solidly built with decent intonation and a pleasingly pure tone is possible.
Quite a few saxophone teachers I know also recommend the Trevor James brand of saxophones, which tend to retail at around £600 for their entry level alto sax “The Horn“. However, if I am honest I am not the greatest fan of these instruments. Some of my students that have used them in the past have experienced relatively poor build quality (multiple pearl buttons fall off); struggled with tone production in the lower register; and the intonation can be rather erratic (especially in the higher register). My advice would be to avoid these if possible.
If you are looking to buy your first saxophone do shop around. There are often great deals out there if you search hard enough (a quick google can deliver some quite varying results in price) and also don’t be afraid to buy second hand (in this case just make sure the seller guarantees the instrument is in a playable condition).
2. Tone: it’s all about your reeds!
Second on my list of top tips for beginner saxophonists is that you must, must, MUST look after your reeds! I say this to all of my beginner level saxophone students (and to be honest, to some of the more advanced level students too!).
If you want to make a decent sound, you need to give yourself the best chance. You can have the most expensive sax and mouthpiece, but if you are playing on damaged or worn out reeds then you’ll get absolutely nowhere!
So now taking for granted that you are looking after your reeds (not damaging the tip, moistening them before playing etc.) you need a good quality make.
For all of my beginner to intermediate level saxophone students I recommend Vandoren Traditional (Blue Box) Reeds, like the ones pictured.
In my opinion Vandoren make the most consistently reliable reeds available, and for a learner consistency is everything! You’ll get bad reeds in every box of course, but on average in my experience you’ll find fewer duff ones in a Vandoren box, and if you look after them they’ll give you a lovely and clear tone – ideal for the beginner saxophonist!
Usually for child beginner saxophonists I recommend a reed strength of 1.5 to start with, with adults sometimes needing a strength 2 reed initially. What you’ll find is that over the weeks and months, if you practise regularly these reeds will start to feel softer and you might squeak more. That’s usually a sign that it’s time to move up a strength with your reeds.
3. Get yourself a good tutor book
There are lots of online sax lessons aimed at beginners, but unless they are extremely methodical and each lesson forms part of a sequence your playing won’t develop in a consistent or logical way. Having taught the saxophone for now 18 years, in my experience you can’t beat having a tutor book to work through.
Andy Hampton’s “Saxophone Basics” is one of the best tutor books available. It introduces the range of the saxophone in a logical manner, whilst slowly increasing the amount of music theory that it teaches you. Plus the tunes it uses to do so are some of the best I’ve heard in all these years of teaching.
Just a rough guide, it will take you from complete beginner to approx. ABRSM Grade 3 level. If you are not familiar with the UK’s grade system this book will therefore provide you with a good solid understanding of the instrument (range and tone production) and basic music theory, whilst most importantly not be boring!
4. Your first saxophone mouthpiece
Next in my list of top tips for beginner saxophonists is really important to get right, as it can be a complete minefield! Where on earth do you start with all of those different mouthpieces out there?!
Well, firstly take what the sax shop staff member tells you with a pinch of salt. You’ve got to remember they are essentially sales people. There are very few staff out there who can remain unbiased when it comes to “advising” customers. They might well be saxophone enthusiasts and some decent players, but I’ve certainly had occasion where some saxophone students haven’t listened to my recommendations, they’ve taken the staff’s bait (hook, line and sinker!) and have ended up buying a hugely expensive saxophone mouthpiece that at their current level they didn’t have any hope at controlling. If you are a beginner please try and avoid temptation and save your money – you just don’t need it!
We would all love to have the fiery sound of John Coltrane, or the silky tone of Stan Getz, but particularly with jazz (ebonite or metal) mouthpieces they can be very hard to control for both the amateur and professional(!) player a like. This is because with this type of mouthpiece the chamber is often quite large and the tip opening can be rather wide. This basically makes playing in tune and controlling your sound really hard work.
For example, metal mouthpieces can get very warm sending your tuning sky high, so unless you have the ability to adapt your embouchure whilst playing you can end up sounding very sharp indeed. Trust me, as a kid this was definitely me – with tuning that was sharp enough to cut glass!!
I’m not saying never get one of these mouthpieces, just rather have patience and wait until you have a solid technique and understanding of the instrument. That way you’ll be able to get the most out of them, and they won’t hold your playing back.
Therefore for beginner saxophonists I’d generally recommend an ebonite mouthpiece that has a medium sized chamber, with a relatively narrow tip opening (eg. a lay of around 5).
Something like a Yamaha 4C mouthpiece (as pictured) is ideal for a beginner saxophonist and at around £30 for an alto sax mouthpiece they are very reasonably priced indeed (some jazz mouthpieces can cost more than £500!).
When combined with a good quality of reed this mouthpiece will help you produce a pure tone and wide dynamic range; and with time solid tuning will develop.
I’ve had students use this mouthpiece all the way to Grade 8 level (so pretty advanced level saxophonists) and they’ve produced some truly lovely playing!
5. Get yourself a great saxophone teacher!
For the the last of my top tips for beginner saxophonists yes I’m obviously biased. Of course I am, but please hear me out.
YouTube videos can be a great learning tool, and there is some fantastic content out there. However, as you know everyone is able to upload their videos to the platform. Therefore please BEWARE!! Quality control doesn’t really exist on YouTube especially when dealing with what in the grand schemes of things is a relatively niche area. Plus as we’re talking about algorithms here, there isn’t really any rhyme or reason to how it ranks videos when it comes down to the quality of the teaching shown or strength of saxophone playing in the video.
Like wise, there are a lot of fairly average teachers out there. That’s why I’ve included so many videos of myself performing live on my website. To be a great teacher you really need to be able to practise what you preach, and so whilst it’s not the only prerequisite for being a good saxophone teacher (enthusiasm and a flexible but always methodical approach is a must), the ability to inspire a student is an extremely useful teaching tool.
A truly good saxophone teacher should be able to guide you along every way of your learning journey. They should be able to tap into your own interests and adapt the lesson content accordingly, so that you find lessons both interesting and fun. Also, a good teacher should be able to respond to your own strengths or weaknesses allowing you to progress at a quicker rate. No YouTube video will ever be able to compete with that!
I really hope that helps for all you budding beginner saxophonists out there! I know it’s been a bit of a long read, but hopefully you’ll find it a useful one.
I’ve had years of experience teaching the saxophone, but truly one of the most frustrating issues I face is when I have to correct the problems caused from bad tuition or poor examples given by either a student’s previous teacher or from some so called “expert” on YouTube.
If you have any queries about where to start with the saxophone, do drop me an email or give me a call. We can always book in a couple of individual 30 min sessions to get you up and running, so that you don’t have to commit to a block of 10 lessons straight away.
The saxophone is an amazing instrument to play and the world clearly needs more saxophonists! With the right teacher learning any instrument can be a hugely rewarding experience (for both parties!), so I can’t recommend it enough. Learning the sax and now being a performer and teacher definitely has me hooked!