A saxophone is a single reed, woodwind instrument first developed in the mid-1800s by Adolphe Sax. It is composed of a mouthpiece, conical metal tube, and finger keys. Sound is produced when air is blown through the instrument causing the reed to vibrate. This sound is amplified as it travels through the instrument's main body. Saxophones consist of numerous parts and pieces which are made separately and then assembled.
Most instruments have steadily evolved over many years. In fact, no one person can be said to have invented common instruments like the flute or the oboe. The saxophone however, can be directly credited to Adolphe Sax who invented it during the 1800s. Sax was born in Belgium in 1814 and learned to make instruments from his father who was a musical instrument maker. By the age of 16, Sax was already an accomplished instrument maker himself. Some of his achievements included improving the clarinet's design and adding piston valves to the cornet. During his time, he produced some of the highest quality clarinets, flutes, and other instruments.
When he set out to develop the saxophone, he wanted to create an instrument that could blend the orchestral sounds of the woodwinds with the brass instruments. His new instrument would have the tone quality of a woodwind and the power of a brass. The first saxophone he built was a large, bass saxophone. Since a conical shape was needed, it was easier to make the instrument out of brass than wood. On March 20,1846, Sax patented this instrument. Smaller saxophones such as the alto and tenor were created a short time later.
In addition to his instrument-making prowess, Sax was also an entrepreneur. To promote his new instrument he staged a "battle of the bands" between the traditional French infantry band and one that used his saxophone. Sax's group won the contest, and the military officially adopted the saxophone into their bands. This caused a significant level of resentment toward Sax and many instrument manufacturers and musicians rejected the saxophone as an acceptable instrument, refusing to produce or play it. This prevented the saxophone from being used for its original purpose in the orchestra.
However, many composers were impressed with the sound of the saxophone and steadily incorporated it into their pieces. This versatile instrument was used in many musical styles. For example, it has been used in opera such as Bizet's VArlesienne and also worked into Ravel's orchestral piece, Bolero. In the United States, the instrument was made famous by J. P. Sousa who used it extensively in his marching band compositions.
The true potential of the sax was realized by jazz musicians during the early 1900s. Artists like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane helped make it the most popular woodwind solo instrument for jazz. Both of these musicians had distinctly different sounds. The individualized sound is a result of various mouthpiece materials and structures, reed hardness, and the musicians mouth position. For jazz musicians, the mouthpiece was modified so the instrument would be louder.
Saxophones are primarily made from brass. Brass is a composite alloy made up of metals including copper, tin, nickel, and zinc. The most common type used for instruments is yellow brass which contains 70% copper and 30% zinc. Other types include gold brass and silver brass which have different ratios. The zinc in brass makes the alloy workable at lower temperatures. Some custom manufacturers use special blends of brass for different saxophone parts. A small amount of arsenic or phosphorous also may be added to make the brass more useful in tubing applications.
Other materials are used to make the saxophone. Most of the screws are composed of stainless steel. Cork is used to line the joints and water keys. In some cases, a wax is applied to these joints. Mouthpieces can be made from various materials, however, the material has little effect on the sound. The most common material is black, hard rubber or ebonite. Metal or glass mouthpieces are also available. Plastic resonators are made and the instrument is often coated with a lacquer. Nickel plating on the keys helps strengthen them and keeps them attractive.
The typical saxophone is a single reed instrument constructed from brass with a curved bottom. Originally available in 14 different sizes and keys, today that number has been reduced to six. This includes—in order of pitch from highest to lowest—the sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones. Generally, the smallest instrument is the sopranino and the largest is the bass.
The saxophone mouthpiece is the part of the instrument that the musician blows in to produce the sound. The construction of the mouthpiece has an important effect on the final sound of the instrument. It makes the difference between the sax player in a symphony orchestra and one in a rock band. There are two main parts of the mouthpiece that affect tone: the tone chamber and the lay (or the facing) which is the opening between the mouthpiece's reed and its tip. Mouthpieces are typically marked with a letter or number to denote the width of the lay.
The reed is attached to the saxophone and vibrates to create the sound. Saxophone reeds are made from bamboo (Arundo donax) which is grown in southern France. The reed can be made soft or hard depending on the desire of the musician. The ligature is the part that holds the reed on the mouthpiece. It attaches to the mouthpiece with screws. They can be made from innumerable materials such as leather, metal, or plastic.
The crook is the part that joins the mouthpiece and the main instrument body. At the top of it is a cork which is important for tuning the instrument. The tone changes depending on where the mouthpiece is positioned on the cork. The other end of the crook is a metal joint that fits into the main body of the saxophone. It connects with a screw to keep the crook in place.
Saxophone keys are of two types, closed standing and open standing. Closed standing keys are those that are held closed by a spring when the instrument is not being played. When the key is pressed, the hole it covers is opened. Open standing keys are held open by a spring and close when the key is pressed. Each key has a pad on its end which provides an airtight seal on the hole.
The saxophone tube is a long, metal tube which steadily gets wider at one end. It has holes drilled in the side at specific spots to create notes. When all the holes are closed, the instrument works much like a bugle amplifying the sound of the vibrating reed. When a hole is opened, the sound is modified producing a different note. The conical shape of the saxophone makes the overtones octaves. This makes fingering easier because the higher pitched notes are produced with the same fingering as lower pitched ones.
The Manufacturing Process
Since saxophone demand is relatively high, their manufacture is largely an automated process. The primary production steps include piece formation, assembly, and final polishing.
Production of the various saxophone parts is a specialized operation and often done by contract manufacturers. They produce the pieces and send them to the saxophone producers for assembly.
- 1 The main body of the saxophone is produced from brass. This is made by first putting a brass tube on a long, tapered mandrel and then lubricating it. The brass is reshaped and made a consistent thickness by a doughnut-shaped die that is drawn down the mandrel. The tube is then heated to make it more malleable. Since heating creates an oxide residue on the tube's surface, it is soaked in a sulfuric acid bath.
- 2 Depending on the type of saxophone, the modified tube is taken to a shaping station where it is bent to give it a curl if needed. Two types of bending methods may be employed. In one case, the tube is put in a die which matches the desired curve. Highly pressurized water is then forced through the tube causing it to expand and conform to the walls of the die.
- 3 The tone holes can be produced by hand or machine. In the traditional method, workers would slip the brass tubes on a steel mandrel that was loaded with pulling balls. A drill press was then lowered and threaded into the pulling ball. The drill press was then raised, pulling the ball through and creating a hole with a rim or chimney. This same process was done with each tone hole in the shaft. In more modern production operations, several tubes are loaded into a machine which automatically creates the tone holes. Computer controls ensure that the instruments are perfect each time. After the tubes are formed, the body is coated with a clear lacquer finish.
John William Coltrane Jr., was born on September 23, 1926, in rural North Carolina. Discovering jazz through the recordings of Count Basie and Lester Young, he persuaded his mother to buy him a saxophone, settling for an alto because it was supposedly easier. Coltrane showed a proficiency on the saxophone almost immediately. After studying at the Granoff Studios and at the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, he joined a cocktail lounge band. He played for a year with a Navy band in Hawaii before landing a spot in the Eddie Vinson ensemble in 1947. For Vinson's band, Coltrane performed on the tenor sax. After a year with Vinson, Coltrane joined Dizzy Gillespie's group for four years. By then he was experimenting with composition and technical innovation.
In the 1950s Coltrane played horn for Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk; the latter showed him tricks of phrasing and harmony that deepened instrumental control. Coltrane devoted himself to rapid runs in which individual notes were virtually indistinguishable, a style quickly labeled "sheets of sound." This music was not easily understood, but if represented an evolution welcomed by various musicians and composers.
By 1965 Coltrane was legendary. He continued to experiment, even at the risk of alienating his growing audience. His work grew more complex, ametric, and improvisatorial. Coltrane continued to perform and record even as liver cancer left him racked with pain. He died at 40, only months after he cut his last album Expression.
- 4 Saxophone keys were first forged by hand but today they are die-cast or stamped. In the die-casting method, a molten alloy is forced into a steel die. When it cools, the metal takes on the desired key shape. The stamping method involves a large stamping machine which cuts the keys from a sheet of metal. Depending on the use, the keys may be soldered together and polished. Polishing is done in a tumbling machine or by hand. The keys may also be metal plated, improving the appearance and durability.
- 5 Most keys have pads attached to them. These pads are made of layers of cardboard, felt, or leather. They are typically stamped or cut and then glued to each key by line workers. The keys are finished by being drilled and fitted with springs and screws that allow them to be attached to the instruments.
- 6 When all the pieces are formed, they are assembled into a complete instrument. The keys are mounted to the main tube on small posts. These posts are first screwed onto the main body. Holes are drilled into the posts to hold the key springs. The keys are then screwed onto the posts and seated on the tone holes. Since an airtight seal is needed for the instrument to perform correctly, the seal is tested and adjusted if necessary.
- 7 The crook is attached to the main tube, as is the mouthpiece. Typically, the mouthpiece is manufactured separately out of hard rubber. Other things such as the strap ring are attached at this point. The joints are usually lined with cork and waxed so they fit together smoothly. The main body is stamped with the manufacturers name and all other finishing steps are done.
- 8 When the instrument is assembled, it is played to ensure that it produces a quality sound. After this step, the saxophone is disassembled and put into a cushion lined case. The case is then shipped to the retailer.
Each saxophone piece is checked during the various phases of manufacture. This is done typically through visual inspection by trained workers. Inspectors check for things such as deformed parts, inadequate soldering, and other unacceptable variations. Additionally, more rigorous evaluations can be performed. Measuring devices like a vernier caliper or micrometer are used to check the physical dimensions each part.
Sound quality is also tested prior to shipment. Manufacturers employ professional musicians who can verify that tone quality, intonation, and playability are within acceptable limits set for the specific model of instrument. The instrument sound may also be checked under different acoustical settings. In general, if the saxophone is produced according to specifications no adjustments are needed. However, the tone holes can be drilled further to make the instrument sound less sharp or filled in with shellac to make it sound less flat.
Saxophone manufacturing and design is still changing. Since popularity has grown within the last few years, saxophones with differing bow radiuses and bell flares have been produced. More parts are now removable and enable easier cleanup. The Selmer Series III alto even has an additional tone hole to improve pitch. As developments continue with this instrument, quality and sound continue to improve.
Where to Learn More
Harvey, Paul. Saxophone. London: Kahn & Averill, 1995.
Kemfeld, Berry. Saxophone. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. London: Macmillan, 1988.
Othmer-Kirk. Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. Vol. 22. Wiley-Interscience, 1992.
Classical Saxophone Online. http://www.classicsax.com (January 2001).
International Saxophone Home Page. http://www.saxophone.org (January 2001).
sax·o·phone / ˈsaksəˌfōn/ • n. a member of a family of metal wind instruments with a single-reed mouthpiece, used esp. in jazz and dance music.DERIVATIVES: sax·o·phon·ic / ˌsaksəˈfänik/ adj.sax·o·phon·ist / -ˌfōnist/ n.