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Beginners Saxophone Questions

The How, Why, What and Wheres of the Saxophone

If you have any questions, please ask. The only stupid question is the one you are too scared to ask. The Cafe Saxophone forum is the ideal place, but you may also use the comments filed at the bottom of the page.

Why does a saxophone squeak?

Squeaks (or “chirps”) are usually caused by a note sounding an overtone or harmonic when you don’t mean it to. Although squeaks can be caused by a bad embouchure, the commonest cause is a malfunctioning saxophone, mouthpiece or reed. The main reason being a bad reed or an air leak somewhere. Leaks are commonly due to the leather pads either being distorted, or the actual keycups and/or toneholes not being level. The pad should create a nice seal all the way round, with only the lightest of finger pressure. This type of leak can often (but not always) be detected with a leak light.

There are other causes of leaks:

  • Anywhere that the body tube fits together, such as the neck tenon, body to bow joint or bell to bow joint. This can be due to damage or just bad manufacturing
  • Where the mouthpiece attaches. If the cork at the end of the is cracked or the mouthpiece is too loose for a snug fit on the cork there can be an air leak.
  • Warped reed or mouthpiece table.

What is the best saxophone to buy?

Tough Question. It used to be that the best student instruments were made by Yamaha and Jupiter, this is now changing and there are now many other good makes available at a very reasonable price, but you should beware: although some are extremely good, many are very bad. It is best to get a teacher or experienced player to test the saxophone before buying it. Don’t be tempted by the $9 – $200 saxophones on eBay from the far east, it may cost more to return for a refund than the saxophone is worth, even if you can get a refund. If you buy a saxophone via mail order you should take it to a good repair person to check it over and set it up to play properly.However there have recently been some extremely good saxophones from China and Taiwan, but it’s worth paying just a little bit extra to buy from an online store with a guarantee and no quibble returns policy than many of the eBay sellers. You should also expect the saxophone to need a little setting up by a repairer (same applies even to top of that range horns bought via mail order) and probably a better mouthpiece, e.g. yamaha 3C or 4C) See: Saxophone Buying Guide | Saxophone Reviews | Recommendations

How should I organise practice sessions?

It’s a good idea to practise in several short concentrated sessions rather than one long session in which your mind is wandering. Unless you can train yourself to concentrate for long periods of time, try splitting your practice sessions into three roughly equal parts:

  1. Technique (scales, arpeggios, patterns)
  2. Sound (Tone exercises)
  3. Tunes & improvisation (This can include just noodling around)

It might be useful to just do 5 or 10 minutes of each then take a break and come back to it. The important thing is to stop practising once you lose concentration: less time spent on concentrated practice is better than more time spent practising when your mind is on other things. See: How to practice

What strength reeds should I use?

 This often depends on the mouthpiece. Generally a mouthpiece with a wide tip opening needs softer reeds than one with a narrow opening. Some people use harder reeds (3.5 – 5) to get a louder sound, however with practice and proper use of the diaphragm it is also possible to play loud on softer reeds, with the added advantage that you will get more flexibility of tone. Wide vibrato and note bending becomes easier. I use 2.5 reeds with a 125 RPC tenor mouthpiece. See: Saxophone Reeds

Should I put my bottom lip over my teeth?

It depends on the person. There will be different opinions about what you are supposed to do. It would be best for you as soon as possible to get a good teacher, who can understand both the finer points of the way you wish to play/sound, as well as being able to help you adapt “correct technique” to your individual requirements based on your physical makeup. A good teacher will look at your jaw structure (eg is there an overbite or underbite?), teeth size and shape, possibly also the dimensions and position of tongue, etc. My preference is to either push the lower lip forward, or have it vertically upwards in front of the teeth (not over them) for harder and edgier styles/sound. Both of these techniques require careful building up of the lip muscles. See: Saxophone Embouchure

What is the best mouthpiece?

I believe the best mouthpieces for beginners and intermediate are Yamaha (standard) or Fobes Debut. On tenor a slightly larger tip is better, so I would say for alto a Yamaha 4c, but tenor a 5c. Once you get to know a bit more about your set-up however it might be worth trying some other mouthpieces. Our own PPT brand are not really suitable for absolute beginners although the alto 5* is a very good upgrade from a 4c or Fobes. See: Saxophone Mouthpieces

How far on the cork should the mouthpiece be?

Far enough on for the saxophone to be in tune. Don’t worry if the mouthpiece needs to be pushed right on the cork (provided it doesn’t interfere with the octave key on the neck) , or is close to the end (provided it isn’t dropping off and there is no possible leak if it is too loose on the cork). The actual amount may vary even on the same saxophone if you try different mouthpieces.

What is the best ligature?

Very often the one that comes with the mouthpiece. Some people think that the ligature can affect the sound. I’ve never noticed this if the ligature is working properly, though one of the flexible type ligatures will sound better than a distorted or ill fitting solid metal type. If the table is concave (or heaven forbid) convex, or if the reed is warped, then some ligatures will work better than others with those specific parameters, and may therefore give you the impression that ligature A is generally better than ligature B, or that each ligature has its own “sound” See Saxophone Ligatures and this short video

Does lacquer or plating on a saxophone affect the sound?

 Probably not at all. The material a saxophone is made from has very little bearing on the character of the sound. Small changes in bore size are much more likely to affect the way that the air vibrates in the saxophone. Different materials may have a more substantial effect on the sound of the mouthpiece. See: Does Material Matter?

How do I stop pads sticking?

 Unless the pad or tone hole has a serious problem, common or garden sticking pad syndrome can be cured by application of lighter fluid. Do not use talcum powder, WD 40, or any proprietary remedy, many of which are rip-offs and will only cure the symptoms temporarily, while making the problem worse in the long run.

Sometimes it is necessary to strengthen the spring. You can make your own tool for this: break the lead off a pencil and use it to hook the spring out and retention it, but if in doubt get a qualified repairer for this.

Why is a saxophone woodwind, when it is made out of brass?

Due to changes in instrument technology, the terms for categories of instruments such as woodwind or brass no longer refer to the material. Originally woodwind instruments were all made of wood, but the more important defining factor was the method of sound production, which involves a vibrating reed. (Yes, even on a flute the lip/tonehole edge are actually acting as a reed). It was discovered that wood was not the defining factor in the sound, and at some stage both flutes and clarinets started to be made from brass with very little (if any) difference in sound. Metal clarinets are quite rare today, but were very useful for military bands in countries that had hot or humid climates that would cause wood to crack.

Brass instruments have a different type of tone production, which involves “buzzing” the lips into a cup shaped mouthpiece. Again, they do not need to e made from brass – the earliest forms of brass instruments were made from animal horns.

These days both woodwind and brass instruments are made from other types of metal and plastic, but they still keep their characteristic sound due to the tone production process.

Saxophone Beginners Starter pack

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In the beginners section:

  • Saxophone Studies

    The Taming The Saxophone Series of Studies Taming the Saxophone is a series of saxophone tutorials (there are more books, videos and DVDs planned). When you buy Taming The Saxophone Volume 2 you will also get special membership to private pages, extra resources ... Read more…
  • Learn to Play Saxophone

    This article tells you what you need to know to get started – fingering a few notes, making a sound and playing your first tune, along with a page of FAQs. Everything (almost) you need to know. Read more…
  • First Steps on the Saxophone

    For Absolute Beginners In this section we look specifically at useful stuff for beginners, but don’t be scared of delving into the other pages. Some may be a bit advanced but others can be very useful – especially the tone section. Extract from ... Read more…
  • Fingering Charts

    First we have a couple of very basic fingering charts which show you the saxophone fingerings for the lower and upper register in the key of C. These are ideal for absolute beginners who don’t want to be overwhelmed by ... Read more…
  • Saxophone Transposition

    Why am I in a different key to the rest of the band? This is a very common question, especially from anyone who has just bought a saxophone, taught themselves a little bit and then decides to play along with some ... Read more…
  • Beginners Instruction DVD

    In this program, Pete introduces beginners to the alto saxophone: the parts of the saxophone and how to assemble them, fitting the reed, posture and breathing, saxophone embouchure, holding and blowing into the saxophone, tuning, fingering, notes and intervals, tonguing ... Read more…
  • Find A Saxophone Teacher

    The best one for you Is the teacher a great player? A good teacher is not necessarily a great player, and conversely a great player could be a lousy teacher. The important thing is not just that the teacher can communicate, but ... Read more…
  • Rhythm & Blues Saxophone

    What is R&B Saxophone? I really didn’t want to define rhythm & blues but I was sort of forced to do it when putting the vast page of R&B players together. Maybe it would have been easier to make it a list of ... Read more…
  • Rock & Roll Saxophone

    How to Play a Great Rockin’ Solo Many jazz saxophonists think that it’s easy to knock off a rock and roll solo, and then wonder why nobody likes it: neither a jazz audience nor a rock audience. However the concept behind ... Read more…
  • How to Organise Your Practice Schedule

    As a teacher I used to devise a different practice schedule for each student as different people have different requirements when practising the saxophone, so the following is quite general and may not suit everyone. However there is one key ... Read more…
  • Stage Fright & Performance Nerves

    Scared To Go On Stage? There’s Nothing Wrong with a Bit of Fear We’ve all had stage fright at some time. Some of the very best performers have it all the time, but learn to cope with it or even use it ... Read more…
  • Saxophone Video Lessons

    Pete’s video lessons To leave comments on the Youtube channel please click on the Youtube icon at the bottom RH corner of each video. Or visit the TamingTheSaxophone Youtube Channel for more.  Video Overview of Beginners Instruction DVD: This should give you a good idea ... Read more…

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