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Alto Saxophone frequently asked questions

I have been answering Questions online for years now and many of the Questions are the same. The beauty of the web is the chance to create a reference online that literally thousands of people can research to find answers to questions that everyone asks. The coolest thing is the amount of time this saves while still being a help to everyone possible.

This page will be a work in progress. I will add to it as questions come in and as I get thru the old emails looking for good questions I get a lot. For now - I get asked all the time to explain the difference between Alto Sax and Tenor Sax.

QUESTION 1. What is the difference between the Alto Sax and the Tenor Sax?

ANSWER - The Alto Sax is smaller than the Tenor Sax.

The Alto Sax is in the key of Eb and the Tenor Sax is in the key of Bb. The music that either sax can play looks the same on paper, but the size difference makes the same note on the Alto Sax sound higher than the same note played on a Tenor Sax.


QUESTION 2. Is the Alto Sax a good choice to start on?

ANSWER - The Alto Sax is a great Sax to start on. Regardless of your size, the Alto Sax is not too big or small. Most people actually start on the Alto Saxophone in school band and then later move to one of the other Saxes to either fill a need (an open chair in the band) or find the really love the sound of one of the other sizes of Saxophones.

QUESTION 3. Is the Alto easier to blow because it is smaller?

ANSWER - The Alto Sax does take less air to fill than, lets say a Tenor or Baritone Saxophone. It does require good air support for any Sax you might want to play. That has to do more with your diaphram muscles than your lungs though. Every wind instrument takes some blowing to get a good sound and the Alto Sax is no exception.

QUESTION 4. Should I rent or buy my first Alto Sax?

ANSWER - If you can not afford a solid student Alto Sax by a name manufacturer, or you are just trying an instrument for the first time, renting can be a very good option. Most rental stores have some of the better name brands to choose from, even if they are not brand new, they can be really good saxes to start on. I suggest Yamaha and Bundy Alto Saxophones for older models and new Saxes can include these 2 along with Unison, Baptist, LA Sax, Cannonball and others. See Sax Reviews for ideas on the big 4 and the younger companies that are developing good reputations for quality Saxophones. Cheaper eBay deals from China and other places can sound like a great option and look just like a sax, but end up not being very playable and ruin the hope of learning the Alto Saxophone.

QUESTION 5. How do you put the reed on the Mouthpiece the right way?

ANSWER - Reed placement and handling is very important. Since putting on a Reed is the same for Alto and Tenor, please refer to my article on the Tenor Saxophone site for Reed Handling. Now, just to be clear, they are different sizes. The Alto and Tenor Mouthpieces and Reeds are different - smaller for the Alto Saxophone and larger for the Tenor Saxophone; but the way you put them together is the same.

QUESTION 6. Lots of Questions about Altissimo. What is Altissimo?

ANSWER - Altissimo notes are notes that sound really high. They are higher than the highest note on a regular fingering chart. Altissimo starts where conventional fingerings end. When you get high enough, they start to sound like squeaks that you can learn to control. Alto Saxophone only has a 2 1/2 octave range from the lowest note to the highest note. A piano has a lot more, from really low to really high. Learning how to play higher notes extend the range of the Alto Saxophone and can add a lot to what you might want to play.

QUESTION 7. How do you start playing Altissimo Notes?

ANSWER - The art of playing really high notes can take a year or 2 to get very good at. It starts with an understanding of what Altissimo is. Altissimo is based in the overtone series. Overtones are parts of, or partials that are part of the sound of every Sax note. A quick example here would be playing a low Bb and then lipping up that note without moving any fingers to a middle Bb. That is a partial of the low Bb. You have probably done this on accident a few times when you fingered it low and it came out high. That's an overtone. With practice you can get a whole bunch of different notes while fingering a low Bb, low B and low C. An article will be coming on this to better explain and give more detail at a later time. You can search - Alto Altissimo Fingering to find some fingering charts to play with, but you really need to first learn how to manipulate overtones before trying a lot of these fingerings.

QUESTION 8. What fingering do you use for an Altissimo G?

ANSWER - I will give you all of my high Altissimo fingerings, since you-all seem to ask a lot. These are similar for Tenor but are specific to Alto for a few notes. As stated in an earlier ANSWER, it is necessary to learn how to work the overtones on the sax first - but here goes.
It starts with the high E. I use the fork fingering - like an octave G but the B finger goes up on the button or leaver above the B key. My high F is the fork fingering - 1 and 2. High F# is the fork fingering 1 and 2 and side Bb keys. You really need to get these pretty solid before trying much higher. The high G fingering is 1,3,4,6, if you count down the main finger buttons. I can do this with the B finger on the fork or B key. G# - add the side Bb. High A - 2,3,4,5,6, or just 2,3. High Bb - 3 . High B 3 and high D palm key. C - 3, high D and Eb keys. C# - 3, high D, Eb and E keys. D - 3 and add the next palm key - high F palm. D# - add the high F# key. It is like fingering the palm keys with the g finger down - it is pretty easy because you should know these fingerings already. High E - 4,6 and low Eb key. High F - 1,3,4,6 and low Eb key. That is the main fingering I use for up to high F or F4.
Alternate fingerings - I do sometimes use 1,3,4,6 for high C also - then C# take off the 4,6 & Eb. High D can be just fork key and then high D# add the high E in the right hand. This C and D are really stable to start with. For me, the most important thing is the flexibility and fingering between the notes, so my fingerings work for me and leave some chromatic options and scale options that are more basic than many other fingering systems up there.
I need to get a PDF up with some soundclips - that would be very helpful. In the meantime, hope this answers all the fingering questions.

QUESTION 9. Can you suggest a good mouthpiece for XYZ style or sax model? ANSWER I get this one all the time. There are many different Sax Mouthpieces out there and the choices might be overwhelming. I always suggest the same things - standard, medium and safe. For school band or classical style, Rousseau mouthpieces are great, classical and jazz - medium chambers 5-7 with a medium strength reed - 2 1/2 or 3. For more jazz playing, the Meyer hard rubber 6 or 7 and the Yanagisawa metal 6-7 are all very basic Alto Saxophone Mouthpieces; safe and solid. There are many others, but the person that asks this type question needs the safe answer. After you have been playing for a couple years, you will be able test mouthpieces yourself, and won't need much help from me on the topic. Safe - Medium - Standard.

You can email Greg at with more of your questions or comments.

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