If you're thinking of taking up the sax, but don't know what kinds of saxes there are, or how to decide what kind of sax you should get, then read on ☺
There are many different sizes and pitches of sax, but just four main ones you need to know about. Those are, from smallest (and highest in pitch) to largest (and lowest in pitch): soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax and baritone sax (note that I don't teach the baritone sax, because I don't play it). In general I recommend that students start on the alto or tenor - and of the two, the alto sax is by far the most popular option for beginners. It has the advantage of being the cheapest, and being suitable for children because of its relatively small size.
However, if cost and size are not such a concern then my advice is to choose based on which you like the sound of best. At the bottom of the page are recordings of me playing alto, tenor and soprano saxes.
The highest in pitch of the four main types of sax, the soprano sax has a distinctive and appealing sound, but is not generally recommended for beginners because it is notoriously difficult to play in tune and it can take a long time to develop a reasonable tone. Soprano saxes also tend to be pretty expensive, more so than alto or tenor saxes. However, if you have your heart set on beginning with the soprano sax then I'm happy to teach it. The most well known soprano sax player is probably Kenny G, however some other good well known examples include Branford Marsalis (who has played a lot with Sting, check out “Englishman In New York” for example) and Courtney Pine. “Childsplay” below was played on a soprano sax.
The alto sax is by far the most popular option for beginners, and along with the tenor sax it is one of the most popular saxes in general. It is generally the cheapest option, and is particularly suitable for children because of its relatively small size. It has a sweeter tone than the tenor sax, but they both possess what might be considered to be the “archetypal” sax sound. Well known examples include “Take Five” by The Dave Brubeck Quartet and “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. “Rollin'” below was played on an alto sax.
The tenor sax is also very popular, and a good option for beginners, although tends to be more expensive than the alto. It can have a slightly more edgy sound than the alto, but being lower in pitch is also great for the low pitched breathy sound that is associated with the sax. Well known examples include the theme from “The Pink Panther” and any number of songs by Spandau Ballet (“Gold”, “True” etc). “New York Sidewalk” below was played on a tenor sax.
Since I don't play the baritone sax, I'm not in a position to teach it, however like the soprano it is not generally recommended for beginners and tends to be very expensive (more so than the soprano sax). It is not heard as a solo instrument as often as the other three, but is very often heard in jazz, soul and R&B as part of a horn section. Examples of this include Amy Winehouse (“Rehab”, “You Know I'm No Good” etc).
There are a few options for getting hold of a sax, depending on your budget. If you're confident that you want to go ahead with learning the sax, then it will probably be most cost effective to buy a sax straight away, a second-hand one being the most economical option.
However, regardless of whether you get a new one or a second hand one, it will probably benefit from being looked over by a sax technician or repairer. A brand new sax shouldn't have any defects, but probably won't be perfectly set-up, and may even have slight leaks (this is when the pads do not cover the holes fully - not a big problem to fix, but can make certain notes hard to play). This is more important for second-hand saxes, which could well need adjustments or even repairs - and as a beginner you need a sax that's in proper working order so that you know that any problems you have playing it are down to your technique, and not the sax. I can recommend a local sax technician to any students who have bought a sax and would like to get it looked over.
Another option for the beginner is to rent a sax - and many music shops provide rental schemes, and normally give the option to buy the sax at a later date, with some or all of the rental money going towards the purchase cost. Renting gives you a way to try out the sax without committing to buy it, in case you go on to decide you'd prefer a different type of sax, or you decide the sax is not for you after all.
The sax I recommend to students is Yamaha's student model, which is the YAS-275 (alto), or YTS-275 (tenor). Brand new, they tend to cost around £805 and £1045 respectively, but can be bought second-hand for around half that price, and are frequently found on eBay. As student saxes go, the Yamahas are expensive, but of very good quality and will last you a long time. At the time of writing, these models can be rented from Dawkes in Maidenhead for £27 per month and £32 per month, respectively.
I also recommend some cleaning accessories - namely, a pad saver (around £14) and a pull-through (from around £6). In both cases, make sure you get the appropriate size for your sax (i.e. alto or tenor). Lastly, there is the ongoing cost of reeds. Reeds come in different strengths, normally numbered from 1 to 4 (1 being the softest), and can normally be bought individually or in boxes of 10. Typically individual reeds cost around £2.50 and a box of 10 would cost £20-£25. As a beginner, you would normally start with soft reeds and gradually progress up to harder ones.