Saxophones are divided into four main types. And they include the bass, tenor, soprano and alto saxophones.
However, even with these four types, the alto and tenor saxophones remain the most popular among wind instrument players.
Without further ado, here is a comprehensive explanation of the differences between alto vs. tenor.
Table of Contents
Quick summary: The differences between alto and tenor sax
Alto vs Tenor Sax Range
When it comes to range, the tenor sax often consists of a Bb pitch, with a range of Bb (A3-D8) as the lowest note (normally indicated as Bb just below the staff) to F as the highest note (indicated just above the staff).
That said, it’s also important to note that the sounds produced by the tenor sax normally sound more like 9th-major, which is slightly lower than what’s indicated.
On the other hand, the alto sax contains a range of Db3-A5, which is typically the low Bb all the way to the high F#, of course when transposed.
But, it’s also important to note that the highest note of the sax alto will largely depend on the type of sax one is using.
Typically, you can come across a sax that goes to written F, and above C5, which is written C6.
Some could do with written F#, and they’re mainly the concert sax, which is usually about 2.5 octaves above the lowest notes.
This is quite similar to the tenor range given that in as much as most of the tenor sax can’t go below Bb, the newest models come with an extension of F#, thus increasing its range.
So, the alto sax is the E-flat instrument, given that its written C sounds as E-flat. And the tenor sax having been built on the ½ of the octave lower is a B-flat. Meaning its written C sounds like B-flat.
Bonus point; saxophones (all) share the exact written range and available fingerings.
That’s from low Bb to high F. It’s only the Bari saxophone that can play the low A.
Alto vs Tenor Sax Reeds
The saxophone reeds usually appear like the small part of their horns. They might not seem like much when you look at them.
But, they greatly influence the tone of the instrument, making them one of the most important parts of the sax.
And because of that, the tenor and alto reeds are different, although some individuals prefer using the same reed strength for both their alto and tenor saxophones.
So, it’s rare but it isn’t impossible to find some players using tenor reeds on their alto sax.
But using an alto sax on the tenor is almost impossible because of their slimmer size.
However, the standard size of the tenor reeds is about 82mm, which means they are wide enough to fit into the mouthpiece.
The standard alto reeds are about 70mm, which makes them slightly slimmer than the tenor reeds.
And because of this, the tenor instruments produce a bigger and deeper sound as compared to the alto sax.
Also, because the strength of these reeds is measured by their softness or hardness, the tenor reeds are harder at 82mm, making playing a bit harder as compared to the softness (70mm) of the alto sax reeds.
For both instruments, the reeds should perfectly fit to create harmony and aid the release of the perfect tone.
Remember, the perfect hardness of the reed that you will use on your instrument greatly depends on its size. If the tip opening is large, the harder it will be to play.
Here’s a video on how to pick the perfect reed for your instrument;
Alto vs Tenor Sax Mouthpiece
When it comes to mouthpieces, the tenor sax tends to use a larger mouthpiece as compared to the alto.
But, in both saxophones, the sound, control, and playability attributes they both offer largely depend on how much resistance they produce when being played.
The opening of the mouthpieces is what’s referred to as the tip. So, the bigger the mouthpiece tip, the more the spread and the flexible the sound the instrument will produce.
But, this isn’t beginner-friendly and navigating through it can be a bit complex.
To play alto, you will have to find a mouthpiece that stays out of your way and gives you much control to play with ease.
And most of the time, this has nothing to do with brand names.
We advise you to source out for an easy blower and later focus on building your relationship with your instrument to gear towards your goal.
Remember, the mouthpiece goes hand in hand with the reed. So, for tenor sax, you will use a bigger9harder) reed for the wider mouthpiece and vice versa for the alto sax.
As you advance with your playing skills, you can now get comfortable to try out various mouthpieces and reeds and see what works best to give you the type of intonation you want to achieve.
Many mouthpieces, be it for alto or tenor come with various layers complete with a numerical grading that’s usually in form of inches.
They range from the least to the most resistant.
Alto vs Tenor Sax: Price
The alto saxophone is also popularly referred to as the alto sax.
Currently, the alto sax is the most common type of wind instrument, at least when it comes to classical music.
And as such, it’s easily available in various models and prices.
Because of popularity, it isn’t surprising that many people want to learn how to play the alto sax. That’s why there are sax meant for students and another meant for professional users.
Now, let’s go straight into the pricing.
The alto sax for students/learners are usually cheaper than those for professionals. The cheap quality student sax can go for as little as $28, while you can grab a standard quality alto sax for professionals from around $6500.
On the other hand, the tenor sax, though not the largest in the saxophone family, is mainly popular among intermediate and professional players.
Younger players don’t prefer it due to its large size.
Like the alto sax, it’s commonly used in classical music, so it can easily be found in local and online music stores.
Because of its use, it costs pretty the same when compared to the cheapest ‘alto student sax, but can also go beyond $1000, when it comes to professional tenor sax.
Generally, it’s quite easy to purchase a tenor sax from around $200-$500.
So, as you can see, the pricing range of both the alto and the tenor sax is pretty the same. And therefore, when choosing one, the price really shouldn’t be an issue.
But rather as a matter of preference and ease of playing.
Alto or Tenor Sax for Beginners: Which is Easier?
The most common question we come across is; “which is the easiest to learn between the tenor and alto sax?”
I would easily say that they both require time and you have to simply make a choice a dedicate yourself.
But, as a beginner the easier it’s to learn, the better.
So, let me take you through the subtle differences, which determine the ease of playing for both instruments;
The tone of the alto sax and that of the tenor are different. So, personal preference plays a key role here.
For example, it’s often said that, for you to achieve the ultimate alto sax tone, then you should produce one that’s similar to a female human voice.
And that automatically means the tenor is closely related to the male human voice.
Because of this, it’s often easy for female players to pick up alto sax. And the male, even though they might begin with alto, end-up gravitating towards the tenor sax.
Why? They find comfort and it’s easy to flow with the tunes.
The fingerings for both the alto and tenor sax tend to be the same, even though alto is E-flat and tenor B-flat.
Here, fingerings refers to the places where players put their fingers on the keys.
So, for example in the alto sax, where you finger C, is the same fingering you will achieve for the C on the tenor sax.
Therefore, you can easily switch between alto and tenor sax whenever you want.
We can comfortably now say that, whether you’re learning to play the alto or tenor sax or any other sax, you’re typically learning how to play them all.
However, even with this, the spaces between the alto sax keys are different from those on the tenor sax. They’re a bit closer, which makes alto sax comfortable to play especially for younger players.
But if you’ve bigger hands, then you can easily play the two with ease, using the same effort.
Size and Weight
Generally, alto sax is lighter than the tenor sax. So, which one would you prefer? Heavy or light?
The fact that the tenor is bigger also means it’s heavier, thus might be difficult to balance for younger players. But, once you master it can as well be as much fun as playing alto sax.
Most individuals I know, started with alto sax, before trying out tenor.
The fact that the tenor sax is bigger than the alto sax automatically means that you will need a large amount of air when blowing, than alto.
Let me break it down for you;
You see, a bigger tenor sax means it has a bigger mouthpiece and so the air has to travel a longer distance than the alto sax.
So, you will have to learn the art of blowing “harder” when playing tenor sax, than you would the alto one.
As already mentioned, the alto sax is an E-flat, while the tenor sax is a B-flat. Therefore, their voicing is totally different when it comes to transposing.
Here, it runs down to preference. Some people find alto easy, while others prefer tenor.
And, of course, others end-up playing both.
So, after looking at all these components, it’s evident that the alto sax is a bit easier to play as compared to the tenor sax.
This is because it’s all closed-in, so easy to grab, hold and eventually play.
Other than that, you can start with either and fair on pretty well!
So, the ball is in your court!
Alto vs. Tenor Sax for Jazz: Which is Better?
First, I would like to make it clear that each of these instruments (alto sax and tenor sax) has their place in jazz.
Now, that it’s clear we can proceed to examine which one is better for jazz.
For beginners who are looking forward to the transition to jazz, it’s much easier if you already know how to play the alto sax, because it’s easy to improve your techniques to suit the jazz music world.
You see, the easy layout of the alto keys makes it not only easy to play but also blow.
There are also quite many notes on it, which include jazz to classical repertoire. So, it’s easy to learn new things.
From beginners to intermediates and finally professional alto sax players, it’s easy to work with the versatility it offers, thus you can easily improve on your weaknesses.
On the other hand, the tenor sax sits very well with the standard jazz playing attributes.
It’s tuned Bb and gives a great balance between alto and baritone.
Yes, it might be a little bit difficult to play, thanks to its bigger size, but beginners can also learn it.
And when they master, it gives jazz a unique vibe that the alto sax can’t achieve.
Also, due to its bright and husky tone, you can easily blend it with other musical instruments.
So, for beginner jazz players who would like to take it up as a profession, I advise you to start with alto sax since it’s easy to learn and provides versatility.
You can, later on, add the tenor sax, which easily accommodates other sax instruments and produce a unique sound.
They actually blend well. So to some extent, it’s up to you to choose which one to go for, first.
Switching from Alto to Tenor Sax: How to Do it
For 90% of the sax players I have interacted with, they didn’t find it difficult to switch from alto to tenor.
One thing was common though with their answers;
It might be a little bit difficult to play any note below D-low and C-concert.
So, the best way to about it is to allow yourself to adjust gradually.
You will have to learn how to push air out of your lungs, which is slightly different as the notes keep moving to lower.
As you do this, you should also learn how to twist your mouth on the bigger mouthpiece. It’s difficult at first, but when you let it relax, it gets better.
The most important aspect to master is how to control the tenor sax and the amount of air you will require to hit those lower notes.
Otherwise, it shouldn’t make a big difference and you should be playing comfortably within a week.
FAQs About Differences between Tenor and Alto Sax
How to improve tone on tenor sax
First, identify a tenor sax player you admire and would like to sound like and listen to them play.
Repeat their songs so much so that they stick to your mind.
Once you do, it will be easier to reach out to that sound. And as you emulate, you will getter better and develop your signature tone.
But for this, you have to work on supporting your sound from the diaphragm. And this requires you to relax as you let your airstream flow with the sounds you want to release.
The same applies to the lips; let them relax.
All this, together with a decent tenor sax will give you a great tone.
Are tenor and alto sax notes the same?
Yes. Both the tenor and alto sax consist of the same range of notes (lowest and highest). The only difference lies with their pitches.
Can tenor sax play alto sax music?
The alto sax is tuned Eb while the tenor is tuned Bb. However, when you play the same notes, you use the same fingerings.
So, yes, you can use the tenor sax to play alto sax music when you master the notes.
For instance, if you want to achieve an F from a tenor sax, you play G-major. But play D major when using the alto sax.
How do you play low A on alto sax?
Sometimes words aren’t enough to explain, that’s why you should watch the video below for a better understanding and higher retention;
The tenor and alto sax are the most commonly used of the saxophones family.
Though they’re different, they share some amazing similarities (such as the notes), which make it hard for beginners to choose among the two.
We hope you now have a clear understanding of how the two relate and can make a more informed choice concerning the path you would like to take.
But if you love both, you can as well double play.
It should be cool so long as you enjoy playing!