At around 1838 in Belgium, a musical instrument designer and producer, Adolphe Sax started work on a new line of instruments, aimed for use in military bands. By 1840, he had these instruments patented and they later took the name of “saxophones”. The saxophone family included models and variations such as the soprano, tenor, alto, sopranino, baritone, bass or contrabass. With the development of the musical industry, these instruments became more and more popular, reaching Northern America and soon after, starting the jazz revolution. This is where the saxophone had its most important influence in music and therefore, today, it is often referred to as a jazz saxophone.
Almost all jazz saxophones are made of full brass and they have a lacquer coating. The importance of this coating is often discussed. Besides its aesthetical importance, the lacquer coating (and its color!) affect the quality of your tone. This is actually sort of a big debate amongst saxophone lovers, whether the color of the lacquer is or is not important to the quality of the sound. Brighter tones of lacquer are thought to make the sound lighter and more vibrant, while darker ones, such as gray, brown or black are associated with harder, graver and deeper tonalities. Although research has been made in this direction, it’s not yet a certainty that lacquer color affects a saxophone’s tonality.
Another distinctive part of a jazz sax, is its mouthpiece. This is usually made out of rubber, metal or plastic, or a combination of the three. Some (rarer) mouthpieces are even made out of materials such as wood or glass and if you think looks and singing comfort are all that a mouthpiece adds to a player’s performance, you’re wrong. A mouthpiece can make the difference between a good and a bad performance, since the material, design and physical dimensions all weigh heavily in affecting your tonality. For example, while plastic mouthpieces produce harder tone colors, metal ones have a slightly “brighter” one to them. In addition, mouthpieces having a concave chamber offer a less acute sound, hence they are preferred for softer songs or classical playing.
It’s finally up to you to judge the quality of a jazz saxophone and it will probably take years of experimenting to find the one best suited for you, your style and what you want to play with it. There are so many companies out there today, producing jazz saxes that it will be hard to choose and you’ll want to try out several models over the years. And even though they might sound the same at first, I bet you’ll soon see the particularities of each and adapt yourself to them.
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