Alto vs. Tenor Sax: Which is Better?

If you’re looking to purchase a saxophone but you don’t know which size to go for, you may be confused at the different options available. Why are there so many, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

There are lots of factors to take into consideration, including your budget, your height and the sort of music you want to play.

Alto vs. Tenor Sax Which is Betters

Although soprano and baritone saxophones also exist, these are rarely seen outside of specific ensembles that require the whole saxophone family. If you want a versatile instrument for both solo and group playing, the two most popular and accessible are the tenor sax and the alto sax.

They are both excellent options, so there is no definitive answer to which one is better, and it really depends on your personal circumstances.

In this article, we compare the two instruments on various characteristics to help you decide which one is best for you.

Size

An alto saxophone is smaller than a tenor saxophone, meaning that it weighs less and the notes it plays are higher. The alto range is from D flat below middle C to A flat just above the stave. For a tenor saxophone the range is the same but starting and ending a fifth lower.

To enable the player to reach lower notes, more space is needed for the air to travel through, thus making the instrument longer. Both types can be played either while standing up or sitting down, whereas a baritone sax would often be too clunky to stand up with for extended periods.

That said, a tenor is noticeably heavier than an alto and could cause strain on your hands and neck.

Saxophones are not recommended as a starter instrument for very young children, but for older children wishing to learn, an alto saxophone would be ideal. Its lighter weight and compact size means it is more manageable to hold – a 10 year old would probably struggle with a tenor sax!

With shorter distances between keys, you don’t need a long finger span to reach them and produce the full range of notes.

You could purchase a plastic saxophone made specifically for young learners, but most children would outgrow this very quickly and need to upgrade anyway. If you want to invest in an instrument your child can use on a long-term basis, your best bet is a standard alto saxophone.

On the other hand, you may find that you prefer something a little weightier and meatier. Do you long to hit those deep, growly notes that make the hairs on your neck stand up? If so, a tenor saxophone would be right up your street.

While the alto saxophone sounds bright and piercing, the tenor is more mellow and rich, giving it an almost seductive quality. Take some time to research your favorite saxophone tunes and discover the sort of sound you’re aiming for.

Cost

Due to the size and lower material requirements involved in manufacture, alto saxophones are generally less expensive than their tenor counterparts. Of course, prices vary tremendously from make to make, and you could pay insanely high prices for the most advanced models.

If you are working with a tighter budget but still looking for a quality instrument, you will have a greater chance of finding an alto to fit the bill.

The most basic alto models can usually be found from about $250-$300, while tenor saxes tend to start at least a couple hundred more than that. Like anything else, you get what you pay for, but it’s definitely worth shopping around to find a good deal that offers superior value for money.

As mentioned above, there isn’t really an upper limit for either instrument; a decent student model such as the Jean Paul USA AS-400 Alto Saxophone (Amazon.com: Jean Paul USA AS-400 Student Alto Saxophone : Musical Instruments) should do the trick nicely without breaking the bank.

Ease of Playing

In addition to the overall size, another element involved in ease of playing is embouchure. The embouchure is the position and shape your mouth is required to be in to produce sound from your instrument.

In both cases, you will need to cover your bottom teeth with your lower lip to protect the mouthpiece and prevent air from escaping through your mouth.

This requires you to build up strong facial muscles. For a tenor saxophone, the embouchure is more relaxed than with an alto saxophone, because the air travels at a slower speed to hit the notes. 

This also means that you need a greater lung capacity to be able to transfer more air to the instrument. It takes a lot of puff to create a consistent tone, particularly in the lower register. Thus, this can prove to be another obstacle for players of a slight stature, and an alto saxophone would be preferable here.

Versatility

Both alto and tenor sax can be used in many different settings, whether performing solo or as part of an ensemble. While not considered an orchestral instrument, saxophones are popular in various other groups such as concert bands and jazz bands.

However, if you are mainly interested in jazz, it would be worth concentrating on tenor saxes. This is because the majority of jazz music is centred around the tenor range and sound quality.

In some cases, an ensemble may require a saxophone to double up as a different instrument, usually due to a lack of brass players.

A tenor saxophone is more useful in this case as the range is closer to that of most lower brass instruments, so parts wouldn’t have to be played up an octave and sound out of place.

This may not be something that affects you, depending on what you use your saxophone for, but it is worth taking into consideration nonetheless.

Transposition

Both saxophones are transposing instruments, meaning they sound at a different pitch to concert pitch instruments (e.g. piano, violin, flute). The alto saxophone is tuned to E flat, while the tenor is tuned to B flat a fifth lower.

Therefore, if you already play a clarinet, you will be more used to the tenor tuning and the transposition method will be the same. Reading from a concert pitch score, a C played on your tenor sax will sound the same as a concert pitch B flat, just like on your clarinet.

Learning to transpose into E flat if needed could be a struggle as it would be unfamiliar, and you would need to take time to get used to the different tuning.

That said, this shouldn’t be much of a problem if you are dedicated to your instrument. 

Being in different keys allows all saxophones to have the same fingering system, regardless of pitch. This means that switching between saxophones is straightforward and you won’t have to worry about getting confused. 

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are many factors to take into account when choosing between alto and tenor saxophone.

If it is most important for your instrument to be relatively lightweight, portable and budget-friendly, go for an alto; if you want a deeper sound with incredible jazz prospects, choose a tenor.

If you’re still unsure, perhaps a visit to a specialist saxophone shop is in order, as they will be able to talk you through and demonstrate the available options. Of course, you could just solve the problem by buying one of each – as a wise man once said, you can never have too many saxophones!

David Williams
Latest posts by David Williams (see all)