Sax on the Web Forum Archive / Alto Saxophone / alto vs. tenor?

User ID: 1021194
Apr 1st 1:42 PM
I have an 11 year old girl who has decided to play the sax in Sept. She is debating between alto and tenor. How does she go about deciding? She likes the sound of mainstream jazz such as ella fitzgerald, nina simone etc, but I really don't know what instrument you hear in that music.

Any tips?
User ID: 0701364
Apr 1st 1:49 PM
In Ella and Nina, I hear a lot of vocals and some piano...

Either is fine to start with. If she is particularly small, you might have to shop more carefully if she decides to play tenor as the keys on some brands might be too spread out to play comfortably.

Otherwise, you should have her listening to some alto and tenor players and see which horn strikes her fancy.
User ID: 1021194
Apr 1st 1:52 PM
Thanks for the response- could you kindly suggest some alto and tenor players so I know what music to find for her? She is not a small child- she is already 5'6" and towers over me!
User ID: 9600383
Apr 1st 4:46 PM
Karey, For great combo jazz and a real tenor feel try some Joshua Redman. For alto mainstream jazz try some Vintage Cannonball Adderly.

One idea might be to pick up the reissued CD of Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue". This is perhaps the most celebrated jazz combo recording of all time. On it you can here John Coletrane playing Tenor, and Cannonball playing Alto, soloing one after the other. From that, she should be able to hear the timbre of sound betweeen them and she will fall in love instinctively with one or the other, to start with.

Than she will want one of each ... and a Soprano .. and than a Bari .... and on, and on.....

Good luck
Peter Kossits
User ID: 8875883
Apr 1st 5:03 PM
Great suggestions on the CDs!

I have a feeling karey is going to want to play sax too after hearing those.

If you decide to get a Joshua Redman CD I stringly suggest Wish - his first one.

User ID: 0380734
Apr 2nd 4:09 AM
If she plays tenor, she will find more openings as there are simply less players, particularly amongst youngsters becuase of the size of the tenor. Both alto and tenor are about evenly represented in jazz playing.

Best of all go to a store and get her to handle them and see which she likes the feel of. As a 5'6" child, a tenor should present no problems; a young friend of the family who already plays alto came and tried out all my saxes and fell in love with the tenor and even more so, the baritone and she is less than 5'6".

Seriously though, the place to start is alto or tenor, and she can always later on switch to the other, or play both, its not a once for all decision.
Dave Dolson
User ID: 9209903
Apr 2nd 11:25 AM
Karey: An 11-year old who likes mainstream jazz (you mentioned Ella), may or may not enjoy the "modern" sounds of Coltrane and Adderly. Some folks think those guys are classic jazz players when in fact they are modernists who were preceeded by some great players from the '20's and '30's.

Just an opinion (everyone has one), but may I suggest you steer her to Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, and Frankie Trumbauer for wonderful examples of tenor, alto and C-Melody saxophone in jazz? They may sound old and out-of-touch to a youngster, but they were the foundation for the modernists and their music is very listenable and understandable. DAVE
User ID: 1759784
Apr 2nd 3:40 PM
Adding to what Dave said - Ben Webster and Lester Young - two of the greatest tenor players - both classic jazz players, each with very different styles - Lester's playing is light, quick and lyrical - almost like an alto player. Webster's is deep, lush and full of subtones.

For alto, try the Charlie Parker with Strings album - it's his most accessible; it's modern but not jarring to a newcomer to modern jazz. Similarly, the Coltrane Ballads album is also quite accessible.

Jon Edge
User ID: 0505634
Apr 2nd 4:00 PM
She should start on alto. It is the head of the family, basically. If she majors/minors on saxophone in college, alto is what most of the professors want you to be the "best" at. Plus, no matter what she starts on, if she likes it, she will branch off to all the members of the saxophone family.
Steve Cars
User ID: 2386864
Apr 4th 3:28 PM
Karey, drop me an email and I will forward you a CD of great alto and tenor artists that I made up to compare notes with my instructor of similar issues. No cost...
[email protected]
User ID: 0345364
Apr 5th 9:48 AM
I second the alto suggestion. As a high school student she will have more opportunity to play lead this way. Also, IMO, as a doubler (I play both regularily), Alto is harder to learn to play correctly. It requires a firmer embrosure (mouth muscles) and more time to develope a good tone. Tenor is very easy to learn after you have mastered alto.
For players, in addition to Parker and Hodges, pick up a David Sanborn CD. He's very insperational.
User ID: 7810373
Apr 6th 11:26 AM
"Tenor is very easy to learn after you have mastered alto."
Geminee, Kevin. Where on earth did you get that?
lol..? Tenor is/has a totally different response than the other saxes.
It's almost like comparing a french horn to a trumpet..same family, but just different.

User ID: 9495963
Apr 6th 4:55 PM
Alto or tenor depends more on wether you naturally hear thing in Eb or Bb pitch. Mastering both alto and tenor is a very rare thing indeed but the player will know themselves wether they hear everything naturally in one pitch or the other. It is the same as why one player gravitates to a higher pitch instrument when others gravitate to lower pitch instruments.

It is possible to play both alto and tenor but to get the same flexibility and oneness with horn on both is very difficult. Not many have accomplished this. I myself hear better in Bb pitch and on lower horns, I know others who hear Eb pitch and higher horns. If you get this worked out then youwill find that you progress much faster with your learning.
User ID: 7810373
Apr 7th 1:29 PM
Very well put Bootman.

But, I still maintain that tenor is a different
After starting on alto, I jumped(literally)at/to
bari. I stuck with bari 2 years in JrHS, many years in HS, and 5 or so more through college +.
When I went to tenor, I noticed after a while that the horn wasn't engineered for as good of response in the belltones as the alto and bari.
Maybe it is the key difference; but to me the
alto and bari have an overall similarity that I
can't include with the tenor.