Our Beloved Instrument: The Saxophone

Historical illustration from Adolphe Sax's original patent application for the saxophone.

The History of the Sax-o-phone

Most modern musical instruments have long histories. Over time, new materials and technology were applied to primitive instruments to become those we know today. Being invented in the 1840’s, our beloved saxophone is a relative newcomer. It is unique as the brainchild of one man, Adolphe Sax, who gave it his own name: the “Sax-o-phone.” (Illustrations from Sax’s original patent are shown.)

Photograph of Adolphe Sax's original alto, tenor, baritone and soprano saxophones.

“Uncle Adolphe’s” Creation

Adolphe Sax was a Belgian-born instrument maker, flautist, and clarinetist who worked in Paris. While still working at his father’s instrument shop in Brussels, Sax began developing an instrument which had the projection of a brass instrument with the agility of a woodwind. 

Prior to his work on the saxophone, Sax made several improvements to the bass clarinet by improving its keywork and acoustics and extending its lower range. 

Sax was also a maker of the then-popular ophicleide, a large conical brass instrument in the bass register with keys similar to a woodwind instrument. 

His experience with the bass clarinet and the ophicleide allowed him to develop the skills and technologies needed to design and build the first saxophones. In 1841, Adolphe Sax created an instrument with a single reed mouthpiece like a clarinet, conical brass body like an ophicleide, with the acoustic properties of both the French horn and the clarinet. The saxophone was born.

Sax, originally invented 14 different saxophones. Only ten are in use today (B♭ soprillo, E♭ sopranino, B♭ soprano, E♭ alto, C “melody” tenor, B♭ tenor, E♭ baritone, B♭ bass, E♭ contrabass, and B♭ subcontrabass). Only the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone are in common use.   (Four of Sax's original instruments are shown.)

Having constructed saxophones in several sizes, Sax applied for, and received, his first patent for the instrument on in 1846. Other instrument makers exchanged law suits with Sax over patent infringements with different sides winning and losing the various cases. Sax’s patents expired in 1861. Thereafter, numerous instrument manufacturers implemented their own improvements to the saxophone’s design and keywork. 

The first substantial modification was by a French maker who extended the bell slightly and added an extra key. This extended the range downward by one semitone to (written) B♭. It is suspected that Sax himself may have attempted this modification. The single, automatic octave key was invented in 1902. Prior to this, saxophones had two register keys. These developments have since been applied to all modern designs.

Old advertisement for a Buescher saxophone with the headline "The Life of the Party."

The Rise of the Saxophone

The saxophone first gained popularity in the niche it was designed for: the military band. Although the instrument was ignored in Germany, French and Belgian military bands took full advantage of the instrument that Sax had designed specifically for them. 

At the turn of the 20th century, the young saxophone was not taken seriously as a musical instrument. It was used in vaudeville acts and as a substitute for the violin in early dance bands. It wasn’t until jazz musicians discovered it and applied the playing style (attack and phrasing) used by jazz trumpeters that the saxophone was brought into the limelight. 

By far the best known and iconic use of the saxophone is in jazz music. It is usually a solo instrument backed up by a rhythm section but also appears as a saxophone quartet as a part of a Glenn Miller-style big band.

The saxophone later found a place in both concert band and big band music. It has been more recently introduced into the symphony orchestra, where it has found some popularity. The instrument has been used in genres as wide-ranging as opera, choral music, chamber music, rock-and-roll, pop, new-wave and others.

Although the saxophone is not usually thought of as a “classical” instrument, there is a repertoire of classical compositions and arrangements for solo saxophone and the SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone) quartet dating back to the nineteenth century, particularly by French composers who knew Adolphe Sax personally. 

By the Roaring Twenties, young men would buy saxophones much as young men bought guitars in the ’60s as a sign of being hip, modern and popular. The saxophone advertisements of the day called the saxophone player “the life of any party, the person we all want to be.”

From 1920 to 1933, during Prohibition, there was a national youth dance and party craze, post-war enthusiasm and an overall sense of prosperity and growth. The saxophone gained in popularity as it seemed to exemplify American culture.

Since then, the saxophone has become part of the standard instrumentation of school concert bands and marching bands. It continues to be palyed in jazz, dance and swing bands and some modern composers have written orchestral music for it. Rock-and-roll bands have often included saxophones even as electronic instruments gained prominence. Recently, the saxophone has even found a place in Mexican mariachi and traditional Indian music!

Photograph of the Marcel Mule saxophone quartet published by Selmer.

The Saxophone Quartet

Historically, the most famous saxophone quartets were those led by two saxophone professors at the Conservatoire de Paris: Marcel Mule and Daniel Deffayet. Their ensembles were started in 1928 and 1953, respectively. The Raschèr, Amherst, Aurelia, Amstel and Rova Saxophone Quartets are among the best known groups today.

The Mule quartet (left) is often considered to be the prototype for all future saxophone quartets due the level of virtuosity demonstrated by its members and its central role in the development of the quartet repertoire. However, organized quartets did exist before Mule’s ensemble, the prime example being the one led by Eduard Lefebre, former soloist with the Sousa Band in the United States. Other ensembles most likely existed at this time as part of the saxophone sections of the many touring “business bands” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Photograph of an early saxophone factory.

Saxophone Manufacturers

Henri Selmer was Adolphe Sax’s successor as the primary maker of saxophones in France. He established Henri Selmer et Cie. in 1885. In 1909 his brother Alexandre expanded the Paris-based business to America as the H&A Selmer Co. 

In 1888 with investments from Selmer, C.G. Conn begain manufacturing saxophones in Elkhart, Indiana. 

In 1893 “Gus” Buescher, one of Conn’s employees, opened his own factory. His business was bought out by Selmer in 1967 and produced their student saxophones under the “Bundy” brand name. 

Another Conn employee, Henry Charles Martin, began his own business in 1911. The Martin name was acquired by Wurlitzer and later by Leblanc. 

In 1925 Julius Kielwerth and his brother Max began making saxophones in Germany. Many of their horns were sold to other companies who stenciled their own names on the bell. These “stencil models” were sold under many brand names, including H&A Selmer Bundy Special, King Tempo, DJH Modified (Conn) and Buffet Expression. Kielwerth saxophones are particularly popular among jazz saxophonists.

Yanagisawa of Japan began making saxophones after World War II and sold under names of various distributors (including Leblanc). Yanagisawa saxes are currently considered to be among the best in the world.

There is a long and complex history of these musical instrument companies buying each other out and consolidating all the various brand names under which instruments were sold. 

Keilwerth was purchased by Boosey & Hawkes in 1989 and merged the company with Schreiber in 1996. The combined company was sold to The Music Group in 2003. In 2006 The Music Group was broken up and Schreiber & Keilwerth became an independent company. It filed for insolvency in 2010. Later that year it was acquired by Buffet Crampon.

In 1995 Selmer bought Steinway. In 2002 Selmer merged with United Musical Instruments (which by then owned Conn and King) to form Conn-Selmer. In 2005 Conn-Selmer acquired Leblanc (which owned Vito, Holton, Martin and Yanagisawa). In 2013 Conn-Selmer was bought by the investment firm Paulson & Co.

Photograph of a man working in a saxophone factory in Asia.

The Emergence of the Asian Saxophone

Just after World War II, Chang Lien-Cheng opened the first saxophone factory in Taiwan. Many more soon followed and now include Antigua, P. Mauriat, Jupiter, Cannonball and Château. The quality of Taiwanese saxes was considered inferior to European- and American-made instruments. Today they are accepted as good quality intermediate and even professional saxophones.

In 1967 the Japanese company, Yamaha added saxophones to its growing line of musical instruments. Today Yamaha professional saxes are still made in Japan, but student and some intermediate models are produced in China. Yamaha is one of four “gold standard” pro saxophone brands along with Selmer (France), Keilwerth (Germany) and Yanagisawa (Japan).

In the 1980s, China began making copies of other, well established  saxophone models and did so for very little cost. This competition reduced Taiwanese saxophone production to a fraction of what it had been. 

However, these “cheap Chinese knock-offs” were widely seen as worthless. Problems included inferior materials, shoddy workmanship, nonstandard parts and faulty intonation. 

However, in the past ten years or so, the quality of Chinese-made saxophones has approached the quality of the older, more respected brands although they are still considered inferior to saxes made in Taiwan, America, Japan and Europe. They are sold under various “stencil” brand names including Cecilio, Lade, Glory, Mendini, Jean Paul and Lazarro. 

Photograph of a saxophone lying on several sheets of written music.


So while the saxophone was a late addition to the panoply of Western musical instruments, it quickly won the hearts of composers, musicians and audiences worldwide. Its distinctive sounds (from mellow to raunchy), rich expressiveness, relative affordability and ease of playing make the saxophone a versatile instrument with a bright future. And we, The Fog City Saxophone Quartet will strive to expose more and more people to the potential of the saxophone.


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