Classic Winds • International Saxophone and Clarinet Competition

The history of the saxophone



Compared to such old musical instruments as the lyre or the flute, the saxophone is a far more recent invention. Adolphe Sax created it in Belgium in the 1840s; however, it was yet not the saxophone we know and love, as it still had a long path ahead.

At the age of 24, Adolphe Sax carried out some minor modifications on the clarinet. Sax changed the keywork and amplified its lower range. This turned out to be his first contribution to the new instrument’s invention.

Afterwards, he created the ophicleide, a revolutionary brass instrument. It was smaller than a tuba and had all the features (mouthpiece, bell, etc.) of a brass instrument, but there was a major difference – it had keys.

Sax was not yet quite satisfied with his invention. He decided to create something that would combine the deep sound of a brass instrument and the nimbleness and grace of woodwind instruments.

Finally, with his newly acquired skills and knowledge, he continued working on his invention and added a single-reed mouthpiece to the shape of ophicleide. Then he applied the fingering system from two different instruments – he took the Triebert system based on oboe for one hand and a Boehm system based on clarinet for the other. That’s how the saxophone was born.


On June 12, 1842, Sax traveled to France and presented his creation to Hector Berlioz, who was extremely impressed with the bizarre instrument. So impressed, in fact, that he wrote an article showcasing the new instrument. He also composed a choral piece entitled “Chante Sacre”, and Adolphe Sax played the bass saxophone part. “Chante Sacre” was one of the first pieces composed specially for the saxophone. On February 3, 1844 at the Paris Industrial Exhibition, Sax unveiled his new invention to the public.

On June 28, 1846, Sax applied for the instrument patent. It included two categories, containing seven versions of the instrument each, ranging from contrabass to sopranino.

The patent expiration in 1866 turned out to be the new beginning. Afterward, a lot of other manufacturers came up with their own modifications of the construction of the saxophone.


Further refinement

It was 1866 when the low B flat key was added to the construction, which led to the extension of the range of the saxophone by one semitone. This modification is still present today.

In addition, the original keywork was far from perfect. Its primitive structure would make it highly difficult to play some passages and intervals. Therefore, more keys were added for alternative fingering to amplify the universality of the saxophone.

By 1875, Pierre Goumas originated a variation of the saxophone that included an advanced fingering system like the one of clarinet. Further development of the keywork resulted in a method that simplified the operation of both tones with a thumb, and it is present on modern saxophones.

After the original inventor passed away in 1894, saxophones slowly but surely began to gain popularity. The first step came when more manufacturers began to recreate and modify the instrument.

The most significant one was Ferdinand “Gus” Buescher. Based in Elkhart, IN, he improved the instrument in his own shop between 1888 and 1904. With the outburst of new music styles such as jazz, Buescher saw the opportunity to integrate saxophones into the new era of music. Nevertheless, before that he made some modifications.

  1. He first improved the key system by adding or changing the springs so the saxophone became more tactile and intuitive.
  2. Then he manipulated the bores making them larger or smaller until they were perfect and optimized for tone.
    He varied its length and changed the single octave key.
  3. Finally, he changed the diameter and invented the new pad system, which involved adding the pads that would snap on to replace the old pads that disturbed airflow and wrecked clearness of tone.
  4. This version took the saxophone to the next level compared with the original instrument. Only minor modifications were made after that, and the saxophone reached its refined form.


The musical history of the saxophone

It is impossible to consider the subject separately from the music, which like the instrument, has had ups and downs.

In the very beginning, after the presentation of the instrument, its application was limited to military bands. The French army began to replace some instruments with saxophones in 1845. Soon after, the first saxophone school for the military band was opened in Paris.

The first saxophone manuals appeared and saxophone classes were offered at conservatories in several European countries. The saxophone use in orchestral scores was only experimental, and consequently, it was not a popular orchestral instrument.

After a benevolent period, the interest of european classical musicians slowly faded away. The classes at the Paris Conservatory stopped for 30 years and classical use of saxophone in Europe entered a period of stagnation. Conversely, the saxophone was simultaneously becoming more popular in America.

The spread of saxophones in the US

Even though in the beginning saxophones were not widely used, it soon became one of the most influential instruments of the 20th century.

In 1914 came the first instances of jazz bands. Initially, although the saxophone was introduced into these bands, people widely regarded it as a comedy instrument. By this time, the quantity of types of saxophones and their variety was more or less established and stabilized. It included four types of saxophones.

Between 1915 and 1930, the saxophone was widely used in American culture. This period was known as the “Saxophone Craze”. Back then, Edward A. Lefebre was the best player, an excellent saxophonist. Patrick Gilmore, who was the leader of the 22nd Regiment band, joined Lefebre and they began to work together to raise the prestige of saxophone and  further increase its popularity.

The instruments imported from Europe were expensive and unreliable. Therefore, Lefebre decided to collaborate with the manufacturer C.G. Conn to create and begin the production of improved saxophones. That is where Buescher and his modifications came into play. Because of these efforts, Buescher Manufacturing Company started regular production of saxophones, and as a result, they became available in the USA.

Controversial attitude

The public opinions on saxophones varied. An article entitled “The Saxophone: Siren of Satan” written by someone under the name of “Isador Berger” accused the instrument of being immoral and low in appeal. Strangely enough, even the Pope disapproved of the usage of the saxophone in music.

Moreover, some oppressed groups within the US favored saxophone music, which led the entitled and privileged classes to detest and scorn this instrument. Because of the rebellious stigma that surrounded the saxophone, it began becoming more widely accepted in jazz, vaudeville, and dance bands, but was neglected by classical musicians.

Nevertheless, nothing could stop the rising popularity of the instrument.


First bands and jazz era

Around this time, the first saxophone band emerged. They called themselves “Six Brown Brothers”. The most notable and significant pioneer of the saxophone was Sidney Bechet, who, in 1917, traveled to Chicago where jazz was blooming.

After the tragedy of World War I, the music taste of the public, especially in America, changed. People wanted to hear something more energetic, louder, and brighter. Something roaring.

Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins played a huge role in the solidification of the saxophone in jazz bands. By 1924, he was the lead tenor saxophone in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Soon enough Luis Armstrong joined the orchestra. Their paths crossed and that led to significant changes in both of their styles. Instead of the slap tongue and staccato, Coleman Hawkins switched to a legato field, shifted his emphasis to the offbeat and started swinging the music. 

The most influential artist of the century was Charlie Parker. His improvisations and the unique features of his playing style changed the style of the jazz saxophone forever.

New styles such as bebop continued appearing, and up until the second half of the 20th century, saxophones and saxophonists experienced the Golden age.

Modern days

Then, people’s tastes and preferences in music started to change once again. Different rock bands were gaining popularity and pure saxophone music became a niche concept. However, a lot of artists successfully integrated the saxophone sections and parts into their songs. For instance, Elvis Presley’s song ‘Reconsider Baby” included blues style solo, while The Rolling Stones also featured the saxophone in their song “Brown Sugar”.

Some of the tracks, like “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty, and “Careless Whisper” by George Michael are very popular, and you can hardly find a person who has never heard them. 

Nowadays saxophones are widely used in military bands and anthems all over the world. Finally, the instruments are more at home on the classical side of music.

The saxophone’s history is incredibly rich. The instrument appealed to a wide range of people; it allowed some marginalized groups to express themselves in a new way, it became a symbol of freedom of expression, it crowned whole decades of human history. As such, it is by no means a stretch to say that there was no other equally influential instrument throughout the cultural history of the 20th century.