How to Play the Tenor Saxophone: 8 Steps (with Pictures)

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How to Play the Tenor Saxophone: 8 Steps (with Pictures)
How to Play the Tenor Saxophone: 8 Steps (with Pictures)

The tenor saxophone is a very prominent brass instrument in jazz and is also one of the important voices in a concert or marching band, playing inner harmony parts or doubling melodic lines.

Larger in size and lower in tone than the “typical” saxophone, the alto saxophone, but smaller than the robust baritone saxophone, the tenor saxophone is a common but unique instrument to play. Its tuning is in B minor, and in addition to having many characteristics similar to the other saxophones, it is also very similar to the clarinet. The tenor saxophone is a wonderful instrument to get started in music, or to learn to play it as a second instrument, and playing it is much easier than it seems. With a little help, you'll be playing in less than you expect.


Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 1
Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 1

Step 1. Get a standard saxophone and the accessories you need to play it

They may be able to loan you one from a music school for a very low price, or you may be able to rent one from a music store, or buy a used one. If you are using an instrument with a lot of use or very old, it is recommended that you take it to a musical technician to make sure it is in good condition to play. Additionally, you will need to buy, rent, or borrow the following:

  • A mouthpiece, if the instrument does not have one. Don't buy the cheapest one, but don't spend a lot of money on a professional either, at least not yet, as you may not definitely choose this instrument yet. It is recommended that you buy a plastic or hard rubber one.
  • A ligature, if it is not included with the tube. A metal one is fine, or you could invest a little more in a leather one, which is more durable and produces a better sound.
  • Reeds: As a beginner, it is recommended that you start with 1.5-2.5 reeds and experiment to achieve the force that produces the best spin with the least amount of effort. The best brands to start with are Rico and Vandoren.
  • Neck strap - Tenor saxophones are heavy and cannot be played without additional support. You can buy a quality, comfortable, and relatively inexpensive strap at any instrument store.
  • Silk scarf: to clean the moisture that accumulates in the saxophone. This is a handkerchief attached to a long string with a weight on one end, which is pulled through the parts of the instrument to clean it.
  • Fingering chart: A fingering chart will teach you how to play all the notes in the instrument's range, therefore it is recommended that you have one.
  • Method book (s): Although not really required, if you are learning on your own or would like a little more help, they are an excellent investment.
Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 2
Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 2

Step 2. Assemble the Saxophone

Hook the gooseneck (a short, curved piece of metal, the curve is unique to a tenor saxophone) to the top of the instrument body and secure with the neck screw. Place the ligature on the mouthpiece and slide the tab under the ligature, securing it with the ligature screws. Hook the neck strap onto the hook on the back of the instrument, place it over your neck and stand up.

Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 3
Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 3

Step 3. Make sure you hold the instrument correctly

Your left hand should be at the top and your right hand at the bottom. You should place your right thumb under the thumb rest that you will find at the bottom of the instrument. The index, middle and ring fingers should go on the keys of the mother of pearl piece, which should be easy to find. With your little finger you are going to move the other keys to the back of the saxophone. The left thumb should go over the round piece at the top of the instrument. You will find that there are five mother-of-pearl keys on top, your left index finger should go on the second of these keys from top to bottom, and your left middle and ring fingers go on the fourth and fifth, respectively.

Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 4
Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 4

Step 4. Form your embouchure

Turn your lower lip slightly over your teeth, and rest your upper teeth on the top of the mouthpiece. When you start playing, you will surely have to adjust this position.

Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 5
Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 5

Step 5. Without covering any of the holes or touching any keys, blow on the instrument

If you do it right, you will hear a sustained C (concert SI) tone. If you don't hear a sound or you hear a screech, adjust your embouchure until the tone improves.

Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 6
Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 6

Step 6. Practice with the other notes

  • Press the second mother-of-pearl key with your left middle finger, leaving the other keys uncovered. This will produce a DO (Concert Minor SI).
  • Press the first key of the mother of pearl with your left index finger. This will produce an SI (concert LA).
  • Press the first and second mother-of-pearl keys. This produces an LA (Concert SOL).
  • Keep covering more holes, going down the ladder. Three covered holes is a G, four is an FA, five is an E, and six is a RE (in concert tuning they are FA, E minor, RE, and C respectively. The lower notes may be difficult at first, but you will get better with practice.
  • Add the octave key (the metal key above your left thumb) to any of these fingerings to produce the same note, but an octave higher.
  • With the help of your fingering chart, work your way up to high notes (very high) or very low in the range, as well as flat and sharp notes. Over time you will learn to play all the notes you can reach with your saxophone.
Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 7
Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 7

Step 7. Find music to play

If you are learning for a school band you will surely find music to practice there. Otherwise, you can buy the music from a local store or method book and play the music you find there.

Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 8
Play the Tenor Saxophone Step 8

Step 8. Keep practicing

By working hard and with dedication, you will get better every day … who knows, you may become the next jazz legend.


  • Remember to take your saxophone every so often to the music store for a LEA (Cleaning, Oiling and Tightening) and make sure it stays in good condition.
  • If you find that you are producing a sustained sound, you are most likely biting the reed. Try turning your lower lip inward, but not too much.
  • Remember that the tenor saxophone is a transposing instrument. In addition to being tuned to B minor, your notes are written one octave higher than they sound. In terms of music theory, that means that when you play a note, you are actually hearing it a major ninth (an octave + a major second) below it (in concert tuning).
  • For the best possible sound, be sure to tune your saxophone before playing. Check out this article for more information.
  • If you have a lot of trouble with low notes, it's probably due to your embouchure. Make sure to check the pads for leaks, as this can make falling notes impossible to play. As for your embouchure, try expanding your throat and dropping your jaw slightly. Keep practicing, you will have it adjusted over time.
  • The tenor saxophone can be a good second instrument for clarinetists, or vice versa, since both have many similarities in terms of fingering and both are tuned to the same key.
  • Once you learn to play one saxophone, you can learn to play any other with great ease. They all have the same key and fingering system, but can be either larger or smaller than the tenor. Many saxophonists, particularly in jazz, play more than one saxophone.


  • Never play the saxophone (or any other wind instrument) right after eating. Chemicals in your mouth from food can damage the instrument, sometimes beyond repair.
  • The tenor saxophone is a large instrument. Both the saxophone and its case can be difficult for some people to handle, especially children. If you have problems with weight, you should buy a neck strap that gives you more support, or switch to the alto saxophone.
  • Image

    Saxophone on its stand. Never leave your saxophone in the middle of the ground or somewhere where it can be damaged. If you need to leave it in place, you can purchase a stand or stand that will keep it upright in a safe place.

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