Learning saxophone can take a bit of time due to the number of keys, which can be intimidating to those who are just introduced to the instrument. But, how many keys exactly? Let's find out.
How many keys do saxophones have? Saxophones have 20-23 keys and 25 holes, regardless of which saxophone type you speak of among the four main types (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone). The quantity varies according to age, brand, and/or tier (pro tier saxes usually sport more keys than beginner or intermediate ones).
In this article, we'll be discussing the following:
- How a saxophone is constructed
- The distribution of keys and holes
- A brief explanation of the saxophone fingering scheme
A Primer On How Saxophones Are Constructed
Judging from what we exposed above, there is not a fixed number of keys on a saxophone, but we may be able to come up with an average range of 20-23 keys and 25 holes.
Keys are similar to valves found on brass instruments in that they alter the effective length of the instrument's tube. The difference is that they're activated or moved by pads that cover/uncover holes or orifices present in the instrument's body, offering different tonalities and pitches.
But, before delving deeper into how keys and pads are structured, let us first get to know a bit more regarding the saxophone's construction.
A saxophone, for the uninitiated, has four main parts:
- Neck: Houses the mouthpiece and reed, from which air flows through the rest of the instrument.
- Body: Strictly speaking, it's where all the keys and pads are located.
- Elbow: A U-shaped bow that extends to the bell (sopranos and higher-pitched saxophones are devoid of this feature).
- Bell: The resonance device, from where most of the output is heard.
A saxophone can have up to 600 parts, which goes to show just how much care should be put into its construction.
There are around 14 different types of saxophones, but the four main types (according to range and size) are:
- Soprano: Starting from Bb (Sí Bemole). Their range is from concert Ab3 to E6.
- Alto: Starting from Eb (Mí Bemole). Their range is from concert Db3 to Ab5.
- Tenor: Starting from Bb (Sí Bemole). Their range is from concert Ab2 to E5.
- Baritone: Starting from Eb (Mí Bemole). Their range is from concert Db2 to Ab4.
To learn more about the 4 primary types of saxophones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Are The 4 Primary Types Of Saxophones?
• Why Are Different Saxophones Designed In Different Keys?
Keys and levers are used to close one or multiple holes simultaneously at different heights utilizing pads. Different combinations produce different pitches in combination with the embouchure and the amount of air pushed through the bore or tube.
These keys are distributed to allow the player easy access to all the possible combinations, but it requires some skill to pull them out in certain phrasing patterns.
The left hand has access to four pearl keys, the high F, four pinkie keys, three hook keys, and the octave key.
Since it's positioned at the fatter end of the body, the right hand has access to fewer keys. To wit: Three pearl keys, three hooks, two pinkies, and the optional high F# key.
Older models had two distinct octave keys, but more modern designs often utilize a single key to close two different octave holes.
The octave key is the only thumb key available for most saxophones today. It's employed for second and third-octave notes and for triggering altissimo ranges (only attainable for the most skilled players).
To learn more about octave keys, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Is The Octave Key On Alto Saxophone?
• How To Fix A Saxophone Octave Key (Sticky, Stiff, Bent, Worn)
The number of keys is roughly the same across the main sax types (soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone). Nevertheless, some soprano models may carry one additional high G key, and some baritones could feature an extra low A key.
Also, divergences may be found across different models and brands, but, generally speaking, a player familiar with one type should be able to play the others without much struggle.
If you're interested in how saxophones play in different musical keys, check out my article Can A Saxophone Play In Any Musical Key?
The Fingering Scheme For Saxophone
I've laid out a small fingering guide for the saxophone below. Once again, these fingerings should be the same regardless of the type.
Be mindful that saxophones are transposing instruments, meaning that, on paper, the notes are the same for each fingering, but the absolute pitch (or concert pitch) is different. This means that the C note may not have the same concert pitch in a tenor saxophone when compared to an alto saxophone. This is done to facilitate the work of instrumentalists when having to shift saxophones.
Without further ado, let's dive into the fingering scheme.
- Left Thumb – Octave Key: Used to access most second and third-octave notes and for nearly every altissimo fingering.
- First Finger (B)
- Second Finger (A/C)
- Third Finger (G)
- Front F Key: Topmost left-hand key pressed by the first finger, designed to deliver altissimo for F6 as an alternative to the palm keys and other altissimo keys.
- Bb (Bis) Key: Pressed by the first finger to render first and second-octave Bb in passages devoid of B–naturals. It's placed between the main keys for the first and second fingers.
- D Palm Key: For third–octave D, Eb, E, F, and F# and for trilling between the second and third–octave D. It's the farthest key in the palm keys group, pressed by the first finger's knuckle.
- Eb Palm Key: Used for third–octave Eb, E, F, and F#. It's located at the topmost position in the palm keys group and can be triggered by the first finger's top joint.
- F Palm Key: Employed for third–octave F and F#. It's situated at the lowest position of the palm keys group and activated by the second finger's top joint.
- G#: the topmost key in the pinky key group. Plays first and second–octave G#.
- Low C#: The outermost key in the pinky key group.
- Low B: Located on the inner side of the pinky group.
- Low Bb: Located at the lowest part of the pinky group.
- First Finger Key (F)
- Second Finger Key (E)
- Third Finger Key (D)
- Alternate F#: raises a semitone for first– and second–octave F. Alternative to the right-hand middle finger.
- E Side Key: The uppermost side key for rendering third–octave E, F, and F# and trilling second and third–octave C# to D#.
- C Side Key: The middle side key for first and second–octave C.
- Bb Side Key: The bottom side key for trilling first and second–octave Bb.
- High F#: Available on newer models for third–octave palm–key fingering to deliver lower altissimo F#.
- Low Eb: The upper key in the pinky pair for first and second–octave Eb and many altissimo fingerings.
- Low C: The bottom key in the pinky pair. Plays low C.
Baritone Saxophone Additional Keys:
- Low A: Second left thumb key (only available on some models).
Soprano Saxophone Additional Keys:
- High G: Usually next to the High F# right-hind side key (only available on some models).
To learn more about saxophones and the notes they're capable of producing, check out my article How Many Notes Do Saxophones Play? (4 Different Sax Types).