The Differences Between Bass & Tenor Saxophones

There are currently six saxophones being mass-produced. Four of them are deemed as “standards – soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone – while the other two (sopranino and bass) are more difficult to be found in the context of conventional big bands and orchestras. On this occasion, we'll be comparing the tenor (a primary saxophone) with the less conventional bass saxophone.

Below is a list of some of the differences between bass and tenor saxophones:

  • Tenor saxophones are smaller than bass saxophones.
  • The tenor saxophone plays notes on a higher register when compared to the bass saxophone.
  • Bass saxophones are more curved than tenor saxophones.
  • Tenor saxophones are much more popular than bass saxophones.

In this article, we'll unpack these main differences. However, a short description of each saxophone is due.

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What Is A Tenor Saxophone?

The Tenor saxophone is a mid-range member of the saxophone family and a candidate for the most popular saxophone in history, along with the alto saxophone. The tenor is slightly larger than the alto saxophone, with more curves around the neck and a wider diameter.

The tone of the tenor is midway between a baritone and an alto saxophone; it's not overly husky or sharp but stands on a sweet middle ground. This tone would be very sought after by many jazz musicians wanting a melodic-yet-mature voice for leads and solos.

Examples of renowned tenor saxophonists abound. I should mention John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins (father of the modern saxophone), Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, and Joe Farrell, though there are many others.

The tenor is made in the key of Bb, with a pitch range from Ab2 and E5.

What Is A Bass Saxophone?

The bass saxophone was actually the first saxophone ever introduced by Adolphe Sax in the 1840s, and it enjoyed immense popularity in the years prior to the Dixieland revival movement.

Bass saxophones were still widely used after amplifiers made upright basses suitable for big orchestras, but mostly within unconventional formats and outlets.

While the popularity of the bass sax began to wane in the 1950s, it still managed to hold a prominent spot in Bernstein's “West Side Story” and other assorted works of music theatre.

Many renowned musicians have experimented with this instrument in more recent years, such as James Carter, Anthony Braxton, and Roscoe Mitchell. Jan Garbarek also made use of the bass saxophone on his 1973 “Red Lanta” album.

The bass saxophone is tuned in the key of Bb and has a range of Ab1 to E4.

What Are The Differences Between Tenor And Bass Saxophones?

Next, we'll be ruminating on the differences enumerated at the beginning of this article:

First Difference: Size

The size difference should be readily apparent. The bass saxophone takes a huge leap in size from the baritone, which is the largest primary saxophone. When compared to tenors, this difference is even more noticeable.

Bass saxophones are virtually double the size of tenors, with the latter nearing a height of 2.5 ft and the former 4.5 ft.

The bass saxophone also essentially quadruples the approximate weight of the tenor saxophone. The tenor weighs roughly 6 lb. while the bass saxophone weighs 24 lb. Saxophonists would often need to sit down or place the bass saxophone on a stand to play for long periods.

Related article: Do You Need Big Hands To Play Saxophone?

Second Difference: Pitch

This factor goes in tandem with size. Larger tubes will produce lower frequencies, while shorter tubes will generate higher frequencies.

With woodwinds like the saxophone family, the larger the vibrating volume of air, the lower the pitch. The larger tubes of the bass saxophone contain a greater volume of air and, therefore, produce lower notes.

With this in mind, the tenor is positioned in a much higher register over the bass saxophone, differing by exactly an octave (they're both made in Bb).

These are the approximate frequencies we should be getting with these saxophones:

  • Tenor: Ranging from 103 to 622 Hz (corresponding to Ab2 to E5).
  • Bass: Ranging from 55 Hz to 315 Hz (corresponding to Ab1 – E4).

Third Difference: Shape

Shapes are not very different, all things considered.

However, you will notice that the bass saxophones have a bigger wick above the mouthpiece level, which corresponds to the big loop that stretches towards the cork area. This loop is similar to what is seen on baritone saxophones but far more pronounced.

Bass saxophones are designed in this way to improve their ergonomic value, considering the challenges already present due to their bulky size. Many of them will feature a spit valve to simplify the bore cleaning process and rid of all the saliva and condensed water buildups.

The bell/body ratios are also distinct, albeit slightly. The tenor's bell reaches half its body's height, whereas the bass saxophone's bell is closer to 3/4ths of the body's height.

Tenor saxophones resemble a larger alto sax but with a slight curve on the crook.

Fourth Difference: Popularity

There is simply no contest in terms of popularity between the tenor and bass saxophones.

Tenors are a staple of virtually every jazz big band on the planet, while bass saxophones struggle to get a slot even in more avant-garde projects. This is not to say that bass saxophones are never employed, but their use case is severely limited.

We should also mention that tenor saxophones are much easier to play than bass saxophones since they ultimately demand less in terms of lung capacity. Rendering audible notes on the bass saxophone is a highly cumbersome task, especially if you want to get into the higher range.

This is important because the steep learning curve of bass saxophones results in fewer bass saxophonists available and a lower interest overall.

While this is a more subjective appreciation, it should additionally be pointed out that tone, timbre, and pitch are factored into the popularity of tenor saxophones when contrasted with other members of the saxophone family like the bass saxophone.

The tenor saxophone has enough versatility to offer compelling leads and solos at the middle of the range. Bass saxophones are stuck to the lowest notes, which is not as attractive a feature for more conventional composers/arrangers.

Differences Between Other Saxophone Types

Here are more My New Microphone articles discussing the differences between other saxophone types:

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement ( or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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