Tenor Sax Vs Alto Sax: What’s The Difference?

By Mike D. Schmitt

Featured products have been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. We may receive commissions on purchases made from links on this site. Learn More

Share on:

The tenor sax and alto sax are both popular saxophones that can be found in many genres of music. While they may look similar, there are significant differences in their sound and construction that make them distinct instruments. In this prompt, we will explore the differences between the two types of saxophones, who uses each, which famous artists play each, why they are confused, and how to tell the difference.

  • Construction: The tenor sax is larger than the alto sax, with a longer body and a larger bell. The tenor sax is typically around 26 inches long, while the alto sax is around 22 inches long. The alto sax also has a smaller bore, which gives it a brighter sound than the tenor sax.
  • Sound: The tenor sax has a lower range than the alto sax, and is typically played in the range of Bb2 to E4. It has a deeper, more mellow sound than the alto sax, which makes it popular in jazz and blues music. The alto sax, on the other hand, has a higher range, typically played in the range of Eb3 to A5. It has a brighter sound than the tenor sax, which makes it popular in classical and pop music.

Use in music genres: The tenor sax is most commonly found in jazz and blues music, while the alto sax is commonly used in classical, pop, and jazz music.

Famous artists who play each: Some famous tenor saxophonists include John Coltrane, Stan Getz, and Sonny Rollins. Some famous alto saxophonists include Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Kenny G.

Why are they confused: The tenor and alto saxophones can look very similar, especially to someone who is not familiar with the instruments. They are both played in a similar way and use similar mouthpieces. Additionally, the names “tenor” and “alto” can be confusing, as they don’t give much indication of the actual size or range of the instruments.

How to tell the difference: The easiest way to tell the difference between a tenor sax and an alto sax is by their size. The tenor sax is larger than the alto sax, with a longer body and a larger bell. Additionally, the mouthpiece of a tenor sax is larger than that of an alto sax. The sound of the two instruments is also distinct, with the tenor sax having a deeper, more mellow sound, while the alto sax has a brighter sound.

Here is a list of artists who use a tenor sax:

Sonny Rollins
John Coltrane
Stan Getz
Dexter Gordon
Joe Henderson
Wayne Shorter
Branford Marsalis
Michael Brecker
Joshua Redman
Chris Potter

Sure, here is a list of famous artists who use an alto sax:

Charlie Parker
Cannonball Adderley
Phil Woods
Johnny Hodges
Sonny Stitt
Ornette Coleman
David Sanborn
Kenny Garrett
Jackie McLean
Paul Desmond

These are just a few examples of the many talented musicians who have used the alto and tenor sax in their music. Each artist brings their unique style and sound to the instrument, showcasing the versatility of the alto and tenor sax in a variety of genres including jazz, blues, pop, and more.

Here are some popular songs that feature the tenor sax:

  • “In a Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington
  • “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins
  • “Blue Train” by John Coltrane
  • “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Duke Ellington
  • “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane
  • “St. Thomas” by Sonny Rollins
  • “Misty” by Erroll Garner
  • “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane
  • “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty
  • “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen

This is just a small selection of songs that feature the tenor sax, but they represent a variety of genres and eras.

Here are some examples of songs that prominently feature the alto sax:

  • “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” by The Four Tops
  • “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon
  • “Tequila” by The Champs
  • “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News
  • “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck Quartet (Paul Desmond on alto sax)
  • “The Pink Panther Theme” by Henry Mancini (Plas Johnson on alto sax)
  • “Careless Whisper” by George Michael
  • “Street Life” by The Crusaders (Wilton Felder on alto sax)
  • “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee (Boots Randolph on alto sax)
  • “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen (Clarence Clemons on tenor sax, but the saxophone solo is often played on alto sax in live performances)

Note that many other songs feature saxophone parts played on both tenor and alto saxophones, so it’s not always easy to distinguish between the two instruments in a given song.

By Mike D. Schmitt

Mike is your 'Go-To-Guy' for all things music and pro audio. Engineer, musician, luthier, and quite possibly the biggest gear head on the planet. With over 30 years of industry experience in the studio, and on the road, we turn to Mike and his expertise for those hard hitting music and pro audio questions.

Related Reading


We will never spam or share your information. By subscribing, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and may receive promotions or marketing material from us. Unsubscribe anytime.