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What Is a Contrabass Saxophone?

H. Bliss
H. Bliss

A contrabass saxophone is the largest and lowest toned saxophone. Made of brass and as big as a moderately tall person, it is most commonly used in orchestral music and saxophone ensembles. The size of the contrabass saxophone makes it impractical to use in many musical situations, so it is generally brought into a group specifically for its unique deep tones. In saxophones, the size and length dictate how low the tones are, and a contrabass saxophone is twice as long as the next lowest saxophone, the baritone.

Though it is not as commonly used as other saxophones, the contrabass sax was part of the original family of saxophone instruments that were invented by Adolphe Sax around 1840. More common types of saxophones include the alto, tenor and baritone saxophones. Like the other saxophones, the contrabass saxophone uses a wooden reed in a mouthpiece to create the vibrations needed to make sound.

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In contrast with the straight-shaped soprano saxophone, the contrabass sax has a curved shape similar to the shape of alto and tenor saxophones. It is equipped with a series of keys saxophone players press down or finger to play notes. Due to its awkward size and heavy weight, contrabass sax players usually use a stand when playing this instrument. Generally, the other saxophones only need a stand when the player is setting them down while at rest.

These deeply toned instruments are used to fill out the bass end of the sound of a musical group. The range of the contrabass saxophone typically goes from the booming B flat below middle C to the F just above middle C. The deep notes reachable using a contrabass saxophone can be compared to the tuba, which can reach the F located just a few notes lower than the B flat that bottoms out the contrabass saxophone range. Since the contrabass saxophone is rare and not usually a featured solo instrument, there are not many famous contrabass saxophone players. Some of the most well-known artists using this saxophone include Anthony Braxton, Jay Easton, and Paul Cohen.

Though some composers write parts specifically for this type of sax, if an orchestra has one, contrabass saxophonist most likely plays a deeper double of the baritone saxophone part. If a contrabass sax player is playing alongside a baritone sax on the same part, the contrabass sounds an octave below the part written for the baritone. The result of doubling a baritone and contrabass on the same part can result in an array of sounds that range from deep, rich and moving to disturbing and bothersome.

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