When you have the opportunity to join a band, the first step is to choose an instrument to play. As a beginner, alto saxophone and trombone are two instruments to consider, but which is better?
The alto saxophone is a more beginner friendly choice. It is generally easier to make a sound and play, and it isn’t as tiresome to hold up because of the support of the neck strap. Trombone, on the other hand, is harder to learn but is a cheaper option and involves less maintenance.
That doesn’t mean beginners can’t play the trombone, as it can be a better fit for some students. Let’s check out the specifics of each instrument so you can choose the one that is the best for you.
Table of Contents
Sax or trombone: posture & ergonomics
While the saxophone is a heavy instrument, the neck strap helps hold the weight. Beginners find this quite helpful in managing the weight while establishing good posture and hand position.
With the trombone, much of the back end of the instrument rests on the left shoulder and the hands, while arms support the rest.
Smaller sized players with shorter arms might struggle with the weight and arm extension requirements to play trombone.
Holding the trombone up and reaching for the slide positions can be quite tiresome. While the left shoulder holds much or the weight, the right arm must extend to play in the higher positions like 6th and 7th.
With the proper neck strap adjustments, the alto saxophone is much easier to handle than the trombone. It is held closer to the body and is more comfortable to hold, especially with shorter arms.
Sax or trombone: ease of playing
To make sound on the saxophone, the mouth and lips are wrapped around the mouthpiece and reed in a specific formation that allows the reed to vibrate with air.
Once this embouchure is established on the saxophone, it remains relatively straightforward and consistent.
As a brass instrument, the trombone has a cup-shaped mouthpiece that the player must buzz their lips into at varying frequencies to play certain notes.
In contrast to the saxophone, It can take years to master a consistent, accurate buzz on the trombone.
Slide vs. keys
It is easier to play the correct note on the saxophone than on the trombone. On sax, you press the proper keys, and the right pitch will generally be produced.
On the trombone, the slide is much trickier and subtle than the keys of the saxophone. The player must have a general feel of how far to extend the slide for each note, and use their ears to adjust accordingly.
Each slide position can play more than one partial.
A fun feature of the trombone is playing glissandos, in which you can slide from note to note while extending the slide of the trombone.
While glissandos are a nice technique to master on the trombone, to avoid unwanted glissandos, the player must learn to tongue and position the slide accurately.
Saxophonists also must learn to tongue by beginning each note with the tip of the tongue attacking the tip of the reed on the mouthpiece.
On both instrument, tonguing requires coordination of the tongue and fingers, but there is more room for error with the slide of the trombone.
Saxophone is capable of playing faster due to the keys. It is much more challenging to play quickly on the trombone due to the motion of the slide.
That said, memorizing the complex fingering system of the saxophone may be daunting to some people. Others prefer it over learning the trombone slide and partials.
In most experiences, the trombone is more difficult to learn and play. If choosing it over saxophone, you’ll need to consider dedicating extra time to ear training in order to gain accuracy in pitch with the slide.
Sax or trombone: sound & expressiveness
Saxophone produces a strong sound that can be mellowed out with practice and playing experience. Many players find it easy to make a sound, but creating a controlled sound on a sax takes time.
Trombone can also produce a strong sound once the proper buzz is achieved. It will be difficult to get a consistent tone at first, since the air pressure and endurance of the embouchure is more demanding on the trombone.
It takes significantly more air to play the trombone than it does to play the alto saxophone. You can train and expand your lung capacity, but smaller framed students might struggle with this initially.
Because of its tone, the trombone has a wider range of expressive potential. The trombone is considered to be one of the closest instruments to the human voice due its range and flexibility.
Saxophone can be an expressive instrument too, but it will require more effort to achieve the same expressive qualities as the trombone.
Consider which instrument you enjoy the sound of more as well. After all, you will be hearing yourself playing a lot, so it’s best to like the way your instrument sounds.
Price and maintenance costs of sax vs trombone
|Student Saxophone||Student Trombone|
|Used||From $300||From $150|
Prices of instruments can vary widely by model, but saxophones are generally more expensive than trombones. Between a saxophone and trombone of a similar level of make, the saxophone is likely to be more costly.
The trombone is much lower maintenance and a lot more resistant to rain and extreme weather.
Because it has significantly more mechanisms and keys, rods, pads, corks, and felts, the saxophone is higher maintenance and cannot get wet.
Because of all of the intricacies of its key system, the saxophone is easier to damage, especially if dropped. While you should treat your instrument with care regardless, trombones are more rugged and durable.
Saxophone players must regularly purchase reeds for the instrument, and quality reeds are somewhat pricey.
Trombone players need to regularly oil their slide, but slide oil is fairly cheap and lasts a while when used properly.
In short, If choosing the saxophone, be prepared for the additional expense and upkeep.
Sax or trombone: playing opportunities
The trombone is the more versatile of the two instruments. Wind orchestras, jazz bands, military bands, concert bands, and marching bands all include trombone as a staple instrument in the group
Saxophones are not an orchestral instrument like trombone, and are hardly ever included in a wind orchestra.
Also, many college and drum corps marching bands only march brass and percussion. This excludes the saxophone which is a woodwind.
Both instruments are quite popular in jazz and classical settings, but group opportunities are slightly more limited for saxophone in later years.
If you see yourself being a professional orchestra musician, saxophone might not be the best option for you.
Learning saxophone does transition well to learning other woodwind instruments like the flute and clarinet. In fact, many saxophonists double on other woodwinds for pit orchestras and jazz ensembles.
Saxophone is extremely popular in jazz. Trombone is also an important instrument in jazz, but saxophone is found in nearly all types of jazz and gets to solo often.
Saxophone also branches out into more modern genres including rock, pop, and R&B.
If you wish to be a classical musician, trombone may be the best choice, but saxophone is best if you’re more into jazz or contemporary styles.
Sax or trombone: practice convenience
The trombone is a boisterous instrument, but there is an accessory to tone it down for indoor playing at home. A practice mute can effectively be used to decrease the volume in situations where you don’t want the neighbors to hear you practice.
Practice mutes for trombone are pretty affordable. In contrast, authentic, effective saxophone mutes are as pricey as some saxophones. There are cheaper mutes for saxophone, but they do not deafen the sound as well.
Although it is larger, the trombone is actually lighter than the sax, so some may find it easier to carry. It is a long instrument, so be cautious through doorways and narrow passages.
The alto saxophone is more compact, but it is also heavier in the case, and there’s no neck strap to assist with carrying the instrument. There are soft cases that function as a backpack, making it easier to travel with a saxophone.
Saxophone or trombone: which to choose?
The saxophone is the easier instrument to play of the two, through easier does not always mean better.
If a student can’t get a buzz at all, they are really going to struggle on a brass instrument like the trombone. Others, however, might have a natural affinity for buzzing and be more interested in playing the trombone.
If possible, attend an instrument fitting where new band members can trial instruments with the supervision of a professional. Oftentimes, the instructor can offer feedback on which instrument a student will be most successful, and therefore likely to enjoy playing more.
There are pros and cons to choosing either the saxophone or the trombone, and every person has their own unique tastes and natural abilities.
When deciding which to choose, consider your priorities in regards to cost, maintenance, playability, effort and the type of music you desire to play.