The curious case of the Subcontrabass Saxophone

Adolph Sax was nothing if not a creative genius. His original patent illustrated 8 sizes of saxophone – each with the option of two different pitches – for a total of 16 different instruments.  All but one were built.*

*Well, not exactly. See my post on F and C saxophones for the whole story.


Sketch from Sax’s original patent.

From right to left:

Subcontrabass (bourdon), Contrabass, Bass, Baritone, Tenor, Alto, Soprano, and Sopranino.

The saxophone was meant to be a bass family as evidenced by the emphasis on the lower forms.  However, the lowest instrument was never made – until very recently.  The immense size made this instrument the hardest to manufacture.  In a specialty shop, like Sax’s, it would have been no problem, but with the industrialization of instrument manufacturing it became almost impossible.  Today, the best wind instruments are again being made in smaller shops, sometimes by a single craftsman.  New experimentations and reenvisioning of old ideas are taking place.

And so we find it today that there are now two manufacturers who are making Subcontrabass Saxophones like Sax himself dreamed of.  J’Elle Stainer in Brazil offers two different models of Subcontrabass.  One is the compact version that only descends to a low written B.  The advantage of this instrument is that is it quite short, about the height of a normal Baritone Saxophone.  However, it is lacking the crucial bottom B-flat.  J’Elle Stainer makes up for this in its full-sized version – a saxophone that stands over 9 feet tall.  And yes, it does go all the way down to B-flat.

Over in Germany, the famed maker Benedict Eppelsheim also has made 2 different models of Subcontrabass.  His standard instrument is the B-flat Tubax, a narrow bore Subcontrabass with the bore size close to a modern Baritone Saxophone.  It has the depth, but not the warmth.  He has also made a single full-sized Low-A Subcontrabass.  All I can find of this instrument are tantalizing photos.

Can the instrument, in any of its iterations, be used?  It definitely isn’t a solo instrument.  As a powerful reed bass at the bottom of an ensemble it can add a few extra notes below the range of the already exceedingly rare Contrabass Saxophone.

Will I use the instrument… probably…

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