Writing for the tubax


The tubax is a small-(human)sized contrabass saxophone sounding one octave lower than the baritone sax,  and written in Eb too.

It is though playing from the lower Db of the 5 stringed contrabass (sorry, no C) to the A on the 5° line of the bass key.

With an extension (flageolet key) of a fourth, which gives it the additional whole range of the bass saxophone (let’s say 3 octaves).

It can play much higher, OF COURSE, but this is much more difficult to control.

Notation :

Like all saxophones, in treble key, transposed in Eb (2 octaves and a major sixth higher than the perceived sound) : write in bass key with octava bassa, like for a contrabass, then change to a treble key transposing a 1/2 tone higher the accidentals in front of F, C and G. On Finale, write in bass key octava bassa, transpose a 6th major + 1 octave lower, +3#, and choose a notation in treble key octava bassa (you can then have it played in the right note range).

What is usually expected of a bass instrument :

A certain wideness of sound (maybe heaviness), snoring and majestuous low notes.

The “physical” perception of sound : you can show off the harmonic construct of sound with a movement of the throat which selects the different partials of the sound (on a low Bb, for instance).

Low vibrations, if forced (ff), can then be heard separately as a rythm : the regular bump of the reed on the mouthpiece.

The hard attacks like slap tones are very natural and give a high level of lisibility to the beginning of the sound.  Many musicians make this esthetical choice of playing only this way on low saxophones.

Though, the richness of this particular saxophone is precisely its dynamics, attacks and colour palette, and its perfect ergonomy. Everybody can find whatever he looks for !


All types of dynamics can be really controlled, from ppp to ff, on almost the whole tessiture. Even in the extreme low register, which is fairly rare for a saxophone.

In written notes, avoid the ppp on the high A, since it’s producing a mowing sound on crescendi; unless you really want this to happen (like in “Le soupir de la vache” by PA Charpy).

ffff  is possible, but (on a classical mouthpiece), it will induce a very reedy sound. It is though less interesting than on other low saxophones, which will be prefered for this speciality.

Attacks (Tonguing) Palette :

Enormous, since it spands from slap tones to lourre, with all sorts of intermediate posibilities : pizzicato, semi-staccato, ...

The type of attack is not necessarily linked to the dynamics : a slap tone can be played  pp, a lourré f.

Double-tonguing is not impossible, but not easily realised.

Colour palette :

Here, dynamics will have some influence. Sound can be very muffled, almost limited to the fundamental on a ppp. The “subtone” technique can be used on the 2nd half of the 1st octave, and even a little higher.

When dynamics are getting louder, the harmonic column fills rapidly, and can reach almost saturated sounds (the first octave can be played in “broken sounds”, like on a bass clarinet)

An effect of “hyper-rich” sounds (not saturated) can be obtained by singing an 8va or 12th higher while playing.

More traditionally, we can make the instrument sound like a low register bowed instrument (contrabass), plucked (bass guitar), a low horn (bass trombone) or reed (bassoon).

The tubax allows a very subtle phrasing, even on pieces where it could be expected to be awkward (Bach cello suites, or jazz Ballads, for instance).

Ergonomy of the instrument :

Very well conceived by its builder, the tubax allows for a very high digital virtuosity,  comparable to other saxophone’s, but superior to most other low instruments.

Though, the fact that the ear IS limitted in its perception of the low register souldn’t be neglected : it is actually possible to play faster than what the human ear can discriminate. This should then be a real choice : adapting the tempo to perception is a special aim.

Another point should be kept in mind, like on all saxophones : the large keys can produce a percussive parasite noise when they close. It will be even more important when a low dynamics level is required (noise/signal).

Special effects :

Vibrato :

If it is light and controlled, it can be used like on other saxophones, as a special color. But in the low register, it will often be perceived as a kind of staccato, especially if it is played rather edgy.

Flatterzunge :

Not more difficult than on other saxes. But, in the lowest tessiture, it is rarely perceived as a flatterzunge, and is often like a sing-and-play note.

Slap tones :

A percussive variation of a detached note, it can be played “opened” (with or without shouting), closed, with a tenuto note ... if the sound is muted, it can sound like a sort of “plaster” percussion. The considerable length of the tube amplifies its resonnance for “détimbré” slaps.

Multiphoniques :

Curiously, the instrument is so stable that multiphonics are difficult to produce. Notes of the first octave can be “broken” like on a bass clarinet, and some nice thirds intervals can be found a little higher than the official tessiture. But this is not the main effect to be obtained on this particular instrument.

Microtones :

For the same reason, quarter tones and other microtones are much more difficult to produce with alternate fingerings than on higher saxophones ... But variations are still possible, often with a colour variation (because the embouchure has to be modified), and sometimes also affecting dynamics control.

Open mouth :

Because of the energy necessary and of the slow vibrations, the reed can hold its movement even if the mouth opens and lets the reed free, which will be accompanied by a very impressive cracking sound. It is even possible to close the embouchure back in place without enduring a sound interruption ...

High Notes :

Extension from high G to the B with a specific “flageolet” key. To reach higher notes is relatively easy, though with poor sound control (up to 5 octaves)...

Tambourine sounds, key clicks and other percussive noises :

Since those are particularly easy to produce with large keys and chimneys, all percussive noises are quite natural on the tubax. But additional parasite noises come from the long metal pieces used to transmit finger movements to a sometimes very far located key.

A natural “spacialising” effect :

Since the keys are spread on the whole length of the instrument on 4 parallel tubes, a simple chromatic scale will be heard as a spatial projection : sounds will get out of every newly opened hole, on a circular mode, following the different tessitures ... This will eventually lead to some difficulties when the instrument is recorded : for the “Saxophone Extrème” CD project, the sound ingeneer used 5 different microphones to trap all the sounds emitted by the tubax ...

The “Saxophone Extrème” CD presents a kind of pannel of all the acoustic possibilities of the tubax, in almost all possible musical contexts : classical, contemporary, jazz and improvised music.

“Corps Noir convexe” by MH Fournier :  extreme high notes, different slap tones, opened mouth, rythmical vibrato, virtuosity ...

“Suite n°2 for cello ” by JS Bach :  complex phrasing.

“Caprice en forme de Valse” by P Bonneau  :  extreme finger virtuosity

“Le cirque” by M Monnet   :    slap tones

“Clinamen” by Aurel Stroë    The whole tessitura of contrabass sax

“Maknongan” by Giacinto Scelsi : Playing with timbral colors ...

“Tube et Axes” , “Low Blues” (by Fredéric Couderc) : jazz phrasing

“Vitrail” : improvisation on multiphonics.

Recorded in 2001 and published in 2007. It can be bought on my PriceMinister shop or asked for via the contacts page of the site.

Click here to access the website built with the help of Woodbrass.com . To learn more about tubax (repertory, making, composers‘ interviews, ...)

Click here to open a page of typical and special tubax sound examples.