School of The Rock


Saxophones in Church?

by Paul D. Race

The growing popularity of praise choruses in modern Evangelical has birthed the emergence of praise teams  These are essentially guitar-based “Light Rock” bands.  Drawing from Folk, Gospel, Folk-Rock, and Pop roots, most of the early praise bands played extemporaneously with head arrangements only (the only thing predetermined was the chord progression and how many verses and choruses you would sing).  Talented guitarists, bassists, pianists, and drummers never had trouble keeping up with the leader on what, frankly, tended to be three-chord songs.

An especially organized praise team might have used lyric sheets with the chord names written above the lyrics, or even better, lead sheets which showed the melody with the lyrics and chord names.   But wind players who needed sheet music in their keys were left out, because instruments in Bb (trumpet, clarinet, and tenor sax) need sheet music that is one whole step higher than the music the pianist uses.  And instruments in Eb (Eb Alto saxophone or French Horn) need sheet music that is two and a half steps lower.

You don’t have to stay “left out,” though.  If you play sax, clarinet, or trumpet, and you’d like to play in church, the way you adapt depends on the resources your worship leader uses to lead the rest of the praise band.

Today, many churches used computer-generated or pre-printed orchestral arrangements that have simple “saxophone parts” written out in the appropriate keys.  If that’s what your church does, ask your songleader to print out or dig up the music for your Eb Alto or Bb Tenor.  There will be more sharps than you’re probably used to, but you don’t have to be worried about the music being too hard.  You’ll be seeing a lot of whole notes and rests - sadly the folks who write these arrangements don’t have a clue how to write sax parts. But if that’s how your church does things, that’s your starting point at least.   In many churches that’s your best opportunity to play in the service.  

By the way, if your churches uses these kinds of arrangements, stick with your Eb or Bb saxophone.  There are seldom parts of C Melody horns. 

Some worship leaders play primarily from Lead Sheets, Piano/Vocal Scores, or Hymnals.   In such churches, you need to adapt.  Determined wind players in such praise teams have three choices:

  • Learn to Transpose “on the fly,” literally looking at one note and playing another.  (If your church uses hymnals only, there is a trick Eb sax players can use, that I’ll put at the bottom of this article.)
  • Learn to Improvise musical parts, making up their own parts like Rock and Jazz players often do.
  • Shop for a playable and affordable C Melody saxophone (probably the hardest of the three choices, really).

Both of the first two choices depend on practice and hard work, but will cost you nothing, unless you buy books or take lessons.  Some of my friends have been transposing so long that it has become becomes second nature.  As a former rock saxophonist, I am more comfortable improvising. That said, either approach may still leave you “drowning in sharps.” 

Considering the C Melody Option

To avoid constant transposition or drowning in sharps, a number of Christian clarinet and saxophone players have investigated the use of C Melody saxophones.  These were invented over a century ago so that amateur sax players could play the melody line of whatever the piano player was playing without transposing or deafening everyone else in the parlor.  Which brings us to one advantage and two potential drawbacks.

  • C Melody makes it easy to play along with lead sheets and piano vocal scores.  However:
  • You’ll wind up playing the melody all the time, which might not contribute as much to the arrangement as you might think, and,
  • You’ll have a more limited dynamic range than you’re used to on your Alto or Tenor.  Some folks try to compensate by the way they use the microphones, but that’s not the whole problem. A limited dynamic range limits your range of tone and expression as well.  By the way, a modern mouthpiece helps, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem.  And it does cost money on top of what you pay for the horn (and usually refurbishment).. 
  • I have friends who tell me that I’m being picky, and I just need to learn to compensate, so maybe this won’t bother you.  But I have to say that it’s a consideration for me. 

That said, if you’re okay with having a relatively limited dynamic and your praise team relies only on lead sheets or piano scores, a C Melody will let you join in without having to transpose or improvise.  A C Soprano will also work, although it’s harder to come by one of those that is really playable, and it’s harder for Eb Alto or Bb Tenor players to adjust to playing.

Considering a Vintage C Melody

Unlike Eb and Bb saxophones, C Melodies haven’t been made in substantial quantities since the early 1930s.  When they first fell out of favor, there was such a glut of them that people were literally throwing away horns they didn’t want (just like a lot of plywood guitars found their way to the trashpile when the Folk movement subsided). So finding a used American-made horn that can be restored to playable condition without costing far more than it’s worth presents certain challenges.   Our articles on Shopping for C Melody Saxes and Evaluating Vintage Saxophones will give you some tips.  

Considering a new C Melody

A number of fly-by-night importers are bringing C Melodies out of China for ridiculously low prices.  Sadly, they use low quality brass and have been known to literally fall apart in a few months.  I suppose that if you are wondering if C melody will work for you at all and you don’t mind spending $250-400 on a disposable saxophone to find out, that might be one approach.  Whatever you do, don’t pay an extra $300 for a silverplate finish or the like - underneath the silver, those horns still have the same poor materials and weak construction of their colorful lacquered siblings.  

There was a company named Aquilasax whose saxes were built in China to more exacting specs, then checked out by the owner in New Zealand before they were shipped out.  Unfortunately, the plant he was using has stopped making saxophones. However if you come across an Aquilasax C Melody of C Soprano, you should try it out.

The Devil’s Instrument?

All of the above ignores the fact that for much of the 20th century, you would have raised eyebrows, if not ire, simply for bringing a saxophone into church.  After all, it was the “the devil’s instrument.”  For at least two reasons, if not three or four.

  • The sax imitates the human voice better than any other instrument, so it can express a range of emotion authentically - too authentically for some folks.  I’m told that in the days of the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, at least one movie that didn’t actually show any sexual activity received a black mark because it showed a woman and a man staring at each other while a saxophone played a “sensuous” line in the background.  Apparently the saxophone told the censors exactly what they characters were thinking, and that was a problem.
  • The saxophone also “came into its own” during the “Jazz Age,” so it became the “whipping boy” for everything that preachers found wrong with the popular culture of the 1920s (just as preachers later held the guitar responsible for promoting sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll during the 1960s).
  • Of course it didn’t help that Adophe Sax’s real name was spelled a lot like “sex,” or that some folks thought it was shaped like a snake (so is the bass clarinet, but since it never caught on in popular music, it seems to have dodged that bullet).

Of course, the modern Evangelical church allows even electric guitars and drums in the service today.   I’d be surprised if more than a handful of people remember that, to many preachers a century ago, the saxophone once represented all that was wrong with popular culture. 

But I was reminded recently, when I brought my Bb Tenor to a Baptist church to play along with the “summer praise band,” which, thankfully, does not use orchestral arrangements.  A musician  friend who was singing in the “praise team” turned around in surprise when I blew a riff during practice.  She said, “I love the saxophone.  I wanted to play it when I was little, but my mom thought it was the Devil’s instrument, so she made me play drums instead.”

I said, “She’s right. It is the Devil’s instrument until you learn to play it in tune!

All I can say about everything on this page is, “follow your conscience.”  :-)

Eb Saxophone Hymnal Trick

Okay, this is going to seem a little weird but some Eb sax players in traditional churches have used this “workaround” to let them play along with music from the hymnal.

First you have to look at the key signature and figure out what it would be for your Eb sax (three less flats or three more sharps or some combination of the two)

Here’s a quicky resource to give you an idea how this works:

Hymnal Key

Eb Sax Key

Hymnal Key

Eb Sax Key

Ab (4 flats)

F (1 flat

C (no sharps or flats)

A (3 sharps)

Eb (3 flats)

C (no sharps or flats)

G (1 sharp)

E (4 sharps)

Bb (2 flats)

G (1 sharp)

D (2 sharps)

B (5 sharps)

F (1 flat)

D (2 sharps)

A (3 sharps)

F# (6 sharps)

Now look at the bass clef line in your hymnal and imagine that is really a treble clef.  Remember to apply your key signature instead of the one on the staff. Then play each note as if it was note on the treble staff in your key signature. 

For example the tenor may be singing an Ab (the top line of the bass clef in the keys of Ab or Eb).  But when you look at that note (with your revised key signature in mind), you’ll see that note as an F.  If you have an Eb Baritone sax, it’s easy to transpose the bass line the same way.  If the bass is singing a G (the lowest line of the bass clef), you play that as an E.  And so on.

This can get tricky if there are a lot of accidentals - sometimes “doing the math” is too hard to do on the fly and you are better off dropping out.  But it will get you started.

If this doesn’t make any sense to you, or if you never get the hang of it, that’s okay, only a handful of people use this trick. But it’s there.  

Reader Response:

    A Reader Writes:

    First I want to thank you for your excellent article on  Saxophones in church.  I struggled through this on my own and then with a little information I could scrounge up from SOTW (SaxOnTheWeb) a while back.  I would like to recommend a couple resources for your article that really helped me.

    • 500 Hymns for Instruments by Lillenas. - A hymnal with full parts  produced for most instruments.   The harmonies are traditional for alto,  and the tenor/soprano part is countermelody.  For traditional parts for  tenor I use the trumpet book.
    • Word music produces instrumental books for each of their worship song books in the Songs for Praise and Worship series.  This include  both the melody and a very modest accompaniment.
    • Any church which has a CCLI account can transpose the music to any key depending on which services they have purchased.
    • Band in a Box - I know this one sounds a little off, but BIAB has a  harmonies feature and a styles feature which can take a midi file and  produce some pretty good parts for a Sax or other instrument.

    Most worship leaders do not know what to do with someone who plays the sax well but is a not a semi-pro capable of improvising or developing their own parts.  These provide some great workarounds.   The one workaround  that you mentioned which I used initially and works well for alto is reading off the bass cleff and adding three sharps.

    Thank you again for taking the time to address this issue.  I have met  many sax players online who struggle with this and get discouraged  because they are expected to create their own place in the worship band  and have no clue what to do.

Marshall, Thanks for the tips. 


Other Resources

Christian Jazz saxophonist Greg Vail has also provided an article that would be useful for church saxophone players who are capable of playing extemporaneously, but may not have played much in groups.  To jump to that article, click the following link:

Other articles on this site that you may find helpful include:

Another resource, the Horns in My Life articles describe various saxophones (and one flute) with which I’ve made a personal connection over the last 45 years.  Some folks who’ve had similar horns will find it a helpful resource.  Others will just like to reminisce along with me.  On the other hand, if you come across one of these horns while you’re shopping for a saxophone and want to know more about it, you may find one or more of the articles helpful.

The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.

One of our “sister sites,” Family Christmas Online, has an article about playing saxophone for a Salvation Army kettle in December, 2013:


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