The J’Élle Stainer Subcontrabass Saxophone: The Overview/Review

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series J'Elle Stainer Saxophones

The J’Elle Stainer Sub-contrabass Saxophone

Bassic Sax Guest Columnist, Attilio Berni

subcontrabass saxophone, J'Elle Stainer, b&w photo, saxophone player

Attilio Berni playing his J'Elle Stainer subcontrabass Photo supplied by Attilio Berni

The sub-contrabass saxophone is a model of saxophone that Adolphe Sax designed and planned, but never realized. Adolphe Sax was a unique personage, with an early and highly developed musical intelligence that led him from an early age to experiment and make musical instruments of excellent workmanship. An eclectic person in possession of such skills to be able to create very great projects, such as an exceptional cumbersome organ supplied by the engine of a locomotive and a oval concert hall; or very unusual projects such as a device able to tune simultaneously and perfectly all the strings of the piano and the Goudronniere, a sort of “hygienic exhalers” that were used to purify the air of hospitals and sanatoriums.

Sax called this imaginary saxophone bourdon saxophone. It should have been a transposing instrument in Bflat, one octave below the bass saxophone and two octaves below the tenor saxophone.

J'Elle Stainer subcontrabass saxophone, soprano saxophone 

Above photo: The J’Élle Stainer subcontrabass in its specially-designed stand, and a conventional soprano for size comparison.

The sub-contrabass J’Elle Stainer is an absolute prototype, a unique piece entirely made by hand (pads included) whose design and construction took three years of work! The tube of the body develops an overall length of almost 6 meters and obviously it has a very dark and almost cavernous sound. The lowest note, low A (real note) is close to the least threshold of audibility: 27.5Hz! In order to realise the size let’s make a comparison with a high saxophone Selmer SA 80 Series III: 

comparisons Selmer S.A.80III alto sax J’Elle Stainer sub-contrabass sax
Inside air volume about 2 liters about 40 liters
Bell diameter 11,5cm 38cm
Bell circumference 38cm 120cm
Hole diameter low si 4cm 2 holes: 14cm and 11cm
Range Bb-F#     B- F#
(in Hertz) from 207,6Hz to 803,6Hz from 27,5Hz to 164,8Hz
Engraving by pantograph by hand
Columns soldered on the plate directly soldered on the body
Plate thickness 0,6mm   0,71mm
Pads leather (industrial) leather (handmade)
Resonators metal metal
Left/Right thumb rests plastic- plastic plastic – metal
Holes      extruded                soldered
Body total length about 1,16m about 5,950m
Weight 2,1Kg 24,3Kg

J'Elle Stainer subcontrabass saxophone 

Above photo: The upper bow, pig tail, neck, mouthpiece, & custom ligature of the J’Élle Stainer subcontrabass saxophone.


Despite the various withies and the compact shape, the instrument is aesthetically balanced and elegant. On the lower curve a ferrule is already fixed to the bow as it is imperative to play this instrument sitting down and leaning it on its specific stand.  The current model is given with its  standard box (giant) and a special mouthpiece with its artistically worked ligature.  A note on the polypropylene mouthpiece: the J’Elle Stainer provides customers of personalized mouthpieces for their instruments. The chamber and the facing are calculated to enhance the instrument timbre in order to be unique pieces. The above mentioned mouthpiece is similar to the plan of the contrabass sax one. The opening is partly closed and gives a full, warm and dark timbre making it easy the attack of both low and acute registers, so that it is suitable for any kind of performance from classical, to chamber or jazz music.

The body and the keys finish color is gold with floral engravings on the whole bell.


Although it is obviously conditioned by the considerable size of the instrument and the  partly long run of the keys, the ergonomics is pretty good. Obviously this is an instrument of exceptional dimensions and this implies a sort of adjustment. It was adopted a “Selmer-Style” system: it has essentially the same construction features of a modern Selmer so that there aren’t any particular difficulties even in the most complex passages.

The only problems are:

  • the difficulties for the left hand that must necessarily take a slightly curved and uncomfortable position which, in some way, compromises the technical agility.
  • the difference and the distance of some of the left palm keys: pressing the low C creates a high difference in level with the low C so that is really difficult, if not impossible, to switch between these two keys. The same issue, though lesser, is found between the low Eb and C.

Attention must be paid also to the acute keys since their holes, because of the withes, are positioned at the bottom in relation to respective keys: ie the rods go down, while in a traditional sax they go upwards. The player has a very different feeling playing these keys, and therefore it is necessary to get used to this position; besides, even the manufacturer has tried to recreate the distances found in a traditional sax, the keys are quite far from each one and this  does not facilitate the fluency (flowingness).


Due to the particular form literally rolled up on itself, the mechanics is extremely complex and intricate. The manufacturer did not want to abandon any key (which would have simplified the work but would have made the instrument incomplete) as well as a good ergonomics. At first glance it is obvious the enormity of the work required to forge the hundreds of pieces that make up the complex mechanics of sub-contrabass.

The instrument has two mouthpiece keys that operate 6 holes. The first one is an automatic  mouthpiece key that operates with 5 holes (the first three for the emission of notes from D to G and then the next two for the notes from A on); while the second one is for the altissimo registry.

The noise of mechanics, generally quite low, is sometimes higher. It is in fact a very bulky and complex instrument where, necessarily, some keys must be pressed with force (eg to obtain the low C and the low B the manufacturer had to make two holes for every note, each one  corresponding to two very large cups).


The sound of the sub-contrabass is incredibly full and uniform throughout all registers even if the air expense in the low register is really impressive. The production technique of the sound is very special since it requires that the air is blown inside it in large quantities but with a very slight pushing pressure and the musician must train a lot to learn to dose correctly breath and ensure it does not end immediately, and a correct pressure so that it produces the correct note and not the harmonic.

As all extreme and low instruments, difficulties arise in the register change (C-D) and the emission of D-E-F notes where mouthpiece becomes controllable only after a little ‘practice and especially with an accurate management of emission. Even the high A note is difficult with mouthpiece because the higher harmonic tends to come out, only by increasing the portion of the mouthpiece in your mouth and after a certain period the note becomes controllable.

This unique instrument allows to attack even lower sounds with relative ease and softness unlike other bass and contrabass instruments the witch often oblige the player to violent attacks and a strong emission. The control of plane and dynamics is really good in all registers and also the pitch, in general, is excellent in all registers.


J’Elle Stainer is the name of a small artisan factory located in Mairiporã in the metropolitan region of San Paolo in Brazil, founded in 2011 by an incredible craftsman named João Luiz da Rocha. The factory was created to meet the growing demand of Brazilian market for the production of low saxophones and double basses to be used during the Christian Congregation rites in Brazil in order to replace the tuba and the tuba bass, giving orchestras a more mellow sound typical of reed instruments.

The Christian Congregation in Brazil is one of the most dynamic evangelical movements in the country, founded by the Italian missionary Louis Francescon (1866-1964) in 1910. In ten years, Joao Luiz da Rocha has produced about 100 low saxophones and about 10 double basses. Since five years, in collaboration with the entrepreneur saxophonist Gilberto Lopes, he has began to develop extreme instruments of excellent quality and countless prototypes as special slide saxophones or keyless instruments, a collaboration that led to the creation of this unique sub-contrabass saxophone: an instrument that fully respects the bore and the interior chamber proportions indicated and idealized by the inventor Adolphe Sax 150 years ago.

This collaboration brought J’Elle Stainer beyond the Brazilian borders and today its extreme saxophone are used by professional musicians and orchestras in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Holland, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Austria and other countries.

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

© 2012, Helen. All rights reserved.

Series NavigationThe J’Élle Stainer Subcontrabass Saxophone: The VideoThe J’Élle Stainer Subcontrabass Saxophone: A Photo Essay


Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.


  1. Steve Schwartzenberg

    This is an incredible piece of work. I never knew that there was a saxophone below the Contra Bass Saxophone!

    This was a great article!

  2. I love it!! I would love to get one of these, as it would be a marvel to play. However, some recordings or video of it would be great too. I have been wanting to know what a subcontra might sound or look like, and here it is – wow!!

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