Need a gift idea for a saxophone player? Or maybe you’re a sax player and need a convenient way to drop some hints to your loved ones so you don’t get another ugly sweater this year.
In this post I’ve put together a list of great gift ideas in all price ranges that will make any sax player very happy and help anyone shopping for a saxophone player get the right present.
Click Below to watch the video version of this post.
*Note that there are additional gift ideas for sax players in this text version you are reading.
GIFT Ideas for Saxophone Players - YouTube
Just about all of these saxophone accessories we are going to discuss I own, and have been using for a long time. I bought them myself but if someone had given me any one of these things as a gift I would have been very happy and also pretty impressed with their gifting skills.
There are links for purchasing all of these items throughout this post to help you can make the special saxophone player in your life very happy.
If you’re a sax player, go ahead and share this video with your wife/husband, girlfriend/boyfriend, mom/dad you get the idea…
or you can just buy this stuff for yourself. That’s what I do.
Also if you’ve got any good gift ideas that don’t get covered here, please put them in the comments below. I’m always looking for new saxophone accessories to try out and get a lot of great ideas from readers’/viewers’ comments.
These neoprene mouthpiece pouches from Vandoren are great and should be in every sax player’s case. Mouthpieces need protection since the slightest imperfection can have an impact on how well they perform. Sax players generally store their mouthpieces with the ligature and mouthpiece cap in place, so a pouch keeps the whole ensemble together nicely. The idea is to prevent it all from rolling around in the case and coming in contact with the other things residing in the accessory compartment.
I have one for alto and one for tenor. They fit all my different mouthpiece and ligature combinations. I will be purchasing some more of these to store and transport secondary and backup mouthpieces.
Body, Neck and Mouthpiece Swabs – BG France
BG Saxophone Swabs
I have been through just about every type of saxophone swab out there and these microfiber and bamboo swabs made by BG France are by far my favorites. Since I have been using these (going on 10 years now) they have kept all my horns clean and dry on the inside. I’ve passed them through my horns several times a day, everyday, and they are still going very strong. An item like this needs to be built with high quality materials if you don’t want it to come apart over time. (This is what has happened with most of my other swabs).
For the body swabs, it’s important to get the right model since the tenor version will get stuck if you attempt to pull it through an alto saxophone and the alto version won’t absorb all the moisture in the bell of a tenor.
For the mouthpiece and neck the A31 swab works for all types and sizes of saxophones and mouthpieces.
This reed case from D’addario holds up to 8 reeds. What’s nice is that it stores any type of reed from clarinet to baritone sax. It comes with a replaceable humidity control pack. I would recommend this case to woodwind doublers who need to have different types of reeds at the ready in one place. When I was working in pit orchestras and on cruise ships playing alto, tenor, and clarinet in the same performance, this would have been a convenient way to have all the reeds I needed at the ready in one package.
Hygro Case – Vandoren
Vandoren Hygro Reed Case for Alto Sax
I have recently upgraded my reed case to the Hygro Case by Vandoren. This is the first reed case I’ve ever owned that keeps my reeds humidified without them becoming all mouldy. There is an ingenious system of air circulation and a little sponge that maintains the humidity level in the case. It comes in two sizes. The HRC10 holds 6 of any Bb, Eb or alto clarinet and soprano or alto sax reeds. The HRC20 holds 6 of any bass clarinet and tenor or baritone sax reeds.
Each of these cases are the same size on the outside. It’s inside that changes to accommodate the different size reeds. I have one of each and love them. It is possible to store smaller reeds in the larger version so if you just want to get one I would choose the HRC20 as it will cover all bases.
Box of Saxophone Reeds
D’addario Select Jazz Alto Sax Reeds
All saxophonists need reeds. If you’re buying a gift though, it’s very important to know the strength and brand of reed the saxophone player uses. There are various systems across numerous brands for the strength and cut of reeds. Some use a system of numbers and others use words like soft, medium, hard etc. A number 3 reed from Vandoren may be very different from a number 3 from another manufacturer like D’addario.
I suggest taking a peek inside the saxophonist’s case to find out what reeds they are using. Take careful note of the strength as well as other variables such as whether or not the reed is filed or unfiled.
I’ve been using the Sax Holder saxophone harness for a couple years now and love it. Traditional neck straps place all the weight of the saxophone on the player’s neck and spine. This is not only uncomfortable but can also cause pain, discomfort and serious long term damage. This clever device transfers the weight of the saxophone to the shoulders with a unique three point system. I recommend the saxholder for all sax players especially those who play tenor and baritone saxophone. Check out my full review of the saXholder here.
Saxholder Saxophone Harness Review - YouTube
Auto-Grip Alto/Tenor Saxophone Stand – Hercules
Every sax player needs a quality saxophone stand. The Auto-Grip Stand by Hercules is one of my favorites. This newer design is a pleasure to use and I can place both my alto and tenor saxophones on it with total peace of mind. When you place the instrument on the stand, the weight of the saxophone triggers a mechanism that grips the horn securely. The stand folds up nicely and although it is on the heavier side, that’s a reasonable trade off for the security.
It’s possible to add pegs to this stand what will hold up to 2 additional instruments like a soprano saxophone and flute or clarinet.
Saxxy stand – K&M
Saxxy stand – K & M
K&M is a company specializing in stands of all types and their Saxxy stand is a clever and attractive design. These minimalist and lightweight sax stands can be folded up easily and be stored in the bell of the saxophone while in the case. This stand is surprisingly stable and holds the saxophone quite securely.
Unlike the Hercules stand, the Saxxy stand only works for one type of saxophone so you would need a seperate one for alto and tenor. Also, there is a tendency for the Saxxy stand to stay gripped to the bell of the saxophone when picked up. It’s not a big problem in the practice room, but on a gig, this would be a big distraction. I recommend this stand more for home use where you might want a more attractive stand and less so for working musicians where performance is critical.
Sax Deflector – JazzLab
Sax Deflector – Jazz Lab
Here’s another great product made by JazzLab. I’ve been using the Sax Deflector for a few years now and it has become an absolutely essential piece of gear that I use on all gigs. It’s a simple device that attaches to the bell of your saxophone and literally deflects the sound of your instrument back to your ears. This allows me to hear myself much better when playing in live situations where there are lots of other loud sounds going on around me.
The Sax Deflector works great in both acoustic playing situations and when playing with a microphone. The hole in the Sax Deflector allows it to be used while playing into a microphone and a clip-on mic can simply be attached to either side of the bell and adjusted accordingly.
The bell clip stays put when being used yet detaches very easily and the whole thing takes up very little room in my saxophone case. The Sax Deflector can be used for all types saxophones: alto, tenor, soprano and baritone.
Watch my full review of the Sax Deflector below:
SAX DEFLECTOR by JazzLab - Review - YouTube
Reed Adjuster – ReedGeek
ReedGeek – Black Diamond
I discovered the ReedGeek reed adjuster during a particularly frustrating period of bad reeds. I had read very good reports about this device and was willing to try anything. Result: bad reed period over and never seen again. On the surface, the ReedGeek doesn’t look like anything special, but it is actually a very sophisticated tool built to great precision. In a matter of seconds I can now drastically improve the playability of all my reeds. Daily usage increase the life of my reeds by weeks and with a bit of practice anyone can learn how to fine tune saxophone reeds to their personal preferences. My ReedGeek has paid for itself many times over in the 2+ years I’ve been using it.
The ReedGeek is truly an exceptional tool and I consider it required equipment for any serious saxophone player.
Watch my video on how to get great results adjusting reeds with the ReedGeek below:
How to use the ReedGeek to FIX YOUR REEDS! - YouTube
Music Stand – Manhasset
A quality music stand can really increase a musician’s quality of practice life. My favorite is the Manhasset music stand. It’s sturdy, easily adjustable and can hold a lot of stuff securely. It does not fold up and is not the sort of thing you would want to take with you to a rehearsal or performance. At home in the practice room though, it makes the perfect centerpiece for any studio.
Gifts to Spoil – Over $100
Clip-on Sax Microphones
Audio Technica PRO 35
Any performing saxophone player will at some point, need a microphone. The PRO 35 by Audio Technica is a great entry level clip-on microphone. I used one of these (the preceding model AT-35) for many years and it does a great job. In the hands of a capable sound engineer, I have been quite happy with the sound of this mic. It’s well made and can stand up to the rigors of regular gigging.
DPA D:Vote 4099 Clip-on Sax Mic
DPA D:Vote 4099
This is the mic I’ve upgraded to. It’s truly a professional piece of gear and reproduces the sound of my horn very accurately and naturally. I expect to get many years of use out of my D:vote clip-on sax mic.
Portable Recorder – Zoom H5
Zoom H5 Recorder
Recording yourself playing is extremely important for all saxophone players who want to improve. We have to critically listen back to what we sound like often and the Zoom H5 makes it easy to get a great sound while recording yourself anywhere you are. I use this in the practice room daily, but it’s also great for recording liver performances, lessons and anything else you want recorded.
Bluetooth Headphones – Bose Soundsport
For me, headphones in the practice room are a necessity. I practice with these Bose Soundsport Bluetooth headphones in my ears every day. Since they are wireless, I have the freedom to move around the studio as I want. No wire to get tangled up with my neck strap. Because they are sound isolating, they reduce the volume that’s coming into my ears. Before I started using Bluetooth earphones, I played wearing custom fit earplugs to prevent damage to my hearing. Now the headphones provide a dual function. I can listen to my metronome, tuner, music or backing track while practicing and protect my hearing.
EWI USB or 5000 – AKAI
Akai Ewi 5000
This is a serious professional instrument that is also like having a really cool toy to play with at the same time. EWI stands for electronic wind instrument. There are a couple other companies that make a version of this instrument, but for me the AKAI is the best. The EWI USB version is cheaper but has a few limitations. It plays less of a range, and needs to be connected to a computer or ipad for the sounds. The EWI 5000 is a complete stand alone instrument that just needs to be plugged into an amp or sound system to be heard. There’s even a headphone jack and wireless capability.
The AKAI EWI is the sort of thing all sax players want, but have trouble justifying the purchase.
Make someone feel like a kid again with one of these.
Where’s the Saxophones and Mouthpieces?
I purposely left out saxophones, mouthpieces and reeds from this list since those items are highly personal and should really be chosen by the player themself after trying them out.
These gifts work all year long. birthdays, father’s day, mother’s day, Christmas you name it.
If you’ve got any ideas for other great gifts for saxophone players or something on your own wish list, please share in the comments below. I’m always looking for new saxophone gear and accessories.
The reed case is the most important. You must remove your reed from the mouthpiece after each playing session and put it away in a reed case. If you don’t, the reed will dry out, warp and lose its playability very quickly.
Keeping reeds in a reed case, especially one that keeps some humidity inside, will prolong the life of your reeds, saving you money. It will make your reeds easier to play and help you get a better sound.
Who doesn’t want that?
Added bonus, a good reed case helps you keep track of which reed is which and keep them organized.
My favorite is the Vandoren Hygro case. It holds six reeds, has a convenient little sponge that changes color when it’s time to add more moisture and accommodates reeds of different sizes, which can be really handy. It’s available for both alto and tenor sax reeds.
Vandoren Hygro Reed Case for Alto Sax
I used to use this one by Vandoren that I don’t think they make anymore. I’ve owned a bunch of them over the last 20-plus years and they last forever.
Vandoren Reed Case
I picked up this little one from Vandoren (VRC620), which I don’t use since it doesn’t maintain any humidity in the case.
Vandoren (VRC620) Reed Case
The key here is keeping your reeds a little wet, on a flat surface and protected. Reeds are expensive and when you’ve got a good one you want to get as much use out of it as possible.
I use these swabs made by BG. I’ve tried all the different ones out there, and these are by far the best.
BG Saxophone Swabs
When you blow into the saxophone, the condensation from your breath turns into water and the inside of your horn gets pretty wet. You will want to literally pour out the water that accumulates in the bow of your saxophone from time to time.
It’s not quite spit, but this water vapor you’re blowing into the instrument does contain traces of whatever you recently ate or drank. The closer to your mouth, the more pronounced the residue and gunk will be.
Over time, if you don’t wipe clean the interior of the saxophone, you’ll get some nasty residue that builds up, which can cause problems and become smelly and gross.
17 Pro Saxophone Tips: Assembly|Disassembly - YouTube
Swab out your horn, neck and mouthpiece after every playing session. I pass the little one through the mouthpiece first a couple times, then I wipe off the exterior and put it away.
Next, I do the neck a couple times, and then wipe off the neck tenon. You want to keep this thing very clean. Any dirt on there will cause problems with the fit of your neck in the sax body.
Finally, I swab out the body of the horn three times (see video for demo). At first the motion of this is a bit awkward, but it will soon become second nature.
Since these swabs need to be pretty snug when you pull them through the tube, you need to get the right sizes. My tenor body swab won’t pull through an alto for example, and my alto body swab won’t remove all the moisture from the fatter part of my tenor body tube.
So I recommend getting two for each size saxophone you have, one for the body and one for the mouthpiece and neck. (Except soprano — they make one that does the whole thing.)
These here I’ve had for over 10 years and they have been pulled through my horn at least three times a day during that time. Still going very strong.
When I bought it I said, “Oh, that’s a bit expensive for a swab,” but I’m very glad I have this and would buy it again and again.
A good saxophone swab will pay for itself many times over by saving you money on maintenance and helping your horn to hold its resale value. You can grab the BG alto sax body swab here, the BG tenor sax body swab here and the neck/mouthpiece swab for alto here.
Before I bought this handy saxophone accessory, I had the same problems with reeds that everyone complains of.
Out of a box of 10 you only get two or three good reeds and the rest are basically very expensive kindling for tiny fires. My reeds weren’t consistent from one to the next.
Now, spending very little time with each reed I easily get every one in a box to work for me. Keep in mind you need to be using the correct strength reed for you and your saxophone mouthpiece.
I’m not one of those guys who carries around a laboratory of stuff for their reeds and spends hours working on them. I don’t have the patience for that.
I know there are many complex and really involved methods other sax players use for their reeds. That stuff is not for me I don’t have time to mess around with jars of moldy water and all that. I want to take a reed out of the case, slap it on the mouthpiece and go.
How To Use a ReedGeek
So here’s how I use this thing.
When I get a new reed out of the box, before I put it in my mouth, I flatten the table, the back of the bottom part of the reed. You can really go for it here because there’s plenty of cane. Go ahead and shave a bit off so you know it’s perfectly flat.
I go in one direction first and then I turn it around and do the other direction. The whole process takes about 10 seconds. Then I play the reed.
If it’s too hard, I will spend a little more time shaving from the other side, the top of the reed. Here I go very gently because every scrape will affect how the reed plays.
The only way to get good at doing this is to practice on a bunch of reeds and experiment a little. Once you’ve adjusted several reeds in this way, you’ll start to get the hang of it and the process will be pretty fast.
You want your new reeds to be on the hard side. If they are soft from day one, they’re not going to last you very long. Once you have this ReedGeek, you can always adjust a reed that’s too hard to play well for you.
I find the reeds that start out a little bit on the hard side play the best once they are broken in and last the longest.
I then use the ReedGeek to flatten the table every time before I put it on the mouthpiece. I’ve done this with reeds that I’ve played for months and never run out of cane to scrape off the bottom.
The reason for this is that the reed needs to be perfectly flat in order to make a seal with the mouthpiece. Since it’s wood, it warps constantly. By flattening the table before each playing session, I’m always getting a great seal with my mouthpiece which means a better sound, more control and it’s easier to play.
How to Put a Reed on a Saxophone Mouthpiece (The Right Way!) - YouTube
Now this tool is pretty expensive for a little hunk of metal. And I hesitated before I bought one. But mine has paid for itself many times over in the two years I’ve been using it and it’s another accessory that’s going to last a lifetime.
I’ve taken it on the plane in my case many times and had no problems with security.
The ReedGeek has become an absolutely essential piece of gear for me.
Thanks for Reading
In case you’re wondering, at the time of writing this and creating the video I had no affiliation whatsoever with the makers of any of these products. I purchased all of these items with my own money and have been using them for years.
If you buy something using the links in this post, I will receive a small commission from Amazon, which I will immediately spend on more sax gear to try out and review for you.
Let us know if you give any of these must-have tools a try and tell us what you think in the comments below!
Let’s take a look at what’s wrong with the way many of us were taught the saxophone. Then we’ll take a look at some solutions to these problems.
Click here to watch the video version of the post.
6 Reasons You Were Taught the Saxophone Wrong! - YouTube
How We Learn Saxophone
I’ve been studying saxophone for over 30 years, and teaching it for more than 20 of those. I studied and taught in public school, university music schools, international conservatories, private lessons and online.
For a long time I’ve been thinking about my experiences with music education and how it could have been better for me and how I can make it better for my students. Awhile back I came to the conclusion that the way a lot of saxophone students are taught in general is very flawed.
I think this is a topic that a lot of teachers and students can relate to. Now my intent is not to provoke an argument or criticize any teachers at all. I just want people to start thinking about ways that we can learn the saxophone differently.
Here are six reasons you were probably taught the saxophone a little bit wrong.
1. The saxophone is a bastard.
The saxophone was invented around 150 years ago and it was designed to be used in orchestras and ensembles of the era, which was what we broadly call classical music today.
The problem was that the saxophone was never widely adopted into these orchestras. Composers rarely wrote music for it. Only a handful of 20th century composers took the instrument seriously enough to write anything of consequence for the saxophone.
Despite this, the saxophone has always been taught at classical music schools alongside the other classical instruments using the same methods.
Even today, when opportunities to perform professionally as a classical saxophonist are basically nonexistent, music schools and conservatories around the world are still teaching the saxophone the same way they teach the flute or clarinet or the violin.
Now let’s face it. The saxophone is more at home in jazz and pop and rock music than it is in classical music. So why are we teaching it the same way as those classical instruments?
If you have ever taught or studied in one of those music schools, you probably noticed that the saxophone is treated like the unwanted bastard.
When I was at school in the ‘90s, professors and some of the students of the “noble and legitimate” instruments were always looking down their noses at the saxophone players. I can only imagine that this snobbery was much more pronounced further back in history.
2. You were never taught the thing that made you want to play the saxophone in the first place.
When you chose to take up the saxophone, you were probably inspired by something you heard. How many people had even heard classical saxophone or knew it existed when they started taking sax lessons?
The vast majority of saxophone students want to learn how to play rock or jazz or smooth jazz, or blues or some other form of popular music. Yet when they start taking lessons, they are all given the same tired old method books that we give to oboe and bassoon players. (No offense double reed people.)
This would be the equivalent of a student wanting to learn to play the drums because he heard Led Zeppelin and then restricting them to only learning orchestral percussion.
Good Times Bad Times - LED ZEPPELIN / Cover by Yoyoka , 8 year old - YouTube
Anywhere in the world if you want to learn the guitar, bass or drums in a popular music style, you can go pretty much anywhere to get lessons for that. Not so for the saxophone, which leads us to reason number three.
3. Saxophone teachers often teach the same way they were taught.
Again this is not a criticism of my saxophone teaching colleagues for whom I have great respect. It’s exactly what I did after college. I taught the same way I learned because that’s all I knew.
Now for a student that wanted to get first chair in the symphonic band at university, or ace their performance of the Glazounov concerto at some competition this was arguably the right way to teach.
GLAZUNOV Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra with Joseph Lulloff, saxophone - YouTube
But the reality is that nobody really wants to do those things. We do them because those are the performance opportunities available to us while part of this education system.
Take two teenagers. Bobby gets guitar lessons at the local music school. The first couple weeks he learns a couple chords and he’s already able to play some of the songs we hear on the radio.
Sally gets saxophone lessons and learns how to put the saxophone together and maybe if she’s very advanced, she learns how to play B, A and G whole notes. The next week she goes back and learns how to play some half notes and some rests.
By the third week sheʼs begging her parents for a guitar but her parents already paid to rent the sax until the end of the year so she has to stick around and continue to learn “Hot Cross Buns.”
Saxophone - Hot Cross Buns - YouTube
By the end of three months in December, if she can play the chorus to “Jingle Bells,” she’s considered an advanced student. Meanwhile Bobby is already in a band with his friends who are taking drum and bass lessons.
Sax teachers, we donʼt have to keep teaching this way. Sax students, you don’t have to keep learning this way.
4. Not all sax teachers are saxophone players.
My first saxophone teacher was a clarinetist.
At music teacher school, the first thing they show you is how to play and teach all the instruments at a very basic level. So if you’re a trumpet player and you become a school music teacher, you’re likely going to have to teach all the sax players and flute players and clarinet players, even though that’s not your primary instrument.
If you were taught saxophone in public school in America, chances are your first teacher was not a saxophone teacher. This basically guarantees that students are taught the standard classical method that is as boring to teach as it is to learn.
I know that there are lots of teachers out there that want and try to teach something different, but itʼs just not that simple. That brings us to point number five.
5. Your teacher may not be allowed to depart from the curriculum.
I know when I was at school, I had a sax teacher at who wanted to start a jazz band for us. However, his boss, the music director, wouldn’t allow it. This is another example of the classical music world looking down its nose with condescension and perhaps a bit of jealousy at saxophone players and jazz musicians.
Later on, when I was at university taking one-on-one lessons studying classical saxophone, my saxophone teacher, who was also an accomplished jazz musician, would only allow us one jazz lesson per semester.
Now I’m sure this was not his choice, but rather an obligation to his employer. There were dozens of saxophone students at my university and all but a few individuals were passionate about jazz but because jazz wasn’t offered as a major, we were all required to study classical saxophone.
This just serves to perpetuate the worn out classical learning method for the next generation who would become our students. This cycle continues today, 20 years later.
Recently I was filling in for a classical saxophone teacher at a local music conservatory and was told by the director of the school not to teach anything other than classical saxophone to my students, even if they asked me for it. Not cool.
If you went to music school like I did, sometime around the fourth semester of music theory, you probably asked yourself, “Why do I need to know what a Neapolitan sixth chord is or how to compose atonal music using a 12 tone matrix?”
Twelve Tone TV Commercial Spoof - YouTube
Spoiler alert: You don’t need to know how to do either of those things. Might explain why sales of 12-tone party hits didn’t do so well. Which brings us to reason number six.
6. Music schools have to fill a curriculum with enough stuff to justify the tuition/budget/salaries etc.
This means that learning music which should be a very personalized and individual pursuit involving a lot of listening, practicing and playing with other musicians, becomes a classroom activity.
Everyone learns the same lessons and repertoire at the same pace basically, regardless of each individual’s level, needs or area of interest.
“I’d like to learn to play like Louis Armstrong,” one student says. “Nope sorry, Louis Armstrong is not in the curriculum. This week we are learning “Giant Steps” and next week it’s going to be odd meters. And don’t forget, the following week your free jazz composition is due.”
Most music students at university are only getting the degree because they need it to qualify for a well-paid teaching job down the road.
In my case because society says need to go to university and I chose to major in music. By the way, I’ve met a number of outstanding musicians who did not major in music at all. I can remember asking myself, “How did they get so good while majoring in law or math or philosophy?”
If an individual just wanted to learn how to play music, they could save the enormous expense of going to music school. For example, Berklee cost over $50,000 a year.
If you had $50,000 to spend you could take private lessons at $100 an hour with some of the top teachers in the world you could get 500 private lessons from them, which is more material than anyone has to teach.
Mastering an instrument is about putting in the work. It’s not about who you took lessons from or where you went to school. The student has to put in the work themselves, and that work can never be completed. It is a lifelong pursuit.
Any professional will tell you that the real school is the bandstand, and the practice room. The most important teachers are on the recordings and within ourselves.
What if students just sought out the masters they wanted to learn from and studied with them while diligently practicing on their own, at their own pace and in their own chosen direction?
That sounds like something people did a long time ago before our modern education system rewrote the rules.
I’m not saying don’t go to music school. If you’ve got the money and five or six years to kill, knock yourself out. I had a great time at music school. I can tell you how many symphonies Mozart wrote. I can tell you how to compose with a 12-tone matrix. I can’t remember what a Neapolitan sixth chord is though.
What is the Neapolitan 6th Chord? Music Theory Lessons - YouTube
What it comes down to though is that none of it is necessary if you just want to play music. There are countless examples of great musicians who never learned in an institution how to make music.
After a lot of thought and experimenting with students, I’ve come up with a different system for how to teach saxophone. Now the system works for beginners and it works for anyone who’s only ever studied in that classical, institutionalized way of learning music.
It includes some of what I learned at school, of course, but mostly it’s what I would go back in time and tell my younger self if I could. It’s the valuable tricks I picked up along the way that no one ever told me in school.
It’s the simple explanations for musical concepts that for me have replaced the very complex ones I learned at school and in books. It’s the flexibility to learn at your own pace since everyone is different.
And it’s based on the concept that all music shares common threads, and if you learn these basic building blocks, you will be free to choose the music you want to play and teach yourself how to play it. I only started to really improve and get good at playing saxophone when I got inspired by music that I loved and realized that I had the power to learn it myself.
Click here for a video introduction to the course.
Play Sax by Ear - Pentatonic Foundation Course Preview - YouTube
There’s also a totally free version of that course called the Play Sax by Ear Crash Course, which is great to get started. Try it or share it with your own students.
Click here for a video introduction to the course.
Play Sax by Ear - Crash Course (Enroll for Free) - YouTube
You can also check out lots more saxophone learning videos on YouTube. The best way to check them out is by subscribing to the channel and then watching one of the playlists.
Try this saxophone fundamentals playlist, for example.
If you want to discuss any similar experiences you’ve had as a saxophone player, please do so in the comments below. And If you know someone else who might like this video go ahead and share it with them too.
You’ve got your brand new saxophone assembled correctly, neck strap in place, reed on, and ready to go. (If you need a hand, check out our video below.)
Watch the video for saxophone assembly/disassembly tips here:
17 Pro Saxophone Tips: Assembly|Disassembly - YouTube
It’s time to start jamming on your first notes, but when you go to place your left hand on the keys at the top of the horn, there’s a problem: There’s five keys to choose from and all these extras on the side.
Where do your fingers go? What do all these other keys do? How do you play the notes to your favorite tune?
From the first basic notes you’ll typically learn on the saxophone to the full range of the horn, special shortcut and trill keys, and even up into the altissimo register for all you advanced players out there, we want to provide you with a comprehensive guide to saxophone fingerings.
In this first post, we’re going to start with the basic fingerings for when you’re just starting out.
Stay tuned for later installments, and let us know what fingerings you’re most curious about in the comments.
A Note About Saxophone Fingerings
You may be wondering about the difference in saxophone fingerings between the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. The short answer is, there isn’t a difference.
Once you know how to play on any of these saxophones, you can easily switch between baritone and soprano, tenor and alto without having to learn different fingerings to play the same notes.
However, there are a few additional key options on a couple of the saxophones. For example, many pro-level baritone saxophones include a low A key, which extends the range of the horn lower.
Bari sax with low A key
On the soprano sax, many professional models will include a high G key to extend the saxophone’s range a little higher.
Soprano sax with high G key
In addition, some older saxophones, won’t have a high F-sharp key, which means some alternate fingerings will be needed to play this note.
Horn without high F-sharp key
These are the exceptions and usually don’t come into play until after you’ve been practicing for awhile.
Don’t worry though. We’ve got you covered, and if you have questions about how to play a particular note on any saxophone, let us know in the comments.
Basic Saxophone Fingerings
When you first take the horn out of the case, you’ll want to learn some basic fingerings first, namely where to put the index, middle and ring fingers of your left and right hands on the horn.
Your left hand will always play the keys on the upper part of the saxophone. The right hand goes on the bottom.
Left Hand Fingerings
To start, let’s concentrate on what’s called the upper stack of the saxophone. You’ll notice there’s a thumb rest, usually it’s a black or gold platform, on the back of the saxophone facing your body. As the name suggests, this is where you can rest your left thumb.
Left hand thumb rest
Just above the thumb rest there’s a button that can easily be controlled by your thumb. This is the octave key, which when pressed takes the basic fingerings and lets you play them an octave higher.
The rest of your hand should wrap around the front of the saxophone comfortably. You’ll notice three separate skinny, long keys — called palm keys — rest near the palm of your left hand.
Near your pinky finger, you’ll also notice with a little stretching you can reach a series of four keys arranged as a table. These are called the spatula keys.
Now back to the left hand and those five keys you have to choose from. Your first finger, the index finger, goes not on the first key (this is the front F key, which we’ll cover later) but on the second key in the row.
There’s a smaller key in between the second and fourth keys in the stack, which is the bis key. Skip over this smaller key and put your second finger, the middle finger, on the next large key.
And your third finger, the ring finger, goes on the final large key in the grouping.
Left hand placement
Playing Left Hand Notes
With these three basic keys, you can play your first notes, and believe it or not your first simple songs. Congratulations! Here’s how.
The saxophone works with what I like to call an additive method. To play new notes on the saxophone, you keep pressing down additional fingers to change the pitch.
So for example, when you press down your first finger and close that first key, you’re playing the note B. When you add your second finger and close that key, you’re now playing A. Also press down your third finger at the same time and you’ve got G.
Left hand fingers 1, 2 and 3
With the notes B, A and G, you can rock out to “Mary Had A Little Lamb” or even “Hot Cross Buns,” and you’re well on your way to mastering your first pentatonic scale (more on that later).
And guess what? If you press the octave key with your thumb and add it to any of these three fingerings, you can play B, A and G an octave higher as well.
There’s one more note you can play using just your left hand, and that’s C. To play a C, press down your second finger only (the middle finger).
Left hand C, finger 2
This fingering for C produces a note in both the mid-range of the horn, and when you press down the octave key, a higher version of the pitch as well.
Right Hand Fingerings
Now that we’ve got the left hand situated, let’s get your right hand in place on the bottom keys of the horn.
First, on the back of your horn facing the body there’s an upside down hook-type fixture. Like the thumb rest for your left hand, you’ll place your thumb inside this hook, which helps position your right hand and hold the horn steady.
With the thumb in place, you’ll notice three main key pearls in a line on the bottom portion of the saxophone. You’ll want to place your right index finger on the top one (we call it the right hand first finger).
Your right middle finger (right hand second finger) will go on the middle key, and the ring finger (right hand third finger) will go on the third of these keys.
Right hand position
Near the crook of your right hand you’ll notice a bar with three additional keys. These are called the side keys. In addition, you’ll see an extra one or two keys, depending on your saxophone, beneath this bar. These are the side F sharp and high F sharp keys.
Near your right pinky there are two more keys you can press. These control E flat and low C.
Right hand side keys
Playing Right Hand Notes
Following our additive method, all the notes we’ll learn to play with our additional right-hand fingerings will require you to press down all three fingers in your left hand.
Left hand fingers 1, 2 and 3
Pressing down the first, second and third fingers of the left hand, add your right hand first finger (index finger) so you are holding down four keys in total. This is the note F.
Next add your right hand second (middle) finger so you’re holding down five keys to play E.
And finally, add your right hand third finger so you’re holding down all the keys we have learned so far to produce D.
Right hand fingers 1, 2 and 3
As you added fingers in the right hand, you may have noticed the notes going lower and it becoming a little harder to play these notes. With some extra practice and some breathing tips, you’ll get better at producing these lower notes.
Watch the video on how to play low notes on the saxophone here:
How to Play Low Notes on Saxophone (A Breathing Tutorial) - YouTube
Also try using the same fingerings while pressing the octave key to play the same notes — F, E and D — an octave higher.
How To Play Low C
We’re going to add one more finger in this fingering guide, and that’s low C.
To play this note, press down all six fingers — the three on your left hand and the three on your right. You’ll notice this is the same fingering for the note D we learned earlier.
From here, you’ll want to go back to those two keys near your pinky, and press down the one farthest away from you, the bottom pinky key.
Right hand with low C key
This is the fingering for low C. You’ll want to keep in mind everything you learned about playing low notes on the saxophone on this one.
You Can Now Play A Pentatonic Scale
You may have noticed we didn’t cover any accidentals — sharps or flats — in this fingering guide. We’ll get to those fingerings soon, but with these first notes we’ve just gone over, anyone can play a pentatonic scale, which can be used to play countless melodies and improvise solos.
With these plain notes (think of the white keys on the piano), we can play three different pentatonic scales — C, G and F.
Watch the video on transposition here:
How to Transpose - a guide for Saxophones - YouTube
Here’s what it looks like on the staff.
C major pentatonic scale
G major pentatonic scale
F major pentatonic scale
There’s even more good news. Once you can get a good sound (think embouchure and reed set-up, which you can find with the rest of our sax fundamentals) and have these fingerings memorized, you’re ready to play some cool things.
What kind of cool things? Well, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” for one. The Temptations used the pentatonic scale for “My Girl.” Believe it or not the Rednex used the pentatonic scale for “Cotton Eyed Joe,” and great standards such as “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” all use it too.
To get you started, we highly recommend signing up for our Play Sax By Ear Crash Course for free. You can play all the material offered in our great, simple six-video lesson series with the fingerings we just learned.
Here’s what some BetterSax users have said about trying the course:
What are you waiting for? We can’t wait to hear what you’ll learn to play first. In fact, let us know how it goes in the comments.
Time To Practice!
That’s all for our basic saxophone fingering guide. Get familiar with these basic notes on your horn so you can start rocking out your pentatonic scales and you’ll be ready to add more fingerings soon.
To help your practice sessions, we’ve also created a downloadable fingering guide you can view on your iPad or print out to put on your music stand here [link needed].
Let us know how you do in the comments, and don’t forget to chime in with any saxophone fingering questions you may have. Happy practicing!
Today, let’s talk about a simple thing you can practice on the saxophone or any instrument that’s going to help you improve in the areas that matter most, quickly.
Click below for the video version of this post.
How I Use Melodies to Practice Everything Else... - YouTube
Practicing Technique While Feeling Accomplished
Ever feel like you’re practicing for hours and not getting anywhere? Everybody feels like that sometimes.
Here’s something you can add into your daily practice routine that’s going to make you feel like you accomplished something every practice session while getting better at the things that matter most as a saxophone player.
We’re going to learn a melody by ear but we’re going to use this as an opportunity to focus on our technique, our finger position, our phrasing, our time feel and lots of other things.
For this lesson, I chose the tune “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb to work on because the melody is relatively simple and you can play it by using the five notes of the pentatonic scale. It should also be a familiar tune to many people.
You can download the backing track of “Sunny” to practice with here.
Those melodies are going to take you longer to learn, but there’s a lot to be gained from learning melodies in this way.
Once you’ve chosen the melody you’re going to learn, the next step is to find the recording you want to learn it from. Don’t get the sheet music. That’s not part of the exercise and it’s not going to help you improve as a musician.
Don’t get the sheet music, really. Just don’t do it.
Working on “Sunny”
“Sunny” has been recorded many times by many different artists. I chose the original version for this exercise.
Click below to listen to the original version of the song.
Bobby Hebb - Sunny - YouTube
First, you’re going to want to just listen to the recording several times to get the melody in your ear.
The next step is to work out the melody note by note on your instrument. Put on the recording, play a phrase, listen to it carefully. Press pause. Sing back the note or a couple notes that you hear, then find them on your instrument and repeat.
Using the Pentatonic Scale
The melody to “Sunny” can be played using just the five notes of the pentatonic scale. If any of this is new to you, check out the free Play Sax By Ear Crash Course to get started.
How to Play Sax by Ear - YouTube
You can also check out some of BetterSax’s other videos on learning to play melodies by ear.
Learn the song in phrases. Start with four-bar phrases, then eight-bar phrases. Don’t try to learn the whole song all at once. That only makes the process take longer and it’s likely to result in you making mistakes with the melody.
As you’re learning these phrases, you’re going to put on the metronome and loop each phrase, focusing on your time feel and rhythmic accuracy.
An important part of time feel is your finger position. You want to work on playing this melody or any melody you’re working on with perfect finger position, keeping your fingertips in contact with the key pearls all the time or as much as possible.
Watch our video on finger position below.
How to Play Faster and Make Fewer Mistakes - Saxophone Fingering Tutorial - YouTube
If you’re not able to play the melody in perfect sync with the metronome, no problem. Just slow it down.
I’m playing this with the metronome set at 110. But if I’m having trouble playing that melody at that speed, I’m going to slow it down. I’ll slow it down to 90 or even less, 80. The important thing is getting it perfect, getting the perfect finger position, staying relaxed and really playing in sync rhythmically.
Getting a Good Sound
Now I’m also going to be thinking a lot about my sound. If the recording we’re listening to is of a saxophone player, then great. I’m going to try and play as much like the saxophone player as I can and match his sound as much as I can.
But in this case, where I’m listening to a singer, that’s great too because I can assimilate a lot of the phrasing and the way Bobby Hebb sings into my saxophone playing.
Assimilate Your Phrasing
Learning other musicians’ phrasing is one of the most important things we can do on the saxophone. Really, there’s no other way to learn phrasing other than listening to other players’ recordings and trying to do it.
Continue in this way until you have the whole melody memorized. Once you have all the notes memorized, the work is far from done. It’s time to practice the melody over and over again with the recording.
I’m going to be working on my finger technique, my finger position, my rhythmic and time feel, my sound, my phrasing and I’m just using the melody as the vehicle for practicing all of those other things. But the bonus is that at the same time, I’m reinforcing my knowledge and my ability to play that melody from memory.
Why We Learn Melodies By Ear
The way we practice scales and other technical exercises doesn’t always translate well to how we play in performance. Part of the idea behind this exercise is you want to be working on a real-world situation. You want to be working on sounding good in a performance situation.
You’re not going to get up onstage in front of an audience and play your melodic minor scales in all 12 keys with the metronome on. But that’s something we spend a lot of time practicing.
Spend time practicing things that are more realistic and more like something you would actually do in a performance. So start practicing melodies and focusing just on melodies. You’re going to see a big improvement.
If you were to work on one melody a week for a year, at the end of the year, you’d have learned 50 melodies, assuming you took two weeks off.
If you’ve tried learning melodies in the past and found you weren’t able to remember them after a certain amount of time, it’s probably because you didn’t learn them in this methodical way. You need to learn a melody slowly, piece by piece over a long period of time before it becomes part of your repertoire.
Here are some additional tips to get the most out of this melody-memorization exercise.
Learn in Other Keys
In the Bobby Hebb version of “Sunny,” he modulates three times, so he ends up playing the melody in four different keys. That’s a built-in variation on this exercise.
No matter what melody you’re learning, you could add key variations into your learning. You could practice the song in multiple keys, or even all keys.
How to Transpose - a guide for Saxophones - YouTube
Bobby Hebb also changes the way he phrases the melody and even the notes of the melody from one iteration to the next.
Learning how to vary melodies and embellish melodies is extremely important. There’s no better way to do that than by listening to great musicians and emulating the way they do it.
Once I’ve got this version learned inside and out — it’s going to take several days or it could be weeks depending on the song — I’m going to check out some other recorded versions.
For “Sunny,” there’s tons of great versions. Check out the Frank Sinatra version, which has a blues shuffle feel.
Frank Sinatra Sunny. - YouTube
If you listen to the James Brown version, he starts out as a jazz ballad.
James Brown "Sunny" - YouTube
The Stevie Wonder version is amazing. Listen to the way he phrases the melody. He plays a great harmonica solo that there’s a lot to be learned from.
Stevie Wonder - Sunny - YouTube
Benefits of Learning Melodies by Ear
If you make learning melodies in this way part of your daily practice routine, you’re going to be hitting all of the most important things you need to be optimizing your practice sessions.
That includes listening, transcribing, technique, time feel, your sound, phrasing, pretty much everything. Oh, and build your repertoire!
A Note About Improvisation
If you’re learning to improvise, you’re going to want to learn and memorize the chord progression for this song as well, but that’s a topic for another lesson.
In the meantime, check out this video on improvisation for beginners you can work on.
Beginner Improvisation Lesson for Saxophone (or any instrument) - YouTube
To learn a melody by ear and practice all your fundamental saxophone skills at the same time, choose a melody and a recorded version to learn it from each week.
Learn the melody note by note and then phrase by phrase. Then practice each phrase over and over again with the metronome, focusing on your rhythmic accuracy, your sound and technique.
Next, practice the entire melody along with the recording, matching the phrasing and embellishments. Then go listen to other versions of the song, adopting the elements that appeal to you.
Work on one song in this way for at least a week before moving on to another. Make this part of your daily practice routine and you’ll see tangible results week after week.
Over time you’re going to develop a long list of songs you know how to play and you will see all your other saxophone playing skills improve along the way.
Don’t forget to download the backing track to “Sunny” to get you started. Be sure to let us know in the comments below which tunes you’re working on and how this technique for learning melodies by ear works for you!
Every saxophone player has a need for speed. Here’s how to play faster, cleaner and with more solid rhythm. Don’t forget to download the free fingering worksheet that goes along with this lesson.
Click below for the video version of this post.
How to Play Faster and Make Fewer Mistakes - Saxophone Fingering Tutorial - YouTube
Where Are Your Fingers Now?
When you play your saxophone, where are your fingers as they move? Are they resting on or very near the keys most of the time? Or are they flailing a few inches away from the keys? If you’re not sure, video yourself playing or just play something in front of the mirror and watch your hands.
Most beginner sax players have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to their hand and finger position, and even advanced players can gain a lot from refining their hand and finger position.
Why Does It Matter?
What difference does it make if your fingers are close to the keys or not? Imagine you’re playing a sport. Whenever you are swinging the golf club, tennis racket or shooting a free throw, you make a lot of unnecessary movement with your body. Any extra movement or unnecessary hitch you add to those mechanics when you play a sport is going to hinder your ability to perform well.
It’s the same thing with playing the saxophone. Don’t make things more difficult for yourself. You’ve got to move your hands in an efficient way and eliminate all excess movement. This starts with keeping your fingers close to the keys at all times.
Finding the Correct Finger Position
Using correct finger position is one of the easiest things we can do that’s going to have a huge impact on our overall playing. You don’t have to be a professional saxophone player to use good finger technique — this is for everyone at every level.
If you’re a beginner, let’s get things started on the right foot by using good habits from the start. If you’ve been playing for a while and you’re not playing with a really solid finger technique, now is a great time to start improving that. You’ll notice a big difference in your overall playing by doing this.
Step 1: What Is the Correct Position?
Your fingertips should be resting comfortably on the key pearls, and your little fingers should be resting on the G-sharp key and the E-flat key. Your left thumb should be on the thumb rest with just the tip positioned over the edge to action the octave key. Your right thumb should be under the thumb hook at a position that allows your fingers to rest rounded and comfortably on the key pearls.
Your fingers should be relaxed and curved, not straight. You want the motion of your finger to push the keys straight down, not at an angle. When you play the palm keys, your fingers should not come off the saxophone.
If the palm keys feel too far away from your hand, try adding palm key risers so they fit closer to your hand. You can even make these at home.
Click below for my video on how to make palm key risers at home.
How to Make Saxophone Palm Key Risers at Home - YouTube
Remember to keep your hands, wrists, shoulders and neck very relaxed and release any other tension that you might have in your body. Stand up straight with good posture. It’s important to get this position right — without playing a single note — before moving on.
Memorize what it feels like to hold the saxophone with this relaxed, optimal hand position, good posture and while being totally relaxed. Make this your default position.
Now you might say, “That’s all well and good but the problem happens when I start moving my fingers. That’s when they start coming off the keys!”
Step 2: Practice with Long Tones
To get in the habit of playing with good fingering position, play one note at a time while maintaining this perfect default position. By practicing long tones you can work on getting a good sound, embouchure and intonation.
You can brush up on your embouchure with this tutorial video. If you’re just starting out, my other saxophone fundamental videos are also a great resource, which you can find on my YouTube channel.
Saxophone Embouchure Tutorial - YouTube
Add finger position to the list of fundamentals that you focus on while you’re practicing your long tones.
When you play the notes that use a lot of fingers, like D, be careful that you’re not squeezing the keys with a grip of death. This is another common mistake that people make. It’s not as visible, but it has the same result, which makes our technique sloppy, messes up our rhythm and is generally not good.
So if you’re already practicing your long tones over the full range of your instrument as you should be, adding this focus on finger technique is not going to add any time to your practice session. Your goal is to train yourself to always play every note with this ideal relaxed hand position.
If you need a little additional guidance on how to practice, check out my video on optimizing your saxophone practice session here.
Optimize Your Saxophone Practice Session - YouTube
Step 3: Expand To Other Notes
Once you’ve gotten the hang of holding that fingering position playing long tones, it’s time to expand. Take whatever you’re working on — scales, arpeggios, it doesn’t matter — and apply this focus on perfect hand position for every note.
The key to this is going slow. We play fast the same way we play slowly, just not nearly as good. So if your hand position and technique is lousy at a slow tempo, when you speed things up, it’s going to be even more lousy.
Before you tell me that you need to get better fast and ask, “Can’t you tell me the quick and easy version of all of this?” Well, this is the quickest and easiest way to develop fast technique, to play cleanly and to get a solid rhythm.
Take it from somebody who has had a lot of trouble with this and only realized very late in the game how important it is to practice with meticulous attention to details. It takes far longer to correct bad habits down the road that have developed over time than to just avoid them in the first place by going slow and practicing with very good technique.
Try to get in the habit of playing things slower, at a tempo where you can play things with no mistakes. It’s slow enough that you have the time to think about other things as well as playing the right notes. Let’s call this the Goldilocks tempo — it’s not too fast or too slow but just right.
By the time you’re ready to play things fast, the notes need to be automatic — you can’t be thinking about what notes to play. Your mind needs to be free to think about other things. If your brain’s processing power is all used up thinking what notes to play, then there’s nothing left over for just making music.
In other words, it’s all the other things that you are doing that allow you to play fast, musically. This includes a strong embouchure, good finger technique, good posture, staying relaxed, good rhythm, and having a solid sense of time.
It’s not just, “I’m able to wiggle my fingers really fast.” We need to have practiced slowly to give our brain the time to process all this information and make it happen automatically.
Try to enforce the 80-20 rule when you’re practicing technically difficult things.
Around 80 percent of the time you want to be practicing stuff at a comfortable tempo where you can get everything right and you can concentrate on all the different aspects of playing. For no more than 20 percent of the time should you practice that same thing up to the goal tempo.
This means that for 80 percent of the time you don’t have to worry so much about the notes that you’re playing. You can really think about all your fundamentals in order to sound good. You can actively be improving all aspects of your playing while enforcing good habits that are going to carry over when you speed things up.
If you’re already able to play something at your goal tempo cleanly and with no mistakes, then you don’t need to spend a lot of time practicing it. It’s satisfying to hear yourself play something that sounds good and you should do that from time to time. But if you spend all of your practice time just sounding good and playing what you already know, you’re not going to progress much.
Some people question the logic in all of this. They say, “How can playing slow help me play faster?”
Or, “All those musicians who play really fast all the time, they must be practicing really fast all the time.”
They practice slow too.
If you’ve had success with this, please comment below to share how this method improved your saxophone playing.
Time To Practice
Now that we’ve covered the basics for how to play faster, it’s time for you to go off and practice. We’ve created a free fingering worksheet you can download with exercises and instructions to keep your fingers close to the keys and develop your technique.
Play Sax by Ear - Crash Course (Enroll for Free) - YouTube
Find your Goldilocks tempo, put on your metronome and practice in front of a mirror so you can see and control what you’re doing with your fingers. And as always, let us know how it goes in the comments!
Calling all saxophonists! It’s time to get into the blues. This video is all about playing the blues on saxophone.
We’re going to talk about something that always gets neglected when talking about improvising in the blues, or really any style. If you feel like something important might be missing when you’re improvising, this is the lesson for you.
Click below for the video version of this post:
Blues Improvisation Lesson for Saxophone - YouTube
In this video, Jay gives you lesson in improvisation you can practice. If you follow this link you can download the backing track and PDF guide to give the improv lesson a try yourself.
Once you have a chance to check that out, head on back over here, and don’t forget to comment and let us know how it went!
Every student I’ve ever had try this feels an instant improvement in their overall playing and improvising.
Too Many Notes
Most of the time when sax players think about improvising, we start talking about the notes. We talk about what notes to play and where, and when you get more advanced, we talk about which more interesting notes you can play.
The result is what I call notiness or saxophone players playing notily, too many notes. I hear it all the time and I’ve been guilty of it myself far more than I care to admit.
It seems like we’re always searching for a super hip note to play in the right spot that will make everything sound better, or trying to stuff too many notes in a small space, thinking that’s going to make it sound better. Unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect — it sounds worse.
There probably are two main reasons for this phenomenon.
1. What We Hear
The sax players we love to listen to often play a lot of notes really fast and it sounds great. We want to play like them!
2. What We Practice
Trying to play just like our favorite soloists appears on the surface to be the hardest thing to learn and the biggest challenge to sounding good.
We end up spending the bulk of our practice time trying to learn how to play fast at the expense of other techniques that are actually more important.
The result is notiness, too many notes.
Studying The Masters
If we go back to our favorite saxophone players who play a lot of notes really fast and listen carefully, we’ll learn something important.
The truth is, it’s not the amount of notes that they’re playing or the speed or the hipness of the notes that they put here and there that make them sound great. Although, all those things definitely do help. The thing that makes them sound great is the rhythm of what they’re playing.
Take for example, Sonny Stitt’s solo on “Blues for Yard”:
Blues for Yard - YouTube
Rhythm is More Important Than Notes
All of those notes have to be played in time for that to sound good. Now here’s the thing that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough:
You don’t need to play a lot of notes really fast to sound good. But, the notes you play have to be in time to sound good.
In the new Blues Foundation course, you’ll learn blues tunes and how to improvise solos over the blues entirely by ear. This removes the biggest roadblock to playing rhythmically and in time.
I find that students who are relying on reading while learning how to improvise are putting way more importance on the notes themselves and very little importance on the rhythms.
Now, unless you are a very strong reader at a professional level, you’re probably not going to be able to read the rhythms and syncopations that are in jazz and blues music in a convincing way. However, if you learn all of this stuff by ear, your chances of success go way up.
Let’s make one thing really clear: Rhythm is more important than notes.
That fact can be obscured when you hear great saxophone players playing a lot of flashy notes. But if you listen carefully, you’ll notice the rhythm is always there. It’s always the rhythm that carries the music and is the most important element.
Let’s Do Things Differently
So why are we always talking about what notes to play? Today, let’s do this differently.
We’ll improvise over a backing track that’s part of the Blues Foundation course, and can be downloaded for free here.
Your challenge is to improvise while playing only things that are rhythmic, that are in time, that groove with the music and are in the pocket.
I want you to limit yourself to the notes you are allowed to play. So, take only the notes from the blues scale, for example. Or only the notes from the minor pentatonic scale, or even fewer notes if you want. Remember, this exercise is not about notes. It’s about rhythm, your rhythm.
If you don’t yet know your blues or pentatonic scale, that’s all in the free download to go along with this lesson.
You can also check out our beginner improvisation video here for a few additional tips.
Beginner Improvisation Lesson for Saxophone (or any instrument) - YouTube
Play With Space
For this exercise, you’re going to want to use a lot of space. You don’t want to play any more than 50-50 ratio of notes to space.
The space will allow you to hear the rhythm you want to play next.
The space will allow you to listen to what you just played and form a coherent reply to that.
The space will also help you physically execute the rhythms and notes more accurately on the instrument.
The space is your friend!
The easiest thing you can do to cure notiness and to sound better right away is to play fewer notes. Get in the habit of using space every time you improvise.
For this challenge, you can even use one single note if you choose. In fact, everyone at every level should practice this exercise with just one note.
You need to be able to play rhythmically, in the pocket and with the grooves on one note before you can start playing loads of different notes. If you’re not able to do that, then you need to go back to the drawing board and focus on your rhythm.
Give It A Try
Using the downloadable backing track and PDF guide for this lesson, see Jay demonstrate what it would be like to practice this, using only notes from the minor pentatonic scale.
Don’t be afraid to take breaks in between phrases. Give yourself the space to hear and think about what you’re playing.
Don’t forget to try this exercise on only one note with rhythms!
In my head I’m thinking of the other notes, but I’m just playing the rhythms. If you do that enough, when you start adding other notes, your rhythm is going to be there.
Practicing On Your Own
Practice this exercise on your own along with the backing track and PDF guide.
Remember, notiness is always lurking around the corner. Don’t let it creep into your playing while you’re practicing, otherwise it’s sure to dominate everything you do when you’re performing.
Over time, when you get in the habit of playing rhythmically first and notily second, you’ll be able to play faster passages with more notes and they’ll sound good because they’ll be rhythmically in time and they’ll be separated by spaces. So, it’ll make everything a lot more coherent.
Here’s what one student who tried this method learned:
“I tried this and you’re right. My sound got better almost immediately. I can still use a lot of work, but this is an instantaneous leap. It’s as though the notes I play have a purpose instead of a place. Thank you for this lesson.” — Brennon Miller
The Blues Foundation Course
If you like what you learned in this lesson, we have much more for you to practice with our new Blues Foundation course.
Not only will you continue to learn how to improvise with rhythm and space, you’ll also get more comfortable playing by ear and get to know the form and style of the blues.
With the Blues Foundation course, you’ll get 30 video lessons, 36 blues backing tracks in all 12 keys and four styles, a PDF course guide, and audio examples of everything you’ll learn. It’s the most valuable way to jump start your blues skills.