A starter's guide to improvising

Improvising or soloing is, in short, playing stuff that's not written down.

There are two hurdles to overcome when learning to improvise. The first is the fear of playing a wrong note. As we get older, we become far more conscious of what people around us think and there's an internal pressure to not look foolish or inadequate, or do something wrong. The second (somewhat linked to the first) is not being fluent enough with your music theory, ie not knowing what to play. As your knowledge of theory improves and you start mastering the notes and key signatures, so the confidence grows. And as you get more confident with the notes, the fear of playing a wrong one lessens. The more you play along with backing tracks and the more scales you learn fluently, the easier it becomes to 'play what's not written down'.

In my experience people who come from a classical training (myself included) have a larger barrier to overcome on the route to improvising. After spending many years being conditioned to play from dots, it's a much larger step to become comfortable playing 'what's not written down'. That said though, classical training, I believe, is one of the best starts anyone could have. The major scales, key signatures and music reading have all been learnt to a high level which is a huge bonus on the road to learning jazz chords and improvising.

Listening to anyone accomplished at improvising, you might think you have a lot to learn. However, the best solos are the simplest, choosing notes and licks carefully to match the style, feel and rhythm of the song. In fact, the best solos, first and foremost, are rhythmically interesting. The choice of notes are the next most important thing. A sax player in a previous function band bet our trumpeter that he couldn't do a solo on one note. The sax player lost the bet. A solo on a single note can have feeling, character, drive and sound just as good as a solo with many notes because the things that stand out are the rhythm, feeling and expression.

There is no panacea for learning to improvise, but here's a few hints and suggestions that might help you on your way.

Concentrate on the rhythm to start with, hearing the beat, feeling the song's groove using the tonic (first note of the scale). Once you've experimented with rhythm and you're feeling more comfortable, start introducing extra notes into your practise. But remember, whatever you do, keep feeling and hearing the ryhthm.. Try also to tap your foot to the rhythm. This will start to internalise the beat or pulse.

All scales have strong notes. These are notes that 'go with the chord' and sound the best. They are notes 1,3 & 5 in a major scale (also known as the chord, triad or arpeggio), and 1,3,5 & 7 in a dominant 7th where the 7th note of the major scale is flattened (mixolydian cord). (There are more strong or quality notes in other chords, but these two examples should get you going for the moment). When playing to a backing track, play these strong notes. When you're confident doing this, join the strong notes together by playing the first 5 notes of the scale (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Make sure you play in time against the beat of the backing, and also try and hit a strong note (chord tone) on beats 1 and 3 of each bar.

Now introduce the remaining notes of the scale, using these to join the strong notes/beats together. Start slowly and feel your way with the notes against the beat. As you get more confident you'll start to hear which notes/progressions sound the best. As a rule though, don't sit on the second, fourth or major seventh notes - these are considered 'avoid notes' or poor choices. Any 'avoid' notes should resolve to a strong one where possible straight away. Experiment with playing the notes so you can hear for yourself what works and sounds good.

The blues scale is perhaps the most versatile scale to use for improvising. When used in conjunction with the notes of the major scale, a great deal of colour and interest can be achieved. You'll start to pick out and hear little 'licks' (short phrases) and progressions that sound good. Transpose these into different keys and you'll start building up an 'arsenal' of phrases to roll out when required. As with practicing anything, start slowly. You're trying to develop patterns for your fingers to follow and remember to a point where they become automatic. A steady and reliable slow phrase, lick or progression will soon become faster with time, repetition and familiarity - don't try to play something fast straight away.

The aim of playing any instrument, including the sax, is to develop your finger memory so you can hand over what you're thinking and working out in your head directly to your fingers.



Further techniques


Once you feel like you're mastering your horn, you'll probably want to experiment with a few techniques and effects.
Here's a few to get on with...

Correct breathing is one of the most important factors in getting a good sound.

Playing the saxophone needs not only more breath than one usually requires, but it is important that the flow of breath is constant, rather like a stream of water when a tap is turned on. This is not a natural process for most people. In order to achieve this you need to control the flow from the diaphragm while maintaining a constant air column from the lungs, through the throat and into the mouth. More about this later, let's start with the throat and mouth.

The throat should be open at all times. Imagine you are yawning to understand the concept of open throat. It's tempting, but wrong, to close the throat to control the flow. The best way to understand this is to say "ah, ah, ah". To do this you need to close the throat to start the sound, almost like a light cough. To understand how to start the sound on the saxophone you need to realise that the sound is not started by the sudden presence of air pressure in the mouth as with saying "ah", as there should be a constant air pressure in the mouth. It is the tongue which starts and stops the sound, not the throat. With the tip of the tongue against the tip of the mouthpiece, there will be air pressure in the mouth supported by the "column" of air in the lungs. The tongue should then be quickly (but not explosively) moved backwards as if saying the sound "tu". This is like opening a valve so that the air then flows into the mouthpiece starting the sound. To stop the sound move the tongue back against the reed, but remember, the air pressure should still be in your mouth, throat and lungs.


More about the diaphragm breathing and the saxophone in general and can be found at Pete Thomas' website: https://tamingthesaxophone.com/saxophone-diaphragm-breathing

"Easy!" I hear you say, "just buy a saxophone that's in tune".
If only it was that simple.
Even the ‘worshipped’ Selmer MkVI is well known to have some tuning "quirks". Admittedly, saxophone design and manufacturing technology has come on a long way since then, and most modern saxophones (including the cheap Chinese saxophones people love to hate) have fairly decent intonation, but I doubt there is a saxophone that you can say is "in tune", unlike an electronic keyboard.

Due to acoustic imperfections in the very core of the design, a saxophone has what are politely called 'tuning tendencies' so that although you can tune one note and get it perfectly right, that does not guarantee that any of the other notes will also be in tune without some "coaxing" from the player. With a saxophone, even one note you tune to can vary so much depending on the way the player blows it (the shape and pressure of the embouchure, dynamics and the quality of air support) and the type of mouthpiece.

So why isn't it perfectly in tune?
Well, a very short answer is that the saxophone is an acoustically imperfect instrument. It has a conical bore, and to be acoustically "correct" this would continue tapering at the neck to a point. Obviously this is not possible due the mouthpiece getting in the way! Ideally some of the "missing volume" of this imaginary extension of the neck is made up by the volume of the mouthpiece chamber. Fine, except that such chambers usually cause a sound that doesn't fit in with the tonal demands of players these days.

During the 20th century the saxophone evolved into one of the most versatile instruments in the world, capable of enormous variety of tone and styles of playing. However the main body of the instrument is still very similar to the one Adolph Sax invented. The biggest change has come about in mouthpiece design and structure due to the demand from jazz and rock players in pursuit of different and louder saxophone sounds. Most jazz and rock players now play mouthpieces very different from earlier designs: smaller chambers, wider tips, higher baffles. All of these can have a considerable effect on the tuning of a saxophone: one particular problem can be when trying to use a modern high-baffle small-chamber mouthpiece with a vintage saxophone which was designed for use with large-chambered low-baffle mouthpieces.

Sax Tuning
Traditionally all instruments tune to a concert A (F# on alto and B on tenor). The position of the mouthpiece on the crook will get you more or less in tune for a start. This won't guarantee that all your notes are in tune. Due to the quality of the sax, the tooling and methods of manufacture, there will always ne notes that need a little extra work tith your embouchure to keep them in tune (especially with other saxes) Electronic tuners are fine for your initial tuning note, but your ears should do the rest.

The simple answer is to apply slightly more embouchure pressure to flat notes, and a slightly more relaxed embouchure to sharp notes. You will always be compensating for the inherent tuning quirks of the saxophone. 

Tuning tendencies of individual notes
Assume we now have a concert pitch 'A' in tune, the next thing to know is the "tendency" of certain notes to be sharp or flat. This varies from instrument to instrument, but here is a rough guide:
Upper register: Notes from D (lowest note of upper register) upwards will be sharp with the exception of F#, but with D (and possibly Eb and E) being particularly prone to being sharp.
Lower register: Notes from C# downwards in the lower register will have a tendency to be flat (especially open C#), with the exception of A, B and C, which should be in tune. The bottom Bb and B may be sharp.

Reed Strength
Softer reeds have a tendency to play flat. But this does not mean you will play flat if you use soft reeds, as long as you stick to the same reed you use when tuning up your saxophone. If you tune with a hard reed and then switch to a soft one, don't be surprised if suddenly you sound flatter. One advantage of soft reeds is that they do often allow you more flexibility to coax the note sharp or flat as necessary

Intonation Checklist
Is the saxophone itself out of tune? There are some saxophones that are just built badly. If you are in doubt the saxophone being out of tune take it to a good repairer. It must be one who is also a player. Alternatively a good teacher should be able to diagnose an out of tune saxophone.

Is it a high pitch instrument? Up until the middle of the 20th-century there was more than one standard of tuning - high pitch and low pitch. Low pitch was adopted as the standard. If you have an old saxophone it may be high pitch (almost a semitone sharp), and will never play in tune with modern orchestras or keyboards.

All notes either sharp or flat? This indicates that the mouthpiece is in the wrong position. (Back to Step 1).

Is the keywork height set incorrectly? Again, a good repairer will be able to tell. If this is the problem it can usually be fixed very quickly. l Is the problem only noticed by other people? This could mean it's time for you to do some work on your hearing. You should ideally be able to hear the pitch of a note in your head before playing it, that way you will immediately know if the note is sharp or flat. If you have trouble with this, then try some ear training or sight-singing exercises. Joining a choir can be immensely helpful with learning to pitch notes.

Is it actually a problem? This may be a controversial thing to say, but there are some styles of music that do not need perfect intonation. Some of the greatest jazz legends, Charlie Parker, Jackie McLean and Ornette Coleman were known to not play perfectly in tune. Bending notes can be a large part of a blues style, and often notes are flattened by varying degrees, so although technically "out of tune", they are perfect for the style.

Is it Better to be Sharp or Flat? The human ear tends to perceive flat notes as being more unpleasant than sharp notes. Charlie Parker often played quite sharp, yet he's considered by many to be the best saxophonist or musician that ever lived.

When is "in tune" out of tune
This can get very complicated, but it's worth taking a little time to understand the concept of Just Intonation as opposed to Equal Temperament. All modern keyboards and other "fixed pitch" instruments are tuned so that the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones (equal temperament). But before there was any music which required complex key changes, people used a scale which did not divide the semitones into equal 1/12ths. The reason is that some intervals (especially 3rds) sound much more pleasing to the ear when the interval is based on the notes of the overtone series, however with this system as soon as you change key, each note of the scale is now at a very slightly different pitch relative to the new tonic. This is not a problem for a group of singers, but it is not practical for a fixed pitch keyboard, so the equal semitone system was invented. When there is no keyboard present, it is quite possible (and desirable) for musicians to subconsciously use just intonation as it feels more natural.

Another reason not to worry too much about tuners - the way you "hear" an interval may actually be better than the way your tuner tells you it should be. That's one excuse anyway!

Blowing long notes
There's no doubt about it. Practising long notes can be boring. And bored practice is wasted practice so if you find that your mind is wandering then that is a good time to either take a break from practising or move onto some other exercises that you find you can concentrate on more easily. Ultimately though you should try to train yourself to be able to practise long notes without getting bored. You should learn to really focus on the sound and "get inside" it. This will give you a much better understanding of your saxophone sound and how to expand its possibilities.

Using diaphragm breathing, blow a long note. You must make sure that there are no wobbles or hiccups, you must be able to imagine it as a straight line. It shouldn't dip or rise in pitch - imagine it as horizontal. As you near the end of the note (ie you are running out of breath) make sure that you are still supporting the air in your lungs and air column from your diaphragm, and now, more than ever, you must keep that line straight - no wobbles - and hold it until your lungs are empty. Breathe in slowly and relax. NB: It may take you a while to get to this stage. I would recommend that you make sure you can maintain a wobble-free note that sustains well through to the end before continuing, but if not it probably won't do any harm to have a go at the next bit - it just may not be quite as rewarding.

Once you are confident about your "straight line" tone, try it again, this time imagine that line as being a bit broader. I don't mean your sound needs to be broader or wider, this is just another way of visualising the tone. Aim for a nice soft, warm, dark and wide tone. (These descriptions may mean different things to different people which doesn't matter). Again you must imagine the line as being horizontal and wobble free. No change in dynamics and hold it again for a full breath. This time try blowing a note and visualise the sound as a colour. It doesn't matter which because different people imagine different colours with certain sounds. The important thing is that you see in your mind the colour of this sound and that the 'line' continues to be as straight as possible.

Now try again, and as you blow, make it get louder. As it gets louder the line expands, and you can imagine the top edge gradually taking on a bright gold against the original colour. Visualising the sound, this is your warm dark tone gradually getting a bit of edge or brightness to it. The higher frequencies in the tone tend to be amplified as the loudness increases so you are probably just visualising the changes that are actually happening to the sound, but this process is going to be very useful when it comes to you actually controlling the sound. And all the time you must be aware that you are supporting the breath with your diaphragm and there are no wobbles.

Note bending
Bending notes on the saxophone usually involves starting the note at the correct pitch and bending it downwards, or starting at a lower pitch and bending it upwards. (This is the opposite of the guitar which bends a note upwards from pitch or downwards into pitch). The vibrato exercise starts off with note bending, so you can use this exercise to get started on the road to good vibrato as it's a technique that can take quite a while to master.

A bend downwards involves starting a note before slackening the jaw. This increases the gap between the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece, therefore lowering the pitch of the note. An upward bend starts at the correct pitch and the jaw is then tightened which raises the note pitch. In order to maintain consistent airflow you need strong diaphragm muscles to do this. This slackening and tightening of the jaw can be used to good effect in small chromatic runs, whereby the notes can be 'joined' together in one continuous run. Once you have got used to note bending you can adapt it to get some much larger bends than a semitone. You will probably find it easier on higher notes of the higher pitched saxophone, for example it is possible to bend a top C on an alto down two whole tones, and you can bend a top E down a fifth. As well as, or instead of, dropping your lip to bend the note, you use your oral cavity and tongue position to enhance the note bending.

It is very difficult to describe what happens inside your mouth to create the bend, but many people find the easiest way to understand the technique is to start with just the mouthpiece. While blowing a note move your tongue away from the reed back towards your throat (but do not change the shape of your throat, it should be open and allow the air column through as usual). You may need to curl your tongue slightly. By trial and error you should be able to find the position of your tongue at which the pitch changes. Once you can do this, it is just a matter of practice - try it on different notes and each time bend slowly and evenly down and then back up at the same rate.

The most common and useful form of vibrato for the saxophone is called "jaw vibrato". This involves moving the jaw down and up repeatedly to create oscillations in the pitch of the note, as if saying " yah yah yah yah yah...". This is different to the "diaphragm vibrato" used on the flute, where the loudness of the tone oscillates through changes in breath strength, giving the effect of changing pitch.

The aim of this exercise is to control the rate and depth of the vibrato. To achieve this control it's necessary to start with an extremely slow vibrato, in fact so slow its not really a vibrato, in the same way that a drummer learns to perfect a roll by starting very slowly and gradually building up speed. This takes a long time as it is very important to get the first stage as even as possible (it should be done over a period of weeks rather than days).

To start with you must be able to hold a reasonably steady note without any wobble as with the long note exercise. In the early stages you should not be thinking of vibrato at all: you are just bending the note down and up as smoothly as possible.

  • Start a metronome at 60 bpm.
  • Play B (1st finger left hand lower register).
  • Over a count of 4, slacken your jaw so that the note flattens by approximately half a semitone.
  • Over a count of 4, raise your jaw until the note is back at pitch.
  • Stop the note.

You should try to get the lowering and raising as smooth as possible, not dissimilar to a sine wave.

It is very tempting to raise the note at a faster rate than lowering it. Keep thinking of the sine wave and make sure you do not close your throat. Continue on all the notes downwards and upwards from the B as with the long note exercise. Depending on the note and your lung capacity, you could do one or more cycles per note, make sure you count 4 down and 4 up. Raise the speed gradually (eg 1 or 2 bpm) each day. When you get to 120 bpm, set the metronome back to 60 bpm and count 2 down and 2 up. When you get to 120 bpm again set it back to 60 bpm and count 1 down and 1 up.

By the time your note bending sounds more like a vibrato, you should be in complete control of the speed. Traditionally saxophone sections in a big band used vibrato (sometimes at matched tempi) when playing a chord, and no vibrato when playing in unison. In modern music it is more dependent on style and taste. Vibrato can be used on unisons, but only if a looser sound is needed. When playing solo it is entirely up to the player to use vibrato or not. Sometimes it can be effective to play a note with no vibrato, then add it just at the end of the note (as with some singers).

Vibrato and Tuning
When applying saxophone vibrato, the note is lowered then raised. This has the effect of making the average pitch of the note lower. Although the use of vibrato can mask poor intonation to a certain degree, you should take into account this averaging of the pitch downwards when tuning. One solution is to use a generally more relaxed embouchure when playing without vibrato, which would allow you to raise as well as lower the note from the starting point and keep the same average pitch.

This was originally one of the many saxophone "effects" often used as a novelty. Apart from the fact that it is now one of the main hallmarks of rock and blues saxophone playing, it was also used in mainstream jazz: notably Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet and Earl Bostic. Charlie Parker also growled on occasions as did pioneers John Coltrane and Archie Shepp.

The saxophone growl is made by singing or humming a note at the same time as playing. This hummed note is not necessarily the same note as you are fingering/ playing. The ideal note to hum can vary, it could be a harmony note or the same note slightly out of tune.

I find the best way to practice this is to play a note, then hum any old note in the back of your throat. Alter the pitch of this hummed note until the interference with the saxophone note creates a good texture. Then go slowly up and down the chromatic scale doing the same on each note. You will gradually get a feel for which note to sing or hum, and after a while you should be able to do this without thinking about it. It tends to work and sound best around the midde of the horn's range.

For an even 'dirtier' growl, instead of humming a note clear the back of your throat while playing. This is slightly more un-natural than humming or singing whilst blowing as you're essentially trying to close your throat while playing (which goes against all the rules for playing a wind instrument!), but this will produce a coarser sound. As with the humming method, this also tends to be more effective with the mid notes on the horn.

Both the above effects certainly add colour to any phrase or solo by way of accentuating a certain note (or notes), but as with most unusual musical effects or tricks, they will have the most beneficial effect if used sparingly, and at the right time.

The sax laugh
This is quite an easy effect, especially if you have already learnt to do a bit of note bending, as detailed earlier. The most important part of the saxophone laugh is to articulate a "ku" instead of "tu" to start the note. It's then just a question of making each note bend downwards slightly and playing a series of notes that simulate a laugh.

This works well using a chromatic run downwards of three to four notes, followed by another one of a similar length starting a little higher. Try starting on a middle G, going down chromatically to the E, then repeating that starting on the A.

It's a good idea to listen to people laughing to really get the feel for it and also other ways of doing it.


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