the jazz authority; random dubiously zappy rants about 'the musicians music'.: Sax Made Simple

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Sax Made Simple

Below is a lengthy post of great advice for sax players at any stage...


The saxophone (or any other instrument for that matter) doesn't need to be a freaky thing. If one steps back and looks at what they need to know right now, one can set simple goals that won't be too big. For example, a beginner would do well to get down to business with their scales and arpeggios in all keys. That way later on they will be able to nail lines in advanced scores or effortlessly float through crazy changes using their seemingly natural feel for strange keys.

What I'm going to do is break it down into categories for you. This stuff will for the most part apply to other instruments as well, but there are some sax specifics that I'll give to you here. Below we have BEGINNER BASICS, INTERMEDIATE BASICS, and ADVANCED BASICS. Seriously, this stuff is too good to just skim over. Of course, if you don't care if you become a great player, you don't need to know this. For those cats, I suggest that you keep your noodling confined to your basements in order to save us all the unnecessary grief. Everyone on!!!

What do you like about a particular sax player? Most often we forget that their 'sound' is made up of different aspects: tone quality, melodic lyricism, emotive quality (urgently frantic or sedately mellow), and the band that backs them. One needs to consider all of these things in their quest to be a good player.

There's no way around practicing to improve your tone quality. Nobody will hear your wickedly intense patterns/riffs/licks if you sound like a sick goose. Make sure that you practice through the entire range of your instrument, including the bell tones and palm keys. Extend scale exercises up and down as far as you can go.

A good improviser is 1% talent and 99% hard work. This is a fact, as opposed to the myth that someone may be blessed with good talent. One may be more inclined at the outset to play comfortably, but in the long run tenacity and straight-out unmitigated hard work is the key to becoming a killer player.

As long as your gear works (horn, mouthpiece, reeds), then you should only give it secondary consideration in your quest to get better at your craft. Many try to buy their way into becoming a better player, through a fancy horn or expensive reeds. Others are afraid that a student horn will hold them back and that they need a pro horn at the outset in order to sound good. Well, this is partly true, but as I've already stated, a good musician is created through hard work – not fancy gear. Make sure your sax has no leaky pads( with the use of a leak light), and that you have a reasonable setup (refering to you mouthpiece an reed).

There are many good mouthpieces for all kinds of different sounds on the market. If you want a standard jazz mouthpiece that's versatile, go with the mouthpieces suggested here. Alto players will do well with a Selmer C* and a #2 ½ to #3
½ strength reed. Also Meyers are great mouthpieces that have edge but aren't too bright. Highly recommended for alto players. Stick with the above reed strength and use a 4M, 5M, or 6M facing. Tenor players should can go with hard rubber or metal. Avoid giant baffles – they make your sound buzzy and shrill and you'll lose body and depth of tone. Otto Links are great mouthpieces, if you can find one that's well made. Try a few and compare them to each other, as they are sadly inconsistent in quality. A tip opening from 6* to 7* is appropriate for jazz and classical, with lower volumes more easily achieved with the 6* (it has a smaller tip opening). Meyers are o.k. for tenor too, but go with an equally wide tip opening. Match this with a 2 ½ to 3 ½ strength reed.

There you have it. Solid tips to help you become a solid player.

Your at the point where you've recently started improvising and you want to take this a little more seriously. Here's where it's at: the next level is for serious cats only. There's no point in wasting your time unless you expect to be able to commit to at least two hours of blowing time daily. This is the stage where you pay your dues.
I once heard it broken down like this: you gotta shed like crazy, getting all the patterns licks, and riffs, under your fingers that you can, learning tons of harmony theory, and then after a few years, forget it all and just let it flow naturally. You say “aw, I want to be a fluid, organic kind of player. I don't need to learn all of those patterns and that theory stuff.” Well, the point here is that it shouldn't sound like you are playing out of a text book, but you need to be able to call on that knowledge in a split second without thinking about it when the moment is right. You can tailor your studies to best suit the sound you want. I like minor keys personally, so over the years I've focused a lot on melodic minor scale patterns, modes, and transcriptions of solos over tunes in minor keys. Whatever your goal is you can achieve it if you practice efficiently, and put some solid effort into your studies.

What you should be practicing is transcribing, memorizing tunes and applying riffs and patterns directly to specific changes in specific songs, and tonal exercises like long tones with dynamics and overtone exercises. I won't get into a long drawn out music lesson right here and now. My aim in writing this is to just point players in the right direction so that they don't waste countless hours in their basement learning the wrong things.

Jam lots. Nothing replaces real people jamming out and learning the dynamics of a solid jazz band. Go to local jam sessions and let yourself get schooled – if you aren't humble enough for that you can just stay in your basement with your Aebersold play-alongs and keep on doing your own thing. You'll get there one day, and the sooner, the better.

Use your practice time wisely, and expect to spend long hours memorizing things in all keys over the entire range of your horn, with variations when wanted/needed. At one point in my teens I copped a riff that was so great I had to learn it inside out. It was inside enough that it didn't sound to distinctive (preventing me from using it often), and it was fluid enough that I could cannibalize it and insert bits in my lines when it felt right. I spent almost a year focusing my allotted 'patterns and riffs' time in my practice to this riff alone, and after that span of time I could tear things up like never before. Of course, In high school I could afford to practice for three or four hours a day, and I wisely broke my practices down into mini-sessions that had slots for specific subjects. This isn't over the top gang – it's the best way to make use of the time we have for enjoying our instrument.

Obviously at this stage you should have a pro horn and a private teacher. If you don't you're making it that much harder on yourself. Buy cheap reeds & refrain from blowing your paycheck on that fancy metal mouthpiece, because you need to get a jazz player to give you some solid direction. They will be able to help you find the right gear.


It's all about opinion now. What I say may not be what another is into, so I'll keep this part brief.

You may or may not be practicing a lot. If you're gigging frequently and know a lot of charts, payed your dues and are settling into a groove, then you probably don't want to kill yourself with overplaying. Of course I'm of the obsessive and compulsive variety, so I never really want to put it down for long, but you get the idea.

Be a nice person. None of the pros that I know are jerks, and the ones that I've heard are/were temperamental were world famous, and so good that they got repeat gigs even if they showed up late in their underwear stoned and spat on the event organizer. As a sideman your style is second to your reliability. If you try to pull that stuff, bands and clubs will look to the next guy for future gigs.

Aside from that, one should have their own direction. I could get into advanced improvisation stuff, but instead I'll save that for another time.

Stay cool gang. If you have something to add go ahead and post it. If you disagree, you can direct your complaints to 'the office of fancypants whiners'. Seriously, I like a good debate/discussion, so go ahead and tell us how it is according to you.



Anonymous said...

Great post. Thanks for taking the time to do that. Personally I am in the beginning stages of the intermediate level I think. I can play a lot of right notes but finding that beautiful improv melody is tough right now.

Anyway...just wanted to say thanks.


Cameron W said...

No prob Jeff. Hope to see you here again.
FYI, I am currently writing many articles for future posting on this and my other sites, and your input and requests for topics are welcome. You can e-mail me or just post in the comments section in any of my blog entries and I'll see it.


Ivan Goldman said...

I'm a jazz fan, not a player. I find that some sax players are just playing for themselves or other sax players in competition to see how many discordant notes they can hit in 10 or 20 seconds. It's like a track-and-field competition. And it's damn ugly.