Perhaps more than any other instrument, beginner saxophonists get a bad rap for playing out of tune, playing with poor sound, playing very loudly.
Now, you might be wondering — what do great saxophones sounds have, that the beginner saxophone sounds don't?
Apart from the surety of years and an advanced sense of music expression, I would say the chief factor between a great saxophone and an okay or poor saxophone sound is resonance.
But if you can follow the 10, or so, sound hacks for 5 minutes every day, your sound will go through the roof, dramatically.
Just 17 minutes and you're set.
The 10+ Awesome Sound Hacks That'll Dramatically Improve Your Saxophone Tone in Under 20 Minutes
To improve our saxophone tone, resonance—this idea of a very rich full sound, a sound that can fill a room up—is what we are after here.
There are several different ways of achieving this quality sound, as you might have suspected.
Your tone is primarily made up of three different variables, your gear, your air, and your embouchure.
Hack #1 — Know What Good Saxophone Playing Sound Like
First of all, a beginner saxophonist should know how a good saxophone sounds like.
Again, perhaps more than any other instrument, the student saxophonist is constantly assaulted with very poor versions of saxophone playing in say everyday pop music.
Every beginner needs quality examples from very early on.
In the jazz realm, we are very familiar with a few good examples such as John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Chris Potter for tenor players, Phil Woods for alto players, Gary Smulyan for baritone players, the list goes on and on.
In the world of classical saxophone, perhaps the answers aren't so clear but a few that I would suggest are Donald Sinta, Timothy McAllister, Joseph Lulloff, Otis Murphy, Tamer Sullivan, Clifford Layman and so on and so forth.
All these players have lovely beautiful sounds that can serve as a model for the beginner players.
Hack #2 — Voice Your Saxophone to Achieve Resonance
So how can you achieve resonance on a saxophone?
Perhaps the best known and most useful is the idea of voicing your saxophone.
Voicing is an idea that has been posited by saxophonists Larry Teel and Donald Sinta. It's a fairly complicated process or concept, but, it can be introduced fairly easily and straightforwardly to beginner students.
Sax Voicing to Produce/Achieve Resonance (Step-by-step)
The first step to producing resonance on the saxophone, to improve your saxophone sound, is playing just on the off piece alone.
The reason for this is because the saxophone embouchure can be rather complicated to learn.
One of the easiest ways of setting the proper tension and achieving the proper sound on the saxophone is to match the pitch of just the mouthpiece alone to a tone source (often a piano).
So take the mouthpiece out of your saxophone.
The pitch that I normally do this with concert pitch on the piano. Play B5 on the piano and match it to the mouthpiece.
Doing this makes sure that your embouchure and all of the other things that go into a proper saxophone sound are in the right place. This way you don't have to think about this verbiage that can very often confuse you early on.
The second step is pitch bending on the mouthpiece alone. A very simple way to start talking about voicing is, again, to use the mouthpiece only.
Ideally, you want to start mouthpiece pitch bending exercises from very early on.
Again, start with the B5 note that we want to have as our reference pitch on the piano, and match that to our mouthpiece sound first, and then see how far you can bend down that note on your mouthpiece.
I have about an octave, but, of course, a beginner won't have that at the beginning. In fact, if you're a beginner, you're probably not going to be able to bend pitch much at all.
However, practice pitch bending regularly with ee vs. oh sounds. Learn how ee feels and how oh feels. To lower the pitch we want to think about the o feel, and very gradually over time bend the half-step, then the whole-step and on and on very slowly.
We don't want to strain the muscles.
Sax voicing will help you to start achieving a bit of flexibility with the mouthpiece.
The third step is uniting the mouthpiece with the horn. Once you do this we can do more flexibility bending exercises. Start with the written B with the octave key on any of the saxophones and try to bend that down.
It's a fairly easy pitch to bend down and manipulate.
Start with the very in tune B and then see how far you can bend that down that rather free pitch before it breaks.
Using these exercises will give you the ability to adjust the pitch and therefore to adjust resonance.
Hack #3 — Use Saxophone Overtones to Achieve Resonance
Using overtones is one of the other exercises that many saxophonists use to gain resonance. You need to manipulate the overtone series to have a certain sound pop out.
The saxophone, just like the trumpet, has an overtone series.
If you've never done overtones before, what we're talking about here is fingering one note, such as a low C, B flat or B natural, but then producing a different note, so we end up with, for instance, the octave above or the fifth above that note.
Overtones are really, really, important because they are kind of a stepping stone towards getting your altissimo notes on your saxophone (that is, extremely high notes).
If you get it right, you're really going to strengthen your throat, which will make a dramatic improvement to your sound.
This isn't strictly important for beginner sax players but using overtones to adjust your oral blowing mechanism gives you flexibility.
It's probably the hardest exercise but also the one you're going to see the most improvement in your saxophone tone if you do it consistently.
To use the overtone series to achieve resonance on the saxophone, do the following:
Using the Saxophone Overtones Series to Produce/Achieve Resonance (Step-by-step)
Overtones are a great thing to work on and the best way to start them is just by starting with a single note.
What you need to do here is, for instance, play low B flat and try to get the octave above. If you get that one, then try the same with the B natural and then the C.
And if you are feeling more adventurous, you can try getting the fifth above that and then the octave above that.
Alternately, play middle B flat on the saxophone, and then keeping that pitch in your head, play the same tone—the same middle B flat—with a low B flat fingering.
You should, finally, try to bring that middle B flat to all the way down to a low B flat. That's from middle B natural to low B natural.
You can do this exercise across the range of the saxophone.
This exercise will help you achieve flexibility in your voicings. This will enable you to "move pitch around" to provide a little bit more resonance to your voicing.
Overtones are hands-down the best exercises you can do to improve your saxophone sound.
Hack #4 — Tongue Your Notes Properly
No matter how good you play, if you don't tongue the notes properly your not going to get a good attack—a nice clean start—to the note.
To tongue the notes properly, make sure you are not breath-starting, make sure you are actually putting your tongue against the bottom of the reed.
If you want to get a big attack to the tone, close the reed off completely to build up air pressure behind the release. That produces a big, loud attack kind of sound.
If you want to get a slightly less aggressive attack don't shut off the reed completely, you just rest your tongue where it just about touches the tip of your reed, to stop it from vibrating.
Figure out the tonguing and you'll improve your saxophone tone dramatically in virtually no time.
Hack #5 — Stop Playing Out of Tune
This one might sound really basic, but it is something that is so fundamentally important to your playing.
Stop playing out of tune!
All players on all levels need to think about this throughout the entirety of their career really. It's not just about tuning your instrument up in the first place.
If you pull your mouthpiece further out, you make your instrument longer, so it gives a lower pitch—because bigger instruments will lower pitches.
A lower pitch makes a good flatter and a higher pitch makes a good sharper.
I fully recommend getting on your phone a tuning app or buying a little tuner but also practicing tuning with your ears. A tuner is going to be a handy solid reference.
Trying to tune to other instruments all works quite well if you've got any around.
If you notice that every single note is registering sharp then, obviously, you need to pull your mouthpiece out or relax your embouchure.
On the other hand, if every single note is flat on the tuner, then push your mouthpiece in a bit to make the instrument more high pitched.
I don't really recommend people try to squeeze their embouchure to improve their tuning. I would say it's better to get your mouthpiece in the right place in the first place rather than add tension to your embouchure.
Once you've found that your notes are someone in the aggregate of being in tune, you want to consider the intonation of the instrument.
You might find that the top half of it is a bit sharp, and the bottom half a bit flat or vice versal.
And at that point, everything's down to you getting to know your instrument, if there are any particular notes are one way or the other, for instance.
And make sure you are not squeezing the top notes too much. Something that a lot of players do is squeeze the embouchure too much on the top notes, sending them sharp. So don't do that.
A good way to practice with the tuner would be to play a note away, not looking at the tuner, then look at the tuner and see if you were right. If you get it wrong, get in tune with the tuner, look away, play it again and look back to see if you did get it right.
Because there is no point always playing looking at the tuner—you'll get used to being told whether you're in tune or not.
So you need to be told whether you're in tune or not, take that information away, see if you can pitch it properly, then come back to see if you got it right.
Hack #6 — Stop Bending Notes All the Fuckin' Time
The other thing I see a lot is bending notes to cover up a lack of confidence of what pitch or note you're going to play.
Say you've sorted out your tuning, say you've sorted out your tonguing, bent notes on every note is going to sound bad.
The reason why it sounds so bad is that it's amateurish—it's done by beginner players a lot when they are not actually sure what note to jump into.
Often, they're not even entirely sure what pitch is going to come out the other end, or whether the tuning is right or not.
So they just bend the note into tuning into the note they are expecting.
Most listeners and musicians will almost immediately recognize if you're doing that too much.
They'll recognize the fact that you are not bending the notes to add fear or expression or depth of feel or some other music aspect to it, but that you are doing it to cover the fact that you are not strongly confident.
The way to deal with that is to develop confidence in moving at bigger intervals. That means practicing scales and patterns in a way that includes bigger intervals—bigger jumps.
And also, working with the tuner, to keep tuning properly in check.
Pick your note, play it in tune, look away, jump up to a higher note, play it, then come back at the tuner to see that you got it right.
If you are used to bending notes, doing this exercise will set you on the right path. You could be miles off, you could be really near it, you just don't know.
But when you come back and find out, you start learning your instrument and start building your confidence.
It's really important to understand that as saxophonists, the biggest part of our instrument is our embouchure, our tone, and even down our throats.
You don't squeeze your throat when you are playing, for instance, you keep it nice relaxed and open.
The shape of the mouth, how much space we have there, and what we do with it has a huge impact on how the saxophone sounds.
It's all part of the instrument.
This is one of the reasons why saxophonists are so unique. And these all does mean we've got a lot of responsibility for the sound we make.
So, stop bending notes, habitually, to cover up the fact you're not exactly sure how that note is supposed to sound.
Practice jumping bigger intervals so you know where you're going (so your ears know where you're going, and you can hear it spot on).
Hack #7 — Stop Using Vibrato to Cover Up Bad Tone (Practice Long Notes Instead)
The first thing you hear a teacher talk about with regards to tone is long notes—and for good reason.
The next thing you can do to improve your saxophone tone is to stop using vibrato, habitually, again, to cover up bad tone.
If you are comfortable with the tone that you are making on your saxophone, let that sing out, let the listener hear it.
Putting vibrato over everything is yet another thing beginners tend to do because they are trying to cover up bad tone, or if they are not comfortable with the tone that's playing, or if they don't have the lip strength to maintain a nice even tone.
This is where practicing long tones really comes into handy.
For long tone practice, pick any note, play a couple of bars worth, then restart it and play it. This should form the basis of a long tone exercise.
Again, doing long tone exercises it a really important thing.
Long notes are extremely important in saxophone.
This is because the whole idea of a long tone is to get your air stream flowing really steady and stable so you have to disruptions.
It's basically a workout for your lip. But not only are you working out your lip, but you're also getting to know, the feeling of playing straight long tones.
This way you'll know each of those notes, and know that you can play them smoothly and in tune.
And then you can put a bit of vibrato if you want, but you'll be adding the vibrato to a clean slate, rather than starting with a messy slate and trying to clean it up with vibrato.
You should be able to listen to yourself, and gauge how you sound.
Practice the Easiest Long Notes Exercise (The F Major Scale in All Notes)
Perhaps the easiest the long tone exercise for any beginner saxophonist is simply playing the F major scale in all notes.
While you play the F major scale, listen very carefully for articulation, provide a vibrato.
This exercise surprisingly highlights a lot of deficiencies in inexperienced playing. It is very valuable as the first step in long tones and the concept of working in sound production.
Another useful exercise is chromatic descent exercise.
Practice the Chromatic Descent Exercise
This is also pretty simple.
It a half-note B, followed by a half note B, then followed by a whole note A.
Again when playing these exercise, listen for resonance. Make sure you are filling the room up with sound and listen for all the good qualities desired in a rich sound.
As you repeat the same exercise, try and clean up any inadequacies that you noticed the first time.
After the first set of notes, you continue all the way down the horn descending a half step each time.
The next step here, for instance, would be B flat, A, A flat and then A, A flat, G and so on and so forth until you reach the very bottom of the horn.
You can use a metronome to get the timings correct in some of the above exercises.
A distorted long note just means that the air flow is not steady and consistent.
That's what you need to develop first before adding some dynamics, such as the vibratos or soft ends, to your long tones.
Practice with Slow Melodies
I love slow melodies because they are the best way to develop your sound, and you can incorporate them in your regular warm-up routine.
Slow melodies give you a lot of time to think about your embouchure, your throat, your breathing, to practice your long notes and to put all the elements together to make it really sound magnificent.
Now, it could be any slow melody really, it could be something that you love such as pop tune or a jazz standard. It could even be just playing a scale slowly as we talked about earlier.
The key is to think about every element of your sound while you are playing that long note.
There is also one more important thing when playing a slow melody you really need to think about blowing right through the long notes so your air is joining all the long notes together.
Joining the long notes together is super important so that you create a lovely warm long sound.
This will also help you think and hear the continuity between the notes.
Hack #8 — Move the Air Really Fast to Get a Big Fat Sound
After this, the next step in getting a really big fat in your face saxophone sound is moving the air really fast. The more your reed will vibrate and the bigger your sound will be.
It's pretty much that simple.
So how do you get a faster-moving air stream?
It's actually pretty easy if you think about it. You want to focus, the air, moving really fast into the dead center of your mouthpiece.
You don't just want to blow like you are blowing towards the whole front of your mouthpiece, instead, you want to blow like there is a straw at the dead center of your mouthpiece, and you are trying to get as much air as you can into this straw.
Obviously, you don't want to put a straw in your mouthpiece, I am just using that as an example.
The more you do this, the bigger your sound will get. Once you get that air moving really steady and really fast, your tone blows up almost immediately.
Hack #9 — Place Your Embouchure Correctly—Experiment with Less Lip Over Your Teeth
The thing we have properly looked until now is proper embouchure placement. Let's talk about that so we know exactly how our mouth is supposed to be set on our mouthpiece.
First of all, close one eye, and look across the side of the mouthpiece so that you can see exactly where the reed hits the mouthpiece. That is where you want your bottom lip.
That gives you a clear idea of how much mouthpiece we should take in.
And then obviously your top lip goes on top.
When you do that, you have just about the perfect size of reed vibrating.
Again, the tone and sound of your saxophone are all about how fast and how much of your reed is vibrating.
Okay, now that we know how much mouthpiece we should take in, the next thing you need to do is make sure that the corners of your lips are pushing into the mouthpiece. You don't want the pushing up, you want the pushing in from the sides.
The other thing is that your lower lip should be rolled out a little bit.
When you are first learning the saxophone, you learn that you should put your lower lip over the top of your teeth. And that's exactly what you should be doing.
But once you get to a point where you are trying to get a bigger, fuller tone, and you're getting more advanced on the saxophone, you need to a little more with your bottom lip to maximize your projection and the vibration of the bottom reed.
Roll that bottom lip a little bit, as opposed to your lip just being over your teeth.
What that does is it puts more of the muscle of your lip on the reed giving you way more control while letting the reed vibrate more.
This is what gives you a way bigger and better sound.
And just that one little thing will give you so much control over your mouthpiece as well.
Rolling the bottom lip can be a little strange at the beginning, especially if you've just had your lip over your teeth ever since you started playing the saxophone.
If it gets too comfortable, you can start to move it gradually at first.
You'll probably get some squeaks and it's going to feel really uncomfortable, to be sure, but after a week or two of practice, it starts to feel natural and your sound will explode.
Hack #10 — You Need to Keep your Throat Open
This tip might sound obvious but loads of people miss out of this.
What I am talking about here is that you really have to think about the air flowing up from your lungs, through your throat, and into the saxophone.
If air is getting constricted in your throat as it flows, it's going to really close off your sound, and that's how you end up with a really thin sound.
You need to keep a very open throat when you are playing.
You need to keep an open throat, like when you are singing or yawning to let air flow so it really makes a big difference.
Experiment with that and see how it works for you.
Hack #11 — Practice Your Intervals, Thoroughly
Another awesome hack for sound on saxophone is intervals.
I love practicing intervals.
In the article about whether a saxophone is hard to learn, I talked about not knowing you intervals as being one of the 10 things that hold back saxophone self-leaners (have a look and see if some of the other things I mentioned in that list might also be holding you back from improving your saxophone tone, besides intervals).
Why are intervals so good for you?
If you are working on things like fifths or octaves, and you're thinking about keeping a consistent sound between the two things, practicing intervals massively strengthens your embouchure, and also sort out any little irregularities that you might be having.
Intervals are one very effective way of sorting out irregularities in your lip position, your jaw position, or your breathing.
The thing to do when you are practicing intervals is to start really simple, something like an octave. where you are starting on a low note, such as a G or an F, and then jumping to the octave above, and then jumping back down.
This will give you the opportunity to find out what's happening with your embouchure, especially if you've got your tuner there with you, so you can check whether your intonation is correct while you jump between intervals.
When jumping through intervals, try not to move your jaw. This is so that you can keep your air and embouchure consistent and most importantly keep the sound consistent.
If you want to push that a little bit further, and make things more exciting and fun, try working on intervals like a fifth or a seventh or an augmented fifth or ninth.
There are all sorts of combinations you can do here using the same principle—start in the middle of your range, and get the intervals sounding great, then move all the way down, and then all the way up.
Trust me, if you can do 5 minutes of that every day, your sound will go through the roof, dramatically.
Once you strip bad tonguing and all the above off, you might find that there's a couple of parts you're playing that you're not too happy with...
...something you can only discover after getting the tone exactly right, and only after taking all these bad things away.
That then means that you've discovered what it is that you really need to work on your saxophone, to take your playing to the next saxophone.
And that's the proper way to move from sounding amateurish and start improving your saxophone tone towards a more mature sound.
Learning to play the saxophone, the sound it makes, it's so many different aspects to tackle, what I've covered here is what keeps cropping for almost every beginner. What gets in the way a lot.
Hopefully, this will be quite helpful to you.