Saxophone technique

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The fingerings for a saxophone do not change from one instrument to another. Here, notes on a treble staff correspond to fingerings below.
Fingerings typically appear with the left and right hand side-by-side.

Saxophone embouchure is the position of the facial muscles and shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece when playing a saxophone.

Playing technique for the saxophone is subjective based upon the intended style (classical, jazz, rock, funk, etc.) and the player's idealized sound. The design of the saxophone allows for a wide variety of different sounds, and the "ideal" saxophone sound and keys to its production are subjects of debate. However, there is a basic underlying structure to most techniques.


In the typical embouchure, the mouthpiece is generally not taken more than halfway into the player's mouth. The lower lip is supported by the buccinator and chin muscles and rests on the lower teeth, making contact with the reed. The playing-position is stabilized with firm, light pressure from the upper teeth resting on the mouthpiece (sometimes padded with a thin strip of rubber known as a "bite-pad" or "mouthpiece-patch"). The upper lip closes to create an air-tight seal. The "double embouchure" in which the upper lip is curled over the upper teeth is not commonly used in modern times, however each player may eventually develop his/her own variation of the basic embouchure style in order to accommodate their own physical structure.

Three things are imperative to a full and quick-speaking sound: appropriate air pressure which is aided by diaphragm support, correct lip/reed contact allowing the reed to vibrate optimally, and perhaps most importantly a high tongue position within the mouth. This provides focus to the player's air stream and thus to his/her sound. The player's diaphragm acts as a bellow, supplying a constant stream of air through the instrument.

An approach, as taught by Joe Allard, conceptually is much simpler than most: natural. Allard taught that the your embouchure must conform to the mouthpiece and the mouthpiece is not round. Frequently citing anatomy, Allard depicted that when the skull comes down, the larynx and the throat are constricted, he had his students think of keeping their heads straight when they played. Allard also recommended that saxophonists use very little pressure from the top teeth and lip and just let everything rest naturally. Often quoting Douglas Stanly's "The Science of Voice," he said that keeping an open throat and a relaxed throat is contradictory.[1] The summary of Allards approach to saxophone is keep everything as natural as possible, do not interfere with head position, tongue position, breathing, embouchure, just let everything be natural.


Saxophone vibrato is much like a vocal or string vibrato, except the pitch variations are made using the jaw instead of the player's fingers or breathing organs. The jaw motions required for vibrato can be simulated by saying the syllables "wah-wah-wah" or "tai-yai-yai." The method which is easiest and brings the best vibrato depends on the player. While most will say vibrato is not vital to saxophone performance (i.e. it is less important than a well-developed tone),[citation needed] many argue it as being integral to the distinct saxophone timbre.[citation needed] Classical vibrato can vary between players (soft and subtle, or wide and abrasive). Many classical players look to violinists as the models for their sound. It has been suggested that this follows the example of Marcel Mule of the Paris Conservatory, one of the early proponents of classical saxophone playing.[citation needed] Sigurd Rascher, an important German saxophone player, was known for the quicker style of vibrato which was opposite to Marcel Mule's. Jazz vibrato varies even more amongst players. Fast and wide vibrato is used by Swing music players, while some modern jazz saxophonists use almost no vibrato except in slow ballads. Typically, less vibrato is used at faster tempos.

Players just starting out with vibrato will usually start out slow with exaggerated jaw movements. As they progress, the vibrato becomes quicker until the desired speed is reached. A vibrato can also be produced by controlling the air stream with the tongue, or by diaphragm control. Techniques alternative to jaw vibrato can be used to achieve a beautiful tone quality, but can also diverge noticeably from tone quality produced by classical jaw vibrato.

Tone effects[edit]

A number of effects can be used to create different or interesting sounds.

  • Growling is a technique used whereby the saxophonist sings, hums, or growls, using the back of the throat while playing.[2] This causes a modulation of the sound, and results in a gruffness or coarseness of the sound. It is rarely found in classical or band music, but is often utilized in jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, and other popular genres. Some notable musicians who utilized this technique are Earl Bostic, Boots Randolph, Gato Barbieri, Ben Webster, Clarence Clemons, Nelson Rangell, David Sanborn, Greg Ham, Hank Carter, Bobby Keys, Keith Crossan, and King Curtis.
  • Glissando is a sliding technique where the saxophonist bends the note using voicing (tongue and throat placement)and at the same time slides up or down to another fingered note. Johnny Hodges was particularly noted for his mastery of this technique. A glissando can also be created using the tongue to control the airstream and holding the embouchure immobile. A more modern expert of the saxophone glissando is Phil Woods who can play a fluid glissando across the entire range of the horn.
  • Multiphonics is the technique of playing more than one note at once. A special fingering combination causes the instrument to vibrate at two different pitches alternately, creating a warbling sound. This effect can also be created by 'Humming' while playing a note, although not very popular it is still used by musicians who can master it.
  • The use of overtones involves fingering one note but altering the air stream to produce another note which is an overtone of the fingered note. For example, if low B♭ is fingered, a B♭ one octave above may be sounded by manipulating the air stream. Other overtones that can be obtained with this fingering include F, B♭, and D. The same air stream techniques used to produce overtones are also used to produce notes above high F# (the "altissimo register").
  • The technique of manipulating the air stream to obtain various effects is commonly known as "voicing." Voicing technique involves varying the position of the tongue and throat, causing the same amount of air to pass through either a more or less confined oral cavity. This causes the air stream to either speed up or slow down, respectively. As well as allowing the saxophonist to play overtones/altissimo with ease, proper voicing also helps the saxophonist develop a clear, even and focused sound throughout the range of the instrument. For a thorough discussion of voicing technique see "Voicing" by Donald Sinta and Denise Dabney.
  • Slap tonguing creates a "popping" or percussive sound. A slap may be notated either pitched, or non-pitched. Pitched slaps are also called "closed" slaps (referring to the mouth on the mouthpiece) and result in a tone identical to the fingered pitch. A non-pitched slap is also called an "open" slap, because the saxophonist must remove his or her mouth from the reed. It results in a more violent "thwack" sound. The amount of air that a saxophonist uses affects only the volume of the slap. The sound of the slap in both the open and closed varieties is created by the reed rebounding and striking the mouthpiece.
  • Flutter-tonguing can give a rolling R sound with the tone played

Electronic effects[edit]

The use of electronic effects with the saxophone began with innovations such as the Varitone system, which Selmer introduced in 1965. The Varitone included a small microphone mounted on the saxophone neck, a set of controls attached to the saxophone's body, and an amplifier and loudspeaker mounted inside a cabinet. The Varitone's effects included echo, tremolo, tone control, and an octave divider. Two notable Varitone players were Eddie Harris and Sonny Stitt. Similar products included the Hammond Condor.

In addition to playing the Varitone, Eddie Harris experimented with looping techniques on his 1968 album Silver Cycles.

David Sanborn and Traffic member Chris Wood employed effects such as wah-wah and delay on various recordings during the 1970s.

In more recent years, the term "saxophonics" has been used to describe the use of these techniques by saxophonists such as Skerik, who has used a wide variety of effects that are often associated with the electric guitar, and Jeff Coffin, who has made notable use of an envelope follower.

Tonal concept[edit]

A player's "tonal concept" is the sound that they wish to create.

The actual tone produced is influenced by several factors:

  • The pressure and speed of the air stream produced by the player's diaphragm
  • The position of the player's trachea, throat and oral cavity
  • The player's embouchure
  • The position of the instrument relative to the player's body
  • The design of the mouthpiece (chamber, facing, tip opening) and reed strength
  • The design of the instrument, perhaps including the material of which it is made (e.g. brass or other metal, lacquer)


One interpretation of the typical saxophone embouchure involves:

  • Keeping the chin in a relaxed and natural position
  • Forming an "oo" shape with the mouth - as when saying the word "cool" (as if having an orange in the back of your throat).
  • Placing the mouthpiece into the mouth, with the upper teeth (or just the upper lip) resting on the top of the mouthpiece
  • Keeping the throat open - as when saying "ah"

Embouchure Styles[edit]

An important principle for any woodwind embouchure is that the lip supports the reed. Saxophone players generally adopt either the single-lip or double-lip embouchure, then adapt it to their chosen instrument.

The single-lip embouchure, used by most saxophonists, involves placing the upper teeth directly on the mouthpiece, curving the lower lip over the lower teeth. This is preferred for beginners since it is easier to control.

The double-lip embouchure, used by very few saxophonists, involves curving the upper lip under the upper teeth, so that the lip comes between the upper teeth and the slope of the mouthpiece; and curving the lower lip over the top of the lower teeth, so that it comes between the lower teeth and the reed.

The "curved out double-lip no teeth embouchure", known by an even smaller number of saxophone players, involves taking the bottom lip and curving it out so that only a small part touches the teeth; resting just your lip on the top curved out, but with no teeth touching the mouthpiece; and putting your lips as far onto the mouthpiece as the reed and mouthpiece are still separated.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McKim, Debora Jean. "The Joe Allard Project: Pedagogy". Joseph Allard: His Contributions to Saxophone Pedagogy and Performance. University of Colorado. Retrieved 29 January 2012. 
  2. ^ Laughter, John (2006-09-04). "Sound Effects for Saxophone 2: The Growl". Sax on the Web. Retrieved 2007-01-06. 

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