Flutter Tonguing – The Sexy Sax Secret

Saxophone Flutter Tonguing

If your aim is to underscore the sound of a cool cat puttin’ on the moves circa 1958, you’re probably going to want to learn to flutter tongue.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, flutter tonguing is basically a sound effect, or dare I say, gimmick used by saxophone players to create a raspy, growling sound. However, unlike the standard saxophone growl which involves basically vocally growling or singing into the horn, this more challenging form of rasp-a-delia involves the tongue.

I wouldn’t consider it an absolutely essential skill for many of us, but if you’re looking to be one of the saxfolk who is versatile enough to play just about any style and possibly even do session work, then I would say that flutter tonguing is indeed very important.

To hear what it is I’m talking about, check out these two examples:

(listen at 0:13 and 0:17)

(flutter tonguing applied throughout)

How’d You Do It?

In a nutshell, flutter tonguing is moving the tongue to create a “trrrrrr” sound as though you were imitating the sound of a jackhammer, a machine gun, or a cat purring. If you’ve ever spoken Spanish or French, you’ll know that pronouncing the “r” sound for words such as “por favor” and “fromage” is done using the back of the tongue. However, in flutter tonguing you’re using the front of the tongue.

To get started, it’s really important that you try this without the saxophone first. Practice blowing lightly while at the same time raising your tongue towards the roof of your mouth, just behind the top teeth. There’s no need to press the tongue into the roof of the mouth. Simply allow the air to cause a “flutter” between the tip of the tongue and the roof.

The next step is to try this using only the mouthpiece and the neck of the saxophone. I’ve personally found it easier to start this way, since getting air to pass by a fluttering tongue is easier if it has a shorter distance to travel. Remember, at no point during flutter tonguing does the tongue make contact with the reed or mouthpiece. In fact, this will stop the sound dead in its tracks. Instead, you’re letting the air pass through the fluttering, thereby creating the sound effect.

What Helped Me

Flutter tonguing is not something that’s come easily to me, and truth be told I still struggle with it quite a bit. However, I did find a few techniques, which technically “correct” or not helped me:

  • Blowing really hard to get the air through the mouthpiece
    I don’t think that this is a good permanent solution, but it did help me get started as that tongue really does obstruct a lot of the sound at first.
  • Taking in less mouthpiece
    I believe that this helps because the tip of the tongue is well in front of the reed as opposed to hovering on top of it. This helps to keep that tongue a comfortable distance from the reed.
  • Playing off to the side
    For some reason (probably because it keeps the tongue away from the mouthpiece), I found that playing off to the side with just one tooth touching the mouthpiece really seemed to make the fluttering notes pop out easier.
  • Practicing in the lower register first
    Because the higher notes are harder to flutter tongue on, then I’d start with the lower register first so that you don’t get frustrated from a lack of progress.

For more instruction on the topic, check out the video below:

As I mentioned earlier, flutter tonguing is not the be-all end-all super-ninja saxophone skill to put under your belt. But for those times when you need to sound gruff, groovy, sexy or rockin’ – setting your sound “a flutter” can take your solo from “aight” to tight!

photo by hart_curt