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Intro to Saxophone Overtones Part 1 – What are They?

Saxophone Overtones

This article is the first in a three-part series. Once you’re done with this article, I strongly suggest you continue forwards with part part 2 and part 3.

Many sax players new to the instrument may have heard the term “overtones” thrown about without really knowing what the term means and why they should know anything about it. The fact is, knowledge of overtones as well as the practice of overtone exercises on your horn is simply a must if you’re planning on becoming a great saxophone player.

What in the World Are These Overtone Thingies?

To quote from WikiPedia:

An overtone is any frequency higher than the fundamental frequency of a sound.

In other words, if you’re playing a low Bb, there are actually other notes quietly sounding at the same time as that low Bb. And while these other pitches are sounding relatively quietly in comparison to that low Bb, they affect the sound of the saxophone massively.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, try this as a simple exercise:

  1. Play a middle Bb on your horn.
  2. Next, position your fingers to play a low Bb.
  3. Keeping your embouchure the same as it would be for that middle Bb, play that middle Bb BUT keep your fingers in position to play the low Bb. What you should be hearing is still that middle Bb, but with a harsher and more abrasive tone quality. This is basically the same sound you’d get if you attempted to play the low Bb but missed the note due to not enough diaphragm support.

The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that the middle Bb is the first overtone of that low Bb. Other terminology for the sound of a middle Bb played with the low Bb fingering is the “First Partial” or “First Harmonic.”

See for Yourself

Below is the entire series of overtones (aka “partials” or “harmonics”) that we can play while fingering that low Bb. Of course, towards the end of the series you get to notes that are not possible for 99.9, if not 100% of all saxophone players to play.

Saxophone Overtones

Again, when you play that low Bb, you’re simultaneously hearing the entire series of notes shown above, but they’re actually more felt than heard, since the majority of the sound you hear is from the fundamental, or bottom note in the series, whichever note that might be.  Every single note in the playable range of the saxophone has this series of overtones above it, whether you’re playing a low Bb or a high E with the palm keys.

So in the example above, the low Bb is what’s known as the “fundamental” – as that’s the note we’re actually fingering. From there, the middle Bb is what’s known as the “first overtone” or the “first partial.” The second overtone with be the F on the top line of the staff, the high Bb would be the second overtone, and so on and so forth up the entire series as illustrated above.

So what do these overtones have to do with me?

To start with, no two sounds have the same exact balance of individual overtones. 

The effect of having more pronounced upper overtones in a sax player’s sound is an overall “brightness” in tone. For example, at the extreme end of the overtone spectrum, you have the tone of Fusion/R & B saxophonist David Sanborn. Since the music he plays involves cutting through other instruments with loud overtones such as drums and electric guitar, his sound is jam-packed with upper overtones. The result is a loud and piercing sound that can penetrate the other loud sounds in a band with electric instruments.

Here is a sample of David Sanborn playing – note that this is what it sounds like when a saxophonist has a lot of upper overtones audible in their sound:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

On the other extreme side of the spectrum you have the tone of jazz altoist Lee Konitz. Due to the emphasis of lower overtones in his tone, Lee’s sound is “dark” and “piping” in nature, perfect for melding into mellower sounds such as jazz piano, acoustic bass, and subtle jazz drumming. While there are no hard-and-fast rules in music, generally speaking, in a quiet acoustic jazz setting, a loud and massive laser-like tone such as that of David Sanborn would sound out of place with the rest of the instruments.

Here is a sample of Lee Konitz playing – note that this is what it sounds like when a saxophonist has a sound which emphasizes the lower overtones:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Of course, whether you go for an upper-overtone-heavy sound like players such as Sanborn, Michael Brecker, or John Coltrane, or an lower-overtone-heavy sound such as Konitz, Paul Desmond, or Zoot Sims, in the end it’s nothing more than a simple matter of taste.

The Wrap Up

Well, I’ve probably crammed enough info into your brain for one sitting, so I should stop here before you start drooling on your keyboard.

In Part 2 of the series, we’ll get into the reasons why you should practice these overtones/harmonics/partials and how they can help you improve. Cheers for now!

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About the Author

I've been playing the sax since the late 80's, but my musical journey has run quite the gamut. The musical rap sheet includes tours with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and reggae master Half Pint, center stage at the L.A. Music Center, cozy cafes, raucous night clubs, gear-drenched studios, and the pinnacle of any musician's career - playing weddings in New Jersey! (duh). There's a lot of other stuff too, but you should be reading these blog posts and leaving comments instead. Now off you go!

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Comments (17)

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  1. I’m not quite sure that a darker sound like that of Lee Konitz is due to a lack of overtones necessarily. There are a lot of other factors that go into a more cutting, Sanborn-like sound, baffle and reed strength being at the top of the list. I am sure that a lot of players with “darker” sounds have practiced overtones extensively, people like Joe Lovano, Mark Turner, Bill McHenry, and Billy Drewes. Steve Lacy was well known for his overtone practice, and he had what many people would term a dark sound.

    I think overtones are great for developing any kind of sound that a player is going for, and also for developing good note placement and pitch, which is closely related to positioning your larynx properly, or what many call “voicing”. And they don’t have to be boring to work on…I always encourage students to come up with their own ways of practicing overtones to keep things interesting. This way it’s easier to make them part of your regular practice routine.

    • Doron says:

      Heya Sam! Well, the way I see it is that the equipment can assist you in bringing out those upper partials, but the bottom line is that those upper partials are more evident in the sound of someone like David Sanborn as compared to Lee Konitz. It’s just like on an EQ, there’s a very big difference when you roll off the highs, and although the overtones are present in Konitz’s sound, he’s using his embouchure to “roll them off” a bit in order to get his cool and piping sound.

      I actually read up on overtones in “The Master Speaks” by one of Allard’s students, and Joe taught that practicing overtones will allow you to play with a dark tone, but still have the upper overtones *when you need them*, so that implies that there are situations where it’s possible to not utilize the full harmonic spectrum when you’re going for a certain kind of sound.

      Taking that into consideration, I would imagine that any great sax player would practice overtones quite a bit regardless of the sound they were going for, as overtones allow you to master the crucial subtleties of one’s embouchure.

      We may be on the same page with this and just talking semantics, so sorry if I ramble a bit. :)

      Thanks Sam!

  2. [...] only on the steadiness of harmonic color in my sound. In other words, I focus on hearing the same overtones at both pianissimo and [...]

  3. [...] yes, I know, I’ve been droning on and on about overtones lately. But I’ve really been having a good time practicing the exercises from part 3 of the Intro to [...]

  4. [...] of a note, and it takes practice to keep that note from cracking or splitting off into an upper harmonic when playing super-loud or super-soft. Even though many of us spend the bulk of our playing time in [...]

  5. [...] your tone in a way that exercises just about every muscle necessary to form a great sound is the practicing of overtones. But there is something else we can do before we even put the entire instrument [...]

  6. [...] of a note, and it takes practice to keep that note from cracking or splitting off into an upper harmonic when playing super-loud or super-soft. Even though many of us spend the bulk of our playing time in [...]

  7. [...] putting out articles that have to do with the art of saxophone tone creation, including articles on overtones, practicing on the mouthpiece, and proper positioning of the lower [...]

  8. [...] putting out articles that have to do with the art of saxophone tone creation, including articles on overtones, practicing on the mouthpiece, and proper positioning of the lower [...]

  9. [...] If you’re unfamiliar with these, go to Intro to Saxophone Overtones. [...]

  10. mrG says:

    Ouch, realized later, when I went to play them, that my prior comment here had completely misread the harmonic series. F is the FIFTH, not the fourth. Hope you can delete that :)

  11. SaxGuy214 says:

    What song is that in the audio clip of David Sanborn?

  12. John Caito says:

    Marc Russo is one of the worlds best at overtones (altissimo). His playing on the Yellowjackets “Politics” album the song “Foreign Correspondent” is smokin. He is the Doobie Brothers sax player,,listen to him play along with them on “South City Midnight Lady”. Marc is truly one of the greatest saxophonists playin today.

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