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Intro to Saxophone Overtones Part 3 – Exercises

Saxophone Overtones This article is the third in a three-part series. If you haven’t done so already, I suggest you check out part one and part two. So now that we know what overtones are and why we should practice them, it’s time to put some of this knowledge to practice. While there are a good number of online resources to help you practice mastering overtones and all of the aspects of your playing that are affected by the practice of playing the upper partials, I had the good fortune of having my saxophone compadre Ricky Sweum contribute some exercises that are not only unique and effective, but a lot of fun as well!

In addition to including audio examples for each exercise, Ricky was kind enough to notate them to make life easier on all of us.

Click here to download the sheet music.

Exercise #1: Octave Drop Downs

Here’s how this one works:

  1. Finger a low F (the one at the bottom of the staff with no octave key).
  2. With your thumb still off of the octave key, begin playing, but start right in on the note one octave higher, so that you’re hearing the same pitch you’d hear if you were playing the middle F (the one with the octave key).
  3. Hold that middle F for a few seconds, and then drop back down to the low F.
  4. Repeat the same exercise moving down in half steps until you reach the low Bb.

Here are some specific things you can do to make these octave jumps:

  • When moving between octaves, make sure that you can hear the next note before you play it.
  • No matter what you do, do not drop your jaw between notes.
  • Do not change the amount of air pressure.
  • Try experimenting with the position of your tongue. Move the tongue to the back of the mouth and have the tongue make contact with the upper part of your mouth as though you were making a “K” sound.
  • With the saxophone out of your mouth, try singing an octave jump and notice the changes in your throat as you do so. Now apply changes in the throat to your overtone octave jumps. Also try closing the back of your throat to see if that helps.

Every sax player’s throat and embouchure are different, so in the end it’s really a matter of trying different things and memorizing the feeling of each interval jump. One of the goals here is not be reliant on the octave key. In fact, there’s an unsubstantiated rumor that Joe Henderson never used his octave key – which would be a pretty amazing feat! At any rate…

A sample of what the exercise should sound like (played by Ricky via Skype)

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Variation for Those Having Trouble with The Exercise

If you’re unable to make the octave jump in step 2 of the exercise, try doing this instead:

  1. Play the middle F (the one that would normally be player with the octave key pressed down).
  2. Remove your thumb from the octave key while maintaining that same high F so you’re fingering the low F, but playing the middle F.

Exercise #2: Tone Matching by Voicing the First Overtone

  1. Finger a middle Bb using the bis key (the small key that sits between the B and A keys) fingering.
  2. Finger the low Bb beneath the middle Bb while keeping the middle Bb pitch. The only difference you should hear should be a difference in tonal characteristics, but the pitch should remain the same regardless of which octave Bb you’re fingering.
  3. Go back and forth between that middle Bb and low Bb fingerings keeping the middle Bb fingering going the whole time. As you increase the rapidity of the octave jumps, you’ll hear a sound effect often used by folks such as Michael Brecker and Lester Young.
  4. Repeat the exercise going chromatically up the horn all the way to F. IMPORTANT NOTE: Once you get to the middle D, rather than using the normal middle D fingering, you must finger that middle D with the palm key D and no octave key. Eb, E, and F are also to be fingered using the palm keys minus the octave key.

Audio Sample for this exercise

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Exercise #3: Tone Matching by Voicing the Second Overtone

This time we’re going to start on second overtone which is the fifth above the first octave. So for the Bb overtone series, that would be the middle F, an octave above the middle Bb. Here’s what ya do:

  1. Play the middle F without the octave key. So you’re basically fingering the low F but the middle F is the octave that’s sounding.
  2. Next, finger a low Bb while still holding out the middle F.
  3. Repeat the exercise going chromatically up the horn all the way to the point where you’re alternating between the palm key F (no octave key) and the bis middle Bb fingerings. IMPORTANT NOTE: The octave key is not to be used at any point in this exercise.

Audio Sample for this exercise

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Voicing is how we create the sound of the horn by making changes to the shape of our oral cavity, the position of the tongue, and the position of the throat. For example, try playing anything on your horn using the same mouth and throat position as you would use while pronouncing the sound “eeeee” with your voice. Now, without moving your jaw, try playing your horn using the same mouth and throat position as you’d use to make the  “oh” sound. Experimenting with different vocal sounds while playing the horn is what allows us to control the tonal characteristics of our sax playing. To make the overtones happen, whether you’re aware of it or not, the voicing has to change.

Other Resources for Learning About Overtones and Voicing



And that brings us to…

The end! So go, practice your overtones, get the sound and flexibility you’ve been searching for, and make your neighbors truly hate you!

(Learn more about Ricky Sweum at Click here to purchase Ricky’s music)

Category: Best of the Blog, Best Saxophone Tips and Techniques

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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 (21)

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  1. […] of us). We bust our chops trying to sound better all the time. Playing long tones, scales, etudes, harmonics, learning tunes, soloing over changes, taking lessons – you know what I’m talking […]

  2. Evan Tate says:

    This is an exercise that I use as well. I first learned this from Joe Allard. He also added some major extensions on this exercise over the years. The exercise also involves a technique for making the embouchure more flexible, but that can only be demonstrated per video. I hope to get around to submitting my version with video to the site.

  3. […] lately. But I’ve really been having a good time practicing the exercises from part 3 of the Intro to Overtones series and isolating some of the muscles that haven’t really developed to the extent I’d like […]

  4. […] practice will work the same muscles in your inner mouth, tongue and throat that you work while practicing overtones and playing on the mouthpiece […]

  5. […] is not done by your bottom jaw, but rather, by the tongue, throat, and inner mouth. Again, the practicing of overtones will get these muscles working for you in the right […]

  6. […] practice will work the same muscles in your inner mouth, tongue and throat that you work while practicing overtones and playing on the mouthpiece […]

  7. mrG says:

    DOH! Just realized when I set down to actually play the exercises that my previous comment was completely mis-reading your chart of harmonics; F is the FIFTH of Bb. Egad, how embarrassing. Hope you caught than and just kind of hit the delete button before Google immortalized me as a tonal dyslexic ;)

    • Hey there Mr. G,

      No need to worry about your comments, but it’s all good, you’re anything but a harmonic dyslexic. As per your request I deleted that comment.

      Glad that you got to try out the exercises, thanks so much for participating in the conversation!


  8. […] well as the altissimo register, I’ve been practicing my overtones as outlined in this article here, where saxophone awesome-factory, Ricky Sweum shares some fun and effective exercises with us. […]

  9. Mark Ewert says:

    This is exciting- I have just started playing the Sax. Is this something I should practice now or should I wait?

    • Evan Tate says:

      Well, of course you’d have to ask you teacher about this (you do have one, don’t you?). If you don’t have a teacher, I’d advise you get one before attempting to do these exercises on your own. You can develop bad habits with the embouchure if you’re not properly instructed.

      In my opinion, it’s (almost) never too early to start the practice of overtones. You must first have a good understanding about what they are first and why you practice them.

      • I totally agree with Evan. Properly learning to control the muscles involved in getting those overtones to sound will build up your sound tremendously and teach you how to get around the horn without depending on inaccurately moving your jaw all over the place when you’re moving throughout the horn’s range.

  10. Miguel Bracker says:

    Don’t forget about Donald Sinta’s book, “Voicing”. This is one of the most comprehensive and easy to understand/use books for saxophone overtones.

  11. Rob Zantay says:

    I also studied with Joe Allard, I have developed an exercise for flutes that involves playing bugel calls on the low C, C#, and D fingerings.

    • Hey Rob,

      That’s awesome that you got to study with Joe! I’d love to feature your exercise in an article on this website. If you wanted to do a quick write up or maybe get the exercise to me in notated format, that would be super-cool. I’d be happy to give you full credit and link to anything you’d want me to link to or put a little feature box where you could promote whatever you like.

      If you’re interested, hit me up via my Contact page and we’ll make it happen.



  12. Pete says:

    A teacher??? What is this teacher thing you speak of??? lol…I wish. I traded a guitar for an old beat up Conn sax, drove my pickup out in the woods, dropped my tailgate and started sqwaking and squeaking until sound came out that didn’t sound quite as much like fingers on a chalkboard. Then I started playing clubs. They still pay me, so…

  13. Rob Zantay says:

    I am putting together a Flute instruction book, one part of it concerns playing bungalow calls on a single note. I have found that by hearing the notes in your mind before you play them and by noticing how high in your throat each harmonic comes from, you can play Revalie easily on the low “c”. What this excercises teaches you is , like I singer, different pitches come from different places in your throat. By playing the upper register from the top of your throat you can play.the upper register very softly and clearly. By practicing a different bungalow call on c,c#, &D, you will find where I your throat each harmonic comes from.

  14. Hey Doron,
    I read the entire three-part intro (awesome by the way) and it hit me–I’d occasionally been playing overtones without realizing it. A few times I’ve forgotten to push down the octave key and whatever note I was playing came out how it was supposed to anyway.

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