8 Things You Can Do Today to Instantly Pump Up Your Saxophone Sound

Pete Christlieb
Master of the PHAT sax sound, Pete Christlieb
Photo by Jimmy Emerzian ©2007 downbeatphoto.com

You know the saying, “you can never be too thin or have too big a saxophone sound…”

Ok, well maybe that’s not really a saying, and maybe there is such a thing as being too thin (hey, I live in L.A., I know these things).

But seriously, just about every single set of eyeballs reading this article is attached to the body of a saxophonist eager to supersize their tone. Of course, we all want to sound pretty, but that prettiness needs to have some hefty (yet precisely controlled!) sonic mass behind it. Aside from having an attractive tonal color, a great saxophone sound should effortlessly fill up a room without the need for the saxophonist to be popping a vein in her neck, blasting the horn with hurricane-force air blasts.

We all aspire to be that saxophone stylist whose tone is flush with the entire harmonic spectrum, low lows to high highs, the frequencies delicately balanced to form a sublimely enrapturing sonic ambrosia.

Yeah – that…but with BALLS!

With all of that said,, here is, as advertised, my list of 8 things you can do, today, that will leave you walking out of the practice room able to boast of a sound bigger and stronger than you had when you walked in.

1. Overtones

For those of you new to the concept, overtones are basically alternate fingerings for notes that generate a louder and more resonant, albeit harsher, sound on the horn (newbies can get themselves up to speed with this article). But once you start moving up through the range of the horn, some of these overtones become quite difficult to play consistently. Truly mastering the overtone series forces you to develop control of the muscles in the mouth and larynx that allow you to enlarge and focus your sound in a MAJOR way.

The trick is to keep working towards matching the size of the sound of the normally-fingered notes to that of the overtone-fingered notes. Of course, that will be like a dog chasing its tail, since the bigger your normally-fingered sound is, the bigger your overtone sound will be, so your normally-fingered notes will never match the volume and resonance of the overtone fingerings. But there’s a ton of growth available in the chase.

You can find some great overtone exercises with sheet music and audio examples here.

2. Practicing on the Mouthpiece Alone

As much as it may torment those sharing a home with you (not to mention your neighbors three blocks away) playing on the mouthpiece while it’s detached from your horn is another killer workout for your chops, and really, for your sound-producing capabilities in general. It’s basically another way of exercising the same muscles that you exercise when you practice your overtones, since you don’t have the convenience of those pearly keys to control which note you’re actually shooting for.

Try playing some scales or arpeggios on the mouthpiece, but don’t cheat and use your lower jaw to change pitch. Instead, use what Joe Allard refers to as your “inner embouchure” to make these notes happen, and you’ll find that your powers of tonal production have been officially supersized!

More details on this hideously-sounding-yet-massively-beneficial practice can be found here. Want some more mouthpiece-only exercises as taught by Joe Allard, himself? Then hop on over here.

3. Roll the Lower Lip Out

There are two basic schools of embouchure. One, espoused by many classical players and teachers (most notably, Larry Teal) involves playing with the bottom lip tucked into the mouth The other approach involves playing with the bottom lip rolled out – or ideally, laying naturally under the reed, positioned the same way it would be if you were simply speaking. This method is most popular with jazz players, although it was taught by sax teaching legend, Joe Allard, who taught both jazz and classical saxophonists.

In my experience, the lip out method produces a noticeably bigger sound.

A good rule of thumb is to make contact with the reed using the fleshiest part of your lower lip. This way, the reed can vibrate as much as possible while you use the least amount of pressure necessary to hold the mouthpiece in place.

If you’re used to playing with the lip rolled in, playing with the lip out will take some getting used to, as the sound will be harder to control at first. But hang in there, it will definitely be worth the temporary awkwardness.

More on this topic here.

4. Practice Your Long Tones (duh!)

I don’t really need to go into too much detail on this one. In fact, you’re probably all sick of hearing teachers telling you to do these, but long tones are crucial for tonal control. To get the most out of these, practice fading in from silence all the way up to fortissimo and then back down to silence. For bonus points, practice doing this breathing only out of your nose, as this will really work your embouchure muscles as you go through your long tones without a break.

Still dreading the boredom of long tone practice? Here are some approaches to long tone practice that will make playing them a heck of a lot more fun.

5. Play Using the ‘EEE’ Sound

Coming back to our man Joe Allard again – here is a method he taught which is counter to what many of us have been taught. Most of us have been instructed to blow through the horn keeping in mind the “AAH” sound. But as I explain in this article, the “AAH” sound causes you to lift the tongue, which blocks off the passage of air from the throat and out of the mouth. 

The “EEE” sound, on the other hand, forces your tongue down towards the bottom of your mouth, leaving a much larger passage for the air to travel through, thus making your sound that much heftier.

6. Avoid Tension While Breathing

For this tip, I’m going to be lazy and simply rip off a few paragraphs from my instructional program, Bulletproof Saxophone Playing (sorry for the somewhat shameless plug, but bear with me, this is good stuff).

Here is a great snippet on the topic of breathing, as shared by one of the program’s teachers, Alexander Technique master, Bill Plake.

If you watch the people who breathe beautifully, what you’ll notice is what they don’t do. You won’t see them tighten their heads down on their spine and throwing their heads back. You won’t see them tighten across their shoulders, you won’t see them holding across their chest trying to force their stomachs out. What you will see is you see the whole torso expanding in all dimensions.

It’s a three dimensional movement – as we breathe in, our torso gets longer, it gets wider, and it gets thicker from front to back. The whole torso, not just the tummy, everything; let the entire torso move.

One person who had extraordinarily good breathing was Michael Brecker. If you watch videos of him playing, you’ll notice that when he takes that in breath you don’t see him bearing down on himself, you don’t see him losing his stature. You see him maintaining his stature and the same thing when the air is coming out, you don’t see him launching down into his gut to push the air out. You see him maintaining his stature.

Another saxophonist with masterful breathing was Charlie Parker. In fact, watch Charlie Parker in general if you want to see someone who leaves himself alone when playing the saxophone.

7. Practice Proper Articulation

Most of us think that mastering articulation equals having superb control of the way individual notes begin. But solid articulation has the added benefit of bolstering your sound in a major way.

For example, if you’re tightening your jaw every time your tongue attacks a note, that means you’re cutting off precious air. To make matters worse, many of us have a habit of moving our throats when we articulate, which cuts off the air as well.

To delve deeper into what I’m talking about, check out this article here.

8. Forget About Finding Better Gear

It’s funny since I’m not really a saxophone gear head (as anyone who’s emailed me asking about a specific brand of vintage horn or mouthpiece can tell you), but even I love trying out new gear to hear how it affects my sound. If you listen to me trying out a bunch of horns and mouthpieces at NAMM 2013 in this video, you’ll see that while there are differences from horn to horn and mouthpiece to mouthpiece, those differences are not totally radical.

At the end of the day, you’re going to sound like you. Maybe you with a slightly brighter or darker or softer or louder or whatever sound, but to the average listener, you’re almost certainly going to sound like the same sax player.

The point of having the right saxophone gear is to help get you to the inevitable sound of YOU as effortlessly as possible.

So let’s all just agree now, there’s no substitute for putting in the time necessary to get that big and beautiful sound, regardless of which horn or mouthpiece you’re playing on. No magical horn, mouthpiece, or reed is going to swoop in and transform a frog into a prince.

What’s important is that you have in your “mind’s ear” the precise sound that you’d like to produce, and learn to shape your sound until you reach your sonic target.

You can read more on this hot topic here.

Off You Go!

So now that you know what to do, you have no excuses. Well, you probably do have some excuses, but I accept them with great hesitation!

But seriously, if you’re tired of hearing your sound dwarfed by the guy or girl sitting next to you in the section, then pick up the tools I’ve shared here, and if you have used any or all of these tools, leave a comment below and tell us about it!

Until next time…