9 Tips for Beautiful Ballad Playing

Long-time followers of this site might have seen my article from some years ago with a list of essential ballads to have in your repertoire. I know there were also a number of excellent suggestions of songs left off the list as well.

The truth is, there are thousands of great songs flying around, so no list or real book will ever include everything.

I thought it might be nice to add some tips to approach playing some of these musical treasures and improving your all-around playing at the same time.

1. Listen, Listen, Listen

Have you picked a tune you want to learn? One of the first things you can do is to listen to as many different versions of it as you can.

If it’s a standard song, this should be very easy to do. Not only will this help you internalize the song at hand, but by reducing the song material to a single song and comparing different versions, you’ll also grasp some valuable knowledge of the jazz tradition and also develop your language, style, and your ears. You’ll find that Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Phil Woods, Michael Brecker, and Joe Lovano all take very different approaches to the melody and harmonies of any given tune, and these contrasts will give you lots to build from. And don’t forget to listen to non-saxophonists too!

2. Respect the lyrics

If you’re picking a song from the Great American Songbook, it will likely have a great set of lyrics to it. Make sure to check these out, as they will help you to know the meaning of the song and can give you a guide to how you phrase the melody. It’s said that the great tenor player Lester Young wouldn’t play a single song he didn’t know the lyrics to!

3. Listen to singers

This is a bit of a combination of tips 1 and 2, but many instrumentalists neglect to listen to singers – and so many of those singers were masters of phrasing, nuance, sound, and narrative. Always remember, the goal is for us to sing through our instrument, so what better way than to go to the source? And obviously, this is a great way to hear those lyrics too!


You can’t cover up a bad sound on a ballad, so use them to really showcase your sound on your horn. In fact, I’ll often play a s-l-o-w ballad to warm-up my practice sessions instead of doing long tones. And make sure that you’re playing the song in a register that allows you to express yourself as clearly as possible. Remember, you can transpose the song to another key to put you into a more desirable register if that helps you find what you’re looking for. For example, ever heard Coltrane’s version of “In a Sentimental Mood”? He plays it in Db Major (concert), a full major 3rd down from F Major, where we are used to hearing it. This allows him to play the melody in the upper part of the horn, which gives an amazing expressiveness to this version. And if you find yourself in the low register, use the opportunity to explore your subtone!

5. Think “across the barline”

Unlike a bebop head such as “Ladybird” or “Confirmation,” which is basically a set of notes and rhythms that are usually played pretty verbatim, ballads give you the chance to slow things down and really stretch your phrasing “across the barline”. Check out how the masters do this in your listening and experiment with what you can do yourself.

6. Play the song at every opportunity you get

Anytime you take on a new tune, seize every possible opportunity to play it with other people, either in rehearsals, jam sessions, gigs, or wherever you find yourself playing. Playing a tune with different people will always give you lots to chew on, since everybody you play with will take a different approach to it. If you don’t have people to play with, find a good play-along version that you can use.

7. Get inside those harmonies

One of the first things I do with any tune is sit with it at the piano. Even if your piano chops are limited, this will help you really get inside the harmonies (and improve your piano playing, which is essential for any improviser). And if you’re at the level to start working with chord substitutions, ballads are a great place to explore this knowledge, since they leave plenty of space for you stretch things and really hear how they work.

8. How straight do you want to play the melody?

This ties back to the first few tips… There’s lots of room to embellish a ballad melody, but it’s certainly not a requirement to do so. If you don’t own it already, do a YouTube search on “John Coltrane Ballads Album” and you’ll hear how he tends to embellish the ballads he plays. Then, compare that to the fancy embellishment that Ben Webster uses on his luscious take of of “All the Things You Are,” from his album with Art Tatum. Explore both extremes and everything in between as you get more confident in your playing.

9. Create melody and explore the space

Ballads are not the place to show you much you can play. Instead, create melody, and show just how little you can play. Think about leaving space for the others playing with you to be heard. As Thelonious Monk would say, “Make the people you’re playing with sound good!”.

Learn with and Listen to Sam

Sam Sadigursky is currently offering online lessons through Skype and private lessons in NYC. He has given improvisation clinics across the U.S., is a regular guest professor at Hunter College, and currently performs internationally with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Folklore Urbano, and others. He has written multiple etude and duet books which can be purchased here. His albums can be purchased at http://samsadigursky.bandcamp.com. To find out more, visit SamSadigursky.com.