A Primer in “Bluesy” Saxophone Playing
To sound bluesy on the saxophone you can go into depths of theory and get quite complicated, but you don’t have to!
This method is designed to give you an introduction to creating a bluesy sound, is aimed at both beginners and more advanced players who have no experience of improvisation.
There is an accompanying video on YouTube here:
It is important to use this video in conjunction with the lesson below, as I give lots of playing examples for each step of the method.
You can also access a pdf resource and a second, follow up video available on the SAXOPHONE Studies website.
This method is to be tried without backing tracks – a solo saxophone has a really soulful sound, so is well suited to this approach.
Use the notes, low D and F to play around with; attempt to create as musical sounding phrases as you can with only these two notes.
Experiment playing them as long notes, short notes, repeated notes and most definitely put some spaces in there – silence is essential!.
Whatever you play, the main focus is to listen to the effect that is created.
Can you hear how these two notes together create a dark, bluesy sound?
The Next Steps
In the following stages I gradually introduce more notes for you to explore and experiment with their sound. There is one fundamentally important thing to say at this stage though:
There is no time limit on each step in this method. The goal is NOT to get to the end – if you rush through to get there, then you will be missing the point!
This method is all about channelling your creativity, developing your ears and being at one with your instrument. The more time spent on each step, the better you will internalise the notes and sounds. The more this happens, the more that YOUR sound and creativity can be realised.
In recording my examples for the video, I genuinely found it a useful and creatively challenging process – and I’ve been soloing since the 90s! Often it is the most simple and broken down ways of practising that move us forwards as musicians the most.
Repeat step 1, but now with low D, F & G.
Take your time; experiment with playing short notes, long notes, repeated notes and leaving spaces.
Also, think about how the notes relate to each other and listen to the effect created when you play them next to each other. For example, D to F creates a distinct sound, or colour. D to G is a different effect.
Are you struggling to come up with rhythms, and do you keep repeating the same thing over? If you do, don’t worry, this is really common! A simple way to break out of this, is to use the rhythm of words.
Every word has a rhythm; for example, “sax-oph-one”. Try clapping that rhythm. Now try playing that same rhythm just on the note D. Now split over a few notes, like D – F – D, for example.
You can use any word or phrase to give you rhythmic content, you then just have to apply notes to it.
The beauty of this is that you will come up with rhythms that you would not otherwise have thought of. Also, if the words chosen have emotional significance to you, you will be bringing in another level of meaning to the music and getting closer to your own unique sound.
Continue as before, but now use these notes: D, F, G, G#.
This new note, G#, when put together with the others is a particularly bluesy sounding note. You will find that if you lean on it too much, it can be a bit jarring. But if you glance on and off it now and again, it can be really effective.
Technical Tip – It is worth playing up and down the notes in sequence before launching into your improvisation. It gets your fingers more fluent and gets your ears used to the sound.
Each time we add a new note, the creative possibilities expand exponentially! For example, within the phrases that you play, you can now pair together any of the following note groupings – and remember that each different note pairing has it’s own particular sound, colour or effect:
Starting on D:
- D – F
- D – G
- D – G#
Starting on F:
- F – D
- F – G
- F – G#
Starting on G:
- G – F
- G – D
- G – G#
Now use these notes: D, F, G, G#, A.
Again, play up and down the notes in sequence before starting your improvisation.
You now have quite a few notes to work with; that doesn’t mean that you have to use all of them in every phrase that you play! Remember that you made it sound cool with just 2 notes. Keep exploring different note groupings and see what extra sounds this new note can create.
In this final step you get a C, plus a D with the octave key. So, the notes that you now have are: D F G G# A C D* (*= with the octave key).
Before you embark on this final step, here’s a summary of important points to think about:
Play up and down the notes in sequence before starting your improvisation.
Use short notes, long notes, repeated notes.
Make sure that you use silence too.
If you feel uninspired, try using the rhythm created by various words.
You don’t have to play all of the notes in every phrase that you play.
This sequence of notes that we have been building up creates a D Minor Blues Scale. There is more information about what this is and why it works in the second, follow up video.
If you struggle to play with all of the notes in this scale, don’t worry! Remember, this method works with just 2 or 3 notes and there is no rush to move beyond that. You can work within your current capabilities and still practise and develop your creative playing.
I hope that you enjoy working through this lesson and that it helps you to put more of yourself into your playing and practice.
Matthew Smith is a UK based saxophonist and educator. He has been playing gigs throughout the UK and in Europe since his early teens and has a thriving teaching practice. He has recently started SAXOPHONE Studies.com to share his teaching more widely.
October 17, 2018 @ 10:12 am
You are an inspiration Matthew, a fantastic musician and teacher! Thank you for sharing your valuable tips and for your encouraging words of wisdom. You are a brilliant saxophonist and an equally brilliant educator. You give so much to so many and always with enduring patience, understanding and wit…… Thank you!
August 30, 2021 @ 10:45 pm
Very nice and simple 👌
August 31, 2021 @ 4:07 pm
Thanks Mohamed. Glad that it’s useful for you :)