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)

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

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


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)