Sound Wisdom for a Striking Saxophone Tone

This guest post is from Randy Hunter of

When you think of great saxophone players, you know, guys like Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderly, and John Coltrane, probably the first thing that comes to mind is their sound. Even though their playing may contain unique harmonic and rhythmic components, the mind seems to embrace the tone quality of each one’s musical voice. Similarly, your tone quality provides perhaps the most lasting representation of your playing. In this article, I’ll offer an overview of the things I feel are most important in developing the tone quality that defines you as an individual player.

Before we advance, it is important to realize that unlike your musical voice, which includes vocabulary, the use of inflection, phrasing, and the way you assemble your musical ideas, tone quality is simply the sound that comes out of the sax. The tone, however, is the most fundamental component of your musical voice.

The Evolution of Your Tone

Unlike many instruments, there is no specific norm for jazz saxophone tone. This means that the most important part of developing your tone is having a solid conception of the sound you are looking to produce. You develop this conception by listening, both through recordings and live performances, to top notch players. Realize that you are not looking for a sound to simply reproduce; you are looking to build a mental auditory image of the sound that represents you. Another important thing to note is that your tonal conception may change over the years, so the sound you develop in your 20’s may be completely different from the sound you play with in your 50’s.

Gearing up for Greatness

The equipment you play also has a big impact on your tone. The most basic component here is your choice to play either alto or tenor as a primary instrument. Other factors that come into play are your reed, mouthpiece, and ligature choices. Rather than go into specific detail with recommendations for equipment purchases, I’ll just mention that you should experiment with different brands and models of saxes, try many different mouthpieces, and experiment with reed brands and strengths. It’s also important to become educated regarding these choices by consulting with your private instructor and taking advantage of the ample internet resources.

Shedding your Way to Awesome

Your practice routine and mentality are the final factors in finding your saxophone sound. If you read and participate in the saxophone forums, you’ll likely hear the chants about long-tones and overtones. These are absolutely fundamental components of developing your sound, so continue practicing them. Articulation also plays a major role in the presentation of your tone, so be sure to include articulation exercises with your long-tone practice.

Eyes on the Prize

Most importantly, maintain focus on your tonal concept any time you play your sax. You can listen to great music, have the best equipment, and practice long-tones an hour a day, but without a focus on the sound you are looking for, you just won’t find it. Conversely, if you stay centered on the sound you are looking for, over time you’ll learn how to do the things needed to achieve it. Remember that your tonal concept is likely to evolve over time, but so will your ability to adapt and control the factors that influence your saxophone sound.

Study with Randy

Randy offers a series of online jazz lessons and beginning sax lessons in podcast format. He also offers personalized lessons by email, in addition to private lessons in his studios in the North Atlanta area. Visit his websites at and, or drop him an email at for more information..