Lately I’ve been asked by other saxophonists how I am able to play notes below the normal range of the saxophone, which, as just about anyone reading this would know, is the low Bb, below the staff – especially since there don’t seem to be any keys on the instrument which would appear able to get you down the low, so please note that all of these notes are played using the standard fingering for a low Bb.
I do have to admit that I, myself, am new to this register at the moment. For a full year, I couldn’t get below the low A, but over the past six months, using the spare time many of us musicians find ourselves with during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been able to final play beneath that low A.
Now, it’s not as though I figured everything out over the past year and a half. I was working for twenty years on other things which helped give me what I needed to extend the range of the horn all the way down to F# below the staff.
One of the reasons I started working on low register more seriously is my latest project, a sax and drum duo, JZ Replacement. I wanted to play some bass lines under the drum solos, while also getting as many as possible colors and effects to make the project more interesting.
There a few things which make it possible to extend your low register.
1) Use a Mouthpiece with a Large Tip Opening
If you have a 16th opening like me, you will need very light reed. I use Vandoren 1. Most of the time it’s still too hard, so I have to resurface the reed. I use Vandoren Resurfacer and simple sand paper. It’s not an easy thing to do, as different parts of the reed control different parts of saxophone. Plus, there is a certain amount of variation between all reeds. Truth is, you will be half-guessing most of the time.
As for the opening size of the mouthpiece, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything bigger then 10. I reached out to a few companies to ask for 12 opening, and they were quite slow to respond, and those who did told me that I don’t need it because nobody else uses such a mouthpiece. There is also the matter of the prohibitively high price that I would have had to pay in order to get such a customized mouthpiece.
I recommend SYOS for these types of mouthpiece “experiments”. They can create a custom mouthpiece quickly without any fuss, and it’s cheaper than some other brands which offer a similar result. However, it could take some time to get used to a mouthpiece with such a large tip opening.
I played a 12 for about 2 years, then a 14 and, now, I am up to a 16th. I kind of prefer 14th, as its more even through the whole register, although you can’t play low F# on it. But there’s nothing wrong with using different mouthpieces for different occasions and even different tunes.
I also enjoy playing a Nadir Ibrahimoglu “Cresent” metal mouthpiece when want some other colors. I asked to resurface it, so now it’s a 9 opening. You can still play low A on it.
2) Develop a Flexible Embouchure
Your embouchure should be very flexible, as you need to really relax your lips and make them more circular while blowing “straight” from your upper throat to get those low notes, while at the same time being able to quickly change the pressure on the reed to move between those notes.
You also need to change the pressure on the reed when going to a higher register of your saxophone. And for those times where you need to apply the higher pressure, you need to be relaxed. Everybody has a different embouchure, so the way you change it for certain notes will vary, but it has to be very flexible.
Plus it is also helpful to play different mouthpieces regularly as well as different reed strengths. For the last 3-4 years, I have 2-3 mouthpieces which I regularly go between. I sometimes change them within the same tune. I don’t know the mouthpiece on which you can play “everything”. And by “everything”, I mean all of the tonal “colors” possible. But it’s nice to enjoy some colors by playing on one mouthpiece, and then switching to a different mouthpiece to make available some other colors.
Also, playing different articulations really helps with embouchure. Transcribing Sonny Rollins and writing down all his tonguing helped me. In fact, as a rule, when transcribing, it’s good to really pay attention not only to the notes, but on articulation as well. The reason these great solos sound so amazing is not because of the notes, but because of the way they were played.
So, don’t worry about getting down the notes, get down the articulation, which includes learning the breathing, tonguing, and rhythm of the phrases.
3) Consider Making Modifications to the Saxophone Itself
To make things easier in this part of the horn, I opened all my keys very high to allow more air to comes out of the instrument. I was aiming for a bigger and more even sound. But this change required that I use a bit more pressure from the lower lip to hit the low Bb, and for the notes below the Bb, the lower you go, the more you’ll want to relax the lower lip.
As a side note, I also have my own developed my own key system, which will make it easier to get around those lower notes in terms of manual dexterity (for example, moving quickly from from B to Bb or from C# to Bb). I have a separate video on this key system, so follow me on Youtube or Facebook to make sure you don’t miss videos like that one.
Those are the main “secrets” of playing those low notes. If anybody is interested in more detailed explanation, please feel free to message me via my Facebook page for private lessons on any of the techniques described in this article.
Lastly, here is the video where you can see me playing those notes below the saxophone’s “official” range, and talking about how to play them.