11 Tips for Making Your Saxophone Playing More Expressive and Soulful

Maceo Parker
Photo by chauletb

The definition of the word, Soul as defined on Dictionary.com:

the emotional part of human nature; the seat of the feelings or sentiments.

When it comes to music, it’s been my experience that the sound of a human being singing tends to touch the average person’s heart more than any other sound. Because we all relate very intimately to the sound of a human voice, its innate ability to express the emotional part of human nature is indisputable.

That said, there’s no doubt that the saxophone is one of the most vocal sounding instruments in all of music. For this reason, the sax shines like crazy when it comes to romantic ballads or when soloing in an R&B band – among many other musical situations where the quality of “soul” is highly exposed.

Discovering Your Inner Cannonball

Of course, we must always strive to play with as much feeling as possible, but even when done well, blazing through rhythm changes at 300 bpm doesn’t always convey a deep emotional feeling aside from that of an adrenaline rush. On the other hand, wailing over a slow blues is much more likely to touch people’s hearts instead of just their heads – especially if those people are not musicians.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion, but my guess is that many of you will agree. So if we want to increase this quality of soul and strengthen our ability to bring listers to tears, I believe that there are things we can do besides simply waiting for life to kick us in the a$@ so that we have something to wail about. I believe that we can hone certain skills so that when it comes time to express those powerful emotions we have engrained in our consciousness the techniques necessary to get those emotions across in the most powerful way possible.

Vocalizing Your Sound and Pumping Up the Soul Factor

1) Bend your notes wisely.

Remember when you first learned how to scoop notes? For most of us, as newcomers to the instrument, the tendency is to overdo the bending and scooping. Try to imagine a singer scooping a ton of notes, and the phrase “looney tunes” comes to mind, as that singer would sound downright kooky. On the sax, over-scooping may not cause your loved ones to commit you to the local mental institution, but it definitely communicates that you are an amateur (even if we actually are amateurs – ouch!).

Here’s an excellent example of highly expressive yet tasteful bending of notes by  Charlie Parker on KC Blues:

2) Practice conscious vibrato.

There are countless approaches to vibrato and I could probably write an entire article on this subject alone. There’s the approach of holding the note out straight for a moment and then vibrato-ing with slightly increasing intensity into the release of the note. Used by players from Dexter Gordon to David Sanborn, this is an extremely common approach to vibrato in jazz and jazz-related music.

If you go back to the swing era, you’ll hear legends such as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster opt for a wide vibrato which kicks in almost instantaneously when notes longer than a quarter or even an eighth note are being held out.

At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong way to use vibrato, but I would recommend at least being conscious of how you’re using it, so that it becomes a more accurate representation of what you’re trying to convey, as you’ll have yet another dimension to add to your powers of expression.

Check out Ben Webster’s flawless and highly influential vibrato technique:

3) Don’t forget about dynamics.

Dynamics are a great way of adding elements of depth, drama, and storytelling to your playing. Granted, there are some great players out there who don’t make much obvious use of dynamics, Coltrane being an example (just my opinion, don’t shoot). But his approach of playing at a mostly loud volume was his method of deep self expression.

However, if, unlike Trane, we’re just blaring blindly along through every tune, we may very well miss an opportunity to take our listeners on a compelling ride. For example, we may want to calm our listeners into a mellow trance, and then work our way up to a swift kick in the pants.

But regardless of how we use dynamics, the possibilities of this tool are endless when it comes to deeply hooking our audience. So again, no right or wrong here, but I simply suggest that you ask yourself whether you’re simply playing at a volume that’s become a comfort zone, or if you’re actually using dynamics for the purpose of authentically expressing yourself.

Antonio Hart takes us on a melodic journey by sprinkling softer passages into a rendition of a ballad which he’s playing here at a mostly louder volume:

4) Start and stop notes in style.

To make the saxophone really sing, we need to notice the way we attack and release notes. Do we want to slap the reed and play that horn like a drum, a la Maceo Parker or Phil Woods? If we’re playing funk, or if we’re playing a ballad and want to momentarily shock people out of their seats, then a hard attack is how it’s done. On the other hand, we may want our sound to pipe in gently, like Stan Getz or Paul Desmond.

And when it comes to releasing our notes, we can do as many of the greats do, and vibrato our way right out of a note, or not. We can end our notes quietly, or with a little bit of dynamic life as we release.

No matter how you do it, finding your way of attacking and releasing notes will take you one step closer to making that horn truly sing.

Here’s an example of alto titan Phil Woods using varying types of attacks and releases to make a tune truly come alive:


5) Get some sound effects under your belt.

Growling, flutter touguing, slap tonguing, half-tonguing, overtones, split tones, altissimo are a few of the sound effects which we sax players can use to augment the saxophone’s natural power of expression. I’m not going to attempt to summarize what all of these effects are (fyi, the hyperlinked ones I’ve included here do have their own articles), but I will say that while sound effects are, by no means essential, they can go a long way in getting people to feel deeply and dance heartily.

If you’re looking to add some killer sound effects to your playing, you might want to check out a great book on the topic, reviewed here.

James Carter takes saxophone sound effects to a new level in this short clip:

6) Learn the lyrics.

Of course, this only applies to playing tunes that were originally written for voice, such as jazz standards, blues songs, R&B, rock, etc. Knowing the words gives you insights on ways to approach the rhythm and phrasing of the tune, as each syllable has its own characteristics of timing and attack.

More importantly, delving into the subject matter that inspired the song can serve as a springboard off of which to apply your own experience and emotions. Knowing the lyrics will do wonders in bringing out soul that wouldn’t have emerged otherwise. If the song is about love lost, you can, instrumentally-speaking, “tell a story” about the guy or  gal who ditched you on your birthday. If it’s a happy song of joy, you can think of the time your first kid was born.

It’s kind of like what actors have to do when turning on the tears for a scene. The technique is that they think back to a really sad event, and the more they can conjure up the feelings of that sad time, the more powerful their performance is going to be.

Of course, you can totally ignore the lyrics and create your own totally unique approach, but the art of translating lyrics to instrumental melody is almost essential to anyone who wants to be a great saxophonist.

Why David Sanborn is a true  master of blurring the line between singing and playing:

7) Practice playing back phrases from your favorite singers.

I’ve actually already described a sax-centric version of this technique in a previous article. What you do here is simple.

Put on a recording of a favorite singer, find 2-4  bars that particularly speak to you, and practice playing that same melody on your horn, using the same note-bending style, vibrato, attacks, releases, and dynamics. In other words, do whatever it takes to get your horn sounding like your singer.

If you want to get extra fancy, you can record yourself playing the singer’s phrase, and play back the recording of yourself, and quickly stop the recording of yourself and switch to the recording of the singer, and keep doing this, going back and forth between the two recordings. This will give you a clear picture of how close you’re getting to that singer’s phrasing and power of expression. If you have a mixer, it’s even easier, as you could put yourself in one channel, the singer in another channel, and simply cut back and forth between the two.

8) Tell a story, paint a picture.

I actually touched on this concept in #6.

It’s funny, but today I heard songwriter Glen Fry on the radio talking about how he tells students in workshops something along the lines of “nobody cares about your feelings – paint a picture, tell a story.”  I love this sentiment! What’s the point of simply conveying to the audience, “I feel happy!” or “I feel disappointed.”

So when playing, whether we’re interpreting written music or improvising, it’s good for us to use things like rhythm, melody, inflection, dynamics, vibrato, attacks, releases, etc to paint a musical picture. It might start lighthearted and go dark before ending in joy (not a very unique story arc, but it’s just an example). The point is, once you become invested in your story, your natural soulfulness will flow through you and directly into the hearts of your listeners.

Michael Brecker takes on a harrowing but triumphant journey on this solo from Chick Corea’s classic album, Three Quartets

9) Get inspired by listening, watching, and reading.

Expressive and soulful playing is a natural outgrowth of one’s powerful inspiration to make music. Of course, we all know that listening to as much music as we can possibly digest is key to gaining inspiration. And by listening, I mean, not only to sax-centric music, but to as many different styles of music that we can open ourselves up to.

But I believe that there are other ways we can become inspired, especially in this day and age when we have so many resources available to us than we ever had before. I often find myself lost in the world of YouTube, checking out all sorts of amazing performances that would have been lost to me otherwise. I’ve also watched documentaries on great musicians which left me with a burning desire to get on the horn and start shedding away. And what about reading a biography or autobiography of one of your favorite musicians? All of these are totally inspiring activities for me.

For more on the topic of getting inspired, check out this article.

10) Be here now.

Studies have shown that people who are the best in their field (athletes, musicians, business people, etc) actually have a smaller number thoughts passing through their brains while they do their thing. It’s kind of like how a computer gets extremely sluggish when you’ve got a bunch of programs running carrying a hefty multitude of tasks at once. Just like the computer, a bunch of processes running at once makes us slow and sluggish, and when that happens, we’re out of the flow, and are forced to rely on our brains rather than our intuition.

We all know that there’s nothing that zaps the soul out of our playing faster than thoughts such as “where should I get my car washed later today” or “why did I say that to her? that was really dumb.” So clear all of that garbage out of your mind before you start playing, maybe by doing some simple meditation, or at the very least, learn to remind yourself to put the focus on the music once your mind wanders. When possible and practical, I’d even advise taking care of whatever’s troubling you before you get on the instrument.

11) Play as though it were your last time ever playing the horn.

Hey, you never know, none of us are promised tomorrow.

So now that we’re all thoroughly depressed, I just wanted to mention this concept, since the thought of someone telling me, “better enjoy this since the horn goes bye bye forever after this tune” is a pretty powerful one. It would almost definitely snap me out of whatever might be distracting me, and get me deep into “the zone.”

David Liebman shows us what it means to put one’s entire being into their instrument:

The Wrap Up

While it’s true that generating musical passion is not something that we can rehearse in the practice room, I do believe that it is a good idea to familiarize oneself with all of the tools available so that we can release the soulful and expressive artist that already lives inside of us.

And for those of you who think it’s impossible to have soul until you’ve gained a certain amount of life experience, I invite you to think back to your time as an adolescent. You want to talk about a ton of heavy emotions swirling about your consciousness? Right there is a gigantic storehouse of feeling, so don’t let anyone tell you that you need a couple of divorces, a bankruptcy, and a balding head of gray hair to have soul.

I’ll even take it a step further and say that you don’t necessarily have to be extremely advanced on your instrument to express yourself soulfully. Even if you can only play five notes, but you play those five notes with the conviction of spirit-filled Sunday sermon, then you’re going to have more musical power at your disposal than someone on autopilot zooming flawlessly up and down the horn.

As you can imagine, simply reading this article isn’t going to put true soul in your playing. But hopefully, you will find yourself with heightened powers of authentic, soulful self-expression after  putting these concepts deep into your brain, and in some cases, even the practice room.

So what do you think, did I miss anything, does this resonate with you?