Saxophone tone is the crowning achievement of a passionate saxophone player. Tone can be defined as the combination of playing style, sound, and articulation that a player creates with their instrument.
Tone can be achieved through applied practice and vigorous listening. Try to listen to as many different saxophone players as possible, especially from different genres and time periods. For ideas of drastically different tone qualities, consider listening to the following artists:
- Marcel Mule
- Jimmy Dorsey
- John Coltrane
- Charlie Parker
- Stan Getz
- Cannonball Adderley
- Michael Brecker
- David Sanborn
- Kenny G
- Joshua Redman
- Claude Delangle
As you may have noticed, the artists listed above are not all jazz saxophonists! In fact, there have been many great saxophonists outside of the “jazz” genre! The saxophone was initially featured in marching bands in the late 1800s, and progressed to classical pieces within decades. The earliest jazz and blues also feature the saxophone.
Today, anything from reggae to ska to pop to electronic music feature saxophones in the limelight! Therefore, my best advice is to listen intently to the players who have mastered the musical style that you enjoy.
Intense listening and analysis is needed at this point in order to break down and understand the complexities of that Saxophone tone. When analyzing a recording or performance, pay attention to the quality of all notes. A played note has three basic components that can be heard and analyzed:
- The attack is the way the player begins a note.
- The sustain is the core of a note. It is the “middle” of note, even if it is very short.
- The release is how the note ends. An example is a long taper, like a decrescendo in a classical piece.
Also, the sound itself must be studied. Partials are the parts of a sound that create differing pitch and tone across all instruments. The partials of a Saxophone Tone consist of the fundamental tone, or base of a note, and the overtones, or higher resonating parts of a note. Every instrument has it’s own combination that gives it it’s distinct sound. This is the reason why a saxophone sounds different from a flute, or a trombone from a trumpet.
Also, in Larry Teal’s “The Art of Saxophone Playing”, he describes many terms that are often attributed to the tone of an instrument. Learning these terms will help you talk to teachers and other players about what you are hoping to develop. His book includes many additional terms and techniques about tone and other aspects of the saxophone. Useful terms about tone:
- Intensity refers to the energy that supports the sound. A professional saxophonist can provide great breath and muscle support to her instrument.
- Color is the dark or bright quality of an instrument’s sound. It may be easier to think of it in terms of the overtones mentioned before: these higher partials, when heard loudly, make a saxophone sound bright. When they are lower in volume, it sounds dampened, or dark.
- Edge is the buzzy part of a saxophone’s sound. It is mostly due to the reed and mouthpiece used.
Long tone exercises and practicing across the full range of the horn are immensely important to creating a good tone. Listen and practice: change your embouchure and breath as you experiment with different sounds. With practice and patience, you will develop better tone.