The saxophone has one of the most distinctive solo sounds of any instrument. When you hear “sax solo” you might first think of jazz music but sax solos also have their place in rock (think Dire Straits’ Your Latest Trick), blues (maybe Coltrane Plays the Blues), pop (how about Lady Gaga’s Edge Of Glory) or even hip-hop (with Beastie Boys’ Brass Monkey).
Playing a great saxophone solo is not just about the sound of the sax. Like any great improvisation it requires a combination of imagination, musical intuition and well-trained ears.
In this tutorial we’ll take a step-by-step approach to learning to improvise well on sax. It’ll cover you whether you play a B♭ or E♭ sax i.e. soprano, alto, tenor or baritone . We’ll assume you know the basics of the instrument and some music theory fundamentals like chords and chord progressions and build from there to fully-fledged jazz solo techniques.
Saxophone Improvisation Basics
Before we dive into the specifics of sax, you should take a look at these previous articles about improvising to understand how improvising works:
Now here’s the first big tip which you shouldn’t rush past: don’t try to improvise in every key! At least not to begin with.
Pick just a few keys you’re going to use in your practice. Or even just one key to focus on at first. You can choose ones with a simple key signature for simplicity or choose them based on the tunes you want to learn to improvise on.
Now learn the scale for those keys. Scales are an improvisor’s bread and butter, you need to practice them up and down, back and forth, fast and slow, legato and staccato. Play them until they’re second nature and you don’t need to think about sharps or flats, your fingers just fly.
Practice jumping from the root of the scale to each note in turn, playing each of the intervals from the tonic. Then do the same from the second note of the scale to each note above it. And so on.
Next learn the arpeggio of the root chord – this is easy, it’s the first, third and fifth notes of the scale you’ve been practising. But then do the same for the IV chord and the V chord.
Use the Circle of Fifths to practice with arpeggios, running through a sequence of fifths, starting with the keys you’re focusing on and then playing all around the circle.
With these arpeggio exercises you can start with a simple single-octave version: just jump down an octave when you need to, to stay in a playable range. Then move on to playing a “full range” version of the exercise by always jumping down to the lowest version of the note you can reach, and arpeggiating up as high as possible.
Now you’re ready to start improvising!
Blues Saxophone Improvisation
Blues are probably the simplest and most common genre to improvise on. There is enough structure to give you an easy framework to choose your notes, but not so much you get overwhelmed by theory and chord changes. Blues is also an ideal stepping-stone to jazz improvisation.
There are three things you need to know about improvising saxophone for the blues:
1. Blues Chord Progressions
The most classic blues tracks follow a standard 12-bar blues progression, or a variation using the I, IV and V7 chords. The progression of those chords create the song’s musical journey and for your solo to sound good it’s got to follow those chords.
Learn how to recognise a 3-chord song and play by ear using chord tones and you’ll be off to a good start. See how this connects with the circle of fifths and arpeggio exercises we were working on before?
2. Blues Scales
Your solo is going to sound fairly bluesy if you just use the basic major scale for the key and follow the chord tones of the 1-4-5 progression. But to really nail it you’ll want to use the right kind of scale.
Explore the minor pentatonic and blues scales and then use the notes of these scales along with the chord progression when choosing what notes to play in your blues sax solo.
Experiment with your scales over some blues in your background. Learn about seventh chords and play around with adding that seventh note to your arpeggio-based improvisation.
3. Blues Bends
If you’ve been playing sax for a while then you’ll know that one of the best ways to add expression to your playing is with slight pitch bends on your notes. You do this by adjusting your embouchure to loosen and tighten slightly.
This fits right in with the blues and especially if you combine it with the idea of “blue notes”: notes which are slight pitch variants of the notes of the scale, thrown in for the sake of expression.
Use these three tips and you’ll be playing blues-y sounding solos in no time. If you need more help check out this great list of saxophone blues transcriptions from tamingthesaxophone.com.
You’re ready to start your saxophone improvisation career! In the next part of this tutorial we’ll be moving on to jazz sax improv, so make sure you practice these fundamentals and get comfortable with what we’ve covered so far – and I’ll see you next time!
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