First Notes on the Saxophone

Extract from DVD: First Notes

For Absolute Beginners

In this section on beginners saxophone we look specifically at useful stuff for beginners. However feel free to delve into the other pages. Some may be a bit advanced but others can be very useful – especially the tone section.

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Lesson 1 – “Oh No, Not Boring Scales!”

Yes, but to begin with scales are there to learn the set of notes that go to make up a tune. If you learn a tune (and even more important if you want to learn to improvise) without knowing scales you could end up with some vast gaps in your knowledge. In the first lesson I have gone beyond what you might learn in school or from a tutor. I have added some numbers underneath the scales and arpeggios.

Obviously you need to learn the names of the notes, but I suggest that you learn the numbers too, even at this early stage. It is not necessary for grade exams, but will come in very handy if you want to do any jazz or rock improvisation.

Doesn’t that make it more complicated?

Yes, but it will be worth it. You will be learning something about harmony right from the start. This will give you a feel for how the notes relate to each other instead of just learning scales and tunes “parrot fashion”. Trust me, this will help make that giant step into improvising just a bit smaller.

I am starting with G major. Although this is not as straightforward as C because there is a sharp in the scale, the range of notes is easier. It does not involve the higher or lower extremes so is easier for beginners. You must play these at an even tempo, don’t slow down for the hard bits and speed up for the easy bits.

Learn this system from the start

To begin with you should alternate between thinking the names of the notes as you play them. Think about the numbers of the notes. And when you hit that last note, hold it for as long as you can while still sustaining as even a tone as possible. So take a good big breath at the beginning. In this case (the G major scale), you would probably  learn the names of the notes and the fingering: G major scale a god start for a beginner on saxophone The good thing about the numbering system is that it is always based around the “root note”. This means that when you learn other keys, you will start on a different root note, but the number of the root note is always “1” and you will learn the relationships between all the notes. In this case you will soon think of B as the 3rd note of G major. As you apply this method to another scale, e.g. the scale of C, you will soon learn that E is the 3rd note of C, F is the 4th note, and so on.

Arpeggios vs Scales

You will notice that the arpeggio is the same as the scale but with some steps left out. This is the simplest type of arpeggio and were call it a triad because there are only three different notes in it. If you sound all the notes together on an instrument capable of playing more than one note at a time this would be called a chord of G major. To differentiate from a more complex type of G major chord with more than three notes,  we call this a G triad. G major arpeggio

If you are studying formally it would be a good idea to discuss with your tutor what I have on offer here. There may be a conflict with his/her teaching approach, or any specific syllabus you may be working towards.

IMPORTANT: It’s a good idea to have a teacher as well as following these tutorials.

More From RayL at CafeSaxophone

By RayL:

When I got my first saxophone about six months ago I found plenty of books and net information about how to attach a reed, make a tee sound, play simple tunes using just a few notes, music theory, etc.

What was missing were answers to the ‘why’ questions. The ones that are a barrier to the beginner and only become obvious once you’ve been playing for some time.

So for the benefit of any other newcomers, here are some ideas – feel free to comment.

Arms and fingers

The arms of a saxophone player stay still, unlike (for example) piano, guitar, violin, where the arms and hands all move around to find the notes. With the sax, only the fingers move (and hands a little bit). Rather than fingers going to the notes, the notes have to come to the fingers. This is why there are so many rods, hinges and little wig-wags all over the body of the saxophone. They extend the fingers to places that the fingers can’t reach.

Be careful of the keywork

If all the rods, hinges and wig-wags were put on the inside (like a piano) they would spoil the airflow, so they have to be on the outside. They are fairly strong, but they aren’t so strong that you can’t bend them if you use them to pick up the sax. Therefore pick up the sax by the bell. Yes, that puts fingermarks on the bell, but blowing down the thing means liberal amounts of spit go down there. Hence cleaning the sax inside and out is a necessary part of the fun of sax playing

How the holes and keys work

Generally speaking, the more open holes that you have on a sax, the higher the note that you will produce. One key pressed down = one pad opening. However, there are exceptions. Some holes are put in special places on the tube where they break up the airflow in such a way that only sounds an octave higher can be produced. The hole nearest the mouthpiece is such a one. It is operated by a key held down by the left thumb.

The octave key

The special trick about the octave key is that all other fingering remains the same. So if you hold down the keys needed for the note G in the first octave (the lowest G) and then press the octave key with your thumb, then G an octave higher should sound. I say should, because it might produce a squeak or a gurgle instead. This is because everything you play depends on how you hold the mouthpiece in your mouth and how you blow though it.

Different types of keys

There are more notes available on a saxophone than the number of your fingers. This means there is all sorts of fancy gadgetry to overcome this. The three keys that stick out on the left hand side near the top play high notes and are actually played by the insides of the knuckles and the inside of the palm.

Likewise there are three rectangular keys in a row about halfway up on the right hand side. These are played by the inside of the knuckle of the first finger. All of these special keys are particularly suitable for ‘trilling’ because it is easier the move the hand in and out fast than it is to move a finger up and down.

Little (pinky) fingers

Both your little fingers have got a lot to do. The left little finger operates those four keys arranged in a square. Three of them play low notes (when other fingers of both hands are holding keys down) and the fourth is a higher G# (which only uses left hand fingers).

The right little finger operates one or other of those pads with rollers which play low notes. Moving a little finger up and down isn’t too bad. Moving it sideways while the other fingers stay still is probably easiest for people who have done extensive shadow-puppetry earlier in life.

Very high notes

Not only can certain notes on the saxophone be played by using alternate combinations of keys, but various very high notes (altissimo) that Mr Sax never originally intended can be squeezed out by a combination of keys, breath control and reed control.

If nothing else, it’s helpful to know what the limits are.


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