Taming The Saxophone vol2Vol 2: Beginners’ Impro – Pop, Rock & Blues

The eagerly awaited sequel to Volume 3 and Volume 1 is now available. It is a theory book with simple but interesting playalong tunes.Not your typical complicated yet somehow boring jazz theory.

Starter Pack deal: Beginners’ Downloads Free!

Just buy any book and get the Beginners PDF Downloads (150 pages) automatically included FREE!

You Ask the Questions

If you have any questions, please ask. The only stupid question is the one you are too scared to ask. The Cafe Saxophone forum is the ideal place for beginners to ask questions and get helpful answers.

Unlike many FAQs aimed at marketing, these are real questions from real people.

Keep them coming!

Why does a saxophone squeak?

Squeaks (or “chirps”) are usually caused by a note sounding an overtone or harmonic when you don’t mean it to. Although squeaks can be caused by a bad embouchure, the commonest cause is a malfunctioning reed, mouthpiece or a leaks somewhere. See Saxophone Repairs

What is a leak and how do I fix it?

A leak happens when something on the saxophone such as pad closing is not an airtight seal. The symptoms are squeaking (see above) or notes not sounding properly and generally a feeling of resistance. A good indication of a leaking saxophone is when you suddenly find you can no longer play a low note pianissimo.

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What is the best saxophone to buy?

Tough Question. It used to be that the best student instruments were made by Yamaha and Jupiter, this is now changing and there are now many other good makes available at a very reasonable price, but you should beware: although some are extremely good, many are very bad. It is best to get a teacher or experienced player to test the saxophone before buying it. Don’t be tempted by the $9 – $200 saxophones on eBay from the far east, it may cost more to return for a refund than the saxophone is worth, even if you can get a refund.

If you buy a saxophone via mail order you should take it to a good repair person to check it over and set it up to play properly.However there have recently been some extremely good saxophones from China and Taiwan, but it’s worth paying just a little bit extra to buy from an online store with a guarantee and no quibble returns policy than many of the eBay sellers. You should also expect the saxophone to need a little setting up by a repairer (same applies even to top of that range horns bought via mail order) and probably a better mouthpiece, e.g. Yamaha 3C or 4C) See: Saxophone Buying Guide | Saxophone Reviews | Recommendations

Why do saxophone players need chords?

Very simply, we can think of chords as more than one note sounding at the same time. We all know what a melody or tune is, and we play them on the saxophone. And of course the melody generally only has one note at a time. However in most jazz, pop, blues, rock etc. there are other notes in the backing (whether instrumental or vocal) that form chords or harmony. Often (but not always) the chords may change as the melody progresses. When this happens we call it the chord changes (noun), the  chord  sequence or the chord progression. On sheet music you will see chords written as chord symbols under the melody (e.g. C, D7, Am7 more on that later)

If you are not intending to improvise and just want to play or sing melodies, you never really need to know about chords, although knowledge of harmonic theory is always useful. But when you improvise, or maybe just want to embellish the melody, then it is important to know the harmony going on underneath in order that the (single) notes you play fit nicely with the mulitple notes (chords or harmony) that are being played or sung at the same time.

With a typical jazz or blues song, the melody is played over the chord progression. Then the chord progression is repeated while different players improvise over that progression, and then return to the melody at the end. The opening melody is referred to as the head, the repeats of the progression for improvising are called choruses, and finally the head is played again to finish off.


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How should I organise practice sessions?

It’s a good idea to practise in several short concentrated sessions rather than one long session in which your mind is wandering. Unless you can train yourself to concentrate for long periods of time, try splitting your practice sessions into three roughly equal parts:

  1. Technique (scales, arpeggios, patterns)
  2. Sound (Tone exercises)
  3. Tunes & improvisation (This can include just noodling around)

It might be useful to just do 5 or 10 minutes of each then take a break and come back to it. The important thing is to stop practising once you lose concentration: less time spent on concentrated practice is better than more time spent practising when your mind is on other things. See: How to practice

What strength reeds should I use?

This often depends on the mouthpiece. Generally a mouthpiece with a wide tip opening needs softer reeds than one with a narrow opening. Some people use harder reeds (3.5 – 5) to get a louder sound, however with practice and proper use of the diaphragm it is also possible to play loud on softer reeds, with the added advantage that you will get more flexibility of tone. Wide vibrato and note bending becomes easier. I use 2.5 reeds with a 125 RPC tenor mouthpiece. See: Saxophone Reeds

Should I put my bottom lip over my teeth?

It depends on the person. There will be different opinions about what you are “supposed to do”. It would be best for you as soon as possible to get a good teacher, who can understand both the finer points of the way you wish to play/sound, as well as being able to help you adapt “correct technique” to your individual requirements based on your physical makeup. A good teacher will look at your jaw structure (eg is there an overbite or underbite?), teeth size and shape, possibly also the dimensions and position of tongue, etc. My preference is to either push the lower lip forward, or have it vertically upwards in front of the teeth (not over them) for harder and edgier styles/sound. Both of these techniques require careful building up of the lip muscles. See: Saxophone Embouchure

What is the best mouthpiece?

I believe the best mouthpieces for beginners and intermediate are Yamaha (standard) or Fobes Debut. On tenor a slightly larger tip is better, so I would say for alto a Yamaha 4c, but tenor a 5c. Once you get to know a bit more about your set-up however it might be worth trying some other mouthpieces. Our own PPT brand are not really suitable for absolute beginners although the alto 5* is a very good upgrade from a 4c or Fobes. See: Saxophone Mouthpieces

How far on the cork should the mouthpiece be?

Far enough on for the saxophone to be in tune. Don’t worry if the mouthpiece needs to be pushed right on the cork (provided it doesn’t interfere with the octave key on the neck) , or is close to the end (provided it isn’t dropping off and there is no possible leak if it is too loose on the cork). The actual amount may vary even on the same saxophone if you try different mouthpieces.

What is the best ligature?

Very often the one that comes with the mouthpiece. Some people think that the ligature can affect the sound. I’ve never noticed this if the ligature is working properly, though one of the flexible type ligatures will sound better than a distorted or ill fitting solid metal type. If the table is concave (or heaven forbid) convex, or if the reed is warped, then some ligatures will work better than others with those specific parameters, and may therefore give you the impression that ligature A is generally better than ligature B, or that each ligature has its own “sound.” See Saxophone Ligatures and this short video

Does lacquer or plating on a saxophone affect the sound?

Probably not at all. The material a saxophone is made from has very little bearing on the character of the sound. Small changes in bore size are much more likely to affect the way that the air vibrates in the saxophone. Different materials may have a more substantial effect on the sound of the mouthpiece. See: Does Material Matter?

How do I stop pads sticking?

Unless the pad or tone hole has a serious problem, common or garden sticking pad syndrome can be cured by application of lighter fluid. Do not use talcum powder, WD 40, or any proprietary remedy, many of which are rip-offs and will only cure the symptoms temporarily, while making the problem worse in the long run.

Sometimes it is necessary to strengthen the spring. You can make your own tool for this: break the lead off a pencil and use it to hook the spring out and retention it, but if in doubt get a qualified repairer for this.

Why is a saxophone woodwind, when it is made out of brass?

Due to changes in instrument technology, the terms for categories of instruments such as woodwind or brass no longer refer to the material. Originally woodwind instruments were all made of wood, but the more important defining factor was the method of sound production, which involves a vibrating reed. (Yes, even on a flute the lip/tonehole edge are actually acting as a reed).

It was discovered that wood was not the defining factor in the sound, and at some stage both flutes and clarinets started to be made from brass with very little (if any) difference in sound. Metal clarinets are quite rare today, but were very useful for military bands in countries that had hot or humid climates that would cause wood to crack.
Brass instruments have a different type of tone production, which involves “buzzing” the lips into a cup shaped mouthpiece. Again, they do not need to be made from brass – the earliest forms of brass instruments were made from animal horns.

These days both woodwind and brass instruments are made from other types of metal and plastic, but they still keep their characteristic sound due to the tone production process.


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