Rock & Roll Saxophone

Rock & Roll saxophone players: Rudi Pompilli
Rudi Pompilli

How to Play a Great Rockin’ Solo

Many jazz saxophonists think that it’s easy to knock off a rock and roll solo, and then wonder why nobody likes it: neither a jazz audience nor a rock audience. However the concept behind it is the same. Good rock & roll is not just a string of minor blues scales or a bunch of hard rocking riffs & licks, but should be constructed the same way a good jazz solo is. This involves using tension & release, development of ideas, use of dynamics and space.

In fact the same criteria that apply to any piece of music (from Purcell to Bird) can be used. A good solo can, but doesn’t necessarily need to, have some elements of jazz (more specifically elements of swing or jump jive style jazz). For this reason I always recommend that students listen to not just the rock and roll greats like Lee Allen, Plas Johnson, King Curtis, Rudy Pompilli and Sam Taylor etc. but also their influences: Ben Webster, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Earl Bostic, Louis Jordan.

I was lucky enough to tour with some of the greats – Bill Haley, Clarence “Frogman” Henry and Fats Domino. To do the Bill Haley gig I had to learn all the original solos from the records, but It was from the legendary saxophone players in the Fats Domino band (Lee Allen and Herb Hardesty) that I learnt most about rock & roll saxophone playing


Very often the tone is the first thing that defines rock & roll saxophone. It is often a bright sound with some “growl” and other effects. Many players like to use the extremes of the range from screaming altissimo to a honking Bb.

The brightness of tone may have a lot to do with needing to play loud and be heard above amplified instruments – a bright growling sound usually cuts through quite well but there are still some great rock & roll players that prefer a mellower sound (listen to Herb Hardesty with Fats Domino).


Tenor is the usual saxophone for rock, and it makes very little difference what make. You just need a good one as with any style of music. The mouthpiece is a more important piece of kit as far as making the sound goes. For a bright sound it’s usually a good idea to have a mouthpiece with a baffle – this is a wedge shaped material in the mouthpiece between the tip and the chamber (see Saxophone Mouthpieces).

I like to use a PPT as this one allows you to really push the sound without it becoming strained, but there are plenty of good mouthpieces that will get you a bright rocking sound, e.g. RPC, Berg Larsen, Dave Guardala, Ed Pillinger, Brilhart and many others. A widish tip opening (110+) can help with loudness and versatility of tone, but contrary to what a lot of people might say a hard reed is not necessary. Being able to blow hard with good air support from the diaphragm is the most important thing. In fact Lee Allen played on a stock Selmer D that came with the horn.

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What To Play Then?

A good question. Firstly you must listen to the great players to get an idea in your head of what a solo should sound like. When you start out it is unlikely you will be able to think about constructing that perfect solo with thematic development, tension and release etc. so don’t worry. In fact that is probably the most important thing, not to worry: just blow and have a good time playing something very simple that does the job.

To begin with it’s a good idea to learn the pentatonic and blues scales (major and minor). More about these on the jazz pages. It’s a bad idea to rely on these for too long though. Yes – you can go up and down these scales and soon get by with passable solos, although they will probably be passable but boring solos.

One of the first things I noticed about players like Lee Allen and Rudy Pompilli was their ability to play one note and make it mean something. There are so many things you can do with one note – bend it, start, stop or vary the intensity of effects such as vibrato, growl and fluttertongue or just play around with the note repeating it with different rhythms and articulations. Obviously you need to go beyond one note, but it’s a good idea to never forget how useful it can be at times.

Next comes the riff. This is a simple melodic phrase that can either be repeated or repeated slightly differently. (Aha! – melodic development). There are various ways to repeat or develop an idea so let’s have a look at them:

Repeat Repeat the riff exactly. You can make this more interesting by repeating on a different beat of the bar, e.g. every 3 or 5 beats.
Repeat & adapt to the harmony The most obvious way to do this with rock and roll is to play the major 3rd on tonic chords, and minor 3rd (of the key) on IV7 chords. So in the key of C you play E on a C chord but Eb on an F chord, as Eb is the 7th of F. More on this in the jazz pages
Q & A Play a riff as a “question”, and follow it by an “answer”.
Adding When you repeat the riff, add a bit to it. You can do this adding a bit more or a different bit each time.
Transpose (or sequence) When you repeat the riff play it higher or lower, either an exact transposition if it fits the chords or adapt it slightly to fit, but keeping the same basic melodic contour.

I’ll try to record some soundclips to illustrate these techniques soon…


On a typical rock & roll gig, solos aren’t as long as on typical jazz gigs. (There are some exceptions: the Fats Domino band often have extended solos, either in the middle or end of the songs). However you will usually need to say what you have to in between one and four choruses.

If you get the chance listen to the solo on Lee Allen’s “Walking With Mr Lee”. You can hear how he develops and plays around with very simple melodic fragments, sometimes just a two note phrase. This builds in intensity towards the end of the last chorus and then resolves perfectly back into the tune.

If you are going to use any dramatic effects such as screaming high notes, do it at the end, although it can be a good idea to introduce a solo with a screamer (a la Junior Walker), but then wait till later to really go to town.

Whether the solo is one or many choruses, use the actual twelve bar blues chord sequence to structure the solo within those 12 bars. Think about how this sequence is made up of three 4-bar phrases. On a typical blues song, the first vocal line or phrase is repeated on the second four bars, and then “answered” with a different phrase on the final four bars. Of course the second phrase is often slightly different as it would have a b3 on the IV chord (see the table above). If you want to throw in a bit of clever bebop, do it on this last 4 bars – especially if the sequence has a IIm7-V7 here rather than the more basic V7-IV7

You don’t need to be an expert at music theory to play rock & roll, very often everything I have said here is accomplished purely by having good ears and a feel for the music. I learnt the basics of the chord changes by playing boogie bass lines on the saxophone. This is a great place to start as you get a very solid feel for the way the chords are made up and the way they move from one to the next. You will find this and some other approaches to the blues in the jazz pages, specifically on 12 Bar Blues Chords and Blues Riffs & Licks. It’s also very useful to learn some simple boogie on the piano.


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