Vibrato on Saxophone

Types of Saxophone Vibrato

Vibrato is often defined as a musical effect consisting of a regular, pulsating change of pitch, and is common with strings, brass, woodwind and vocals. This is possibly an oversimplified definition as the pulsating can also be a variation in amplitude or tone, e.g. on flute where it is much more difficult to vary the pitch in this way.

On a saxophone vibrato is usually done by moving your lower jaw up and down very slightly  as if saying “yah yah yah yah yah….”. We call this jaw vibrato and is different to flute which involves diaphragm vibrato, in which the loudness of the tone oscillates rather than the pitch.

Very often when people start out they just wobble their jaw which does result in a sort of vibrato, but not one you can control easily. It is a bit like when a novice drummer tries to play a roll, they can rapidly alternate the sticks, but without being able to control the evenness. They learn to perfect a roll by starting very, very slowly and evenly, then very gradually building up speed.

The same applies to the saxophone vibrato so the aim of this exercise is for you to be able to control the rate and depth of the oscillations. Se are going to start extremely slowly, in fact so slowly it’s not really a vibrato: it will sound like one long note that bends down and then back up again over the course of several seconds.  As you progress you gradually speed up the rate of the down/up oscillation. This takes a long time as it is very important to get the first stage as even as possible (it should be done over a period of weeks rather than days).

But to start off you must be able to hold a reasonably steady note without any wobble or “unintentional vibrato” as with the long note exercise. In the very first stages you should not be thinking of a vibrato at all: basically you are just bending the note down and up as smoothly as possible. It has the added advantage of learning to bend notes.

Vibrato Exercise

  • Start a metronome at 60 bpm.
  • Play B (1st finger left hand lower register)
  • Over a count of 4, slacken your jaw so that the note flattens by approximately half a semitone.
  • Over a count of 4, raise your jaw until the note is back at pitch
  • Stop the note.

N.B. You should try to get the lowering and raising as smooth as possible, imagine a sine wave:

slow bending of note for vibrato

It is very tempting to raise the note at a faster rate than lowering it, keep thinking of the sine wave and make sure you do not close your throat.

  • Continue on all the notes downwards and upwards from the B as with the long note exercise. Depending on the note and your lung capacity, you could do one or more cycles per note, make sure you count 4 down and 4 up.

Raise the speed gradually (eg 1 or 2 bpm) each day. When you get to 120 bpm, set the metronome back to 60 bpm and count 2 down and 2 up. When you get to 120 bpm again set it back to 60 bpm and count 1 down and 1 up. By the time your note bending sounds more like a vibrato, you should be in complete control of the speed.

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When to use Vibrato

Traditionally saxophone sections in a big band used vibrato (sometimes at matched tempi) when playing a chord, and no vibrato when playing a unison. In modern music it is more dependent on style and taste. Vibrato can be used on unisons, but only if a looser sound is needed.

When playing solo it is entirely up to the player to use vibrato or not. Sometimes it can be effective to play a note with no vib, then add it just at the end of the note (as with some singers).

To help with this try the transition exercise here.

Vibrato and Tuning

When applying saxophone vibrato, the note is lowered then raised. It may be raised slightly higher than the original pitch, but usually the largest shift in pitch is the downwards. This has the effect of making the average pitch of the note lower. Although the use of vibrato can mask poor intonation to a certain degree, you may want to take into account this averaging of the pitch downwards when tuning. One solution is to use a generally more relaxed embouchure when playing without vibrato, which would allow you to raise as well as lower the note from the starting point and keep the same average pitch.

Bending Notes

One side effect of the exercise is that you will get very good at bending notes, as the first stage is basically a note bending exercise. Once you have mastered control over vibrato, go back to the very slow tempo and develop the exercise into a note bending exercise by bending the note as far down as possible, with some notes this can be as much as a major 3rd or 4th.

Vibrato database

The Saxophone players vibrato database: compare the greats.

This is based only on a sample or two of each player, so may not be at all accurate or consistent. If anyone wants to add to the knowledge here and has the means to reasonably accurately time a player’s vibrato, please let me know. VPS = vibratos per second.

Player VPS Info Audio
John Coltrane 3.7 Naima 1959 .
John Coltrane 4.9 Naima 1966 .
Sidney Bechet 7.4 Petite Fleur 1951 .
King Curtis 5.7 Hungover 1966 .
Kenny G 6.0 Songbird 1986 .
Dexter Gordon 4.3 Shadow of Your Smile .
Coleman Hawkins 5.6 April in Paris 1947 .
Johnny Hodges 5.7 I Got it Bad 1961 .
Charlie Parker 5 My Old Flame 1947 .
Eugene Rousseau 5.7 Concerto (Dubois) 1972 .
David Sanborn 5.9 Carly’s Song .

Practising these vibrato rates

Most players may have a specific speed of vibrato that is not based on a certain number of vibratos per beat, but merely an overall speed of vibrato that is not relate to the tempo of the tune. There are exceptions but these are often contrived (for example the Glenn Miller orchestra achieved a specific section sound by synchronsing the vibratos to a set number of vibratos per beat.)

If you wanted to practice a vibrato at the same speed as any of the above players, you can do a simple calculation to find the metronome tempo required to convert the vibrato per second rate to vibratos per beat

  • VPS = vibratos per second
  • VPB = vibratos per beat
  • BPM = beats per minutes (ie how to set your metronome)

The formula is (VPS /4) x 60. This gives the BPM for your metronome so you can practice 4 vibratos per beat.

For those not good at maths (like me) here is an example to get you started:

To practise the same rate of vibrato as John Coltrane on Naima (1959), first we consider the vibrato rate per second, in this case 3.7 VPS. Theoretically we could set our metronome to 60BPM and practise 3.7 VPB because 60 BPM = 1 beat per second). However 3.7 vibs per beat would be very difficult to play along with a metronome so to make life easy we want to know the BPM for the same vibrato rate, but exactly 4 vibratos per beat. This is much easier to practise (nice!).

So we use the formula (VPS /4) x 60:

  • Divide 3.7 by 4 which gives us 0.925.
  • Now multiply that by 60 which = 56 (rounded up, ie close enough for jazz!).

So to practice the 3.7 VPS we set the metronome to 56 BPM and play 4 vibratos per beat.

Please bear in mind this is purely for reference and ease of practice so you needn’t be too exact. It is rare for a player to play an exact number of vibratos per beat, however this can be a useful way to practise and gauge the rate.


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