Rhythm & Blues Saxophone

What is R&B Saxophone?

Rhythm and Blues Saxophone Player Walter Kimble
Walter Kimble in Paris by Lionel Decoster

I really didn’t want to define rhythm & blues but I was sort of forced to do it when putting the vast page of R&B players together. Maybe it would have been easier to make it a list of rock & roll players, but then I would have needed to define rock & roll. As with so many genres, R & B was originally a 1940s marketing term and referred to dance music marketed ostensibly to a black audience. Before the term was coined, this music was referred to as race music which became a politically incorrect term. R & B grew out of various styles, including boogie woogie and the urban blues of the 20s and 30s. In the 40s it includes jump blues and blues or riff based swing. R & B is very much a main (or only) ingredient of rock and roll, in fact there are several 40s R & B recordings of the 40s which are contenders for the title of “first rock and roll record”, before the term rock and roll was first used as a genre. In many ways there is very little to differentiate rock and roll from R & B, apart from the marketing concept that the music is no longer primarily or exclusively aimed at a black audience.


Later in the 60s the term became more ambiguous as it would include the new style of blues influenced music which was pioneered in England by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It then became applicable to the soul music of the 60s and funk music of the 70s, and then again in the 90s it took on a whole new meaning. However the players and the music I want to highlight here are from the 40s and 50s, what I call the classic or golden era of R&B.

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My list of players (and I’m still receiving suggestions) could be endless, so in some respects I’ve had to be brutal. I would like to have included more of the bluesy jazz players such as Lou Donaldson, Hank Crawford, Stanley Turrentine, Leo Parker. In fact some of the players I did include were very fine jazz musicians and may prefer to think of themselves as such rather than primarily R&B players, but in the end I decided to include players who were either out and out R & ” Screamers and Honkers”, or blues jazz players if they also worked as session musicians on R&B records, or if their jazz recordings fitted firmly into how we think of an R&B record, e.g. a dance groove with a solid back beat or boogie feel, so somehow, Roland Kirk managed to slip in there! Neither did I include players who predominantly made their mark in the 60s and later, e.g. Jim Horn, Steve Douglas or Edgar Winter but I have included Junior Walker as he was around and out there gigging in the mid 50s as a very young man.

What differentiates R & B and jump blues from much of the swing jazz of the era could be an emphasis on raucous showmanship, whether it’s using the extreme ends of the saxophone range, ie screaming (altissimo) and honking, or bar walking. However many of the players we think of as gutbucket screamers and honkers could also turn out a lush ballad or tasty bebop solo.

Can Anyone Play Rhythm & Blues Saxophone?

There are plenty of blues and R ‘n’ B resources on this site, and plenty of saxophone resources too. Rhythm & Blues on the saxophone, however, is very difficult to teach. It’s not that conventional technique and music reading skills make it any less possible to be a blues player.

Neither does not being able to read music or limited knowledge of theory make it any more or less likely you can play the blues. It’s also the case that being down on your luck and having an empty bed are not automatic requisites of being a blues musician, but it probably helps to have a broad experience of life and it’s ups and downs.

One important thing though is that if you do have a phenomenal technique and knowledge of music theory, you may need to temporarily sideline it to be a good rhythm & blues saxophonist. I think of this as “putting on a different hat”. If you can do this then it doesn’t matter even if you are classically trained musician, the blues is still something you can learn. One thing you may notice from listening to some of the great rhythm & blues and rock and roll players such as King Curtis, Lee Allen and Sam Taylor is the ability to express as much or more with one note as many jazz musicians can with a hundred. This is as much to do with an intangible attitude as it is with musicianship and knowledge of the style. It is very difficult to teach, but I believe it’s possible to learn it.

How do I play blues on the saxophone?

The quickest way to play improvised blues on the sax is learn the minor blues scale and just play it, preferably in fragments (ie phrases) rather just running up and down the scale. This will get you through a 12 bar chorus adequately, but as soon as possible after that learn how to use melodic phrases, riffs etc instead of relying on scales (especially the minor blues scale which gets boring very quickly). You need to listen to what you play as you play it, think of those fragments as language: words, sentences, questions, answers. Also explore the tone and sound effects you can get from your instrument: shouting, whispering, crying, moaning, laughing – one long soulful bending note can take up several bars of a blues solo.

Listen to, learn and transcribe improvised solos – start with simple ones that aren’t too challenging – and don’t just stick to saxophone players – listen to blues and jazz singers – try to phrase the way they do.

To play blues properly, it helps to experience the blues. This can’t be taught and it’s not even something you can or would normally choose to experience. The next best thing is to listen to a lot of blues and rhythm & blues. The saxophone does not feature in early (country) blues, which is predominantly a guitar and vocal style, but became very important in later urban developments: R&B, jump blues, jump jive etc.

As with blues guitar styles, it’s useful to think vocally on the saxophone, so it’s very useful to master a wide range of expression, especially the note bending, growling and other effects.

There are plenty of useful blues licks, riffs, phrases and chords on the jazz part of this site (see below), but I’ll be adding some specifically for the saxophone very soon. It is useful to learn the pentatonic and blues scales, both major and minor, but remember these are just a means towards an end – it’s not good to use theme too much in their scale form: it’s best to use them as a reference for inventing melodic fragments, riffs and licks from which to build a focussed, articulate and truly emotional blues solo.

There are loads of blues licks and scales on these pages:

Blues Licks and Phrases
12 Bar Blues Chords

There are plenty of useful blues techniques in the effects section of the saxophone pages, and some blues theory, licks and scales on the Jazz, Rock & Blues pages (follow the links from the main menu at the top of the page).

Rhythm & Blues Saxophone
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