Subtone – what is it?

Another Kind of Blue

Harlem Nocturne

Imperial (Midnight in the Naked City)


Polkadots & Moonbeams

See: Midnight in the Naked City CD

Subtone could just as easily have come under the Effects section, as it is often no longer considered a part of normal tone technique as in the old days. This is a particularly soft way of playing, but is a technique in itself rather than just playing quietly. The sound is usually fatter, warmer and less edgy. It can sometimes have a sort of “fluffy” or breathiness to the sound. Great jazz saxophonists who have used this include Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges and Paul Desmond.

Taming The Saxophone vol 1 - tone without tears
Taming The Saxophone Vol I - Tone Without Tears. All the tone exercises on the site and lots more Buy Now

It really comes into it’s own in the very low register, especially when played very breathily, but it often takes a lot of practice to extend the subtone down low. It is also crucial to make sure that your saxophone has no leaks, although I recently read that Ben Webster thought the leaks were an important part of the sound. I think leaks could well contribute to the breathiness which is often present (or rather more apparent) with a subtone sound.

What happens when you play subtone?

Below are three audiofiles and the corresponding audio waveforms.

You can see that by using the tongue some frequencies around 1000hZ are increased. So by using legato and by NOT articulating the first not with the tongue, then the effect is softer. You can see from the fulltone that many more mid and higher frequencies are present

saxophone subtone with legato
Subtone legato

Subtone Legato

saxophone subtone with tongue
Subtone tongued

Subtone tongued

saxophone full tone
Full tone (no subtone)

Full tone (no subtone)

Practising subtone

Before practising, listen carefully to what it sounds like played by the greats, get that sound that you are aiming for into your head before you try it.

  • Play a comfortable note in the lower register, e.g. G
  • Relax your jaw
  • Take slightly less of the mouthpiece in your mouth

There is a fine balance between relaxing your jaw too much (so the note flattens) and relaxing it enough. Once you are comfortable with this note, practise the following exercises to extend the range downwards. These use the note G as a starting point, you can vary this upwards to make the exercises more demanding as you get used doing them. You should play these legato as well as tongued. For a cool jazz ballad try articulating f instead of the conventional tu. You can hear this effect in the example above, Nowhere in the Night.

saxophone exercises subtone

saxophone exercises subtone

saxophone subtone

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