5 Tips for Playing Rock and Roll Saxophone:

1.      Be comfortable playing all the voices in the saxophone family

Note: Many rock bands prefer alto sax to the others in their music, most likely due to its solo voice and range.  However, you may be asked to play background parts (or solos) on tenor, bari, or soprano.  It would not hurt to have decent flute chops as well.  Naturally, the style of music often dictates what sax you will use, and how you will use it.

2.      Make yourself useful when not playing sax.  Earn your keep.

So what do you think you are going to do when not playing the other saxless 90% of the band’s tunes?  Can you play harmonica?  What about offering your services on auxiliary percussion?  Can you help run a soundboard?  Can you sing backup?  If you are only useful for playing one solo on one tune, the band may wonder if it’s worth having you around, dipping into their profits.  While you don’t want to be thought of as just a half step up from a roadie, you need to convince them you are a valuable addition to the band.

3.      Have a good command of the blues

The blues are a starting point.  Learn your blues scales IN ALL KEYS, and be able to put together a reputable solo in a blues/rock style.  Bands will frequently begin an “audition” by hearing you play the blues with them.  Even if you are not joining a blues band per se, you can always incorporate blues licks in most anything you are asked to play.

4.      Be prepared to work out and write your own parts.

So now you’re in a band and you’ve been asked to play a popular tune from the radio that uses sax.  You say to them, “Great! Can I have the music?”  After they look at each other blankly, they turn to you and collectively start laughing.  Remember, there are many guitar players who don’t read music.  Many others read tabs, and still others only read chord charts.  It is up to YOU to be able to give them what they want; either by learning something by ear from repetitive listening, or by working out the part yourself.  Even if it’s an original work from a band member, you can offer to create a background part they would be proud to have in their song.  There is no reason you cannot be a participant in the creative process, again, making yourself an invaluable member of the group. 


Okay, now for the most important tip:

5.      Be sharp or get flatted.

When I was a high school kid, I had a brief membership in a local garage band.  I remember asking the guys in the band if they could please transpose their songs to Bb or F; it was too hard for me to play in 49 sharps.  Need I tell you their response?!


Understand this: Guitar players play tunes in C, G, D, B, A, F, E minor, A minor.  Better string players have an expanded key bank.  What does this mean for you?...




If you are an alto/bari player, your go-to keys are going to be A, E, B, G#, F#, D, C# minor, F# minor.  That’s 3 sharps, 4 sharps, 5 sharps, 6 sharps and one double sharp, 6 sharps, 2 sharps.  A tenor/soprano player is in D, A, E, C#, B, G, F# minor, B minor.  For you that is 2 sharps, 3 sharps, 4 sharps, 7 sharps, 5 sharps, 1 sharp.  Yikes...


“So many sharps I could open a knife store!”


You could be a rebel and refuse to play in some of those keys.  For instance, instead of cutting yourself and bleeding to death by all the sharps in G# major, why not play in its enharmonic brother of Ab? (4 flats).  Turn your back on C#, and give your life to Db (5 flats).  Wave goodbye to F# and greet Gb (6 flats).  Even though F# has as many sharps as Gb has flats, many sax players have an easier time thinking in flats versus sharps due to their concert band music upbringing.   Lots of flats can be challenging too.


“There’s more flats in this piece than a semi-truck driving through a nail factory!”

Great quotes; don’t remember where they came from though.


Growling is the technique done to create a raspy, gravelly tone that was popular in the 1950's and early '60's.  It is done by either humming or singing while playing the sax.  You have to blow harder and growl loud enough to produce the tone, because the humming or singing reduces the air required for a big sound.  

A CAUTION ABOUT GROWLING: Growling is very hard on the throat.  It is a sound you may wish to work toward gradually, or use it sparingly.  But if you are playing in a sock hop-'50's style band you have no choice but to get used to it.  Again as mentioned above, if you are new to growling, do not jump in head first; work up to it.  Your throat will appreciate it!

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