Playing Tips: Saxophone Basics

The Basics of Saxophone

Regardless of the type of saxophone playing you want to do — classical, jazz or rock ‘n’ roll — the fundamentals of good tone and technique are the same.

Tone and Embouchure:
A good tone is established when there is a balance between the embouchure and air pressure. The steps for forming the saxophone embouchure are as follows: top teeth rest on the mouthpiece, approximately a half-inch from the tip. (If the vibrations are bothersome, place a mouthpiece patch on top of the mouthpiece.) The lower teeth are covered by the red portion only of the lower lip, in order to provide a cushion for the reed. The lower lip should meet the reed approximately where the reed first meets the facing of the mouthpiece. (Look at your mouthpiece from the side to find this point, which varies depending on your reed strength and mouthpiece combination.) The corners of the mouth are brought forward to create a rounded feeling. (Pronounce the syllable “Vu” to feel this.) While playing, the lower lip supports against the reed, while the bottom teeth are held slightly lower. The mouthpiece enters the mouth at a slight upward angle. If you are a woodwind doubler, be advised that the saxophone embouchure and air is different from that of the clarinet. Remember also, to adjust the neck-strap, bocal and mouthpiece accordingly, so that the instrument comes to you. For more detailed information, consult The Art of Saxophone Playing by Larry Teal.

Air Pressure:
The smaller the saxophone, use higher air pressure (faster air) and less air volume. The larger the saxophone, use less air pressure (slower air) and a larger volume of air. The type of air used is one of the prime differences from clarinet playing. The saxophone uses warm air. To test if your embouchure firmness and air pressure are in balance, blow on your mouthpiece alone using a tuner or keyboard to check your pitch. The alto saxophone mouthpiece should blow at a concert “A” directly above the treble staff. Working to be consistent at this mouthpiece pitch will improve your overall intonation and tone quality. Also, it will contribute to your ability to listen and play in tune. I suggest taking the mouthpiece off several times in the course of a practice session and check the mouthpiece pitch. Also, hold the mouthpiece pitch out for as long as you can, maintaining a steady sound while keeping the dial on the tuner from moving. The mouthpiece pitches for the other saxophones are as follows:

  • soprano saxophone blows a concert “C” directly above the treble staff
  • tenor saxophone blows a concert “G” directly above the treble staff
  • baritone saxophone blows a concert “D” fourth line on the treble staff

Note: if you are playing with a “jazz sound” then your mouthpiece pitch should be at least a half step lower or maybe more, depending on your embouchure. However, the mouthpiece pitch should still be consistent.

Jazz Tone Concepts:
If you are playing on a jazz mouthpiece and are desiring a brighter, more cutting tone quality, there will be alterations to the basic embouchure. These might be more mouthpiece in the mouth or less lip covering the reed. The air pressure will more likely be less and the volume of air more. These changes will bring your pitch down, so you will push in the mouthpiece further on the bocal to compensate. While every player has their own sound, classical or concert saxophonists have a fairly standard concept of tone quality. Jazz and rock `n’ roll saxophonists have a wider range of tone qualities that would be acceptable. Listening to players you admire, experimenting, recording yourself, and years of experience will lead you to establish your desired tone quality.