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Part 1

by Ian O'Beirne

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Part 2 next


I have created this consolidation of saxophone basics in order to clue beginner players into the mass of information involved in saxophone and wind instrument playing in general, and to explain some facets of playing that even intermediate and advanced players may not be aware of.


"High is low, low is high, fast is slow, and slow is fast."


The fingers should be arched over the keys. For example, rest your hand on a flat surface and relax it. Note the curvature of the fingers. This should be exactly how your fingers look on a saxophone. The biggest problem finger is the left hand ring finger which even professionals tend to keep straight. With regular attention to arched fingers, these problems will be eliminated.

The purpose of arching the fingers is to be able to move faster and with more fluidity and relaxed motion. Remember, when we relax, ideas flow faster and thus notes come faster into the horn, whether improvised or practiced. The purpose is also to conserve motion. The fingers should be moved from the first joint, where the finger connects to the hand, with as little pressure as possible. Try not to move the second joint or even worse, the third, as these apply great pressure that is wasted energy and impedes free-flowing motion. In extreme cases, such squeezing can put your mechanism out of adjustment!

Always rest the fingers on the keys when not in use. If you are playing a G and are going to go down to a low C (4 right-hand fingers), they will only move fast enough if they are relaxed and all lying directly in the keys. There is no need to slap the keys down from 5 inches away. On the contrary, a very light, quick motion should be used.

In reference to the finger position I will note the only known video of Charlie Parker. He flies up and down the horn with rhythmic and melodic virtuosity but his fingers barely move! This is a result of constant practice and attention to minor details; if his fingers were slapping the keys very hard, he would not be able to move that fast with such fluency.

There are certain aspects of technique that are problems for most saxophonists but overall, can be easily fixed. For example, the horrors that sometimes occur in fast passages involving middle Bb and the surrounding notes. A simple knowledge of the four fingerings of Bb, the two fingerings of middle C, the various false fingerings of the surrounding notes, and the many "trick" ways to move between the octave without noticeable quality change can help you to eliminate these problems. I will not get into details because there are many resources that can help you in regard to technique.


There are three parts to the saxophone tone: edge, core tone, and shadow tone (some have different names for these but I find these to be the easiest to remember). By playing a low Bb very loud up against a wall, you may be able to hear a second octave F (the perfect fifth + 8) in the background. This is an overtone. If you play an open tip mouthpiece with a soft reed, you will have more edge and thus more overtones. Edge is characterized by a "buzz" in the sound such as the sound of David Sanborn or Michael Brecker, who are probably the finest edge-tone and overtone players. Core tone is the regular tone of the saxophone. If you play a closed mouthpiece with a harder reed, the core tone is brought out and the edge nearly disappears. This style was more popular in past years, with players such as Paul Desmond and Cannonball Adderly in the spectrum of dark, core players. The shadow tone can be heard audibly in the background on very low and very high notes, and is very hard to hear specifically because it is masked by the core tone. However, without the shadow tone, the instrument would not sound much like a saxophone anymore. Play just the mouthpiece off of the sax (no shadow tone: duck call!) and then put it back on the sax and play. You should hear a tonal (as opposed to a pitch) difference.

The tone starts in your chest cavity and the shape of the chest cavity largely affects the beginning of the tone. Next the oral cavity, probably the most important aspect of the "wideness" of the tonal waves, and then the mouthpiece which is the "projection chamber" and speeds up the air flow. The mouthpiece is to the tone much like the gun powder is to the bullet. And if you'd like to take this analogy further, your oral cavity and chest cavity are like the factory where the gun powder is produced! Finally the saxophone itself, which, surprisingly, has the least bearing on tone quality. The sax mostly affects intonation (how well in tune one is) and whether the tone is "covered" (low Bb with octave) or "wide" (open C#), or covered and wide in general. The sax itself also affects shadow tones which has commonly attributed qualities of "darkness" and "brightness."

Use breath support (detailed below) and always make sure that the oral cavity is open and relaxed, like when you say "Aahhh" in the lowest baritone note you can sing in tune. Sing this note with a tight oral cavity, and then relax it again. The sound quality of your voice should immediately improve and become more present once the oral cavity is relaxed (think Pavarotti). The same applies to saxophone. Be sure the tongue, when not being used, is flat in the bottom of the mouth.*

To develop fine tone you must consider all of the above things and what follows.


It is amazing how many players ask "What is breath support?" and have been playing their whole lives by just letting the air into the instrument. This would be similar to a digger just dropping the shovel into the dirt and expecting it do efficient work and to have control over it.

Breath support basically uses the same muscles used to go to the bathroom, frankly. The abdominal and back muscles are used as well as the chest cavity itself. When one takes a large breath for a long passage, one should inhale first into the lower abdomen and quickly fill up into the chest cavity. This can be practiced, and should be done in the shortest time possible. The abdominal muscles are chiefly used in pushing the air out of the body. A good way to practice breath support is to take a walk. In one step, fill up the chest cavity with air. For the next ten steps, push the air out in an equally displacing pressure so that the pressure is constant. At the eleventh step, let out any leftover air and then breathe in again and repeat. This will help you to develop control of these muscles.

ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS support from the abdomen when playing. Even if you are playing softly, the air still needs to have sufficient pressure behind it to have any tonal control. Those who have intonation troubles and transition problems will notice that their intonation immediately improves once they support and blow the air into the instrument. Don't think like you're blowing through it (physically impossible once the tone starts) but like you're blowing as hard as you can at a target right at the tip of the saxophone bell. Good posture is an incredible plus because it expands the chest cavity and abdomen and allows for larger breaths to be taken and greater air support to be used. Thus, regular exercises and stretches in the abdominal and back regions will greatly improve breath support.


The embouchure is probably the most misused set of muscles in saxophone playing. Most beginners think of a vertical pressure (bite or close to it) but this is NOT the correct way to picture it. Instead visualize a mostly HORIZONTAL embouchure that is also somewhat CIRCULAR. Primarily, the corners of the mouth are used. The best example of this is whistling. A great exercise to work out the embouchure is to first make the biggest smile you can, severely over-stretching the corners outward, and then slowly drawing them in to a whistle formation. Do this 3 sets of 50 reps per day for a few months in addition to regular practice and you will be surprised at your rapid progress. However it will be fruitless if you do not apply this motion to the mouthpiece.

After this you can begin to develop the upper and lower lip muscles, both of which are used in saxophone playing, especially the lower lip. The upper lip serves mainly to secure the air pressure in the oral cavity and should NOT be bitten into by the upper teeth. The lower lip, however, serves many functions:

  • To secure pressure on the vibrating reed
  • To alter pitch in a performance situation
  • Slight pressure change for vibrato
  • To scoop, falloff (glissando), and other "tone bending" ornamentation

Thus the lower lip must be a very versatile muscle. It receives support from stringy muscles running down the sides of the chin. To exercise this muscle, push your lower and upper lips together for 10 seconds. You should feel little to no pressure from the upper or lower teeth. Make sure your jaw is relaxed. Your chin muscles may bunch up but eventually you should avoid bunching them. The lips should make a thin, straight line on your mouth. Repeat this for 25 reps of 10 seconds each, once per day in addition to regular practice, rehearsal, etc. Eventually do it twice per day, before and after practice.

When playing, the lower lip should curl up and over the lower teeth, but the teeth should NOT bite into the lower lip. This is easy in the low notes but more difficult in the high notes. For the high register, increase the corner pressure (whistle formation) to keep the pitch in the upper octave. The lower lip should merely act as a cushion to the reed. Make sure that when you play, you can see some of the red of your lower lip. If you can see none, you are either taking too much mouthpiece or too much lip into your mouth and thus rendering the muscle useless.

NOTE: You should never feel pinching pain in the lower lip resulting from biting. Biting is not an option when playing the saxophone because it can destroy sensitive nerves that are used to subconsciously fine-tune during a performance. You should, however, feel muscle fatigue after extended playing. This is a sign that the muscle is working and will become stronger.

Be sure to always "hold on from the corners". Try your best not to bunch the chin muscles, as this tends to push the lower lip deeper into the mouth. Eventually this will not be a problem.

Overall, the embouchure should be much like a whistle formation: chin relaxed and flat, and lower jaw relaxed but firm; corners drawn in to the center. Add to this whistle a slight curling of the lower lip over the lower teeth to cushion the reed, and a pressure from the upper lip onto the mouthpiece. Do the aforementioned two exercises daily and you will notice slow but beneficial practice.

NOTE: The formation of the embouchure is very much akin to sucking one's thumb. The formation of the muscles is almost exactly the same but with increased pressure on the mouthpiece (from upper lip and corners) and the reed (from the lower lip).


  • The Art of Saxophone Playing by Larry Teal
  • The Saxophonist's Journal by Larry Teal
  • My own experiences with what works best for me; 99% of what I learned from the above references works for me, so I hope it works for you too!

Part 2 next

Created: May 11, 2004.
Update: March 20, 2013
© 2004-2013, Harri Rautiainen and respective authors
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