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Rock'n Roll Saxophone


By Pete Thomas

 Part One-Rules of the Road

In Pirates of the Caribbean, great importance is attached to the “Pirate’s Code,” but when it suits the dastardly Captain Barbosa, he comes up with the immortal line, "more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules."

When I was involved in the teaching of rock music, one of my main problems was using the word “rules” to apply to a style of music that has come to be accepted as the epitome of youth rebellion. I toyed with euphemisms such as “conventions,” but finally gave in and spouted the old cliché, “you can’t break the rules until you know them.”  This seemed a fair compromise, especially when I found that really what the students wanted was rules – it certainly made life easier.

The problem, of course, is that you can learn the rules perfectly, but you still might not be able to play the music. The important thing is not just when and how you use them, but when and how you break them. If that sounds pretty nebulous, it gets worse.

Yes, there are rules, but they can vary from style to style. Even if it is all called “rock & roll,” the music of pioneers like Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, all have different “rules” – and that’s before we even start to get involved with the more regional styles such as the New Orleans R & B of Professor Longhair and Huey Smith or the later rock music of the 70s, 80s and 90s. 

I played in rock & roll bands (and rhythm & blues bands- yes, it’s difficult even knowing what to call the music) for years, before I even began to understand this concept of rules that seem to change as frequently as your socks (or more frequently than that if you are on the road).

One of my main learning experiences occurred, when I suddenly got a call to join the Fats Domino band for a tour of Europe. I had toured with Bill Haley, but that was a completely different kettle of fish; there was time to learn and rehearse a set of fifteen songs. With Fats, I was suddenly catapulted into a band that had evolved over twenty years. No set list, no band parts, no rehearsals and a pool of up to a hundred songs. I had to fit into a six-piece horn section and learn the show on stage in front of the audience.

Of course, I vaguely knew some of the riffs but not the harmony parts. The first night the tenor player standing next to me (Fred Kemp) played my lines to me, the next night he yelled at me if I got them wrong. I realized (luckily) after a day or two that even though I knew what my harmony line was, something was still wrong – I was following the chord changes when I shouldn’t have. This was a left over from the more precise style of Bill Haley in which the riffs would follow and change with the chords in a more predictable fashion. With Fats’ music, which had evolved from the same roots but had stayed closer to the New Orleans rhythm & blues of the 40s, it was as if the edges were a bit more blurred. A riff might stay on the same note even though the chords would suggest otherwise, it was often hard to tell whether a note was a major or minor (see “The Thousand Note Scale”).

In the following, I am going to take a brief look at how to play rock & roll saxophone, what to play and what not to play. Much of this will be covered excellently elsewhere by John Lull, Joey the Saint, and John Laughter so I shall try to ”fill in the gaps”. Most importantly remember that I’m not giving you rules, “more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ really.”

The Rules of Saxophone Embouchure

There is a very good book called The Art Of Saxophone Playing by Larry Teal, often quoted and held in such high reverence by many players that you could call this the Saxophonist’s Bible. I’m about to say things that disagree with Larry Teal, so please look away now if this might offend you.

Larry Teal is wrong. Before you all start throwing things at me, let me say that I agree with most of what he says in his excellent book. He does, however, talk about the saxophone as if rock & roll saxophone playing does not exist (the book was written in 1963, so rock & roll was very much alive and very much kicking). I’m not objecting to the fact that he doesn’t suggest growling or bar walking. What I mind is his assertion that there is only one correct embouchure – with the top teeth on the top of the mouthpiece and the lower teeth beneath the bottom lip. As long as you follow the rules about good diaphragm support and open throat, there is no need to stick to this embouchure.

You may find that you want to use the “lip up” or “lip forward” embouchure, which means that the lower lip is not curled over the teeth, it is in front of them, possibly even curling forward. This is a very good embouchure in my opinion; it forces you to develop and use your lip muscles, there is no chance of relying on your teeth to apply pressure and risk biting. You also can combine the "lip up" or "lip forward" with a top lip over the teeth embouchure (favored by some the greats like Lee Allen and John Coltrane.

Rhythm, Feel and Groove

The rhythmic “feel of rock & roll” can be (very) broadly divided into two categories: straight and swing. This refers to the eighth notes (aka quavers).

The straight feel is where each eighth note is the same length and is derived from the Latin American rhythms.

A swing feel is where the first of each pair of eighth notes is longer than the second (exactly twice as long so giving the music a triplet feel).

Most North American jazz, swing, dance and popular music up until the 50s used a swing rhythm, but Latin American music which had a significant influence on rock & roll (and one of its ancestors, boogie woogie), notably the use of straight rhythms and a rhumba syncopation where the third beat of the bar is anticipated by an eighth note.

Once that Latin American influence was there, of course the straight eighth note rule of Latin American rhythms was broken and a rhumba style bass groove also could be “swung”.

In jazz (and popular music), it was usual for all the players to try to get the same feel, or lock into a groove. There may be a very slight difference in interpretation of where the beat landed or how much the eighth notes were swung as this added some tension to the feel, but generally they aimed to play the same rhythms. Sometimes this rule is broken in rock & roll, and straight eights are played against swung eights or triplets and vice versa. Sometimes it can be totally ambiguous whether the feel or different parts of the feel are straight or swung. (e.g. Little Richard’s Good Golly Miss Molly soundclip , 318 kB).

prev Basic Blues Chord Progressions

next PART TWO - The Rules of Riffing

Pete Thomas is a leading UK music producer, saxophone recording musician and composer of film & television music. His comprehensive website provides many online saxophone lessons and jazz theory tutorials, with links at the top of each page to audio clips, videos, biography, tutorials and resources for any musician, saxophone player or producer of modern music. His latest, multi-format, CD is "Mr. Lucky".

Pete is an active member of the Sax of the Web Forum.
Created: October 23, 2006.
Update: December 1, 2006.
© 2006, Harri Rautiainen and respective authors