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John Laughter

John Laughter began playing saxophone in 1956 after hearing Clifford Scott’s solo on the hit record, Honky Tonk by the Bill Doggett Combo. Other inspirations followed; Lee Allen and Grady Gaines (Little Richard), Herb Hardesty (Fats Domino), Sam Butera (Louis Prima), Sil Austin, Plas Johnson, Johnny and the Hurricanes, Billy Vaughn and The Champs. John began playing nightclubs in 1958, spent the summers of 1959-62 performing in Virginia Beach, Virginia nightclubs and continued to perform while in the United States Air Force (1963-1967). In 1973, he graduated from the University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida with a degree in instrumental music education and taught public school band for ten years. While in college, John performed in classical, pop and jazz ensembles including jazz concerts with Don Ellis, Maynard Ferguson and Dizzy Gillespie. John continues to perform with a variety of musical groups in Macon, Georgia. His bands have performed on stage with The Temptations, The Four Tops, Chubby Checker, The Drifters, The Platters, The Tams, The Swingin’ Medallions, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, The Shirelles and Ray Charles.

John is the author of “Rock & Roll Saxophone-2nd Edition”, “Contemporary Saxophone” and co-author of “The History of Top 40 Saxophone Solos-1955-2005.”

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Created: July 29, 2007
Update: October 15, 2007


In SOTW Blues, R&B, Rock n' Roll Saxophone Teaching Resource series:

Sound Effects for Saxophone - Part III

by John Laughter


The term subtone refers to the technique of playing with soft tone on slow songs and is a technique used mainly in the lower register.

If you are familiar with Plas Johnson’s tenor solo on The Pink Panther theme, you will hear this tone in the beginning when he plays the low notes. Stan Getz was also noted for his beautiful subtone approach on tunes such as Girl from Ipenema and Here’s that Rainy Day. Other classics include Danny Boy by Sil Austin, Pete Christleib’s tenor solo in Unforgettable by Natalie Cole, and Boots Randolph’s version of The Shadow of Your Smile. Paul Desmond also had what some refer to as a fuller subtone approach on alto. Indeed an excellent saxophonist with a classic tone. Another outstanding master of this technique on tenor was Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

I do not know when this technique was developed, but it was very popular in the big band era, remained popular during the 50s and 60s, especially on the slow Top 40 hits, and still can be heard today in many forms of sax music.

We are all familiar with what I refer to as the “marching band” sax sound in the lower register when the player produces a rather loud honking tone. The subtone, on the other hand, is usually a soft, warm, whisper type tone although it can be used with a lot of volume. The subtone concept can be used in all registers of the horn and in up tempo music but is generally associated with the low register of slower tunes.

A few suggestions to get started:
1. Assuming that all of the pads are leak proof, play a low G.

2. Bring the lower lip back over the bottom teeth so that more upper skin below the lip line area is pressing gently against the reed. Depending on the width and thickness of your lip, you may need more, or less, of the skin below the lip line against the reed. If you have a wide lower lip, this can work to your benefit. If you have a thin lower lip, more meat on the reed from the area below the lip line may be needed for a cushion.

3. Take a little more m/p into the mouth and relax the jaw more than you would normally do in your standard embouchure setting. However, keep in mind that some teachers disagree about “relaxing the jaw.” It works for some us but perhaps not for others so keep an open mind.

4. Play the G. Relax and do not blow hard. Play a soft, yet full tone. Keep adjusting the lower lip until you are getting a little mix of air around the corners of the mouth with the tone. Not a lot of air (which is optional), but just enough to make the lower jaw and corners of the mouth relax. If you can’t produce a little air around the corners, do not be concerned because it is not needed to produce the subtone. In place of that, you can add some air in your tone which is fine since many players prefer a mix of air and sound to make it sound sweet for the general effect.

5. Play G to F and hold the note long. Keep adjusting and think “whisper.”

6. Now G to F to E and so on.

7. When you get to low D and C, the note may crack and jump an octave. This tells you that you need more lip over the teeth and to relax the jaw. Some players will “lift” the horn slightly on low D and below to take the pressure off the lower jaw. It all depends on what works best for you.

8. Repeat this over and over. G to F to E to D to low C holding and maintaining a soft whisper tone.

9. Once you began to get good control of it, you can adjust the volume, corners of the mouth, amount of lip in the mouth, amount of air/tone mix, etc. to develop your own subtone quality.

This is, by no means, the only way to approach the subtone. Some players will take less mouthpiece into the mouth for subtone. It may take a bit of experimenting to see what works best for you.

Subtone is a technique that that is well worth learning. These notes will help you to get started. It is a technique. If you need more info about a CD that covers the subject please send an email to [email protected]

Links for the subtone:

John Laughter: Rock & Soll Saxophone

Alternate Fingering

Alternate fingering can be used to obtain a "double tone" (trumpet like sound effect with the mute on and off the bell) effect that is popular in a lot of solos. It also is called the "doo-wah" sound.

Some examples:

1. Play a 3rd space C then finger a Low C with or without the octave key back and forth.
2. Play a high A then close and open the right hand D, E and F keys at the same time.
3. Play a 4th line D and maintain the fingering while opening/closing the left D palm key.
4. Play a 3rd line bis Bb then finger a low Bb with or without the octave key back and forth.
5. Play a 3rd space C# then to the low C# fingering with or without the octave key back and forth.

The small variance of intonation between the two notes make the effect more pronounced. (You can also get a little split octave on C, C#, D and Bb without the octave key by relaxing the jaw.) Add some “ghosting” (gently lay portions of the tongue on and off a lot of the reed while producing a note) as you go back and forth to add color.

Alternate fingerings can be used to help when speed and clean fingerings is needed, especially in classical or fast jazz passages;

To play a first space or fifth line F to F# trill, finger F then press the alternate F# key that is located under the right palm with the 3rd finger. Or, to play F to F# to G real fast or G to F# to F, use the F# alt. key with the 3rd finger. This will help stop the “crossing noise” that is usually produced by uneven fingering that is common with fast F to F# to F fingering. The same key can be used to play E to F to F# in a fast passage.

Four Basic Fingerings for Bb

1. B and A keys with the bottom side key of the 3 keys under the right palm.
2. The first finger of both hands, B and F.
3. The B key with the bis key (pearl key between the B and A keys) both pressed with the left pointing finger.
4. Low Bb fingering with the octave key.

To make a smooth and quick change from F to Bb, use the bis key.  Finger F then release all fingers except the B key and bis key. Or go from F to Bb by fingering Bb with the first finger of each hand. Play F then raise the G and A finger. To go from B to C and stop the “crossing noise” play B then press the middle key of the 3 palm keys under the right hand, i.e. the side key above the side Bb key.

Middle C to D can also present a problem with crossing noise if you have a rapid passage back and forth. Some players will leave the right hand D, E and F keys down when going back and forth from D to C real quick. This eliminates a lot of key action and noise.

Another link for alternate notes;

John Laughter: Rock & Soll Saxophone

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