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Rock'n Roll Saxophone


By Pete Thomas

PartOne-Rules of the Road

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

WhenI was involved in the teaching of rock music, one of my main problems was usingthe word "rules" to apply to a style of music that has come to be acceptedas the epitome of youth rebellion. I toyed with euphemisms such as"conventions," but finally gave in and spouted the old cliché, "youcan't break the rules until you know them."This seemed a fair compromise, especially when I found that really whatthe students wanted was rules - it certainly made life easier.

Theproblem, 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 notjust when and how[/I] you use them, but whenand how[/I] 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, FatsDomino, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, all have different "rules" -and that's before we even start to get involved with the more regional stylessuch as the New Orleans R & B of ProfessorLonghair and HueySmith or the later rock music of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Iplayed in rock & roll bands (and rhythm & blues bands- yes, it'sdifficult even knowing what to call the music) for years, before I even began[/I]to understand this concept of rules that seem to change as frequently as yoursocks (or more frequently than that if you are on the road).

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

Ofcourse, I vaguely knew some of the riffs but not the harmony parts. The firstnight 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 aday or two that even though I knew what my harmony line was, something was stillwrong - I was following the chord changes when I shouldn't have. This was aleft over from the more precise style of Bill Haley in which the riffs wouldfollow 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 NewOrleans rhythm & blues of the 40s, it was as if the edges were a bit moreblurred. A riff might stay on the same note even though the chords would suggestotherwise, it was often hard to tell whether a note was a major or minor (see"The Thousand Note Scale").

Inthe following, I am going to take a brief look at how to play rock & rollsaxophone, what to play and what not to play. Much of this will be coveredexcellently elsewhere by John Lull, Joey the Saint, and John Laughter so I shalltry to "fill in the gaps". Most importantly remember that I'm not givingyou rules, "more what you'd call 'guidelines' really."

The Rules of Saxophone Embouchure

Thereis a very good book called The Art OfSaxophone Playing by Larry Teal, often quoted and held in such highreverence 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 nowif this might offend you.

LarryTeal is wrong[/I].Before you all start throwing things at me, let me say that I agree with most ofwhat he says in his excellent book. He does, however, talk about the saxophoneas if rock & roll saxophone playing does not exist (the book was written in1963, so rock & roll was very much alive and very much kicking). I'm notobjecting to the fact that he doesn't suggest growling or bar walking. What Imind is his assertion that there is only one correct embouchure - with the topteeth 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.

Youmay 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 ofthem, possibly even curling forward. This is a very good embouchure in myopinion; it forces you to develop and use your lip muscles, there is no chanceof relying on your teeth to apply pressure and risk biting. You also can combinethe "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

Therhythmic "feel of rock & roll" can be (very) broadly divided into twocategories: 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 longerthan the second (exactly twice as long so giving the music a triplet feel).

Music Text Sheet music Line Parallel

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

Once that Latin American influence was there, of course the straight eighth noterule of Latin American rhythms was broken and a rhumba style bass groove alsocould be "swung".

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

Basic Blues Chord Progressions

PART TWO - The Rules of Riffing

PeteThomas is a leading UK music producer, saxophone recording musician and composerof film & television music. His comprehensive website provides manyonline saxophone lessons and jazz theory tutorials, with links at the top ofeach page to audio clips, videos, biography, tutorials and resources for anymusician, 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, HarriRautiainen and respectiveauthors

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