Perhaps the most important consideration for any saxophonist is tone. Tone is the sound produced on your instrument, which can vary widely on every saxophone. What instrument other than electric guitar can have players like Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, and Maceo Parker all play the same type of saxophone yet sound so wildly different.
A quality tone separates the beginning or amateur musician from a professional, mature player. Since the saxophone is such a dynamic instrument, capable of a wide variety of tones, it is important to be able to know what type of tone (jazz, classical, pop) you want and how to develop it.
First, let’s consider hardware. This includes your instrument, mouthpiece, ligature, and reeds. Of these four, the instrument is the least important part of producing a good tone. If you are serious about saxophone and want to perform at a high level, investment in a professional model instrument is a must. However, with a good mouthpiece, ligature, and reed combo, you can make any working saxophone sound great.
If you are using the mouthpiece provided with your instrument, you need to invest in a new mouthpiece. There are a wide variety of mouthpieces on the market for every style of playing. Makers include Vandoren, Meyer, Rousseau, Otto Link, Morgan, Selmer, Berg Larsen and countless other major and boutique brands.
They can range in price from $40 to hundreds of dollars, and you want to look for ones constructed from hard rubber or metal. Avoid plastic or any other synthetic material not listed above. To look for a good mouthpiece, consult your teacher and go to your local music shop. Most shops will allow you to try a wide variety of mouthpieces to find the one that best fits your needs.
And you don’t have to spend a ton of money to buy a good mouthpiece; my standard alto setup features a Rousseau New Classic 4 which I purchased for only $60. The key is to ditch the mouthpiece supplied with your student horn, because it will limit the growth of your tone.
The same goes for your ligature. In order for the reed to properly vibrate on the mouthpiece, it has to be attached with a ligature that grasps the reed for optimum tone. If you are using the one supplied with your instrument, generally a thin metal loop with two screws at the bottom, you will want to replace it with a higher quality product. Manufacturers include Rovner, Francois Louis, Vandoren, Oleg, Bonade, and again a wide variety of other makers that you can find online or try in store.
Even the most advanced mouthpiece-ligature combo will be ineffective with a bad reed. Kevlar is good for bullet-proof vests and plastic is great for making containers, but it has no business being used as a reed material. You MUST use reeds made from cane to produce a good tone.
There are a variety of reed manufacturers, but the two major ones are Vandoren and Rico. I prefer Vandoren and tend to recommend it for my students, although the higher quality Rico reeds can give good results as well.
Every reed manufacturer makes a variety of reed styles and sizes, whether you play jazz, classical, or pop. An entire doctoral dissertation could be written on reeds, so the best advice is to consult your teacher to find the size and style that fits your mouthpiece. When playing, you should have a “perfect” amount of resistance against your embouchure, not so much that you cannot produce a tone, but not so little that the sound is unfocused.
In the end, a good saxophone setup will not make up for a lack of practice. Once you find what works for you, here are some exercises to improve your tone’s quality and fullness. Pick any note you are comfortable playing, take a deep breath, and sustain it for a long period of time, between 5 seconds and a minute based on your endurance level. This is known as a long tone.
You can also use a metronome for this, set to a slow tempo. With that same note, try starting from a soft volume level and crescendo to a loud, controlled tone. You can also try the opposite or experiment with multiple dynamic levels in one long tone. Choose several notes throughout the range of the instrument for maximum effectiveness. If you already know how to produce vibrato on the saxophone, you can practice the above exercise with it. If not, use a straight tone.
Finally, flat tones can help create a fuller tone and center your embouchure. Start with a loud, straight tone and lower your bottom jaw as far as you can without interrupting the sound. These will be hard to hold at first, but with time your endurance will improve. You can do flat-tones with a tuner to see how much you are bending the pitch flat. Again, try many random notes throughout the range of your instrument.
Long tones act as a weight-training exercise, building the muscles around your embouchure. Well-developed muscles give you more control of your embouchure, the key to generating a quality tone.
The final element of producing a good tone is recognizing what a professional saxophonist sounds like. If you were to ask a writer or painter about their influences, they would be able to give you a long list of authors or artists they grew up admiring and even works they treasure or emulated.
As a saxophonist, you need to have a similar understanding of your craft. I could talk at length about countless saxophonists you should seek out, but I have found that students enjoy this process more when they do the research themselves. Jazz in particular is a game of six degrees of separation, with almost every musician capable of tracing their tone and legacy back to a jazz master.
If you need help getting started, ask a teacher and tell them the type of playing you are interested in and they should be able to get you started. With the rise of digital music services, there are countless ways to access this music instantly, sometimes for free. Ambitious students should try to transcribe what they are listening to and emulate the saxophonist’s tone and style to build their own conception of sound. The more you listen, the faster you will develop a quality saxophone tone.