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                     THE IMPORTANCE OF TONE   

By Anne Farnsworth

Originally published in WINDPLAYER MAGAZINE


       Your tone is your voice, what gives you your distinctive individuality. It’s the first thing people hear when you start to play. You can have the hippest licks, the fastest sixteenth notes, but if your tone’s not pleasing to the ear nobody is going to want to listen. To me there’s nothing worse than a saxophonist with a bad tone. 


     To develop good tone, the first thing you need to do is listen. Not only to yourself, but also to your favorite sax players. I play jazz, and when I was a kid my favorite musician was Dexter Gordon. I just loved the big, fat tone he got from his horn.  Stanley Turrentine and Sonny Rollins also have huge, rich sounds.  Listen to the guys you like, try to emulate their sound as you play along with their recordings. Having an aural picture in your head, something to aspire to, is the first step toward developing your own trademark tone.

      Often I see students who have tones that are small and rather thin. Some people like that wispy sort of sound, but it’s nice to have a range you can use. There are various exercises you can do to fatten up your sound. One is blowing long tones. Using a metronome, you play pitches chromatically up and down the range of the horn for maybe eight counts each. Push a lot of air through the horn, trying to get as big of a sound as you can without overblowing. There’s a fine line between blowing enough and overblowing. Cross that line and your tone becomes harsh and intonation goes out the window. You may have artistic reasons to overblow at times but you don’t want it to be your regular mode of playing.

     Another good exercise is playing harmonic overtones. Overtones are important because they give your sound resonance, a key aspect of tone.  The saxophone is basically a tube, and with this shape of instrument there is a harmonic series that accompanies every note. Dave Liebman showed me an exercise to practice.  I start with a low B flat and then hit the first harmonic up an octave, and try to match the sound of the harmonic to the actual fingering of a B flat. If you can nail these high-pitched harmonics, the lower pitches you normally play will sound that much richer.  The kids I teach love this exercise because the sound of the harmonic is so loud and honking. They get huge benefits from it too; it’s not easy for little kids to get good tone from a saxophone.   


         Sigurd Rascher, the German classical saxophonist, has a great book of technical exercises called Top-tones For The Saxophone: Four Octave Range. It’s considered the standard for this type of practice.

          Moving down on the mouthpiece can really improve your sound. Only the part of the reed that’s in your mouth can vibrate. And getting enough air into the mouthpiece so that your reed can vibrate to its fullest potential is another aspect of good tone.

         When I was younger I had a smallish, wispy kind of tone. I guess you could call it ‘white boy soul’, and I would dip into each note. Then I studied with Joe Henderson and he hated that sound. He told me to play a full sound by getting more of the mouthpiece in my mouth and, of course, pushing more air.


      He also showed me that I had the wrong mouthpiece and reed. I was using number five reeds, which are as hard as Popsicle sticks, and a really open mouthpiece because I heard that was what Charlie Parker used.  But it’s a difficult combination to try and play through. Joe said to me, ‘Why are you working so hard? Get softer reeds and a medium mouthpiece’. I switched and it made a huge difference in my playing. Experiment with different reeds. If they’re too hard, they’ll be difficult to control and you’ll squeak, but if they’re too soft you’ll get a wimpy sound.

         Finding the right combination entails a lot of trial and error. I go to music stores and try different mouthpieces all the time but I can never find something I like. I’m still playing with the same mouthpiece I’ve used since high school. They’re machine-made now where they used to be made by hand.

         Tone is such a complex subject that you really need to work with a teacher if you are having problems. There are so many factors, breathing techniques, the shape of your mouth, the type of reed and mouthpiece you use. Classical saxophonists, for instance, use rubber mouthpieces, which give them a warmer sound and they practice to have a certain tone that is standard for the genre. Jazz and pop players have more leeway in their tone but you still want your sound be as beautiful as you can make it.

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