Sound & Tone

saxophonist_PaintingThe other day, Angel asked me about long tones, specifically, “I would like to hear what the long tones are supposed to sound like.”

I have used a few variations, the simplest is one octave up and down chromatically, using one breath for two notes at a time. You play the notes softly, but with intensity.  I got this exercise from Herman Riley.

In the first link below, I explain the exercise and play a few notes.  In the second link, I play the entire octave up and down of long tones on tenor saxophone.  So you can probably just listen to the first file, if you would like to hear the entire thing and how long I play each note, the consistency of the transitions, etc, go ahead and check out the second recording.

Long Tones Exercise Explanation and first part (mp3 file, right click and ‘save as’ 2.6 MB)

Long Tones Exercise Explanation and hear five minutes of long tones (mp3 file, right click and ‘save as’ 9.2 MB)

Another thing to do to improve your sound is practicing ballads.

Nature Boy, Skylark, Round Midnight, and also other slower tunes that aren’t jazz.

Basically with long tones and ballads you sustain notes and can’t hide the sound behind speed, rhythm, articulation, or anything else.  You are forced to start developing a sound that is good by itself without anything else.  And you want to have that, sounding good by just playing even a single note.

What are your favorite ballads?

When I asked some sax players I knew that question, they gave me a lot of ideas.

A few that I want to learn/relearn/learn better in the near future are:
When You Wish Upon a Star
I can’t get started
Shadow of Your Smile
Body and Soul
Moonlight in Vermont
Polka Dots and Moonbeams
God Bless the Child


Intonation on three notes

Adjusting the position of your mouthpiece on the cork of the saxophone lengthens or contracts the horn, changing the pitch. A longer tube will have a lower sound and a shorter tube will have a higher sound, think about a tuba compared to a piccolo.

Note: The temperature can affect your intonation, so it’s good to be aware of the overall tendencies of your horn and the environment so you can blend and play with good intonation.

However, your horn may also have different intonation tendencies depending on the range of the saxophone that you are playing.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob March 14, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Three questions:
1) Is there a reason for limiting the tones to an octave starting at low E? (For a couple of months I did similar excercises but started at low Bb and ended at high F# to go down again- helped a lot and plan on getting back on that horse).

2) Dynamics. In your examaples you hold the same strength of tone, i.e. keep it even. This makes sense to practice. Is it advantageous to sometimes change from pp-p-mf-f-ff during different sets (for reasons I don’t understand it seems to help me to practice a lot very softly)?

3) Do you consider crescendo and decrescendos (for instance one breath for one note starting pp up to ff back to pp) to be a worthwhile alternative?


Neal March 14, 2012 at 7:01 pm

Hey Bob,
It’s mostly an issue of how much time you have to spend on the exercise. I’ll do this warmup a lot of times before a gig (still), quietly in a corner somewhere. It will take longer to do the whole range, but if you have time and feel like you need to concentrate on long tones, you could definitely do the whole range.

Yes, I’m holding the same dynamic level, which is a soft level. It’s harder to keep a good tone with less force, so you develop more control that way. You could practice using different dynamic levels, there’s an exercise called ‘terrace dynamics’ in the book ‘top tones’. Lenny Pickett actually high recommends that exercise for helping with the development of altissimo.

Even in the terrace dynamics though, you don’t crescendo or decrescendo. It’s good to be able to do that effectively. But for this particular exercise, there shouldn’t be any crescendo or decrescendo.


KT February 12, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I love playing God Bless the Child. “I Had the time of My Life” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” are on my wish list.

You have a good list going already.

I have been trying to keep tone, fingering and breathing but play faster for a song I wrote. I feel stuck in slow methodical approach.


Gil February 12, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Hi Neal, here are some of my favorite ballads: Amazing Grace, Misty, Moon
River, The Theme From The Summer Place, Days of Wine and Roses, Maria from West Side Story music by Lenoard Berstein.


Neal February 13, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Thanks Gil, those are some good tunes.


Donny Piela February 13, 2013 at 9:49 am

I like In A Sentimental Mood. I’ve played if in clubs a number of times, as recent as last .night, and the audiences always like it.

I totally agree with Neal concerning long tone and ballads. I start every practice session with 30 minutes of long tone and overtone exercises. I’ve developed my own sound and people have told me “after three notes I can tell it’s you playing.

It took a few years to accomplish that but it was worth it. Having a full, rich tone sets you apart from other players and makes an audience focus on to when you’re performing.


Neal February 13, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Glad to hear that about your sound. Sonny Rollins recorded a good version of Sentimental Mood too.


Gil February 14, 2013 at 5:25 pm

I have some thoughts or more like questions regarding tone and your own sound. How much does your mouthpiece and reed and quality of your instrument factor in on getting a good tone and sound. I know you develop your embrochure over a period of time, but how come some musicians get a good what I call a Professional sounding tone quicker than others. I feel personally I have an average sound, but I know we ourselves are our worst critics. Then some people say the tup


Neal May 23, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Hey Gil,
Your reed makes a huge impact on your sound.

The mouthpiece makes a large impact on the sound.

The instrument has less impact than the reed or mouthpiece.

Probably a lot has to do with awareness of your sound. Long tones and ballads are a good way to focus on it. But if you are aware of your sound at all times, your tone will develop.

What’s an example of a person who seems to get a ‘professional’ tone faster than someone else?


Gil February 14, 2013 at 5:27 pm

type of metal thats on your horn makes a different like vintage horn compared to a modern day horn, I would like some input on this when you have time, thank you.


Neal May 23, 2013 at 2:36 pm

That’s not a bad question, probably would be best answered with a recording. I’ll play something on a saxophone from 1920 and one from 1999 with the same mouthpiece and reed.


Gil May 23, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Hi Neal, above you said if you our aware of your sound and all times, your tone will develop, could you elaborate on that, I thought tone and sound are one in the same. Also I am saving to get a Yamaha 82 Z series ome day, I have a Buescher
BU-4 I got at a local music store, its not bad I paid $600 used, but I have tried the Yamaha I tried with my Meyer mouthpiece and tone was so much better, the Buescher tends to have a dark tone, as compared to bright as they say in the music world. Will wait for your thoughts on this when you have time. Thanks


Neal May 23, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Hey Gil,
Sound and tone are similar words in this context, wasn’t really trying to distinguish between the two. They’re both combinations of vibrations that we hear.

What year is your Buescher from?


Gil May 24, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Hi Neal, I see what your saying, my Buescher is more of a late model, not sure what year. I would consider it a starter sax for a student. At the music store I bought it from they put it in an instrument show but didn’t get a lot of attention on it, so they brought it back to the store and I tried it out, and bought for $600, it was in good condition.


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