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How difficult is playing the sax?


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Let's say I'm an expert-level guitarist and a nearly-competent pianist with about 30 years being a musician. Do you think it would be difficult to learn to play the sax?

 

I've never played a reed or wind instrument in my life, so I have no idea what the mechanisms are for making it sound like something anyone would want to hear.

 

- Jeff

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Sax is one of the easiest wind instruments. Fingering-wise, it's pretty easy, the trickier parts are the wind and embouchure control. Something different between guitar and wind instruments: tone control and intonation aren't things you have to worry about so much with guitar. Once the guitar's tuned, your tone and tuning are pretty well set. With a wind instrument, you will sound like a child for months, until you develop the musculature and wind control to make a good tone. And the wind control is necessary to keep individual notes in tune. You will want to get some instruction on creating a good tone: if you try to go on your own, you will develop wrong habits, and your musculature will be trained that way, making it hard to change later on.
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It will take some time to develop an embochure. This involves optimizing the use of the muscles around the mouth and lips to generate a decent tone and support the proper reed vibration.

 

If you do get a sax buy the intro book by Larry Teal. I forget the title - but its a classic and tells you what you need to know.

 

Be careful about choosing a reed strengh and mouthpiece geared towards beginners.

 

I bought myself an alto this year for my B' day. I haven't played in 25-30 years. Amazingly, my fingers still remembered the notes.

Ah - the joy of Sax.

Check out some tunes here:

http://www.garageband.com/artist/KenFava

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Hi Jeff,

 

I played Alto all through school and still pull it out from time to time. If you're really interested in playing just realize that you're making a commitment because it's something you need to do every day for a year or so to become okay and many years to start playing top tones and such with authority.

 

It's not like me being very experienced on guitar and electric bass and pulling out a mandolin or fretless acoustic bass. Things with strings are much easier to move back and forth on. Sax is a whole different animal.

 

Alto is an E flat instrument and tenor is B flat. I see more tenors playing in pop music, but keep in mind those guys know their top tones and have a pretty much unlimited range. I'd go alto to learn and if you get way good then check a tenor. They play exactly the same just a tenor is bigger and the mouthpiece is a bit larger.

 

Also, invest in a metal mouthpiece for a more rock/rhythm & blues sound. Don't know how things are now but I always liked La Voz reeds. Get a medium hard broken in well and it'll last forever unless you chip it on something.

 

:thu:

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Being a good guitarist you have two big advantages, a lead mentality for solos and the ability to hear if you are in tune. If you want to pick it up as a casual player and play an occasional part in a band it is pretty easy. If you want to becoem a primary player and play for three hours a night, be ready for a lot of work. I did pretty well on trumpet and sax in school. Now when I pick one up I am good for about three songs. After that I start blowing most of the air out of the sides of my mouth and very little through the horn.

 

Robert

This post edited for speling.
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There is absolutely NO reason to play an alto first. Play what you want to play. I suggest contrabass, myself ; }

 

http://lachesis.caltech.edu/jayeaston/galleries/Jay_in_Action/Grinch.jpg

 

They* used to say sax was the easiest but I think it has a lot to do with the mouthpiece used. Clarinet actually seems easier to me after a long layoff.

 

 

*A conspiracy group who is now into spyware and wars

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Jeff, you're in the same position I was about a year and half ago (Tax day, April 15th, in fact!) I bought a tenor, and had the slight advantage in that I've played trombone from gradeschool thru college jazz band, so I had the breathing techniques down if not the embouchre. I worked with it for a year, a half to one hour a night (when I was home, I travel a lot) and finally got to the point where it sounded better than the sax patch in my keyboard :D . Of the dozen or so instruments I've learned to play I'd say this was about the easiest, but I definitely have so much more to learn, but that's what makes it fun for me.

 

I posted a sax question here way back then, the thread was called Tenor Saxophone Question here in the SSS, it should still be in the Archives. Got a lot of great advice from the folks here, I've still got the hardcopy printout sitting here on my music stand. Good luck! :thu:

Botch

"Eccentric language often is symptomatic of peculiar thinking" - George Will

www.puddlestone.net

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Wind instruments are definitely the trickiest musical instruments. Not only are there the issues of embouchure (which affects not just tone but pitch) & breath control but there are even multible/alternate fingerings for producing notes which can affect timbre & playing position ...although that last is something that players of stringed instruments encounter as well...& of course they've got that archaic (to me at least) method of notation so that you must mentally transribe written pitch to communicate to other instruments.

 

All that saaid, you should still give it a try---you might be great!

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Hey, thanks for the advice, all!

 

I really don't have any goals with it other than to learn to play it. It's such an expressive instrument when used well. As I said, I've played guitar and keys most of my life, and was a violinist and then a cellist in my youth. But there's something about the sax which seems more soul-exposing than nearly any other sound-making thing (which, I suppose, is a subjective opinion, but it's mine).

 

Anyway, hopefully years of listening to guys like Coltrane, Getz, Brecker, Shorter and so on had some effect of at least knowing how I'd like to sound. I find I'm starting to look around at prices on saxes, so I'd say it's likely I'll probably get one, finances allowing, sometime soon.

 

- Jeff

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Sure, playing sax is easy, except for the light blue blazer and the mullet. ;)

 

Seriously, I played it for about a semester in college and found it was pretty intuitive, once my embochure could handle the stress. No instrument is easy, but for me, it was infinitely easier producing a musical sound on a sxa than on, say, a trumpet or flute.

 

I was serious about sticking with it, but then my music dept. needed the alto back for the Carousel pit band. That was the last time I played sax.

Check out the Sweet Clementines CD at bandcamp
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Embouchure tips for sax:

 

A little bit below half way on the mouthpiece, place your front two teeth on

the top of the mouthpiece. Your top lip should be in front of your teeth.

 

Your bottom lip should NOT fold under your teeth and the reed, this reduces the vibration of

the reed, rather you should pout your bottom lip slightly forward under the reed.

 

You should not bite down on the reed, there should be a slight pressure for intonation purposes but think of it more as supporting the reed.

 

If you get a swaking sound, either you have too much of the mouthpiece in your mouth or

your lips are not tight enough around the mouthpiece.

 

Good luck!

 

Photo of the day

http://xs.to/pics/04105/bushisjesus2.jpg

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Another sax player who doesn't get mentioned as much as the others but whose work I love is Peter Christlieb. He did the rather memorable solos on SD's "Deacon Blues" (speaking of "learning to work the saxophone") and "FM". In fact, that's the sound that makes me think I'd like to play the tenor.

 

- Jeff

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As someone who played sax for a couple of years long ago and has played with several sax players ranging from awful to amazing I generally agree with the above responses.

 

However, my observation is that it takes several years of concerted effort to get a decent tone, especially a proper R & B or rock 'n roll tone. Most rock sax players develop an ugly breathy, whiney, shrill tone and use it for years. Just as bad is the weak, flaccid, wimpy and polite tone of the legion of Kenny G imitators?. Yuck.

 

Listening to a recording of your playing will be a very humbling but useful tool for getting a proper tone. I think getting a good tone is actually more important than being able to play fast or complicated parts. If you have a nice tone you can play very simple parts that can add texture to a song.

 

I recommend playing the tenor, not alto. Tenor takes more breath but it isn't quite as shrill sounding when played by an inexperienced player. Very few alto players acheive a smooth tone. Historically, tenor is the rock instrument of choice.

 

King Curtis is the man for rock 'n roll and R'nb sax. He played on all of those Leiber and Stoller classics(such as the Coaster's Charlie Brown and Yakety Yak) in the fifties and played with Aretha Franklin in the sixties. He can be heard doing some great stuff on a live album he did with Champion Jack Dupree.

 

For jazz I don't think you can beat Coltrane or Wayne Shorter for examples of great tone.

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Originally posted by Jeff Da Weasel:

Another sax player who doesn't get mentioned as much as the others but whose work I love is Peter Christlieb. He did the rather memorable solos on SD's "Deacon Blues" (speaking of "learning to work the saxophone") and "FM". In fact, that's the sound that makes me think I'd like to play the tenor.

Wasn't he in the Tonight Show Band (Doc Severinsen era)? If I remember (from about 20 years ago), he had a few good albums as a frontman.
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My fave Christlieb outing other than maybe his work with Tom Waits is APOGEE - a double bill tenor extravaganza with Warne Marsh. As is often the case in music, Marsh smokes players whose names are way more known on the instrument. The two of them sound great together on the heads, and dueling in twos/fours/eights and playing extended where the other leaves off.
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Originally posted by Jeff Da Weasel:

Anyway, hopefully years of listening to guys like Coltrane, Getz, Brecker, Shorter and so on had some effect of at least knowing how I'd like to sound.

Congrats, your a tenor guy. Don't bother with alto yet until the Phil Woods/Cannonball Adderley/Paul Desmond/David Sanborn mutation of the sax gene takes hold of you.

 

Pete Christlieb is indeed a god amongst mortal men when holding a horn. When I was a kid I would watch the "Tonight Show" just to hear a snippet of him or Ernie Watts. I read in an interview he got to hang out with Igor Stravinsky as a kid - apparently had a lasting effect.

 

Another guy I still hope and aspire to carry the case of is Lenny Pickett of SNL band/Tower of Power fame - truly a legend at this point.

 

You are very lucky to be in a large metro area to find and procure an instrument. My best advice is to get a sax player friend (I'm sure you know one), take a digital chromatic tuner with you and play as many as possible. Each instrument will have its own tuning anomalies, and you are striving to get the best balanced horn from register to register with the least amount of "out" notes.

 

Keep in mind that practicing a saxophone is a loud affair. Learning it will require tremendous patience from yourself and anybody nearby.

 

Best of luck,

 

Dogfur

 

On edit: Oh yeah, to answer the original posts' question - learning to make basic sounds on a sax is pretty easy. Adding a line or a few notes to something for texture shouldn't be too hard after getting the basics under your fingers and lungs. Learning to address the subtleties and techniques as a soloist of different styles can take a lifetime.

Woof!
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He did the rather memorable solos on SD's "Deacon Blues" (speaking of "learning to work the saxophone") and "FM". In fact, that's the sound that makes me think I'd like to play the tenor.
Jeff,

 

I'm not a sax player, but my son plays tuba. If I were you, I would go ahead and go with the tenor since it is your preference. It may be a bit harder to get immediate control over, but if you go with the alto first and then advance to the larger instrument; not only will you have to buy another instrument, you'll have to learn to re-adjust what you've already learned.

 

I, too, have always wanted to pick the sax up and learn to play. If I do, I will go with a tenor because there is not a sampled sound on any keyboard (or breath controlled keyboard for that matter) that can touch the sexy, sultry sound of a tenor sax. The alto sax just doesn't have the same appeal as the tenor, IMO.

You can take the man away from his music, but you can't take the music out of the man.

 

Books by Craig Anderton through Amazon

 

Sweetwater: Bruce Swedien\'s "Make Mine Music"

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Dogfur: My best advice is to get a sax player friend (I'm sure you know one), take a digital chromatic tuner with you and play as many as possible. Each instrument will have its own tuning anomalies, and you are striving to get the best balanced horn from register to register with the least amount of "out" notes.
I don't know that I can agree with this. It is highly contingent on neck crook, and mouthpiece. The horns themselves are manufactured to exact tolerances, and key/pad openings can always be placed closer or wider when open for any problematic notes. But until one plays a horn a LONG time they really don't have a clue about the horn's tendencies anyway.

 

OTHERS: there may be some people for whom it is true, but I don't consider the tenor any harder than the alto (or soprano). In fact, my primary has been the bari, with tenor a close second. Due to the mouthpieces with each horn when I first got into it, and my tendencies, I found it easier to get good vibrations on the bari. It's about reed vibration - not "filling the horn".

.
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