The Saxophone Tone
and "The Edge"
The characteristic tone quality, or timbre, of a musical
instrument is determined by the variety and amount of overtones added to
the fundamental pitch being produced. These overtones, or multiples of
the fundamental pitch, give the tone an individual characteristic sound
that the ear can differentiate from other tones. The variety and amount
of overtones is what makes the flute, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, etc.,
sound different from one another.
The saxophone tone is, in turn, affected by the instrument,
mouthpiece, reed, the player, and even the room acoustics. The instrument
can affect the tone through variations in bore size and taper, tone hole
size, and the type (or lack) of pad resonator. The mouthpiece and reed
have a greater influence on tone, and are the easiest factors for the
player to change.
The presence of overtones is heard by the ear and brain as a
brilliance, or intensity, of tone. Try this experiment. Play a tape or
CD of your favorite saxophonist on your stereo, and turn the treble
control up and down. Listen to how it affects the tone quality. If you
have an equalizer, play with the various sliders and listen to how
increasing or decreasing the intensity at various frequencies affects the
A bright tone is sometimes described as having edge. This
edge, or brilliance of tone, helps the tone project. A classical player
usually wants a dark tone, or tone with a lesser amount of overtones.
This helps in blending in a quartet or concert band, but works against the
player when it comes time to solo. On the other hand, a player who wants
to project his tone needs edge in his tone. Players in theater, jazz, and
rock bands usually chose mouthpieces that give them enough edge to project
well in these more commercial settings.
There is nothing wrong with edge in the tone. In colleges
today saxophonists are driven to produce an edgeless tone. This is not
necessarily correct. Fine classical saxophonists such as Fred Hemke, Paul
Brodie, and Jamal Rossi have a degree of edge that yields good solo
projection and a lively, exciting tone. I urge you to listen to these
three great artists.
When listening to fine theater and orchestra players up close
the tone is sometimes frighteningly edgy and coarse sounding. But with
distance the coarse edge is lost and a beautiful, lively, projecting tone
is heard by the audience.
I had an interesting discussion recently with saxophonist
Santy Runyon. Santy is well known as a manufacturer of fine woodwind
mouthpieces and accessories, but in past years he played with big bands,
did a ten year stint as first woodwind in the Chicago Theater Orchestra,
played many radio shows in the forties, club work, etc. This is a
saxophonist that can be heard all the way up in the balcony!
When he plays his tone is very edgy up close. Everything in
the area is vibrating to its maximum intensity. At a music trade show I
was on the opposite side of a convention hall from his booth, and Harlem
Nocturn soared over the top of the hall. Everyone in my immediate area
stopped to listen, and remarked on the beautiful tone. It was Santy, of
I told him about this, and we discussed the desirability of
edge in tone, projection, and so forth. He related a story from his days
in the Chicago Theater. A cello player behind him was sawing away, making
all kinds of racket. Santy asked the cellist if he realized how edgy the
tone was, the cello sounded like a buzz saw. The man replied, "I have to
play this way, otherwise, they can't hear me past the third row. It
doesn't sound the same out there." And he was 100% correct!
Don't get paranoid about the degree of edge in your tone. You
may play in a band where the director does not want to hear the saxophones
(we used to hear, "Saxes, I want you to sound like french horns."). You
may have to use a very dark mouthpiece and reed combination to satisfy
this director. So be a pro, and produce what is asked for. But more
often, composers for modern symphonic band are recognising the saxophone
section as another distinct and useful voice. They are no longer hiding
the saxophones in the low brass, but are utilizing the unique saxophone
tone to great advantage. Solos and sax section soli passages are much
more common. Composers can now rely on, and demand, a high level of
performance from saxophonists. A more projecting tone, having a degree of
edge, is required for these passages.
For this modern literature you may wish to try the same type
of mouthpiece and reed setup as would be used for theater pit band or big
band playing. These brighter mouthpieces will also usually produce the
altissimo notes more easily than very dark sounding mouthpieces. The
player should be aware that due to conduction of the tone from the
mouthpiece, through the teeth, and into the bones of the head, his tone
will seem reedier that what is actually heard by listeners. It is
suggested that a player record himself (both up close and at a distance)
in a concert hall in order to get a better picture of his actual tone.
The player should not judge his tone on what he hears of himself in a
The attack and release, or beginning and ending of a note,
will affect how the listener perceives the tone of a player. I had a
friend, a trumpet player, who was given consistent low marks on tone in
her college juries. Her teacher advised that her tone was fine, but her
tonguing and releases were sloppy. After a semester of concentrating on
tonguing excercises, and working on release, she got A's from all the
jurists for tone. Several jurists remarked, "Tone much improved!"
And on a final note, be a theater player, not a parlor
player. If the guy in the last row of the balcony can't hear you, you
aren't doing your job. (Thanks, Santy)