How to solo on the sax?
May 6, 2009 11:07 AM   Subscribe

My 10 year old has been playing saxophone for a little while now, and she wants to start playing solos. How does one learn to play solos on the sax? What are the first steps?
posted by GernBlandston to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you mean improvised solos? Technically the only thing that makes a solo different from any other sax part is that the part is emphasized over the rest of the band. So to learn to play a solo she would just need the sheet music for the solo so she could play it like any other piece.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:15 AM on May 6, 2009

It's been a long time since I played (15+ years), and longer since I learned what a solo was (23+) but what I do remember about learning solos is that it was based on understanding music theory. At the time I learned, I didn't know what a key was, or why sharps and flats mattered, other than they sounded bad if played wrong. Major and Minor also meant nothing to me. When I was asked to write a solo for myself for Jazz Band in Jr. High, I had to be given the key and other "settings" to make it work.

Later, I took Music Theory in college, and it suddenly made sense. Had I been taking Guitar or Piano, I would have figured it out much sooner, since they naturally have chords when you read the music. A basic understanding of Music Theory will go a LONG way to help play good solos, as well as general music appreciation, and possibly math as well.
posted by GJSchaller at 11:16 AM on May 6, 2009


If we're talking about improvisational jazz solos, this means learning scales and chord changes, and how different notes and riffs fit into scales and chords. It also means listening, listening, listening to everything she can get her hands on, playing along, trying to get an understanding of the feeling and expressiveness in music.

Jamie Abersold has a series of "play-along" book and CD combos, where each track has the rhythm section going through the song without a lead instrument, and the sheet music tells you what scales sound good over what chords.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:19 AM on May 6, 2009

To clarify, we're talking about improvisational soloing.
posted by GernBlandston at 11:24 AM on May 6, 2009

Does she know her scales? If so, she just plays notes in her scales. What notes to play? I was recently watching a jazz teacher teach a bunch of talented kids how to solo by asking them to say their name, say your mother's name, etc. then play that. It worked.
posted by caddis at 11:31 AM on May 6, 2009

While I never did any improv on sax back when I played, improv is what I do the most on guitar now and I can confidently say it starts with learning scales and learning which scales fit nicely over chords and different chord changes. A good way to start off would be playing a major chord on some other instrument (piano or whatever) and holding it while asking him to just play with the appropriate major scale. It's about practice and experimentation.
posted by Chan at 11:33 AM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

(Correction: meant her, not him. What I get for multitasking.)
posted by Chan at 11:34 AM on May 6, 2009

There are plenty of books out there on beginning improv for jazz saxophone. They'll take your son through the steps of jazz, as well as teaching him the basics of theory without flooding him with augmented chords right off the bat.

I'm not sure if it's exactly what you're looking for, but I've heard good things about the Essential Elements's Jazz Series. Check it out, though, before you go buy it.

Go down to your local music store (they still exist, right?) and ask them for a book. If you can call up a local middle school or high school with a jazz program, they may be able to set him up with lessons or a couple of books that will help him.
posted by SNWidget at 11:36 AM on May 6, 2009

I'm not sure if it is the same for wood winds (sax is a wood wind because it has a reed, right?), but on the guitar it all came down to learning modal scales. Once you determine the key your accompaniment will be dishing out you move into that scale and thusly the modes within said key. With the sax I would imagine it is more complex than the guitar. With the guitar you learn fingering patterns and then just start on the fret that matches your key. (More complex than that, but I'm not an expert by any means.)

In a lot of music, especially Western, I've been told and seen the truth in playing that the Pentatonic scale is a good one. This was the first scale I learned after Heptatonic (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do) and the one I enjoyed the most success with improvisationally.

I realize this is vague, I haven't played seriously in years and years, but maybe it is a good jumping off point. Learning scales to the point where muscle memory can take over and then losing the standard pattern, playing the notes according to preference rather than in sequential order.

Here are some helpful, albeit technical links:
Musical Mode
Pentatonic Scale

Also, from personal experience, if you feel she will continue make sure you get her involved with her school's band. Music programs all over the country are disappearing which is a real shame. I didn't get involved in jazz until my Junior year in high school and have regretted that I didn't sooner since that first day in class. Marching band is great too as most schools do concert/chamber music and solo-focusing in the non-marching season. It is literally free musical education and support if she is attending a public school.
posted by Gainesvillain at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2009

There are some fabulous books on this.

Joseph Viola's Technique of the Saxophone (in two volumes) and Jerry Coker's Jazz Patterns (Treble Clef) are the classics. Every young sax player can quote Joe Viola chapter and verse.

Sue Terry's Practice Like the Pros, which comes with CDs of masterclasses, is a good next step after you've worked with Viola and/or Coker.

Jerry Coker's Complete Method for Improvisation for All Instruments is since my time, but it gets quite good reviews on Amazon.

Another useful tool for the new improvisor are books of transcribed solos; The Charlie Parker Omnibook is the gold standard there.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:05 PM on May 6, 2009

I second the recommendation of Aebersold, especially for a 10-year-old. Having a CD to play along to is really helpful.
posted by revfitz at 3:07 PM on May 6, 2009

In my experience, having a teacher is enormously useful. I've been taking lessons for about 2 years now and I recommend it.
posted by RustyBrooks at 3:56 PM on May 6, 2009

I don't play the saxophone. I play the guitar. So I might be completely off base.

I think the advice about learning her scales and music theory is definitely right. And listening to a lot of music in the meantime. But for me the thing that made it possible for me to solo was learning to play other people's solos, note-for-note, by ear. After learning a big pile of solos from a bunch of different players, I started being able to grab short musical ideas from each of them and string them together in new ways, until finally I was arriving at my own improvised solos and coming up with my own unique musical ideas. I would think that premise would work just as well for saxophone as it does for guitar, though I can't imagine how anyone would learn a solo by John Coltrane by ear.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:15 PM on May 6, 2009

The musicians (Matthew Shipp and Joe Morris for example) and music professors I know all advocate knowing your various scales, knowing them cold, and then listening and practicing. You need to be supple playing within a particular key and scale and when you are, the whole process of improvisation comes more easily. You want to key off of the melody, or perhaps play a new melody which compliments the main melody, but the key is playing within the scale. Of course some of the jazz greats (Miles) moved beyond this basic structure, but that is really just not for the beginning players. If you can play something interesting within the scale you are improvising. It sounds so simple because it kind of is. Making it great is the hard part, playing something interesting within that structure is the hard part. Doing something pleasant, that is not so hard. I have been watching a bunch of 10 to 16 year old kids learn this over the last year and yes they have a basic music knowledge of scales etc., they are knowledgeable about music theory, but they are by no means super talented. They take that basic knowledge and then they produce improvisational runs that will amaze you. These kids make a sound that any critical jazz fan would appreciate. Yeah, the teacher is pretty good, but the amazing part is what she extracts from their brains. Kids can play sophisticated stuff if you just give them the chance.
posted by caddis at 6:34 PM on May 6, 2009

Another thing that can't be overestimated is the importance of listening to lots of jazz with interesting sax solos. I know that seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how often people neglect it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:41 PM on May 6, 2009

Another thing that can't be overestimated is the importance of listening to lots of jazz with interesting sax solos. I know that seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how often people neglect it.

And (maybe a bit later on), transcribing and learning those solos.
posted by mendel at 10:46 AM on May 7, 2009

Since so many people have expounded on the technical aspects I'm going to go in the other direction. Tell your daughter to bring you 15 of her favorite songs and one she hates. Then play the song back tell her to tell when to stop where her favorite musical part of the song is. Get her to play it back as best she can. Then try and loop the backing music for her dropping non repetitive elements of the music. Let her play that piece multiple times till she has the hang of it. Then slow the music down and see it she can follow the change, pitch it up and pitch it down and so on till she can meet the changes of the music etc.

Soloing didn't come out of technique it created technique in order to express the self. You don't want her playing with people and hearing them say " Yes that was a great Coltrane solo you played but what can you do?"
posted by Rubbstone at 10:12 PM on May 7, 2009

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