Tonguing for Jazz Saxophone

Posted by on Apr 9, 2014 in Practice Tips, Sax


Last weekend I met up with a former student, who is now a good friend and has since shifted his focus away from saxophone toward his studies in biology at the University of Chicago. But despite spending most of his time on science that I can’t even begin to comprehend, he still wants to keep improving as a musician. We were playing through a few tunes when he asked for a bit of help cleaning up his articulation. As I was offering a few exercises and tips, it dawned on me…

Eighth-note articulation for jazz saxophone can be broken down into two simple tonguing manipulations: (1) on/off tonguing and (2) half-tonguing.

Why focus on eighth-note articulation? Eighth notes form the foundation of jazz. The style with which one articulates and swings their eighth note is, in essence, the core of one’s sound. This post will focus on the first part (articulation), and at some later date I would like to return to swing analysis.

On/Off Tonguing

Back in high school, I distinctly remember the day that fellow saxophone  geek Jeremy Fratti (now a New York jazz player/professor) and I discovered on/off tonguing. It was truly a revelation. So what is it? Basically, when playing any eighth note passage, every jazz musician will tongue the upbeats while slurring the downbeats. Now there are three general exceptions to this rule:

1. Always tongue the first note, regardless of whether it’s an up- or downbeat.

2. Always tongue the last note, regardless of whether it’s an up- or downbeat.

3. Some notes should be “ghosted”, which I will cover in the second part of this post.

I like to have my students work through the following exercise to practice on/off tonguing, which is a simple loop of the ascending and descending bebop scale:

Try taking this slowly at first, articulating the first note the first time only, then every other note (G, Bb, D, E, E, D, Bb, G, -repeat-). You can then slowly increase the tempo, take it through different keys, and apply different lines until this articulation becomes second nature. Repetition is the key, as you want this to be so incredibly ingrained that you don’t have to think about it for even one second while improvising.


Half-Tonguing for Ghosting

Returning to exception #3 mentioned above, there are certain times when you will want to “ghost”, or de-emphasize a note. Generally speaking, when playing an eighth note passage that takes an unexpected dip, standard jazz style rules dictate that you should ghost this note. There are many other reasons and instances under which you would want to ghost notes, but providing a list of rules that you could memorize dictating when “ghosting” is appropriate would be doing you a disservice. Jazz is a language. When you were learning to speak as a cute little baby, nobody sat you down in front of a blackboard and made you conjugate a bunch of verbs. You just listened to your parents speak all the time.  The best way to learn the rules of any language, including the language of jazz, is to listen carefully and listen often. If you want to lean to really play jazz, you absolutely need check out many, many jazz recordings.

So, once you know when to ghost a note and what that should sound like from listening to the masters, how do you actually execute the “ghost” on the saxophone? At 1:40 of the following clip, the great Jerry Bergonzi offers a wonderful description of the mechanics behind this behavior:

In essence, you want to put the your tongue on the very tip of the reed, half covering the sound, in order to produce the desired ghosting effect. A common pitfall when practicing this is to decrease the amount of air you are using. Don’t do this! Make sure you keep consistent, full air pressure throughout your line. Also, when coming out of a ghost, lightly tongue the next note by turning your ghosted half-tongue into a full tongue.  This will give that note a clean, crisp start.

To practice this technique, I recommend repeating a simple line, such as the following:


The a-sharp should be ghosted using the technique described above, otherwise the on/off tonguing described in part 1 should be employed. So, the tonguing pattern is:

  • F: tongue first time only (rule 1), slur not on repeat
  • D: tongue
  • C: slur
  • A#: ghost – half tongue this note!
  • B: finish your half-tongue on the a# with a light full tongue on the B
  • Ab: tongue (accent, as this is a jump to the top of the line)
  • G: slur
  • F#: tongue
  • …read more

    Roy Haynes Solo on “In Walked Bud”


    Following up my first post regarding bebop drum vocabulary, I thought it would be fun to present an incredibly tasty Roy Haynes transcription.  This particular solo is from Thelonious Monk’s 1958 live album Misterioso, and features Thelonious on piano, Johnny Griffin on tenor sax, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and the incomparable Roy Haynes on drums.

    There are several reasons that make this particular drum solo so enjoyable, both as a listener and as a student honing one’s craft.

  • Of the two chorus solo, Roy devotes the entire first chorus to the melody.  “In Walked Bud” is a catchy and repetitive tune; perfect for developing rhythmic ideas around the kit.  Roy masterfully orchestrates the slight variations along the way, and provides a valuable lesson in the power of simplicity.
  • The second chorus opens up into more traditional bebop drum vocabulary.  There are plenty of wonderful ideas played here, from the thoughtful use of buzzes, stick-on-stick passages, and rimshots to create sonic variety, to the introduction of triplets and sixteenth notes as the chorus develops as a means of increasing tension.
  • Lastly, Roy maintains his usual sense of swagger.  That is to say, nothing is played in a careless, boring way.  Every musical phrase has a sense of urgency behind it!
  • …read more

    Patterns: Part 2 – Endless Possibilities

    Posted by on Mar 21, 2014 in Improvisation, Practice Tips, Sax


    Maybe I’m just a math geek, but I love exploring patterns on my horn. A plethora of jazz literature is available on scalar/pattern studies (Jerry Coker, Oliver Nelson, David Baker, Slonimsky, etc.), each offering a veritable buffet of patterns for you to get under your fingers and have in your back pocket. You COULD just open one of these books, flip to any page, read the lick, and transpose into all 12 keys, and repeat. But for me, these books just collect dust on my shelves. Meanwhile I’m practicing patterns almost every day.

    In my last post I explored why patterns, when used thoughtfully and judiciously, are essential for the improvising musician. …

    =&0=&Here’s a framework.

    Patterns are composed of cells, or small, mathematically constructed groups of notes.

    Coltrane was famous for his exploration and application of various cells.

    Here are the most common variables I toy with:

    • Cell-construction
      • Scale
      • # Notes
      • Directionality
      • Interval


      • Scale-relationship
      • # Notes
      • Directionality
      • Interval


      • Harmony
      • Time Signature


      Let’s walk through an example:

      Here are 2 basic cells. These 2 ridiculously simple elements form the foundation for everything that follows.

      Now let’s construct some basic patterns. Just humor me and start here, please!

      Combining Cells: From now onward we will use both cells 1 & 2 together to create increasingly complex patterns.

      Now you’re ready for the fun stuff!

      Once you’ve wrapped your head around the basics outlined in patterns 1-8 above, you can start playing around with the 2 cells in more interesting ways. I’m going to take the same cells, modulate to minor, and iterate on just one idea (you can think of pattern #9 as the base pattern):

      Here’s a clip of me applying that last pattern over the tune Softly as in a Morning Sunrise. Notice how you can imply the harmony of minor chords moving in ascending minor thirds by playing this line:

      Another way you can use patterns in your improvised solos is to actually move what you are playing in real time with the changes. Let’s get a fresh pattern and see how this works:

      Now let’s apply it over the first 4 bars of Green Dolphin Street:


      It gets a lot tougher when the changes start moving faster. Here’s one way to kind of make the same pattern work over Confirmation:


      Now I know I’d be hard pressed to compute this pattern in real-time, so we can use the same idea, but simplified, to create a melody or motive. Here’s something similar to what Chris Potter might play if here were using our cells:

      And finally… …read more

    Bebop Solos for Drumset

    Posted by on Mar 13, 2014 in Drumset, Improvisation, Inspiration, Practice Tips


    Bebop Drum Solos

    One of the challenges in teaching jazz drumset to younger musicians is connecting the dots between their existing physical technique and a stylistic concept of what it means to play jazz/bebop vocabulary.  John Riley has authored three incredible books: The Art of Bop Drumming, Beyond Bop Drumming, and The Jazz Drummer’s Workshop; all of which prove helpful to students over the course of their development.

    It also goes without saying that listening to jazz music (or any style of music one is attempting to master) is first and foremost the most vital learning tool.  A particular strategy that I have utilized more often in recent years is composing short exercises to introduce classic bebop drum vocabulary.  Many of these phrases are common, and are reminiscent of Max Roach or Roy Haynes.  That being said, they feel fresh and exciting for a young drummer only beginning to build a toolkit of jazz phrasing/vocabulary.

    Below are three distinct 12-bar drumset solos.  The first deals only in eighth-note subdivisions.

    The second introduces eighth-note triplets.

    The third solos introduces sixteenth-notes, and moves between subdivisions ala Elvin Jones.

    Once a student has learned these short solos, I find it helpful to break them into four-bar phrases to practice trading with timekeeping.  I also have students compose their own short solos as a bridge between reading and improvising.  Finally, we practice improvising over short forms with the added confidence/awareness of possessing an authentic vocabulary around the drums.

    Here are the downloadable PDF files:

    Drum Solo 1

    Drumset Solo #2

    Drumset Solo #3





    Patterns: Part 1 – Why Practice Patterns?

    Posted by on Mar 9, 2014 in Improvisation, Practice Tips, Sax

    Soggy Pattern Fry

    Soggy Pattern Fry

    Let’s start by eliminating what patterns are NOT:

    =&0=&. Plug in your David Baker diminished pattern lick over the first altered dominant chord you can find at your next gig, and your solo will be about as tasty as soggy, cold French fries. Yes, they are still French fries, and technically they qualify as food, but would you ever walk into B.K. and ask for “extra cold and soggy fries, please”? Don’t serve your audience cold fries.

    =&1=&It’s typically lazy and unimaginative. You should PRACTICE plugging patterns into tunes to get their sound in your ear and notes under your fingers, but please don’t allow that to become your ultimate artistic statement. In my next post, however, I will explore some creative pattern construction techniques that I use to come up with fresh, pattern-based lines.  I often find them sneaking into my solos. I am not ashamed of this, as they can be extremely effective vehicles for implying complex harmony, adding the perfect amount of tension or release at the right time. But I think pattern application of this variety is the exception, rather than the rule.

    Ok, so =&2=& if most aren’t providing you with a lick to plug in? Here ’s why pattern study is essential for any improvising musician:

    1)     =&3=& – by studying different scalar permutations in addition to simply running scales across your full range, you will gain incredible fluidity, enabling yourself to speak freely across a harmony during your solo. You can’t be thinking about whether Gmaj7 has an F or F# when you’re trying to create a musical statement.

    2)     =&4=& – Give your mind a killer workout by moving any pattern across keys, chord qualities, groupings, etc. (more on this in my next post).

    3)     =&5=& – Envy how the masters are able to develop little ideas and build on them throughout their solos? They’ve spent a lot of time shedding patterns, which is one of many tools that empowers one to tell a story that actually goes somewhere.

    4)     =&6=& – building off point 3, you patterns are a great way to capture harmonic movement through a single improvised line.

    My next post, Patterns: Part 2 – Endless Possibilities, will explore different brain exercises that can be used to create an unlimited variety of compelling patterns. Meanwhile, here are some examples of totally satisfying, highly musical applications of storytelling that spawned, at least in part, from extensive pattern study (and some of my favorite solos):

    =&7=& and =&8=&: Switchblade – Notice how effectively both Yahel and Redman move cells around to build out simple ideas.