Tonguing for Jazz Saxophone

dog-tongueLast 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

After some practice looping the two lines above, you will be well on your way toward organically applying the proper tonguing to “speak” the language of jazz saxophone!


By Mike Lebrun

Mike is a jazz saxophonist & composer committed to a brighter future for music. ...Full Bio


  1. Great post, Mike! I was wondering if you could write something about airstream for jazz saxophone; it occurs to me that jazz air is constant and volume is regulated more my lip/jaw and tongue (as it is with ghosting).


    1. Hey Sean, yes I’d love to write something on airstream! Great to hear from a classical phenom and saxophone guru such as yourself!

  2. I love this post. Although not a player helps me understand the intricacies of this instrument and I have a better appreciation of the nuances of this ssssssoulful instrument.

  3. Hey Mike, a quick question about the half tonguing: is it the case that when you half-articulate a note, you should continue to mute it for the duration of the note? Or does the half-articulation function in the same way that complete tonguing does when applied to a phrase in a way other than ghosting?

    1. Hi Chris, great question! Your first guess is correct, unlike a standard articulation, the half-tongue should be held through the full duration of the note, which also allows you to then use that tongue position as a starting place for a full articulation on the following note. Hope that helps!

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