3 Tips and Exercises for Better Saxophone Articulation

with Jimmy Greene

Jimmy Greene on Saxophone Articulation


I’d like to talk just a little bit today about articulation. Articulating on the saxophone, at least in my mind, is really close to articulating as we’re speaking verbally. And although everyone has their own unique way of articulating verbally, everyone has their own unique way of articulating on saxophone. I’ve found there are a few things that I think about constantly that have helped me on my journey playing this music. So I'm going to share those with you.

When I was very young, I was taught two different ways of articulating: legato, which is very little or no tongue involved, or staccato: where every note is separated using the tongue. *Demonstrates both legato and staccato.*

As I began to listen to a lot of my favorite improvisers play, once I really got into the sounds of jazz music, I noticed that they were doing a lot of different things with their tongue. It’s kind of like when you hear a native speaker of a language speak verbally. They don’t necessarily articulate every syllable or phrase because that would be very cumbersome. They tend to articulate to emphasize certain syllables, and to de-emphasize other syllables. I found that my favorite improvisers did that with their tongues. So in order to practice this third way that I conceive of articulating, I like to work on a couple of different exercises. The first one is: to tongue very lightly on the reed

Now, people tongue with different parts of their tongue. I do what I’ve heard people call an “anchor tongue,” where the tip of the tongue rests up somewhere beneath the teeth. I actually engage the reed with this part of my tongue *points to tongue.* So I’ll tongue very lightly on the upbeats. If I’m playing eighth notes, I’ll tongue very lightly on the upbeats using that part of my tongue. Now you’ll notice I said tongue not accent—there’s a difference. If I was to accent those same notes, it would sound like this: *plays excerpt.* But by just tonguing very lightly, it kind of gives each note a little push without over-articulating.

Now, when you combine the second exercise, I really felt like I was able to tongue like my favorite saxophonist. The second exercise is actually getting used to the feeling of the tongue resting on a vibrating reed. So when the reed vibrates, it vibrates freely but you touch the reed slightly with the tongue—and leave that tongue there, you get this sort of sound: *plays excerpt* and then I’ll release the tongue *plays excerpt.* So it’s this kind of native speaker, kind of articulation, where it’s not over-articulated, not under-articulated. It’s articulated to such an extent that you can hear the rhythm of the vocabulary. So listen to your favorite saxophonists play. Some of my favorites are:  Dexter Gordan, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker. They all articulate in many ways. By listening to that, and by practicing these exercises you’ll find that your articulation can by rhythmic, soulful, and swingin’ as well.  

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