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Trouble Shooting Beginner Saxophonist Issues
1. Overblowing the Octave

Q.  Could I bother you to ask a question that may seem rather trivial and naive? My 10 year old is learning to play the alto sax.  I don’t want to sound too proud but, it is his 4th instrument and he’s been playing the violin and piano for about 6 years (of his own initiative).  He also plays the trombone but has  really pressured us to play the sax also.  He is adopted and is very musical.  We aren’t so it is a learning experience for us.  I digress, but I wanted you to know he is not the usual 10 year old tooting on a sax. Anyway, we bought a used sax that everyone advised us had very nice tone. He has had only 4 lessons but is having a terrible time with his notes jumping up an octave.  He is using a #3 reed and it appears to be installed properly. His teacher said he was blowing too hard, but softer doesn’t seem to help. Is this a problem with his technique or should he try a different type of reed? The octave key seems to remain closed and not leaking air.  Do you have any suggestions? He is getting rather frustrated with it, and other than this problem (about every 8 notes or so particularly on G and A), he has nice sound.  Might it be his breathing? pressure? tongue? Thanks if you have the time to answer this and can give us any hints. Howard …

A. We never tire of hearing from nice folks about their saxual problems. Though the issue your talented son is having will doubtless resolve itself with time, I’ll make some observations that may serve to assuage his feelings and (hopefully) speed nature along. 4 lessons (I assume equates to about a month of play experience) is not a long time to develop the embrochure for a budding sax player. The saxophone, by design, is capable of harmonics for not only the accepted fingerings, but for some others developed over the years by adventurous players. This ability to break down the complex sounds of a saxophone into its harmonic components by manipulating the embrochure is of great benefit to advanced players. It makes possible playing above the normal range of the instrument, called altissimo, and actually playing this normally monotimbral instrument in a multitimbral fashion (as a violinist your son will know what that means). Both these techniques require the player to either tighten the embrochure and/or blow more forcefully than normal (called overblowing). In that sense, what your son is doing somewhat naturally is part of the skill set of very fine saxophonists. We just need to control when it is exercised a bit more for this point in his development. Think of it as having a young baseball player with a blinding fast ball, but a bit of a control problem. There is a heck of a lot more promise in this situation than with a kid who can throw strikes….albeit just to have them smashed out of the park cuz there is no speed behind ‘em ….

Now, some specifics. Have your son try to take a different amount of mouthpiece into his mouth. Since pinching can occur from either too much or too little mouthpiece, I’m not sure which way he needs to go….but he may need to change it one way or the other. The teacher should have observed this already, but who knows. Another observation is that the #3 reed is fairly stiff for this early in developing a woodwind embrochure. Without knowing what mouthpiece your son is using it’s difficult to say for certain, but intuitively, that’s a bit hard. A hard reed on a closed mouthpiece (the sort beginners usually play) is one element in introducing harmonics for advanced players. Your son’s present setup may be contributing to the problem.

Here’s an exercise to try if the obvious fails. On the surface it may sound a bit strange, but try it. Have your son try to intentionally create the overblow effect. First, have him start with the notes on which he most frequently has the trouble and intentionally try to alternate between the upper and lower octaves (without using the octave key). Then have him expand the range of the study to other notes. After he can play in either octave at will on single notes using only his ear and chops, have him play some music that involves octave passes — again — without using the octave key. If he can do these things successfully by this point your son should have developed his ear and chops to a degree where everything returns to normal when he uses the octave key.

Thus far we’ve assumed the sax is in proper adjustment, which may not be the case. Saxophones have two octave vents (some have 3) which change automatically when passing the G/A switch (hmmm) in the upper register. Just because the vent on the neck is closed it is not necessarily true that the lower vent returns to seal correctly. You might have the octave mechanism
checked….by someone other than the shop where you purchased the instrument.

Another mechanical source for problems such as yours can be unintentional venting of any of the upper pads on a sax. These are the high D, Eb and F palm keys and side high E or high F# (if so equipped). Your son could be unwittingly venting one of these keys, or there could be a mechanical problem that allows an unintentional vent. On older saxes (or newer ones with damage) the ferrules may have play (loose motion) such that pads do not consistently return to their seating position on the tone hole. The high F is especially vulnerable to this malady, and is the only palm key which has a guide to help keep it aligned. If the guide has been widened by either accident, adjustment or wear, there is the potential for this key to unintentionally vent. I would note that if one of these mechanical issues exists (except for player error, of course) the low notes will be hard to execute, if not impossible to play — when the problem is active. The really frustrating part is that the bad effects of worn or damaged keywork can come and go. If your son never has trouble playing from low D down to low Bb, a mechanical issue (except for him unintentionally putting pressure on palm keys), is not likely the source of the problem. Hope there is something here of help ….

Additional Comments
This may ruffle some feathers, but I’m going to say it anyway. It should not be necessary for a parent to have to do such leg work on a student’s difficulties. A competent teacher should know both the technique and technical aspects of teaching kids (or neophyte adults) to play a sax competently. There is definitely a bias in some circles against vintage saxophones. We see it in reports of teachers and band directors making unwarranted & disparaging remarks about these fine instruments. In the case of band directors you should know that it is not unusual for them to have ‘hook ups’ with local music stores, from which they actually receive some form of financial benefit by virtue of steering students to a particular store — or even to a particular instrument model. Out here on the plains of Oklahoma, where there are still American Bison, we view such crass commercialization of the school band experience much like the American Indians did the buffalo hunters leaving rotting carcasses of these noble animals simply to take the hides and tongues. Using one’s position of respect to influence young people to one’s advantage is as disgusting as rotting flesh, IMHO. Of course it’s only the few that taint the reputation of the many. Just be aware that it happens … and one technique is to intentionally let a kid become so frustrated over a simple issue that the parents are happy to spring for that shiny new sax from the Far East … the one with the 200% markup. We’re not talking about you unless you do this sort of thing …

2. Unwanted Harmonics

  I’ve been learning the sax now for about 5 months … and I’m on a 2 1/2 reed, now beginning a 3. The problem im having is when playing an upper register D somehow it sounds like an upper register A. I’ve checked the mechanics and things on the sax and it seems to work “as it should”. It might be the way I blow, but I don’t really think it’s that. I’m using an Elkhart II Alto Sax if that’s any help. Thank you, Jeb …

A. You’re getting an unwanted 5th interval harmonic. It sounds to me like you’re either lipping the reed too much (called pinching off) or your neck octave vent is slightly venting when it shouldn’t. On middle D just the body octave vent should open. It doesn’t take much of a vent to cause problems. You might see if another player has the same problem with your horn. That way you can isolate if its you or your ax. Best of luck …
Additional Comments
Harmonics are an important part of the way a saxophone sounds and functions. Though each tone on a saxophone sounds like one note to your ear, it is actually a bundle of several different related pitches, pleasurably blended by the physics of the instrument and of sound in general. The conical bore of a saxophone actually operates to increase the number of harmonics within the sound of the instrument — and thereby the complex sound we recognize as distinctive to the saxophone. When harmonics work the way we want them to the effect is pleasurable. When they don’t, the effect is a surprise to both audience and performer. One of the easier harmonics to separate out on a saxophone is a 5th interval. The 5th and the tonic have a very pleasant relationship to one another when played together, comprising two of the three portions of a simple major chord. As saxophonists we don’t usually think in terms of harmonies a lot, so go to a keyboard and play a tonic & 5th together (C/G, D/A, F/C) so you can hear what it sounds like. It’s sort of an Oriental overture sound, the one you hear in the movies when someone is approaching the emperor’s palace (you’ll find attaching mental images like that to intervals will help your ear training; i.e., the two words ‘some’ and ‘where’ that begin ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ are a full octave apart). 

As developing players build their chops, getting the notes to sound as intended grows easier. Until that point of competence is reached you will find that either too much or too little pressure on the reed can cause harmonics to separate on you when you don’t intend it. You will find that down low too little or too much pressure will cause harmonics to separate on you, while in the middle it’s mostly too much. Once the neck octave vent opens it’s too much & too little again. You might ask why bother to analyze a malfunction to such a degree. It’s a good question — and there’s a darned good answer: Being able to separate out harmonics when you want to makes some unique musical effects possible on your saxophone — effects that distinguish the very best players from the rest of the sax section. 

Once your chops and ear are each competent to play, you can think about the effects of intentionally separating out harmonics. Perhaps you’ve heard the term ‘altissimo’ before — and if you’ve listened to David Sanborn or Jr. Walker or Lenny Picket (of Saturday Night Live), you’ve heard them play notes that aren’t on the fingering chart that came with you elementary band method book. Well, that’s altissimo– which is playing notes above high F that aren’t contemplated in the keywork a saxophone is designed with. Exploring altissimo is a topic for another discussion, but I do want to say a couple things more here. 

Two altissimo notes have become a part of standard saxophone keywork over the years: the high E & F played using the front F button (just above B on your left hand). Early saxophones did not have this key, but some players figured out that by fingering an upper register C and slightly venting the high F pad the note that sounded was a good high F. If you’ve ever bumped the high F lever by accident (I know I have) you can easily see how such an accident led to the discovery that a saxophone will do things the designers didn’t intend. Shortly after discovering this high F shortcut, no doubt the experimentation expanded to the high E scenario while fingering an upper register G & venting high F. Since fingering the G leaves you with little to reach around & get the high F key open, someone rather brilliantly installed a little lever to close B & open high F all at once … and the front F was born. [I sort of imagine there was other experimentation going on amongst the early saxophonists, the results of which must have been on the whole rather ghastly -- considering no other keys made their way onto our beloved modern saxophone ...]

Conn started to make a front F button standard on branded altos, tenors & C-Melodies before W.W.I, but not on baris & basses until the 1930s. Buescher was farther behind, and did not make the front F standard on anything until the mid 1920s. King was still making Zephyr baris in the 1960s with no high F, so you may well run into a horn sometime in your sax life where you have to use the manual high F ‘accidental’ vent if you want that shortcut available. This may sound like a bunch of fluff to you at the moment, but it’s all part of understanding your instrument.

The last thing I want to say on altissimo here is that the high F# key is totally unnecessary, and most good players don’t even want it cluttering up their horn. The reason is that altissimo high F# is an easy extension of the normal range of your sax using the front F key. You just need to close the bis Bb pad in conjunction with the front F & octave key — and the easiest way to do that is to close the right hand F key (as in a fork Bb fingering). If you’re a pretty good player & are already accustomed to using the front F button give it a try. You may have to experiment with your embrochure to make it pop every time in the beginning, but soon the extra note will be yours to command …

Another application for intentional harmonic separation — actually sounding — is called multiphonics, which simply means playing more than one note at a time on your saxophone. Of course guitars & keyboards do this by design, but with saxophones you have to find ways to intentionally separate and sound two or more different harmonics from a single note. Multiphonics is much too complex a subject for here & now, but if you’re curious, Jason DuMars has published information on multiphonics at his wonderful site.

3. Sax Keywork & Fingering Charts

Q.  I am trying to learn to play a C-melody however I can’t seem to be able to locate a fingering chart can you help? Pat …

A. Same as every other sax, Pat … :-)

Q.  Thanks for the info. Then I can use an alto fingering chart? As you can see I am truly a beginner, but I play keyboard and can read music. Pat …

A. No problem, Pat. An alto fingering chart will work for every sax. The thing you may need to be aware of is that a few ‘extra’ keys have come & gone over he years, plus one has been added as standard since your sax was made. Your sax may not have a front F key, which was not fully standard on American made saxophones until after the Cmels had fallen into disuse (mid 1930s). When there is no front F there are only four pearl buttons for the left hand fingers (not counting the left pinky cluster), the top-most of which will be B. When the front F is present it will be the top key & B will be the second key. I’m telling you this because modern fingering charts will show a sax with the front F, or with five left hand buttons. All the fingerings for B on down will be the same as on the chart, so just ignore the fifth button on top of the diagram. It’s not for beginners, anyway.

The other things that you may find are on your sax but aren’t on a modern fingering chart are a G# trill and the mechanism for a special alternate Eb called a ‘fork Eb’. If present, the G# trill will be between your left hand F & E keys. The G# trill sits well out of the way, so just ignore it until you have mastered the basic sax fingerings. After that time it won’t be a big deal to play around with the G# trill to see how you might use it. The fork Eb probably won’t be on a sax fingering chart you can get today, either. It really doesn’t rely on a special key like the G# trill, but rather on an alternate mechanical operation that allows an Eb to sound when you lift the E key while playing a D. I won’t boar you with the mechanics, but there is a small extra pad that modern saxes don’t have that is opened when the E key is lifted. Best of luck in your new sax life, Pat …

Additional Comments
Fellow saxophone nerds can learn more about the G# trill & fork Eb mechanisms than is healthy for normal humans to know in our separate Q&A article on this subject. You’ll find some details on King & the H. N. White Company there, as well.

Saxophone keywork & mechanics are continually evolving in order to make our beloved instrument progressively user friendly. Ergonomics are also a concern for today’s saxophone designers, but let’s leave that topic for another article. Suffice it to say that those interested in how to modify their older saxophone’s ergonomics need only write in to spark the discussion.

The very first saxophones were much different mechanically than the instruments we play today. The first thing you would notice about an original Adolph Sax instrument is that it has two octave levers, not just the one as found on our modern saxophones with an automatic octave system. Early saxophone players had to manually select which octave vent they wanted to open: the lower (body) vent for D through G# and the upper (neck) vent for notes A and higher. If you’ve ever had a sax with its octave mechanism maladjusted you know just how critical it is to your performance that the one vent is completely closed when the other should be open. If you ever get the chance to play one of these manual octave system saxophones you will become instantly aware of just how significant an advancement the automatic octave mechanism is — and after the experience of playing one of these saxual fossils you will be much more qualified to diagnose mechanical maladies that involve your own automatic octave system instruments.

Early saxophones also did not have a bis Bb, making side Bb the player’s only option. G# was located on the left side of the saxophone, not between the two stacks as in modern saxophones, where it can be closed when playing in the lower stack. The lack of modern tone hole placement also affected other fingerings, such that side C and F# were much superior in sound and intonation than their fork fingering counterparts. Of course you had no low Bb at all, so the first saxes looked a lot like obese alto or bass clarinets. Top end keywork was often only to high Eb, and front F was but a glimmer in the eye of its inventor’s grandfather. Of course early virtuoso players discovered the altissimo possibilities opened by venting the high F in conjunction with other non-standard sax fingerings long before the button & linkage was added to make the maneuver possible for we mere mortal saxophonists. After the Sax patents expired the saxophone was open game for enthusiastic and imaginative instrument builders everywhere. Innovations began to flow. In the late 1800s we added bis Bb & low Bb as standard items, and also brought the G# around between the stacks so it could be easily closed by action of the lower stack. The automatic octave mechanism became standard in the early 1900s, and by WWI many saxophones also had the front F mechanism. Of course there were hold outs: Buescher didn’t offer the front F as a standard item until about 1925, and King kept the antiquated left side G# location until the Zephyr was introduced around 1935.

In the late 1920s Conn experimented with extended range saxophones — those with a range outside low Bb to high F. In the case of the (very rare) Conn-O-Sax, the keywork incorporated high F# & G on the top end, plus low A on the bottom end, making its range the greatest of any saxophone design that’s ever been attempted. The fact that the Conn-O-Sax is extremely rare is testament to the fact that bells & whistles don’t sell saxophones. The basic High F upper range is quite adequate for good players who can play above the normal range using altissimo techniques. And low A isn’t that much use except in the Eb saxophones, where the result is the commonly called for (in a musicality sense) concert C. Arrangers like to chart a low A (concert C) so the bari player can anchor the tonic on the widely used C chord. In the case of the Conn-O-Sax, which was made in the rather odd orchestral convention of F, the low A is a much less used concert E. Aside from guitar players, who do you know that likes to play in the key of E? No offense to our guitarist friends, of course …. :-)

So if you thought Selmer invented the low A saxophones, think again. Selmer did, however, experiment with low A models about the same time that Conn was selling offering the Conn-O-Sax. In fact there is a  reported surviving example of a Selmer low A C-Melody from the early 1930s. We also hear sporadic reports of other non-production Selmer saxophones of their various models that are keyed to low A and/or high F#, but I have a 1935 Selmer catalog that mentions nothing about either feature. Of course the Low A Selmer SBA bari is legendary, as is the Mark VI low A alto. You can see both from links on our Collection page. Though high F# is becoming a more popular addition to today’s new saxophones it is largely unnecessary. As Daddy was fond of saying when my mother wanted fancy options on her new car, “It’s just something else to have to fix.” Daddy wasn’t often wrong, either. Good players really don’t want a high F# crammed into their keyboard. There are no less than 17 alternate high F# altissimo fingerings (there are good reasons why altissimo fingerings can’t be uniform) from which to choose, and surely one will work for you on your sax. When I was a young, flexible player with excellent balance I could play low A on my tenor or old Conn low Bb 12M bari by swinging a knee over the bell opening. Those days are long past — and so are the days of adding low A to horns just cuz it could be done. What I can still do though, is play a high F# on any sax I pick up, using just about any mouthpiece that’s on it — and I seldom go past the first three or four most common alternate high F# fingerings before I find one that responds and sounds good on a given saxophone. ‘Nuff said …

A few very unusual saxophones have keywork up to high G, but I can only recall a couple such examples: The aforementioned Conn-O-Sax of the late 1920s was one, plus a few current Bb sopranos. There are also a few isolated instances where saxophones — past & present — are not keyed all the way to the top (high F) or bottom (low Bb) of the normal range. Until about 1932 baritone and curved soprano saxophones were often keyed only to high Eb. Until very recently bass saxophones were not always keyed to high F. To Wit: We have a Selmer bass sax made in 1958 that’s keyed just to high Eb. Likewise, C sopranos and Eb sopraninos were seldom keyed above high Eb. I’ve seen pix of one Buescher C soprano keyed all the way to high F, and my personal Yanagisawa ‘nino is keyed to high E — but that’s barely audible to humans, anyway. If keywork doesn’t add to a saxophone’s musicality there’s absolutely no reason to include it on an instrument.

But the main reasons the early, somewhat odd, saxophones weren’t keyed to the full normal modern saxophone range were technical issues. Engineering & manufacturing techniques simply wouldn’t permit either the tone holes or key system to operate these extended notes to be placed to effect accurate intonation and mechanical workability. With today’s computer aided design and manufacturing (CADAM) techniques, tone hole locations – large or small – can be accurately located (think latitude) for optimum intonation, and executed in positions (think longitude) where mechanically efficient keywork can reach them. What our saxophone designers need to keep in mind is that though technology provides the ability to do some pretty amazing things to a modern saxophone, it’s not advisable to do things just because you can. lest we forget, saxophones are made for players, not the amusement of engineers, or so marketeers can espouse the latest wild hair modifications as a reason everybody should get a new ax.

Speaking of wild hairs, in the mid 1930s Martin made a C-Melody that was keyed only from low C to high C# (nominally it said high C, but high C# is a freebie in the deal). To accomplish the low end range curtailment Martin truncated the bell at the low B tone hole length (it’s the NEXT lower open tone hole that typically fixes your horn’s pitch at a certain note), so this old dude really does look like an over fed bass clarinet. On the high end Martin simply didn’t add the tone holes or palm keys. There’s no side Bb or C, either, so your only choice for those notes is to use the fork fingerings. What can you say? It was cheap to build & it worked — we’ve even got one here in the CS stacks to prove it. The Martin home models were a clever try, but that still didn’t save the Cmel from extinction as Martin hoped. You would think somebody would learn, but …

Decades later Buescher tried a similar idea with their ‘Academy’ line of saxophones. These were a utilitarian version of the alto, tenor and even soprano saxophone aimed at the beginning student market. Buescher knew that kids wouldn’t buy in on fat bass clarinet-looking monstrosities, so they developed a way to vent the bell at the low B level with an uncovered tone hole. With the vent placement on the back of the bell — hidden down between bell & body — the kids couldn’t find it to laugh at, play with and stuff things into as a prank. From a slight distance then, the Buescher Academy saxophones looked quite ‘normal’. They were still missing the side & palm keys & tone holes — and they were painted a dull gold instead of being polished & lacquered — but the kids shouldn’t mind as long as the price was right for their parents, right? Wrong! What Buescher failed to take into account is that beginning students learn to play a C scale in a few days, and that acquiring the musicianship demanded for school band success meant learning to play in a number of the progressively more difficult musical keys before the new smell was off that silly painted Academy model saxophone. Go figure. The marketing department was wrong again … :-)

I could go on with oddities, but I think you have the basics on where we’ve come with saxophone keywork and some of the oddities that have resulted from experiments with the tried and true of what works in the real world. Some of our most unusual, rare and valuable saxophones have resulted from these experiments, so let’s be thankful for all those half baked ideas that somehow made it from the drawing boards into brass forms. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t do just about whatever it took to acquire a Conn-O-Sax today, as would any serious saxophile and collector. It’s quite amusing how something that Conn could not give away back in 1928 is now the most widely sought saxophone ever commercially produced.

special note:
CS is blessed to have visitors at all levels of saxual development, so please keep in mind that discussions like this one are merely meant to be informative & (hopefully) entertaining on the broadest of scales. If I were writing an academic paper along these lines it would have all the proper form & footnotes & sources & bibliography — and whatever else that’s required to make it acceptable for publication or submission to academia. But I’m NOT, so please accept this presentation for what it is — even if you disagree with something I’ve written. That’s a long way of saying that if you feel it’s necessary to ‘grade my paper’ you’re taking something way to serious … :-)

Here’s a ‘reprint of a prior CS ‘Featured Instrument’ article on the limited range saxophones produced by Martin & Buescher

Martin ‘Home Model’ C-Melody

Here’s an obscure piece of saxophone history, for certain. After the end of Prohibition there was a huge void to be filled in the major US saxophone builders’ production schedules where all the C tuned instruments used for home entertainment had been. Someone theorized that the folks who played C-Melodies at home probably didn’t venture very far from the simple key of C anyway, so why stuff all that cost into these instruments for tones holes, pads & keywork nobody used anyway? Martin accepted this challenge and proceeded to design simplistic saxophones to address the market niche they perceived existed. The result is this rather odd looking ‘Home Model’, keyed to play only from low C to high C … with high C# included as sort of a free bonus. Note from the pix the absence of any palm or side keys, and no chromatic F#. Since the instrument’s length is truncated at the point that produces low C, there’s no need in the rather bare looking left pinky cluster for low B or Bb paddles. You can almost overlook the absence of side & palm keys in the streamlined profile of this horn’s body, but that G# and C# standing all alone leave the poor thing looking much like a battlefield amputee. Bis or fork Bb are your only choices, so if you need to bone up on those alternates just grab one of these and honk out some blues riffs. It’s actually a sort of cool little horn to play. Doesn’t sound half bad, despite the super pug look it’s got going on. Since these are rather rare, it looks like our grandparents didn’t agree with me about the fun part of playing these things though … 

A little later Buescher picked up on the simplistic approach, introducing their ‘Academy’ line in alto, tenor, and even soprano. The Buescher Academy horns used the same abbreviated keywork, but took a different tack on tuning them to play just to low C. To accomplish the goal Buescher used a regulation saxophone low Bb bell with just one tone hole cut on the back side. That lone tone hole had no extended rim or cover, but it was placed so it permanently vented the sax for low C when that note is fingered. I suppose since the Academy horns were targeted at students, the idea was to make them look to the kids as much like a regular sax as possible — and not so curiously like a metal bass clarinet. Buescher didn’t fare much better than Martin with the KISS concept. It didn’t fly for students any more than for the home audience, but there do seem to be more of the Academy horns around than these cute little Martins. If we can ever find an Academy in collectible condition we’ll put up some pix for posterity. Then you’ll be able to say you’ve seen it all … :-)

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