How to tune your saxophone
One part of practising so often overlooked is tuning. Tuning is really important, particularly if you are playing with other musicians. However, even if you are just playing alone, a good sense of tuning will help you to have a better overall sound, and musicality.
Tuning is not only about individual notes on your instrument but how each note on your range compares to the others. Every instrument has certain notes that are more difficult to keep in tune. Understanding your particular instrument and how to deal with it’s tuning will make a huge difference to the quality of tone you can produce.
So how do we work on tuning?
The first step is to get hold of a music tuner. Traditionally standalone digital tuners were the way to go, and you can get a digital tuner online or from your music store quite cheaply. The other option, and one which I use daily, is to get a tuner app on your smartphone. There are tons of these available - some free or very cheap.
Getting Tuned up
Before starting any tuning exercises make sure your sax is nicely warmed up. A cold sax will always sound flat. Also, if you are practising in a really cold room you might find that the top of the sax is warm but the bottom is cold. This is going to make your low notes flat, and your top notes sharp! So if your sax is cold, blow some air through it to get it up to room temperature. You could also do some long notes to get the whole instrument up to temperature.
Once warmed up make sure your sax is in tune overall. A chromatic tuner will show your tuning on any note, but it’s best to start by checking the notes, A and F# in both your low register and upper register (with the octave key on). These notes are good to check because they are in the middle range of the sax and aren’t traditionally problem tuning notes.
Why does my tuner show a different note to what I'm playing?
Generally a tuner will display the note it hears in concert pitch - or what note it is on a piano or guitar. Because saxophones are in a different key than piano, the note displayed on your tuner may be different from the note you are playing. Here's how it works:
Alto or Baritone sax
All alto and bari saxes are in the key Eb. This means a C on the alto = an Eb on the piano.
Alto = piano
A = C
F# = A
(i.e. the piano note is 3 half steps or semi-tones higher than the sax note)
Tenor or Soprano sax
All tenor and soprano saxes are in the key Bb. This means a C on the tenor = a Bb on the piano.
Tenor = piano
A = G
F# = E
(i.e. the piano note is 2 half steps or one full tone lower than the sax note)
OK, so how do I adjust my tuning?
Start by playing a solid long tone on each of these notes while watching your tuner display. If your tuner says you are playing sharp, or too high, then move your mouthpiece out slightly on the neck cork.
If your tuner shows your sound to be a little low or flat, then you will need to push your mouthpiece further in on the neck cork.
As a general rule, most saxophones are roughly in tune with about 1 cm or 1/2 an inch or cork showing beyond the mouthpiece. When making adjustments to the mouthpiece position, only move a millimeter or so at a time and then re-check with your tuner.
With some practice you will soon get to know where your mouthpiece needs to be on your sax to be in tune and the process of tuning becomes much faster. It is however a great idea to make tuning part of your daily routine. Even if you have been playing for years there will still be notes that you can improve your tuning on!
This article is an excerpt from
"The Ultimate Guide to Practising Saxophone" by Nigel McGill.