Tackling Tuning on Saxophone

Monday, December 07, 2015 


Although most of us know that we should work on our tuning, how do we actually improve it?


Most of us will pull out a tuner every now and then or perhaps check our tuning at the start of a band rehearsal, but how many of us make tuning part of every practice session?


The fact is, tuning is essential to us as sax players, not only so that we can fit with other musicians musically, but also to improve the quality of our own sound and playing. So, just like we work on tone and technique, tuning should be part of our regular practice regime.


A symptom of other issues

Every player who is aware of their tuning can identify certain notes on their instrument that are more difficult to get in tune. Generally this is just due to instrument design. Every sax will have some notes that are just more problematic than others.


However, if you’re having major issues with your tuning then chances are that you need to have a look at what is happening with your embouchure.


Biting too much on high notes or moving your embouchure too much between low and high notes can cause havoc with your tuning. So, if you’re having these issues then the first step is to spend some time getting your embouchure set at a good comfortable position where you can get a warm round sound on a middle note before moving forward.


If you’re embouchure is ok but you are still having big tuning problems then it might be worth getting you sax checked over by a good repairer. The pad openings on your sax can really affect tuning and this can sometimes be an issue with a poorly setup instrument.


Gear up

Although the tuning fork has been with us since before the sax was even invented, thankfully these days we have some more hi-tech ways to easily check our tuning. There are loads of standalone tuners available for just a few pounds, however your smartphone is, in my opinion, the best solution.


There are a number of great cheap or free tuner apps around these days. My personal favourite is ‘Cleartune’ which has a nice clear interface and is very accurate. Actually my only criticism would be that it’s too accurate but don’t let that put you off.



Smartphone tuners and transposition

If you are using a tuning app then chances are it will display the pitch in concert key or piano tuning. As sax players this will mean that the note name displayed on the app will be different to what you are actually playing since our saxophones are either in the key of Eb (alto / bari) or Bb (soprano / tenor).


With some apps you can change the default key. On cleartune just tap the “i” in the bottom left corner, then adjust the “Transposition” setting for your instrument.


Starting point

OK. So you’re confident that your embouchure is right and your sax is in good order. Where to start?


The first and most obvious thing to consider is that your sax is warmed up. If you live in a cold climate this is really important. And, don’t forget that if you are playing in a cold room, the top of your saxophone could be warm whilst the bottom (bell) is still stone cold. This is bad for tuning and can drive you crazy. So, blow some long tones first to get your instrument and embouchure warmed up.


Start in the middle

If you haven’t worked on your tuning before, or it’s been some time since you checked it, then always start in the middle of your range. Check your G, A or B first with your tuner and adjust the mouthpiece in or out so that your note is in tune. These notes will be your ‘control’ notes that you know are always in tune.


Interval power

One of the best ways to get your tuning under control quickly is to use intervals. Improving your tuning is all about developing your ear and your ability to ‘hear’ the pitch you are going for. So, starting out with familiar intervals like an octave or a 5th works great.


Start out by playing one of your middle range notes like G, then move to octave G while watching your tuner. Try the same on an A and continue working your way up the instrument, checking your tuning as you go.


When you feel confident and are pitching your notes accurately, try the same exercise without watching the tuner. Just check the tuner once you’ve arrived on each octave note. This way you are using your ear to guide your tuning, not your eyes.


The same exercise works great using jumps of a fifth, and you can add some spice by working around the cycle of fifths as you play through the intervals (download the “Tuning Workout” for some examples of this).



Melody muscle

Another great way to develop your ear and work on your tuning is to use melody snippets. Building an interval into a short melodic idea will test you more than just playing the notes by themselves. Try working through these ideas in different keys and, like before, start by watching the tuner, then trusting your ear and cross checking the interval notes.


Another fun exercise is to find tunes that include a familiar interval leap. A good example is “Somewhere over the Rainbow” which uses an octave in the first phrase.


Practice playing through that melody while checking your tuner. Try it in different keys to push yourself further.


Mixing it in

Practicing your tuning with these exercises in isolation is great but the next step is to continually measure your tuning during the rest of your practice. It’s a good idea to keep your tuner handy on you music stand as you are practicing. From time to time, stop during a phrase and check your tuning, particularly for exposed notes or at the end of difficult phrases. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to miss a sharp middle D or high palm key note like top E in a phrase.

Work on it as a section

If you play in a sax section either with a band or as a quartet, put some time aside to work on tuning as a group. Long tones as a whole section work great but you can also try playing slow scales together. Slow unison melody lines are also a great challenge.


Fixing small tuning issues within a section can make a massive difference to the overall sound.


Final thoughts

These are just a few ideas to get you off and running with tuning. Remember though, that tuning needs to become a habit. This is not a ‘learn once and put it away’ skill.


Become a little obsessive about your tuning and find new ways to challenge yourself with it. The more work you do and more accurate you become, the better your ear will be. And that will help to boost your playing in lots of ways.


Next steps:

Download the tuning workout sheet:

Tuning Workout Tuning Workout (43 KB)

Try Sax School for free

About the blog:

I created this blog to share my experience touring and performing over the last 30 years all over the world with big bands, jazz ensembles, symphony orchestras and touring shows. I've pretty much worked in every part of the music business from soloist to band leader, musical director, studio musician and even managing an orchestra in London's west end. I love talking about saxophone and helping others to reach their saxophone goals. Most importantly though, I want to hear about your progress, challenges and victories on the road to learning sax. Leave me a comment to start the conversation! Nigel McGill
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