How do I get that cool growling effect on my sax?

I’m asked this question constantly from Sax School students! Growling or a growl sound is a brilliant effect when playing Blues, Jazz or Pop / Smooth Jazz saxophone but it can be tricky to get right.

In this video you’ll learn my two favourite growl techniques. These are the best way to get an authentic growl sound on alto or tenor sax. You can also use this skill on soprano or baritone sax too – it works everywhere!

This lesson is from one of our monthly Q&A sessions that is included with Sax School Membership.

Each month we answer questions on saxophone tone, technique and learning resources to help students with learning saxophone.

What is the best way to growl on my sax?

This depends on your preference. In the lesson above I show two different techniques that I use regularly. Each has it’s own sound so I use them differently depending on the style of music I am playing.

Let me explain:

Technique 1: Growling on sax with your voice

The most common way to growl on alto or tenor saxophone is to “sing” through your saxophone when you play. This sounds complicated and can feel uncomfortable at first.

Stick with me!

The best way to start is to begin by playing an easy note on your sax – an octave G is a good starting point.

Once you are playing the note, try engaging your vocal chords to get an “Aaahhhh” sound. It doesn’t need to be in tune or pretty. If you get it right, your sax tone will become very rough and “growly” – that’s what we are going for.

If you are struggling with this, try doing it in reverse (I find this more difficult!)

To do this, put your sax in your mouth as if you are going to play a note. Form your embouchure as normal but start by singing through your sax.

Again, it doesn’t need to be in tune or pretty, just an “Aaaahhh” sound will do.

Next, increase your air until your reed begins to vibrate at the same time.

With practice this will become easier to do. Once you have it, experiment with using your growl over as much of your range as possible.

A great example of this “vocal growl” is Sam Butera playing “Night Train”:

Technique 2: Rolling your tongue while playing sax – the “One Step Beyond” sound!

Most of us have heard the iconic sax part from “One Step Beyond” by British SKA band Madness.

It’s “down and dirty” but such a brilliant sound. Lee Thompson gets that effect by rolling his tongue instead of using his voice.

Here is how to try this on your saxophone:

Firstly, the “rolling” effect with your tongue is exactly the same as the sound used in certain languages. It’s also called “trilling”.

The effect is created by keeping your tongue very relaxed and using a stream of air to make your tongue “flutter”.

Here’s a great video to help you with this:

Once you can get a flutter (or roll, or trill!), then move onto your sax.

Put your saxophone in your mouth and form an embouchure as if you are about to play a note. Instead, just start blowing enough to get your tongue moving.

Then, gradually increase your air until your reed engages and starts to vibrate. You’ll have both the reed sound AND your tongue roll or flutter.

To develop a decent sound you’ll need to practice combing your tongue and reed with some long tones. Low notes work better here, but it’s a good idea to stretch yourself over as much of your range as possible.

Which technique works best for you?

Experiment with both of these to find which works best on your sax. Ideally it’s best to be comfortable using either so you are prepared next time you need to get an awesome growl sound on your sax!

Enjoyed this and want more lessons?

Check out the full range of step by step lessons inside Sax School. Find out more and get started here: www.mcgillmusic.com

Nigel McGill

After 25 years touring, performing all over the world, I setup Sax School to share what I have learned. Today thousands of players in more than 70 countries use the huge library of online saxophone lessons in Sax School. Find out how it can help you too! www.mcgillmusic.com