Without a doubt, getting started on the “altissimo” range of the saxophone is tricky.
Nearly every player struggles with getting these notes at first and it’s difficult to believe how easy pro players make them sound.
Unlike the lower notes on sax that sound by just getting the fingerings right, the altissimo notes require a combination of tricky “overtone” fingerings
with embouchure and breath control to make a decent tone.
So, this brings a few extra issues into play.
Altissimo notes are basically overtones, which are the higher partial sounds of the fundamental or standard notes on sax. Producing overtones is tricky because you need to make slight adjustments inside your throat and mouth as well as mentally visualising the tone itself. Sounds a bit “airy fairy” but to be honest, you will struggle to accurately pitch an overtone without imagining the sound first.
Practicing your overtones first will really help with playing altissimo notes. There is a lesson in Sax School under “notes and skills” to get you started but here are some tips that will help:
1. Experiment with your tongue position.
Try flattening your tongue when playing. Getting overtones to work takes tiny adjustments to your tongue position. Find what works for you and remember how it feels for next time!
2. Keep your throat open.
It’s really important to have plenty of air to get your overtones sounding clearly. An open throat is essential, and will help your playing in general.
3. Visualise the pitch before you start.
Work out the sound of the note you’re going for – either play the octave below first and imagine the higher note, or check the note on a piano. Try singing the pitch to yourself and then remember the pitch when starting to play the overtone note. In your sax playing in general it is such good practice to hear the pitch first. It really helps with tone and intonation.
OK, so what about the Altissimo notes already!
Altissimo notes are difficult to get. Be patient and systematic when starting to learn them. One of the tricky things about altissimo notes is that there are multiple fingerings possible. Some fingerings will work better than others on your particular sax. You will need to try each fingering to find which is best.
Here’s some tips that will help get you started:
1. Go slowly!
Take your time and go slowly from note to note. Concentrate on getting the best sound you can each time.
2. Check your fingers.
Make sure you have the fingerings correct. Try using a mirror to see what’s going on at the end of your hands. Remember how they feel for next time. If you’re struggling with the fingerings practice them without blowing first. Some of the finger shapes are difficult.
3. Work your way up
Start with front E fingering and work you way slowly up chromatically to F, F# and then G. Aim for your best tone on each note. It’s always easier to go from a note you can get a great sound on first.
4. Try different fingerings
One may work better than another on your sax. The two most popular fingerings are listed here.
5. How much mouthpiece are you using?
Be careful to not use too little mouthpiece – this will make playing your altissimo notes much harder. Too much mouthpiece will sound harsh but if you’re getting a thin sound, try using a bit more.
6. How does it feel?
You’re learning not only new fingerings but making changes to your embouchure. When you get a sound you like, take a moment to think about how it feels and remember that for next time.
Getting good at your altissimo will take time but if you’re patient and practice carefully, you’ll be playing high notes like a pro before you know it!
Here’s the fingering for High G:
Using your front fingerings for high E, F and F# works best when working your way up to altissimo G.
Downloads for this lesson:
Get the High G fingering chart for these fingerings along with the G fingerings above.
Worksheet: Altissimo G finger chart for saxophone