Michael Brecker’s introduction to the track “Delta City Blues” is possibly one of the most awe inspiring examples of overtones on sax, but understanding what he is doing can help us master overtones too.
Overtones are a great way to improve your tone quality and are a gateway to the altissimo range. Although lots of us understand the principle behind overtones, most of us struggle to be anywhere near as consistent as Brecker on “Delta City Blues”.
Of course the main answer to this is simply – Practice! However, breaking down the intro to “Delta City Blues” gives us a great insight into the sort of things we can practice in order to strengthen our overtone chops, and begin to master them once and for all.
First, a quick introduction…
If you are new to overtones here is a quick overview to get your started. Overtones are produced on sax when we overblow a low note like bottom Bb, B or C (the “fundamental”) to get a higher tone (the “overtone”).
Because of the physics of sound, overtones occur in a standard pattern. From the fundamental note (in this example a low C) the overtones always occur at the octave, then fifth above that, second octave, then up to the third, and then fifth. They continue beyond here but generally these are the most easy to get overtones, and the most useful for practice.
The overtones occur in the same pattern from low Bb and low B also:
Getting the overtones to sound consistently does take some practice. Arching your tongue really helps plus trying to picture the overtone pitch you are going for before you play it.
After a brilliant introduction, Brecker starts the main groove which is repeated a number of times as the band kicks in. The harmony behind the groove is a simple 12 bar blues, and the groove is very metrical, comprising almost entirely of quavers or eighth notes.
Pulling it apart
If we look at the first bar you can see how Brecker is playing low C as the fundamental, but producing the overtones of high G and then high C in the first phrase. I have written the fundamental notes with lines through them, the note above is the overtone you are going for.
First try playing the overtones as normal notes on your sax to get the sound of the melody line. Then, try playing through this phrase holding down the low C as the fundamental for the 2nd and 3rd notes, while producing the overtones as indicated.
This phrase is a bit of a finger twister and in itself is a great workout exercise. It’s so important to start very slowly and aim for complete accuracy as you work through it. If you can consistently play this first measure 8 or more times with the overtones sounding perfectly then you’re ready to move on.
Check out some of the other bars in the groove for more excellent overtone workouts. In bar 10 Brecker moves between two fundamental notes: low B natural and low Bb. This is tricky so start off by playing through the melody line as normal notes on your sax: G – high B natural – high D – middle B natural. Get the sound of it in your mind before you have a go at the overtones.
Tonguing each note will make it much easier to get the overtones out. Take your time and again aim for complete accuracy.
The last bar of the groove is another brilliant workout. Here Brecker is playing three overtones from the one fundamental (low Bb) in a row – just like the way you might first practice your overtones as you’re learning them. It’s an excellent challenge to aim for complete accuracy with your overtones as part of this phrase, and working on it slowly will really improve your flexibility.
There is no getting away from the fact that overtones are difficult. And practicing them will probably drive everyone else in your house crazy, but don’t let that put you off working on them!
The benefits of getting your overtones under control are huge for your playing in general. Even if you don’t plan on performing “Delta City Blues” any time soon, building your strength and dexterity on overtones will make a huge difference to the quality of your tone and your embouchure strength.
Go for it!
Download the worksheet PDF: