Saxophone Vibrato

Steve Goodson

Saxophone Vibrato
by Paul R. Coats

As a teenager I had asked an older player how to produce vibrato.  “When you play with enough emotion, it’ll just happen naturally,” I was told.  Hmmm.  Yes, but how?

Vibrato is a pulsation in the tone of pitch, volume, timbre, and/or a combination of these three.  Vibrato is produced in a different manner on various instruments.  On the violin, it is produced by wiggling the finger holding the string against the fingerboard.  The flutist pulses the diaphragm to change the air speed.

Moving the jaw up and down in a rhythmic motion best produces vibrato on the saxophone.  Other methods produce less than satisfactory results (giving the “nanny goat vibrato”).

As soon as the student is capable of producing a nice basic tone quality (see my Tone Production for Beginners) he should begin vibrato studies.  Have the student play a long tone, such as his low register G (concert Bb).  He should lower the jaw a far as possible and still produce the tone, about one quarter inch.  Then slowly bring the jaw up to the normal playing position.  Have the student repeat this, doing it very slowly.  Let the student experiment to see how far he can drop the jaw, and still produce a tone.  The results will sound horrible, but don’t worry.  This is best practiced while everyone else is out of the house.

The saxophone vibrato is produced by starting at the normal pitch level, dipping below pitch, and coming back up, in a cycle.  So now the fun begins.  Have the student practice his scales, applying these vibrato exercises, thus killing two birds with one stone.

With the teacher conducting 4/4, at 78/min, have the student play a scale, whole notes.  Drop the jaw on the first beat, bring it back up on beat two, down on the third beat, up again on beat four:  Wah-ooo-wah-ooo; (next note) wah-ooo-wah-ooo; (next note) etc.  Up and down the scale.  The jaw should move from the normal position, down about one-quarter inch, then back up.  At this speed the student is playing two pulsation per whole note.  Repeat this for about 10 minutes a day for a few days.

Now have the student play a simple scale, such as concert Bb.  With a quarter note for each step of the scale, there should be four pulsation of the jaw for each quarter note.  Tempo should be about 60 beats/min, qt note = one beat.  Jaw movement should be as much as possible, about one-quarter inch.  “Wah-wah-wah-wah; (next pitch) wah-wah-wah-wah; (next pitch) wah-wah-wah-wah;” etc., up and down the scale.  Use a metronome!  Tap the foot!  Ignore the raucous tone!  Play out with a good forte volume.  Grate on Mom’s nerves.  If people are not making nasty comments, it is not being done correctly.

Repeat the above exercise 15 minutes daily for two weeks.  No faster, but the student may practice other scales.

After two weeks, speed up the metronome to 66 beats/min.  At this faster speed the student will have to reduce the jaw movement a little.  Repeat the exercise on various scales for another week.

Speed up the metronome to 72 beats/min.  Reduce jaw motion to be able to play at this faster speed.  Yes, another two weeks.

Speed up the metronome to 76 beats/min, reducing jaw motion as required.  Another boring two weeks.

Now up to 82 beats/min.  Jaw motion should be about 1/32” by this time.  It should be sounding like vibrato.

Page 2—Vibrato

The “going rate” for vibrato pulsation, according to the Larry Teal “The Art of Saxophone Playing” is from 4 pulses/beat at 78 b/m up to 4 pulses/beat at 96 b/m.

Practice the scales with vibrato for two notes, no vibrato for two notes, etc.  Being able to turn vibrato on and off is an important skill.

At no time should the student be led to believe that all music should be played with a certain number of pulsations per beat.  This is not so.  The exercises above are only for the development of the control of vibrato.  Have the student play 4 pulses/beat at 90 b/m.  Repeat the same scale exercises, but now use a tempo of 60 b/m, but use 6 pulses/beat.  Repeat the scale again, but at 120 b/m.  This time use 3 pulses/beat.

When playing a lyrical part, keep the vibrato flowing, but at a pulsation rate independent of the tempo.  A slow ballad may require a slower vibrato.  An intense piece may require a faster vibrato.

In general, high instruments, such as soprano and alto saxes, will use a slightly faster solo vibrato than low instruments, such as baritone sax.  In soli passages, the lower members of the section should try to match the speed and depth of vibrato of the lead player.

When playing soli with instruments that do not use vibrato, such as clarinets, French horns, etc., the sax section should usually play “sans vibrato”.  When playing with oboes, flutes, strings, etc., the saxes should use vibrato.  If in doubt the player should consult the section leader or band director and mark his music accordingly.

Fast, technical passages should usually be played with no vibrato.

In jazz band (a.k.a. “big band”, or “stage band”) or theater pit band, when playing older pieces the sax section will usually play with a big, juicy vibrato.  More modern jazz band pieces may require a “straight tone”.  In typical jazz style, a soloist may hit a long note with a straight tone, and add just a little vibrato when tapering off at the end.  (I had been guilty of this in my classical playing in college, too much jazz playing!)  The saxophonist must learn when and how to apply vibrato to his tone.

Without changing the basic tone quality (or mouthpiece/reed setup) a saxophonist may sound classical or jazzy by simply changing the style of his vibrato.  The vibrato is so basic to the saxophone tone that this simple change will alter the listener’s perception of the tone quality to a great degree.

In the final result, the vibrato should blend in with the tone of the saxophonist so as to be in intricate, inseparable part of the player’s sound.

I suggest listening to recordings by the many fine jazz players from all eras, as well as fine classical players such as Jamal Rossi and Paul Brodie.  It will help the student to emulate fine artists, copying their tone and style.  Then soon, the student will be able to develop his own individual tone.

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