DJ Sax is such a cool style of playing and it’s something that we are focusing on with our Sax School members this month.
If you like this style, and if you’re curious to know a bit more about it, then stick around. I’ve invited top DJ Sax artist from California, Jason Whitmore to tell us all about the style and show us how we can play it as well.
It’s Jason who’s playing at the start of this video and he’s going to share some background to DJ Sax, and show us in just a few easy steps we can start to make our own DJ Sax solos that sound really convincing.
There’s a free PDF for us as well, which you can get from our Locker. Don’t forget to grab it – you’ll get access to all of our other free resources in there too.
Jason Whitmore introduces DJ Sax
DJ Sax music is one of the most exciting genres of music that’s come out for us saxophone players in the last couple of decades.
I’m Jason Whitmore and I’m a saxophonist based in Southern California. I’ve been playing DJ Sax music for at least a couple of decades now. And I want to share with you how you can get started in learning about this genre and starting to play this music yourself.
You’ve probably heard some of those iconic saxophone dance music tracks out there like Jubel or Mr. Saxobeat. Maybe you’ve even learned those melodies and learned how to play along with them yourself.
But today we want to talk about creating something new and different to the song. And when we can create something that’s not already on track, we’re going to create a unique experience for the audience. And it’s going to be a whole lot more fun for the listeners as well as yourself.
Now, before we get started, I want you to grab the free PDF that goes along with this lesson. It’s going to give you some of the basic building blocks that we’re going to use in creating music for this style.
Discovering DJ Sax
I first discovered this style in a nightclub in Miami. I saw a DJ with a saxophonist, and percussionists playing bongos, performing together. And I thought it was cool and unique and eclectic and unexpected.
Fortunately, I had a lot of friends who are DJs and club owners, and club promoters out here on the West Coast. So I started talking to them and got my first opportunity to perform with a DJ. And I loved it.
I’m a classically trained saxophonist with a degree in music. And I’ve played all genres of music; I love jazz, and smooth jazz and fusion. I love the blues, R&B and funk. But I love dance music too.
And you know, up until a couple of decades ago, there were no saxophone roles in that. But fortunately, I was able to get with my friends, the DJs and club promoters, and make a place for myself. I loved to be involved in that energy in the nightclubs. And you know, now in the last couple of decades, it’s become a really big part of my saxophone career. And I love what I do.
What is DJ Sax
Now, whether you call it house music, pop music, EDM (Electronic Dance Music), Chill House, Tech House… There are a lot of names for it, but really what we’re talking about is popular music played by a DJ in a scenario where people are dancing. It’s as simple as that.
And with DJ Sax, we are adding a little more live element to it. Over the last couple of decades, since I’ve been doing it, it’s become a lot more popular. I feel like people are starting to expect to see something more than just the DJ playing the tracks.
Learning on Sweet Dreams
As an example, we’re going to look at “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics. It’s classic 80s too, and it’s been remixed into some modern variations that I hear playing in the clubs all the time now.
The structure of the track
And we’re going to start with some very specific structured scales, and some specific rhythms, that fit well with this track. Overall, it’s really important to play within the structure of a song.
The good thing about music like this is that it’s very formulaic. You should be able to hear eight-bar phrases typically. You should be able to hear where the melody is, where there’s a verse section, where there’s a buildup of energy, and then a beat drop. These are all very calculated portions of the music. You want to make sure that you’re playing within those structures and moving the song in the same direction.
One thing I recommend when you’re learning a new song is first of all, to put the horn down. Play the song, listen to it intently, and imagine what you feel that sax line could be. You could even sing it to yourself.
It’s really important to kind of take your saxophone out of the equation and just really focus on listening with a listener’s ear. We want to make sure that the listeners buy into what you’re playing. It should sound like it was designed to be a part of the song.
So start by listening to the track. You’ll hear that it is in the key of C minor. An alto saxophone, that’s A.
We are going to use a pentatonic scale which is just a simple five-note scale. Pentatonic scales work really well in this style, and in fact in most pop music. In most of this type of dance music, the pentatonic scale is your best friend. This will be your most important tool.
So for alto sax it’s an A minor pentatonic, and we’re going to use the first, third, fourth, fifth, and flat seven degree of the scale.
So that’s A, C, D, E, G, A.
Now, if you want to spice that scale up just a little bit, you want to use that tritone, which is the D sharp in between the D and the E.
Playing with the Vocals
One technique I like to use a lot is to play along with the vocalist. Now, you don’t want to cover up the vocalist. You want to let the melody be heard and stand on its own. But if there is space in between verses, or in between lines, it’s nice to fill in there. So it feels like you and the vocalists are playing off one another.
Watch as Jason demos this on the video
You’ll notice I just put a couple of these ideas right in between the vocal parts. The idea is to try to connect with the vocalist, as if we’re working together, not against each other.
Another thing I think it’s really important to understand is to get a feel for the overall vibe, the overall mood of the song. This tune is in a minor key. It’s got a dark, very ominous mood. It’s very synthesizer-heavy. But when you listen to any like any Lennox’s vocals, she’s got a lot of soul. She sounds almost like a gospel singer, singing with this dark, ominous vibe.
So that pentatonic blues scale, especially with that tritone, is a great set of ingredients to use in a tune like this. It matches that dark, gospel-style tone that the vocal puts down.
The Solo Section
So now we’re going to look at how to apply that over the next section of the song, which is a little more open to solo over and play something more free-form.
Watch Jason’s demo on the video
Remember, if you’re practicing along with this song, or any music in this genre, make sure that you’re listening to the structure of the song. You’ll notice that my solo example was only about eight measures. I could hear that the vocal was about to come in and I made sure and I led my intensity right up to that moment, and then pulled out of the way. With that kind of intention, it’s going to be more enjoyable to the audience. They’re going to feel that your sound, even though it was improvised at that moment, was designed to be in the original production of the song. So if we can make them believe that, then we’ve done our job.
Recapping the Techniques
So here’s a reminder of the tools that we talked about so far.
- Keep your ideas simple
- Use a basic harmonic structure such as the five notes of the pentatonic scale
- You could add a sixth note with that little spicy tri-tone
- simple rhythmic ideas.
Remember to also use repetition. So, play an idea, repeat it, and come back to it. Come back to that idea at the same portion of the song later, and that helps tie everything together.
And remember when not to play. If the vocalist has the forefront of the song, let them have the forefront and stand back and wait for that silence or that moment in between the vocals.
Read the Room
I play some gigs which are small cocktail hour-style settings, where people aren’t necessarily dancing. Maybe they’re just mingling, or they’re sitting down, or they’re having drinks.
If I play a festival, there could be thousands of people out there dancing.
There’s a different style for every scenario. So read the room. Play accordingly. Make sure that you’re applying within the context of not just the song, but also the audience.
Tips for Playing DJ Sax
#1: Keep it Rhythmical.
You don’t need a whole lot of notes or crazy, colourful lines to get across what you’re trying to say. This music is all about rhythm. It’s all about dancing. So use simple rhythms. It’s a great idea to borrow a rhythm that’s already used in the vocal line or some other main instrument in the song.
#2: Use Repetition.
Pop music is all about repetition. It creates familiarity. So, you know, play a lick or a certain line, and repeat that. And when you’re playing a lick over a certain section of that song, when that section repeats, repeat that line as well.
#3: Use Clear Phrasing
In this kind of music, there’s almost always strict eight-bar phrases. You should be able to hear where the melody is, where the beat drop is, or where there’s an open solo section. So try to play within those sections. That makes it feel like what you’re playing was designed to be in that piece in the beginning.
#4: Read the Room
When you’re playing a song on one gig, you might not play it the same way as you’re going to play it on another gig. Sometimes I’m playing in a small sort of cocktail hour environment where dancing isn’t necessarily the main activity. So I may play a song, and maybe I’ll play lines an octave lower. I’ll play the volume a little bit differently. I may play things just a little bit differently to meet the vibe of the room, as compared to playing at a big festival or in a dance club when people are hands in the air and everything’s crazy! So make sure you read the room and try to play within the context of the mood of what’s going on.
I hope you enjoyed this introduction to DJ Sax.
Don’t forget to grab the free PDF – it’s in our Locker.
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