One of the best ways to learn and create your own playing style is to check out some famous saxophone players.
Let’s dive deeper into the following:
- Overview of the famous sax players to learn from
- Discuss unique styles and techniques used by various saxophonists
- Explore modern trends in musical style and instrument with Sax School
Famous Saxophonists to Help You Learn Playing Saxophone
By taking the time to listen to as many great recordings from great saxophone players as possible, you will start to get an idea of what style of playing you like. Whether you play alto sax or tenor, or even soprano or baritone, we’ve picked some sax legends to inspire you.
The next step, of course, is to try to imitate their style and sound
Here are just a few great players in jazz history as a starting point:
July 25, 1906 – May 11, 1970
Johnny Hodges was Duke Ellington’s band lead alto saxophone player and section leader for many years and one of the most awesome big band alto saxophonists. Hodges has a great sound on the alto and is famous for his note bends and wonderful vibrato. He also has an amazing sense of rhythm and melody.
|Horn||Horn: Buescher “Aristocrat” / Vito “System” altos|
|Mouthpiece||Berg Larson / Gayle|
|Great track||All of Me – Duke Ellington, the Great Paris Concert|
August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955
Charlie Parker was one of the most influential musicians and best jazz saxophonists of all time. Parker played a leading role in the development of the Bebop jazz style, which came about in the 1940s.
|Mouthpiece||Brilhart Tonalin, Runyon Modele 22, and metal Berg Larsen|
|Albums to check out||Now’s the Time – The Quartet of Charlie Parker – Verve|
|Great track||The Complete Master Takes – Spotlite Records 559 859-2.
September 15, 1928 – August 8, 1975
A very exciting and energetic alto saxophonist, Cannonball Adderley was famous for playing with the Miles Davis sextet and on the immortal album Kind of Blue. Adderley also had great success with his own Sextet featuring his brother Nat on the trumpet.
Check out this transcription of his iconic solo on “Groovy Sambas.”
|Horn||Alto Sax (King Super 20 / Selmer Mk VI)|
|Albums to check out||Kind of Blue – Blue Note | Somethin’ Else – Blue Note | Cannonball’s Bossa Nova|
November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969
Coleman Hawkins is often credited as the first really important jazz musician to play saxophone. He has a beautiful lyrical style with an amazing swing feel. You can checkout his playing on Body and Soul for a masterclass in melodic playing.
|Horn||Tenor Saxophone by SML|
|Mouthpiece||Otto Link Metal|
|Albums to check out||Body and Soul: The Genius of Coleman Hawkins|
September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967
Probably one of the most famous and influential saxophone players in the jazz world of all time, John Coltrane changed the direction of the jazz scene with his approach to improvisation and jazz harmony. John Coltrane played and recorded with Miles Davis in the 1950s, then further developed his own modal jazz-free style through the 60s with his own group. This is the time when the free jazz movement has emerged. There really are loads of amazing albums to check out here – get comfortable!
|Horn||Tenor Sax – Selmer Mark VI / Soprano Saxophone|
|Mouthpiece||Otto Link 5* Metal|
|Albums to check out||Blue Trane (Blue Note) | Kind of Blue A | Love Supreme|
February 2, 1927 – June 6, 1991
Although Getz developed his playing style by performing throughout the 1940s with Nat King Cole, Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman, his Bossa Nova recordings from the 1960s are by far his most famous. Getz won Grammy awards for his tracks Desafinado and The Girl from Ipanema, which were massive million-selling hits and have become standard jazz tunes played everywhere.
|Horn||Tenor Sax – Selmer Mark VI|
|Mouthpiece||Otto Link 8* Metal|
|Albums to check out||Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio Jazz Samba (Verve) Getz/Gilberto (Verve)|
November 25, 1924 – May 30, 1977
Paul Desmond is probably most famous for his playing with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and their greatest hit, “Take Five.” Desmond had a distinctive airy, smooth sound on his alto, which stood him apart from his contemporaries and helped to define the “West Coast Cool Jazz” style of the 1960s.
|Horn||Alto Sax – Selmer Super Balanced Action|
|Albums to check out||Time Out (Columbia)|
February 7, 1934 – August 13, 1971
King Curtis is often thought of as the first R&B or Rock and Roll sax player. His raw and energetic playing has been an influence on many great players who followed him. Check out his amazing playing with Aretha Franklin on her Live at Fillmore West album.
|Horn||Tenor Sax – Selmer MKVI|
|Mouthpiece||Berg Larsen Metal|
|Albums to check out||Soul Twist and other Golden Classics Memphis Soul Stew Night Train|
August 17, 1927 – June 3, 2009
Sam Butera was most famous for being Louis Prima’s sax player for many years. He is one of the best players to check out for the 1960’s R&B / rock and roll style of playing–a wonderful musician and a great entertainer.
|Mouthpiece||Berg Larsen Metal Duckbill 110/2|
|Albums to check out:||Ultra-Lounge: Wild, Cool & Swingin’ – Artist Series Vol 6 The Wildest (With Louis Prima|
March 29, 1949 – January 13, 2007
There would be few young jazz saxophonists these days who aren’t influenced by Michael Brecker. He is regarded as perhaps the most influential jazz saxophonist since Coltrane. Brecker’s playing spanned the jazz and pop worlds. He was a prolific pop session player and appeared on more than 700 albums. Brecker also left behind a massive catalog of jazz albums, and his sound and incredible technique inspired a generation.
|Horn||Tenor Sax – Selmer MKVI|
|Mouthpiece||Dave Guardala Studio|
|Albums to check out||Michael Brecker (self-titled) Two Blocks from the Edge (check out Delta City Blues) with Steps Ahead “Live in Tokyo 1986) Now you See It Now You Don’t “The Birthday Concert” with Jaco Pastorius Big Band|
July 21, 1931
No list of jazz saxophone players to check out would be complete without the man who recorded “The Pink Panther”! Plas Johnson. Since the 50’s, Johnson has been a prolific session player in Los Angeles and has recorded with innumerable stars. The Pink Panther theme is one of the most widely known sax solos.
|Horn||Tenor Sax – Yanagisawa|
|Mouthpiece||Berg Larson 160/2|
|Albums to check out||Rockin’ with Plas (Capitol) Mondo Hollywood Ultra Lounge (Pink Panther / It Had Better Be Tonight)|
GROVER WASHINGTON JR.
December 12, 1943 – December 17, 1999
Widely considered the founder of the Smooth Jazz movement, Grover Washington Jr wrote and recorded some tracks that have become lasting hits. Grover was a great melodic player. He had great commercial success with his albums – Just the Two of Us from the album Winelight reached number 2 in the US charts.
|Horn||Couf Gold Plated|
|Tenor Sax Mouthpiece||Berg Larsen 130/0|
|Albums to check out||Winelight (Just the Two of Us) Mister Magic All My Tomorrows|
July 11, 1958
Kirk Whalum was Whitney Houston’s sax player for many years, recording the sax solo on her song “I Will Always Love You” featured in Bodyguard. Kirk has a huge sound, and his expressive, soulful playing has, in my opinion, set the standard for commercial pop and smooth jazz playing. He has recorded a load of his own albums that are a must to check out for this style of playing.
|Horn||Keilworth Black Nickel Tenor Saxophone|
|Mouthpiece||Sugal Metal / Vandoren hard rubber|
|Albums to check out||The Promise Joined at the Hip (With Bob James) Roundtrip Gospel According to Jazz Vol 3|
July 30, 1945
Sanborn defined the sound of crossover jazz / pop in the 80’s. He is another seriously influential player. Although often thought of as one of the first Smooth Jazz musicians, Sanborn is perhaps more accurately classed as a soul jazz/fusion player. He was one of the most commercially successful sax players in the 80’s – he began playing sax solo on the “LA Law” theme song (if you remember that one!) and even hosted his own music program in the late eighties.
|Horn||Selmer Mk VI Alto Sax|
|Mouthpiece||Dukoff D7 / D9|
|Albums to check out||Voyeur Straight to The Heart|
June 5, 1956
Kenny G is the biggest-selling instrumentalist of all time, with more than 75 million albums sold around the world. Impressive! Kenny G really defined modern Smooth Jazz music. He may not be your favorite soprano sax player, but he is definitely worth checking out.
|Horn||Selmer Mk VI Soprano|
|Sax Mouthpiece||Dukoff D8|
|Albums to check out||Duotones 1986 Breathless 1992 Heart and Soul 2010|
January 11, 1942 – June 18 2011
Since the 70’s Clemons has been a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E St Band and has also recorded the solo on “Freeway of Love” by Aretha Franklin. Clarence Clemons follows on from the style of King Curtis and is a great pop growl tenor saxophonist to check out.
|Albums to check out||A Night with Mr C Freeway of Love (with Aretha Franklin)|
Other great saxophone players to check out:
- Lester Young
- Phil Woods
- Ben Webster
- Dexter Gordon
- Sonny Rollins
- Dave Koz
- Lee Allen
- Maceo Parker
- Gato Barieri
- Willis Jackson
- Tex Beneke
Learning saxophone? Supercharge your progress with Sax School. Start today with Sax School!