Tuning a saxophone is really important, particularly if you are playing with other musicians.
However, even if you are just playing alone, a good sense of tuning will help you to have a better overall sound and musicality. One part of practicing so often overlooked is tuning.
Tuning a saxophone is not only about individual notes on your instrument but how each note on your range compares to the others. Alto saxophone and tenor saxophone players, and other musicians, know that every instrument has certain notes that are more difficult to keep in tune. Understanding your particular instrument and how to deal with its tuning will make a huge difference to the quality of tone you can produce.
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The first step is to get hold of a music tuner for your sax. Traditionally, standalone digital tuners were the way to go, and you can get a free online digital tuner or one from your music store quite cheaply.
The other option, and one which I use daily, is to get a saxophone tuner app on your smartphone. There are tons of these available – some free or very cheap.
Get more tips on using a tuning app here.
Getting Tuned up
Before starting any tuning exercises, make sure your alto or tenor saxophone is nicely warmed up. A cold sax will always sound flat. Also, if you are practicing in a really cold room, you might find that the top of the sax is warm, but the bottom is cold. This will make your low notes flat and your top notes sharp!
So if your sax is cold, blow some air through it to get it up to room temperature. You could also make long notes to get the whole instrument up to temperature.
Once warmed up, make sure your alto or tenor sax is in tune overall. The chromatic tuner will show your tuning on any note, but it’s best to start by checking the notes, A and F# in both your low register and upper register (with the octave key on). These notes are good to check because they are in the middle range of the sax and aren’t traditionally problem-tuning notes.
Why does my tuner show a different note to what I’m playing?
Generally, a tuner will display the note it hears in concert pitch – or what note it is on a piano or guitar. Because saxophones are in a different key than piano, the note displayed on your online tuner may be different from the note you are playing.
Here’s how to tune your saxophone:
Tuning on Alto or Baritone sax
All alto and bari saxes are in the key Eb. Which means a C on the alto = an Eb on the piano.
Alto = piano
A = C
F# = A
(i.e. the piano note is 3 half steps or semitones higher than the sax note)
Tuning on Tenor or Soprano sax
All tenor saxophones and soprano saxophones are in the key Bb. Which means a C on the tenor = a Bb on the piano.
Tenor = piano
A = G
F# = E
(i.e., the piano note is 2 half steps or one full tone lower than the sax note)
How do I adjust my tuning?
Start by playing a long solid tone on each of these notes while watching your tuner display. If your saxophone tuner says you are playing sharp or too high, then move your mouthpiece out slightly on the neck cork.
If your tuner shows your sound to be a little low or flat, then you will need to push your mouthpiece further in on the neck cork.
As a general rule, most saxophones are roughly in tune, with about 1 cm or 1/2 an inch or cork showing beyond the mouthpiece. When making adjustments to the mouthpiece position, only move a millimeter or so at a time and then re-check with your tuner.
With some practice, you will soon get to know where your mouthpiece needs to be on your tenor or alto sax to be in tune, and the tuning process becomes much faster. However, it is a great idea to make tuning part of your daily routine. Even if you have been playing for years, there will still be notes on which you can improve your tuning!
This article is an excerpt from
by Nigel McGill. Grab the full book here
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