The Shake by King Curtis is a classic Rock and Roll gutsy sax solo.
Today we’re going to dig into The Shake sax solo. I’m going to pull it apart and show you the parts of it that I think are important, stylistically. We’re going to learn a few parts from it as well, and also understand how we can absorb some elements of that style into our own playing.
Now, this is important if you’re into Rock and Roll sax. But you can apply it to just about any style of saxophone, whether that’s blues or jazz or pop. It just helps us to become better saxophone players and understand how to incorporate elements from other great players into our playing. There’s also a PDF for you to download, so you can learn this amazing solo too.
Why Learn The Shake Sax Solo
So why are we talking about Rock and Roll sax? Well, every month in Sax School, we focus on a different style and this month we’re talking about Rock and Roll sax. And in fact, King Curtis is one of the artists that we’ve been talking about. There’s a fantastic video that Dean from my tutor team made recently about King Curtis here.
Also inside Sax School, we talk about lots of other Rock and Roll artists like Lee Allen, Red Prysock, Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor and Boots Randolph. Our students are learning a challenge song in the style of King Curtis too. But I wanted to dig in a little bit further and look at this solo, which I also think is an amazing example of a great Rock and Roll sax solo.
You see the thing about Rock and Roll sax is, it’s beautiful and simple, but so powerful. There are so many elements in a great Rock and Roll sax solo that you can apply to a contemporary rock sax or blues sax, and even to jazz sax and definitely to funk playing. That’s because the structure of the playing, the intent, the rhythm, and the melodic ideas are also applicable to other styles. And that’s why I think it’s really important to dig so closely into a specific solo like this one.
Let’s get stuck in with The Shake sax solo. “The Shake” is from an album by King Curtis called “Have Tenor Sax, Will Blow”. It’s a fantastic album from 1959 with some great tracks on it. So let’s have a listen to the very first phrase.
I love the way he’s using one melodic idea, and then he plays it a second time. Now, this is something that happens through The Shake sax solo. This is such an important thing for us to remember when we’re improvising. You don’t need to be coming up with something new in every single bar. You can take one idea and you can reuse it. And that’s exactly what King Curtis is doing.
And the other thing I think is interesting is this is in the key of B flat concert, which puts the tenor saxophone in the key of C. It’s a 12 bar blues, and there are just two choruses of it.
So if you think about it, 12 bar blues in C for Tenor, the first chord, it’s a C and that’s what King Curtis is using in his solo. He is finishing the phrase on a C (bar 2) and he uses a C in bar 1 and 3. And he’s starting the phrase on the seventh note, which is the B flat (bar 1).
On the seventh note, which is the B flat.
There are a couple of really interesting things going on in this phrase. First of all, King Curtis is growling all the way through. And he’s also doing a cool sort of bendy smear with those grace notes between the F and the E flat (bar 1). So it’s a really quick F up to G back to F before he goes on with the phrase.
He uses those sorts of things a lot. The other thing that I think is cool is in bar 2, where he’s using the flat 3, which is an E flat, then going up to the E natural, which is a normal third in the C Chord – C E G B flat.
In this phrase, starting in bar 4, we’re going up until altissimo. He’s landing right up in this high G, but really he’s aiming for the next chord in the 12-bar blues, which is our F chord.
And if you notice he’s landing on the fifth of the F7 chord, which is the C. So If you think about the notes in an F7 chord, it’s just F A C, and E flat, and he’s landing right on that C.
It’s so simple. There’s nothing complicated harmonically that’s going on there. But he’s got so much energy, particularly when he hits a high G and high A, and also it’s very, very rhythmical. So he’s landing back on the C at bar 6, right on the beat and that makes it sound so secure.
Now, one of the things I love about King Curtis and I find difficult is he’s got very, very fast tonguing. So let’s have a look at what’s happening in the music. First of all, at bar 6-7 he’s tonguing. I can’t tongue that fast, but he nails it. What’s really cool about this phrase is it’s very rhythmical.
But then there’s this great smear in bar 7 from the F sharp bending down to the E flat. So for this smear, he’s hitting the F sharp right on the note, and then he’s relaxing his embouchure to bend down off it. It sounds more vocal, and it like it fits right in.
And then there’s that fast tonguing phrase at the end. If you can tongue that fast, good on you!
So I’m just going to play that whole phrase through to see if we can put those elements together.
How’s that for simplicity? We’re finishing out the end of the first chorus of 12-bar blues in the solo, and he’s got this simple line that just repeats (bars 9-12). And he finishes off with some more King Curtis, fast tonguing.
So the first thing to look at here is that he’s using the same idea twice, in bars 10 and 11. And that’s great because it comes back to our idea of reusing melody ideas, which I think is such a powerful technique with improvising.
The second thing I want to point out is that he’s using very, very simple notes from the chords. So in bar 10 he’s using the B natural which is the third note in the G 7 chord (G B D F). And in bar 11 we’ve got the same thing. He’s using the A which is the third of the F7 chord (F A C E flat).
So we’re using simple notes. But it’s the way King Curtis is using them that makes it sound so effective. So it’s very rhythmical. And then he’s got the great big bends up to those thirds as well. So let’s have a look. If I play it slowly, let’s see if we can hear what’s going on.
When you break it down what he’s doing is really simple. But when you listen to it in context, it sounds so amazing.
Lessons from the first chorus
So we’re learning some cool things about King Curtis. In his first chorus – the first half of The Shake sax solo – he’s using melody ideas over and over. He’s using simple chord notes. He’s using the flat 3rd as well as the natural 3rd. He is using bends, scoops, smears, and grace notes to add colour to the sound. But most importantly, it’s really, really rhythmical. Everything he plays is right on the beat.
Let’s have a listen to the second chorus. That is such a cool phrase. Now again, did you notice he’s playing the same thing three times?
Let’s look at the music. So this phrase starts at bar 13 and it goes down to bar 16. He uses this melody idea first in bar 13, then again in bars 14 and 15.
Then it finishes off with this lovely little flurry with some King Curtis fast tonguing. And look at what he’s doing. He’s using the flat 3 and then the natural 3 as well in that flurry. So let’s have a listen to what that sounds like a little bit slower.
Now I have to admit, I find that last line hard to play. It feels unnatural to me. But when you look at what’s happening with the notes, it makes perfectly good sense.
It’s a pretty cool line. And I guess this is why we transcribe things too, because sometimes things get past our ear and we don’t really think about it. But when we dig into and look at the notes, we can see what they’re doing. It makes sense. And we can assimilate it into our playing.
This next section (bars 17-21) is so rhythmical. It’s just right in the pocket, right in the pocket all the way through.
And he played the same line 4 times! Let’s look at what’s going on in the music here.
It’s basically it’s the same notes, but we’re changing chords.
We’re going from the F chord (bar 18), starting on the E flat, which is the seventh.
And then we go to the C chord (bar 20), still on the E flat but this time, it’s the flat 3rd. He’s using the same note between two chords, and that’s a great technique for making lines feel continuous between chord changes. An we go down to the G this time. Let’s have a listen to it slowly and see what’s like.
That’s so simple, but when you hear it in context, it sounds awesome.
So here’ at the end of bar 21 he’s got that great big bend up to high G. And then again, one of those simple flat 3 and natural 3 lines in bar 22, as we lead down into the new chord. We’re going down from the G chord to the F chord. And he’s got that E flat to E natural, C G F.
So what’s interesting is when he’s on the G chord he’s playing a G (bar 22). And when he’s on the F chord here, he’s playing an F (bar 23). And in between, he’s got that E flat, E natural, little triplet line, and it’s right in the pocket as well.
So this is a bit complicated to write down and I don’t quite know what he’s doing, but he’s basically doing a crotchet or a quarter note triplet. And that’s where we’ve got three notes in the time of two, but these are three one-count notes in the time of two (bar 23-24).
He bends them around a little bit time-wise but effectively he’s playing a G with an F sharp grace note into it, and then a little flurry at the end. If we look at the music, we’ve got this little flurry at the end, just to take us back to our home key of C.
And again, if you’ve got the F E flat. And then the C B flat and the C. So we’re bringing it right back to the tonic, the root note of the C chord at the end of the solo. This makes the listener feel very comfortable.
The other thing I think is cool about that last line is the time feels quite loose when he’s doing the triplets, it’s like completely out of time. And then he finishes a solo with that little flurry, right on time.
This is dancing music, so finishing the solo like this helps the dancers and the band know where the beat is. And it feels like a great resolution to an awesome solo.
The Shake Sax Solo – Round-Up
Just to finish off, then I’m going to play through the second chorus of this solo and see if I can incorporate all those elements.
So that’s The Shake sax solo. I hope you found that useful. There are so many things in there that you can apply to your playing.
- Recycling musical ideas
- Sticking to simple note choices that fit in the chord (root notes, thirds, sevenths).
- Be rhythmical – so your solo makes sense and sounds groovier
- Bends, scoops, smears to add character to your solo.
Even just incorporating those elements into your playing would make such a big difference, it doesn’t matter what start you’re playing in.
Don’t forget to grab the transcription from our Locker – and if you are interested to find out more about what we’re doing, Start today with Sax School!