It’s fun to play with a singer and it sounds good when you do it the right way.
But when you’re playing sax behind a singer, if you don’t have a clear plan, it can get pretty bad. So in this lesson, Matt Berman from our Sax School tutor team shows you 2 essential tactics to sound great when you’re playing with a singer.
Learning on the job
I learned a lot in school, but I mostly learned on the job.
Touring with Brandon Flowers (the Killers), recording for Snoop Dogg, and doing all of these super high-pressure gigs, – it wasn’t easy.
But if I could do it, you can do it too. So today, you’ll learn two techniques that’ll make you sound good right off the bat, when you start playing sax behind a singer.
And hey, if you want to learn more about playing with a singer, I made a whole module on it on saxschoolonline.com. We cover all different styles and genres of music. Grab your 14-day free trial to get access- click the link below.
Step #1: Learn the Notes
Alright, so inside Sax School Online, we go through five steps. But today, we’re going to focus on the first two.
And number one – the most imperative one – is to learn the melody. It’s so important to learn the melody for a variety of reasons. And maybe one of the most important is to know what notes the singer is singing. Because eventually, we can use those notes.
Today we’re going to focus on the track “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus.
All right, so step one is to learn the notes. And we don’t have to worry about anything else. We don’t have to worry about a key or anything like that. Just learn the notes of the melody.
Some of us are not ear-training geniuses and can’t transcribe super-fast and super-accurately. So, what can we do? We can take a note-by-note approach.
So if we play the song, we listen. We hear the first note. Cool. Pause the song. Write down the first note.
Hear the second note. Cool. Write down the second note.
I know it’s time-consuming, but it will help you transcribe melodies, and in the long run, you’ll get better and faster.
Learn the Song Lyrics
Now we have the notes of the chorus. But what’s just as important as the notes is how they’re sung, right?
So we’re going to play this melody, but I want you to focus on how she sings it. A cool method that I learned was to learn the lyrics of the song and sing it with the singer. You don’t have to be the best singer in the world, you can do it like alone in your room like I do.
But, learn the lyrics and sing it along so you get a feeling in your mouth, you get a feeling in your throat of how the song is phrased and how she says words. Because we want to translate that onto the saxophone. And you’ll see why later.
Listen to an example of how it probably shouldn’t sound.
And now listen to what we’re looking to achieve.
Let’s Play Together
Sweet! Alright, so let’s play this melody together. We’re going to trade every four bars. I’ll go first, and the metronome will count us in two bars before we start.
Step #2: The String Line
Nice job! Alright, so we’ve got the chorus melody under our fingers. Now on to step two.
Are there any other melodic lines that stick out to you? Maybe a bass line, a guitar line, a string line?
Well, you’ve guessed it. There is a string line. Right at the end, on the chorus, there’s a cool string line that’s prominent and sounds nice.
So let’s take a look at that string line together.
Now if you’re unsure of how to go about this, you can use the same techniques we used on the chorus melody to transcribe this string line. You can go note by note, take your time, no big rush. And again, it’ll make you faster in the long run, and you’ll get so much better at just your ear training.
So let’s go ahead and play this string melody line together. We’ll trade every four bars just like we did on the chorus, and the metronome will count us in two bars before we start.
Where and How to Play
Alright, so we have a chorus melody line that we can play. We have a string melody line that we transcribed that we can play.
Guess what? Now we have a whole bunch of notes that we can use on our improvisation, that we know sound good because they’re in the melody.
Take a look at the notes. If you consolidate them between the vocals and the strings, all that’s happening is a D major scale for tenor, and an A major scale for alto.
So we know we can play those scales over this song and sound good.
But now, the real work begins.
One of the most important things to figure out in any song is where to play and how to play. She’s singing very melodically. So I would say let’s play more rhythmically against her. Or you can complement her and play melodically.
What else are we gonna bring to the table?
- Can we play minor blues?
- Can we play major blues?
- Do we want to bring in a pentatonic scale?
- Do we want to play passing tones?
Playing sax behind a singer: Next Steps
This technique of transcribing melodies applies to any song in any genre. This is the first thing you want to do when approaching a song to play with a singer.
And if you want to dive deeper into playing sax behind a singer, head on over to Sax School Online where we expand upon harmonic ideas, and most importantly, where to play and how to play, because it differs for every song in every genre.
Head on over to Sax School Online to check out my module, The Fundamentals of Playing with a Singer. Get access with a 14 day free trial. I’ll see you there.