I’ve just come across this awesome sax solo this week and I wanted to share it with you, because it’s a great example of how to use grace notes in a gospel-style or RnB saxophone solo.
This RnB saxophone solo is by Mike Burton. He’s a fantastic gospel sax artist. He’s coming to do a masterclass with us at Sax School very soon. I love Mike’s playing. He’s such an emotional player, and is a Grammy-nominated track. It’s from Calvin Richardson and the track is called “Love Has Finally Come At Last”. It’s the Bobby Womack song.
So I thought it would be fun to dig into this solo. I’m going to show you what Mike is playing and explain how he’s using grace notes.
And I’ve got a transcription for you too, so you can understand how you could use grace notes if you are playing an RnB saxophone solo in this style too. Let’s get stuck in.
Okay. Let’s look at that very first phrase. So right out the gate, in this very first phrase, we can see that there are a bunch of grace notes. This whole solo is packed with grace notes.
Now, if you’re not sure what a grace note is, it’s really simple. A grace note is just an extra note that we fit in before the main note, or the target note of the melody. And I’m saying ‘target note’ because it’s really important to make that differentiation.
A grace note is decoration. So it’s not the main note. The main note is the main melody note, and the grace note just fits in before it.
You can see on the PDF that I write the grace notes as these small notes with a line through the tail. That tells you it’s not the main note, but it is a grace note. And we’ve got to fit that in before the main note.
Now, in this example, in that first phrase, we can see that he’s using the C natural to go up to a C sharp.
So we’re fitting that C natural in quickly, before the C sharp. Sometimes grace notes are ascending, but they can also be descending – in other words, going downwards. And if we look at the next little section, we’ve got a C natural fitting in before a run that goes down to B, A, A, F sharp.
Now, whereas for the ascending one, I’m just going from C to C sharp to go downwards, it’s hard to go from C to B. So I’m using my side-fingering here. I’m using my index finger on the middle key here because that’s an alternate C fingering.
So I’ll just play that phrase for you slowly, so you can hear all those grace notes.
As you’re learning, a great way to check that you’ve got the basic structure of the melody correct, is to take all the grace notes out first. Just play it with the correct rhythm for the melody. And then stick the grace notes back on and make sure that you’re not moving those target notes around.
It’s a really good way to check that you know all the rhythm and the melody, and you’re playing it correctly. But it’s also a fantastic illustration of how the grace notes can bring a melody like this to life in an RnB saxophone solo.
Listen as I play it through without any grace notes, and then I’ll play it with the grace notes, just for this first phrase. See if you can tell the difference.
Now in the second phrase, you see some of those same grace notes turning up. Let’s take a look.
So we’ve got that C to B going on again here, but we’ve also got F sharp to G sharp , and middle C to C sharp. Then there’s C down to B – that’s another descending one. And then E up to F sharp.
Listen to that phrase as I play it nice and slowly.
So in the next phrase, Mike mixes it up a little bit and uses two grace notes together. Let’s take a look.
So you can see in bar 4, we’ve got two grace notes to G sharp to the A, A sharp, and the B. So it’s like a little mini-run that we fit in there. And he does it again later on, where we go F to F sharp to G up to G sharp.
Let’s have a quick listen to how this phrase sounds. I’ll play it for you slowly.
I like what he’s doing here in this little section in bar 5. So it’s like grace notes, but it’s also a decoration. So we’re going F sharp to G, back to the F sharp, down to the E, and up to the F sharp. It sounds cool.
Transcribing Grace Notes
Now, I like to write those kinds of things out as grace notes, because it’s easier to see which are the main notes, and which notes are the decoration notes (the grace notes).
You’ll see some people will transcribe it as semi–demi–quavers, or 32nd notes. I think my way’s better. What do you think?
The next line is powerful. It’s an ascending line, but check out the grace notes here. So we start with Mike using a C to a B. But then he plays C to C sharp, E to F sharp and then C to C sharp again.
So he uses those grace notes again in the next phrase (bars6-7), but he also puts a fantastic bend or a scoop up to the high E natural. He’s using the side keys there. And then he’s got the grace note C to C sharp., and then C to B.
I’ll play this section really slowly then we can have a look at it.
Scoops and Fall-Offs
I love that big scoop up to high E. so I’m using my palm key E. The first and second key with my left hand palm, then my octave key, and the top side key with my right index finger.
To get the bend up, I’m relaxing my jaw and then tightening it back up to bring the pitch up and give us that lovely scoop. That’s really powerful.
So have an experiment with that. If you’ve not used scoops much, you’ve just got to use them sparingly. You want to get that scoop up, but you don’t want it to be too overpowering. It’s just to add a little bit of colour to the note.
And don’t forget at the end of the phrase, there’s that fall-off on the B. Now this is kind of the opposite of the scoop. So we hit the B in pitch, but then we relax our jaw just to let the pitch fall off, as we end the note without air.
Now, the next phrase is a bit tricky. If you really want to learn this one, go check out the lesson in Sax School, where you can slow it right down and see exactly what I’m doing with my fingers.
Mike goes up into the altissimo and there are loads of bends and scoops. I’ll play this one for you slowly so you can hear what’s happening.
So the solo’s really getting going by this point. It’s only a 12-bar solo, so it’s short. But between here and the end of the solo, he’s still using more of those grace notes. We’re going to see lots of those C to C sharp grace notes, ascending and descending.
Grace Notes can be simple
But the most important thing I want you to take away from this, is that those grace notes can be really simple. We’re using the same grace notes through this – C to C sharp, and E to F sharp. But always, the grace notes are not interfering with the shape of the melody. So the target note is the most important note. And that’s what I want you to think about when you are using grace notes in your RnB saxophone solo.
Before I play the rest of the solo for you, I wanted to point out to you that this piece of music, for the alto saxophone, is in the key of A major. And you’ll notice that Mike’s using a lot of those C to C sharps, for a couple of reasons.
First of all, on the saxophone, it feels easy to go from C to C sharp, if we have C sharps in our solos.
Fitting with the Key
But also, the C sharp is a third of the key. So in the key of A major, that means if you look at the A chord, (A, C sharp, E), C sharp is the third. And he’s using those grace notes on the third – from the minor third to the major third, C to C sharp. So it works in terms of the key.
Now, if you were playing this alto transcription on tenor saxophone, then those grace notes will be from F natural to F sharp, which is nowhere near as comfortable. So I think one of the main reasons why he’s using the C to C sharps is because it fits on the alto saxophone, and it makes sense.
So it’s really good for you to experiment with finding the notes that work well for you, in the key of the piece that you are looking at. But also be mindful of the grace notes not overpowering the main notes.
The Whole RnB Saxophone Solo
Listen as I play the rest of the solo through slowly. You can see how he really digs into the rhythm and uses these grace notes too.
That’s such a wonderful ending to the solo. We go straight up the scale, up to the E at the very end – it sounds awesome.
So let’s have a listen now to how that solo fits. I’m going to play along with Mike, at tempo with the original track. And I’m going include more of the vibrato and get those bends and scoops in there as well, and try and capture the energy. Have a listen and see how it all fits together.
So the main takeaways from today are to think about how the grace notes fit on your saxophone, and how they feel comfortable to you.
And also to focus on the main target note, not the grace note itself. The grace note must be the decoration that leads to the important note of the melody or the solo. We don’t want the grace now to overpower that note.
Also, if you think about the key that your particular piece of music is in, you’ll find some notes that feel comfortable on your saxophone. For example, this is the key of A, we’ve got C sharp. So C natural to C sharp feels great on your saxophone.
If you’ve got another solo that you think there are some great grace notes in, let me know.
And don’t forget if you want to learn this RnB saxophone solo, then go check out the lesson inside Sax School PRO where you can slow it down, and follow along with me in easy steps.