Whether you like the sound of Madness and One Step Beyond, or the more classic SKA of the Skatalites, there’s no denying that SKA is a brilliant style to explore on saxophone.
And, I really like to talk about it with our Sax School students because it’s a fantastic “gateway” to just about every other improvising style you will come across on saxophone.
In this blog we’re going to look at how you can get a great ska saxophone sound and all about this playing style.
Why Ska Saxophone?
Why are we talking about Ska? Amongst our thousands of Sax School students, ska is a really popular topic. Some of them are even playing in ska bands, but many just love to play the ska tunes we cover in our Sax School lesson library. We’ve got lessons on ska classics like “One Step Beyond” where we teach you not just the melody but also the solo and improvising tactics. We’ve also got other tunes like “Night Boat to Cairo“, and we’ve even got an “Introduction to Ska Saxophone” course. These are all available for Sax School members inside the Members’ Area, or you can grab the 14 day free trial available at the moment, here.
Ska is a really fun style to play, and it’s also a great gateway into other styles of playing and improvising. The skills you learn for improvising in ska transfer to improvising in straight-ahead jazz, or advanced jazz, or funk, or pop. So ska is a great starting point.
But don’t take my word for it! That’s why I invited Dean Hilson to do this exclusive guest session for Sax School.
Dean plays with the Melbourne Ska Orchestra , who have been touring the world playing massive gigs, releasing albums and winning awards. He is one of the founding members and lead saxophone player and does a lot of arranging for them as well. I wanted to find out more about the history of the group from Dean.
“It started out as a bit of a joke – we wanted to see how many people we could get on stage all doing the skank at the same time,” says Dean. (The skank is that off-beat groove that you hear in ska). “But around 2011 we started getting semi-serious, rehearsing and recording. Since then we’ve done a few albums, we’ve been nominated for about 7 Aria Awards, 2 of which we’ve won, and we’ve done a lot of international touring.”
Understanding Ska Saxophone
Just like with any saxophone playing style, you really need to understand the history of what’s going on with the music. So what connects the sax style in the music of Madness with the sax style in the music of the Skatalites? – and everything in between – and what came after! So I asked Dean about the history of ska.
Dean’s Four Waves of Ska
There are 4 waves of ska, which all had their unique traits.
- First Wave: Jamaican ska – which grew out of Jamaican R’n’B in the early sixties. Within a couple of years it had become Rock Steady, which had a slower beat, then it branched out into Reggae, and Skinhead Reggae.
- Second Wave: Two Tone, which happened in England. It was influenced by the Punk music of the time – it’s a lot faster and more aggressive.
- Third Wave: Skate Punk or Ska Punk in the nineties from the United States – very fast and usually straight rather than the swung, lilting feel of the Jamaican ska.
- Fourth Wave: this is happening now. It’s an international wave of ska with bands such as Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Melbourne Ska Orchestra, Western Standard Time Ska Orchestra from America. It’s a lot more international and includes a lot of different styles, bringing them into the ska umbrella.
What is your favourite ska track? Let us know!
Check out the original ska tune I wrote “Ska School” which is this month’s Challenge song inside Sax School. There’s a bunch of lessons around this song, from easy lessons for beginners to advanced lessons and improvising lessons. You can find these in the Sax School Members’ Area. or get access with our 14 day free trial.
Ska Saxophone Skills
So we’ve looked at some ska styles, and some ska artists. But what skills do we need to be a great ska player?
When I first heard Dean Hilson’s playing, 30 years ago, he was doing an amazing down and dirty blues gig. So I wanted to know how those blues skills transferred into his ska saxophone playing – and did it help?
“When I was doing all that Rhythm ‘n’ Blues stuff, I naturally got exposed to players like Slim Gaillard who played sessions with Charlie Parker. Rhythm ‘n’ Blues morphed into so many things – much of the early Jamaican ska is pretty much based on American Rhythm ‘n’ Blues. So for me all of these come under the umbrella of Roots music, and the skills I learned for my R’n’B chops easily translate into ska,” explains Dean. “They’ve sprung from the same roots, they use pretty much the same sort of harmony…they come from the same place.”
This masterclass was packed with so much great stuff. Dean went on to share some of his favourite skills for building really great tone, and altissimo, for building finger dexterity and improvising skills over that ska style. He really broke it down in a way that everyone could understand.
If you’re a Sax School member you can find the full masterclass inside the Members Area now.
If you’re not a member, grab the 14 day trial to get access to this masterclass and the hundreds of other lessons and courses on ska saxophone and all the other styles you can imagine! Plus you’ll get the support of our tutors and a chance to connect with our thousands of learners all around the world.
We’ve talked about the style of ska saxophone, and some of the players we should be listening to. So go and start doing some listening and find the ska saxophone players you love. Then use the courses in Sax School to help you develop those skills and put them into action.
I can’t wait to hear how you get on!