Eric Daniel and Friends's Blog

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Improvising Sax solos, From the Beginning!

Posted by ericdanielandfriends on April 16, 2009


All Sax players are eventually called upon to play an improvised solo.

How you perform when that moment arises can either augment or diminish your chances for Saxophone Survival in a given performance situation. (As in the little story above.)

Preparation is the keyword here. (At home alone, again.)

I’ll limit my comments about this to four words of practical advice: “Begin at the beginning!”

To begin learning to improvise you must have a very good knowledge of the fundamentals; Rhythmic concept and the various scales and modes to use.

This definitely includes the chromatic scale. Create chromatic interval studies for yourself. Notice how the players you listen to incorporate chromatic devices in their solos, especially modern players like Michael Brecker, Eric Marienthal, Kenny Garrett or Dave Liebman, to mention a only few.

When you have achieved a degree of fluidity when playing the major and minor scales you should begin to study the basic, widely used harmonic progressions and chord scales for use when playing through these progressions.

The Blues is a good place to start learning how to improvise.
There are various types of Blues. Start out with simple blues progressions such as used in Rural blues or Blues-rock. Eventually you can move on to more harmonically rich progressions such as used in Jazz-blues or Bebop blues. Move ahead step by step.

At this point, I highly recommend the “Improvising Jazz” CD/Booklet series by Jamey Aebersold, in particular Volume #2 entitled “Nothin’ But the Blues”. It’s a play-along CD with a great rhythm section (they always show up and they never get tired!) and music booklet which includes excellent information about chords and available scales for improvising on blues progressions.

Transcribing solos (learning solos note for note) from recordings is another really great way to learn more about improvising and develops your ear tremendously. (Your reading will improve also if you take the time to also write the solos out precisely.)
As I mentioned above, begin with the Blues.
Guitar players like Buddy Guy, BB King or Eric Clapton, are great to listen to for good Blues phrasing.

Listen to R&B Sax players (King Curtis, Junior Walker, Maceo Parker, David Sanborn, etc) for Blues phrasing.
Listen to Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and John Coltrane, to mention only three, to hear jazz harmony and phrasing on the Blues.
Work on standard harmonic progressions found in jazz standards and pop songs. Begin
with tunes you can use immediately on specific gigs or for jamming when the opportunity

The key is to do a great deal of listening and analysis, gradually assimilating the things you’re hearing, and then incorporate them into your personal way of playing. Everyone does this differently based on their personal tastes and personality.

Personal preferences aside, for Saxophone Survival you must be able to improvise in the style appropriate to the arrangement you’re playing.

You don’t have to try to make musical history every time you have a solo to play. The solo should be at least “credible” however. By “credible” I mean that the solo should be in style, i.e. rhythmically and harmonically coherent. Try to let the sound of the harmony come out by using “guide tones” (the harmonically characteristic notes of the chords) as strong notes in your solo.
If you do this, the solo will sound at least “credible” which is a good place to start.

As you become more familiar with the harmonic progressions you will be able to play more fluid lines through the chord changes and begin to do something resembling “expressing yourself ” The more you work on this area, the more fluid, expressive, musical and satisfying your improvisations will become. Remember, the melody is your friend. Observe how the notes of the melody relate to the chord progression.

Have fun!

It’s helpful to keep a music notebook nearby when you practice playing short phrases or “patterns” in all the keys, which is very useful. It will happen that you will “discover” phrases that you like by accident, unintentionally. They’re happy mistakes sometimes and may lead to a more original or personal phrase to develop. Jot them down in your notebook for further development, and then return to the phrase you were working on. Come back to your notebook later to work on your newfound licks.

Once again, an experienced pro teacher can guide you through this area. He will know how and when to get you started based on your progress in the area of scales studies and general technique issues.

Eric Daniel plays sax and flute and is the ringleader of Eric Daniel & Friends. Their CD “Old Sax Nu Soul” is on the Quatro Miglio Quality Music label and can be purchased online from iTunes Store and

His new book “The Saxophone Survival Kit, A Guide for Aspiring Professional Saxophonists…or just anyone!” can be ordered or downloaded here:

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Foto by Valentina Cinelli

Foto by Valentina Cinelli


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