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Learning to Play Ad Lib on the Saxophone

Updated on September 20, 2012

Play Along To Any Song

Have you ever listened really close to a sax player when they have played the same song a few times without music? Have you ever noticed it sounds a bit different sometimes? The reason for this is they are ad lib playing as they go and although they may know where the rif ends, they may arrive there in different ways.

This ad lib playing is an evolution to any player. No one can simply pick up a sax without ever playing before and begin to ad lib to an existing song. For most sax players there are many years of technique training, working on scales, and the study of music theory which has gotten them to the point of being able to play “cold” with a majority of music genres.

I have been playing the sax (alto and soprano predominately) since 1983, where I started on my King in 5th grade. I really loved it and at times struggled with tone, breath control, and sight reading. I made it through most of it with the help of a music tutor after school a couple times a week and progressed pretty good until putting the sax down for many years in my young adult life. Before that was honors band, concert band, marching band and just plain messing around with friends.

In 1994, while talking with some friends one night I learned they were sax players too. I decided to dust off the old sax case and break it free from the closet cocoon it had been in for years. I bought some new reeds and began to learn the horn all over again. It was amazing how it came back to me.

I played consistently for years afterward mostly trying to simulate professionals like Benny Carter, Grover Washington Jr., and Dave Koz. I bought their sheet music and studied their playing methods. I believe this was the single one thing that assisted me in progressing toward ad lib playing. These three artists each had their own very different playing styles and as I studied and played their works, I picked up a little bit from each of them.

In 2000, I began playing in my church band every Sunday but without the benefit of any sheet music. The music we played didn’t have any horn sheet music available. I had to figure it out on my own. I began to work heavily on my scales and paid attention to minors vs. majors, learning how they affected the sax. I soon realized the key to ad lib playing was knowing where the song was going during the beginning and end of the chorus and the individual verses. By “feeling” the destination of a song, meant I could easily follow along. I tried to figure out the exact melody and vocal line as well as the harmony notes that went along with each song.

Most songs stay in their written key signature, for instance GABCDEF#G is the G scale, and EF#G#ABC#D#E is the E scale. If the guitar/piano in the band is playing in the key of C, which is CDEFGABC, the sax key signature is changed. If I played the soprano or tenor sax, I would move up two half steps from the guitar/piano key of C to the key of D, which is DEF#GABC#D. However, if I played the alto or baritone sax, I would move three half steps down from the guitar/piano key of C to the key of A, which is ABC#DEF#G#A.

At first it seemed difficult to remember until I paid attention to my scales. I practiced them as much as possible one by one varying speed and different fingerings. I practiced my tone and articulation as well.

One thing that helped me a lot was to play music from a CD or on the radio while trying to figure out what key I needed to play in to correctly follow along. Once I figured out the key signature of the song, I would play within those scale notes until I started to feel the song. It wasn’t long before I was able to play whole notes in the background of these songs. At first I tried to simulate the simple bass lines of a song and then I progressed to being able to pick apart and play certain rifs from particular songs. After a while, I was able to learn where the song was going to next, meaning what note was more than likely coming next.

It was always fun to figure out sax solos in songs that were being played main stream as well. For the alto players, Turn the Page by Bob Seger, is a great and simple sax solo. A good portion of the song is also background and accent playing during the vocal line.

As I write this, I think back to the years of figuring out ad lib playing and realize it wasn’t very difficult, due to the slow progression of learning to play this way. If you stick with it and start slow with songs that are not terribly technical, with key changes and a lot of additional sharps and/or flats, you will see that you will be able to play along to a great number of songs. Just don’t get discouraged and keep trying. Remember the old adage, practice makes perfect.

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