Mastering Jazz Sax: Tips & Techniques for Beginners
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. Choose the right saxophone
  2. Assemble the saxophone
  3. Hold the saxophone
  4. Blow into the saxophone
  5. Read jazz music
  6. Practice basic scales
  7. Experiment with jazz improvisation
  8. Listen to jazz music
  9. Find a mentor or teacher
  10. Join a jazz band

Have you ever sat back and let the smooth tunes of jazz saxophone wash over you, and thought, "I'd love to do that"? Well, you're in the right place. This blog will guide you on how to play saxophone for jazz, even if you're just starting out. It's a journey, but with the right approach, you'll be swinging to your own beat in no time.

Choose the right saxophone

First things first: you need a saxophone. But not just any saxophone will do. If you're wondering how to play saxophone for jazz, it's all about finding the right instrument that suits your style and comfort.

  • Alto Saxophone: This is a great starting point for beginners. It's smaller, lighter, and the most common type of saxophone used in jazz.
  • Tenor Saxophone: This sax is larger and has a deeper, fuller sound. Many famous jazz musicians, like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, have preferred the tenor sax. But remember, it might be a bit heavier to hold and play.
  • Baritone Saxophone: The baritone, or "bari" sax, is even larger and deeper-sounding than the tenor. It's less common in jazz, but it can lend a unique sound to your jazz repertoire. Note though, it's the heaviest of the lot.

Choosing the right saxophone isn't just about size and sound. It's also about how the saxophone feels in your hands and how easy it is for you to produce a good tone. So, don't rush the decision. Try out a few different types, and see which one feels right. And remember, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to how to play saxophone for jazz—it's about finding what works for you.

Assemble the saxophone

Now that you have your saxophone, it's time to put it together. Assembling your saxophone may seem daunting at first, but don't worry—it's simpler than you think.

Start with the reed. Soak it in a cup of water for a few minutes. While it's soaking, take the neck of the saxophone and attach the mouthpiece. Now, take the soaked reed and place it on the mouthpiece. Secure it with the ligature (that's the fancy word for the metal clamp).

Next, attach the neck (with the mouthpiece and reed attached) to the body of the saxophone. Make sure it's secure, but don't force it—saxophones aren't fans of tough love.

Finally, attach the neck strap. This will help support the saxophone's weight so you can focus on making music, not lifting weights. Adjust it so the mouthpiece naturally meets your mouth when you're standing straight.

And voilà! You've assembled your saxophone. You're one step closer to mastering how to play saxophone for jazz.

Hold the saxophone

Alright, you've assembled your saxophone. Now let's move on to the next step—holding it. Now, you might be thinking, "How hard can it be?" Well, when it comes to mastering how to play saxophone for jazz, holding your saxophone properly is more important than you might think.

Here's the deal. Stand up straight, relax your shoulders, and let the neck strap carry the weight of the saxophone. Your hands are there for playing, not holding. The thumb of your left hand should rest on the thumb rest, with your fingers hovering over the keys, ready to make some jazz magic.

As for your right hand, let your thumb support the saxophone from underneath, with your fingers again positioned over the keys. And remember—no death grips! Keep your hands relaxed. The saxophone is your friend, not your wrestling opponent.

Finally, bring the mouthpiece to your lips, not the other way around. Remember, you're in charge here. If you're bending or twisting to reach the mouthpiece, adjust the neck strap until the saxophone comes naturally to you.

And there you have it! You're now holding your saxophone like a true jazz musician.

Blow into the saxophone

Now that you've got the hold down, let's address the next big question: how do you actually make a sound? If you're learning how to play saxophone for jazz, understanding how to blow into the saxophone correctly is key.

Let's start with your mouth—specifically, your embouchure, which is just a fancy word for the position and use of the lips and tongue when playing a wind instrument. For the saxophone, you want to form an "O" shape with your lips, like you're about to drink through a straw, and then place the mouthpiece into this "O".

Alright, ready for some sound? Gently blow into the mouthpiece. You're not trying to win a candle-blowing contest here, so remember, steady and gentle is the way to go. The sound that comes out might not be jazz just yet, but hey, we're getting there!

Now, try experimenting a little. Change up the pressure of your lips, or the force of your breath. Notice how these changes alter the sound. This is you, learning to play saxophone for jazz, friend. And guess what? You're doing great!

Remember, it's all about practice. Keep blowing, keep experimenting. Soon, you'll be making sounds that even Charlie Parker would be proud of.

Read jazz music

So, you've mastered the art of blowing into the saxophone. But, how to play saxophone for jazz involves more than just making sound—it requires an understanding of jazz music itself. Let's take our first steps into the world of jazz sheet music, shall we?

First off, let's talk about the staff. Those five horizontal lines on sheet music? That's the staff. Each line and space represents a different musical note. On saxophone sheet music, you'll see a little symbol at the beginning of the staff—that's the key signature, which tells you which notes to play sharp or flat.

Reading music involves understanding the rhythm, too. See those little black symbols on the staff? Those are notes, and depending on their shape, they tell you how long to play a sound. A circle? That's a whole note, and it lasts four beats. A circle with a stem? That's a half note, lasting two beats. And it goes on like that.

Feeling overwhelmed? Don't be! Learning how to read jazz music is like learning a new language—it takes time and practice. Start by slowly reading and playing simple songs, and gradually work your way up to more complex pieces.

Remember, jazz is all about feeling the music. So as you're learning to read, don't forget to listen. Listen to the rhythm, the melody, the harmonies. That's the heart of jazz, and that's what will make you a true jazz saxophonist.

Practice basic scales

Now that we've figured out how to read jazz music, the next step on our how to play saxophone for jazz journey involves the backbone of all music—scales. In simple terms, scales are sequences of notes that provide a sort of roadmap for any piece of music.

But why scales? Well, practicing scales will help you understand how notes relate to each other, improve your finger technique, and increase your familiarity with your saxophone. It's like getting to know your best friend—you spend time together, you learn their quirks, and soon you can predict their every move.

Start with the C major scale. This is the simplest scale, with no sharps or flats. Once you're comfortable with that, move on to the other major scales, then the minor scales. Each scale will present its own challenges but remember, practice makes perfect. Or in our case, practice makes jazz!

And here's a handy tip: use a metronome while practicing. This will help you keep a steady tempo and develop a strong sense of rhythm—two things that are absolutely key in jazz music.

Remember, the goal isn't just to play the scales correctly, but to play them with the right feeling and expression. Because that's what jazz is all about—it's not just notes on a page, it's a conversation, an emotion, a story. And you, my friend, are the storyteller.

Experiment with jazz improvisation

Alright! You've got the basics down and you're getting the hang of the scales. It's time to dip your toes into the exciting world of jazz improvisation. This is the heart and soul of jazz—the ability to create beautiful, spontaneous music in the moment.

Scary? Maybe a little. Exciting? Absolutely! Improvisation is like a thrilling roller coaster ride. You don't know exactly where you're going, but you're sure to enjoy the ride.

Start by improvising over the scales you've learned. Play around with the notes, change the order, add some rhythm. Don't worry about making mistakes. In fact, some of the greatest moments in jazz have come from what seemed like a mistake. So go ahead, be daring, be bold!

One thing to remember when improvising is to listen. Listen to the music, to the other instruments, to the silence between the notes. Jazz is a conversation, and to be a good conversationalist, you need to be a good listener.

And remember, improvisation is all about expressing yourself. It's your story, your emotions, your thoughts. There are no right or wrong notes, only your notes. So relax, take a deep breath, and let the music flow. How will your jazz story unfold?

Listen to jazz music

Ready to dive deeper into the world of jazz? There's no better way to immerse yourself than to listen to the masters. Think of it as a fun homework assignment. You're not just enjoying the music—you're studying it. You're asking yourself, "how do they play saxophone for jazz?"

Take a moment to listen to legends like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, or Sonny Rollins. Pay attention to how they phrase their notes, how they build tension and release, how they interact with the other instruments. You'll start to notice patterns, tricks, and techniques that you can incorporate into your own playing.

And don't just stick to the classics. Listen to contemporary jazz artists too. Jazz is a living, breathing genre that continues to evolve. By listening to a wide range of artists, you'll get a taste of the many flavors of jazz. Who knows? You might even discover a new favorite artist or style!

But most importantly, enjoy the music. Let it move you, inspire you. After all, that's what jazz is all about—emotion, expression, and the joy of creation. So put on some headphones, close your eyes, and let the music take you on a journey. Where will it lead? Only one way to find out!

Find a mentor or teacher

Learning how to play saxophone for jazz can be a tricky feat when you're flying solo. It's like trying to find your way through a new city without a map. Sure, you might stumble upon some cool places by accident, but chances are you'll also get lost a lot. This is where a mentor or teacher comes into the picture.

A good mentor will know the ins and outs of the jazz sax world. They'll teach you the basics, but they'll also introduce you to more advanced techniques. They can guide you through the tricky bits, answer your questions, and give you feedback on your playing. It's like having a personal tour guide on your jazz journey.

So, where do you find a mentor or teacher? You could start by asking around in your local music community. Maybe there's a sax teacher at your school or a local music store. Or perhaps there's a jazz musician in your town who offers lessons. You could also look online—there are many platforms that offer virtual lessons from experienced musicians.

Remember, a good mentor or teacher isn't just someone who knows how to play saxophone for jazz. They're someone who can inspire you, challenge you, and help you grow as a musician. So take your time and find someone who's a good fit for you. After all, the journey is just as important as the destination!

Join a Jazz Band

Now that you've got the basics down and a mentor to guide you, let's jazz things up a notch. It's time to put your newfound skills to the test and learn how to play saxophone for jazz in a band setting. There's nothing quite like the thrill of performing with a group, and no better place to learn the ropes.

Joining a jazz band allows you to experience the dynamic energy of ensemble playing. You'll learn to listen and respond to other musicians, an essential skill in the world of jazz. It's also a great way to get comfortable with improvisation. Remember those scary sounding solos? With a band backing you up, you'll start to see them as exciting opportunities to express yourself.

Not sure where to find a jazz band? Start by checking with your school or community center. Many of them have music programs that include jazz bands. You could also reach out to local music stores or cafes. They often host open jam sessions where musicians of all levels are welcome. And don't forget your mentor—they might know of a band looking for a new saxophonist.

Joining a jazz band might feel a bit intimidating at first, but remember, every great jazz musician started somewhere. So, pick up your sax, take a deep breath, and get ready to make some beautiful music. You've got this!

If you're eager to improve your jazz sax skills and take your performance to the next level, check out Debbie Knox-Hewson's workshop, 'How to Get Better at What You Do - Go from Good to Great!.' This workshop will provide you with valuable insights and techniques to help you master your instrument and become an outstanding jazz saxophonist.