Why Avery Dixon’s Sax Playing Won America’s Got Talent
I’ve never watched the show America’s got talent, but it has come to my attention recently because of a young man named Avery Dixon.
Avery has literally inspired millions of people with the saxophone; and in this video, I’m going to try to explain why the way he plays is so infectious and speaks to so many people.
Avery Dixon has also inspired me, so I’m going to go through his solo and pick out his exact techniques and tricks that help make him sound so good.
If you start doing all the things I’m about to show you – your saxophone playing is going to get a lot better very quickly.
Now listening to some of Avery Dixon’s playing, you might think wow, that’s going to be really hard to learn with all those notes.
But, he’s playing perfectly in the style of a pop, soul, blues or funk, and relying heavily on the minor pentatonic scale as well as the blues scale.
If you’ve watched any of my improvisation tutorials you know this is what I teach people starting out, not just because it’s relatively easy, but because it sounds great and is what you hear on the records.
Check out my free Play Sax by Ear Crash Course, which covers how to learn and use the pentatonic scale to get started playing by ear and improvising.
The Intro – Phrase 1
Let’s start by listening to the intro which you can take a look at here. (Plus, throughout this blog I’ve got links to each of these sections embedded into the post for easy viewing)
Every note of this is in the minor pentatonic scale except for one.
Now in order to transcribe this solo, I’m using this app called Transcribe+, and I’d like to thank them for sponsoring this video and for making such a great and intuitive app.
- First, load the song into the app and place a marker at the beginning of the track.
- Then I will let it play until I get to the end of the first phrase.
- Then I place another marker which I can give a title like “phrase 1.”
- Then I press the loop button and set my loop between the 2 markers.
- Now just that first phrase will loop over and over.
Tip #1: Scoops
As I said earlier, all the notes are from the minor pentatonic scale, so it’s pretty easy to figure it out.
Now you might be saying to yourself, Hey I play the pentatonic scale too, but it doesn’t sound like that when I’m doing it.
Here’s why – watch here.
Avery Dixon is playing with a beautiful tone and very solid rhythm. Both essential to sounding good, but he is also phrasing in such a way that makes just a few notes sound amazing.
Tip #1, is a super power tip that will greatly improve your phrasing.
Notice that on some of the notes Avery Dixon plays, he slides into it from below.
Most saxophone players are doing this wrong though, which makes it sound kinda bad.
Most sax players hear this sound and then try to replicate it by bending the notes with their jaw.
For example, the way Avery and other great players do it, is by playing a lower neighbor grace note. So for the second note of the phrase instead of bending into the C with my jaw from below, I will first play B natural and slide right into the target note C.
Avery is using this grace note technique all the time throughout this performance. It is one of the key elements to the overall style.
As you listen to the solo, notice that he uses this technique once or twice per phrase. It’s not on every note. So don’t overdo it
Tip #2: Falls
At the end of the phrase he falls off the last note. Again this is something most sax players will hear and try to emulate by just flopping their fingers down the saxophone.
What Avery does is he plays down the same minor pentatonic scale very fast and cleanly.
This is another technique you can hear throughout the solo.
Tip #3: Repeat Clear Idea
Moving on to the second phrase of the intro: it is a repetition of the first idea, but with a variation.
Most sax players, once they learn the pentatonic scale, they’re off to the races noodling around playing what ends up sounding like incoherent and unconnected musical ideas.
What sounds much better and is a lot easier is to do a sort of call and response with yourself.
Tip #3.5: Know the Melody and Outline the Harmony
When we get to the 3rd phrase we have that one note that isn’t in the minor pentatonic scale.
Instead of playing the minor 3rd concert Gb, he plays the major 3rd – a concert G natural.
He could have stuck with the minor 3rd and it would have sounded fine. But he knows the underlying harmony, and chooses his moments to outline it which gives us some variety.
Most saxophone players will ignore the underlying harmony and try to get away with only playing one scale over everything, which can only get you so far.
In this case, his intro is loosely following the melody of the song – another reason to play the major 3rd here.
The rest of the intro is a minor pentatonic scale ending on a high concert Eb or C on the alto saxophone.
Tip #4: Vibrato
Now on this long held out note, most saxophone players will throw some fast vibrato on it.
That sounds terrible. Please stop doing this. It’s not classical music.
Avery Dixon plays this with what is basically a straight tone.
That sounds awesome – no vibrato necessary. If he does use any vibrato it’s a much slower vibrato and it gets used very deliberately towards the end of a long held out note. It’s done very much in the same way as soul and R&B singers use vibrato.
Tip #5: Listen, Transcribe, Emulate
Now we are into the melody of the song, which is by the great Stevie Wonder of course.
I can tell that Avery listens to a lot of Stevie Wonder and other great singers by the way he plays the saxophone. You see, I’d be willing to bet that the reason he sounds so good on the sax is not so much because he’s actively thinking about all the techniques I’m describing in detail here, but because he has listened to a lot of great music and is emulating those sounds on his instrument.
Most saxophone players don’t do this though. They try to learn songs and solos by reading the notes off of the sheet music which is only telling a small part of the story.
It’s like trying to cook a recipe with only the list of ingredients. We also need to know how to combine and cook those ingredients if we want something that tastes good as a result.
So tip 5 and it’s a big one… is listen to great singers and saxophone players, and emulate the way they phrase.
And by the way, in case you were wondering Avery is playing a Jody Jazz DV mouthpiece on what looks like a Yamaha 62 alto.
Tip #6: Rhythmic Variation
Moving on, here’s a great pentatonic scale phrase I really like.
Avery Dixon is literally just playing the scale up and then down here.
So Tip #6 is using a variety of rhythms in your solos can be more effective that trying to cram in more notes.
In this section, he sneaks in another note that is not in the pentatonic scale for variety. That’s a little snippet of very typical jazz vocabulary. If you’ve ever learned a ii-V I lick, it probably had that in there. Then, it’s followed by another bit of common blues vocabulary – this chromatic lick is a mainstay.
Tip #7: Play Familiar Vocabulary
Tip #7 is to always incorporate some familiar vocabulary into your solos. This connects with audiences every time.
After the bridge of the song he goes into this pentatonic scale pattern. Check out my other videos on pentatonic scale patterns and licks if you want to learn more of this stuff.
This one is just a three note pattern that goes up the scale .
In the breakdown, Avery plays a sort of cadenza.
That run is just the pentatonic scale starting on alto sax low C up to high F.
Tip #8: Pentatonic Patterns
Notice that here, he does bend the top note. He does it really dramatically. You see bending notes is part of the style, but you have to pick your spots judiciously.
I think he’s getting that long bend by playing front F with the first finger in the right hand down and slowly lifting that finger off.
He follows this with another repeated pentatonic pattern. He plays it starting on these 2 notes, but you could move that same pattern all around the horn like this
The way he plays it is great for building tension here though – which is Tip #8, incorporate pentatonic patterns when you want to build tension.
Tip #9: Playing Altissimo Notes at the Phrase Climax
Now, he builds us up to the climax of the whole performance with this lick.
It is once again, just the pentatonic scale, but he adds what I call the Cannonball lick (named after Cannonball Adderly who played this all the time) in the middle and then continues up the scale to altissimo C on the alto saxophone.
Once he’s up there he holds that super high note out just enough time for the audience to go wild which they always do.
So Tip #9 is play a high altissimo note at the climax of your solo, which should be near the end, leaving you just enough time to resolve that tension gradually until the end.
Which sets things up perfectly for the audience to applaud, going crazy and to feel incredibly satisfied with the whole performance.
Tip #10: Plan Ahead
Now this whole thing is very carefully choreographed and worked out ahead of time. I’m not saying there’s no improvisation going on, there is. Every time Avery Dixon performs this arrangement it’s going to sound slightly different.
But Tip #10 – if you want to sound good, work out what it is you’re going to play at least on some level before you play it.
So many saxophone players think that when we say improvise we mean don’t prepare anything and just make it up on the spot.
That is not a recipe for a successful performance.
This particular arrangement is like a blueprint for an epic solo saxophone performance made for TV.
Looking for more breakdowns of great solos? Check out this sax solo lesson on Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.”