How to Play Sax In Tune

Today I’m going to talk about the #1 thing you can do to improve and develop your saxophone sound. Plus, as an extra bonus, we’re also going to learn how to play our saxophone better in tune!

Core Essentials

The exercise I’m going to show you comes directly out of my Core Essentials Course on saxophone fundamentals.

If you’re already taking the Core Essentials Course, this video is gonna help you get even more value out of the long tones exercise – which you should be doing every day.

Long Tone Exercises for Playing in Tune

I start every practice session out by playing long tones with a tuner. I’m using the Tonal Energy app which is an amazing tool for improving intonation if you know how to use it.

I also have printed out my Saxophone Intonation Chart which is going to help me keep track of which notes have a tendency to play out of tune on my instrument. If you want a copy you can download it here.

Let’s start out playing a long tone on middle C and then go down chromatically from there.

Emboucure Technique

First off, you want to use a relaxed but firm embouchure. I highly recommend watching my embouchure tutorial video, if you haven’t already.

We want to play every note with more or less the same exact embouchure. There should be little or no change in our embouchure over the entire range of the saxophone.

Many of you will probably notice that you are biting more and more as you play higher and dropping your jaw as you play lower.  These are common tendencies that most saxophone players do to some degree. 

In both cases, these adjustments feel like they are making it easier to play the notes, but in reality, biting and jaw dropping are just causing you to have less control and confidence when you play.

By practicing long tones daily we are going to strengthen and develop greater control over our embouchure so that we won’t have to bite so much in the upper register

Sharp or Flat?

I like to start on middle C because I know I can play that note with an ideal embouchure right off the bat.

With your tuner on Play your middle C long tone with your best firm and relaxed embouchure and make a mental note of how sharp or flat it is. 

Continue down chromatically for another 5 notes to G making a mental note of how sharp or flat you are on each note. 

After playing these 6 long tones, you may want to adjust how far in your mouthpiece is on the cork.

If every note was sharp, pull out a bit.

If every note was flat, push in a bit.

Repeat this process until you find the spot where these 6 notes play the most in tune with your best, firm and relaxed embouchure.

No saxophone plays perfectly in tune. You need to find your instrument’s inconsistencies and make a note of them. That’s what my intonation chart is for. 

We always want our out of tune notes to be on the sharp side, this way we only have one direction to adjust the pitch and that is down. Also, playing sharp is not as hard on the ears as playing flat.

When you are satisfied that you have found the ideal placement for your mouthpiece on the neck cork, make a small mark on the cork with a pen and proceed to playing long tones from middle C down to low Bb and then from middle C up to your highest note. 

Play every note with the same firm and relaxed embouchure and make sure you are using a steady and well supported air stream at all times.

Playing in the Upper and Lower Registers

As you get into the extreme upper and lower registers, focus on keeping your embouchure consistent from one note to the next. Avoid biting up high and jaw dropping down low.

For any note that is consistently out of tune mark it in pencil on the chart with arrows. If it is 5 – 10 cents sharp put 1 arrow. 10 – 15 cents 2 arrows, and more than that put 3 arrows. 

Your goal should be to play every note no more than 5 cents sharp.

If your saxophone is in good working order, you shouldn’t be getting any flat notes as long as you positioned your mouthpiece correctly on the cork. 

Don’t worry if you are playing much more out of tune than you expected, this is normal for sax players that haven’t worked on intonation.

Just mark where each note lands on the chart and focus on playing with a consistent embouchure that is relaxed but firm. 

For the notes that play sharp, we are going to correct them by opening and relaxing our throat rather than dropping the jaw.

My Personal Tendencies

I have 2 notes that play consistently sharp on this saxophone: octave key E and G in both octaves.  I instinctively know to adjust these notes and by how much because I practice this long tone exercise every day. My embouchure muscles have memorized the physical adjustment necessary to play these notes in tune.

All of my instruments are different and it’s important to get to know how to play each of them in tune. That’s why I put multiple columns on the chart.

Refer to the chart daily as you do this exercise. You will soon memorize which notes you need to make an adjustment for, and as you practice this, your intonation will improve and your sound will become more focused over time. 

You’ll find yourself changing some of your original markings over time. That’s why I say mark the chart in pencil.

As your embouchure and ear improve, you should see that there are fewer out of tune notes on your saxophone. 

The process of finding your ideal set embouchure and learning exactly where to put the mouthpiece on your neck cork may take a few weeks or longer of practicing long tones daily. When you get to this stage, the work is not done. You have to practice long tones daily for as long as you play the saxophone if you want to maintain a beautiful sound, keep your embouchure strong and play in tune.

Other Tips to Playing in Tune

  1. Listen to the sound of the note you are about to play first, and then use your ear to match the pitch. The Tonal Energy App allows you to hear the notes played on any instrument.
  2. Play long tones without looking at the tuner and then check yourself. What’s also cool is that the Tonal Energy App records how in tune you were or weren’t.
  3. Using headphones, play your long tones while listening to the note being played and try to match the pitch.
  4. While listening to a note in headphones, practice tuning intervals
  5. While playing long tones, you can use the camera function in the Tonal Energy App to monitor your embouchure. 

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer all of them!

If you’re interested in more content about saxophone fundamentals check out “Improve Your Tone with This (Short) Long Tone Exercise.”

Also be sure to follow BetterSax on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube to stay up to date with us for news, giveaways, and other saxophone tips and tricks.

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6 thoughts on “How to Play Sax In Tune”

  1. Hi Jay,
    Thank you for all your amazing content! It’s so great to get back to the horn after a 16 year break—I’m so glad that I found your videos (quite by chance)!
    Question: is there a way to download the tuning chart? The link above, as well as in the YouTube description area, sends me to the member area (incidentally, I purchased and am working on your Pentatonic Patterns course—great work, by the way). Is there a way to download a copy from the member home before purchasing the Core Essentials course?
    Many thanks once again!

    1. Aaron,
      Since you are an existing member you have access to this and all of the free downloads. Just sign in to the members area, do a search for “how to play in tune” and you’ll find this lesson with the download.

  2. I had studied with Joe Allard and Eddie Daniels in the 1980’s, both those men spoke to the nature of the instrument AND the nature of ourselves in the most brilliant of ways. Joe had REAL GRAVITAS and Eddie had already been a confirmed and unique force of nature – a man so accomplished who had really studied so deeply while able to convey it all – I’ve not been witness to the likes of their impact anywhere else since, and I have been looking.
    I’d love to see and hear informational conversations and demonstrations of their approach from people who studied with them. Thank-you.

  3. Every note I key is one note off on the turner. It’s off to the sharp side. I’ve moved the mouthpiece back and forth- nothing. I have moved moved my mouth around- nothing. The bell does have two small dents where the brass makes its final curve outward. Could this be the issue?

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