Do you have trouble getting the low notes to come out on your saxophone sometimes, or ever?
You’re not alone, this is something that every sax player struggles with at some point.
In this lesson, I’m going to go over the most important things you need to be doing to get the low notes out on your horn.
Watch my video below or read the rest of this post if you prefer.
Low Notes are All About Your Air
It all comes down to breathing and how you use your air. Once you learn how to use your air correctly, not only will you have more confidence and consistency with the low register, but your sound over the entire range will improve as well as your timing articulation, intonation, and just about everything else.
First off, your sax needs to be in good working order. This means that all the pads need to be sealing well. If they’re not, you need to visit a repair technician and have your horn looked at.
So assuming that your instrument is in good shape, the key to getting low notes out is all about how you use your air.
We are going to focus on the low notes first, and then continue to breath in the same way across the entire range of the horn.
Low Notes Expose Our Weakness
We do this because it’s while attempting to play the low register of the saxophone that our bad breathing techniques get exposed.
Your air is the energy that powers the saxophone. So Before you blame your mouthpiece or reed or instrument for a not so great sound, realize that without proper breathing technique you can’t sound good on any equipment.
Also if you haven’t watched my embouchure tutorial video and my reed placement video check those out next. You need to be doing those things correctly as well for all this to work.
Saxophone Embouchure Tutorial
Saxophone Reed Placement Tutorial
Breath From Your Diaphragm?
Some of you may have been told or read somewhere that you need to breath from your diaphragm.
This is true, but we are always using our diaphragm to breath all day long.
So let’s dig a bit deeper into exactly what is happening in our bodies when we breathe while playing the saxophone or any wind instrument.
When we inhale, we fill up our body’s air tank just like a balloon. You will see your chest and abdomen expand when you take a deep breath in.
When we blow into the saxophone, we have to control the release of this air so that a somewhat consistent air pressure is maintained.
Your Body’s Air Tank
Picture an inflatable mattress. When we open the valve to release the air, at first it comes out fast, but the pressure reduces quickly as the mattress empties. We then have to squeeze the remaining air out.
As wind instrument players, we need to use the muscles of our abdomen to push the air out more and more in order to maintain the air pressure as our balloon empties itself. The less air we have in the tank the more we have to push.
Always Top Up the Tank
The first thing you need to get used to doing is filling your air capacity completely with each breath. Most saxophone students are not doing this.
- When you breathe in, open your mouth so the air can come in quicker and make less noise.
- Don’t breathe through your nose.
- Quickly fill your air tank to maximum allowing your abdomen, then rib cage then upper chest to expand as you fill up.
Fogging Up a Mirror
When you blow out don’t do it the way you blow out candles on a birthday cake. Instead blow out as though you are fogging up a mirror.
This helps you do 2 important things automatically.
- It opens up the throat and lowers the tongue out of the way. This will give you a more open and round sound and makes a big difference for getting the low notes to come out.
- This helps to automatically regulate the controlled release of the air.
Practice doing this on your hand with your embouchure set and notice the difference.
Controlling the Air Flow
It’s very important that you keep the air pressure consistent and strong when blowing into your horn.
We want to avoid a big rush of air in the beginning followed by a weak air flow. The result of this is the all too common honking sound beginner saxophonists make.
It helps me to have a mental picture of a balloon pressing up against the mouthpiece. That balloon is my air and my job is to keep it pressed against the mouthpiece at the same level of pressure throughout the exhalation.
In order to practice all of this, you have to do long tones. This way you don’t have to think about anything else other than what you’re doing with your air.
Long Tone Exercise for Correct Low Note Breathing
Start with low E.
Take a full breath as I described earlier
Then set your embouchure and blow as though fogging up a window.
Maintain air pressure using the muscles in your abdomen to gradually squeeze the air out of your body.
Visualize a balloon pressing up against the mouthpiece.
Repeat this for each note descending chromatically down to Bb.
Your Saxophone Sound is a Long Term Project
If breathing in this way is totally new to you, it will take a while for you to develop these techniques into consistent habits that you will eventually do automatically whenever you play.
I recommend you practice this using long tones daily and for the foreseeable future. Start with the lower register and then continue in the same way playing every note going up to the limit of your range.
Pay careful attention to not allow yourself to fall back into poor breathing habits while you practice.
You can then concentrate on applying these techniques to everything else you play.
Your saxophone sound is a long term project. If you want to develop a beautiful sound, be prepared to put the necessary time in. Starting off with good habits and proper technique will go a very long way in getting you there quicker though.
Please let me know your thoughts on this in the comments section below. Tell me if this technique has helped you have more success playing the low notes on your saxophone and if it’s helped to improve your sound and overall playing as well.
If you have any questions about this topic the best place to ask is in the comments section below.
Want more content on sound development? Check out “The Most MASSIVE Sax Sound Ever | Do Heavy Mass Screws Work?”
28 thoughts on “How to Play Low Notes on the Saxophone (a breathing tutorial)”
Hi Mr. Jay Metcalf. Thanks a lot for this fundamental tip. I have practicing for long time with a wrong breathing.In other words.my low notes have being awful and weaks.Now,I am blowing in the correct way. My best regards.Carlos Roda
Valparaíso Chile. ( Please forgive me my poor english )
Carlos, Great to hear, i’m glad.
Thanks for the helpful videos. I’ve shown some of my older students your Embouchure video above, and some of my younger students the How to Play Low notes video above.
Great stuff !
I’m glad if YouTube was around when I was a kid…
Maxime from Syos mouthpiece here! I found your article very interesting, the low register is always an issue. In fact I wrote an article on the topic – thought it was good to post it here to complete yours. It’s more a scientific explanation of why this register is often harder so I don’t offer solutions like you but just a little bit of theory that you could find interesting : https://www.syos.co/en/blog/science/low-notes-saxophone
Thanks for sharing that Maxime. It’s definitely easier to play the lowest note softly on a clarinet than on a saxophone. For anyone interested, this book: https://www.amazon.com/Fundamentals-Musical-Acoustics-Second-Revised/dp/048626484X is a great way to understand the basics…
Thanks for this lesson, it’s really helpful.
I want to ask a question sir and is… Do I blow/pump out while blowing air into my horn?
I’ve always noticed my abdomen always goes in and gets flatter while playing my horn.
You want to allow your stomach and chest to expand when you inhale to get the maximum air capacity. As you push this air out with your diaphragm everything will contract and get smaller again.
So many youtube videos now on all stuff related to music instruments, but I feel it destroys the feeling for music. Kids just learn the technique of playing, but they don`t feel it enough as they would by just listening.
I don’t feel that information on the internet (as long as it’s truthful and accurate) destroys the feeling for kids. It actually inspires lots of kids to make music and allows them to hear lots of stuff they wouldn’t normally be exposed to. Listening is always the most important part of the musical learning experience, of course. Lucky for us there’s lots of music to listen to for free on the internet.
Hi Jay, thanks for your helpful videos.
I have a problem with breathing out! I have mastered breathing techniques for flute and singing, and teach my asthmatic patients how to breathe more effectively. Breathing in is not a problem.
However, I find on sax I can play a long phrase and then my body needs oxygen, but my lungs are still half full, so I need to breathe out before refilling.
Do you have any tips?
This is a great question and topic for a YouTube video. I’m going to put it on my list. The trick is to first empty your lungs of air completely before inhaling. This is not a natural thing to do and takes a little bit of practice at first. You really want to be in the habit of pushing all the air out. It’s easier to explain in an actual demonstration though. You also want to avoid putting good air on top of bad. so always empty out before filling back up.
Hi Jay and the bonus is that the air in the lungs and hence supplying the instrument becomes less humid. Keeping the humidity low reduces the amount of condensation occurring in the mouthpiece. When I started to play a Low-D whistle my sons made me for my Birthday I got such horrendous condensation in the mouth-piece, after one tune it stopped playing. Because it was a present I was determined to crack the problem and so I looked into how to reduce the condensation. As an engineer I investigated reducing the humidity at the source and this led me to look at maximizing lung volume to surface area and change the air volume frequently in order to dilute the moisture transferring from the lungs into the air. I’ve always been a shallow chest-breather playing my tenor sax, so I started working with my diaphragm to fill my lungs and changed out most of the air volume where I could between breaths. It made such a difference that I can play the Low D whistle continuously without condensation problems. My lowest notes on the sax were always unreliable and yes I would get crackly sound due to condensation in my reed. Since changing my breathing technique to using the diaphragm, full lungs and frequent air changes My tone has lost its crackle and my lowest notes issues have gone. Oh yes so has the stiffness in neck and shoulders which I discovered was due to tension in muscles used in chest breathing. Cheers, Steve
Good to hear this Steve.
I am a pure beginner. Whenever I blow into my Alto Sax, a sort of a whistling sound comes out. Whenever I try to play a low note, for example, if I play a low C, then the sound that comes out of the horn is actually of a middle C. And my Sax doesn’t have the pinky Bb key, the bis key and the topmost key of the left hand. And some keys are jammed including the octave key. I bought it from Amazon, a couple of weeks ago. It’s my first saxophone, and we don’t have any expert technician, or a saxophone repair shop nearby (actually stores are not available in the whole State that I live in). Actually I live in the state of Assam, India, and there is no saxophone players in the entire state.
Try watching my latest beginner course videos on YouTube to make sure you are doing everything correctly. It’s certainly possible that there is a problem with your instrument though.
This is great information that answers my questions about proper air flow.
Good to hear, thanks.
Thanks for all these awesome videos!
Hi Jay, Just found your site and looks like I’m glad I did.
Decided to give the tenor sax a try after retiring from education. I’ve not blown through an instrument since high school (40 years ago+) on bass and contrabass clarinets.
I’ve managed to get sound out of my tenor, but the right pinky notes not so much.
Just watched your low note video so I’m looking forward to giving your breathing techniques a try.
Thanks for great contributions, especially new and those returning after a long set break.
Love that Huey Lewis sax music !
Hector from El Paso
Glad you are back to playing the sax Hector.
I played alto for about ten years and was a decent community band player before switching to tenor. I love the sound but I can’t just pop out a note below low D. I’ve tried everything, a complete instrument overhaul, new mouthpiece, new reeds, a zilllion youtube videos including yours and gotten nowhere. Other people can play my sax with their mouthpieces. Should I just give up and take up knitting?
Very likely your embouchure is too tight and you are not using enough air. Tenor takes a bit of adjustment from alto. More air, more relaxed embouchure. Don’t give up.
OK this makes a huge difference once I take in a FULL breath instead of a half-heartily breath,
Will have to keep practicing as I still keep forgetting to take a full tank, hopefully it will come , Good advice Jay
I am having a frustrating problem with a warble on low B and I don’t think it’s my sax. I am going to practice your breathing advice and see if that cures my problem. As usual, thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Hi Jay. I started out as a soprano sax player, and even then I kinda struggled to produce the bottom B or Bb. However, having now switched to tenor sax, I enjoy the sound but find the problem is exaggerated with the low notes.
When my low notes do come out, they sound “honky”. Then, as I move up the range with the same steam of air and embouchure, the middle range notes begin to squeal as well. So, I have tried and tried again, but I can find it frustrating.
I’ll keep trying to produce the low notes.
Thank you very much for all of these great videos. My BetterSax Alto arrived yesterday and I was able to give it a whirl today. This is the first time I’ve played any type of saxophone (about 20 years or so since I’ve actually played any instrument). I love it but when following along with the videos and playing down to low D, I noticed as soon as I got to G, it sounded like the octave key was pressed. I kept getting that and searched the internet and found this is normal for beginners, where the low notes are much more difficult. So, I’ve decided for my next week or so, I’m going to focus on my embouchure with the low notes.
I saw some instructions that said, it might be best focusing on the lower notes first with your embouchure because if you can play those well, then your embouchure is definitely correct for the other notes. Almost like if you perfect the lower notes then that means you’re good to go with the other notes (with tiny adjustments). Does that seem like good advice to follow?
Ryan, glad you got the horn and are back to playing music. I strongly recommend you go through my beginner course videos if you haven’t already. I put everything you need to know to get started with good habits in there. Yes it is not a bad idea to work on the low notes at first and it’s true that strong low notes will usually translate to strong high notes, but be patient with yourself at first. Each day you will make a lot of progress but it starts out pretty rough.