Saxophone Listening Guide with YouTube playlists

I bring up saxophone listening all the time in my lessons. Listening to the saxophone is as important as practicing the saxophone. Today I’d like to share with you a couple of saxophone listening lists I’ve created. Thanks to YouTube, which is an inexhaustible resource of information for any discipline, this music is accessible to anyone for free.

Jazz saxophone is our base

This is certainly my opinion, and that of many others. The saxophone is mainly a jazz instrument. Yes, classical saxophone exists and there are many excellent classical saxophone players, but they are all effectively unknown as is their music. Pop and rock saxophone fall under the category of jazz for me as those styles are off-shoots of the jazz tradition.

The musicians that have developed the image and global concept of what the saxophone as an instrument does have all been jazz musicians. Some of the saxophone players in these lists are responsible for significant musical innovations whose influences can be heard in plenty of today’s music. All of these players have helped to define the sound and style of modern saxophone playing. They have also pushed the limits further and further of what the saxophone can and should do in music.

So, no matter what style of music you play or want to play on the saxophone, you must listen to the great jazz saxophonists.

Tenor Saxophone Greats

Here is my YouTube saxophone listening playlist for tenor saxophone greats:

I have intentionally only included one selection from each artist for the sake of brevity. This list could easily get very, very long otherwise. My idea is to give you a taste of a saxophone player you may not have heard before so that you can continue your discovery on your own. Here are some of the names on my list:

  • Coleman Hawkins
  • Lester Young
  • Ben Webster
  • John Coltrane
  • Sonny Rollins
  • Sonny Stitt (also on the alto list)
  • Hank Mobley
  • Dexter Gordon
  • Michael Brecker
  • Bob Mintzer
  • Eric Alexander

There are many others but these are my personal top 10 + 1. These names should get you off to a very good start.

Alto Saxophone Greats

Here is my YouTube saxophone listening playlist for great alto saxophone players:

Once again, I have only included one selection from each saxophone artist. YouTube is full of tons of other material from each of these legendary musicians. Truly unlimited saxophone listening available here. Have a look at some of the names on my alto saxophone listening list:

  • Charlie Parker
  • Johnny Hodges
  • Sonny Stitt
  • Cannonball Adderley
  • Paul Desmond
  • Sonny Criss
  • Art Pepper
  • Phil Woods
  • Kenny Garrett
  • Vincent Herring

Again, there are many more great alto players. This list represents some of my personal favorite choices.

Don’t Just Listen to the Saxophone

As saxophone players we are certainly biased toward our favorite instrument but we mustn’t neglect listening to the other musicians on these recordings. There is much to be learned from listening to bass players, drummers, piano players, guitarists, singers and other instrumentalists. Pay close attention to how musicians interact with one another and complement each other’s playing to better learn your role as a saxophone player in an ensemble.

Check Out Other Styles

Don’t forget to listen to recordings of other styles of music which don’t necessarily have saxophonists. Many saxophone innovators have made their mark by bringing their instrument to a new genre. A great example of this is the group Moon Hooch. I think these guys are great. They have obviously done their homework on their instruments and have found a creative way to bring the saxophone to a realm where it was rarely found before. The saxophone is such a versatile instrument that it can be effectively used in just about any musical situation if you know how. The key to knowing how is in the listening.

YouTube video

Go to a Live Show

YouTube is great. So are Spotify, Apple Music and the other music streaming services. There is nothing that can replace the experience of going to see a great saxophone player live. Luckily (or unluckily as the case may be) tickets to see great saxophone players are rarely sold out and relatively inexpensive (or free sometimes). Be sure to get a seat up close so you can observe the nuances and details of what the player is doing.

Unlike pop idols, saxophone players are easily approachable. After the concert, don’t hesitate to say hello and introduce yourself as a student of the instrument. Us saxophonists are always happy to offer advice and encouragement to eager students. This can also be an opportunity to enquire about taking private lessons if the player is local to your area.


All accomplished saxophone players in all styles have spent countless hours listening to the musicians on these YouTube Saxophone listening lists. I encourage you to get started with these selections and see where it takes you. Choose your favorites and find out who their influences were to expand your saxophone listening discovery.

When I was a younger student, YouTube didn’t exist. My fellow music students and I would get together in our dorm rooms with CaseLogic CD carriers packed full of jazz compact discs. We would take turns playing selections for each other. Now we can do this where ever we are in the world by sharing YouTube links and playlists. Not as much fun as the old school way, but it will have to do.

Set aside time everyday for listening to music. Do this mainly for your own personal pleasure but also for the added benefit of improving your saxophone playing.

Interested in more great saxophone players? Check out my “Top 10 Classic Jazz Alto Saxophone Players of All Time.”

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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Landis Maitland-Whitelaw says:

Thanks for the list Jay… I am new to the alto sax and do not have a clue who to listen to.
This is a great start.

Duane Beck says:

Jay, why don’t get together with some other musicians and create some recordings we could purchase from itunes or amazon to provide more listening examples. I like your style and would be willing to purchase some recordings to add to my listening lists. I love Hawkins and have really started to listen to The Yellowjackets as well besides Coltrane, Bird, among others.

Jay Metcalf says:

Thanks Duane, working on some recording projects at the moment. Will let you know.

Bob says:

I have a high school student who started playing bari last year. Got any recos? There’s Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Gary Smulyan… ?

Jay Metcalf says:

Those are 3 great places to start. Also Ronnie Cuber, Cecil Payne…



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