You have heard this sax solo before by Kirk Whalum, I’m sure. It is one of the most listened to saxophone solos of all time. In this video let’s find out why it’s basically a blueprint for how to craft a killer solo
“I Will Always Love You”
This great saxophone solo is from the Whitney Houston recording of the brilliant Dolly Parton song, “I Will Always Love You” which was an enormous hit back in 1992. The saxophone player is Kirk Whalum, who is one of my favorite saxophonists. If somehow you are unfamiliar with his recordings, I strongly recommend you check them out.
Kirk Whalum is an extremely melodic player. His phrasing on the saxophone makes you feel as though you’re listening to a great vocalist. And by the way that’s is a fantastic way to improve your own phrasing on the saxophone. Listen to your favorite singers and try to emulate the way they phrase melodies.
There is a ton to learn from this solo so lets dive right in…
I have transcribed this solo and written out transposed parts in concert pitch and for Eb and Bb saxophones. You can download that for free from the BetterSax Shed. Once you sign up for that you will have access to this transcription and the others from my great saxophone solos series as well as a ton of other saxophone learning materials. There’s enough in there to keep you quite busy for a while so enjoy.
Now, I learned this solo by ear, and I strongly suggest you do the same. It is much easier to learn by ear than to try to read the sheet music.
As you can see, rhythmically it looks rather complicated when written out. This is a ballad so there is a lot of rhythmic subdivision going on. Earlier I told you that Kirk Whalum plays the saxophone like a vocalist, so we’ve got a lot of free and very expressive lines that are difficult to notate exactly.
However, if you listen very closely over and over, you can try to copy the phrasing exactly as he plays it just using your ear.
Almost all of the notes in this solo come directly out of the major pentatonic scale or the blues scale and there aren’t any fast passages with a ton of notes crammed in.
There is one challenging altissimo note in the solo but other than that it’s very approachable.
If you want to get better at learning to play saxophone by ear like this, check out my Pentatonic Foundation and Blues Foundation courses. They are a complete method for developing this skill and are accessible to all levels of players.
Now let’s learn this solo phrase by phrase and I’ll be speaking in concert key.
First Half of the Solo
The solo is a total of 8 measures long over the chords for the verse of the song.
He starts the solo out in the last bar of the chorus on the 5 chord, leading us into the top of the verse. This is a pentatonic scale line.
Now he could have just played E A C# right — but that would be a bit less interesting, so think of all the other notes as embellishments of the main melodic notes of the phrase, the E, A and the C#.
Throughout this entire solo, he’s basically embellishing a simple melodic line.
For example if we take the first few bars of this solo — the overall melody is E A C#, B, A.
The next phrase again is just a very simple descending line. B, A G# F# E.
He’s embellishing the over arching melody with the neighboring notes in the scale above and below. He throws in the flat 3rd as a bluesy color here and there.
We talked about this in my Great Solos Episode 3 with David Sanborn — you’ll learn an easy blues scale trick in a major key.
Before he plays this F# here he leads into it from further down leaping up from the B. That wider interval changes things up nicely.
Now I don’t know if Kirk planned that out beforehand, but I think this sort of melodic playing just comes naturally to great musicians.
While researching for this video I came across a great clip of Kirk Whalum telling the story behind this iconic recording.
So apparently what we’ve all heard a million times is a live first take with no overdubs and it’s brilliantly executed.
Second Half of the Solo
Now for the second half of the solo. His overarching melody once again begins with an embellished version of C# B A or mi re do.
This repetition of melodic material in a solo makes it very coherent to the listeners. Just like the melody of a song repeats itself, you can do the same thing when improvising to great effect.
Now for the last phrase of the solo he takes it up to the altissimo range playing a high concert F#, which on the tenor saxophone is a G#. That can be a challenging note but going up to that altissimo range towards the end of the solo is a great way to peak before bringing it all back down setting up the last verse.
Notice that the overarching melody of this line follows the major pentatonic scale down.
F#, E, C#, B, A, F#, E
So check it out, another way to think of this solo is as an overarching melodic line connected with a series of embellishments.
I wrote it out for you and it’s on the pdf download here.
You can try to play your own improvised solo based on this melody adding in your own embellishments to connect the notes.
I think that in itself is a wonderful lesson in how to craft an effective solo that really connects well with your audience.
Another thing to take notice of is that every time the chords change, he plays a chord tone on the downbeat.
So not only does the solo have an underlying melody to it, but that melody has great voice leading and outlines the harmony very nicely.
You might be saying to yourself, when you break it down like that it all seems so simple though, surely there is much more complexity and fancy stuff going on.
Not really. Sometimes the most beautiful and tasty things are very simple and composed of the most basic ingredients.
I hope you learned something from this video and go listen to some Kirk Whalum recordings. Every thing he plays is like a masterclass on sound, phrasing and melody.