If you’re around my age and from Long Island like I am… You definitely recognize the sax solo from the Billy Joel hit song New York State of Mind.
Today, I’m going to analyze this classic solo and we’re going to go over some of the techniques used. Then I’ll show you how you can learn to play some of that stuff in your own solos.
New York State of Mind Sax Solo History
Now this sax solo has a bit of an odd story since it’s not actually the original that you would find on a hard copy of the Turnstiles album from 1976 when the song was first released.
New York State of Mind was re-released on the Billy Joel Greatest Hits Vol 1 and 2 album with a new sax solo. I’m pretty sure it was by Mark Rivera who replaced Richie Cannata in Billy Joel’s band in 1982 and has been with him ever since.
I grew up hearing this newer re-recorded sax solo so that’s the one that sounds right to me.
When I first heard the original Richie Cannata version it made me feel like I was in some kind of alternate reality since everything else on the recording is identical. So weird.
I’ve never heard of another instance where a solo was re-recorded for a re-release of a track.
Now in the liner notes of the Greatest hits album it does not say anything about the re-recorded solo.
But, there was another new track released on this album and you can see Mark Rivera was playing the Synthharmonica… whatever that is, along with Ronnie Cuber and John Faddis.
So I’m not 100% sure this is Mark Rivera’s solo, but it sure does sound like him.
It is definitely not Phil Woods though as some have people have supposed on various internet discussion forums.
Learn and download the New York State of Mind Sax Solo
I wrote this solo out for you so you can follow along. You can download it from the BetterSax Shed where you can also get all my other free downloadable saxophone lesson resources.
Click the link, fill out the form on the page and you’ll get an email giving you access. I recommend adding http://bettersax.com to your list of safe sender domains. That way you can ensure that the email doesn’t end up in spam or junk folders.
This solo is pretty easy to play. There is only one altissimo A, which is one of the easiest altissimo notes to hit. If you’re struggling with Altissimo you should check out this video on “How to Play Altissimo.”
It’s a great example of a melodic solo, that uses a lot of pentatonic scale lines. It also outlines the harmony with simple arpeggios and mixes in a couple of bebop licks and the blues scale for good measure.
In total it’s an 18 bar solo over the verse of the song. This is very typical for a pop tune.
In this genre I think melodic solos work very well. There’s no need to do anything too flashy or play a ton of notes. The intended audience is not the jazz crowd, they just want to hear a beautiful sax tone and something they can hum along to.
Altissimo is the Drum Solo of the Saxophone
If you play some altissimo near the end at the peak of the solo, you are much more likely to get applause from the audience. You don’t need a lot though. just one well placed high note can do the trick.
Altissimo is like the drum solo of the saxophone. No matter what the gig is drum solos get applause. The audience could literally be asleep but if the drummer takes a solo, people wake up to go woohoo!
Altissimo on the sax can have a similar effect when used well.
The first thing we’re going to want to do is learn the chord changes. The chord changes will help us to understand the note choices in the solo. As well as how the harmony is being outlined and resolved in certain spots.
It’s also going to allow us to play our own variations of this solo or improvise something entirely new. Which is why we transcribe and analyze solos in the first place.
I’m talking in concert key here so saxophonists keep in mind you have to transpose for your instrument.
Harmonic Analysis of New York State of Mind by Billy Joel
So we are in the key of C major and start on the 1 chord. In the second measure it moves up to the 3 dominant E7 which resolves to A minor in the next measure. You know Billy Joel was a big Ray Charles fan. He’s said that when he wrote this song he wanted Ray Charles to perform it. This chord progression is the same as the Hoagy Carmichael song Georgia which Ray Charles is probably best known for. Not a coincidence.
Next measure we have a ii-V resolving to the 4 chord in the following measure. This sequence can be found in 73% of jazz standards [not a real statistic] so good to know.
Now we go up to A7 which then resolves to E minor. Look at this as just repeating the Georgia chord progression up a fourth in the key of F.
Now to get back to the tonic C major we play this Bb7 chord. We call this a back door dominant. Again a very common device in jazz standard harmony.
Now you might be asking yourself, wait is this a jazz song? I thought Billy Joel was rock or pop music.
Rock and pop use sophisticated harmony all the time. That’s why you should study music theory and harmony regardless of the genre of music you want to play.
Moving on, now we are back to C major and we have this descending bass line that goes down the major scale with various diatonic triad inversions on top. This is a very typical pop harmonic device. We end up on the 2 chord D7 which can be called a secondary dominant or V of V. This sets up this 4-5 cadence which goes to the relative minor A minor instead of C sort of like a delayed resolution, then back to the secondary dominant D then back to A minor the vi chord. This is another thing you find in pop music a lot. Instead of the typical 8 bar sections you’ll often get these little extensions of a couple bars thrown in. finally down to G the V chord and resolving back to 1 at the top of the form.
What a great little chord progression though, right?
All the chords are included in the pdf download I mentioned earlier.
So now let’s check out the solo and see how the notes relate to the chords.
Incidentally, this is really the trick to playing an effective solo on a song like this that has a lot of harmonic movement. You can’t just stick to one pentatonic scale. You really have to follow the chords if you want to play something that sounds good.
The first phrase is straight up major pentatonic scale over the 1 chord. It also paraphrases the melody which is a very effective way to begin a solo.
The next phrase outlines the E7 chord with this very simple arpeggiation resolving to A minor with this escape tone thing. (that term btw is a relic of my college music theory courses) finishing with a pentatonic scale line that nicely outlines the A minor chord..
Remember that the C major pentatonic and A minor pentatonic scales are the exact same notes. You can learn a lot more about using them in music and playing solos in my Pentatonic Foundation course and my free Play Sax by Ear Crash Course.
The next phrase is in the new key of F. Notice this rhythmic motif of the 2 16th note pickup each time.
See how he very smoothly gets into the A7 chord with a nice half step voice leading, and then outlines that chord with 2 simple arpeggios.
Great stuff so far, very simple, tasteful and effective.
Now we have this sort of public domain bebop lick which if you don’t know any bebop licks you may as well start with this one. I think it’s the first one I ever learned. Very simple we go up the D dorian scale on the minor ii chord and then resolve to the v chord playing the bebop scale from the third down.
In the next measure on the back door dominant we have the internet’s favorite, THE licc although he only plays the first part it (still counts)…
So you see you can play bebop and jazz lines on a pop tune and they can work very well.
By now we’re getting towards the end of the New York State of Mind solo. If we’re going to do this right and get everyone at Madison Square Garden cheering, we have to build up to that altissimo climax.
So we are now in Rock mode for the next several bars. Only pentatonic scale or blues scale will be used.
Notice the continuation of our 2 16th note pickup theme though.
Repeating a rhythmic idea like that while varying the notes is again very simple yet extremely effective. It sounds good and connects with people.
The last phrase here is the blues scale.
This is like an unwritten rule in soloing, but playing a blues scale line often signals the end of a solo, something to keep in mind when improvising. Listen out for that in recordings, you’re gonna hear it a lot.
He saves the altissimo climax for the 2 bar extension delayed resolution thing.
If you’re going to be playing saxophone in any sort of pop or rock setting, learn to play altissimo A it will serve you very well, trust me.
This note usually pops right out and plays well in tune, but if you need help with altissimo check out the videos I’ve made on that topic.
After the solo the song goes to the bridge which is in A minor the relative minor key so he outlines the V of A minor E7 similarly to how we heard it earlier in bar 3.
the last three notes are 3 2 1 of A minor. Do yourself a favor and get good at ending solos on the root. This resolves everything nicely and feels very final which is generally the impression you want to leave on the audience at the end.
Good Solos Tell a Story
Coming up as a freelance sax player on Long Island, I played a lot of solos like the one from New York State of Mind in cover bands. For iconic songs like this, it’s a good idea to at least know the solo from the record (usually there is only one version). That you can play it verbatim or at least play something that reminds the audience of what they’re expecting to hear.
It’s also a great study in how to build your own effective solos. Learning how to play and perform some existing solos that work really well. That will help you a lot when you improvise your own.
The key is in the story telling. This solo tells a story and has the arc of a good story. That’s really the challenge when playing solos. Plus it’s one of the things you should be looking to learn when transcribing them.
I also encourage everyone to go learn to play the music that you grew up with and loved in your youth whatever that is.
Doing that is wonderfully empowering and fun.
If you’d like to learn more from me about playing the saxophone by ear and improvising solos, check out my online courses. I’ve helped thousands of students become better sax players.
Don’t forget to sign up for the BetterSax Shed and download the transcription of this solo and lots of other free learning resources.
If you worked on the solo from New York State of Mind, let me know how it’s going in the comments below!
Looking for more on playing songs by ear? Check out “How to Play Hello by Adele.”