#74 How To Tongue On Sax (Part 1) - Articulation Essentials

technique Jun 14, 2020

What's the difference between a keen amateur and a pro saxophonist? Well, there's many differences, including tone, timing and technique, but one of the most striking differences is always phrasing, or articulation. In other words, how notes are tongued, and what notes are long or short. In this week's free online saxophone lesson for alto or tenor sax I teach you the most important basics of tonguing and how to use it to drastically upgrade your playing.

Don't forget to get your free PDF cheat sheet for this lesson and remember there's loads more easy to follow sax technique videos here. If you want to enjoy the funny story of how I didn't tongue at all for the first two years of my playing click here!

Here are the Q&A topics covered in this lesson, with video time stamps (min:sec). Clicking on the time stamp will take you straight to that portion of the video on YouTube (in a separate tab). Full Time stamps for the video and a complete transcript are at the bottom of the blog.


What is tonguing on saxophone? (1:57)

  • tonguing on sax is touching the vibrating reed with your tongue to stop it vibrating. This can be used to start a note, stop a note, or repeat a note in the same breath
  • tonguing is also known as articulation


Is it hard to learn articulation (tonguing) on sax? (3:55)

  • as the teachers tongue AND the students tongue are hidden it's impossible to demonstrate tonguing visually, so the student has to learn from words and their own proprioception (self awareness of movement)
  • the basic techniques of starting a note with the tongue can be mastered fairly easily though


How do you tongue (articulate) on sax? (5:04)

  • to tongue on sax, briefly and lightly touch the tip of the reed with your tongue
  • use the area of your tongue just back from the tip, about a thumb nail back
  • after touching the reed, quickly pull your tongue back off and let the sound flow
  • experiment with tongue position, tongue area and how hard you press to get the most efficient and clean technique


Should I learn sax tonguing with syllables? (5:58)

  • traditionally saxophone articulation is taught using phonemes like "dah", tuh", "tah" or "the". This gives the student the concept of the tongue dynamically moving and the approximate position in the mouth
  • my experience is that when you have a mouthpiece in your mouth you can't make ANY of these sounds! I think experimentation may work better to begin with


What are the main ways I can use tonguing on sax? (6:30)

  • #1 start a note (7:08). Have your tongue already stopping the reed vibrating, then at the moment you blow, release it. This gives a nice clean transient to the start of the note and gives the sax its distinctive sound
  • #2 legato tonguing (7:23). Whilst blowing, briefly and lightly touch the reed to demarcate a new note. Either the same note, or a different note.
  • #3 staccato tonguing (8:29). Immediately after a note sounds using method #1 or #2 put your tongue back on the reed. This will give a crisp short note. Stop blowing AFTER your tongue has blocked the reed


How can I improve my tonguing on sax? (10:41)

  • your tongue is a muscle and can be trained like any other muscle with drills
  • like any other muscle your tongue will get tired after a work out and stop responding accurately
  • I don't recommend doing exhausting articulation drills initially, instead, focus on mastering the three basic uses of tonguing and practice applying them in musical situations


How is sax tonguing (articulation) written down or musically notated? (11:21)

  • many times articulation will be left to the interpretation of the performer, and there are also different interpretations of the same symbol depending on the genre or situation
  • in commercial music, a dash above the note head means play it full value, or "tenuto". A dot above the note head means play it short, or staccato, and a curved line over several notes, a "slur", means tongue the first note then don't tongue any other notes in the slur (unless there's a repeated note in which case legato tongue it very lightly)


What does good articulation sound like? (16:30)

  • listen here to a demonstration of Pick Up The Pieces by the Average White Band to hear the difference good articulation makes!
  • the best method of learning great articulation is by transcribing your favourite players and carefully copying what they do


So that's it for this week. If you want to drastically improve how good you sound, master these three basic tonguing patterns and practice applying them. It really will make a difference, believe me! Before you go, don't forget to get your free PDF cheat sheet for this lesson. Next week you'll learn how to play one of my often requested breakdowns - Jr. Walker's stratospheric solo on "Urgent" by Foreigner. See ya later! Jamie :-)


Video Timestamps

0:00 - brief intro

0:20 - titles

0:45 - my story of zero articulation 

1:48 - how to get your free PDF

1:57 - what is tonguing?

3:26 - how to get your FREE Saxophone Success Masterclass

3:55 - why it’s hard to teach tonguing

5:04 - how to tongue on sax

5:44 - tonguing DEMO

5:58 - why I’m not sure about using syllables 

6:30 - tonguing technique #1: start a note

7:08 - technique #1 DEMO

7:23 - tonguing technique #2: legato tonguing

8:18 - technique #2 DEMO

8:29 - tonguing technique #3: staccato tonguing

9:33 - technique #3 DEMO

9:47 - Recap

10:41 - why no drills?

11:21 - how to notate articulation

12:48 - a short note is a short note!

13:54 - Old MacDonald tonguing DEMO

14:25 - articulating Pick Up The Pieces

15:13 - Pick Up The Pieces DEMO

15:52 - transcribe!

16:30 - how not to do it vs how to do it!

16:47 - sign off

17:34 - end cards and bloopers


Video Transcript

Hi, I’m pro saxophonist Jamie Anderson and you’re watching Get Your Sax Together. From beginners to experts, I sax up your Sunday every week with technique stuff, player profiles, tips on playing great solos and, of course, my famous breakdowns of the world’s best loved sax lines. There’s a lot of info out there on articulation but in today’s free online sax lesson, which is part one on this topic, I’m gonna cut through all the noise and teach you three basics of sax tonguing, which will instantly get you sounding better on virtually everything you play.


Often when I take on new pupils, even some who’ve been learning with a teacher for some time, I’m shocked at their lack of tonguing. It’s probably one of the most neglected aspects of woodwind playing I can think of, and I know this from direct personal experience. When I started playing clarinet at school in Scotland, I guess I must have been about nine or so at the time, my teacher, who used to nod off in lessons by the way, failed to mention anything about tonguing. For TWO YEARS! My mum made me practice every day bless her, so I still passed grades one, two and three, maybe even four, I can’t remember, but every examiner’s sheet kept saying “consistent lack of articulation”. My Mum, who played viola in the local amateur orchestra, was curious about this articulation thing in all the examiners’ reports, so one day she spoke to a pro clarinetist who was working with the orchestra and she fixed up a lesson for me. Well, all I can tell you is that I never saw that school clarinet teacher again, and it turned out I’d passed three or four grades without tonguing a single note! My teacher, my new teacher, couldn’t believe it. lol

It goes to show that it’s never too late to learn the basics of articulation, which is exactly what I’m gonna show you today. You’re gonna learn the smallest amount of information that’s gonna give you biggest return on your playing. Before we start, make sure you go down into the description for this video and click the link to download your free PDF cheatsheet for this lesson so you can follow along.

[STING: What Is Tonguing?]

As I’m sure you already know, the vibrating reed is the device that produces the sound on a saxophone. Put simply, tonguing is when we touch the reed with our tongue, stopping or severely dampening the reed’s ability to vibrate and make noise. We can use this technique to stop and start our sax sound with control. To contrast this with another reed instrument where tonguing is impossible, think of bagpipes for a moment. That might be a painful thought, but stay with it! lol Bagpipes make a continuous, unbroken stream of sound, and the only way to distinguish a repeated note in a melody is with grace notes. Check out some bagpipe music if you wanna see some serious grace note action. However, on sax we have the ability to momentarily stop the sound and shorten any note. Going back to bagpipes again, you might be familiar with that painful start up sound [bwwwoooowww] as the bag fills with air, and on a much smaller scale that’s exactly what I was doing on clarinet with my first teacher every time I started a note. Each note began with a mini whoosh of air as the reed gradually got going [hooooosh]. This is what happens without tonguing. Each note is fuzzy and undefined. By the same token, short notes without tonguing taper off at the end and don’t sound very short or crisp. However, we can give each note on sax a clean attack and cut off using our tongue. So to summarise the basics then, we can do two main things by touching the reed with our tongue: we can start a note cleanly without a surge and we can stop a note instantly without a fade.

[STING: How Do You Tongue?]

Just before we dive into all this, if you struggle with stuff like embouchure, improvising or technique, or if you’re bored with scales and don’t know how to structure a practice session, check out my Saxophone Success Masterclass. It’s a full hour of solid teaching that isn’t on YouTube to help transform your playing, no matter what standard you are, and best of all, it’s totally free! Just click the link in the description or go to double-u double-u double-u dot get your sax together dot com, forward slash masterclass.

Okay, on with the lesson now, and a couple of important caveats on tonguing. Firstly, articulation is as personal and complex as each individual’s finger print or speech, so the rabbit hole goes waaaaay deep on this topic, far too deep to cover in one or even ten videos. If you go to youtube and look for x-ray videos of, em, the tongue while someone is playing sax or clarinet you’ll see the crazy and complex stuff that’s happening in there. Also, one of the main reasons that people struggle with tonguing is that you can’t see my tongue as I’m playing, I can’t see my tongue while I’m playing and YOU can’t see YOUR tongue while YOU’RE playing. We’re triple blind. I have to tell you proprioceptively what I’m feeling in my mouth and you have to interpret that and use trial and error to get it working. Plus, everyone has a unique physiology and your tongue is different from mine. It can also be kinda gross looking at close ups of people pointing, em, pointing to their tongues in lessons! lol However, short of teaching in a double x-ray studio that’s what we’re stuck with I’m afraid, so we’ve just gotta to do our best. If there’s something about articulation that YOU really struggle with, I’d love to get your feedback, so leave me a comment down below.

Let’s talk about the actual physical process of tonguing then. At the most basic level, you’re going to use the area just back from the tip of the tongue, about a centimetre or two, or a quarter of an inch, half an inch or so back, and gently press it against the tip of the reed. You should focus your touch on your on the thin front tip of the reed, not the flat part. Once in contact with the tip of the reed, the tongue then releases back and slightly down, letting the reed vibrate, like this..

[demo with thumb on reed]

You should experiment with tongue position, how much surface area you use and how lightly you touch the reed to vary the attack of your articulation.

[demo light and harder tonguing]

There’s a lot of talk in the sax tuition space about syllables, like saying “tah” or “dah” or “the”, but what everyone seems to ignore is that you can’t say ANY of those sounds when you’ve got lump of plastic or metal in your mouth! lol For that reason, I always get a bit confused with the syllables thing. I think to begin with your best bet is to experiment and find something that is easy and effective. Don’t worry if it’s a bit “spitty” and noisy to start with. Once you’ve got the basic feel for touching the reed with your tongue, this method can be used in three main ways.

[STING: Three Tonguing Basics]

The first way to use that tongue movement we just learned is to start a note from scatch.

This technique should be used EVERY TIME we start a note with a new breath, unless it’s a very very quiet phrase that creeps in gradually from nothing. To do this we already have the tongue on the reed just before we blow, and at the instant we blow the air into our horn we pull our tongue off the reed like this

[demo with thumb]

Initially it can be useful to practice basic articulation with just your neck and mouthpiece to minimise distractions. So technique one sounds like this…

[demo starting a note with neck]

That gives us that familiar “ch” or “tuh” transient at the start of the note and makes sure we get a nice clean, crisp start to each note.

The second way we use tonguing is to articulate a note within a breath. Whilst blowing a continuous stream of air, we can briefly touch the reed with our tongue, then quickly take it off. This light touch of our tongue on the reed momentarily interrupts the sound, indicating a new note. I call this legato tonguing and it can either be used to repeat a note, or we can coordinate our fingers to move at the same time as our tongue, cleanly articulating a different note. Unless the notes in a phrase are intentionally slurred, this technique should be used for EVERY note you play. It’s the default. The main goal here is to try and minimise the time your tongue is in contact with the reed, so that you don’t get a big gap in the sound. Again, experiment with the position and surface area of your tongue and how much pressure you use. You should aim for the minimum effective tongue movement to articulate efficiently. Here’s what legato tonguing sounds like…

[demo legato tonguing with the neck]

The third and final use of the tongue is to stop a note dead.

The most common use of this is to play short notes. As soon as we pull our tongue back from the reed to start a note, we immediately put it back as fast as we can and keep it there. This is called staccato tonguing. Try to imagine a kitchen tap with a handle, or a faucet I guess our Americans friends would say. Pulling your tongue off the reed is the equivalent of opening the water flow with the handle, then you immediately shut off the water flow with the handle, which is like putting your tongue back on the reed. This gives a sudden powerful gush of water that immediately stops. The most important part of this metaphor is that the strong mains water pressure is constantly present behind the tap, and our breath pressure is constantly present - it’s your tongue that starts and stops the sound, not your breath. You should be blowing throughout. In fact, once you cut off that sound with your tongue you should feel the back pressure of your breath in your mouth. This should give you a really nice crisp, short note. As usual, experiment with different tongue positions and patterns to get a nice short note.

[demo short notes on neck]

Okay, so far so good, now let’s have a quick recap of those points.


Our tongue can be used to instantly dampen the vibrations of the reed and stop the sound. This lets us start and stop notes cleanly. These transients also give the saxophone it’s distinctive sound. The three basic ways we can use tonguing are, number one - starting a note with a new breath, number two, articulating new notes within a phrase, which is called legato tonguing, and number three, stopping the sound dead to produce short notes, called staccato tonguing.

This video is only covering the very basics, and I’m sure everyone wants the sexy stuff like jazz articulation, Derek Brown style double tonguing and slap tonguing, doodle tonguing and whatever other weird and wonderful techniques you’ve heard about, BUT, if you just get super clear on these fundamentals it will instantly solve ninety nine percent of your articulation problems and, if applied correctly, will get you instantly sounding better. I should also say at this point, your tongue is a muscle, and should be treated and trained like any other muscle. There’s a load of exercises to train that muscle and I haven’t forgotten about that, but I don’t feel tonguing drills are necessary AT THIS STAGE. You can drastically improve your playing articulation by simply mastering the basic three moves and applying them. I mean how often do you actually need to tongue sixteenth notes at a hundred and twenty bpm? lol When I make the other videos on articulation we’ll go a bit deeper and learn some drills at that point. Now lets look at a very simple example to demonstrate the three techniques we’ve learned, but to do that we need to learn the basics of how to notate tonguing.

[STING: Notating Articualtion]

Before we see articulation in practice let’s cover the basics of notation. I know many of you don’t read music, but even if you don’t it could still be useful to learn this stuff as you’ll surely come across music at some point, not least the PDFs you get from me! lol If you go down into the description and click the link you can get the free PDF cheat sheet for this lesson which has these markings explained as well as the examples we’re gonna play. Also, the vast majority of you play pop, soul, funk, jazz, blues and other secular music forms, but if you play classical music the rules can be kinda different and are much more subject to context and interpretation. What I’m describing here is the convention for most non-classical music.

First of all, if nothing is marked, just tongue the note and play it full length. Easy. SPECIFIC symbols for articulations are added directly above the note head, or sometimes directly below the note head if the stem of that note goes up. Personally, I always put articulation above the notehead regardless. I just prefer that. For longs and shorts, think morse code. Dashes are long, dots are short. A dash, called a tenuto, means play the note long - for its full value. Yeh, I know that’s the same as having nothing above the note, but often it’s better to be specific, as an unmarked note could be subject to artistic interpretation. A dot above the note means play it short. This is called staccato. Don’t confuse these staccato dots above the note with actual dotted notes. Now here’s the cool thing about short notes with a dot in commercial music. I know I'm generalising here, but basically, short is short. There’s really only one short. Whether it’s a crochet (quarter note) with a dot above it or a semiquaver (sixteenth note) with a dot above it, it’s still the same. Just play it short! lol Finally, if there’s a curved line over notes, called a slur, it means tongue the first note but then join up all the other notes under the slur smoothly without tonguing them. The exception to this is if there’s repeated notes under a slur, which should be legato tongued as lightly as possible. That’s it. That’s 99% of what you need to know.

Let’s look at Old MacDonald Had A Farm, that soul funk classic, to practice our basic tonguing patterns. even intermediate players might be surprised at how little attention they were actually paying to this stuff.

“T” means a normal tongue, “ST” means a short, staccato tongue, “LT” means a legato tongue and “X” means don’t tongue at all. I’m not saying I’d play this song like like by the way, lol, it’s just to demonstrate the three techniques. This is what it sounds like…

[demo old macdonald]

Moving on to a more realistic example that you might actually wanna play, let’s look at Pick Up The Pieces by the Average White Band. I think the original phrasing is slightly more choppy than this, but for the purposes of practice let’s use the markings here. You can see the first two notes are slurred, so you only tongue the first note, then there’s a long-short on the next two notes, so tongue the first one and staccato tongue the second one. When you play a short note, make it as short as you can. The second phrase has the same phrasing, then, there’s no phrasing marked, so we’ll just tongue those three notes. The tied note over the bar line is tongued of course, then it’s short-long-short, so staccato tongue, tongue, staccato tongue. This is repeated to finish off the phrase. Here’s what it sounds like, in slow motion, then in real time.

[demo pick up the pieces]

[STING: Transcribe To Learn]

Once you’ve got these basics together, the best way of learning good phrasing is to study your favourite players and transcribe them. The card above links to my series on transcription if you want to do this. It really is the number one way you can transform your playing. Virtually ALL your favourite licks just use the basic three patterns we’ve learned today. It’s all about how you apply them. Just to show you how important phrasing is, I’ll now play Pick Up The Pieces with little or no attention to phrasing, then with intentional and correct phrasing. You should be able to hear a distinct uptake in funk immediately! Here we go…

[demo crap, then good pick up the pieces]

[STING: Before You Go]

So that’s it for this Sunday, what you’ve learned could and should instantly transform how good you sound. There will be more parts on articulation in the future, but this lesson will always be the most important. If you wanna learn some more in-depth sax stuff go to double-u double-u double-u dot get your sax together dot com, forward slash masterclass and get your free one hour lesson with me, and as always you can support me by giving this video a thumbs up, leave a comment, subscribe to the channel, click the bell icon to be notified when I upload new content, check out my Insta and Facebook pages and don’t forget to use the link in the description to pick up your free PDF cheat sheet for this lesson. I’ll see you for more awesome sax mullarkey next week. Laterz!!





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