#84 How To Tongue On Sax (Part 2) - Jazz Articulation

technique Aug 23, 2020

Greetings saxers! This lesson on Jazz Articulation is part 2 in my articulation series, so be sure to go and check out the Articulation Part 1 lesson which lays the foundation for this one. In this week's free online saxophone lesson for alto or tenor sax I teach you the basics of jazz articulation and show you how to tongue to get a good jazz feel.

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 some of 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.


How do I tongue jazz lines? (1:36)

  • Jazz articulation is very fluid and individual, but we can extract five basic principles as guides
  • These guides can be broken with practice!


Principle #1: Jazz is a legato style (2:20)

This just means that the style of jazz is smooth and connected. If it isn't it sounds disjointed and "numpty-tumpty".

Principle #2: 1/8th notes are usually quite straight, not swung (2:38)

Unless the tempo is very slow, moving jazz lines are generally played with increasingly straight quavers as the tempo increases. The triplet-ness decreases as the tempo speeds up. Up tempo jazz is played with straight quavers. It's the articulation that gives it its distinctive sound.

Principle #3: Slur OFF-beats to ON-beats (3:17)

Despite being the most taught "rule" of jazz articulation, this principle is only true about a quarter of the time! It's useful to learn like this, but just as important to realise that where the rubber hits the road it's more often untrue than true. Practicing slurring alternate notes of a scale is a good drill.

Principle #4: Off-beat 1/8th notes at the end of a phrase are short (4:37)

You can take this rule to the bank - it's almost always true, in fact I can't think of a single exception in jazz.

Principle #5: On-beat quarter notes are short (5:12)

Notes on the beat are usually short in jazz. But not always. A good demonstration of principles #4 and #5 is "Shiny Stockings" by Count Basie - lots of short quarter notes on the beat and short off beat 1/8th notes!


What is half tonguing? (8:04)

  • half tonguing is where you lightly touch the reed with your tongue but not enough to fully stop the sound
  • half tonguing gives a muffled sound that is useful for de-emphasising certain notes without blowing softer
  • this is useful when linking the last 1/8th note before an accented quarter note on the beat


How do I remember what to do when tonguing jazz? (12:12)

  • You don't! lol After a while and with enough experience it will become intuitive and you won't have to think about it


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 the world wide sensation that is the Epic Sax Guy song. See ya later!

Jamie :-)


Video Timestamps

0:00 - intro performance

0:10 - intro and titles

0:58 - how to get your free pdf

1:12 - how to get your free one hour masterclass

1:36 - the foundation principles

1:56 - the danger of jazz tonging “rules”

2:20 - principle 1

2:38 - principle 2

3:17 - principle 3

4:37 - principle 4

5:12 - principle 5

6:01 - Tenor Madness case study - intro

6:36 - phrase at full speed x2

6:50 - phrase at 3/4 speed x2

7:10 - phrase at half speed x2

7:39 - analysis 1

8:04 - half-tonguing

9:27 - the lonely 1/8th note problem

10:43 - analysis 2

11:18 - demo performance slow

11:40 - demo performance faster

11:54 - demo performance full speed

12:12 - jazz articulation in practice


13:38 - wrapping it up

14:04 - sign off

15:03 - end music 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, tips on improvising great solos and my unique hall of fame breakdowns. In today's free online sax lesson, which is part two of my tonguing series, you'll learn about jazz articulation. 

Whether you're a beginner on saxophone, or even an intermediate player, make sure you check out my first video on tonguing which is linked above on the cards now. That video covers some of the most important basics of how to tongue, how to play long and short notes and how they're notated. In this second tonguing video you'll learn some of the basics about jazz articulation. Before we start, make sure you go down into the description for this video and click the link to download your free pdf cheat sheet for this lesson which has all the key points from the lesson, plus the John Coltrane 'Tenor Madness' excerpt we're going to study. Finally, if you're bored with scales and you don't know how to structure a productive practice session, or if you struggle with stuff like embouchure, improvising or technique, go and 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. 

On a short YouTube video I don't have time to get into a lengthy debate about the subtleties and differences in jazz articulation between different players, and the ins and outs of how it's all done. Believe me,I could bore you to tears on the topic, but todayI just want you to learn the most important information in the shortest time. Jazz tonguing is a very creative and personal thing, so we have to be very careful about establishing rules as there aren't any really. However, when we hear great jazz players there does seem to be common ground. Straight away, we know it's jazz, so there must be commonalities in regards to tonguing. Let's see what principles we can establish first, then we'll do a quick case study of an excerpt of John Coltrane to see how it compares to our template. 

So, principle one. When you play jazz eighth note lines it's predominantly a legato style. In other words, it's smooth and connected and you blow continuously through the line, so that it flows. Jazz shouldn't be played in a choppy, staccato way. It just won't swing if it’s all rumpty tumpty. 

Principle two. As the tempo increases, the 'tripletness' of the eighth notes decreases. I know this isn't specifically a tonguing point, but it's extremely relevant, so i'm mentioning it anyway. Put another way - unless you're playing a really slow swing tempo your quavers will be straighter than triplet swing, and at most medium and above tempos they'll be virtually straight. I immediately discovered this for myself when I transcribed Miles' solo on So What when I was a teenager. On that solo, and on many other famous jazz recordings, especially at medium tempos and above, the eighth notes are almost straight. 

Principle three. Slur the off-beats to the on-beats in a moving eighth note line.This is the most ubiquitous maxim of jazz articulation, but, according to Dr Mark Watkins’ meticulous analysis of a dozen or so Charlie Parker solos, that rule is only true about a quarter of the time. That's right. Our much loved and cherished golden rule of jazz is only applicable about twenty five percent of the time.Which begs the question - should this even be a rule?I mean three quarters of the time it's wrong! Still, it does have some usefulness as a principle as it's a useful exercise to develop your legato style, so let's take a look. The execution is easy. If you have a string of eighth notes, tongue the first note, then slur the second note to the third note and keep this pattern of alternate, offbeat tongue and going. Dah dee-ah dee-ah dee-ah dee-ah. Practicing scales is an easy way to get started, but remember the first two principles - keep it legato and smooth, and don't swing the eighths too much.There should also be a slight emphasis on the off beat notes, although this will probably happen naturally without you having to think about it.

Principle four. Off beat eighth notes, at the end of a phrase, are short. This is virtually always true, so, unlike principle three, you can take this rule to the bank. Dah-dat. these concluding off beat eighth notes are often accented as well. Dah dat.

The fifth and final principle i'm gonna mention is that crotchets, or quarter notes, on the beat are usually short. This rule is less definite than the last one, but it's a good starting point. 

So there's a few guiding principles to get you started. Make it legato, don't swing your eighth notes too much unless it's down tempo, slur off-beats to on-beats, make off-beat eighth notes short at the end of a phrase and make quarter notes on the beat short. Now let's take an excerpt, and forensically look at it to see what happens where the rubber actually hits the road in jazz. 

I've chosen the first couple of phrases that John Coltrane plays on Tenor Madness.Tenor Madness, a medium tempo Bb blues is a classic jazz recording, and the only recording that features both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. I think it's safe to say that you can’t go far on in studying classics like this if you want to learn how to play jazz. Let's start by listening to Coltrane’s articulation on his opening couple of phrases at full speed. I'll play it a couple of times so you get it in your head. Follow the tonguing on screen as i play it. A 'T' means the note is tongued and an ‘HT' means it's half tongued, but we'll get to that just shortly. Now let's hear it at three-quarters speed...and finally half speed…

Let's break this down then. In the first measure he tongues every note.This rule breaks rule three about slurring off beats, although the quarter note on beat two is short, which fits rule five. Continuing on to the second measure, the phrasing is compliant with rules three and four - a slurred off-beat and a short off-beat last note. But but but - the G has a special type of tonguing called half tonguing that we have to cover before going any further. A half-tongue is where you place your tongue very lightly on the reed, but not quite enough to stop the sound. It makes a muffled sound a bit like trying to talk with a blanket over your face.You can put your tongue right into the gap between the reed and the mouthpiece, or near the front of the flat part of the reed, or even on one side of the reed. You can vary how strong the effect is as well. It should sound a bit like this…

The advantage of the half tongue is that you can de-emphasize a note in the line without having to blow softer. Your airstream will remain constant throughout the eighth note line, giving a nice legato flowing feel to your phrasing. As you know from the first tonguing video, when we articulate on sax we first touch the reed with our tongue, then release the tongue, sounding the note. This is still true of half tonguing, it's just that we get sound instead of silence as the tongue is in contact with the reed, and that contact lasts for a note length instead of being momentary. The end result is that when you release your half tongue, the next note will be a de facto tongued note. Therefore, notes following a half tongued feel articulated. 

Now - you've already learned that we slur off beats, and quarter notes on the beat are tongued and short, which means we're often left with an isolated eighth note. This is the lonely eighth note problem. You either have to have a single eighth note offbeat that doesn't slur......or you have to have a group of three eighth notes all slurred...This is where our half tongue comes in. By half tonguing the last eighth note before that quarter note, we get a tongue to note on the down beat, with a de-emphasised (but still articulated) eighth note on the off-beat. Bingo!

Of course, this is only one useful application of the half tongue technique. It can be used all over the place to play various degrees of muted, less emphasised notes, and getting back to our excerpt, that's exactly what 'Trane does in the second measure. You could even argue that because the third eighth note in the bar is kind of tongued following the half tongue we lose our offbeat slurs pattern. So much for principle three... told you that rule doesn't have much! 

Moving on to measure three now, the whole triplet and the next eighth note are all slurred, and moving through into measure four there's a run of four consecutive tongued eighth notes. No rule book for that one. 'Trane then uses another half tongue, and finishes off with slurred off beat eighths a la principle three. Here's what it all sounds like played very slowly, with deliberately overemphasised articulation.

Now a bit faster 

and finally at full real speed

Now it's all very well putting tonguing under the microscope like this to prove a teaching point, but in real life jazz articulation is performed intuitively and automatically, in real time, with no conscious thought from the performer. Obviously Coltrane is not thinking "Right let's half tongue this and emphasize that" etc. That’s ridiculous. With enough practice and experience you'll learn just to play lines and you'll intuitively articulate the line to make it swing. At first that might mean forensically analysing solo transcriptions until you understand the style, and that's fine, but later it should all just flow. Like everything else, smart practice makes progress.

So, wrapping this all up then. First of all, learn the principles and practice them. Then, study the masters and see how the rules are constantly broken and adapted. You'll also see that every player has their own unique approach to articulation. Cannonball Adderley articulates very differently to Sonny Rollins or Grover Washington Junior and eventually you'll even develop your own style, which is the ultimate goal.

So that's it for this Sunday, I hope you've learned something about jazz articulation and tonguing in general. Don't forget to pick up your free pdf from the link in the description and if you want to learn some more in-depth sax stuff go to www.getyoursaxtogether.com/masterclass to get your free one-hour lesson with me. I'm constantly humbled and encouraged by all your comments and the support you guys give me, so thank you so much for watching and being a part of Get Your Sax Together. 

If you're diggin' it, give this video a thumbs up, leave me a comment ,subscribe to the channel, click the bell to be notified when I upload new content and check out my Insta and Facebook pages.Something a bit more off the cuff and light-hearted next week - the worldwide sensation that is the "Epic Sax Guy” riff. From Coltrane to sax memes, you get it all here!! Practice smart and I'll see you next week. See you later!

Get my FREE one hour Saxophone Success Masterclass and stay connected with news and updates!

Join my mailing list to receive the latest updates and free sax lessons direct to your inbox.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared and you can unsubscribe anytime, no hard feelings :-)

Subscribe & Get The FREE Masterclass

Subscribe to Get Your Sax Together 

I really want you to improve on sax, so when you join you'll get awesome FREE content straight to your inbox.

Unsubscribe anytime, no hard feelings :-)