#68 How To Subtone Like A Pro

technique May 03, 2020

In this week's free online saxophone lesson I show you how to get a great "subtone" down the low end of your saxophone. If you don't know what that is, don't worry, all is revealed down below. You can find all my technique videos here and don't forget to get your free PDF cheatsheet for this lesson, which has all the main points from the lesson. Print it off and keep it on your music stand! 

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 subtone on saxophone? (0:29)

  • subtone is a tone effect, most noticeable on the low notes of sax, that produces a soft, whispery, fluffy sound.
  • "sub" means under, or nearly, and "tone" means the sound, so subtone means "nearly sound" which is a good description as the full tone of the instrument isn't produced


Can any note on sax be played with subtone? (0:39)

  • any note can be played subtone but the effect is less noticeable the higher you go and is most noticeable from low E down to low Bb
  • often in big band music a passage will be marked "subtone" regardless of it's range and it really means play with a soft gentle tone


Can subtone be used on any saxophone? (5:42)

  • subtone can be used on all of the four main saxes (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone) although it is less effective on baritone and most famously used on tenor


Which players use subtone? (0:55)

  • virtually every good saxophonist will use subtone, although it is much less common in classical saxophonists
  • some famous examples of players who use subtone, especially in ballads, are Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins


How do I play saxophone with subtone?

  • move your jaw down and back (1:21)
  • tilt your head down slightly
  • put less mouthpiece in your mouth, moving your top teeth to the edge (2:01)
  • use zero pressure on the reed
  • make a circular "hoe" mouth and throat shape (2:30)
  • use strong diaphragm support but blow gently (3:05)
  • create a slow and warm airstream with an open throat shape (3:21)
  • direct the airstream downwards into the reed (3:47)


How do I practice playing with subtone on saxophone? (4:20)

  • play long notes, moving your jaw back and forwards to alternate between full tone and sub tone
  • the sound should go ooooooh-waaaaahooooooh-waaaaah


What are the benefits of subtone?

  • you can play low notes very quietly
  • you can start low notes from nothing and creep in
  • it sounds lush!


When should I use subtone and when full tone?

  • subtone is most often used in jazz ballads, or mellow songs in general
  • because it's a soft sound and long notes can otherwise sound like foghorn use subtone anytime you want to play low and quiet
  • use subtone in a big band sax section to blend with the section


So that's it for this week. If you follow these steps you'll be smooching it up and sounding like a true jazz ballad pro in no time. Once mastered that subtone sound is something you'll find yourself using all the time and, especially on tenor, it just sounds so beautiful! I'll see you next week, when I'll be teaching you how to play Alto Reed's famous tenor solo on "Old Time Rock N Roll" by Bob Seger. Happy saxing! Jamie :-)


Video Time Stamps

0:00 - intro performance

0:12 - brief intro and titles

0:29 - what is subtone on sax?

0:55 - players who use subtone

1:21 - Embouchure 1. jaw down and back

2:01 - Embouchure 2. teeth and lips

2:30 - Embouchure 3. mouth shape

2:53 - playing example

3:05 - Airstream 1. diaphragm support

3:21 - Airstream 2. slow, warm airstream

3:47 - Airstream 3. direct air down

4:20 - how to practice subtone

4:54 - Recap

5:38 - outro and end cards


Video Transcript

Welcome back to Get Your Sax Together, I'm pro saxophonist Jamie Anderson and on this week's video I'm going to teach you how to get a lovely soft velvety subtone on your sax.

First of all, what do we mean when we say subtone? Well it's a soft velvety tone colour that we can apply to the low range of the instrument, usually from about low E down to low B flat although once you play with the kind of subtone embouchure you can apply it across the whole instrument and get a lovely soft velvety sound across the whole range of the horn. But really it's designed for the low end of the instrument.

If you want some good examples of sub tone go and check out some of the older jazz players such as Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young those kind of guys really wrote the book on subtone and invented the genre, especially combined with a really big thick, woofly vibrato they defined that sound. But every sax player since then has also used subtone, so it's not just those guys so it's definitely a valuable technique to get together.

So, how do we do it? Okay, quite simple, I'm going to divide it into two categories one is an embouchure category and the other is the airflow, the way you blow.

So, dealing with embouchure first. Number one you take your jaw and you move it down and back, with a slight forward head tilt if you need to, and try and make a double chin so it looks a bit like this…

Now it looks a bit stupid but that is what your jaw has to do. You need to really work on the hinge of your jaw and get it going right down and back to get out of the way of the reed.

Number two, your teeth and lips. Your top teeth need to be right on the edge of the mouthpiece, almost off the edge of the top of the mouthpiece and your bottom lip has to have no pressure whatsoever on the reed. And because you've moved your jaw back, your bottom lip will also be quite far back towards the end of the reed, so it looks a bit like this…

So you can see my teeth are almost off the end of the mouthpiece when I do my subtone.

The third point concerning embouchure is to make sure you have a nice circular shape with your mouth and you’re supporting the sound with these muscles at the side. You're pushing them in.That makes your top and bottom lip nice and soft and baggy and that's what we want. So imagine you're saying of the word "hoe" and that's the shape of your mouth.

Moving on to the second category now, which is the airflow, the air stream, and the first point is we need lots of diaphragm support, so really support the air stream from your diaphragm. We're not going to be playing loud but we need lots of air support to go with it from the diaphragm.

Number two, we need a nice slow and warm air stream to get a subtone. Now when I say warm, I mean if you blow in your hand the air should be warm, as if you're trying to steam up a window.That's why you need that nice circular shape and you need to open up your throat, with a yawning type shape, to get that nice warm air and it's gonna be a nice slow, warm air stream to get the subtone.

The third point regarding the air stream is we want to blow down into the reed, not up into the top of the mouthpiece. If we're trying to practice altissimo notes we want a cold, fast airstream going right up to the top of the mouthpiece. This is the opposite, we need a slow, warm air stream which you're going a direct down. Now I know the air just goes into the mouthpiece and goes straight through, so this is more just like a mental tool that you can use.

So try and blow down with a slow warm air stream and lots of diaphragm support. An exercise that you want to practice to get your subtone together is to play a note down the bottom - C, B, Bb, with a full tone and then switch from full tone to subtone, going bow-wow and you should see your jaw moving back and forward as you get that subtone.

So here's a quick recap of what you're going to do to get a nice subtone on sax. You're going to move your jaw down and back, you're going to put your top teeth right to the edge of the top of the mouthpiece, your bottom lip is going to have no pressure whatsoever on the reed, we're going to have a nice round mouth shape supported from the side like you're saying the word “hoe" and we're gonna have plenty of diaphragm air support, we're going to produce a slow, warm air stream and we're going to direct it down into the reed. And when you do that you're gonna get yourself a cracking subtone.

That's all we've got time for this week. Hopefully with a bit of practice you’ll get yourself a lovely velvety soft fluffy subtone and that will really bring on your sax playing because that is a tone colour that every saxophonist needs, especially if you're a tenor player because it really sounds great on tenor.

But don't worry, it sounds really good on alto, soprano, the only one that you can't really subtone on is baritone so much. I mean you can, but it’s a little bit more difficult to subtone on baritone.

If you're enjoying the content you can really help me out by clicking subscribe, click the bell icon to be notified when I upload new stuff, which is every Sunday at 7 a.m. UK time, that’s London GMT Greenwich Mean Time. Also, you can go to my Instagram and leave me a comment, down there below, I'll answer every comment that I get. So far I’ve answered every comment that I've seen on my youtube channel.Once I get 20 million subscribers, maybe not, but that's a bit of a way off, let's be honest lol.

So you can give something back to me that'll really help me out. Also, if you do down into the description, get your free pdf, which looks like that - "How To Play Subtone On Sax". Boom! That's what you need - it's a really simple process, go down and get your PDF and I'll look forward to bringing you more fantastic, sax-tastic content...(my sign offs are so rubbish! lol)I look forward to bringing you more great stuff next week. See you later!


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