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Saxophone Vibrato-Sound Like A Pro

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

The use of Vibrato on the saxophone is common. Used sparingly it can add warmth and a vocal quality to a saxophonists tone. I have modified the Wikipedia definition for my purposes here:

Vibrato is a musical effect consisting of a pulsating yet subtle change of pitch. It is used by instrumentalists and vocalists to add expression, passion and intensity to a melodic line. Vibrato has two components:

1. The width of pitch variation.

2. The speed with which the pitch is varied.

Some examples of jazz saxophonists with distinctive vibratos would be Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges and Stan Getz, to name just a few. Generally speaking these are swing era players, and it should be noted that more modern players such as Greg Osby and Steve Coleman don’t use much vibrato at all. I refer to their sounds as more “straight tone.” I personally have listened closely to cellists to find examples of nice uses of vibrato to model.

It’s common to hear distinctive vibratos in many well known singers, Frank Sinatra ,comes immediately to mind. (Shown above)

Proper technique on the saxophone is generally thought to be a jaw vibrato, as opposed to a diaphragm vibrato, which I understand is what an oboe player would employ. The easiest way to achieve the saxophone vibrato is to employ a “Wah wah wah wah” jaw movement when holding any note. There are two exercises to practice that will develop a good vibrato, I teach both of these to my students.

The first exercise is to begin straight tone and slowly add vibrato, speeding up the oscillations. Once a fairly fast vibrato is achieved then begin to slow the oscillations down bringing the sound back to straight tone. One must relax the jaw significantly to get the sound to oscillate. Practice this in all registers. RELAX YOUR JAW. This exercise is about gaining control of the speed with which the pitch is varied.

The second helpful exercise is to start in the upper register and hold any note, then play the next chromatic half step down to establish that pitch in your ear. Then go back to the original note and use your jaw to lip the higher note down to match the pitch of the chromatic half step lower. You will only be able to lip down a half step if your jaw is totally relaxed. Then work your way down the saxophone. It’s easier to do this exercise in the upper register, that’s why I have students start in the middle of the second register. This exercise is about gaining control of the width of the pitch variation.

Once you can control both the size of the oscillations and the speed you are ready to learn to employ vibrato in context. A good rule of thumb is to find a piece of music that uses a fair amount of whole notes or longer duration notes, and learn to land on a note straight tone and add vibrato after a couple of beats. Don’t overdo it as a wide, fast vibrato will begin to sound like a baying sheep! Listen to string players and vocalists as well as wind players, oboe and flute for sure, to figure out what a good vibrato sounds like. A good vibrato not only warms up a saxophone sound but gives it maturity and an additional expressive quality. I would also add here that vibrato is looked down upon by classical clarinetists, however if you listen closely to the best jazz clarinetists like Buddy DeFranco and Eddie Daniels you will find that they do use vibrato at times in their playing. I personally don’t see any reason not to use vibrato on the clarinet but I wouldn’t use it in an orchestral setting unless I was playing a solo that seemed to warrant it’s use. It’s all about taste and refinement, and you don’t want to significantly alter the intonation of either the saxophone or the clarinet when employing vibrato. Develop your vibrato and use it sparingly and it will go a long ways toward making you sound more sophisticated and professional.

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