The Flexible Alto Sax in Different Musical Genres

I’d seen guys playing more than one horn at a time (two clarinets & two trumpets in an old movie) but never considered trying it myself. But I started playing two saxes together when I was working in a four piece ‘Vegas type’ show group and the leader was constantly telling me to “Do something different”.

When performing in the show group, I usually had my saxes (alto and tenor) and clarinet on stands behind me so we could do our show routines out front with nothing in the way and when it was my turn to play the horns, I’d swing around and grab one to play a solo, etc. Finally, after being told “Do something different” so often, I went to grab a horn one night but somehow decided to surprise the leader and everyone by spinning back around with two horns (tenor & alto sax) in my mouth and played a rather horrible, clumsy solo on some blues tune. Everyone, including the leader, flipped out! They didn’t care if I was playing bad and weird stuff! They just freaked over my two saxes at once act. From then on I was stuck with this ‘multi sax’ bit and went to work finding something more musical to play on the two saxes.

I had heard about Roland Kirk, a multi-sax wizard, so I found some of his recordings and was amazed at what all he could do with THREE (yes 3!) saxes at once! That was all the encouragement I needed, plus having a band to practice in, to get me off and running on this new, exciting musical adventure. I will try to keep this article to a non-technical level for all of you that do not play an instrument.

The first problem I dealt with was exactly how to play the saxes together for the best effects. It was obvious that I needed another neck strap and soon figured out that the alto should be held to the right of the tenor. Those who play a sax will see the logic of this arrangement. It also became apparent right away that the reeds should be of similar or equal resistance on the two mouthpieces so both saxes responded well to one air stream. Over the years, I’ve used many different mouthpieces and they all seem to play well together if the reeds are of equal resistance.

The biggest problem was consistently finding good notes to play in any particular song on multi horns. This search consumed many hours of practising and trying things out before playing in public. Aside from the many technical and physically challenging difficulties, finding something musical to play was nearly overwhelming at first.

I tried several quick solutions by memorizing some fingering combinations for one or two of the pieces our show group played which got me through a lot of performances right away but soon became dissatisfied with this limitation of the multi horns. I wanted to automatically play what I was hearing on both horns just like I would on one horn. Playing two horns at once also deepened my understanding of harmony and chords because the two saxes had to be playing some part of a chord that fit what the band was playing. Gradually, I learned to play certain combinations of fingers to get the kinds of two part chords that fit but still could not spontaneously play what I wanted to. sax video

When the show group gig ended I soon was playing in a little rock n’ roll band which introduced me to another musical challenge. For Rock, I had to play in various weird and difficult keys that are not very comfortable for saxophones. You need to be a horn player to appreciate the difficulties of this problem but since we were playing mostly blues or one chord type tunes, I had a chance to work out some more (strange) fingerings on the two saxes to play chords that worked. Although the other three guys in that rock band probably never knew it, I was secretly studying and trying things out in the background while they cranked out those loud but simple rock tunes. I was still unhappy with the fact that I had to work everything out ahead and couldn’t just play stuff spontaneously and automatically like a creative player.

After about a year, the break through came when I realized that having horns in two different keys, i.e. a Bb sax and an Eb sax, was the whole problem. The saxes are in different keys and when working with a chord, say C, it meant having to play a D chord on the Bb tenor and an A chord on the alto. Then try to come up with some combinations of two notes that would sound good when played together on both horns. It occurred to me that if both saxes were in the same key then I’d only have to decide which two notes would be available in just that one key! Since I could ‘hear’ best on the tenor, I decided to convert the alto sax to a Bb instrument which meant making up a new set of fingerings for the alto. Thus the alto’s C# became an F#, it’s B became an E; it’s A became a D and so on. This was even easier since my right hand was playing the upper part of the alto sax from it’s right side, which meant I was playing all strange fingerings up there to begin with. Learning a new set of fingerings was quick and easy and from that point on everything just fell into place. Now, instead of trying to transpose and struggle with two different keys (Bb & Eb), all I have to do is find two good notes in just ONE KEY.


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