Kelly Bucheger's Jazz Pages


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An updated and revised version of this article -- AND MUCH MORE! -- can now found on my jazz blog,

Getting Started With Long Tones

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These pages feature a warm-up and practice routine that I recommend for my students, some solid jazz tenor transcriptions you won’t find anywhere else, and links to a few articles I’ve written of interest to saxophonists.



“The Daily Grind” is my (affectionate) term for a simple warm-up and practice routine that I’ve developed over the years. It’s a quick, thorough way to get in some solid work on saxophone tone, along with some straightforward scale studies that keep tone quality in mind.

The Daily Grind is intended for the developing jazz saxophonist, though it could also benefit saxophonists working on their “classical” approach, as well as even other wind instrumentalists.

Remember that the Daily Grind routine is intended to be the warm-up, beginning part of a practice session, not the entire session, of course! The Daily Grind gets you started on a solid footing for the rest of your work (and when you want to become a good jazz player, there’s always plenty of stuff to work on...).

Long Tones

You only need to work on long tones if you’d like to have a good sound.

It’s just about that simple...

Of course, since music is an art form based on sound, long tones are usually a key part of a professional player’s practice routine, or were at least a major factor in his or her past development.

Many students, however — even some with otherwise good practice habits — never really get around to them. I know that I resisted at first: “Sitting on one note is so boring. I want to work on getting my fingers to fly — I don’t have time to just honk on a note!”

However, I’m not completely stupid, and after consistently hearing from one great saxophonist after another “Play long tones,” and feeling that my technique was okay but my sound needed work, I realized that I couldn’t put them off any longer. At first, when I wasn’t sure how to do them (it’s not just honking on a note!), they certainly were boring, but after I figured out an approach to them, they weren’t boring at all — there’s lots to think about while playing them.

In fact, nowadays, if I had time to do only one thing in a practice session, I’d do long tones. If you’re doing them correctly, you can work on a lot of aspects of your playing — and they should never be boring!

Here’s how I do long tones as part of The Daily Grind:

When you’re playing long tones, you should strive for a full, resonant sound that has a consistent timbre (tone quality) throughout the range of the horn. In other words, your palm key notes (high D, Eb, E, and F) should be just as rich and full (and in tune!) as your low C or Bb.

You’ll start out by playing a low C. But wait! Before you play, you should think about your inhalation.

Fill your
lungs from the
bottom up!
  1. Fill your lungs from the bottom of your diaphragm up. If you’re not sure how to inhale properly, try saying the word “hot” backwards: that is, breath in while saying hot (but don’t get your vocal cords involved). For many folks, this “inverted hot” will result in a “lower” breath, rather than an incomplete breath higher in your lungs. Again, remember to fill your lungs on this inhalation.

  2. Don’t raise your shoulders as you’re taking in air — this is often a clue that you’re not breathing from the bottom of your diaphragm (it is, however, normal for the shoulders to raise slightly at the very end of a full inhalation).

Don’t “stab”
the note.

Once you’ve taken in a full breath, you’re ready to play the low C. Almost! Before you start, think about your attack of the note: it should not be explosive; the note should come out strong without being “stabbed.” At the same time, the note should sound immediately when you start it: there shouldn’t be a lag after you tongue the note, with the note suddenly popping into place after a moment or two.

You want a
strong, consistent
tone quality.

Then, while you’re blowing the note, think about your tone quality. You want a strong, consistent, in tune timbre. You should be putting out a solid block of sound; if you were to visualize it, it might look like this:

Illustration of Good Air

You don’t want your sound to look like this:

Illustration of Bad Air

If your tone is “wobbly” as you’re producing long tones, then you have definitely come to the right place! The Daily Grind, followed diligently for a few weeks, will build up your diaphragm and “bulk up” your sound, getting rid of the wobbles.

In the days before amplification, tenormen like Coleman Hawkins, the grand-daddy of the tenor, or Ben Webster, or Dexter Gordon, had to have a sound big enough to allow them to solo over a big band and have their horn cut through the background clutter and fill the room. That’s what you are striving for with these long tone studies. Try to imagine filling the room with your sound — think of it as being a warm, almost liquid presence.

Fill your room
with sound,
but don’t overblow.

At the same time, don’t overblow. This ain’t honking! Find a good natural volume level that will give you a full, warm, resonant sound, without feeling like you’re going to pop a vein! You should feel comfortable while you’re blowing.

Did you know that you can be “in focus ”or “out of focus ”on your saxophone? When you’re in focus, your tone will be strong, consistent, and in tune, and you won’t change your embouchure much from the low end to the high end of the horn.

A tuner
can help you
“focus” your sound.

One important tool to help you find the focus of your sax is a tuner. When you know you’re in tune, you can concentrate on your embouchure and breath support, and eventually playing in tune will become a habit: your horn will just “feel right” when you’re in focus and in tune.


The last thing you need to be aware of while you’re blowing the note is your stance and posture. (I practice standing up, because that’s how I typically perform, and I want to mimic my performance conditions as much as possible when I practice.) You should be relaxed. Your fingers should curl to the keys without grabbing the horn in a death grip, and your shoulders should be down and relaxed as well. Do an “inventory” of your body while you’re playing, and make sure that nowhere, from your head to your feet, are you tight and clenched — that’s just a waste of energy, and you want to devote as much energy as possible to your playing.

Be especially careful not to tighten up as you reach the end of your inhalation. Keep on blowing until you can no longer maintain a good, strong sound. Don’t turn it into a life or death struggle where you scrunch up your shoulders and try to squeeze every last molecule of air into your horn, sounding at the end like a dying seal!

As you practice long tones, you will naturally be able to play each tone for a longer and longer time, as you develop your diaphragm and embouchure.

Okay, you are finally ready to play that low C:

Low C

To summarize...

While you’re playing it, here’s a reminder of what you should keep in mind:

  • Inhalation: fill your lungs from the bottom up (the “inverted hot”), and don’t raise your shoulders.
  • Attack: don’t stab the note to make it sound, but do make sure that it starts immediately.
  • Tone Quality: you want a solid block of strong, consistent, room-filling sound, but don’t overblow.
  • Focus & Intonation: Use a tuner to make sure you’re in tune, and to help you find the right focus for your horn.
  • Stance & Posture: Keep your body relaxed, including your fingers and your shoulders, and do an inventory to make sure there’s no tension anywhere else in your body.
  • Release of the Note: Play until you can no longer maintain focus and a good sound, and don’t tense up at the end of the note.

You can see why long tones shouldn’t be boring: there’s plenty to keep track of while you’re playing them!

After you play the low C a couple of times, each time trying to improve your tone quality and focus, you’re ready to move up a fourth to F. You’ll keep on moving up in fourths through the range of your horn, playing each note several times. The entire series looks like this:


Try to maintain
the same focus
& tone quality
for each note.

Now, this is very important: each time you move to a new note, try to keep the same timbre and warmth of the previous note. (And, of course, check each note on the tuner.) For example, when you move up to the F from C, you should strive to duplicate the strength, focus, and timbre of the C. You should also, of course, keep track of all of the items (inhalation, attack, etc.) listed above.


Finally, as you’re blowing these notes, enjoy your sound! The sound of the saxophone is a beautiful thing — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone say to me, after hearing that I’m a saxophonist, “Oh, the saxophone! That’s my favorite instrument!” When you’re developing your abilities as a jazz saxophonist, you’re making yourself a part of an incredible legacy. That’s an elevating and inspiring pursuit....

  • Part 2 of The Daily Grind focuses on scale studies.

  • The Transcriptions Page features the first couple of pages from transcriptions I’ve done of solos by of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Dexter Gordon. I’ve worked to make these, well, the best damned transcriptions I’ve seen!

  • There are also some articles of interest to saxophonists and saxophiles on my Writings About Jazz page, including an article about James Carter as a youngster, an interview with Jamey Aebersold, and reviews of books about Coleman Hawkins and Ornette Coleman.

  • This site is a MELS High Note Award recipient.
    Send your comments and suggestions about these Saxophone Pages to me at I’d enjoy hearing from you.

    Kelly Bucheger, Buffalo, New York

    Kelly Bucheger's Jazz Pages