How to play smooth jazz saxophone


-A question I often get: How do you play Smooth Jazz on Saxophone?

Just a little bit of background first

I’ve been a great fan of Smooth Jazz ever since I discovered it back in the 80’s as a young kid. That’s when my brother brought home a cassette tape with Kenny G and I was instantly hooked. The flawless technique and amazing speed just blew me away and I knew that I just had to learn how to play in the smooth jazz style.

Now, countless practice hours and late night sessions later, I can say that I’ve got a pretty clear idea of how to play smooth Jazz sax.

Don’t get me wrong, the education never stops and there are always new things to learn and to improve for all musicians.
However, it’s great feeling having a solid foundation and being able to play fairly freely in a genre that you love.

How to get started playing smooth jazz sax anyway?

A big part of building your sound on the saxophone is figuring out how you want to sound. In order to work out how you want to sound you need to listen to and reference other players. That’s the first step – listen, listen and listen.

There are many great musicians in the smooth jazz genre and my suggestion would be that you listen to sax players like Dave Koz, Warren Hill, Kenny G, and Michael Lington….. a lot!
The principal is similar to learning a language really.

The more you listen to and mimic, the closer you’ll get to mastering the “melody” and “phrasing” of the language.

So, that’s definitely your starting point. However, to make things a little bit more concrete I’d like to take it a step further and suggest that you choose one song with your favorite sax player and try to copy the way he/she plays the melody.

Now, I mentioned a cassette tape with Kenny G music in the beginning of this post. I actually wore that tape out(!), no kidding, and I had to go out and buy another one. THAT’s how much I listened to that tape.

These days, you can access pretty much every artist and song that you can come to think of and I’ve actually included a playlist from Spotify, that you can use as a starting point.

I’m a big fan of the 80’s sound so I decided to add some early Kenny G on there which you may not have heard. The song “Come close” was actually one of the first songs I learned in the Smooth jazz genre.

The genre has developed a lot since then but I still really dig that some what corny tune. I’ve even included a couple of my own tracks, so that you can hear what I sound like. No further comparison with the other Sax players mentioned though.

What is a smooth Jazz sax sound?

The answer to this will most likely be a little different for you and me, but for me it means that characteristic even sound with lots of grace notes (lead in/out notes) and almost lyrical tone qualities.

There are many great musicians out there who have developed their “own” voice and have made their own mark in the genre. Here are a few more to add to the ones I mentioned abouve. Eric Marienthal, Euge Groove, Warren Hill and Kirk Whalum are also definitely A class players in the genre.

New talents pop up all the time in smooth jazz and I used to pay close attention to who they where, but now days I have a different and probably more relaxed approach to the smooth jazz business.

(Just as a side note I should mention that I released my own full length Smooth Jazz Sax album back in 2006. I wrote all the songs and had many of my music friends join me on the album. If you’d like to hear those tunes you can check out the about page where I’ve set up a playlist with those songs.)

Let’s get into some practical advice

Trying to describe everything that goes into getting a some what “smooth” sound on the saxophone, just by writing is probably not possible. I cannot possibly cover every aspect in this post and that was never the intention either.

However, I can give you some pointers and share a few of my instructional videos, so that you can get started and try it out yourself.

1. Adding Grace notes or passing notes

This is probably one of the most common techniques that’s being used in the Smooth Jazz genre.

Here’s a short video where I explain the basic concept and I also teach you a Smooth Jazz phrase. (It’s one of my early videos where I hadn’t quite worked out the lighting so the image is not great. However, the content is very much valid)

2. Building your sax sound

Regardless of genre, you want to have control over your sound and airflow to be able to project through your mouthpiece.
This will make a good foundation for a solid and open sound on your saxophone.

Here’s a short video that I’ve made on the subject of building your sound, which I think you’ll find useful.

3. Phrasing

A big part of developing a Smooth Jazz sound lays in the phrasing. By this I mean the way you separate and tie notes, as well as the amount of attack you use while playing. But it also includes the use of dynamics or even the lack of dynamics in some cases.

As a final inspiration, I’d like to share a video where I play a little Smooth Jazz.


About The Author

Greger Hillman

Greger has been playing saxophone for almost 30 years and is a certified teacher as well as a well experienced musician. With the Learn saxophone Online website he shares his knowledge with students from all over the world. Here's more information on the Sax School.