Here’s a thing most readers of the site probably don’t know about me but won’t be surprised to learn given my musical proclivities: I’m a sax player. Well, technically I guess I’m really a flute player who then learned how to play sax in high school (while playing in the same studio jazz band and under the same director who inspired Whiplash…but that’s a story for another time) and then decided to stick with it. I used to be far more active in writing music and performing it, something I’ve made a top priority to return to this year, but once again, story for another time/post. Right now I want to talk to you about the instrument itself, heart to heart, doot to doot.
So, the saxophone! More than any of the other more conventional “band nerd” instruments, sax has amassed a reputation as the relatively “cool” one, and sax players with it – the kind of eccentric nerd who might listen to some weird shit and have some weird ideas but can throw down thick grooves better than anyone. Much of that is by design, as the sax is, for all intents and purposes, a hybrid, Frankenstein-like creature. It blends the louder and brasher edge of brass instruments (trumpet, trombone, etc.) with the more subtle and expressive tones and capabilities of other reed-based woodwinds (clarinet namely; double reed instruments like oboe and bassoon may as well be a completely different species). This gives the instrument a certain versatility not afforded pretty much any other horn, with the ability to play blindingly fast and loud, soft and silky smooth, and everywhere in between.
This, more than anything (except, of course, the influence of jazz, soul, and r&b themselves on music of the time), helps explain its historical prevalence in rock and pop, especially in its first peak of the more over-the-top and emotionally-overstuffed music of the 70s into 80s (do not ask me how often I get the request to play “Careless Whisper”). As someone who grew up and came of age in the relatively restrained, “less is more” music of the 90s into 2000s though, it was a bit discouraging to see the absolute dearth of sax in the music I listened to. But like most things in this world, musical trends are cyclical, and in the past decade or so there’s been an absolute resurgence of sax and other horns in pop, indie rock, hip-hop, and, perhaps even more recently, metal.
It seems that as more heavy and progressive bands seek to experiment and differentiate themselves from the herd, they’ve been turning more often to adding in outside influences and instruments, with jazz and sax being at the forefront, which, at face value, is great! Like any other tool though, you have to know how to wield and implement it properly or it simply doesn’t work, and that seems to be what we’re faced with currently: a glut of saxophone solos and parts in metal and prog that exist primarily for the novelty of hearing a saxophone in unexpected places rather than using them in ways that actively connect to and enhance the music around them. This isn’t so much a guide to music and bands that use sax particularly well or poorly (though I will use examples from time to time), but more so a crash course in what the instrument can actually do and some best practices for using it. School’s in session, and you can call me Professor Sax (please don’t actually do this; Mr. Sax will suffice).
Lesson 1: The Saxophone Is Not A Guitar
At the risk of starting this off too tautologically, the best place to begin with all of this is at the root of what is probably one of the biggest issues with how sax is used and misused in much of modern metal, particularly when it comes to solos. There seems to be this conception that one can simply take the space in a song that would normally be filled by a guitar solo or maybe a keys solo, throw in a random sax playing in a similar style, and call it a day. Sure, you can do this, but to what end? Why bring in an extraneous instrument that has no connection to the rest of the song and music you’ve written for a solo, only to have that instrument play a solo that sounds like it could be played by any other instrument?
The above example, off of Aaron Marshall’s most recent solo album under the Intervals moniker, is pretty much a perfect example of this. The track, “Fable,” throws in a sax solo starting at 2:25 that lasts nearly a minute, yet somehow still feels like a random detour or afterthought. As solo albums from guitarists are wont to do, The Shape of Colour is primarily a vehicle for Marshall’s own guitar playing, which is to be expected. So, on the one hand, it’s nice to see him attempt to create some contrast for a moment by bringing in a guest solo on a completely different instrument. The problem though is that it’s neither enough of a contrast from Marshall’s own playing to warrant its inclusion, nor is it integrated enough into the general feeling and structure of the song to feel like a natural extension and part of it.
It was likely Marshall’s intention for Leland Whitty, the guest soloist, to play in a similarly smooth and clean style as him for the solo. But ultimately it just sounds like a recapitulation of what we’ve already heard, thus essentially negating its seeming intended purpose, which was to act as a sonic foil and bridge from the first half of the track into the climax. However, because all we ever hear of the sax is in this isolated solo context, by nature it sounds different and abrupt, thus creating this strange tension in which it’s different, but not different in the right way. It sticks out in a way that sounds unnecessary and random, and ultimately in such a way that removing it in favor of more guitar might actually improve the overall track, or at the very least not lessen its quality.
Contrast that with the track “Lured by Knaves” off of Wrvth‘s superb self-titled album from last year. The band have received a lot of praise for expertly blending fantastic brutal tech-death with lighter, more atmospheric, and at times even jazzy elements, and at no point is that more evident than in their use of sax in this track. The band spend the first 3 1/2 minutes building up tension to a beautifully dark chordal motif, which leads effortlessly into a soulful sax solo. The solo is around the same length as in the Intervals track, but not only does it use its time more effectively in terms of the actual solo’s content (butter-smooth legato playing mixed with some impressive interval jumping into the upper register), because the band have made a clear effort to create space for it in the composition, it feels like a natural ebb in energy that’s slowly built back up and is able to segue into the band hitting back in full force by the solo’s conclusion. Upon first listen the sax is a surprise, but by the next listen it’s difficult to imagine the song not having sax.
The takeaway should be this: if you’re going to stick in an isolated sax solo in your song, make sure that it does have connection and coherence with the overall track, but also make sure that it has its own purpose and personality that actively contributes to the song’s quality over another instrument. Play to the instrument’s strengths. Let it sound like a genuine sax solo, not a generic solo that happens to be played on sax.
Lesson 2: Sax Is Way More Than A Melodic Solo Instrument
Beyond the quality and context of the solo itself, inserting sax into the middle of a metal or rock song by nature is a jarring thing, which is only magnified when it’s confined to a brief solo in the middle. If you really want to include some sax in your music and not have it feel like a hackneyed novelty, the best way to do so is by integrating it more fully into your music or track. That means either treating it like another instrument in your band and writing an actual part for it or allowing the player to intuitively insert him/herself into the music with improvised counter-lines or textural playing.
Though writing for sax may seem intimidating if you’re a guitar player who’s used to only writing for guitar and bass, fear not, because here’s a little secret: guitar and sax sound great together! You can write a sick riff for guitar and either let sax play it in unison with you or play a harmony line. Guitar and sax are a shockingly good sonic combo that’s not exploited nearly enough, as the brashness of its timbre blends well with all sorts of guitar tones, while its ability to play clean and fast allows it to burn through riffs effortlessly in a way that brass and most other horns cannot.
Prog band Thank You Scientist have this formula in spades, as they employ both sax and trumpet often in tandem with guitar to (mostly) great effect. As much as I love both them and this album though, they do tend to rely on using the horns as unison or harmony parts with guitar lines a bit too often, thus creating another issue. If you’re only using the horn as an embellishment on guitar without giving it anything of its own to actively contribute to the track, then you’re going to fall right back into the sax as novelty problem. The sound of the horn throughout the music does contribute to a certain flavor you wouldn’t get otherwise, but it’s also really not the best use of it overall.
On the other hand, the track “Shrimpy” from Stimpy Lockjaw‘s (featuring members of Ever Forthright, another band that understands a thing or two about effortlessly blending jazz and horns into metal) excellent 2014 debut is one of the best uses of sax/guitar unison I’ve heard anywhere. The alto sax here manages to have its own vital role and personality in the track despite it mostly playing the same parts as Nicholas Llerandi’s guitar. The solo is also excellent, but it’s what it does elsewhere that really cements its place in the track and makes it essential, whether it’s creating an extra sonic layer of the cascading intro riff, adding an extra oomph to the epicness that is the bridge section immediately after Llerandi’s solo, or exploding into cacophonous noise and improvised riffs at the track’s climax and conclusion.
Speaking of cacophonous noise, another reason why sax fits into metal so well is because it’s a heavy fucking instrument on its own. It’s a horn that is incredibly malleable in its timbre and sonic capabilities, which means that if you’ve only heard it played cleanly and melodically, you’ve really only heard half of what it can do. Between the kinds of ridiculous squeaking and howling you can produce through the reed, guttural growling and other vocalization effects, harmonic overtones and multiphonics (i.e. producing multiple tones simultaneously), and all other forms of general skronking, the saxophone is easily one of the filthiest-sounding acoustic instruments out there. That kind of playing, whether it’s melodic or simply textural, can add so much to a song, whether it’s playing support or out front.
There are honestly far too many good examples to demonstrate heavy music that utilizes the full range of the horn (enough probably to warrant its own post at some point), but I wouldn’t be doing a very good job if I didn’t at least drop in at least one or two tracks featuring Jørgen Munkeby. What he’s able to do with sax as a lead instrument and make it brutally heavy as fuck should be all the proof you need as to the benefits of employing the horn intelligently. As a bonus, however, I’ve also included a Colin Stetson track from one of his solo albums. “Brute” is by far the heaviest thing he’s ever done, and it’s the closest he’s come to just going balls-deep into straight-up metal (accompanied by some surprisingly convincing harsh vocals from none other than fucking Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver).
In summary: the sax is an incredibly versatile and flexible instrument that can fit many needs and styles. It can add all sorts of embellishments, tones, and flavors to your music that you might not have even realized were possible. So don’t be afraid to experiment and write some parts that will make it shine.
Lesson 3: It’s All About Context
So let’s say you read all of the above and decide that you’re going to try to put some sax in your music. Awesome! You should totally go for it and try. But there’s one other big thing you should think about before doing so, probably the most important question one should ask oneself before incorporating anything to music: does it make sense? Is there a way to incorporate this instrument to your music or to this track in such a way that it won’t feel completely out of place and shoehorned in for the sake of being different? How can you even know for sure?
The answer is, you can’t. But hopefully your instincts and musical intuition are good enough and you are able to distance yourself away from your own work enough (or trust others to be truthful to you) to tell you when it’s not working. Case in point: “Deconsecrate” by The Faceless. All-in-all this isn’t a terrible track. There’s some good stuff going on instrumentally. But there are two pretty glaring things going on that just throw the whole thing into comical disarray. First, while it’s not unheard of for rock and metal to play around with and shift into vaudevillian jazz sounds, the sudden shifts here are just weird and jarring in a way that is not so much interesting as head-scratching. There’s nothing wrong with the use of sax here per se except that the idea/motif that it’s couched in doesn’t make any sense in the greater context of the music. Less excusable, however, is that solo starting around 3:30. Just…what is that? It sounds like they grabbed a random sax player from a neighboring studio, gave him the key and the beat/tempo, and just told him to play some “jazzy shit or whatever” without actually listening to the song. It has no bearing or relation to anything else happening in the track. The segues into and out of the solo make no sense. And it sounds like the sax player and the band are playing two completely different songs during it. It has no reason to exist. They may as well have substituted the sax with airhorns and it would have made just as much sense.
Ultimately that’s the problem with taking risks and chances either stylistically and instrumentally. I applaud the band for trying something different with sax, but some songs are just not meant to do certain things, and that may mean including sax does not make sense unless you’re willing to completely alter the nature of the song to have it make sense.
Bottom line? It’s what I said in the beginning. Sax, like any instrument, is a tool with a certain set of available options for use. It’s a pretty wide range of options, but a finite range. Understand the instrument and the influences you bring in when incorporating it in order to wield it properly. If you don’t want your music including sax to sound like a novelty, then don’t treat the instrument itself like a novelty when you bring it in.
A Few Other Quick Tips (Just The Tip)
- If you’re bringing in someone from outside the band to play sax on your album or track, make sure it’s someone who at least has a basic grasp of the kind of music you’re performing or at least a very open mind. They could be the filthiest player ever technically, but if their musical context is constrained to strictly jazz and not much else you’re going to be much more likely to get a solo or style of playing that feels utterly disconnected from what you’re trying to accomplish musically.
- Regardless of who you bring in though, communication is key. This is obviously true with any guest musician, but you need to communicate to the player what sort of sound or style you’re trying to accomplish by bringing them in. Don’t assume they’ll figure out what you want when you hit record or give them some vague direction like “just play some crazy dooty jazz shit.”
- Know your sax! When we talk about the saxophone most of the time we’re referring to either the alto or tenor sax, but there’s a whole range within the sax family to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Soprano sax could be what you’re looking for if you want something more siren-like that floats above everything else. Or maybe you’re looking for something really booming and bass-heavy, in which case a baritone or contrabass sax are probably what you want. Tenor and alto are somewhere in the middle and the most versatile, though as a tenor player I’m obviously biased towards tenor, which is the closest in range to the human voice and I feel the most expressive overall.
- Don’t just limit yourself to sax! Any sax player worth their salt will also be proficient in at least one other instrument from the woodwind family (most commonly flute and/or clarinet). While not as loud or aggressive as sax, they both can add an extra edge or ethereal air to your music to give it just the right atmosphere. Also, bass clarinets are badass and should be used often. Seriously, go listen to a bass clarinet and tell me you don’t want to hear it in everything. And if you haven’t already, listen to Dreadnought‘s Bridging Realms to hear what successfully blending sax and flute in metal sound like.