When I wrote my article on incorporating sax into metal a few weeks ago, I was not subtle in my praise for the man and the machine known as Jørgen Munkeby. As the individual behind SHINING and the player responsible for so many of modern metal’s great sax solos, it would be near impossible to get far in discussing the instrument’s use in the format without landing squarely on him. So I was just a little bit more than flattered when Jørgen shared the post himself and praised it. I figured that would be the end of it, but I was wrong in the best possible way.
Jørgen took this whole thing one step further and contacted us out of the blue with a list of seven excellent tips he feels are crucial to any aspiring sax player who wants to doot some brutal-sounding shit. I cannot back all of this advice enough. It takes way more than simple technical proficiency on the horn to make it work for this music. Don’t do a disservice to yourself and the music you’re trying to add to by bringing in something that doesn’t fit. So without further ado, here are Jørgen Munkeby’s tips for playing metal sax!
1) Aim for vibe rather than scales
Technically proficient metal bands can gather thousands of listeners and fans each night that come to drool over their fast sweeps and new Fractal-FX patches. But since these guys are almost always drummers or guitarists, and are virtually without exception only interested in their own instruments, they surely are not interested in your reed, your smart multiphonics, or your double tongue technique. So focus instead on making great music.
Pay attention to the atmosphere in the song you’re playing on, and choose phrases, pitches and intervals that match the vibe. For dark and hard metal music, chose tritones and descending chromatic semitones for instance.
And when the need to flaunt your sax scales becomes unbearable, just go home and do it in the mirror.
2) Use the lyrics
Knowing the general content and atmosphere of the lyrics can greatly help you when choosing what to play.
Do not invoke Michael Brecker’s smooth bends and lightening fast technique if you’re aiming for the feel of a cold and barren post-apocalyptic world of snow and ice. That’s coke under Miami skies and not A Blaze In The Northern Sky.
When I recorded sax on Ihsahn’s album After, my first solo didn’t feel like anything special. But after Ihsahn mentioned how the lyrics was completely devoid of life, it all fell into place and I was able to record sax tracks that made so much more sense with the music, and ended up being some of the best sax stuff I’ve recorded in my life.
3) Know your history
Metal is by default loud, heavy and abrasive music. But you’d be surprised by how well the old angry tenor giants would fit with modern metal music! Just check out the YouTube mashup with John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space mashed up with a Sunn O))) track!
Study the abrasive blowers like Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler, top it off with some John Zorn, and you’ve got yourself a toolkit perfect for metal work!
4) Live and breathe metal
Just like Kenny G is frowned upon in the jazz world, so will you be in the metal world if they feel metal is not running in your veins. If you weren’t lucky enough to grow up with Pantera, Sepultura, Death and Entombed when you were a kid, then just get to work now! Buy albums, listen, jam with it, transcribe, record, try out stuff, go to shows, get metal friends, and live and breathe metal. When it becomes second nature, the magic will come.
5) Get your instrument setup right
To get a sound that is strong enough to feel at home between sharp and screaming guitars, thundering drums and demonic vocals, you need some real power from your horn. Get a mouthpiece (preferably made of metal, of course) and a reed that generates lots of overtones and loud volume. This will help your sound blend right in with the other instruments.
[Ed. note: Though there’s some disagreement in the sax community about how much difference mouthpiece material makes, there are absolutely different shapes and styles of mouthpieces that are better suited to project and work better in smaller ensembles as opposed to blending in with instrument sections in larger ensembles. As for reeds, harder/thicker tends to be more powerful and sonically pliable.]
6) Get your physical setup right
To be able to play with these big brutes among musical instruments, you not only need a good and suitable instrument setup, you also need some real physical chops to back it up. Merely turning up the mic just doesn’t cut it.
Get your lips, tongue, throat, breathing, posture, stamina and general playing muscles in shape. Run, jog, practice! And get earplugs, ‘cause it’s gonna get loud!
7) Learn about mixing
While sax’s popularity in metal music is explosively on the rise these days, and hopefully will keep on rising, the metal mixing engineers have still yet to tag along. Most of them don’t know shit about mixing a sax, and some might even hate the thought of having a sax in metal music. This can lead to burying the sax track way down in the mix just because they just can’t manage to make it sit well with the music. If you learn about mixing, you can help out, to the benefit of the both track and yourself.
I usually premix my recorded tracks before sending them out, so the engineer can just open up the faders and instantly have a track that’s already compressed and eq-ed and blends right into the track.
Learn about how compression, eq, saturation, reverbs, delays can make the sax feel at home in the mix and convey the right emotional vibe. Learn about how the right reverb can make it cold and hard, and how removing some flabby 250 Hz can make it sound just a bit harder. Try an Eventide MicroPitchShift and make it totally David Bowie! Or add a parallel distortion to tear it up just a bit more.
Also learn how volume in mix can greatly affect your pitch choices. Colorful and intentional “outside” notes that can sound bold and interesting when you played them, can sound like unintentional wrong notes at lower volumes. Therefore be wary of recording your sax without auditioning the tracks at lower mix levels, as you might have thrown in a bit too many smart notes than you should. I know I’ve done that many times!
With more and more jazz cats listening to metal music, and more and more metal heads opening up and experimenting with jazz elements, I know we’ll soon fully bridge the gap between the two soon-to-be best buddies metal and jazz. I’m very much looking forward to the time when adding a sax in metal music will be just as natural as adding a seventh string on the guitar has become. Until then, just keep on blowing that devil’s horn!
SHINING’s latest album, International Blackjazz Society, is available now through Spinefarm Records. Jorgen is available as a session musician for all your saxophone needs. Visit jorgenmunkeby.com for more info!