How to Growl on an Alto Sax (+ Video Tutorial)

To hit the best solos when you’re playing jazz, blues, or even some rock ‘n’ roll pieces, you have to know how to growl on an alto sax.

A complete novice might think that this is a bit overwhelming, while a seasoned saxophonist or a professional would understand that it’s just a process that requires some practice to deliver an integrated performance.

So, what exactly is growling? How to practice it? How to achieve it? And what are common mistakes that you can avoid while trying to growl? Without further ado, let’s delve into the details of how to growl on an alto sax.

Overview: What Exactly Is Growling?

To sum up, the growling process, what you have to do is play a note into your sax while simultaneously singing it using your vocal cords. Most of the time, the issue that players face is that one process interrupts the other, and that’s why it takes some practice before you perfect the growling technique.

The 2 Steps to Growl on an Alto Sax

Here are some simple steps to help you with the growling process.

1. Reach a Split by Lowering Your Tongue

Give the A note a try on your alto sax, which will give you the regular, continuous sound. To make it sound more dissonant, lower your tongue a little. While this will flatten the sound to a degree, it won’t be a problem because the growling will help not make it sound flat.

2. Sing the Note While Playing It

While you’re playing the note on your horn, make sure that you’re simultaneously singing it, which creates the clashing that produces the growling and covers up the flattening of the tone that results from lowering your tongue.

To be able to do the two tasks together, you want to gargle the note. Try it out without the sax to make sure you get it right, and then practice on it.

Also, you can try getting the air to blow out of your mouth to play the note first and then adding the gargle or the other way around. Whichever order works for you, you’ll get the same result.

Related: Here’s our full Selmer Bundy II alto saxophone review

Alternative Method

There’s actually something else you can try, which has been made famous by the saxophonist (Lee Thompson) in One Step Beyond by Madness.

To achieve a growling sound, Thompson rolls his tongue instead of relying on his vocal cords. This rolling effect, also known as trilling, basically relies on fluttering your tongue. This is a sound used in some languages, like Spanish or Portuguese.

You can do this by sticking your tongue to the top of your mouth, somewhat close to your front teeth, and letting the airflow while keeping your tongue relaxed. Make sure you’re not pressing your tongue or applying force though, otherwise, it won’t work.

And while this is not the most popular method, it’s still a very valid alternative if you couldn’t get the hang of the aforementioned combination.

Mistakes to Avoid While Trying to Growl on an Alto Sax

1. Treating the Two Actions Exclusively

To achieve a growl, you have to be gargling (singing) the note while you’re blowing air out to actually play it on the horn. Often, a player will forget to do that, and it does get a little getting used to, which is why you can practice the technique without the horn before applying it.

2. Overdoing It

Yes, this is a creative field, but you can definitely overdo your growls. While it’s a trick up your sleeve, for sure, it should be kept to short solos. Also, note that, out of all the genres, it’s usually rock ‘n’ roll and jazz that integrate growls on a sax.

Moreover, you should practice turning the growl on and off at your command as well as controlling intensity, as this is what distinguishes a seasoned saxophonist from a novice.

3. Practicing With Flat Tones

It’s recommended that you practice your growling on sharper notes in order to sense the flattening that happens when you lower your tongue. After you get a gauge of the differences in sounds, you can practice with all sorts of notes and sounds that you like.

4. Trying to Sound the Same Note You’re Playing

You’re actually trying to get more air to blow into the sax than to hit the note you’re sounding with your vocal cords, so you’re not trying to hit the same levels. This is an important piece of information to keep in mind when you’re trying to growl.

If you try to match them, the two sounds will cancel out each other, and you’ll end up with a sound that seems out of tune.

5. Practicing with a Soprano

Some types of sax are just easier to growl with than others, so don’t begin practicing with a soprano. You might want to try a tenor or an alto, which would give you much better results.

Final Thoughts

To be frank, the best and most rhythmic way to growl on an alto sax would be to use note-playing and singing combination, but if all else fails, you can definitely opt for gargling until you master the other technique.

As long as it works, you get the notes right, and you’re enjoying playing your sax, you’re doing it right!

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