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One of the great challenges we, as saxophonists, have to overcome is learning how to consistently play in tune.

In this article, we’ll talk about some best practices for saxophone intonation (aka ‘playing in tune‘), then highlight some of the top tools to do this: saxophone tuners, clever tuning apps and a few alternative methods for improving your ear.

If you’re in a rush to get started, though, this is one of the most-popular tuners on the market and a simple solution for your practice sessions.

ImageProductFeaturesPrice
Top Pick!
Korg TM60C Combo Tuner
Korg TM60C Combo Tuner

Hailed as a market-leading digital saxophone tuner; a great next step on your tuning journey!

Check Price on Amazon

Playing in tune is often considered a prerequisite to making good music, especially when playing along with a band or other musicians.

Of course, there are many examples of seminal recordings by world-class musicians where the tuning is far from immaculate… as you’ll see at the end of this article!

But for us, luckily, the days of tuning forks are long gone.

We’ve picked out some of the best digital saxophone tuners for improving your technique added some some useful tips and tools for developing your ears and tone.

But first, why is this such an important topic? 

How To Tune A Saxophone?

Playing the saxophone is not as simple as merely pressing the right keys down, there is a multitude of factors that affect the tuning it.

The shape of the instrument is naturally imperfect and, in general, the low notes have a tendency to be flat, whereas the high notes tend to be on the sharp side.

This can be problematic when trying to find the perfect position for the mouthpiece to be on the neck of the horn.

Remember:

  • To make the instrument sharper, push the mouthpiece on.
  • To flatten the instrument, pull the mouthpiece back.

It’s recommended to take the neck off first so as to avoid any unlikely but potentially devastating neck bending disasters.

We’d also advise tuning to the note F# on the saxophone as that tends to be the most stable note on the horn. So that’d be concert E if you play tenor or soprano saxophone and concert A if you play alto sax or baritone.

Tuning issues on the saxophone can also be exacerbated by the temperature, the mouthpiece/reed you are using, and your embouchure technique, so there is a lot to think about.

These variables can be constantly changing, so it is important to be aware of them and work on your ability to adjust to different musical situations.

Most importantly, we’d recommend working on long tones to develop a supported yet relaxed embouchure that isn’t biting on the reed.

Following on from that, be aware that warm weather, small mouthpiece tip openings and hard reeds are all likely to produce intonation problems such as playing sharp of flat.

Tuning within the saxophone family

Whilst the methods for playing in tune are the same regardless of which member of the saxophone family you’re using, they are not all as easy as each other.

Generally speaking, the smaller instruments are harder to play in tune. That’s one of the reasons why the soprano saxophone is not recommended for beginner saxophone players.

As the most famous instruments in the family, alto and tenor saxes are both relatively manageable in terms of tuning.

And, whilst the baritone’s deep range also makes intonation relatively simple, it’s size brings it’s own challenges for the inexperienced player!

Best Saxophone Tuning Aids

OK, so we’ve looked at why tuning is so important and how to improve this.

Being able to check your results is very important, and so here’s our list of recommended sax tuners to help…

Digital Saxophone Tuner App – Cleartune

For anyone looking to ‘tune up‘, the first port of call would be to consider a digital saxophone tuner and where better to look than on your phone?

There really are a multitude of apps that can supply an accurate visual descriptor of whether you are in tune, sharp or flat.

Our favourite for its simple design and usability is ‘Cleartune‘. It will listen to you play using your phone’s microphone and tell you on a dial where you sit in relation to your desired pitch.

You can also change the transposition in the app so alto sax, tenor sax and baritone players don’t have to transpose to concert pitch.

Cleartune tells you whether your instrument is in tune when you play a single note, which is definitely important. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole saxophone is in tune.

Be wary of relying too much on visual tools like Cleartune as you may prevent yourself from developing your ear; the quickest way to improve your tuning.

Electronic Tuner + Metronome – Korg TM60C

The snappily named ‘Korg TM60C Combo Tuner Metronome & Contact Mic’ is hailed as a market-leading electronic tuner and could be a great next step if you’re looking to buy a product to help you on your tuning journey.

ImageProductFeaturesPrice
Top Pick!
Korg TM60C Combo Tuner
Korg TM60C Combo Tuner

Hailed as a market-leading digital saxophone tuner; a great next step on your tuning journey!

Check Price on Amazon

This battery-powered unit has been specially designed for wind instruments and detects which note you are playing and tells you visually whether you are sharp or flat.

It boasts a ‘Contact Mic’ which clips onto the bell of your saxophone and uses the vibration of the horn to give a more accurate reading.

It also has a great little in-built metronome that can go as slow as 30bpm – a handy feature for anyone who likes a lot of space between clicks!

Similar to Cleartune, The Korg will give an accurate visual reading for each note, but it also has a great additional feature that we’d recommend using.

The ‘sound out mode’ will play a pitch for you to play along with, allowing you to develop your ear by matching the pitch the tuner is emitting as opposed to relying on the visual display to tell you if you are in or out.

Great though this feature is, there may be other ways to achieve the same gains…

Drones

A drone is a sustained chord that you can play along with and make for a great tuning, tone and ear development tool.

Drones are great because they force us to use our ears to tell us whether we are in tune or not, making them an effective alternative to a saxophone tuner.

We recommend drones that are perfect fifth dyads (two different notes making a chord), these dyads can be stacked in octaves but the openness of these drones allows the saxophone player to get creative with how they use it.

Again, there are many out there but these cello drones are free on YouTube and can be found in all 12 pitches!

You can practise matching the sustained notes, but also running scales and working on long tones at different pitches to the drone.

You could practise playing major and minor thirds between the drone and hearing how it sounds for you to complete the triad.

The same applies for any other degrees of the chromatic scale; some will yield greater tensions than others, which will help build your knowledge of intervals. In other words, it allows us as single line instrumentalists, to hear chords.

‘Tonal Energy Tuner‘ app is another digital saxophone tuner like Cleartune but with the added function that allows you to create your own drones.

Although we find it slightly less logical to use than other sax apps, we’d definitely recommend it for the drone feature alone.

Transcribing solos & songs

Transcribing solos and songs is easily one of the most enjoyable and effective ways to work on your tuning.

Practice playing along to your favourite solos, and in turn, build your language and ability to match your tuning to other musicians.

Miles Davies on ‘Freddie Freeloader’ is a wonderful place to start.

Playing with Other Musicians

Finally, nothing can build your musicianship faster and help you work on your tuning more than playing with other jazz musicians.

Tuning-wise, the most effective things we could do as saxophonists would be to work with horn sections, big bands and to play with harmony instruments.

These can all train your ears to pitch more accurately and of course, it’s just great fun to make music with other people!

Final Thoughts

Even though it should be all of our goals to play as close to in tune as possible, it is important to try and remain philosophical about it and to enjoy the journey of developing your ears.

Being slightly sharp can sound great if the performer is playing with enough intention.

It didn’t stop Dizzy Gillespie sounding incredible over this early version of ‘All The Things You Are, did it?

Or Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh – two legendary jazz musicians – totally smashing this incredible yet dubiously tuned rendition of J.S. Bach’s Invention No. 1!

We doubt they were using a saxophone tuner during rehearsals!

Although not conforming to twelve-tone equal temperament, Konitz and Marsh are still in sync with each other.

We hope you found this article helpful. We have plenty more informative articles about the best gear for jazz instrumentalists, or if you want to stick with saxophones, check out our beginner’s guide to the instrument.

Have a favourite saxophone tuner? Let us know in the comments!

Discover Jazz
Discover Jazz

The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!