The saxophone may be most closely associated with jazz music, but it’s played an important role in many of the biggest pop songs of all time.
In the spirit of covering all things saxophone, we’ve picked 10 of the most famous saxophone songs in the history of pop music – and highlighted some hidden jazz connections that you might not have known….
A classic that even non-musicians recognise from only the first couple of notes.
This solo is probably more recognisable than the rest of the song itself, and is easy enough to be accessible for most intermediate players to perform.
The solo is by saxophonist Raphael Ravenscroft and (shock, horror!) it’s actually slightly ‘flat’.
Not by a lot, but enough to be noticed by musical ears.
However, this only adds to the solo; most people have heard it so often, that playing it in tune just sounds…..wrong!
Careless Whisper (George Michael)
Whether you’re tuning in to ‘classic’ radio or a school jazz band rehearsal, it’s almost impossible to not hear this one this at least once.
And with good reason: Careless Whisper is one of the most famous saxophone solos of all time.
It didn’t come without it’s recording difficulties though…
George Michael had a very specific vision and sound for the sax solo, and therefore went through various players before finding the one he liked – Steve Gregory on a vintage Selmer Mark VI saxophone.
It’s not an easy solo to play in the written key and was actually recorded a semitone down, and shifted up electronically – a technique that has been used by many artists, including Stevie Wonder.
Moondance (Van Morrison)
Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Van Morrison was a keen saxophonist and, as a result, many of his songs feature the instrument.
Moondance is perhaps the most famous example of this, both for the hit itself, and the saxophone solo.
He actually handed over sax duties to Jack Schroer for this one, who delivers a performance full of vigour and power.
Just The Way You Are (Billie Joel)
This 1970s pop song was Billie Joel’s first to go gold, and features legendary jazz saxophonist Phil Woods.
Whilst many of the players on this list forged careers as commercial players, Woods was already a verified jazz great, having toured and recorded since the 1950s with musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich and Benny Goodman.
Whilst some jazz purists frowned on this ‘crossover’ the recording – as well as others with Steely Dan and Paul Simon – helped introduce a whole generation of pop & rock fans to his saxophone playing.
Time of Your Life (Medley & Warnes)
Usually reserved for weddings, this 1987 classic has been played by saxophonists at countless functions over the years.
Best known from the movie “Dirty Dancing”, the prominent sax solo – played by Gary Herbig – doesn’t sound particularly difficult on first listen…
Once you get into it, however, the harmonics in this solo are surprisingly difficult, featuring that altissimo G# all saxophonists try to avoid due to tuning, and voicing problems…
Just The Two Of Us (Bill Withers)
This soul song by Bill Withers features a classic saxophone solo by well-known smooth jazz legend Grover Washington Jr.
If you listen carefull, you’ll notice that it’s actually performed slightly flat.
It maybe a side affect from mastering, or even conscious choice, but if you’ve every tried playing this and not been able to get it quite right, that might be why.
It also adds to that ever elusive dark, warm tone, particularly in the lower register, reminiscent of another jazz saxophone great, Michael Brecker.
Money (Pink Floyd)
While this song is a less common request for saxophone players around the world, it still deserves an honourable mention as a true pop classic.
The bluesy sax solo is performed by Dick Parry and is reminiscent of the alto greats Earl Bostic and Cannonball Adderley.
Listen out for the trills, which are coloured with a slapback delay ambience from the sound engineer.
The slight pitch variations of tape add to an almost unsettling solo!
Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen)
Posthumously inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame, Clarence Clemons is one of the most famous saxophonists in pop music.
Born to Run is arguably his most well-known solo and, whilst quite short, displays the sheer power and fullness of his tone for which he is renowned.
Listening with today’s ears, it’s almost a cliché if the 80’s sax tone, but it’s worth keeping in mind that this was the origins of that sound!
Last Friday Night (Katy Perry)
OK, so this is a very modern addition to the list, but deserves a special mention due to the interesting effects on the track.
The sax is fed through a whole range of effects; stutters, tape stops, distortion and even autotune, to get the final result.
Despite Kenny G appearing in the music video, the saxophone solo was actually recorded by Tower of Power’s very own Lenny Pickett, a player with an incredible level of control in the altissimo register.
Midnight City (M83)
While you might not remember the song on first listen, you’ll be sure to know the saxophone solo.
Performed by James Kings, the solo is almost bebop-like and features a high level of melodicism amongst passages of intense phrasing, rhythmic displacement, sideslipping….
It’s a textbook sax-pop performance that is worthy of further study by any budding commercial saxophonist!
That’s it: our round up of 10 of the most famous saxophone solos in pop music.
Of course, we could have added others, but hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little more about these hits!
You can find more sax-related articles here or, if you liked these songs, why not check out our pick of the best pop guitar solos too…
37 thoughts on “10 of the Most Famous Saxophone Solos in Pop Music History”
Christopher Cross – Arthur’s theme
Also Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” Tenor Sax solo
Can’t forget Chicago’s “Just You and Me” – Soprano sax solo
LL Cool J goin Back to Cali the sax intro and solo break is unforgettable
Another memorable one:
Rolling Stones Hampton Colliseum 1981
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Sorry, guys, you kind of forgot “It Makes No Difference” from “The Last Waltz”(1976), that’s simply unbeatable to me. 🙂
baby jane by rod stewart got me started on sax by the year of 83 or 84 I guess.
Great choices but my all time favorite hands down is the sax solo on The World Is A Ghetto by War. He puts soul into it. Gives me goosebumps every time. Do yourself a favor and listen to it right now.
Don Myrick … Earth Wind and Fire Reasons Live … Don Myrick .. Phil Collins One More night … Don Myrick Sun Goddess Ramsey Lewis to name a few .. he played so beautiful don’t you agree ?
Urgently waiting your next song addition…literally. it is Urgent, urgent urgent.
How about the sax in “Love Theme” from ‘Bladerunner’ too?
How come Supertramp is not listed? “Don`t leave me now” is my personal Saxo-Heaven. It lifts you up and drops you down.
One of my favorites doesn’t make lists … Year of the Cat with Mr Phil Woods. I’m on a mission…
What’s a Sax list without one of Sax-iest songs of all time, Europa by Gato Barbieri
“Satch” Satchell with the Ohio Players on Sweet Sticky Thing, easily takes all 10 spots…
Sax solo in Urgent, Foreigner, is my favorite. Really awesome sax pkaying.
Don’t forget that oldie but goody by Elvis Return to Sender. That was essentially a solo moving along to Elvis’s vocal. An excellent piece a bari sax work.
The Rolling Stones – Waiting on a Friend.
Don Hendley – End of the Innocence.
The very best sax solo!
Man, I don’t know how Bob Seger – “Turn the Page” was overlooked. Easily one of the most recognizable sax parts in rock music. Good list though.
Judie Tzuke’s Stay with Me Till Dawn. Was that a sax, who played it? I was never credited AFAIK
How about the outro to “Old and Wise” by the Alan Parson Project? Especially live versions.
Junior Walker’s solo on Urgent by Foreigner blows all of these away. The intensity is amazing. If you haven’t heard it, check it out.
PLEASE , Anybody THE GREATEST sax solo EVER by Clarence Clements in Jungleland.
I love these songs good choice
Kool & the Gang – Too Hot
Billy Ocean – Caribbean Queen
Cheesy songs but those two sax solos are pretty damn funky imo
Don’t forget Dire Straits last song on the brothers in arms album. “Going Home”. Brilliant !!
Oh yes – so many good ones!
how ’bout Teauila?
How could you not include “Will You” by Hazel O’Connor? The saxophone solo absolutely makes that song.
I’ve just had the song on repeat on a well-known music stream site. Wesley is stupendous!
How can you leave out “Urgent” by Foreigner?
Should have included “Yakety Sax” and/or its inspiration, “Yakety Yak”.
I probably would have put “Songbird” on the list too.
shine on you crazy diamond, pink floyd