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Practicing Scales on Saxophone: How to Not Waste Your Time

Scales are important, they are one of the most important things to practice on any instrument, but they are not magic. If you aren’t carefully listening for the right things, just playing through them won’t give you any special abilities.

There are two reasons to play scales, and each requires a different sort of practice. Fortunately, if you are clever, you can combine them.

The first reason is technique.

When you are playing a piece it is too easy to hide inconsistencies behind the natural expression of the music. Scales leave you no room to hide. They are like a control group for experimentation with your technique. Any error is made obvious.

Practicing scales without rhythm will make bad habits stronger. Always play with good rhythm. If you cannot play fast with good rhythm, then slow down!

Slowing down is a very useful technique in practicing the saxophone.

The other reason to practice scales is improvisation.

You need to learn all these different sets of notes so you can follow chord changes. This is trickier to practice; if you are playing a solo you don’t want to just be running up and down scales, but you need to know them intimately.

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  1. lee webber says:

    Hi ,I have a alto sax and want to start a band with my freind who plays the guitar and key board .He said to me the other day this song is in key of e ,and I don’t know what notes on my sax would go with that key .What the best way to start learning this as he has different songs in various keys .What is the best way to start learning this type if practice ,hope you can help me ?

    • Hey Lee,
      So the alto sax is ‘in the key of Eb’. That means an Eb on the guitar or piano will be a C on the alto sax. (Eb -> C is a minor third) If he’s playing guitar in the key of E, you’re in the key that’s a minor third lower, a minor third below E is C# or Db.

      • lee webber says:

        Hi Neal thanks you very
        much for that ,that is a great help to me .I now just need to know what notes to play in whatever key I am playing in ,is that where I need to know my scales and majors and minors which I find a little complicated to understand .What the best way of learning these to
        play in the same key as band members ?

        • Generally you’ll compare your key to ‘concert pitch’. The key for alto sax will be a minor third below concert pitch. If you compare to a trumpet, clarinet, etc (something that’s in another key) you’ll have to figure that out.

  2. lee webber says:

    Hi Neal thanks you very
    much for that ,that is a great help to me .i just need to learn my scales now then ?

  3. hmm. i find everything soo

  4. Hey, I was wondering the best way to learn chords. Such as D7 and Dmi7 et cetera. Is there a common pattern? Would D7 be play D major up to the 7th?

    • Hey Dan,
      Learn all the major scales first. That will give you foundation to understand other scales and chords. D7 means D dominant 7, it has a dominant seventh which is a major seventh lowered by a half step. If you saw G7 and knew the C major scale, you could use the notes of C major, starting on G to play that chord/scale. Within the major scale there are three minor scales, depending on what note you start on. So learn the major scales first.

  5. I need the solfa for c major chord

  6. Hey Neal. I play Alto Sax and I have difficulty reading and playing at the same time. I can play by ear and know all the notes on my Sax. I can play songs by John Coltrane, Kirk Whalum, Gerald Albright and Walter Beasley. Which class should I take?

  7. Hi Neal

    I have been playing for just a few weeks and feel as though I am doing quite well although I have a problem hitting the higher C# and first few notes of your careless whisper in tune. It always comes out flat and I try to adjust my embouchure but still seem to be having difficulty. I have moved the mouthpiece further down the cork which made a very slight difference but not enough to hit the notes in tune. I know it’s not the sax as it is a brand new Trevor James Classic. All my mid range and low notes are spot on. Please help?

    • Hey Doug,
      It takes some work to develop control over all the notes. And the highest notes and lowest notes will not come as easily as the mid range. Especially the intonation of the higher range. Keep practicing and things should improve.

      Basically your lip doesn’t have the strength or control yet to keep things in tune in the high range, but you will with more work.

      Check out if you want to work with me on things.



  8. Helene Alexander says:

    Hi just looked at first free lesson, regarding rhythm and notes. Way over my head Neal, where does a true beginner of music begin? Thanks

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