False Fingerings for Saxophone

John Robert Brown

Jazz reed players sometimes use alternative fingerings - non-standard fingerings - to create different densities of sound, or different tone qualities, on the same note. Players sometimes call this device double-density. Saxophonists also describe it as fake fingering, false fingering, alternative fingering and substitute fingering. Although some jazz clarinettists - Buddy De Franco for example - use the effect, we hear it more frequently on the saxophone. Here I will concentrate on double-densities for the saxophone.

What is the point? Why would a jazz player want to create a different tone quality or density on one note? What does it sound like? How is it integrated into a performance?

For a simple explanation, return to an earlier era. Think of the famous Glenn Miller band, playing Tuxedo Junction. Remember the 'Doo-Wah' effect of the trombones, alternately covering and uncovering their bells with rubber sink-plunger mutes? They had a distinctly jazzy sound, and a sense of rhythmic propulsion, even when playing on one note. This 'open and closed' effect is typical of the way to use double-densities.

A second example involves the guitar. Listen to Charlie Christian's historic and exciting recording of Solo Flight. A mini-concerto for electric guitar, arranged by Jimmy Mundy, it was something of a novelty in 1941, when Christian recorded it with the Benny Goodman band. At one point, towards the end of the track, Charlie plays a swinging figure, selecting the same note alternately on different strings. He also distorts the sound by playing a unison on two strings and then pulls on one string to blur the tuning.

Played rhythmically, in this context it is an exciting, groovy, effect. It also brings us back to the saxophone. Historians say that Charlie Christian borrowed the idea from Young, and adapted it brilliantly for the guitar. You can hear Lester using double densities in Count Basie's 1939 recording of Lester Leaps In. However, Lester Young was not the first great saxophonist to show the possibility of using unorthodox fingerings to create different qualities of sound on one note. Jimmy Dorsey had explored the technique in the 1920s. Subsequently, many saxophonists have explored false fingerings, including Phil Woods, Art Pepper, Stanley Turrentine, Johnny Griffin, Stan Getz and David Sanborn. For the serious saxophonist, the mastery of false fingerings is a necessary aspect of technique.

Use false fingerings to improve intonation or to smooth out difficult fast passages. They are excellent preparation for playing in the altissimo register. But used as a colouring device, as described above, they alter the clarity of the note, and usually affect the tuning, to bring variety and extra expression to a phrase.

Close most of the tone holes below those needed to produce a specific note. It is as simple as that. The easiest note on which to show this is A, one ledger line above the stave. Play the A, and add two or even three fingers of your right hand. Of course, your left-hand ring finger must remain raised. As you add the right-hand fingers, the tone quality becomes muffled, and the pitch changes. (What happens to the pitch?). Add and remove the right-hand fingers rhythmically to achieve the 'Doo-Wah' or 'Wah-Wah' sound. Embouchure adjustment can heighten the effect.

Another easy way to show this effect is to use the 'long' fingerings for C and C#, to play distorted alternatives to middle-finger-left-hand C, and open C#.

Use the following list of fingerings as a guide. As I have written before elsewhere, to be a good reed player is to be an inventor of fingerings; if one of the following fingerings does not work, experiment until you find something that does work. (See chart.) That completes the middle octave for you. This chart is only meant as a guide, and to help establish some principles.

First published in Crescendo magazine, August 1998.

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