It never ceases to amaze me how often I’ll have a student ask me why their instrument sounds so wrong. They’ll wonder if it’s broken, but most of the time, it’s simply out of tune.
There are 7 steps you need to follow when tuning a saxophone:
- Warm Up Your Saxophone
- Get Out Your Tuner
- Check The A Note Frequency
- Pick A Good Note For Tuning
- Realize Your Notes Won’t Show Up The Same
- Play The Note And Adjust The Mouthpiece
- Check With The Octave Key
Look ahead to the rest of the article for more details on each of these steps and advice on avoiding common mistakes.
Video For Tuning A Saxophone
Check out this video for a detailed representation of tuning. Don’t forget to keep reading, though, as I’ll offer tips and advice, not in the video.
Step By Step How To Tune A Saxophone
Here, the steps are broken down into greater detail. It seems like a lot at first, but if you don’t slow down and commit to these steps and ideas, you’ll always be held back by the intonation (tuning), especially when you’re in groups.
#1 Warm Up Your Saxophone
I shake my head every time I see a saxophone player tune their woodwind instrument without playing first.
Saxes are made of metal; they change temperature a lot!
When the saxophone is colder, the pitch is lowered. If you tune it without playing it a little first and warming it up, then your tuning will change after you adjust it.
It’s a simple mistake, but the most common one by far.
Take five minutes to play something before you tune. Scales, etudes, or bits of a solo or piece are fine options.
Pro-tip: If you tune and the temperature of the air changes, re-tune your instrument in the new environment.
#2 Get Out Your Tuner
Once you’re warmed up, it’s time to get out your tuner. There are many types of tuners out there, but not all of them are good.
I always recommend a handheld digital tuner for the saxophone. They always work the best, last the longest, and provide the most accurate information.
The Korg OT-120 is the one I generally recommend to all of my instrument students of any age or skill level. It doesn’t get much better than this.
The other big type of tuner you may want to check out is a clip-on tuner or a handheld tuner with a clip. These do a good job because they clip right onto the bell of your sax.
The Korg TM60 is one such tuner. It’s not quite as accurate as the other option, but it’ll work better if you tune when other instruments are playing simultaneously.
Yes, I picked Korg as the tuner model both times. It’s honestly the hands-down best brand there is.
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Browser-based tuner or tuning apps on phones, tablets, and other devices are OK in a pinch. Honestly, the speakers aren’t designed to pick up the frequencies and sound of the saxophone, and the programs aren’t as quality.
This is why I always recommend a physical tuner.
A lot of them are free, though, so use what you need to. The following steps work for almost any kind of tuner.
#3 Check The “A” Note Frequency
Turn your tuner on. All quality tuners will display the frequency of the A pitch.
Usually, this is 440 Hz. 440 is the most common tuning standard for groups. If your tuner doesn’t say, it most likely is based on A=440.
Great tuners will let you change this. Some groups do tend to use a different baseline for their pitch.
For example, many high-level wind ensembles (or bands) will use A=438. This helps the wind instruments sound richer and stay in tune better as they warm up over the course of a concert.
Orchestras, on the other hand, are known to use A=442 on occasion. This gives the group a lighter sound and is slightly better for the string instruments.
If your group doesn’t really care or you’re by yourself, stick with A=440.
#4 Pick A Good Note For Tuning
When tuning any instrument, but especially any type of saxophone, you need to pick a note in the middle of the instrument’s range (without the octave key).
The two most common tuning notes are written G and F. I recommend G to my students most of the time.
This works across the entire saxophone family.
No instrument is perfectly in tune across all notes; it’s too complicated. But if we tune to the high or lowest note, then the opposite end is way off.
Picking the middle notes will keep the overall saxophone much closer to the center of the pitch.
#5 Realize Your Notes Won’t Show Up The Same
Did you notice I said the “written G and F?” Saxes are transposing instruments, which means the written notes aren’t what they actually play.
For example, the alto saxophone is an Eb instrument. This means when they see a written C, it actually sounds an Eb.
The tenor saxophone is a Bb instrument. When they see a C, they actually play a Bb.
It seems confusing, and it kind of is. But it helps the saxophones and their sheet music stay within a readable range.
It also helps with switching saxes. The fingerings for the written notes stay the same across types of saxophones, though the sounding notes (called concert pitch) are different.
When you use your tuner, the letter you see is the sounding pitch. So while you play a G, it will not show up as such on the tuner.
Use this chart to help you figure out what note to expect.
|Type of Saxophone||Written Note Played||Sounding Note (Concert Pitch) On Tuner|
|Baritone saxophone (Bari sax)||F||Ab|
|Baritone sax (Bari sax)||G||Bb|
#6 Play The Note And Adjust The Mouthpiece
It’s time to actually tune!
Play the tune note you picked and hold it out for 3-5 seconds. Don’t look at the tuner for the first second.
Notice if the pitch is too high or too low (called a sharp note # or flat note b). Often, tuners will use red lights to show when it’s out of tune.
Usually, when the pitch is too low, a digital needle is shown to the left of the center. Too high shows a needle to the right.
If the pitch is too low or flat, push your saxophone mouthpiece in on the cork a little. Don’t do it more than a quarter of an inch at a time.
If the pitch is too high or sharp, pull your mouthpiece position out on the cork a little. Again, only a quarter of an inch at a time.
Replay your note and see where you’re at.
Repeat with minor adjustments until your note is directly in the middle. Often, tuners will display a green light (some even do a happy face, oddly enough).
#7 Check With The Octave Key
Your job isn’t over yet, but it’s close. Play the same note with the octave key pressed.
This jumps the note up the octave. Look at the tuning of this note.
If it’s right on, awesome! You’re done!
If it’s off, adjust slightly, and then recheck the lower and upper notes.
Sometimes, it’s hard to get them both notes in tune. When this happens, compromise and get them as equally close as possible.
If they’re both way off, take your instrument to the music shop. Something may be broken.
With this done, congrats! You now know how to tune a saxophone!
How much does it cost to tune a saxophone? – It shouldn’t cost a dime to tune a saxophone.
If you want to “tune-up” your saxophone, take it to a music store for simple repairs and pad replacements. This can cost anywhere from $80-150.
Click the links to check our guides on those topics.
How do I practice saxophone intonation? – The two best ways to improve your intonation on the sax are to listen to pros who play in tune and spend time playing slow etudes and exercises with your tuner on.
Can a saxophone go out of tune? – It shouldn’t go out of tune naturally; if it seems way off even after tuning your middle note, take it to the music shop to get checked out.
If you tune your sax, it will need re-tuning if the temperature changes and every time you put it together.
How do I make my saxophone sharper or flatter? – When tuning, make your saxophone go sharper by pushing the mouthpiece in toward the saxophone neck and flatter by pulling it out.
To change your pitch while playing, tighten your saxophone embouchure to raise the pitch and relax it to lower it.