A Guide to Playing Altissimo Saxophone

Once, only the best saxophonists played altissimo notes, but they are becoming popular with intermediate players and even beginners. You can still be a fine player if you don’t play altissimo saxophone, although you will miss out on some great modern sax scores, which increasingly call for these extremely high notes. Of course, the altissimo register really comes into its own in improvisational jazz, so if you’ve ever wanted to blow your horn like Lester Young or John Coltrane, read on!

Altissimo Sax with Fingering

Altissimo notes are above the normal range of a saxophone, which, when it was invented, was considered to be three octaves (more for larger saxophones such as baritone). The first lesson when learning to play high notes is to form the correct embouchure. One of the com- mon misconceptions is that to play altissimo, you need to “bite and smile.”Biting the mouthpiece works, but it also causes high notes to go out of tune. The trick is to increase air speed into the sax by reducing the size of your mouth instead. Do this by opening your throat as if you were yawning, moving your jaw forward, and raising the back of your tongue as if you were saying the word “who.”

Once you have the correct embouchure—practice, practice, practice! To make the altissimo notes sound their best, the air stream must be straight and uniform. You can achieve this by practicing long tones in the high register. In fact, though, one of the best preparations for playing steady altissimo notes is to practice long tones in the normal register.

Lastly, there are the altissimo fingerings. Opinion varies as to which keys produce the best tones in altissimo—three recommended books on the subject are High Tones by Eugene Rousseau, Top Tones for the Saxophone by Sigurd Rascher, and Studies in High Harmonics by Ted Nash. Our simplified chart at right offers one option for basic finger- ings on a student model sax that should get your altissimo register off to a good start.


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