Saxophone Tuning & Intonation
by Paul D. Race
When you’re comparing saxophone brands, especially inexpensive brands, the word “intonation” keeps coming up. To further complicate matters, folks selling used saxophones often report that the saxophone has been “tuned,” which makes no sense, unless they’re confusing tuning and intonation. Either way, a little explanation is in order.
Tuning means that the instrument is adjusted to sound right playing with other instruments, or to an absolute pitch measurement, say, on a digital tuner. You tune a guitar string by tightening or loosening the peg/gear mechanism until the note, unfretted, is exactly the right pitch. You tune a saxophone by pushing or pulling the mouthpiece until some note (usually C on a tenor or G on an alto) is the same as some note on the piano or a tuner (usually Bb). That’s why a person claiming that a saxophone has been “tuned” is making a meaningless statement - when you take the mouthpiece off to put back in the case, you have “untuned” the thing as surely as if you had loosened a guitar’s strings for storage.
Intonation refers to the instrument’s and the musician’s ability to play all notes in more or less in tune with each other once the instrument has been tuned to correct pitch.
For some instruments, like violin and trombone, the intonation is almost entirely up to the musician. The instrument may be technically in tune with the strings open or with the slide all the way in. But as soon as you press down a string or move the slide, you are entirely dependent on your ear and muscle memory to play that note in tune.
For fretted instruments like guitar, intonation is almost entirely due to the instrument’s setup. If the frets or bridge are in the wrong position, you’ll play most notes out of tune no matter how carefully you tune the “open strings.” Some instruments like banjo, mandolin, or arch-top guitars have bridges you can skootch around to get the best average intonation. Better guitars are supposed to have bridges that are scientifically placed for the best intonation. Some even have “compensated” (crooked) bridges which address the fact that each string behaves differently when it is fretted. But the fact remains that if the instrument isn’t designed or set up right when you start to play, at least some of the notes you play will be out of tune, and there’s nothing you can do during the performance to fix it.
Well-designed clarinets, flutes, and trumpets have reasonably good “built-in” intonation - that is, once you get one note in tune, most notes you play will be reasonably close. That’s why high school band directors are happy just to get all the horns playing concert Bb in tune. Intermediate to advanced players eventually learn to make real-time minor adjustments to compensate for any notes that aren’t exact, but the instruments get them close to where they need to be.
Saxophones are the exception. You can play most notes on a saxophone up to a half-step sharp or flat just by how you adjust your embouchure when you play. Consequently a saxophone player needs to have just as good an “ear” as a trombone or violin player to play even the best saxophone consistently in tune. Worse yet, invisible problems with the instrument may knock the intonation of one or more notes so far off that you can’t play it in tune, no matter how good you are.
Sax Design and Intonation Issues
Of course, the ability to adjust your embouchure for every note you play is a challenge, especially for beginning or intermediate players. But a lot of things can affect the pitch of a wind instrument. And on a reed-powered brass tube with hundreds of moving pieces there can be a “perfect storm” of intonation issues. Consider that “perfect” intonation on a saxophone would demand:
- Exact distances from each opening (“tone hole”) to the ideal mouthpiece position (which can vary with the brand of mouthpiece you use).
- Exact diameter and height of each tone hole.
- Exact distance between the pad and tone hole when the pad is open.
- Every rod and key designed and placed for optimum operation.
- Every player’s “ear” up to the demand of making micro-adjustments to his or her embouchure while playing.
So something as simple as the felt bumpers over the low B and Bb keys compressing with age can cause the pads to open farther than they should and knock low C out of tune. Similarly, missing or worn cork on the low Eb key can make your Eb sharp. But those are easy examples - almost every note has a cork, spring, lever or other factor that can knock things out of tune if the adjustment is “off.”
If the instrument is properly designed in the first place, a good saxophone repairperson can improve the horn’s intonation simply by fixing compressed felt bumpers or missing corks and other issues. Sometimes they can “rescue” well-built horns that were never set up right in the first place. For example, most pre-1975 US-built student saxes were based on earlier pro designs and built using the same tooling. But they weren’t checked as carefully for minor intonation issues before they left the factory as they should have been - then they were packaged with throwaway mouthpieces that exaggerated any intonation problems.
I confess, I used to “disrespect” horns like the Buescher-designed Selmer Bundy saxes, but now I realize that - if you can get past “ergonomic issues” that don’t actually affect tone, most of them are far more solid than most student horns today. Again, a sax repairperson who knows what he or she is doing can do quite a lot to restore good sound and intonation to such horns. (A mouthpiece upgrade will help, too.)
But what if inaccurate design or poor quality control at the factory led to more permanent problems, like one or more tone holes being a millimeter too large or small? On larger tone holes, your repair person can still raise or lower the pads to compensate. In fact, on larger horns, a lot of experienced players just “lip” up or down to compensate on the fly. But on smaller saxes with many tiny tone holes, you don’t have as much to work with, physically, and it takes a lot more control to “lip” a note up or down. Problems caused by poor design or quality control have a far greater effect on small saxes than they do on big ones, and they are far harder to fix or compensate for. For that reason a cheapy tenor saxophone is more likely to be playable than a soprano sax of identical quality.
Now I’ll be honest - every horn is different. Every mouthpiece is different. Every player’s embouchure is different. Which means that some horns I can play with reasonable intonation may be impossible for someone else to play well and vice versa.
Not only that - every sax has built-in compromises that tend to make, for example, the middle D or the G above the staff slightly sharp. Experienced players loosen their bite a fraction when they have to hold those notes without even thinking about it. But you shouldn’t have to radically change your embouchure for every single note you play to have the horn sound remotely in tune.
Here are a couple ways to test a horn’s intonation.
Testing Against “Correct” Pitch
If you have access to a digital chromatic tuner or an electronic keyboard, use the mouthpiece’s position on the neck to tune several notes on the horn so you get a good average across the board. (Remember, having just one note in tune with the piano doesn’t necessarily mean you have the best average tune.)
Now try playing a scale from the lowest note to the highest note and back down without adjusting your embouchure any more than you have to to get out the notes. Good practice would include playing all scales from E (four sharps) through Ab (four flats). If you notice that three or four notes on any of the scales are a tiny bit “off,” that’s because you are playing a saxophone, and it will be your job as a saxophone player to sort that out as you’re playing, especially if you have to sustain those notes. But if you notice that several notes are way off, you may be playing a problem horn.
Testing Against Relative Pitch
It’s also possible that your embouchure is too relaxed or too tight for this horn’s design. Here’s an approach that may help filter out that factor.
Play middle C open (with just the second finger of your left hand). Then play middle C by playing low C while pressing the octave key. The tone will be different, and due to an inherent compromise in the design of all saxophones, the second note will be a tiny bit sharper than the open C. But the tuning of both notes should be close at least.
Then try playing middle D both with standard fingering and “open” using the left palm “D” key and no octave key. Again, the tone will be different and the standard D fingering will be slightly sharper than the “open” fingering.
If the notes on which you have the most fingers down are substantially sharper than the open notes, push the mouthpiece onto the cork a little farther and try again. If the notes on which you have the most fingers down are flat compared to the open notes, pull the mouthpiece out a little and try again.
Yes, you may be taking the instrument way from “true pitch” temporarily. But you are finding the ideal mouthpiece placement for the horn to play in tune with itself.
Now play your scales all the way up and down and see if the horn sounds like it’s in relatively good pitch all the way. If one note sounds way off, that’s probably reparable. If several notes sound “off,” you may be dealing with a problem horn.
Finally, find a “bite” that allows you to play the horn in “correct” tune up and down the scale even with the mouthpiece in the “wrong” position. If you can hold more-or-less the same embouchure up and down the scale and stay in tune, that may be the way you need to play this horn to keep it in tune. Don’t feel bad, every player’s bone structure, mouth shape, etc. is a little different, and an embouchure that allows you to play one horn in tune may not work exactly the same on the next horn. Conversely, a horn that you can play easily in tune may frustrate the next person to pick it up.
It’s a little like driving cars with clutches. I may have got used to driving my truck, and know exactly where to hold my left foot when shifting gears. But the next car I get into may require my foot to be higher or lower when shifting. I could get mad at the car and complain that it’s clutch is “wrong.” Or I could adjust.
If after all of this, you still can’t play a scale without the horn being noticeably out of tune on more than a note or two, you may have a horn with built-in intonation problems.
Who Do You Listen To?
Sax players who play all the time, especially folks who switch off horns a lot are used to adjusting. In fact, a lot of pros can play almost anything in tune, without even trying hard - their sense of pitch and muscle memory help them make even radical adjustments without even thinking about it. That means that a horn a pro sounds great on could be dangerous in your hands. Conversely, there are critics who want every horn to play exactly like their favorite horn and complain endlessly about the intonation of perfectly good saxes that they won’t bother to adjust to.
In addition, when you’re looking at anything besides pro horns, you’re also going to be dealing with the fact that two horns that came off the same line the same day could have invisible, but significant differences.
All of which means that when one person tells you that such-and-such a saxophone can never be played in tune and another person claims that the same model played great out of the box, they could be commenting on differences in their expectations or on differences in quality between the instruments. Unless you have a chance to try out both horns, you have no way of knowing which is which. True, if a higher proportion of people prefer one horn over another, that might give you some guidance. But even that doesn’t tell you whether the horn you ordered was the best or the worst one that came off the line that day.
The best case is to get your hands on the horn and try it yourself or get a sax-playing friend you trust to try it out. If you can get a good deal from a store with a good repair department, see if you can get a commitment to have their repair person tweak it for free if you determine there is a problem after a few weeks.
If you can’t get your hands on the horn, that means you have to depend on other folks’ opinions. I would love to be able to tell you to buy such and such a horn. But we all have different expectations, budgets and needs. The best I can do is give a list of general principles when looking at various choices:
- If a lot of people complain about intonation on a sax you’re looking at, it’s probably a sign.
- Intonation problems are easier to fix or to compensate for on a larger sax than a smaller sax. That’s one reason why buying an off-brand soprano is a bigger risk than buying an off-brand tenor.
- Though you may “luck out” and get an offbrand sax that is sturdy and capable of good intonation, it’s a gamble. Generally the cheaper the horn the greater the gamble, but some relatively expensive horns have uneven quality control, to put it nicely.
- Most US- and Japanese-built name brand saxophones are capable of good intonation, though they may need some tweaking, and generally need a mouthpiece upgrade. Of course it’s impossible to get a US-built student line horn these days. As of this writing (January, 2014), if I have to order an instrument sight-unseen, I’d rather order a restorable 40- to 60-year old Martin, King, Buescher, Bundy, Conn, Yamaha, or Vito student horn than take a risk on a brand-new Chinese horn, even a “name-brand” horn. Sadly, this only works for altos and tenors, since neither sopranos or baritones were built in any large quantities in those days.
I apologize for having to speak in generalities about some of these topics. But at least you’ll know the difference between intonation and tuning, and you’ll have some idea why two different people might have entirely opposite opinions of a certain saxophone model.
My own experience is that I grew up on tenor, and I stick to known US- or Japanese-made brands for my tenor and alto saxes, so I’ve never had serious intonation problems on any of those horns, especially since I got into the habit of upgrading my mouthpiece as soon as I get a horn that’s new to me.
On the other hand, I have a vintage Martin C soprano and a 1970s Taiwanese “Lafayette” (Sears brand) soprano that both have intonation issues. A professional mouthpiece helps both horns, and Loren, the repair guy at Kincaids Music, in Springfield, Ohio has tweaked both of them to the point where I can play them more or less in tune if I keep in practice. Since I don’t play soprano “out” much, that’s pretty much all I need. Here’s the “gotcha.” Do I struggle with these horns because they still have intonation problems or because I only get a chance to play them a few hours a month? If the latter, would a $4000 soprano actually solve my intonation “problem,” or would it prove it’s me and not the horn? I don’t have the four grand to test out that theory, though . . . .
The really “short answer” is that your mileage will vary. Have fun.
Other articles you may find helpful include:
Saxophone.org’s Saxophone Buyer’s Guide page has some good tips, especially if you’re looking for a pro or classic horn.
Another resource, the Horns in My Life articles describe various saxophones (and one flute) with which I’ve made a personal connection over the last 45 years. Some folks who’ve had similar horns will find it a helpful resource. Others will just like to reminisce along with me. On the other hand, if you come across one of these horns while you’re shopping for a saxophone and want to know more about it, you may find one or more of the articles helpful.
The list is in the sequence in which I owned the following horns, not in the sequence they were built, which is way different.
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