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How altissimo is supposed to work...

Dave Dolson

Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
Al: Thanks for that link . . . I watched it. Yes, he had command of the altissimo, something I can't do, but wouldn't do if I could . . . see below.

Personal opinion . . . while I appreciate this tenor player's skills, he lost me when he went into the altissimo. I mean, he had a gorgeous, lush sound and obvious appealing technical skills all over the horn, but to my ears, all that altissimo pails in comparison to his sound within the horn's normal range.

Of course, I never have liked saxophones or brass played extremely high, especially saxophones being played above their keyed range. Maybe I'm biased (who, ME?!). I guess others will like it. DAVE
Joel Frahm's a great player for sure.

I was thinking that if you had a band willing to play blues at that volume you wouldn't need altissimo!

Nice clip Al!

I like his phrasing in all the ranges he plays. He knows his way around the changes and plays them tastefully. And his styles, too. In his playing I hear traditional tenor influences, funk/fusion influences, and smooth jazz influences.

His altissimo is appropriately applied for my tastes. Not played just for its own sake. Not just because he can. I watched his chops to see if he changes them to go up there. I couldn't see anything. Those are some iron chops.
Here's an altissimo story.

Jimmy Dorsey ghost band playing in a church venue. The musicians had been asked to watch the language around the patrons as it was a fundamentalist sect, and they did not care for strong language.

At the end of "So Rare," the solo alto player, an oldtimer with lots of credentials, has a finishing cadenza that goes up into the altissimo. Not something that would usually give him trouble. But he makes the run, and the last (highest) note won't speak. So, since it's a rubatto obble-gobble while the band holds the closing chord in a fermatta, he tries the note again. Again, the note won't speak. So he tries a third time. Same thing. So he says (inadvertently into the microphone), "Ah, s**t!"
So how is altissimo supposed to work? I have read bits and pieces all over but it doesn't seem to help much. Sure, I can get notes above keyed range of my tenor(s) but not in any productive fashion. The high G is obviously the main problem. According to my tuner, it is in there somehow but so are a couple of other notes (forgive me for not remembering which ones). My teacher, who is a natural except for reading (which he emphasizes would prevent him from having the career nowadays that he has had in the past) says he doesn't really know what he does, and therefore cannot teach it properly. He never had a problem, and has a minority of students for whom it comes without much effort and the remainder for whom it remains a major challenge. He keeps telling me not to worry about it, but I do. My teacher further argues that there are lot of great sax players out there who get passed for lesser ones because the former cannot play altissimo, particularly in R&B and rock. Not something I have to worry about as I will never have to make a living playing saxophone (and surely would starve to death otherwise). Irrespectively, rather than starting a separate thread, I might as well ask here for tips on how to play altissimo. Thanks in advance!


Old King Log
Staff member
I have worked up specific notes on the baritone when they are called for in a part (I let my arranger write out the solos that I have to play; with zero improv skills on the sax, I don't want to take a chance and fall flat), but have never had the time or inclination to work on it over the years. As virtually all of the opportunities to use it in the stuff that we play are sucked up by the tenor (mostly) and the alto (for most of the rest), I don't see much of a need to start now.

As most of my time under regular music instruction (high school stuff) was spent on clarinet and bass clarinet, I never had much in the way of pedagogy on any of the saxes, further handicapping me in that regard. Such is life.

One of the problems with the "faked notes" is that there is no set fingering for any of them. I've been advised on fingerings that were "dead certs" for various altissimo notes, only to find that they just would not work on my horn. Once you enter this realm, the old concept of a Rubank fingering chart rapidly becomes untenable - further evidence that Sax didn't really have this sort of thing in mind when he invented the things.

I use Pete's site a lot, or at least used to when I had a bit more time. It is one if not the best sax sites on the web. However, altissimo is not like for instance scales where determination suffices. Since most of you guys here are advanced players, I was actually more curious as to how you arrived at being able to play altissimo. No offense, but many of you must have possessed such skills years in advance of Pete putting his site together. My teacher cannot tell that he does anything beyond fingering the keys but some of you might. I figured if one has to do something with the throat, as I have heard some claim, Al would probably better than most be able to describe what it is.

I probably didn't pose my question very well, but what I really would like to know is how members of the forum acquired the skills of playing altissimo, and what they do to get the high notes out, assuming they are aware of it.


Staff member
Bob Sheppard had one of the best descriptions about what should be going on when we play altissimo or overtone series. Essentially it comes down to the position of the back of your tongue in your mouth. The higher it is the faster you are moving air. To illustrate, he made a sound like a cat hissing. Watching him do it was slightly amusing and slightly scary. :emoji_smile:

I'm not a monster with altissimo but I'll share what I do and maybe it will serve as a jumping off point. I basically think about aiming my air at a specific part of the reed. Sounds odd but it works for me. I have also found that the back of my tongue does move around in the way that Bob Sheppard discussed.

Before you get too frustrated with your altissimo, try a different mouthpiece or horn. On alto, I have great altissimo when playing my SA 80 but rather anemic altissimo on my Mark VI. On bari, I was able to play up to an octave higher on my old JK stencil low b flat. I can't get anywhere near that on the Yani's.


Striving to play the changes in a melodic way.
Staff member
When I learn to sight read decently, sub-tone better, and improv consistently, I'll consider looking at altissimo. When you're working the 9 to 5 grind, there are only so many hours in a week for music training.

One practice session when I was doing a solo I'd done sooo many times before I started playing altissimo-like notes. After the session my instructor (director of this band) suggested that when I can name the note I'm playing I can add altissimo. Besides being right it just made me laugh. :emoji_relaxed:
When I learn to sight read decently, sub-tone better, and improv consistently, I'll consider looking at altissimo. When you're working the 9 to 5 grind, there are only so many hours in a week for music training.
Point taken (my hours are more like 9-9, 6 days a week). You sound like my teacher. I am still curious for descriptions like Ed's. Thanks Ed! I know this is reverse logic but if I could hit that high G decently, I think I would be better able to put the whole altissimo thing aside for later.
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