Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Learning Altissimo: From Low B♭ to Over Four Octaves Up

 This post takes you throgh the basics of voicings, to overtone practice, and finally to altissimo practice and fingerings. Feel free to contact me with any questions at


Voicing is a combination of your tongue, vocal cords, and soft palate position. You can use it to stabilize and tune notes, change timbre, and inflect and stylize your sound.

Sciency Explanation: You are tuning a standing wave that the reed is creating in your mouth. You control the wave, and the wave affects how the reed vibrates, which then affects how the standing wave in the sax vibrates. Mark Watkins’s book, From the Inside Out, is an in-depth resource on this.

Voicing tendencies

Low Register: Your tongue is high in the back of your mouth. Your vocal cords are in a relaxed open position, similar to breathing.

Upper Register: Your tongue moves forward towards the reed. Your vocal cords come closer together, similar to making an “h” sound.

Altissimo Register: Your tongue continues to move forward and hovers beneath the reed. Your vocal cords come closer together and grow taught. Your lower jaw can move forward a bit.


Octave Jumping Exercise

This exercise is meant to help you recognize two of the basic movements in voicing. Only the combination of techiques in the third step is mean to be used regularly. 

Play low E on the saxophone, and without pressing the octave key, make it sound an octave higher. Try to do this using three different methods:

  1. Focus on bringing your vocal cords together, closer to an “h” feeling.
  2. Focus on moving your tongue forward and underneath the reed. This is more difficult, and you’ll still need to use some vocal cord positioning too.
  3. Use a balance of both techniques, which is what you should be doing as you ascend the range of the saxophone.


Playing overtones on saxophone consists of playing higher partials than a given fundamental fingering by manipulating your voicing and embouchure. The sax produces overtones according to the natural overtone series, more or less (they’re not in tune, especially as you move beyond the low B♭ fundamental fingering).

Overtone Series on Low B

Why practice overtones? The voicings required to play overtones are good approximations of the ideal voicings used to play across the range of the horn. Practicing overtones is the most effecient way to learn to voice correctly, which is imperative for successfully playing altissimo. Also, improving your ability to play higher overtones improves your voicing for everything up to that point. As you improve your voicing, your sound and response across the sax’s entire range will improve, and the horn will feel generally easier to play.

Overtone Practice

  • Long Overtones w/ Exaggerated Smooth Vibrato: The vibrato helps make sure your embouchure is in a good formation with pressure in the right places and not hampering the reed from vibrating nicely. IMO, this is the most important form of overtone practice.
    • Focusing on the easiest fundamental fingering for a given overtone and expanding from there will lead to the fastest progress. For example, you can play the D above the staff using a low B♭ fingering, a D fingering (with low C♯ held open), or a G fingering. Figure out which one is the easiest and devote the majority of your practice to that fingering until it sounds great. Then work on getting other fingerings to sound just as good.
  • Legato and Staccato Articulation on Overtones: Start with repeated articulation on the same note, and then progress to switching between different overtones.
  • Bugling and Scale Exercises: This consists of switching smoothly between overtones. Add legato or staccato articulation to your bugling practice when you’re ready. Scale exercises are actually more challenging slurred, at least while ascending.

Overtones and the Octave Key

When practicing overtones, I generally like to use the octave key for the second overtone and above, though not on the first overtone which is just the octave anyhow. Using the octave key on the second overtone and above encourages you to relax your embouchure. It can actually be more challenging at first because it negates some of the support your embouchure provides and forces you to rely more on voicing.

Bugling and Scale Example Exercises

This is just a sample of some possibilites for up through the third overtone on C. Obviously, the overtones continue. You should create or find similar exercises that extend beyond these. One resource is my book, A Complete Approach to Overtones.

Techniques for Getting to Higher Overtones

In a perfect world you would be able to learn manipulate your voicing and embouchure and play all the overtones in short order, but in reality, it can be pretty tricky to learn how to voice overtones well. Following are some cheats for getting up to the “next” overtone. Once you can get a new overtone to speak, work on holding it out, getting a good sound, and adding vibrato.


1.       Slur to the overtone fingering from the normal fingering:

2.       Slur up by step from the nearest overtone you can already play: 

3.       Finally, try using a palm key (D, E, F) or side B like a second octave key.


Altissimo is the register above the keyed range of the horn. Playing high is cool. 😊

Practicing overtones above the horn’s normal range is a helpful way to learn to voice altissimo, but focusing your practice on the easiest and most stable fingering for a given note will help you make the fastest progress. Most often, the easiest fingerings in the altissimo register are not the same as the ones typically used to practice overtones.

Altissimo Practice

  • Altissimo Long Tones w/ Exaggerated Smooth Vibrato: Again, achieving a smooth exaggerated vibrato will help you get your best sound in this register.
  • Legato and Staccato Articulation on Altissimo Notes: Start with repeated articulation on the same note, and then progress to switching between different altissimo notes.
  • Scales: Play slurred and articulated, slow and fast.
  • Written, Memorized, and Improvised Music: You can practice anything in the altissimo register. Play written music up the octave or up two octaves. Play songs you know in the altissimo register in various keys. Improvise in the altissimo register. The sky is the limit. Cliché, I know.

Altissimo Fingering Chart

Following is a fingering chart up through the middle of the saxophone’s 5th octave. These are fingerings that I’ve discovered from talking to great players, checking out altissimo books like Sigurd Raschèr’s Top Tones, Ben Wendel’s Path to Altissimo, and Paul Perez’s Playin’ in the Attic, as well as coming up with different fingerings myself. These fingerings work really well on tenor. Your mileage will vary on other horns.

When deciding on an altissimo fingering, at first prioritize ease of playing. Once you can hit the note consistently and beautiful, then find a fingering that plays most in tune!

Download Ben's Altissimo Fingering Chart for tenor sax.


  1. Low Bb. You suggest a voicing like when you are breathing. Is that inhale or exhale? Is it similar to “O” as the inhale? It is so easy to have a blatty, uncontrolled low Bb. Do you suggest trying different air direction, more corner set with the embouchure,more or less mouthpiece? The overtone exercise starting on low Bb is very difficult just with the attack of the first note. Perhaps practice with air attack? The over riding question is how to blend it into the rest of saxophone range.

    1. Sorry I missed your question, John! You definitely don't want the blatty sound. Your vocal chords have nothing to do with "O" though, that's your tongue and soft pallete position that make different vowel sounds. My guess, and it's just a guess, is that your vocal chord opening should be close to a breathing exhale for Low Bb. As far blending with the rest of the saxophone range, check your tongue position as which is actually kind of like an "eee" or "uuu" sound. Also, your setup could be offering some obstacles too.

  2. Continuing.... As an alto player how many times do alto players use low Bb? Desmond, Adderly, Parker etc.
    Just curious if Tenor has way more examples in jazz .

    1. Hmmm. Great question, and I'm not sure. Among modern alto players I think you hear hear it plenty.

  3. John, from my experience (and a very cool lesson with Sam Dillon), you should practice starting a long tone from total silence to pppp and then move to louder and end with pppp. While the low Bb can be tough, for overtones it almost doesnt' matter; get it to speak and try to jump the overtone without re-attacking (this part gets harder for each subsequent overtone). The trick for me is that each overtone is very specific, and you have to be precise with your oral cavity. I have utilized a 'sucking in' shape of my soft palate, which is similar to the "ex" cavity that Joe Allard refers to in his video. Either way, it takes less and less effort over time; it's not muscularity that gets you up to the top.