As a saxophone player, you occupy a strange place in the music world. Because the saxophone was invented relatively late in the game and intended for military bands, it never quite caught on in the orchestra. And while it has always had a place in dance music, the popularity rises and falls.
One day rock n roll loves the sax, the next day it is relegated to adult contemporary! The saxophone just can’t seem to find a permanent home. But maybe that is for the best, instead of having one perfect home, saxophonists can create music in any genre or style!
Below are 20 songs that will hopefully encourage you to be a better saxophone player. Not every tune is technically magnificent, some are just great melodies that we often think of when the sax comes to mind. Give them a listen, and hopefully you will find some new musical inspiration!
This particular song was an explosion in the jazz recording world, and one of the first recordings of a saxophone. This tune was composed by Clarence Williams and another well-known name Fats Waller.
Williams picked some of the best players out of New Orleans like the musician Sidney Bechet. He originally played the clarinet as a child prodigy and then switched to soprano sax around the age of 20. His sax playing was known for sounding more like a vocalist or trumpet player.
And speaking of trumpet players; he had the first solo jazz recording a few months before another New Orleans local named Louis Armstrong hit it big! Bechet not only paved the way with his particular sax style, he later recorded early versions of Latin jazz.
While it’s true men have dominated the sax playing world, there are plenty of examples of great female saxophonists. And what better example than the International Sweethearts of Rhythm! During the Big Band era, they were the first integrated and all-female band!
The International Sweethearts formed around 1937 and played until their peak in the USO during WWII. The better-known sax players were Zena Lotta and Vi Burnside, who you can see here at 1:35 playing her swinging tenor sax solo.
As far as big bands go this one definitely doesn’t receive much attention. But even those who play other band instruments can find some inspiration with this great group of musicians who changed history.
If you play the saxophone and you’re keen on using hip slang like the Bebop greats? Well, you have Lester Young to thank for that! He rose to fame playing tenor saxophone in Count Basie’s Orchestra. As a young man he settled in Kansas City, the other jazz hotspot.
When he started playing most saxophonists took a forceful and dominant approach to their styles. Lester instead was one laid back cool cat, which you can hear in the song above. Even Billie Holiday thought of him as her favorite accompanist.
He loved playing in the upper range with a carefree floating style and even had a habit of holding his sax high and at an odd angle. Clearly he was cool enough to get away with it! Of course he inspired Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins.
Another great female saxophonist was Betty Smith. Here she is playing the famous show tune from the musical Pal Joey. This song has been covered by many including Doris Day, Mel Tormé, and Frank Sinatra.
Betty Smith was a tenor saxophone player from England and her group's version of this tune was her only hit. Of course playing in jazz clubs got her in trouble in school, but it was well worth it. Later that trouble led to playing with many jazz artists and she even toured with early rockers like Bill Haley.
If you like her work you should check out the sextet called “The Best of British Jazz.” She plays alongside trumpet virtuoso Kenny Baker. You will hear some great and bewitching jazz coming from that tenor!
Wow… Vi Redd really has some soul in this number. She was an alto sax player born in LA, but her parents were New Orleans jazz musicians. This song here and the album it is on features many jazz greats.
Despite her active career in the 60’s she sadly isn’t given the recognition she deserves like many of her contemporaries. And not only a female player, she stands out as one of the early soloists. Vi was also a singer, with her sultry vocal style showing through her playing.
Dizzy Gillespie not only admired her style, he performed with her often, watching her win over the less open minded listeners. She also later toured with Count Basie and many others. If you like her style she has plenty more great recordings out there.
Of course, this song has to be included as it is John Coltrane’s masterpiece. This composition is important in jazz music theory as it follows modulations of major third and augmented fifth intervals. He was inspired by the famous Slonimsky book Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.
Coltrane was obsessed with practice and scales; he carried that book everywhere. When you think of bebop and hard bop he is one of the main musicians that comes to mind. He started on clarinet and alto, but later switched to tenor.
He also had what is known as “even fingers”, meaning he always played his notes on time. Even if you find you aren’t into the bebop jazz that he plays, every saxophone player can take an example from him when it comes to regular and proper practice. Coltrane worked hard at his craft!
Dave Brubeck was a jazz pianist and composer who had a drummer that had a knack for playing in 5/4 time signatures. So Brubeck had the saxophonist Paul Desmond write this particular famous piece above.
Desmond was another alto saxophonist out of the cool jazz scene. He played with a light and melodic tone and had a gift for improvising counterpoint musical lines. And he had the ability to play those notes in the altissimo register.
This song is now a jazz standard and pretty common to hear in soundtracks for movies and TV shows. Between the odd time signature and classically trained musicians, we get a catchy smooth jazz hit.
This is definitely up there for famous sax hits, nearly everyone the world over knows this tune! It was written and played by rock sax player Danny Flores. Besides loving the jazz and blues he had an interest in Mexican music styles, which clearly inspired this song when he played with The Champs.
The underlying beat of this song is a Cuban mambo beat, and the tone of the horn is called “dirty sax”. Compared to other sax styles of the day his playing wasn’t clean and proper. They recorded “Tequila” as a late night jam and clearly it shows. Just a fun song to wail away on the sax!
Many know this song as the intro to The Benny Hill Show, it was a simple but memorable novelty saxophone hit. It’s basically a mixture of fiddle tunes and riffs that is played on a sax and often used as funny chase music. Originally it was inspired by the sax solo on “Yakety Yak.”
Boots Randolph was the tenor sax player on this and many other songs of that era. He mostly worked out of Nashville with musicians like Elvis and Chet Atkins. He also plays on the song “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree!”
He had a pretty dynamic range of styles, as the Nashville sound drew from multiple genres. Given his skill and location, you will find many songs that he plays sax solos on. But none quite as popular as this silly novelty hit.
The band Procol Haram wrote this pop hit based on Bach’s “Air on the G String.” It is a pretty standard pop hit still played on the oldies radio to this day. But King Curtis took this song to a whole new level!
King Curtis began playing the sax at the age of 12 and only 10 years later he was playing as a session artist for people like Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings. He also played the sax solo on “Yakety Yak.”
He was a saxophone virtuoso and an in-demand session artist until the end of his life. One of the last jobs he had was working for John Lennon! The amount of emotion he manages to convey in his playing is simply incredible!
David Bowie is a big fan of the saxophone, you can find examples in many of his hits. And he was known for shapeshifting through many different genres. During his blue-eyed soul era, he recorded this song here.
The sax in this song was played by American alto player David Sanborn. He has played in a variety of genres from smooth jazz, R&B, and pop. Luckily he has been able to play with many jazz legends of the past yet also many pop stars of the present.
His style is a little hard to pinpoint as he has such a variety of musical experience. In the modern music world being able to pull from different genres will get you the most work.
Another artist that has had a prolific recording career is Clarence Clemons. He started playing alto and later switched to baritone. Of course, he played with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, this song in particular mentions the story of when he joined the band.
Besides working with The Boss he has recorded for many others as a session artist. One particular hit was Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory.” He also helped popularize the baritone sax as many players focused on alto and tenor back in the day.
While some of his famous solos and performances weren’t technically difficult they were emotionally powerful notes. His style is a great study in note expressiveness and tone.
Sonny Rollins started as a pianist and later switched to alto and then tenor sax. He started playing in the early bebop days with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. His most famous album was the Saxophone Colossus.
While he has many great tunes to use as examples here we have his sax work in this hit by The Rolling Stones. This pop rock song introduced many listeners to his earlier jazz and funk and disco. Rollins is especially known for his gifted ability of improvisation.
It is difficult to hear this tune without thinking of the great actor Peter Sellers (who also happened to play ukulele and drums very well). This famous theme was written by Henry Mancini for the film and cartoon character the Pink Panther.
The tenor saxophone on this classic is played by Plas Johnson. He also plays other small parts on the alto and baritone! He did session work with other jazz greats like B.B. King and rock legends like The Beach Boys
Plas was picked for this song because his saxophone playing style suited the specific accented rhythms necessary for the timed scenes. This is a great example of music and animation creating some award winning features.
This song has the quintessential 80’s saxophone sound. This was during a period of resurgence in the pop rock world when artists like George Michael, Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, INXS, and other big names were using sax on their albums.
Greg Ham was an Australian musician that played a number of instruments including saxophone and flute. You might recognize a popular flute riff he also played on their other big hit “Down Under.” If you have the talent to play both, go for it!
The Boston based band Morphine was started by Mark Sandman and features the sax playing of Dana Colley. This song here is actually a little upbeat for this band. Generally, they play what is known as low rock.
This is music influenced by a huge range of genres like jazz, blues, and rock. Sandman played a two-string bass and Colley would switch between a tenor and baritone saxophone to create a distinct beatnik vibe. Sometimes Colley even plays both kinds of saxes at the same time!
The hip hop genre brought about electronic sampling, where you could record a sound off your vinyl and then play it back. The Beastie Boys took a saxophone sample off of this song and then used it for their hit.
35 years later this is how the music world works, samples and loops. If it isn’t your cup of tea, you should get into the hip hop dance world and give them a real saxophone! In some cases, samples become incredibly popular and the original artist never is credited or paid.
It is possible some folks from the USA may not have heard of this Eurodance pop song by Alexandra Stan. A Romanian singer who had a hit with this very catchy sax trill riff played by Cosmin Basasteanu.
These days a lot of popular dance music is heavy on repetitive riffs and this one proves that point. Granted it’s nothing too complicated, but sometimes simple melodies get stuck in people’s heads. However, the sax recording was digitally altered as a sample so keep that in mind if you try to play it.
NASA commissioned soprano saxophone player Jane Ira Bloom to compose this piece in 1989. It’s reminiscent of the light jazz sax era of the late 80’s and early 90’s. The kind of music that peaked with artists like Kenny G.
Bloom is known for poetic and gorgeous tones on her soprano, which fit right in with her use of other strings, bass, and orchestra sounds. She creates a haunting and mesmerizing sound on her soprano on this piece.
It’s true there aren’t a ton of examples for classical saxophone playing, and the songs you will find will often be of a pop or jazz nature. But don’t let that discourage you if you prefer orchestral saxophone playing.
You can find great saxophonists like Amy Dickson, another Australian musician. In her hands the sax isn’t just a means to belt out a solo, it is an instrument of beauty. With modern players like her, there will surely be more modern repertoire for classical saxophone.
There are plenty more songs out there with great saxophone playing. To start finding them just look up the names of these artists and check out their other recordings. There are many other amazing musicians that can still be added to the list.
You can spend hours just listening to talented artists playing their interpretation of the wonderful saxophone! Hopefully, these have brought you some inspiration for what you can aim for in your playing.