The Jazz Saxophonist: An Introduction to the Altissimo Register

Mike Lawson • January 2023Jazz Focus • January 15, 2023

The ability to play notes in the altissimo register is a highly desirable skill for most jazz saxophonists. This skill allows performers to play more exciting, expressive solos by extending the upper range of saxophone by one octave or more. However, learning this skill can be very frustrating since many saxophonists simply look up the fingerings for altissimo notes in a fingering chart and attempt to play them with no idea of what changes are necessary in the tongue position and air stream. When this strategy does not work, some saxophonists give up never realizing that there are exercises, when properly practiced, that will develop the skills necessary to play in the altissimo register. 

Overtone Exercise for Developing the Altissimo Register

One exercise that will develop the altissimo register requires the playing of overtones. Overtones are harmonic notes that are played over a low fundamental note by adjusting the tongue position and air stream instead of using different fingerings. Learning to play different pitches by only changing the tongue position and air stream are precisely the skills needed to play in the altissimo register. To begin the altissimo overtone exercise, the saxophonist first plays a low BH below the staff. Then the BH an octave above located on the third line of the staff is played using the same fingering as low BH. The new note is played only by adjusting the back of the tongue to a higher position in the oral cavity. This tongue adjustment will feel like saying the word “he” or “her”. Each note should also be started with a breath attack and not tongued since this will cause additional movement of the tongue. Next, the F on the fifth line of the staff is played only by moving the tongue to a higher position. This process continues playing the entire overtone series by adjusting the tongue to a higher position but using the low BH fingering.



Overtone Exercise #1  Use Low BH Fingering for All Notes

This exercise should also be performed with low B and low C as fundamental notes. By playing additional overtones based on low B and low C, the saxophonist will cover a greater range of altissimo notes developing greater control and flexibility.



Overtone Exercise #2  Use Low B Fingering for All Notes




Overtone Exercise #3  Use Low C Fingering for All Notes

By learning to play the above overtone exercises, the saxophonist will discover how to manipulate the tongue and throat position, which is the fundamental requirement for playing the altissimo register. Once these exercises have been mastered, it will be relatively easy for the jazz saxophonist to play in the altissimo register

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