How to Play Altissimo Notes on Tenor, Alto Saxophone: The Definitive Guide

by ReverbLxnd in Saxophone

Everyone's always asking for altissimo fingerings. But the truth is, it's not the fingerings that you need, it's the altissimo exercises and a good mastery of the basics that you need. Here's how to play altissimo on tenor and alto saxophone.

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Today we are going to talk about altissimo.

How to play altissimo on both tenor and alto saxophone is one of the most frequently asked about topics in the saxosphere.

Almost every saxophone player has struggled with playing altissimo notes at some point.

So today we are going to go pretty in-depth on this topic.

If you are having trouble getting altissimo notes to play, or come out at all, on your saxophone, this might be just what you need.

When you’re getting into the upper harmonics, the notes are that much closer. It’s just physics, it’s just the way it’s designed. You’ll find that, especially for a brass instrument, there’re so many different fingerings you can use for high C, for instance.

If you are not hearing the pitch, you could basically do any fingering and get the note to come out. It just won’t be in tune and you won’t really be able to get the core of the pitch.

In fact, when you get into the altissimo range of the saxophone.

Let’s start with altissimo fingerings.

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I use altissimo notes functionally like they are just normal notes. For me, they are not special notes. I rarely use them on a solo when I want a big finish and scream out a high note. I am more likely to be playing a lick, go up high and come down.

Saxophone Altissimo Fingerings

Fingerings for altissimo change according to a variety of factors such as the horn or equipment, the player etc.

Different saxophone players use different fingerings for altissimo. I have different friends who use different fingerings. It just depends on what works best for you.

These are the fingerings I use for alto. They work on every saxophone I have ever played but they don’t work as well on tenor.

Keep in mind that you get into playing the altissimo range by using your front E and front F instead of your palm key E and F fingerings. When you start practicing your scales and exercises using front E and F, you will find it so much easier to just slide into the altissimo range.

But, from my experience, these fingerings work very well on alto.

Saxophone Altissimo Alto Sax Fingerings

E (Alto)

Same for both Tenor and Alto Sax.

Alto Saxophone Altissimo fingering, E fingerchart

F (Alto)

Same for both Tenor and Alto Sax.

Alto Saxophone Altissimo fingering, F fingerchart

F♯ (Alto)

Alto Saxophone Altissimo fingering, F-sharp fingerchart

G (Alto)

Alto Saxophone Altissimo fingering, G fingerchart

G♯ (Alto)

Alto Saxophone Altissimo fingering, G-sharp fingerchart

A (Alto)

Alto Saxophone Altissimo fingering, A fingerchart

B♭ (Alto)

Same for both Tenor and Alto Sax.

Alto Saxophone Altissimo fingering, B-sharp fingerchart

B (Alto)

Same for both Tenor and Alto Sax.

Alto Saxophone Altissimo fingering, B fingerchart

C (Alto)

Same for both Tenor and Alto Sax.

Alto Saxophone Altissimo fingering, C fingerchart

Saxophone Altissimo Tenor Sax Fingerings

E (Tenor)

Same for both Tenor and Alto Sax.

Tenor Saxophone Altissimo fingering, E fingerchart

F (Tenor)

Same for both Tenor and Alto Sax.

Tenor Saxophone Altissimo fingering, F fingerchart

F♯ (Tenor)

Tenor Saxophone Altissimo fingering, F-sharp fingerchart

G (Tenor)

Tenor Saxophone Altissimo fingering, G fingerchart

G♯ (Tenor)

Tenor Saxophone Altissimo fingering, G-sharp fingerchart

A (Tenor)

Tenor Saxophone Altissimo fingering, A fingerchart

B♭ (Tenor)

Same for both Tenor and Alto Sax.

Tenor Saxophone Altissimo fingering, B-sharp fingerchart

B (Tenor)

Same for both Tenor and Alto Sax.

Tenor Saxophone Altissimo fingering, B fingerchart

C (Tenor)

Same for both Tenor and Alto Sax.

Tenor Saxophone Altissimo finger, C fingerchart

There you go.

Now, if you think that just putting your fingers in the right spot is going to get these notes out for you, you’re wrong.

Most altissimo notes have several alternate fingerings.

Why?

Because the fingerings don’t really matter so much, it’s your embouchure that makes or breaks your altissimo notes.

And that’s exactly what this next section is about.

Saxophone Altissimo Embouchure

So now that the fingerings are out of the way, let us talk about your embouchure.

Your embouchure is what gets these altissimo notes out. Most notes will come out if your finger is in the right place even if your embouchure is off. But for altissimo notes, your embouchure has to be 100% correct for the note to come out.

The first thing to keep in mind that you have to practice your embouchure a lot to get any sort of consistency with altissimo notes.

If you are a complete beginner to playing the saxophone and you haven’t yet mastered the good technique, developed a good pleasant tone on saxophone, solid rhythm, I would advise against it.

Learning how to play altissimo notes requires time. Specifically, it takes a huge chunk of your practice time.

Playing altissimo notes on saxophone is an advanced skill that takes long to master—a thorough knowledge of your scales in all 12 keys and arpeggios, for example, is a firm unyielding pre-requisite.

Early on, or in your first year at least, you should really be practicing the above stuff first and leave altissimo notes for later—it often gets in the way of practicing the fundamental skill.

Altissimo notes take an awfully long time even just to come out. Just keep in mind that you’re going to work for a very long time to get your first one. It will be super inconsistent.

But the more you work on it the more consistent it will be. And then you keep adding notes to it.

The second thing to keep in mind that even the best saxophone players miss altissimo notes all the time. So don’t be so hard on yourself.

You can hear it in recordings all the time.

Playing altissimo notes is one of those skills that is never there 100 percent of the time. I still miss altissimo notes all the time.

If your tongue is not at the right exact spot at the exact right time, altissimo notes do not come out at all, or they are not clean when they do.

So, let’s jump into embouchure.

The 8 Simple-as-ABC Tips of Making a Proper Altissimo Embouchure

In the saxophone embouchure guide, I walked you through the proper step-by-step process of blowing into your mouthpiece and gave you a few tips at the end. If you are struggling with your embouchure, have a read of that first.

Now, normally, once you get your embouchure it right, you will rarely change it. You might loosen it up or tighten it up but you will never rarely ever need to change it that much.

That is unless you are playing altissimo.

Here’s what you need to change or tweak when you are playing altissimo (how to make the altissimo embouchure).

The idea here is to help you get out the better and cleaner altissimo notes faster and stronger.

Tip #1 — Keep Your Tongue in the E Position

Just like when playing high notes, you want your tongue to be in the E position. Meaning your embouchure is similar to when you vocalize the letter E.

The back of your tongue goes way up and the front of your tongue slips down.

So when practicing your altissimo, most of the time if your notes are not coming out it’s probably your embouchure. So keep adjusting your tongue until you get even a portion of the note.

Tip #2 — Squeeze the Corners of Your Mouth Harder

You also have to squeeze the corners of your mouth harder than you usually do.

When playing normal notes, your embouchure is firm but when you go for the high notes, the corners of your mouth are in really tight when you are squeezing altissimo notes out.

Tip #3 — Hang Onto the Squeaks

When you do get something, you might not get the full note out, but if you even get anything, hang on to it.

You will probably start out getting a sort of middle overtone and every now and then a squeak of the correct note.

That’s totally fine. Hold it.

It will not sound super strong and powerful or even decent in the beginning. It takes a long time to get to that.

Tip #4 — Keep Raising the Fat Part of Your Tongue

Just keep holding it and raising your fat part of your tongue until you get the full note.

Don’t be afraid of the squeaks, hold them and keep repositioning your tongue until you can get your tongue high enough that altissimo notes come out.

You will hear the note get closer and closer to altissimo as you raise your tongue. It’s all about getting that tongue up really high.

Tip #5 — Do Not Sneak into the Altissimo Note

Do not sneak into the note, that does not work.

What I mean by sneaking into the note is gradually increasing the air until you’re blowing enough to sound the note.

It’s not going to work because you need all that air at once.

Blow all the air all at once, more often than not you’ll probably get at least a squeak at once. Then all you have to do is keep raising your tongue until you get the actual note.

Tip #6 — Slide Your Lower Lip Out, a little bit

Something else I also do when playing altissimo notes is my lower lip out towards my ligature a little bit.

This lets more reed vibrate.

With more reed vibrating, you stand a better chance of getting those notes out not only much clearly but much much more strongly.

The stronger you can get the altissimo note out, the better it sounds.

You can still get the altissimo notes out even without moving your lower lip, but moving your lip out a bit just opens it up and makes it pretty easy to get to.

This is something that many people don’t know. You can hear it when they are playing and the altissimo notes feel muffled because they don’t have that extra bit of reed vibrating.

Giving your reed a bit more space to vibrate really sets up your altissimo notes. I definitely recommend taking in a bit more mouthpiece.

And because the reed is much more open, you can do a bit more with the altissimo note such as adding vibrato to it or a bit of an edge on it.

Tip #7 — Do Not Bite

A common myth or misperception of playing altissimo notes on saxophone is that you have to bite.

As you get up into higher notes, the tendency is going to be to want to bite and pinch the sound.

Do not bite, that’s not going to do anything.

It’s a cheat that will get you up high but you can’t control it and it doesn’t sound good.

On the flip side, it’s going to ruin your reed, you’re going to hurt your lip.

You need to keep an open throat and push the air from your diaphragm to support your air stream without falling back on biting.

Tip #8 — Do Not Practice Altissimo Notes for More than a Few Minutes at a Time

When practicing altissimo notes do not do it for more than two or three minutes at a time because it is definitely a lip killer.

You put so much more pressure on it than a normal saxophone note.

Tip #9 — You Don’t Need a Special Mouthpiece to Play Altissimo Notes

The last tip I want to throw in here is that you don’t need a special mouthpiece to play altissimo notes.

Setup your reed properly (I talked about this in the saxophone embouchure guide, follow the step-by-step process in that guide to learn how to setup your reed properly), and you can get all altissimo notes out on any of your mouthpieces, really.

Saxophone Altissimo Exercises

Everyone’s always asking for altissimo fingerings. But the truth is, it’s not the fingerings that you need, it’s the exercises that you need.

Those are the things that are going to get the altissimo notes to come out for your consistently.

If you practice the saxophone altissimo exercises I showed you earlier with the proper embouchure, over time, you will be able to play the altissimo range with consistency and confidence.

But you have to practice a lot. You have to practice a lot to get anywhere with altissimo notes. You have to practice a lot to get that consistency.

This is why saxophone altissimo exercises are so important. You need to pair proper technique with a lot of exercises to get better at playing altissimo notes.

Practice the altissimo range by playing nursery rhymes.

I know it sounds a little silly, but if you can play nursery rhymes, you can play pretty much anything else out there.

Nursery rhymes are super easy so you don’t have to think about the note, all you have to do is think about moving your finger.

Start off with “Mary had a little lamb.”

Like everything else on the saxophone, playing in the altissimo range is hard until suddenly it is not so hard.

I hope this was helpful.

ReverbLxnd

I've been a musician and brought in my stuff for mixing and mastering, I've been my own producer where I wrote, recorded, mixed and sold my own stuff. Now, I'm *mostly* an audio engineer, where I only record and mix for clients. I'm currently based in Berlin, Germany, where I operate ReverbLand out of. Got a question? DM me on Instagram or Twitter @reverblxnd everywhere, or shoot me an email reverblxnd@reverbland.com. I'd love to hear from you.

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