Growling – a method against the beautiful tones


„Honking and Screaming“ are expressions that are frequently used in the context of saxophones in Rhythm'n'Blues.  Even though it's called „honking and screaming“, it actually means something like „spitting and shouting“. And this is exactly how you can describe this special sound, which is already typical for saxophones since the 1920's: the rough, sometimes even aggressive tone that reminds you of the emotional timbre of the human voice.

A technique that's needed for this effect is „Growling“

What does Growling mean?

„Growling“ stands for something like „humming“ or „snarling“. This effect can be heard in the pieces of many famous saxophonists like Ben Webster, Louis Jordan, Earl Bostic (Harlem Nocturne), Junior Walker, Boots Randolph (Yakety Sax), up to Joshua Redman, Clarence Clemmons, Candy Dulfer and of course my old buddy Albie Donnelly.

How does it work?

It's actually pretty easy: in the „growl“, besides playing a note, you still have to sing another note. That's the theoretical part – in real life practice, it's more about the little word „actually“. Because unfortunately it is not as easy to sing and play the saxophone at the same time. From my personal experience, I can say that there are hacks and exercises that can help every saxophonist to play a nicely „evil“ Growl, though.

Singing and blowing at the same time

If we observe ourselves when singing a single note like AAAH through the open mouth, we remark that almost no air comes out of the open mouth. Not until the lips are loosely closed – just imagine the word „AAAWWW“ - we can observe that some air streams over the lips. Nonetheless, the intensity of the air flow while singing is experientially not enough to make the sax reed vibrate. As a side effect, you actually overcame the biggest barrier of Growling with this attempt: you sang and blew against a resistance at the same time! Other possibilities of how to create a feeling for it, are voiced gurgling or simply to sing into a glass of water through a straw. Or even using the „Kazoo“ - an old toy -; it contains a membrane which distorts the singing voice and creates the typical sound.

Flute notes/whistle sounds

In the next exercise about coordinating blowing and singing, two different sounds should be produced at the same time, exactly how it should happen for the saxophone later on:

  1. Blow a long, strong tone with your lips
  2. While whistling, add your voice by slightly aspirating another tone with it: Like „Huuh“ - try to sing a tone with it that sounds deeper than the whistled one
  3. Keep in mind to not let the air flow stop and to keep the whistled tone stable
  4. If you now hear a „growled“ flute sound.
  5. can try different sound variations now, for example to sing notes of different pitches by keeping the same whistled pitch or the other way around.

Application on the saxophone

In the next step, the concept of voiced blowing on the saxophone should be transmitted. To keep it simple, first of all, only the mouthpiece with the neck should be used, so that your full concentration can be directed towards the production of tones. Who has tried the „sung whistling“ beforehand, will remark that it already requires a certain breath support in order not to let the tone tear off. It is even further increased in the exercise with the saxophone mouthpiece because the mass of the reed demands even more physical exertion than whistling with the lips.

  1. Inhale smoothly into your stomach
  2. Take the mouthpiece into your mouth with a normal, relaxed approach
  3. Put exactly as much pressure on the reed that while slightly blowing there's no tone sound yet but a significant resistance in the mouthpiece.
  4. Sing into the instrument like in „Kazoo“ and produce a long, even tone like „Dooh“ or „Duuh“.
  5.  Make sure that the tone doesn't stay in your mouth but is sung through the entire instrument.
  6. Increase the pressure on the reed until it begins to vibrate and to produce a tone itself
  7. Don't firght when the reed starts to vibrate and the „growled“ tone comes out with the sung tone. It is very important to support the air column from deep inside your stomach and not to close or constrict the larynx so that not enough air can reach the reed.
  8. If the „Growl“ effect doesn't appear or only occurs slightly and the blown tone seems thin and unstable instead, try to sing another note. The sung tone should preferably have a different pitch than the tone produced with the mouthpiece.
  9. Sing different notes and also let a low tone rise upwards and the other way around
  10. Closely observe the changings in quality and intensity of the „Growl“

Beautiful tones

Maybe in the anterior exercise, you remarked that quality and intensity of the Growl aren't equally good in every combination of notes. Basically in Growling, specific intervals are less appropriate than others. For example if you sing and play the same note, the „Growling effect“ is almost not remarkable; instead, strong fluctuations occur which almost remind you of a „Chorus“ effect. The same effect takes place in the octave. A nice „growled“ sound comes from a C that's played twice and the subjacent F, namely the fifth, that's sung. Another exercise could thus consist in playing the “C“ “ mentioned above and singing the “F“, to then always move them a semitone or even a whole tone upwards and downwards. If played correctly, the timbre and intensity of the growling should stay consistent, even when the pitch changes. At least when the played notes reach a pitch in which no fifths below it can be sung anymore – because of limitations in the own vocal range – you should start singing notes that sound higher than the played tone.   You will remark that in a well-chosen interval of played and sung notes, a growling will appear as well – but the intensity is different. I think it is a denser sound, other people describe it as „screamed“. Try to get your own impression of it and use the effect if needed. Exactly like in the whistling exercise, you should also test out how the growl effect changes when the pitch of the sung tone is changed. This can occur in the sung Glissando but you can also sing the musical scale back and forth. Equally, in a tone that's sung the same way, the played tone should be changed.  You will remark that it can be difficult to keep the pitch of the sung tone while playing other tones!


Total control

For a convincing „Growling“, the correct intonation of the played tone is essential. That's why you have to carefully control with the tuner how your intonation behaves, especially in the beginning of the growl exercises. Possibly, you might have to slightly correct the lipping and even adjust the tuning of the instrument. It would of course be a dream to always sing exactly the tone that creates the perfect „Growling“  with the played tone but this requires a high amount of voice control. From my own experience, I can tell you that in real life even the most experienced „honkers and screamers“ won't permanently sing equal and exact intervals with the played tones. They rather move on a pitch range above or below the played tone which creates the desired growl effect.

Finally my important hint again: Practicing helps!