The saxophone , an instrument both beautiful and versatile, adds a touch of enchantment to an array of musical genres. While renowned jazz saxophonists such as Stan Getz and Lester Young once dominated the music scene, the saxophone solo has since found its way into rock, hip-hop, and even country. The instrument’s ability to produce diverse tones further enhances its appeal. One would find it challenging to compare the playful sounds of the comedic track “Yakety Sax” with any of the tones found on a Kenny G. album. This versatility is perhaps the reason why the saxophone continues to captivate musicians, allowing them to explore a wide range of musical styles.
I am a multi-instrumentalist. Over the years, I’ve played a wide variety of instruments, which include the sax and many other brass and woodwind instruments. The sax has been one of my favorite instruments for as long as I can remember; in fact, this was my father’s instrument, and he played it professionally for years. That being said, for this article, I did a lot of research, but it’s essential to understand that for the section on the “Best Sax Solo Songs Ever,” the tracks that I have selected aren’t definitive. They are a collection of some of my favorites as well as some of the favorites of some of the saxophonists that I interviewed for this blog post. Before we start looking at the solo selections, let’s dive deeper into the saxophone itself.
The Saxophone in a Nutshell
This instrument, which was invented by Adolphe Sax, was initially a hybrid of the clarinet and the brass instrument. As a result of its unique design, the saxophone is capable of really creating some genuinely high notes that wouldn’t be so easily created with other woodwind instruments. For this reason, modern music relies heavily on the unique sound profile of the instrument.
Many of the songs that I’ve selected in the solo section either work for more jazzy tones or are purely designed with a rock sensibility in mind. There certainly is a difference when playing sax for both genres, so let’s take a look at these differences.
Jazz Saxophone – So, where did the jazz saxophone have its roots? Many consider Sidney Bechet to be the originator, and this contemporary of Louis Armstrong was known for his improvisation and the use of a soprano sax.
If you’re looking for a soulful sound, then learning to play jazz sax is a great place to start. If you’re going to play sax solos, improvisation is vital, and you can’t ever forget that expression can make or break your performance. For example, you’ll want to bend your notes only when appropriate and learning to fade or intensify your notes via vibrato can also help your overall sound.
Rock Saxophone – In the time of early rock, the baritone Bb tenor sax was the go-to for many rock bands. For the most part, this was because the sax was cheaper to purchase and worked well for those rock bass lines. You could even get some excellent-sounding solos with this type of sax, and rock wouldn’t be quite the same today if the sax hadn’t been there in the beginning.
When you’re incorporating a saxophone into your rock music, the precise principles of jazz solos won’t necessarily all apply. For the right sound, you can use some minor blues scales, but you’ll also need a more structured styling that incorporates using tension and release so that your sound will fit with the guitars and other instruments that are common in a rock band.
What Makes a Saxophone Solo Good?
There are a few essential features of a great saxophone solo:
Expression – The top saxophonists know how to express their notes but also understand that sometimes, you should also play them straight. Some of the top saxophone solos have examples of both bending and scooping as well as vibratos, but if these were to be overused, the resulting sound wouldn’t be as iconic. If you’re looking to master the art of the solo, it definitely will take some practice – observe how the greats seem to know when to add expression to their songs and you’ll benefit greatly.
Good Attack and Release – Knowing when to stop and start your notes is essential as well. For example, in Sade’s Smooth Operator, Stuart Matthewman uses a lot of long, expressive notes that soothe, but for songs like Duran Duran’s Rio, Andy Hamilton used quicker notes that were shocking to the ear. A lot of this will depend on genre, but finding the right sequence for attack and release is vital.
Sound Effects – One of the coolest features of saxophone playing is that there are more than a few effects that you can learn to accentuate the music you’re playing. For example, some of the best saxophonists use techniques like flutter tonguing, overtones, and altissimo to maximize their performances, and you’ll find more than a few examples of these techniques in some of the music I’ll be highlighting below. Learning these techniques and using them in your performance will take time, but they can add a lot to your repertoire.
The Right Vibrato – In many excellent saxophone solos, you’ll notice that the saxophone has a true mastery of the vibrato, which is the trilling of the note that can add a lot of soul to the saxophone’s sound. One of the most critical aspects of learning to use the vibrato in just about any genre of music is determining when it’s appropriate and knowing when to apply it to the note. Some musicians hold the note for a moment before starting the vibrato and some immediately vibrato and then trail off for effect; which one you pick can be a real game-changer.
How to Improvise
In some of the best solos out there that feature the saxophone, in many situations, the saxophonist created these solos using improvisation. Improvisation is particularly valued in jazz, but many of the concepts of improvisation have worked their way into rock music as well. Learning to improvise can be harder than you think because you’ll need to combine more than a few disciplines to make your improvised music sound right, but once you understand the core concepts, you’ll be crafting epic solos in no time.
Learn Which Chords Blend Best With Others – Any musician will tell you that not every chord or note works well with together. When improvising, you’re going to have to learn to change up notes and chords on the spot, so a little practice isn’t cheating. Take notes and determine which chords and notes sound best together – you can even compose some combos that you can use on the fly during your solos.
Converse With the Rhythm Section or Your Bassist – This is a skill that’s useful for just about any musician, but learn how to execute a nice back-and-forth with your rhythm team. It’s not essential that you belt out a million notes, merely play notes that accentuate the tones that are being generated by your rhythm section. If done well, it’ll almost feel like a musical conversation, and your audience will love being let in on the convo.
Take Notes from the Greats – There’s nothing wrong with a little imitation; the greats are great because they understood the art of improvisation. Learning what they did can help you know the appropriate chord progression when you’re improvising during a performance. Remember, artists like Stan Getz and Clarence Clemons knew precisely how to play a-rockin’ improvised solo on the fly, and believe it or not; this is a learned ability that you can pick up.
Some of the Best Sax Solo Songs Ever
1) Men At Work – Who Can It Be Now
This song was first released in 1981 as a solo track, and that same year the song hit number two on the Australian top singles chart. A full year later, it hit number one in the US, but what made it so famous? The song has a catchy combination of rock and new wave, and the saxophone solo is remarkable and complex. Played by Greg Ham, this hook can be heard right at the opening of the song as well as throughout the piece.
2) The Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar
In my opinion, this is one of the most memorable saxophone solos in the history of rock and roll. There are not a massive amount of notes, but the intense vibrato, the flutter tonguing, and the raw inflections make this one to remember. This song was first released in 1971, but it is still a fantastic piece to listen to today. The saxophone solo, which is three minutes and 15 seconds into the song, is played by Bobby Keys, and with this specific solo, he truly set a standard for sax players.
3) John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band – On The Dark Side
On the Dark Side is a song that is well known from the movie Eddie and the Cruisers that was first released in 1983, but it is much more than a song that was made for a film. In fact, it hit number one for five weeks in a row. If you listen to the song at 1:41, you will hear a sax solo with a lot of heart. This solo is played by Michael “Tunes” Antunes, who is known for making magic with the instrument that he plays.
4) Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Born To Run
In Born to Run, the saxophone solo that is played by Clarence Clemons is one of the best that was heard up until that point, especially in the world of rock and roll. First released in 1975, this killer saxophone solo is one that will always be remembered as one of the great solos of our time. The solo begins at about two minutes and 10 seconds into the song, and without it, the song would not be the legend of rock that it is today.
5) Foreigner – Urgent
This song, which debuted in 1981, held its position as number one on the Billboard Rock Tracks chart for a total of four weeks. This is one of the best rock sax solos in history, and it has a bit of history behind the making of it. The band wanted Walker Junior to play the saxophone solo, and when they found out that he was performing mere blocks from the recording studio, the made him an offer, and he recorded the solo that night. The solo begins at two minutes and 38 seconds into the song.
6) Lou Reed – Walk On The Wild Side
This is a song with an impressive saxophone solo, and many people believe that David Bowie himself performed the solo. The fact is that Bowie did not play this solo, but it was performed by his saxophone tutor from his adolescent years when he was learning to play, Ronnie Ross. This particular solo is heard on a baritone sax at three minutes and 37 seconds into the song. This solo ends as the song fades to an end as well.
7) David Bowie – Young Americans
David Bowie is genuinely one of the greats in rock, and the song Young Americans is one of my favorites, especially when it comes to the sax. The sound of an alto sax can be heard right at the beginning of the song, but the actual solo comes in at about two minutes and 14 seconds into the song. David Sanborn belts out this solo with a lot of heart. It is a short-lived solo, but it is one of the most unforgettable saxophone parts in the history of the genre.
8) Duran Duran – Rio
Nothing sounds smoother than a tenor saxophone, and Duran Duran knew that their song Rio would be a hit with a sax solo. This song included not just one sax solo, which can be heard at 2:55, but it has a second solo as well. The second one can be heard four minutes and 36 seconds into the song. Andy Hamilton performed both of these solos. One of my favorite parts of the first solo is the music video that shows him playing the sax while standing on a raft in the middle of the ocean.
9) The Rolling Stones – Waiting on a Friend
I love the rolling stones, especially their hit Waiting on a Friend, which was released in the year 1982. Though the lyrics are amazing in this song, the saxophone solo hit it out of the park. This is mainly because the band decided to hire Theodore Walter “Sonny” Rollins, a jazz saxophone legend, to play the sax in the song. The incredible solo can be heard at about the two-minute point in the song.
10) Pink Floyd – Us & Them
What makes this nearly eight-minute track one that is still loved today. Us and Them, which was debuted in 1973, has two fantastic saxophone solos. It also has a jazz influence that will help you appreciate the genre. Played by Dick Parry, the tenor sax in this song is simply amazing. The first starts at about a minute into the song, while the second is much further into the song. In fact, it begins at about five minutes and 12 seconds into the song.
11) Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street
Most songs are not known for their saxophone solos solely, but Baker Street is a song with an unforgettable saxophone rift that will always be a part of the history of rock. Released in 1978, the part of the saxophone in this masterpiece was played by Raphael Ravenscroft. The legendary solo begins at about 24 seconds into the song, and it is heard again at several points throughout at 2:05, 3:46, and 5:20. This repeating rift is what makes this song so memorable, and though it is only eight bars, there is a lot of soul in the solo.
12) Billy Joel – Just the Way You Are
Just the Way You are is a song that Billy Joel wrote for his first wife, so it is a slow romantic song that separates the chorus with a saxophone solo. The sax can be heard throughout the song right after the main hook of the song, but it is most recognizable as a solo at 2:53. Released in 1977, this song won Song of the Year at the Grammys, and part of that is thanks to the fantastic saxophone solo that was played by Phil Woods.
13) Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Jungleland
First released in 1975, this Bruce Springsteen favorite, in my opinion, is a song that has a truly epic saxophone solo that is unforgettable. Clarence Clemons was a phenomenal sax player, and his two-minute solo in the song Jungleland is one that has become his legacy. Interestingly, the initial recording of this solo took this saxophone legend about 16 hours to perfect. The solo can be heard about four minutes into the song.
14) Sade – Smooth Operator
This 1985 release by Sade was on the top 10 list for a while, but to me, the most memorable part of the song is the saxophone solo that is played by Stuart Matthewman, who also played guitar in the band. The sax solo can be heard at two minutes and three seconds into the song, and though it is not that long, it is a brilliant addition to the song. In fact, this smooth jazz sound along with the piano makes the song.
15) George Michael – Careless Whisper
As George Michael’s first single, Careless Whisper is a very successful song that many people recognize today. It was released in 1984, and it quickly went to number one in over 20 countries. The saxophone solo can be heard at three places in the piece, which include the beginning of the song, at 2:19, and at 3:36. These unforgettable sax rifts are played by Steve Gregory.
16) David Bowie – Modern Love
David Bowie’s song Modern Love is a real hit in the world of music, and when it was released in 1983, fans were surprised to hear three saxophonists playing in the arrangement. Stan Harrison, Steve Elson, and David Bowie himself were all heard playing the sax in this masterpiece, but the actual solos can be heard at one minute and 44 seconds as well as at three minutes and two seconds into the song. Bowie did not actually play the solos; the other two saxophonists performed them.
17) Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You
The song I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston is a remake of a song that Dolly Parton wrote the year before the release of this song in 1974. One of the main differences between the two songs is the sax solo played that can be heard in the song at 3:39. Kirk Whalum performs this solo, and in my opinion, it is one of the most memorable solos on any of Whitney Houston’s albums.
18) Billy Ocean – Caribbean Queen
This is a piece that has a truly killer saxophone solo that I could play over and over again. Caribbean Queen is a song that was released in 1984 with an incredibly catchy saxophone rift that Jeffrey Smith performed flawlessly. The smooth sound of the sax perfectly accompanies the jazz feel of the entire song. The solo begins at two minutes and 32 seconds into the song, and the energy from the solo adds to the strength of the song.
19) Rick James – Super Freak
In addition to pop, jazz, and rock, you can almost always find some excellent saxophone in funk, and Rick James seemed to love this instrument’s sound in his songs. In his iconic song Super Freak, Daniel LeMelle rocks out on the sax in a way that has become legendary. LeMelle originated from the funk group Stone City Band, and he carried that funk sensibility into this song. In fact, James would go on to use LeMelle for a wide variety of his hits like Street Songs and Garden of Love.
20) Hall and Oats – Maneater
I remember loving this song when it came out more than three decades ago. While that dates me a bit, now that I’m an adult musician, the saxophone solo, which comes in at 2:43, has renewed my love of the song. Charles DeChant is responsible for the blistering sax solo, but his sax can be heard almost from the very beginning of the song. In fact, he starts the main hook of the song before Daryl Hall even begins his vocal section. DeChant’s sax solos can be found in many of Hall and Oats musical catalog since he has been playing for the band since 1976.
21) M83 – Midnight City
This is one of my favorite contemporary electronic songs today. The song debuted in 2011 and has since appeared in the Olympic Games coverage from 2012 in London. This is something of a rarity because a mostly electronic band from France opted to use a woodwind instrument like the sax for the solo part of the song. In any situation, at the very end of the song at the 3:03 mark, Fitz and The Tantrums’ James King performs a startlingly crisp saxophone solo that I love. I’m not the only one who loves this solo; in fact, it’s this expressive solo that many find most memorable about the song.
22) Tina Turner – The Best
Tina Turner is one of the most iconic singers from the 20th century, and I’ve loved her for as far back as I can remember, but when it comes to her single The Best, Edgar Winter’s saxophones truly stand out as one of the best parts of the song. I suggest listening to the entire song, but if you want to know what an excellent sax solo sounds like, this part of the song starts up at around 3:05, so prepare to be blown away by the skill. If you want to see the sax solo, check out the music video; Winter’s performance is captured here, and you’ll love the way he leans into his instrument.
23) Billy Joel – Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
The saxophone starts early in this song – around the 1:52 mark, and once it begins, Richie Cannata really displays his musical chops and ability to express his notes and chords. While there are other excellent solos in the song, including one using the clarinet, it’s the sax that stands out when listening. The entire song is longer than seven minutes, but it never gets boring due to Cannata’s beautiful performance. Subsequent versions of this song have been performed by other Joel-associated saxophonists like Phil Woods and Mark Riviera, and while these performances sound great, Cannata’s version was the basis for them all.
24) INXS – Never Tear Us Apart
Released in 1988, Never Tear Us Apart is one of the more iconic songs from Australian rock group INXS, and towards the end of the tune, you can hear the excellent saxophone solo. When I listen to this song, the saxophone helps bring the song home for me and almost always gets my attention. This is considered to be one of the best saxophone solos in a rock song; in fact, this is one of the first songs that many saxophonists, like myself, learn when tackling rock sax.
25) Phil Collins – One More Night
Want to hear an excellent example of a silky smooth saxophone cover in modern rock? Check out One More Night by the inimitable Phil Collins; it comes in around 4:04 and is performed by Don Myrick. Myrick was a famous saxophonist that you may recognize from the always-amazing Earth, Wind, And Fire. This is widely considered to be one of rock’s most famous solos due to the prolific career of the saxophonist, who, unfortunately, is no longer with us.
Wrapping it Up
A saxophone solo can make a song great, no matter its genre. Above are some of my favorite sax solos, but I’m sure that I left out some great ones that I simply could not think of when I created this blog. What are some epic saxophone solos that you love?
- McCraw, G. (2018, August 7). Personal Interview
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