Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

Sax Appeal: A Guide for Guitarists

Renowned jazz saxophonists like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Rollins used subtle techniques to create swinging lines. Here’s a look at how to emulate those sounds using slides, bends, and tapping.

Chops: Advanced
Theory: Advanced
Lesson Overview:
• Emulate the subtle phrasing of Coltrane, Parker, Brecker, and more.
• Understand how to use hammer-ons and pull-offs to create longer legato lines.
• Develop a better harmonic understanding of the blues.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Jazz improvisers routinely learn from musicians who play many different instruments. The content of the musical language is universal among jazz players and as such, you’ll find every experienced player knows a few solos and licks by the saxophone masters. In this lesson, we’ll extend this practice a step further to not only learn a given player’s musical line—the notes and rhythms—but also focus on transferring the details of their phrasing to the guitar. In particular, we’ll discover how to adapt some unique saxophone ideas to the guitar, technique be damned!

Coleman Hawkins was an early tenor sax legend with great technique and an unrivaled ability to sail through chord changes. In Ex. 1, which is over a I–VI7–IIm–V7 in Eb, we hear arpeggio-based lines with lightly bent notes that lean toward the actual chord tones. The trick here is to bend and instantly release the bend (inaudibly) before hammering on to the next note.

Click here for Ex. 1

YouTube It

The legendary Coleman Hawkins’ signature ballad, “Body and Soul,” is a masterclass in melodically weaving through the changes without sounding like some well-worn exercise.

The legendary Coleman Hawkins’ signature ballad, “Body and Soul,” is a masterclass in melodically weaving through the changes without sounding like some well-worn exercise.

Lester Young was the yin to Coleman Hawkins’ yang, a cool player who had a laid-back style—literally. He would often play way behind the beat. His work was strongly melodic and soulful as heard in this Bb blues lick (Ex. 2), which uses familiar enough note choices, but is fingered in such a way to duplicate the kind of slurs Young would use in his playing.

Click here for Ex. 2

Johnny Hodges is a shoo-in for guitarists to copy. His alto sax wails are just begging to be transferred to the guitar via bends paired with a measured vibrato. Ex. 3 shows the kind of half-step approach to chord tones that he would do with his embouchure. (A sax player would usually finger the desired note and use his mouth, the embouchure, to bend into the pitch.) We can do something similar on guitar by fingering one fret below the desired pitch and bending up.

Click here for Ex. 3

Charlie Parker was the figurehead of the bebop movement. He had virtuosic skills, harmonic sophistication, and he could still jam the blues as well as anyone. Ex. 4 covers measures 6-9 of a blues in C. While many guitarists can play Parker’s melodic work, a stereotypical jazz player who uses heavy strings often slides, rather than bends, into the target notes. The bending methods here are like Johnny Hodges’ technique of entering a pitch from a half-step below. Some of the fingerings are just a bit different than what might be expected, but allow for the best way to get the slurring to sound right.

Click here for Ex. 4

YouTube It

Charlie Parker was arguably one of the most influential jazz musicians ever. One of his most enduring compositions is “Au Privave,” a slick tune that allows Parker to extend the harmonic limits of the 12-bar form while keeping the blues’ gutbucket feel intact.

A titan of the tenor sax, Sonny Rollins is revered for his mastery of the bebop language and unique personal expression. Ex. 5 is inspired by Rollins’ melodically and harmonically rich lines. To transfer work like this to the guitar could be straightforward if all we cared about were notes and rhythm, but for those who want to include the idiomatic articulations and the very best in jazz phrasing, much more adventurous fingerings are in order.

Click here for Ex. 5

John Coltrane, like Charlie Parker, is someone all instrumentalists look up to and study. Ex. 6 is a brief D minor pentatonic (D–F–G–A–C) lick, but it’s probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Wide intervals abound and the lick itself traverses over two octaves in as many measures. Even if you aren’t a sweep picker, consider economy or sweep picking this lick. Hybrid picking can help here too: Check out the notated pick directions for guidance in how to use a pick with middle-finger plucked notes.

Click here for Ex. 6

YouTube It

On the title track from Sonny Rollins’ landmark Tenor Madness, Rollins trades off with another jazz icon, John Coltrane. Hearing Rollins and Coltrane back to back not only provides insight into their unique approaches, but offers chorus after chorus of inspiration.

Cannonball Adderley is another compelling choice for guitarists, as he loves bends. And he has a penchant for longer legato lines, which can also serve us well. The line in Ex. 7 is over a IIm–V7b9–Im6 progression in G minor, and it uses single-string slides and pull-offs to great effect. Add in the tapped note at the end, which mimics Adderley’s use of the sax’s octave key, and you have an example that’s so guitaristic one might hardly believe it was conceived by a saxophonist.

Click here for Ex. 7

Joe Henderson’s music transfers well to the guitar. He’s fond of sweeping arpeggio figures and legato lines. This lick begins with a pull-off figure that has his trademark idea of alternate fingerings. Just like a saxophonist can have another choice in how to play a given note, on guitar we have them in spades. In Ex. 8, we play an F on two strings to facilitate a practical application of a Henderson-style legato figure. The G minor arpeggios, played with sweep picking over four strings, are a must-have technique for guitarist looking to capture sax-y vibes.

Click here for Ex. 8

Michael Brecker is another musician everyone looks to for some of the most advanced ideas in modern improvisation. This Bb blues example (Ex. 9) shows how an intense stream of eighth-notes is brought to life with the careful addition of slurs. Again, no corners are cut for ease of playing: The fingering is challenging, but the hallmarks of jazz phrasing are honored. Notice how the upbeat notes tend to be slurred into the downbeat notes. This puts emphasis on the “and” of the beat and thus creates a strong jazz feel.

Click here for Ex. 9

YouTube It

Filmed at a lecture at the University of North Texas in 1984, this short clip shows how Michael Brecker takes Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two” into the stratosphere with chorus after chorus of fresh ideas.