Vibrato, Improvisation and Tone- How to Sound like Kenny G

Vibrato, Improvisation and Tone- How to Sound like Kenny G

Vibrato, Improvisation and Tone- How to Sound like Kenny G    17:35 on Wednesday, February 29, 2012          

(5 points)
Posted by Morton

If you are currently seeking to achieve a sound like Kenny g, here is an easy guide to point you in the right direction. The three most vital components to grasp when it comes to KG’s playing style are: breath control, tone and movement (improvisation).

Breath Control

Vibrato on the saxophone is the musical dynamic which enables one to produce a soft wavy sound which is similar to a vocalist. In order to have good vibrato, one must position his/her mouth in an embouchure that will allow for a consistent airflow and constant pressure from the lower jaw. Your tone is based largely on the tightness or looseness of your embouchure. The more you drop your jaw on your mouthpiece, the flatter your note will sound. One the other hand, the tighter you wrap your lips around your mouthpiece, the sharper the note will sound.

Exercise 1:

1. First, try tightening your embouchure around your mouthpiece as much you as can. Now, as you blow into your horn, you’ll want to gently loosen your lower jaw in one second intervals: moving your lower bite up and down in a slight motion until you achieves a wavy sound. The sound should sound similar to the siren of a fire truck or a police car. Try to maintain this wavy sound for about 5 second intervals. Do this for at least 7 times and then try the next exercise.

Exercise 2:

1. Try holding a single note for 8 beats; playing the 4 of those beats with a plain embouchure and then applying the vibrato technique on the final 4 beats (whole note). Do this at least seven times and then attempt to increase the number of wavy “bends” or “dips”.

2. Try to fit at least 2 dips within the whole note. Make sure that you do not bend the note too far because then the note will be too round; the bended sound should only last for at least 2 beats (the same length of a half note).

3. Once you feel that you can successfully fit 2 dips within the whole note then try to fit four dips in the whole note by bending the notes a little quicker. At this pace, each bended wave should last at least 1 beat (the same length of a quarter note). Practice this exercise for 20 times in 5 second intervals.

You’ll want to give your lips and jaws a good work out so that they will be strong enough to apply vibrato for longer lengths of time in the future.

Practice applying vibrato while blowing loudly and while blowing softly. Apply the crescendo and decrescendo dynamics as much as possible because then you will give the note some personality. Listen to any of Kenny G’s songs and listen to how softly and rapidly he applies his vibrato. Observe how he begins a note: the way he defines each note by tonguing it or inflects upon it. Notice when he applies crescendos on his whole and half notes. Take note of when he intensifies his volume during his melodies and when he applies strong vibrato at certain dramatic moments of the song. Take careful note when you hear his vibrato and when you do not hear his vibrato so that you will have a better grasp of when and when not to apply vibrato. For instance, I noticed that Kenny G does not usually apply vibrato while playing quarter and half notes because the vibrato would not fit for those small durations of time. Also, pay close attention to mark when KG takes a breath during his melodic phrases. Your breathing must be just as instinctive and timely as the notes you play: inhaling and exhaling must be timed at the same balanced pace as KG’s if you wish to keep up with his signature dynamics.


Just as the corporate world says that it’s all about “location, location, location“; the same is true pertaining to the location of your mouthpiece inside your mouth. Be reminded that the facial muscles you use to shape your lips to the mouthpiece will be under constant stress. After an average of two hours of non-stop playing, it is common for all horn players to experience a degree of post-performance pain or discomfort in their mouth. As the mouthpiece is pressed against the curled lower lip, the lower teeth underneath tends to bruise the inner side of the lower lip; resulting in post-performance numbness and soreness. Soft tissue of the inner lower lip is sometimes pierced while it is wedged between one’s hard woodwind mouthpiece and pointed-edged lower teeth. However, if you are truly committed to achieve a tone similar to KG’s then I strongly suggest that you become accustomed to placing your mouthpiece on the side of your mouth; just as he does. While KG plays on the right side of his mouth, I have personally trained myself to play on the left side of my mouth in order to imitate his playing style.

It is good practice to lubricate your reed before every rehearsal or performance because by doing so, the reed will be all the more sensitive to the gentle vibrato technique, discussed later. Remember to lubricate; try not to saturate the reed with saliva because too much saliva on the reed will build up quickly into the mouthpiece and will obstruct your airflow. You want the reed to be flexible enough to be sensitive to the movement of your lower jaw and lower lip so that you will be able to easily manipulate the sound of your tone when you tighten or loosen your embouchure.

Improvisation (Movement)

Have you ever listened to a Kenny G song for the first time without knowing it was indeed Kenny G prior to the beginning of the song but after just a few measures you could readily identify who the artist was? That is an indication that you have developed your ear well enough to know Kenny G’s musical tendencies: even the tendencies of the musicians that accompany him. Once you get familiar with KG’s melodic tendencies then you’ll grow to appreciate and admire his overall improvisational creativity a lot more. I believe that you will value the intellectual strength put behind each chord progression, each melodic riff, and each drum beat of every KG song once you become an avid listener of the dynamics that I mentioned previously.

KG’s signature sound is readily identifiable by his catchy melodies. When KG performs his rapid movements on the sax, it is also a time when he can be more expressive of his personality. It is a time when he can complement the song with a random streak of musical color. KG tends to perform the bulk of his improvisation in the middle of his song because it is very important for his listeners to first be familiar with the main theme or melody of the song. KG tends to play a solid melody line before he begins improvising because if you don’t have a firm grasp on the basic melody of his song then you will not be able to determine where his improvisation begins or ends. KG has such a solid melody in his verses and choruses so that he can have a clearer platform to showcase his full range.

When KG begins his fast movements on the saxophone keys, it is usually at a point of his song after he had played the verse and the chorus at least one or two times through. His rapid fingering is usually placed near the middle of the song and the end of the song because KG also wants his listener’s excitement level to increase as the song progresses. To captivate the minds of a live audience who have already heard him perform a couple song selections, KG may introduce his next song with a dynamic string of fast licks in order to keep the show as entertaining and unpredictable as possible. KG’s licks are also used to demonstrate to the audience that he is capable of providing the audience with any musical style, at any tempo, in any mood that they could ever ask or wish for.

When you are playing along to your favorite song and you arrive to a point where KG plays a riff that is too fast, simply stop and rewind the recording as many times as you must in order to determine what those specific notes are. Replay the song from the beginning of the riff and listen to only enough to capture one or two notes at a time. If you arrive at a collection of riffs which are too fast for you to determine in spite of your efforts to focus in on that particular section, then I suggest that you improvise. Imitate the rapid movement by fingering a collection of several quick notes. It is important that you try your best to remain in the same key and the same octave level so that the difference in your improvisations will not be significantly noticeable. Be sure to note exactly when KG’s fast movement begins and listen carefully for the time when KG’s ends his rapid fingering and moves on to another pace of phrasing. I want to emphasize that it not absolute vital that you follow KG’s fast fingering note for note, but, it is important that to know the general areas that he moves into. Try to make a mental map of his notes and try to pay attention to how he progresses up and down each scale.

During a typical improvisational moment, KG tends to skip around each scale. During a long improvisational phrase, KG likes to venture out and play a little lick in a variety of different keys. Do not discouraged when you hear the technical complexity that KG applies, rather, try to estimate the number of notes that are being played and do your best to reproduce the same number. If you try to land your rapid notes on top of KG’s rapid notes so that you give a very convincing illusion that you are indeed keeping up or even harmonizing with KG. I suggest that you first master the basic verse and chorus of the song that you wish to learn and then revisit to the fingering that is more intricate. Master the quarter notes, half notes and whole notes. Listen for the crescendos and other dynamics that KG applies to each note.

I suggest that you listen to both the live and popular (traditional) versions of KG’s songs so that you can compare and the contrast the dynamics that KG uses. When watching a live recording of KG, pay attention to when the camera zooms in onto his hands so that you will better a better idea of how fast your own fingers will have to move. Mark every time you see KG inhale so that you can get a general idea of how to pace yourself between notes. Outside of KG’s tone and vibrato, the dynamic which he is also well known for is his avid use of inflections on his notes. A split second prior to almost every note that KG plays, he inflects upon it by flicking upward onto it. As KG tongues each of his notes, he begins on the sharp of flat that precedes the note that he wants to land on. The sharp or flat is meant to be every subtle and extremely fast: it is more like a quick tap which he plays almost simultaneously with every tonguing motion on his mouthpiece. The idea of inflection is to make tonguing sound less abrasive and more melodic. You will not tongue every note during a KG song; sometimes you will slur. Inflection helps you move to each note in the most gentle and melodic way. KG’s phrases are as colorful and charismatic as they are because of how and when he places his inflections.

Exercise 3:

Tongue a G half note for 7 or more times and inflect upon it by flicking the F-sharp right as you tongue the note. Remember, the inflection should be just as quick as your tonguing motion and it should only be heard only a spilt second. Try inflecting upon each note of the B-flat scale at least 5 times each. Try applying the vibrato technique, as well.


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