The hits keep on rolling in! This is another one of those all-time famous saxophone lines in pop music. And the story behind it is fascinating
If you believe Wikipedia, George Michael came up with the sax line first, and wrote the song around it. He got some local sax player from the pub to lay down a demo, and then when he went to record the real thing, he churned through multiple top-flight studio musicians, none of whom could live up to the vision that George Michael had in his head.
Finally, it came to Steve Gregory, who had the idea to play it down a half-step, and then speed it up to match the pitch. Bingo – that did the trick!
Steve did it for practical reasons. Like me, he plays a Mark VI, which doesn’t have a high F# key, making the opening bar extremely awkward to play. F#-E-B is a tough transition. On my horn, I play high F# with the first finger in each hand, left hand on the fork F key. From here, the transition to E that makes sense is to put down 2-3 in the left hand and lift up the right hand. Not too bad, but then the transition to B requires you to slide your first finger from the fork F key down to the B key. That’s hard to do smoothly, as you will hear in my video! No matter what horn you prefer, I would bet money that if you are a saxophone player touring with George Michael, you run out and get a horn with a proper high F# key for this tune.
It’s a bright sounding passage, so it can be hard to tell if it’s alto or tenor without listening closely. It would definitely be easier to play on Alto, but I wanted to try the ‘real’ thing, which I guess doesn’t even exist because of the studio magic involved in the original recording.
I’ve been on a bit of a pop kick lately, and I’m setting a goal for myself to transcribe and record some of those legendary sax parts from pop songs over the years that keep getting requested over and over again.
This one tops most lists, and rightly so. I distinctly recall hearing this on the radio when I was growing up in 1978, There’s no doubt that it’s one of the songs that got me hooked on the saxophone sound early on. It’s definitely fun to be able to play it after all these years.
Like most pop songs, it’s all about sound and delivery. It’s not terribly technical otherwise. I realized that I transcribed the UK version, which has the same parts, but a slightly different roadmap. Just beware if you’re working up an arrangement with your band. The sax part comes back in a third time during the fade on the UK version, but I didn’t record it since it’s the same part.
I’m trying out a new alto mouthpiece for the first time in this clip (I’ve had it a few hours). I’ll post more about that later. Until then, let me know what you want to hear and play next?
Double tribute this week – Clarence Clemons and Aretha Franklin together! This is from her 1985 hit ‘Freeway of Love’. I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of this song in particular, but the performances by both Aretha and the Big Man are memorable. Aretha was trying to go mainstream with this pop/rock number, and she had some commercial success with it. But it doesn’t have the substance that her early work did.
Clarence is in his element here, belting out a throaty growl that commands attention. I can’t pull off the growl like he can, so I just went for an edgy tone. When I try to growl, I have a tendency to sing the pitches that I’m playing, which doesn’t give the right effect. it gives me cognitive dissonance to try and vocalize a different pitch for some reason, but I should work on it. I suspect Clarence is just vocalizing a steady low pedal tone to compliment his already edgy sound.
This solo doesn’t get too high (altissimo Bb), but once again, it spends a lot of time crossing the break, which is my Achilles heel. My high G is not as stable and strong as it needs to be, and has a tendency to crack, which you hear in the ride out.
But it’s a good workout – be sure to use lots of air! You need it for the sound, and to sustain those long phrases, especially the last phrase that closes the intro.
Some of the bent notes are so pronounced that I wrote them out. I can’t quite pull them off the same way he does though with nothing but lip. He’s got killer control of the horn!
And now for something totally different! By request, here is the guitar duel from the Eagle’s Hotel California. This is probably their biggest hit, if not one of the biggest hits of all time from any band!
This is the first time I’ve attempted a guitar transcription here. It’s super-tough to match the phrasing and technique. Saxophone and guitar are both very expressive instruments, but in very different ways, which makes for a challenge.
The range also makes it tough. The Joe Walsh solo spans almost three octaves. I’d like another shot at that high Ab that I missed 🙂
I did my best to notate the articulation. I’m not a guitar player, but it sounds to me like not every note is picked, some are played by sliding the left hand from one fret to another. The more I could match the articulation, the closer I got to the feel of the guitar part.
In this song, Don Felder plays first. He takes an eight-bar solo and then Joe Walsh takes eight bars. Then they trade two bars each, and then they duet the rest of the way out.
I understand that Don Felder recorded an instrumental demo to pitch to the band, which included both solos and the duet. Don Henley made them stick to those solos for the final recording, although the key changed.
I spent so much time shedding the solo parts that I totally neglected the arpeggios at the end. I figured I’d just read them, but the key threw me in a few spots – oops!
Quick transcription this week – by request, here is David Bowie’s Alto solo from ‘Sorrow’. Nice and short, only eight bars. He establishes a simple theme in the first two bars, repeats it in the second, varies it up a fourth on the key change, and then re-states to end the solo.
David Bowie was an amazing vocalist, performer, and writer. He’s not known as an influential saxophonist, but I commend him for playing the parts himself to fulfill his musical vision.
This is actually a cover of a song originally recorded by The McCoys in 1965, and again by the Merseys in 1966. Neither have this instrumental part. The McCoys version uses harmonica instead. Bowie covered this in 1973 on the album Pin Ups, which is all cover music. I found a live recording on YouTube from the Serious Moonlight tour in 1984 where there is a much longer saxophone solo played no by Bowie but by Steve Elson (I think)
Shortly before his death in 2011, Lady Gaga invited Clarence Clemons to work with her on her Edge of Glory single. He recorded the video with her just days before he suffered a stroke. I understand that there was some controversy around the making of the video, but I kind of like it – it’s simple, and you get to see Clarence hanging out in the background doing his thing.
The song is a straight forward dance track, with a four-bar chord progression A-E-F#-D, but the solo is over a bridge that has a less-defined key center. It seems to float around, mostly A-ish.
The solo is 24 bars, and it pretty simple to play. Use lots of air on the high F#, he holds it for a while! The sax is pretty low in the mix, so it can be hard to hear at times. There’s another solo later in the track, but it’s even lower in the mix, so you can barely make out parts of it. I didn’t include it for that reason.
Continuing on the Clarence Clemons kick…This is a short solo from the end of “Dancing in the Dark”. It’s very laid back and mellow, pretty easy to play. As usual, beautiful tone and delivery by Clarence.
The whole solo is in the key of Db, and happens over the fade at the end of the track. Clarence sticks to a major pentatonic throughout, so everything fits beautifully as you’d expect.
More Clarence Clemons from Born to Run, this time – Jungleland. One of his most famous solos.
For me, the biggest challenge with this one is AIR and PITCH. These are long phrases, so being able to consistently support with an even tone and solid pitch requires lots of air. I clearly don’t do enough long tones at this end of the horn!
I like how restrained this solo is – it’s so melodic and simple. A lot of players would be tempted to fill the space with a ton of notes. The big man keeps it right down the middle. He soars on the high notes and doesn’t stray too far harmonically. It’s a bit repetitious, but it builds nicely.
I realize that I haven’t posted any solos from the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, yet. Sadly, he passed away in 2011. I never saw him perform live (or Bruce Springsteen for that matter), although I grew up on their music. This track was released when I was four!
I admit that I took Clarence for granted, and under-valued his contribution to the instrument. This was years ago when I was a big jazz snob. I was aware of him, but since he was playing pop/rock, I wrote him off as insignificant. Big mistake on my part!
Of course one of the great things about Bruce Springsteen’s music is that he played with a real band, one that stayed together for a long time. Although he was the front man and singer/songwriter, he wrote and arranged for the unique voices in his group – including Clarence.
Clarence Clemons has such a huge sound and presence – no one else could have contributed such iconic solos. And this is the type of solo that I can only reproduce to a point. Clarence had a special power to his sound, a growl that was always there, even when it wasn’t fully unleashed. I can’t duplicate that, and if I tried, it just wouldn’t be authentic. So I do my best and hope only to get close.
The solo on Born to Run is pretty challenging in the first few bars. The articulation is fast and clean – hard to keep up with at times. The expression that he adds with the subtle falls and bends are hard to reproduce without going overboard. It’s a master class in striking the balance between restraint and reckless abandon.
Continuing on the Bob Seger theme…this is one of his most famous songs, with an iconic Alto sax intro.
Alto Reed tells the story about how that intro came about here. Here’s a written account from Wikipedia:
Tom Weschler allegedly helped inspire Reed to create the opening melody. During recording, Weschler told Reed: “Alto, think about it like this: You’re in New York City, on the Bowery. It’s 3 a.m. You’re under a streetlamp. There’s a light mist coming down. You’re all by yourself. Show me what that sounds like.” With that, Reed played the opening melody to “Turn the Page”.
There’s no real improvised solo on this song. The parts he came up with are simple and clean. They’re not busy or flashy – very musical, and in service of the melody. Too many players try to draw attention to themselves, and they end up detracting from the song. Not here!
The saxophone is pretty low in the mix in spots, making it hard to hear at times. As I usually do, I transcribed on piano and then played on saxophone. Sometimes when I do that, I’ll make adjustments based on how it sounds when I play it on sax vs. piano. In this case, the concert A at the bottom of the triplet figure sounded like a concert B to me when I was on the piano. But on sax, the A definitely felt better. So that’s what I have here.