On Alto Saxophone, which notes can easily produce a "tremolo" effect, using alternate fingerings?

It's a kind of "warble" effect I'm looking for, but without changing pitch (or without changing pitch much). I've seen and heard sax players produce this effect plenty of times, but what is the best notation? And, which notes in the Alto Saxophone range can produce this effect?

Or can most notes achieve this effect, even if you're not using a "proper" alternate fingering, but instead just using one of the side-keys?

I've just been reading up on saxophone false fingerings here. It's great info, but I wanted some specific advice about which notes have two different fingerings which can be switched between quickly enough to be played as a tremolo (with just one side-key, for instance).

I've seen this effect notated in a couple of ways. Firstly, I found this in a book of Cannonball Adderley transcriptions (using a tremolo):

tremolo markings between pairs of quarter notes and half notes, with a + sign over the second of each pair

(Yes, I know these notes are in a pretty extreme register...!)

And, I'm pretty sure this kind of notation would work too (with or without the tremolo mark):

tremolo whole note with alternating +o+o markings above

  • A trill is by definition to a different note. If you want dual-fingerings for the same pitch, your best bet by far is to talk to a saxophone teacher. (tho' the page you referenced certainly has a solid list of techniques. Have you tried them?) May 5, 2014 at 11:36
  • I don't play the saxophone! I'm arranging something for sax. I guess "tremolo" might be a better word than "trill"... May 5, 2014 at 11:40
  • Ah, yes, then, 'tremolo' would be a good way to go. I actually discussed this w/ my conductor a zillion years ago (in Summer Band Camp :-) ). We were playing a transcription of the Pines of Rome& us clarinets were supposed to mimic the violins' tremolo. Some kids played a trill and I said that was the wrong sound, etc. May 5, 2014 at 12:49

1 Answer 1


This type of technique is known as a timbral trill where normal fingerings are toggled with false or alternate fingerings in order to produce subtle timbral shifts without actually changing pitch. Technically speaking, it is actually a repeat tremolo as the pitch is being changed at the microtonal level due to tuning and intonation of the instrument and therefore negligible in most circumstances.

Searching for "contemporary saxophone techniques" yields many examples of charts that show fingerings and their alternates for such use. I would recommend using these charts as a starting point and going from there.

For notation, there are a couple different options:

  • If the fingering is ad lib., the instruction alternate fingering should be added at the first occurrence, and the abbreviation alt. fing. thereafter.
  • Above the intended trilled note, place "tr" along with a wavy line to indicate duration. Next to trilled note, place a small black note head in parenthesis to indicate the desired "trill to" pitch.
  • If a specific rhythm is wanted, write the intended rhythm with each note tied to the next throughout along with the above notation suggestion.
  • The clearest notation, however, is one with the alternate fingerings written in the music and is my personal recommendation.

N.B. The last should be used in addition to either the wavy line notation above or the tied note values option.

I would use the charts I suggested above to find fingerings to suite your purpose and then put them in the score to fit the corresponding note.

That all said, there is nothing that substitutes actually working with a saxophonist to find out what works. Figure out some fingerings, write a bunch down, take it to a saxophonist (or the one you're arranging for) and ask them to try each of the fingerings out - which ones sound the best / easiest to use. Once you know which ones work, use them in the score.

  • 1
    Absolutely fantastic answer, thank you! I reckon I'll use the less specific "ad lib." notation you suggest above for the arrangements I'm currently doing, but would go for the fully worked out fingerings if composing. In either case though, I will check out the kind of charts you mention, just to check that any note I want to produce this effect on actually has an alternate fingering. Thanks again, I looked quite a bit online, but sometimes you have to know what you're looking for... May 5, 2014 at 14:01
  • No problem - glad to help! May 5, 2014 at 15:46
  • This technique is available on trumpet and other valved brass instruments as well.
    – Aaron
    Dec 10, 2021 at 22:44

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