Ghosted Notes on the Saxophone

When you’ve been playing the saxophone for a long time, it’s easy to forget how certain techniques that have become an organic part of your playing once were mysteries to you. So it was for me with ghosted notes–aka ghost notes, aka ghost tones–back in my college days. I heard certain sax players punctuating their solos with notes treated with a sudden reduction in sound volume that made it seem as if they had been swallowed. It was a very cool effect, but I didn’t know what it was called, and darned if I could figure out how to duplicate it.  One thing was clear: it involved something other than merely adjusting my airstream.

I finally asked fellow alto man Tom Stansell, who used the technique with excellent effect, what it was he was doing and how he did it. Tom quickly filled me in, and the mystery that had been eluding me turned out to be no mystery after all. Within a few minutes during my next practice session, I had a pretty good handle on the technique.

If you’ve never ghosted a note on the sax before, then here’s your opportunity to learn how. What Tom passed on to me, I now pass on to you.

How to ghost a note on the saxophone

Ghosting a note on the sax is simply a matter of tongue placement during articulation. In normal articulation, you separate notes by applying your tongue to the reed dead on, temporarily cutting off air from the mouthpiece and preventing the reed from vibrating. But by applying your tongue to only one corner or side of the reed while maintaining your airflow, you effectively dampen just a part of the reed while allowing the rest of it to vibrate.

That’s all there is to it.

Repeat: to ghost a note, simply touch just a side or corner of the reed with your tongue.

Of course, you’ll refine the technique and personalize your application of it over time, but the above is all you need to get started.

Now the next time you’re playing through a chart and you come across a note or group of notes enclosed in parentheses–the standard notation for ghosting–you’ll know how to treat it.

Unlike circular breathing or double tonguing, note ghosting offers a rare opportunity for instant gratification in a saxophonist’s learning curve, and it’s a very effective tool to have in your musical toolkit. You’ll love how a handful of well-placed ghost notes adds interest and character to your playing.

That’s all, folks. Be sure to check out my jazz page for more helpful articles and saxophone solo transcriptions.

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  1. Hey Bob, cool post. Sometimes I ghost notes unconsciously too! Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

  2. I know what you mean. Ghost notes have a way of sneaking into my playing as a matter of habit at times. But I figure it just means I’ve developed a personal style, though in general I like to be deliberate as well as intuitive in my playing.

  3. nice site. any altissimo?

  4. Thanks, Bechi. Nope, nothing on altissimo. The subject is already covered so thoroughly and so well by so many sources that I’d just be recycling the same old same-old, and not as well as players who are more proficient at altissimo than I am. I’d need a unique slant on the topic in order to have something worthwhile to say–though now that you’ve brought it up, you’ve got me thinking. Hmmm…maybe I do have some thoughts to contribute on the matter. I’ll let the idea percolate a bit.

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