Why Tone?

What’s so important about tone? Why should I work on it? Nobody listening can really tell the difference anyway? I mean, who cares?!?

Well, I do care and I hope you do too. Tone is one of the most important things you can work on. It’s what defines you as a player. I’ve been thinking about how important it is to have control over all dynamic levels of my own playing and how it affects the situations I find myself in.

Playing Differently

For example, as I write this, I am on the road with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, just having come off tour with Dave Matthews Band for most of 2009, and during the months of October and November, I was out briefly with my band, the Mu’tet. All very different musical situations.

Each of these groups demands I retain who I am, but I play very differently in each. What’s the key to making this switch effectively? After listening skills, working on tone is the next most important fundamental. Being able to use tone to change the way you play a piece of music is imperative. Your interpretation differs based on the inflection and intention of what and how you are playing and the tone you’re playing with.

Manipulating Sound

With the Flecktones, I find my quiet playing becomes much more controlled because I play close to an acoustic instrument. Oftentimes, I end up the loudest player on stage. With Dave Mathews Band, the stage and venue are much larger, and we are further away from each other. My natural inclination is to play with a bit “fuller” tone, which I feel fits the music better. With the Mu’tet, we play much smaller venues, and I can sometimes be more tonally extreme.

All rooms and speakers are different, and sound is different from place to place and night to night. We must be able to adjust and manipulate our sound to fit the situation but continue to discover our tone in everything we play.

For more on how to get a better tone … please, listen. Oh, and do long tones too. The challenge is great, but there will never be anyone who sounds more like you than you.

About author

Jeff Coffin

Jeff Coffin is a three-time Grammy Award winning saxophonist, composer, educator, and author. He has been a band member of Dave Matthews Band since 2008.  Jeff also teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Jeff has published “The Saxophone Book,” co-wrote “The Articulate Jazz Musician” with Caleb Chapman, and released “The Road Book” in late 2019. Jeff is a Yamaha and D’Addario Performing Artist and Clinician.  Visit jeffcoffin.com and earuprecords.com for more information.