Changing Key when you have horn players?

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Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby Grateful.Ed » Fri Jan 28, 2011 11:17 am

I've been jamming with some guys and it looks like we may have a sax player sit in at some point.

My limited experience with horns is at blues jams/open mics and I distinctly recall they weren't too keen on playing in certain keys (I think it was E, G, and A?...not exactly sure which).

Does your band transpose to different keys when/if you have horns? What did Ratdog do?....no need to flame me :-) .

I'd like to have a little understanding of what would/could be different before we get together. Thanks.
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby mttourpro » Fri Jan 28, 2011 11:39 am

FWIW, we just had a bad-ass pro sax player do a whole gig with us last month and we didn't change a thing about key in any song. I think some horn players will tell you they're better off in certain keys than others, as I do believe horns are set up in a specific key (ie a Bb sax), but, if the horn guy is really good there should be no need to change keys. Then again, this guy was one of the very best players I've ever played with.
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby Pete B. » Fri Jan 28, 2011 11:43 am

If the band tuned down a half-step, you would be in the sax players "open" positions.
Alto is an Eb instrument, Tenor Bb.
Interstingly, on my 7-string guits, the top two and bottom two strings are E and B, but I normally tune down a half-step for vocal purposes, so I am in Eb and Bb.
I've played a little Alto sax on and off since 3rd grade (I don't own one now), but would like to get a Tenor some day, and maybe a curved Soprano (sorry Kenny G).
I used to take Alto sax solos on Bob Segars "Betty Lou Is Gettin' Out Tonight", John Fogartys "Rock & Roll Girls", and a few others.
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby tcsned » Fri Jan 28, 2011 12:02 pm

It depends on the horn player, those who don't play a lot of rock-n-roll sometimes resist doing tunes in sharp keys especially E. Those that play r-n-r more have gotten used to it and can manage in any key. I don't think Ratdog changed keys to accommodate the sax player, likewise the Dead didn't change keys for Branford.
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby Grateful.Ed » Fri Jan 28, 2011 1:34 pm

Good info!

We're doing GD originals and covers, and JGB stuff. I'm not sure if he plays tenor/alto or both.

It sounds like in either case we should be able to go in the standard keys, and we could tune down a half-step as an accomodation (I'm wondering if he'll mention this).

Thanks for the insight. Feel free chiming in with other thoughts. Ed.
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby Rusty the Scoob » Fri Jan 28, 2011 1:51 pm

Yep, all the above info is correct. A good pro player on any horn will accomodate any key, but in general they prefer keys without too many sharps or flats, and prefer the flat keys to the sharp keys.

Playing in keys they prefer will make them more comfortable and play more fluidly, and also generally they'll be more in tune. The intonation is helped by how much tubing you have to use - on a trumpet you play a Bb or an F (in concert pitch) with no valves pushed down, but a low B needs all three valves down. Each valve you push down adds more margin for error unless each one is tuned perfectly, and even then there's some unpredictability with how they interact. The 3rd valve on trumpets, for example, has it's own tuning slide that they can push in or out with their pinky to compensate - but it's not an exact science and if they can't hear themselves well it's tough to get it right.

When you first start off in elementary school they'll have you playing in Bb or F, expanding to Eb and C, and so on from there. I was a competent high-school and low level college trombone player, and still very rarely saw key signatures even as sharp as G Major all through high school.

High school string orchesta players are the opposite, BTW.. they tend to start off in C, G, D, etc, and are less used to flat keys.

So in short, it depends on what level of horn player and what you want them to play. If you want good solos out of a mid-range player, tuning down is a great idea. If it's just background hits from a pro, don't bother. They tend to learn all keys just to accomodate us rockers.


About transposing as touched on above: Any competent jamming horn player will know how to transpose for their own instrument on the spot, but it doesn't hurt to have an understanding of it: Trumpets & Tenor Sax are Bb instruments - when they're playing what they consider a C, it sounds like a Bb. Alto Sax and I believe Soprano Sax, and Euphonium (not that you're likely to jam with one of those! and also Clarinets, I think) are Eb - when they're playing what they consider an Eb it'll sound like a C. French Horns (just in case you ever cover Quadrophenia) are in F, I believe.


Ok, this post has been brought to you by too much caffeine and too much education. Damn, now I'm in the mood to pick up a trumpet...

I'd just ask the guy straight up what keys he's comfortable playing in. Might be tough to get a really good Jerry tone tuned down but it could be worth it. Or use a capo and go up to F. Either way, all the C songs will be tough unless you can leave them in C. Both C# and B are horrible horn keys.
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby strumminsix » Fri Jan 28, 2011 1:58 pm

Grateful.Ed wrote:and we could tune down a half-step as an accomodation


Have you considered that you'll also need to adjust your singing and harmonies?
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby Grateful.Ed » Fri Jan 28, 2011 2:45 pm

strumminsix wrote:
Grateful.Ed wrote:and we could tune down a half-step as an accomodation


Have you considered that you'll also need to adjust your singing and harmonies?


Yeah, I thought of this initially when I expected we would need to play some songs in different keys. This was the reason I wanted to check here.

Rusty the Scoob hit on what must have been my previous experiences....Thrill is Gone in B.....Blues wankers in E or A
Yep, all the above info is correct. A good pro player on any horn will accomodate any key, but in general they prefer keys without too many sharps or flats, and prefer the flat keys to the sharp keys.


But getting some RD and Marsalis type sounds going was the hook for me. I don't think it'll hurt to give it a go and see what happens.
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby Pete B. » Fri Jan 28, 2011 2:58 pm

strumminsix wrote:Have you considered that you'll also need to adjust your singing and harmonies?

ime, All vocals sound better and harmonies are easier to nail when tuned down a half-step.
Historically, players/singers ranging from Jimmy Hendrix to Buck Ownens have gone that route.

You guys should have him cop the Tom Scott parts on the studio version of Estimated (sax solo starts around 3min:20sec, and then again ~4min:30sec).
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby jeffm725 » Mon Feb 07, 2011 12:00 pm

[quote="mttourpro"]but, if the horn guy is really good there should be no need to change keys. quote]

^^^ This times 1000^^^
We had a friend of Fred Wilkes play sax with Legion at the end of last summer and he was off the hook good and before the gig I asked him about his Key preferences, and he said "play 'em how you play 'em "....it did not matter to him. He tore it up in every key.

FWIW - Jerry actually trasposed a couple of songs to accomodate horns in LOM...Example in LOM he played Road Runner in F. He did it in E later on. Also songs like "Talkin about you" were done in Bb. So Jer definitely had a mind toward "horn" keys.
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby Pete B. » Mon Feb 07, 2011 12:41 pm

A Sax player could always go with a C-Melody Sax. Nothing to transpose.
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby Mick » Fri Mar 18, 2011 10:34 am

Great thread!

I live with 3 people who are all more knowledgable musicians than I am. All three of them play piano, and some kind of wind instrument (wife=flute, daughter=flute & Sax, son=clarinet), and all of them used to swear that their chosen wind instruments "could not play in certain keys". I would ask them to play a chromatic scale, and they all could, and I would say "if you can play a chromatic scale, I don't understand why you say the instrument "can't" be played in any key, assuming that we are talking about the western 12 tonal points per octave". They never had a good explanation.

In just the last several months, my son discussed with me that he thinks I am right. That "theoretically", he could play his clarinet in any key, just that some of them are easier for him than others, and the hard ones are so difficult for him at this time, that he "effectively" can't play in them. Now, we just have to convince the girls....
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Re: Changing Key when you have horn players?

Postby playingdead » Fri Mar 18, 2011 10:44 am

Good horn player should be able to hack it ... we had a great time with a sax player one night, he had great tone and tasteful playing. Totally impromptu ... just crossed our fingers and up he came. Worked out beautifully. Listen at 480p or watch in HD.



On Truckin' he knew enough to lay off for most of the song, but when it came to the jam, he started laying it on really nicely.



Nothing worse than someone sitting in who doesn't know how to lay back and fit himself in. This guy was great.
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