Bis key and saxophone hell

My homeboy Adam Beach just wrote me about a topic that always comes up with my students. Keep 'em coming Adam.
BTW, killer picture!

Since I've been practicing and gigging more and getting into bebop (picking up from where I left off soon after the end of high school) after a long hiatus where up to that point, in my post high school rock band career, I only played in about 4 guitar-friendly keys: E, G, A, D with no modulations to speak of... an old saxophone issue has resurfaced -- the bis key. What's the bottom line/final word? I
sorta think I remember being told that the bis key was a "cheap short-cut" and you should use the side key for b-flat almost always. I find it much more comfortable and that I'm much more dexterous by using the bis key when I'm in the key of a-flat or d-flat or e-flat on the saxophone, but when I switch to G, for example, I have to shift my finger up and it gets messy. Does that mean I should be disciplining myself in using the side bar? I'd really like to use the bis key predominately. Am I dooming myself to saxophone hell?

First, I need to come clean about something utterly terrible. I've got to get this off my chest once and for all.

O.K., Here it goes....................I never use the side Bb key.
THERE, I'VE SAID IT!!!! Now you know my dark secret. Shoot me now.

The only time I ever use the side Bb key is when I trill from A to Bb, that's it.

I know it's not 'proper' saxophone technique, but that's just the way I've done it since discovering the bis key about 25 years ago. I don't recommend that my students do the some thing , but I do have them get comfortable using the bis key. Many times they end up following in my footsteps and abandon the side Bb forever. To me it just feels strange to use my right hand in the middle of a left hand passage. The side Bb uses the palm of the right hand which pulls the fingers off the lower stack, besides being much clumsier than a finger. After years of using the bis key I can play a chromatic scale much faster and cleaner than with the side Bb. Another argument for the bis key is that the timbre of bis Bb is closer to A and B than side Bb. There is a noticeable difference between the two.

The real advantage of bis Bb is when you're playing in flat keys, then you can just le
ave your finger between B and bis Bb. Make sure you don't put too much of your index finger on the bis key, just enough of the lower tip to close the key down. It's really just a slight rolling motion, the finger doesn't lift or slide, it just rolls.

If you aren't used to using bis Bb at all start off by playing chromatically from G to C# and back down. Do this until you can really move fast.

If you do use side Bb then that you should check to make sure that the side Bb is perfectly in tune with bis Bb. All to often these are two fingering are wildly different. The cork will eventually wear down and side Bb will become sharper and sharper.

You may need to sand down bis key if it has too much of an edge on it. Do this with very fine grit sandpaper until the key is very smooth. Oleg has developed a bis key attachment (for the low low price of fifty dollars) to make the slide from B to bis smoother. If your older horn that has too large a gap between keys this may be the solution.

What about one and one Bb (the B key and the F key)???? What, are you a flute player or something?!?! This fingering is for wusses, end of story. Actually this fingering usually sucks because it's very hard to adjust for this one. Usually it's better to opt for a better adjustment on your F key mechanism than for one and one Bb.

I'm glad I finally got this off my chest. Next is the side C story.......


Anonymous said...

Hi David -
As I read this post I had to laugh to myself because for one, I AM a flute player; two, I know what you mean about the side-Bb and the one-and-one Bb (it's similar on flute - more on that in a bit); and three, as a sax doubler I actually do usually use the one-and-one Bb on the sax (I know, I know... don't even say it...)
Flute students are told NEVER to slide from B to thumb Bb for the same obvious reason as the B-bis key slide problem we have with the sax. But tell that to Prokofiev, Piazzolla, or Poulenc! I have learned that it is WELL worth it to learn the one-and-one, the side Bb, and then use the thumb. I still use the side Bb for a chromatic scale, but I almost never use the one-and-one for anything, always the thumb.
And you'd think I'd put two and two together and apply the same thinking to the sax. Duh! So, thanks for putting it out there.

Adam said...

Thanks for posting my question. I'm glad to hear you're a bis-key rebel! - Adam

Anonymous said...



Jason DuMars said...

David, I'm another bis-only player. Occasionally, and only very occasionally, I use the 1 & 1 fingering. Now that I am wearing an orthopedic brace on my right hand, this bad bis habit is saving my bacon! I bet there are others out there like us...

MonksDream said...

Now, that was another great posting!! I struggled for years playing the side Bb, always sounding kind of awkward going from Bb to C. A saxophone teacher was watching me play something in Db or Ab and asked me if I wanted to try doing things differently. It seems that he had gotten in a big argument with Lee Konitz about the bis-key and Lee Konitz proceeded to ask him to show him any technically difficult passages that he thought didn't work on the bis-key.

For a half hour he said that Lee Konitz just played circles around him while he tried to prove that all of these chromatic type passages could only be played with side-A. At the end, Lee Konitz just started playing rapid fire chromatic stuff from G on up through D and Eb and back.

He told me to go away and practice all of my flat keys with the bis-key, even though he didn't use it. I came back and have never looked back.

Anonymous said...

Gawd, this I'm gonna show to my sax instructors! I'm a late bloomer that went to all the wrong schools in high school. I only used the 1 + 1 fingering. Thirty years later I start up again and I am luvin' the bis key trick. I still try to make the side Bb flat work, but only because it makes my instructors happy. ;o)

David Carlos Valdez said...

In the end your instructors are correct. Ideally there should be a balance there, more bis useage than classical players use and more side Bb than me and Lee Konitz. I keep hitting the side Bb on my tenor and actually considered corking it closed. I decided to just bend the key down a little.

Kevin Danenberg said...

I learned on side Bb just like everybody else. Then Jackie McLean told us all to use the bis. I don't remember his exact words, but it was more or less that the side Bb would slow you down.

Two decades later, I still use bis for Bb in all situations and all keys, except the occasional trill. Lots of altissimo with side-Bb, of course.

I don't think bis has to be anybody's dark secret. It's right there at your fingertip. The side-Bb is just a little bit out of the way. Rolling Bb to B you just get the hang of. I could never go back to side-Bb. But in the end, I suppose personal preference prevails.