In this tutorial, I show you how to ad lib on the sax and sound like a pro. Making a melody sound great is something that a lot of intermediate sax players struggle with. It takes more than just the right notes and rhythms to make the melodies you play sound musical. In this video, I break down the steps you need to take to completely transform your melodies.


  • Change your dynamics & articulations.
  • Change the rhythm.
  • Repeat some notes.
  • Add a note.

It’s really that simple. Any pro musician that you hear personalizing a melody is using these four steps.


Inside the Sax School, we spend A LOT of time talking about how to make every melody that you play sound better. Every song that you learn has one section dedicated to learning the notes & rhythms and a second section dedicated to bringing out the unwritten parts of the music and making it sound great. This is all done on a level appropriate basis. In the Early Intermediate Pathway, I focus on dynamics, articulations, and goal notes. In the later Pathways, I give you step by step instructions on how to ad lib, improvise and completely personalize every melody that you learn.

A full-text transcription is available by clicking the accordion below. The timestamps line up with the video’s timeline.


0:00:00.0 Scott Paddock: Have you ever wondered how professional musicians can so easily personalize pretty much any melody that they play? If so, then you are definitely gonna wanna check out this video. What's up, everybody? My name is Scott Paddock, and today we're gonna talk about how to ad lib on any melody.


0:00:21.4 SP: If you are a regular viewer of my YouTube channel, then you can see that I am in a different place today. I am in my practice studio in Playa del Carmen. Now, this practice studio is in a music store, so there's a very good chance that you're gonna hear some music store sounds going on in the background, but the show must go on.


So let's get started today and talk about how to personalize a melody. Now, in the music world, we call this ad libbing on a melody. So, when you ad lib on a melody, you're taking the bare bones version and adding your own personal touches to it. So for the demonstration today, I'm gonna use the Jazz Standard Autumn Leaves.

Autumn Leaves is in C-sharp minor on the alto saxophone. And for C-sharp minor, that would give us an F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp and D-sharp in the key signature. There are tons and tons and tons of versions of this song, so I would suggest checking them out on Spotify or YouTube and listening to the different ad lib versions of this song.

So to start off, I'm gonna play the bare bones version of this song, and you're gonna hear the bare bones version is very boring and there's not a lot going on. It's basically three-quarter notes and a long note. So, take a listen to the bare bones version of Autumn Leaves.


0:01:46.2 SP: When I play it like that, it is not interesting at all. It's just three-quarter notes and a long note that all just kind of sit there. So let's talk about the first step to personalizing this melody, and it's actually really easy.


All you're gonna do is add in some dynamics and articulations, so with Dynamics you're gonna bring out some of the more important notes, you're gonna do a little swell or pull back on the long notes, and for the quarter notes, you're gonna adopt some, which means make them fat and short, you're gonna accent some, you're gonna slur some, you're just gonna add some articulation to it to make them sound a whole lot interesting. Take a listen to this version where I add in some dynamics and articulations.


0:02:38.3 SP: Now, that version doesn't sound amazing, but it sounds a whole lot better than the bare bones version, and all I have done is added in some dynamics and articulations. So, when it comes to your dynamics and articulations, you can get really creative with it, but you wanna make sure that you're bringing out the correct notes. So, I'm gonna play this first phrase a couple of different ways, just by changing up my articulation and dynamic so you can hear what I'm talking about.



0:03:12.8 SP: So, just by using my dynamics and articulation, I can really change up the way this tune sounds. So, the next step, the second step is changing the rhythm, so as I said before, this song is made up of three-quarter notes and a long note. So, if I change the rhythm up a little bit, I can make it sound a lot more interesting, take a listen to me adding in dynamics and articulations, and changing the rhythm.


0:03:49.1 SP: Again, just by changing the rhythm, I can do a whole lot with this melody,


if you're watching this video, then I'm guessing that you'd like to dive way deeper into personalizing the melodies that you play. If that's the case, I'd like to invite you to check out The Scott Paddock Sax School. Inside the Sax School, I have an entire course dedicated to teaching ad libbing.

So, in that course, we go over several songs, and in every song, I break it down, phrase by phrase, I show you exactly what I would play, I give you written out versions, and then I tell you how to come up with your own stuff with each phrase of every song that I teach you. So, by the end of that course, you'll completely understand how to ad lib and you'll be able to do it on any song that you play.

So, if you're interested in learning a whole lot more about how to ad lib, I'll put a link in the video description.


Now, the next step is gonna add a whole bunch of forward motion to this melody, and this step is actually pretty easy, all it is is repeat a note. So, for any of these quarter notes or any of these long notes, you can repeat them and you're gonna add some forward motion and the song is gonna have a lot more of a swing feel and more of a bounce to it. Take a listen to this version where I add in some repeated notes.


0:05:11.9 SP: That adds in a whole bunch of motion, so repeating notes is a really important part of making your melodies bounce and have a lot more life, take a listen to me playing another version where I repeat some notes, change the rhythms and add in some dynamics and articulations.



0:05:39.6 SP: This last rule is the most intimidating, but I'm gonna show you some ways to make it a whole lot easier, so this last rule is to add in some notes, so you might be asking What note should I add in? I'm gonna show you that in just a second, but first, I'm gonna show you how I can personalize this melody by adding in some extra notes.


0:06:09.4 SP: Now, let's talk about which notes to add in, so there are a lot of different levels for this, and it depends on your playing level and how well you know chords and how well you improvise, but for this video, this tutorial, I'm gonna show you the starting point.

So for the starting point, you need to know your tonal center, and for this song, the tonal center is C-sharp minor, so we have four sharps, F-sharp, C-sharp G-sharp and D-sharp, of course, that is on the alto sax, so we're gonna be choosing from some of those notes, when we add in a note.

So the first thing we're gonna do is add a neighbor tone to a long note, so we had this A, which is our first long note, and the neighbor tone is just the note above or the note below. So for that A and the note above it would be a B, so we would play an A, go up to a B and then come back down to a A.


0:06:58.5 SP: That is played A B A.


0:07:03.2 SP: That's your neighbor tone, take a listen to it in context.


0:07:10.4 SP: So I'm just playing A B A, so that's me adding in the neighbor tone above. Now, I can add the neighbor tone below, which would be a G-sharp because we have a G-sharp in this key signature, so I play from an A down to a G-sharp and back up to an A.


0:07:26.1 SP: So that gives you two notes that you can add to pretty much any of your long notes. You can play the neighbor tone above or the neighbor tone below. Now, this isn't gonna work 100% of the time because you will have different chords over some of these long notes, so you're just gonna have to play around with it and see which ones fit better, sometimes the upper neighbor tone is gonna sound better, sometimes the lower one will, and sometimes they both will.

Take a listen to this melody with some neighbor tones.


0:08:03.9 SP: Now, another really easy way to add in some notes is if you have a large interval jump, like between the D-sharp and the G-sharp, you can add in those scale degrees and that's gonna fill it in and add some more motion into your melody. Take a listen.


0:08:24.9 SP: Did you hear that?


0:08:30.7 SP: That just adds in a whole lot more motion, now, you don't wanna do that for every large interval, but if every now and then you put a scale run in instead of a large interval jump, it's gonna sound really good and it's gonna help you personalize your melodies.

And we can do the same concept on the last note, the E, where it ends, I'm gonna walk down, in other words, I'm gonna play the notes below and I play at E a D-sharp and land on a C-sharp because this tune is in C-sharp minor.


0:09:08.5 SP: So I walk down from that E.



0:09:16.9 SP: So when you understand these four simple steps for ad libbing on any melody, it makes it a whole lot easier. All you need to do is add in some dynamics and articulations, change your rhythm, repeat some notes and add some notes. You can use those four simple steps to personalize any melody that you wanna play.

Thanks for taking the time to check this video out, if you wanna dive deeper into my saxophone world, I'd like to invite you to check out The Scott Paddock Sax School.




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