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Chops: Sam Gendel Creates a Distinctive Sax Sound

Learn how the musician uses pedals and processors to effect change

Sam Gendel (photo: Marcella Cytrynowicz)
Sam Gendel gets arty. (photo: Marcella Cytrynowicz)

About four years ago, saxophonist Sam Gendel appeared in the YouTube-verse blowing raging solos with Louis Cole’s Knower project. Since then he’s been videoed in a variety of musical situations, including performances with Ry Cooder, Blake Mills and Pino Palladino, Sam Amidon, and Scary Pockets.

Gendel, Cole, Mills, and the Pockets people make up a loose, Los Angeles-based creative crew that often collaborates with like-minded musicians from other parts of the country, including members of bands originating in Minneapolis (Vulfpeck) and Houston (Snarky Puppy). Many of these players are products of extensive musical educations at schools like Berklee, the University of North Texas, New England Conservatory, and others. Gendel absorbed the language of jazz beginning in high school, with further studies at USC. “Depending on your taste, you can apply that knowledge in so many ways to everything,” he says. “I was into it for the instant creative ability it requires.”

But an incident on the budding musician’s first day of college veered Gendel away from a standard career in jazz. At a jam session, someone commented he sounded like former Miles Davis sideman Kenny Garrett. “I went home and deleted all that music from my hard drive,” he remembers. “I realized I couldn’t be that and switched gears entirely. I spent hours in a practice room, just trying to understand my own sound.”

Part of that sound turned out to be a distinctive use of electronics. Whether you hear it when he’s playing with Mills or Cooder, or when he’s performing a solo set for travelers at Los Angeles’ Union Station, Gendel’s alto sax often resembles anything but. “I started trying to realize what I was hearing in my head,” he explains. “Getting into electronic processing is just a natural extension of that.”

On his 2020 Nonesuch release Satin Doll, Gendel appropriately covered “Cold Duck Time,” a tune by Eddie Harris, a pioneer in the use of electronics with a saxophone. “He played a Selmer Varitone from the late ’60s,” Gendel notes. “It was a whole system, including an amplifier and a pickup. It’s amazing because it was super-early music technology. Harris, Sonny Stitt, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk all experimented with that stuff.”

Rather than sounding influenced by those reed players, though, Gendel’s use of electronic harmonization and dark breathy tone more closely recalls trumpeter Jon Hassell. “If you listen, it’s obvious where all this comes from,” he says. “But I don’t think I’m similar to Jon Hassell; it’s entirely different music.” Perhaps because, unlike the world-music progenitor, Gendel was raised on hip-hop and three decades of post-Hassell pop.

Sam Gendel's saxophone (photo: Josiah Steinbrick)
Sam Gendel’s saxophone (photo: Josiah Steinbrick)

If he can’t find an existing circuit to help him fulfill his sonic journey, Gendel is happy to bend one to his needs. “I’ll modify and customize pedals to do what I want,” he reveals. “I use some harmonizing, but I also end up doing a lot of things with reverb. I can pan my sound pretty wide depending on what’s going on. It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it thing, but rather treating reverb like an instrument that shifts with whatever’s happening in the music. Since I often improvise and need immediate access to everything, I tend to prefer knobs and simplicity.”

Before the saxophone’s signal goes into Gendel’s multiple harmonizers, he runs it through a preamp; from the harmonizers, it goes out through four outputs to a mixer, where each output can be processed individually. Reverbs are added at this point in the effects chain. He uses a looping pedal too, but rather than using it in a timed way as most players do, he employs it more abstractly across the bar line, or just freely. “Sometimes I’ll do rhythmic things with it, but that gets boring fast,” he explains. “I’ll avoid grids or metronomes if I can. I use all these things intuitively.”

Whether the finished sound goes into a set of onstage powered speakers, is sent to the house P.A., or both is a matter of circumstance. “The P.A. is great because it’s so pure and direct; I can sound like a synthesizer,” he says. “But I use powered speakers as well to provide some color and air. My friend Austen Hooks made them for me with eight-inch military PAP speakers from the ’50s. I’ll stack four of them up, two on either side, and it sounds incredible. If the P.A. is cranking, I can play very quietly through my rig and it’ll sound like a Gil Evans orchestration on an old recording.”

Sam Gendel's live setup, featuring four custom Austen Hooks speakers.
Sam Gendel’s live setup, featuring four custom Austen Hooks speakers.

Having dabbled with guitar in college, Gendel often adds interesting six-string textures to his music as well. “I stopped playing for a while and then became reacquainted with it in a new way,” he says. “I have this little ’60s Swedish folk guitar. I use standard tuning, but tuned really low, and play my own weird shapes.”

The fact that Gendel’s musicality is informed by every genre but constrained by none—similar to that of another unique musician, Bill Frisell—lets him easily slot into a wide variety of situations. His sound is equally at home buttressing the deep roots music of Ry Cooder’s 2018 release The Prodigal Son or playing Jimmy Giuffre-like chamber music on the Blake Mills/Pino Palladino 2021 record Notes with Attachments. His own music, on records like DRM, Fresh Bread, and Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar (with Sam Wilkes), is unclassifiable but exhibits a decidedly minimalist sensibility.

“It’s better to imply,” he says. “We’re often given so much, so it’s good when you don’t give everyone everything. I want them to have a space for their minds to wander a bit. I would want that for myself.”

Michael Ross

Michael Ross is a writer/musician/producer living in Nashville. He is a Consulting Editor at Guitar Player, a contributor to Premier Guitar and Electronic Musician, and the author of numerous books about guitar sound. He also curates guitarmoderne.com, dedicated to avant-garde guitar, and cohosts the Modern Guitar web radio show.