The saxophone is one of the most enduring and transformative instruments out there, able to add grooving rhythms to any genre it touches. With the closeness of rock and jazz music sonically, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that plenty of great rock hits either use or feature this instrument, adding depth and helping drive the track just like a guitar would. In this article, we’ll look at 21 great rock songs that either feature or incorporate the saxophone to create something magical.
1. Baker Street – Gerry Rafferty
Baker Street is what you get when you build a rock song off of a saxophone riff instead of a guitar riff, but you do so flawlessly. It brought out the very best of the instrument and was probably the reason many rockers turned to it during the late 1970s. It was a moderate or good hit single across the US, UK, and Europe, and eventually took home an Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically in 1979.
2. Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
Born To Run is undeniably a classic rock hit single and was one of the songs that made Bruce Springsteen into the mega-star he eventually became. It served as the title track of his 1975 album that was geared towards mainstream audiences, becoming a commercial success and eventually peaking at number three on the Billboard 200.
The album it came on is frequently cited as one of the greatest of all time, but the song itself, like the other album tracks, was successful because of its varied instrumentation. With its massive level of popularity, it features one of the best and most recognizable saxophone solos in all of rock history, courtesy of the legendary Clarence Clemons.
3. Urgent – Foreigner
Foreigner was a band that often relied on the saxophone to create their signature sound, whether that came in the form of solos or as a background instrument. Without the prevalent sax use, they would have sounded completely different, and the songs just wouldn’t have been that good. Urgent is one of their best uses of the instrument, using the saxophone to drive the track forward and produce a classic rock single of the 1980s.
4. Back in Time – Huey Lewis and the News
Back In Time is a song that gets glossed over by most people, but anyone familiar with the Back To The Future film franchise will surely recognize the saxophone portions of the track. It was written for the soundtrack of the 1989 iteration of the movie and was performed by Marty McFly in the film. It helped the movie soundtrack make it to number 12 on the Billboard 200 and was one of the most recognizable saxophone bits in any popular rock song.
5. Jungleland – Bruce Springsteen
Back to Bruce Springsteen and the legendary Born To Run album. The closing track of the album was Jungleland, a song containing another epic saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons that became one of his most recognizable tunes. But this track is also a showcase for the musical abilities of the E Street Band, including a violin and piano introduction to the song that you wouldn’t quite expect from a rock track.
6. Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones had their roots firmly planted in the blues and early rock and roll that had hardly separated itself from jazz, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that they incorporated brass instruments into some of their songs. The way they were able to blend the saxophone and electric guitar in Brown Sugar is nothing short of stunning, driving the rhythm of the track along with the smooth tunes of the sax.
7. 21st Century Schizoid Man (Including “Mirrors”) – King Crimson
King Crimson was one of the earlier progressive rock bands, and they were no strangers to blurring the lines between genres. Their debut album In The Court Of The Crimson King (An Observation By King Crimson) saw the release of 21st Century Schizoid Man (Including “Mirrors”), a song that had all the power of rock music but mixed with the spontaneous nature of jazz and the precision of classical music. It became their signature track and became one of the precursors to both progressive metal and industrial music.
8. Us And Them – Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd was always experimenting with sounds and was a major pioneer in the 1970s. All sorts of instruments crop up in their songs, from orchestral arrangements to brass horns. Us And Them is just one of their best uses of the saxophone, as it played an integral part in creating the track’s rhythm.
It also gives the song a more laid-back vibe that is perfect for something covering topics like how useless war was. It may have been a departure from the sound that made them famous, but it had all the production quality and critical marks of the rest of their work.
9. Fun House – The Stooges
Fun Houses was the title track of The Stooges’ 1970 album. Labeled today as proto-punk, punk jazz, and avant-rock, it was chock full of progressive and experimental sounds in the rock and roll world.
This not only helped them develop a cult following that would continue throughout their career but it’s considered integral to the development of punk rock as a whole. Much of the album, but especially Fun House, was inspired by earlier blues musicians like Howlin’ Wolf. They just took the music to the next progressive level.
10. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking – The Rolling Stones
Saxophonist Bobby Keys made it onto Can’t You Hear Me Knocking thanks to the improvisational nature of the song. The Stones had written it to be just under three minutes, but during recording sessions, they continued jamming after finishing the main track, and that jam was captured and kept in the final cut. It brings out the best of their jazz and blues roots, backing yet another great guitar riff from them with a legendary saxophone tune.
11. Turn The Page – Bob Seger
Bob Seger recorded Turn The Page in 1971, and it eventually found a place on his 1973 album Back In ‘72. It was never released as a single before 1976, and its inclusion on the ‘Live Bullet’ album was a German and UK album release. Eventually, it made its way to become a frequent companion of classic rock radio and album-oriented rock stations.
It’s an incredibly emotional song about the ups and downs of being on the road, but its introduction is the most important part of the track. It opens with a mournful saxophone solo, and the instrument continues to pour out its emotions throughout the rest of the song.
12. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant – Billy Joel
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant is one of the most interesting songs Billy Joel ever put together. It was never released as a single but found favor with fans and critics alike. This guided its inclusion on several compilation albums and made it a concert staple for him.
It’s also the longest recording—not including lives—of his career. After a sedated piano first scene, it moves into a triumphant saxophone-guided jazz section that describes two classmates catching up with each other.
13. Summer Romance (Anti-Gravity Love Song) – Incubus
Incubus’ 1997 album S.C.I.E.N.C.E. gets slept on a lot, but it featured some of their most interesting music. Summer Romance (Anti-Gravity Love Song) in particular has to rank near the top, as it features an eclectic mix of musical styles. The highlight of the track comes from the unexpected saxophone solo at the end, performed by Jeremy Wasser.
14. Walk On The Wild Side – Lou Reed
The saxophone is often thought of as a sexy instrument, one that most often adds romantic tones or smooths out a song, but it can also create haunting or eerie sounds that can bring out the darker side of a track. Lou Reed pulls this off perfectly in Walk In The Wild Side, using the saxophone as a backing instrument to add a bit of a creepy flare to a song about cross-dressers, streetwalkers, and life on the streets in general.
15. Shine On You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd wrote Shine On You Crazy Diamond as a tribute to their former vocalist Syd Barrett. While it was meant to be a long composition, it was split into several parts and used to bookend their album. Part five is the most important one for our purposes today, as it features a saxophone played by Dick Parry that switches from baritone to tenor throughout the song. It isn’t just one of their most beloved tracks, it was a complete showcase of their musical talents.
16. Blackstar – David Bowie
The very first instrument David Bowie played was the saxophone, so you know it featured in plenty of his work. Blackstar was released on his final triumphant album, released just days before his death. And yes, it’s less of a rock album than you’d expect thanks to taking on a lot of jazz qualities, but that’s exactly what made it so great. The track is driven by the sax and it adds a magical sonic quality to the song that wouldn’t be there if it was based on guitars instead.
17. Moondance – Van Morrison
Moondance by Van Morrison is an interesting choice for the list, mainly because it eschewed most of the traditional rock and roll sounds of the 1970s. Instead, it almost sounds like a return to older jazz or swing music, featuring the piano, clarinet, and saxophone as the driving instruments of the song. Pair that with the romantic voice of Morrison and you end up with what might be one of the best dance tracks on this entire list.
18. Just The Way You Are – Billy Joel
Billy Joel was another artist who was very familiar with the sultry sound of the saxophone. While he didn’t play it himself, Mark Rivera served as his saxophonist for over 40 years, and the two produced some incredible songs together. Just The Way You Are is the best example of his perfect use of the saxophone, as it adds a smoothness to the romantic track that would fall flat with any other instrument in play.
19. (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life – Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes
Few tracks have the enduring quality of this one, stretching all the way from when it served as the theme song for the 1987 film Dirty Dancing through the modern day. It earned numerous awards, taking home a trophy from the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Grammy Award ceremonies. The saxophone in the track can almost go unnoticed if you aren’t paying attention to it or watching it being played, but it’s those driving notes that give the song its danceable qualities and make it such a big hit.
20. A Little Piece of Heaven – Avenged Sevenfold
There’s a lot that can be said about the actual subject matter in this song, but I’m going to avoid all of that and leave it for another day. A Little Piece Of Heaven is truly a masterpiece, and it’s the most complex and layered track in A7X’s discography. Incorporating orchestral elements, including huge string and horn sections just adds so much depth to the song. And it happens to feature five different saxophonists during its runtime.
21. Bad To The Bone – George Thorogood and the Destroyers
Bad To The Bone is often credited as having one of the best and most recognizable guitar riffs in all of music history, but it gets its distinctive sound not only from the guitars. There’s also an incredible saxophone solo in the song from Hank Carter that stands up just as well as the guitar riffs played throughout the track.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.