There is a variety of instruments used in jazz music but there are several instruments that remain the most popular choice for jazz musicians and composers. Many people like to choose their instrument based on the type of music they like to play. If you like jazz and is looking to pick up an instrument continue reading to discover which instruments are best suited or most popular in the world of jazz.
In todays post I would like to discuss the most popular instruments played in jazz music, discussing their role in the band. I would, however, like to caution that there will be instruments left out as composers and musicians have experimented with many different instruments. Thus, the list provided today is ever evolving and growing as new composers and musicians generate new ideas and styles.
The Jazz Ensemble
The jazz ensemble is any group of instruments playing jazz music. Today there is a wide variety of jazz ensembles ranging from 2 players to as many as 18+. All of these ensembles often include the same instruments, just in different instrumentations. For the purpose of todays post I will focus on the instruments found in the big band.
The big band is a large ensemble usually consisting of at least 18 musicians, each playing their own part. Please keep in mind that all of these instruments can also be combined in smaller ensembles. Also, it is normal to have instruments not commonly used in the big band format included for specific pieces of music.
The Instruments Used in Jazz Music
All instruments are capable of playing jazz music but there are several that have become the most standard instruments for jazz. I like to believe that these instruments remain the most popular because of their sound. Jazz music has a very unique flavour which is achieved by combining the sounds of these instruments. The following instruments have become standard instruments of jazz. They have been apart of the jazz world for many years and continue to hold their place in the evolution of jazz.
The saxophone is perhaps one of the most popular instruments of jazz. Many new musicians choose to play the saxophone because of its association with jazz. In smaller ensembles the saxophone is known for providing the melody line. It has a sharp but sweet sound that lends itself well to portraying a variety of moods. It can create a sweet soothing sound for ballads, yet has the power required for more upbeat swing and jazz tunes.
In the big band setting all the saxophones of the saxophone family are usually represented. In most bands there are 5 saxophones including 2 alto saxophones, 2 tenor saxophones and 1 Baritone saxophone. Each saxophone has it own unique part. The role they play varies. Sometimes they provide the background, such as shots, or they may carry the main melody line. They also may provide a counter melody when other instruments have the main tune. The saxophone also may be featured as a solo instrument in large and small ensembles.
Click here to learn more about the saxophone family.
The trumpet has also been associated with jazz for many years. The characteristics of the trumpet lends itself well to unique sound of jazz music. Like the saxophone it may be found in smaller ensembles or the big band.
There are usually 4 trumpets in the big band. They each have their own part to create the harmonies most often found in jazz. They also play a variety of roles in the jazz ensemble. They may provide the melody, counter melody or the background. It is not uncommon for the trumpet to be featured as a solo instrument.
The trombone is most commonly found in the big band. They play a similar role to the trumpet and saxophone. Like the trumpet there are usually 4 trombones who each have their own part. They also have the same roles as the saxophone and trumpet. Even getting a solo every so often.
The piano is found in a variety of situations with regards to jazz music. The piano may be featured as a solo instrument, playing jazz music with no other instruments. It may also provide the accompaniment for another instrument such as the saxophone or trumpet. The pianos ability to play a variety of notes and chords gives it the versatility to be performed in a number of different ensembles.
In the big band it is a part of the rhythm section. It is responsible for keeping the beat and providing the main chord changes. Quite often the piano is featured as a solo instrument. I consider it to be one of the most important instruments of the big band. I always feel that theres something missing when its not there.
The guitar is very similar to the piano. It can be featured as a solo instrument or provide accompaniment for other instruments. Like the piano it has the ability to play several notes or chords.
In the big band the guitar is also in the rhythm section and plays the same role as the piano. it is responsible for providing the main chord changes and keeping the beat steady. It is often given a solo role within the big band, especially during sections of improvisation.
The bass guitar or string bass is also very common in both big and small jazz ensembles. It is most often responsible for providing the bass line. The bass line is extremely important in all types of music and jazz is no different.
In the big band the bass guitar is also a part of the rhythm section. From time to time they do get solo opportunities, although they are less frequent then the other instruments of the ensemble.
We finally make it to the heartbeat of the jazz ensemble. The drums play a very important role in maintaining the beat. They are also a part of the rhythm section of the big band. Quite often the drummer will set the tempo and provide the style through the rhythm they provide. Sometimes the drums will get a solo. While these do not happen often, they are usually very impressive when they do.
Is that all of the instruments used in jazz music?
The answer is absolutely not! Every instrument has the ability to create jazz. The clarinet is another instrument that often finds it was into the jazz ensemble. I have also some pretty impressive jazz tunes played on the flute.
The instruments mentioned above are the most common instruments but not the only instruments used in jazz music. Do you have anything you want to add? Perhaps you picked your instrument because of a desire to play a certain genre of music. I would absolutely love to hear about the experiences of other musicians.
I leave you today with a video of Count Basie’s orchestra. This group has the classic big band format. Please enjoy!