Jazz Instruments Used in Ensembles

 Jazz can be performed in groups made up of virtually any combination of instruments. Traditionally, however, both big bands and small ensembles draw from a small group of wind and brass instruments, along with drums, bass and sometimes guitar. 

The following are photos and descriptions of the instruments typically used in a jazz setting. These are the instruments one is first exposed to in jazz education, so this list is intended for those just starting to develop an interest in jazz.

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Upright Bass

Upright Bass Jazz Instrument
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The upright bass is a wooden, four-stringed instrument used to play low notes.

In classical settings, the instrument is played with a bow made of wood and horse hair, which is dragged along the strings to create long, sustained pitches. In jazz, however, the instrument's strings are typically plucked, giving it an almost percussive quality. The bass provides the foundation for the harmony in the rhythm section, as well as the rhythmic pulse throughout.

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From early jazz styles through the era of swing music, the clarinet was one of the most prominent instruments in jazz.

Today the clarinet is not as common in jazz, but when it is included it gets special attention given its warm, round tone. A part of the woodwind family, the clarinet can be made of wood or plastic, and its tone is produced when the reed on the mouthpiece vibrates. Many jazz saxophonists also play clarinet because of the many similarities between the two instruments.

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Drum Set

Drum Set Jazz Instrument
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The drum set is the instrument central to the rhythm section. It acts as the motor that drives the group.

A drum set can contain a multitude of percussion instruments, but in jazz, it usually consists of only a few parts. The lowest drum, or bass drum, is played with a pedal. The hi-hat, also played with a pedal, is a duo of small cymbals that crash together. They are used for crisp accents. The snare drum is played with sticks. Its sound has a sharp attack and sits directly in front of the drummer. On the edges of the set are usually a crash cymbal, used to punctuate moments of intensity, and a ride cymbal ​played continually to add color to the overall sound. In addition, drummers often use two hollow-sounding drums of varying pitches, called a low tom (or floor tom) and a high tom.​

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Electric Guitar
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The electric guitar is found as much in jazz as it is in rock music and other styles. Jazz guitarists typically use hollow-body guitars for their clean sounds.

Guitars are often used along with, or instead of pianos. The guitar can be both a "comping" instrument and a soloing instrument. In other words, its six strings can be strummed in order to play chords, or they can be plucked to play melodies.

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The piano is one of the most versatile instruments in the jazz rhythm section.

Because of its range and all of its qualities available, it can practically create the effect of a full band all by itself. With 88 keys, this instrument allows for many harmonic possibilities and is capable of playing very low and very high. The piano can be treated like a percussion instrument or played softly and melodically like a harp. Its role as a jazz instrument alternates between "comping" and soloing.​

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The saxophone is one of the most vibrant jazz instruments.

The flexible, voice-like tone of the saxophone has made it a prominent jazz instrument since almost the very beginning of jazz. Although a member of the woodwind family, the saxophone is actually made out of brass. Its tone is created by blowing into the mouthpiece, on which a reed made out of cane vibrates.

The saxophone family includes the tenor (pictured) and alto saxophones, which are the most common, and also the soprano and baritone. There are saxophones that are higher than the soprano and lower than the baritone, but they are rare. The saxophone is a monophonic instrument, which means that it can only play one note at a time. This means its role is usually to play the melody, or "the head," of a song, and also to solo.

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The trombone is a brass instrument that uses a slide to change its pitch.

The trombone has been used in jazz ensembles since the beginning of jazz. In early jazz styles, its role was often to "comp" behind the lead instrument by playing improvised counter lines. During the swing era, trombones were an essential part of the big band. When bebop came around, trombones became less common, owing to the fact that it is simply more difficult to play sinewy lines on trombones than on other instruments. Because of its power and its unique tone, the trombone is frequently used in many stylistic veins.

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Trumpet Jazz Instrument
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The trumpet is the instrument perhaps most widely associated with jazz, partly because it was played by the iconic Louis Armstrong.

The trumpet is a brass instrument, which means that it is made of brass and its tone is created when the lips are buzzed in its mouthpiece. Pitches are changed by changing the shape of the lips, and by fingering its three valves. The trumpet's brilliant tone has made it an essential part of the jazz ensemble from early jazz through contemporary styles.