The jazz rhythm section

In an earlier blog I described ways of elevating the rhythm section from its typically subordinate role and included tips on incorporating less orthodox (by jazz standards) percussion instruments. This time I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the years about the conventional rhythm section. The book looks at all these features in detail


With drum parts, the trick is to stay out of the way much of the time and write more detailed parts where essential instrumental cues and special effects are needed. Excessively busy drum writing, especially during jazz solos, will distract drummers from their role of providing sympathetic support. With my nine piece band, which had a fairly stable personnel, I often used to write ‘play eight bars’…etc. It’s OK to write bar after bar of repeat symbols if that is all that’s needed. Some drummers can become too obtrusive at times, anyway, perhaps believing the spotlight is permanently turned on them. 

With these repeat symbols, it’s OK to double up on the number of bars to a line. I generally try to use four bars per line but drum parts can easily become huge things to wrestle with in extended arrangements, especially in cut time. We can use the multiple-bar repeat symbol over which we can write ‘4’, ‘8’ or ’16’ but computer programs lose the bar numbering sequence. It has to be custom made as a graphic in my program using the line tool (two parallel lines) and large full points (periods). The bar numbering can be faked with a little ingenuity (see below).

All rhythm section parts can appear featureless on paper so it’s a good plan to write ‘sax soli’ ‘trumpet solo’ ‘ensemble’ etc. to give the music a few landmarks and to prime the players to loosen up or play as written, as the case may be. It also helps them if they get lost.

Less conventional ‘straight’ writing may require much more detailed parts. Some of the rock and pop music magazines run on-going clinics where notational drum kit examples are examined in detail. The ones I’ve seen have been very well presented. I haven’t seen a copy of Down Beat for a while but they, too, have featured transcripts of recorded drum solos.


The bass in the jazz rhythm section is unique. It is harmonic, rhythmic and melodic all at the same time and nothing annoys the bass player more than a written part that doesn’t flow. The harmonic aspects of bass writing are reaffirmed where stresses of one kind or another occur – the first and third beats in four to the bar signatures, for example. This is where we’re likely to find the roots and 5ths. Unessential notes, using the prevailing tonality (which keeps shifting in the tonal cell type of sequences), are used to give relief from arpeggiated and root/fifth writing. Chromatic unessential notes are tonally neutral.

It will occasionally be necessary to write the bass in with the ensemble to ensure harmonic support. Clarity will suffer at the bottom end of the orchestra if two parts are nearly the same but not quite, especially if separated by an interval smaller than a perfect 5th.

So make sure the bass part has a rudimentary tunefulness of its own, whilst at the same time ending up where it needs to be at clearly defined points. Scalic forms will be even more prevalent at faster tempos. Parallel movement with the melody induces a smooth-flowing feeling and contrary motion is good for emphasizing a crescendo. A leap upwards is perceived to require energy, so a series of leaps in close succession will have the effect of slowing the music down. Take care how you deal with the tritone (flattened 5th), which can sound like a wrong note down here if approached by a leap. It’s usually better to approach the b5th note by step.

Good players will insert idiomatic flair into the bare bones of the bass part using various devices such as the dotted quaver ‘skips’ which are typical of the walking bass style. During an instrumental solo it’s OK to just write chord symbols, occasionally cuing in essential notes.

Take care using the traditional rhythm section bass part in contrapuntal writing. It will have to play a formal role as one of the voices which can conflict with its role as described above. It’s usually best to leave the rhythm section out of contrapuntal writing.

Centuries ago it was commonplace to use a harpsichord in chamber music to punctuate contrapuntal styles with a sequence of short, block chords, both to centre the intonation (where amateur players were involved) and to render the music to be more acceptable to the average audience.


The greatest danger in the four piece rhythm section is that the guitar and piano will attempt to fight each other and both play chord comping at the same time. I had a look that could kill at twenty paces if my rhythm section did this. It’s also unsuccessful because the guitar, which is tuned mainly in 4ths, is limited in the chord shapes it can execute. Many of the close position four part block chords in the surrounding orchestration are impossible on the guitar, especially in quick succession. Good players establish complementary roles which are best learned by listening to recorded examples with these guidelines in mind. Guitar comping has, in any case, fallen out of favour in today’s bands with their lighter swing style.

Writing for today’s big bands requires a lot of fully notated parts. Guitar rhythm chords (the guitar is written an octave higher than it sounds*) are actually pitched in the same register as the middle harmony parts of the ensemble, so they must precisely emulate the section voices the guitar comes into contact with, even if it becomes necessary to omit notes because of fingering difficulties. Failure in this respect will result in a lack of clarity. I know that some of the great bands broke this ‘rule’ but I just have to say I really didn’t like the mushy effect created.

Make a life-sized fretboard diagram out of card to test feasibility but allow for the fact that a guitarist’s fingers will be more compliant. I found it useful to colour middle c in red on the five lower strings, as an aid to navigation. Obviously, the top e string is already higher than middle c.

I’ve found that that even experienced players are stopped in their tracks by parts written according to these guidelines which often use less orthodox chord shapes.


*Confusingly, at the top of the guitar range, an arranger might take the part down an octave, to avoid too many ledger lines, and write ‘8va’ even though, at this point, the part is actually written as it sounds.



The piano part can also become large and awkward to use. Much of the time, a single stave with chord symbols reinforced by essential rhythmic cues is all that is needed – or chords with cued-in melody in a vocal arrangement. Rhythm-head notation can be used for instrumental cues, or you can write the lead note of the chords to indicate the precise inversions you desire. Some colouristic writing (single note piano with woodwind etc.) will also require one stave only. Chords written in full notation will usually need two staves. The way to mix single and double staves on one part with computers is to print the part in its one and two stave sections and then assemble the components with a glue stick and do a final photocopy. Press down on the top of the machine to eliminate shadow lines. It may be necessary to turn down the toner density control a touch also.

The computer bar numbering can be maintained so that if, for example, a two stave section begins on bar 41, you will have to create forty blank two-stave bars in front. These bars can be very narrow indeed to save on the paper you’ll trim off and throw away (OK. Recycle). It’s a good plan to limit the amount of cutting and pasting that has to be done by planning the flow of the bars on computer in readiness. Businesslike parts encourage a band to take your arrangement seriously.

With both the guitar and piano there must be no attempt, particularly at faster tempos, to cue in every passing chord in a voiced section. Use the basic sequence only. Faster tempos tend to have simpler chord sequences because rapid chord changes also slow the music down (check out two old tunes Limehouse Blues and Lover). Very slow ballads may occasionally feature a chord change on every beat. If you overdo rhythmic cues you’ll detract from the rhythm section’s conventional role of laying down a straight-ahead continuum. This means indicating distinctive ensemble or section rhythms only, and not heeding every instance of a tied-over or syncopated note in the phrasing.


2 thoughts on “The jazz rhythm section

  1. Many of the problems you give with making parts on a computer (multi-bar repeats, switching between one and two staves) are easily fixed by using Lilypond. It has a bit of a learning curve but it well worth the effort.

    • So much has changed in the computer world since I began work on the original edition of the book (Published 2000 – revised 2006, 20011) although the essence of the book will be valid indefinitely. Thanks for your input.

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