Instrument ranges and transpositions

saxophones | woodwind doubles | brass | rhythm | lead part writing


Piano, Bass, Guitar, and Drums

In writing rhythm parts "simple is best" is a good general rule. Let each rhythm section player play; they can probably improvise a better part than you could ever write. Too much writing will confuse even the best players. Since many young writers do not understand how to write for the various rhythm section instruments, a few samples are included below.

The basic rhythm section consists of piano, bass, and drums. Some bands will replace the piano with guitar and some will have both. On rare occasions you will see a band with piano, guitar, bass, drums, and percussion, the instrumentation of most bands at the University of North Texas.


NOTE: The range of the piano, because of the various sizes, acoustic and electronic varieties, is not included.

Transposition: None, piano is written in concert pitch.

When writing for piano primarily use only chord symbols and slashes. Occasionally you will need to integrate the piano with the horn rhythms.


Click to play example.

Occasionally the piano will need to play an exact voicing. In this case it will need to be written out. Piano in combination with horns, like in the example below, can help add a more full texture, not unlike the overdubbing of vocal parts in the recording studio.

North Rim

Click to play example.

NOTE: Sometimes it is best for the piano not to play at all. Especially in shout sections when the horns are providing the main harmonic support, and the harmonic rhythm (pace at which chords change) is very fast.

Transposition: Sounds an octave lower than written.

The two notes above in parenthesis (C and B) are notes associated with 5-string electric basses, and acoustic basses (low C only) that have a special extension on the E string. It is best to be conservative in this extended range, taking into account that the next band that wishes to play the chart may not have a bass player with an instrument capable of playing it in the register it was written.

Bass parts almost always contain written notes and rhythms that correspond to horn parts. This integration of the horns and rhythm section leaves nothing to chance. Chord symbols imply the part is to be played ad lib, notate without the chord symbols.

The Cheese That Time Forgot (as written in bass part)

Click to play example.
Click here to stop.

Occasionally one will see bass parts that include the technique of producing harmonics and double stops, sometimes triple or quadruple stops. Go to COMPOSITIONAL TECHNIQUES - PLANING to see and hear the use of double stops in Entropical Paradise. Consult bass players to learn more.

Transposition: Sounds one octave lower than written.

If writing for a band that has a piano and guitar it is sometimes advisable to have the two instruments alternate playing. Two comping instruments playing at the same time can be a problem, especially among inexperienced players. This can be done by simply including the changes in both parts and writing "Piano Only" or "Guitar Only" at the points one instrument should play and the other should tacet (not play). Thus, if you only have one comping instrument all of the chord changes will be in both parts. Having the piano comp for the trumpet solo and then the guitar for the tenor solo can be a simple, yet effective contrast.

Guitar parts are written in the same manner as piano parts, but in treble clef only. Most guitar players do not read bass clef.

Also, most guitarists love to see written lines in their parts. Since two comping instruments constantly playing are not needed, the guitar can double a melodic line from the horns. This will be greatly appreciated by the guitarist.


Drum parts should be written as simple and uncluttered as possible. Drum parts are traditionally written in bass clef but the percussion clef (see below) is also acceptable. Written instructions are best when describing styles; medium swing, bossa, funk, two-feel, etc. Do not try to write the style out note for note. If more information is needed in the style description write it; medium swing a la Basie, straight eighth feel a la Pat Metheny Group, etc.

It is not uncommon to see on a drum part the phrase "Play 16 Bars". This tells the drummer to play time and is usually used when there are no horn parts being played, such as during a solo section. It is important to write horn cues on the top of the staff, as this will help the drummer keep his place in the music and provide guidance on how the part is to be played. It is easy for drummers to become lost without adequate cues. Cues will often include the name of what section or instrument is playing so that the drummer knows what to listen for. They can also help the drummer properly set-up horn figures.

Although much of a drum part needs no written notation at all, there are many occasions in big band music where the drummer absolutely needs to know what is being played by the horns. In the example below, listen to what Willie O'Burke plays and compare it to what he sees on the page. Notice the horns cues are written on top of the staff and the rhythmic notation in the middle of the staff are parts that are to be played with the rest of the band - big hits!. The drum fill is indicated with the word "fill" and he plays other fills called "set-ups" that are not written. This is a very precise bit of writing but is essentially only a guide.

North Rim

Click to play example.