Which Instruments Are Used in Jazz?

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Jazz music first developed in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th century. The most common instruments used in jazz have not changed much since the inception of the genre, although new instruments have been added over the years.

Jazz was formed from blues and ragtime music, which tended to feature a piano or guitar accompanying a voice. As such, piano is arguably the most common jazz instrument (guitar is relatively common, but less so than piano). Jazz also developed from the music of marching brass bands, and so brass instruments have been foundational to the sound of much jazz music.

As you will see, various other instruments have become commonplace in jazz ensembles. This article will touch on all instruments that are used in jazz, giving examples of key jazz musicians who are famous for playing each instrument. At the end of the article, we will also look at which instruments are used in different jazz subgenres.

Let’s dive in and learn more about the most common instruments used in jazz.

The Most Common Jazz instruments


Count Basie

Since the early days of jazz, piano has often provided the rhythmic and harmonic foundations of jazz music. Unlike brass instruments, a piano allows the musician to play multiple notes at once. 

A jazz pianist may play chords, may play a bassline, or may play melodies all at once, or in short succession. This means that a single musician with a piano can provide a rich and complex harmonic and rhythmic jazz performance.

Jazz pianists will often play chords or basslines with their left hand, while the right hand can pick out melodies, embellishments, or play improvised solos.

Some of the great jazz pianists over the ages include Fats Waller (1904-1943), Count Basie (1904-1984), Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), Oscar Peterson (1925-2007), Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), Bill Evans (1929-1980), Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea.


django reinhardt

Guitar is slightly less common than piano in jazz music, but remains a common jazz instrument. Like piano, guitar is polyphonic, meaning that multiple notes can be played at once to create chords and layered melodies.

A jazz guitarist may rhythmically strum or pick chords, and may pick out melodies or play improvised solos. Since only one hand is used on the fretboard (and the other is used to pluck or strum the strings), a guitarist can only play up to six notes at once. While it is common for a pianist to play chords and melodies at the same time, it requires great skill for a guitarist to manage the same task.

Some examples of great jazz guitarists include Django Reinhardt (1910-1953), Wes Montgomery (1923-1968), Pat Metheny, and John McLaughlin.



The double bass or upright bass is a common instrument in jazz. In some modern bands, the double bass is replaced with an electric bass guitar.

The double bass is a four-stringed instrument which provides harmonic and rhythmic foundations to a jazz composition. It covers lower frequencies than any other instrument in the jazz ensemble. A double bassist will typically pick, or occasionally use the bow to play the strings.

The bass is often regarded as a background instrument, and may have fewer solos than other instruments in a jazz band. Even if it is a background instrument, few jazz bands are complete without a bassist.

Some great jazz bassist over the decades include Charles Mingus (1922-1979), Paul Chambers (1935-1969), Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987), Stanley Clarke, and Esperanza Spalding.


8. Buddy Rich Big Band

The drum kit is very common in a jazz band, and a jazz drum kit typically contains a snare drum, kick drum, hi-hat, ride cymbals, and tom-toms. Other types of cymbals, such as riveted ride cymbals, may also be added.

Jazz drums are usually played with drum sticks, and occasionally brushes to create a softer sound. A common and distinctive jazz drumming beat maintains a swung, syncopated rhythm on the ride cymbal, with the hi-hat pedal marking the second and fourth beat.

Famous jazz drummers over the years include Buddy Rich (1917-1987), Elvin Jones (1927-2004), Gene Krupa (1909-1973), Art Blakey (1919-1990), Jimmy Cobb (1929-2020), Billy Cobham, and Dave Weckl.


Saxophone is arguably the instrument that is most intimately associated with jazz music. This is not necessarily because it is always used in jazz, but more because it is not typically used in other genres. That said, saxophone is definitely amongst the most common jazz instruments.

Although the sax is normally made of brass, the saxophone is technically classed as a reed or woodwind instrument, as its distinctive sound comes from the reed that is fitted in the mouthpiece. 

Saxophones come in several different ranges. At the lower end, you have the baritone sax, which is rarely used. The most common saxophones are the tenor sax, and the higher pitched alto sax. Even higher than the tenor sax, is the soprano sax, which is uncommon.

Some legendary jazz saxophonists include Charlie Parker (1920-1955), John Coltrane (1926-1967), Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), Cannonball Adderley (1928-1975), Stan Getz (1927-1991), Pharaoh Sanders (1940-2022), and Wayne Shorter.


The trumpet is the most common brass instrument used in jazz. It is a monophonic instrument, meaning that it can only play one note at a time.

In jazz music, the trumpet, like the saxophone, will typically be used to play melodies or “heads,” as well as for improvising solos. A trumpet may also play individual notes to create a chord in collaboration with other members of a brass section, for example within a big band.

Some of the most famous melodies and solos in jazz music have been played on the trumpet. Miles Davis’ solo on ‘So What’ (1959) is a great example.

A trumpet may also be played with a mute, which creates a different tone, as well as lowering the volume on the instrument.

Some of the great jazz trumpeters of all time include Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993), Roy Eldridge (1911-1989), Chet Baker (1929-1988), Freddie Hubbard (1938-2008), and Miles Davis (1926-1991).


Glenn Miller Orchestra

A less common brass instrument that is sometimes used in jazz is the trombone. Trombones are more common in big band jazz orchestras, although they may also sometimes be used in smaller ensembles.

Thanks to its slide, the trombone allows players to glide between notes.

Some examples of famous jazz trombone players include Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956), Glenn Miller (1904-1944), and J.J. Johnson (1924-2001).


theon cross

The tuba is a brass instrument that is used occasionally in jazz. Like the trombone, the tuba would more frequently feature in a jazz orchestra with a large brass section, or in a brass band. It is less common in smaller jazz ensembles.

Part of the reason the tuba is used less frequently is because it is the lowest-pitched instrument in the brass family. Instruments like the alto sax, tenor sax, or trumpet tend to be preferred for melodies and solos.

The tuba is sometimes used in smaller ensembles, and in recent years, British jazz musician Theon Cross has given the instrument more exposure as a lead instrument.


Although the clarinet is not strongly associated with jazz music, it is used quite frequently in jazz, and it is closely related to the saxophone. Like the saxophone, the clarinet is classified as a woodwind instrument.

The clarinet uses the same fingering as a saxophone, which means that saxophone and clarinet players should be able to move between these instruments without too much difficulty.

Like the trombone and the tuba, the clarinet is less common in small ensembles. You would more frequently find a clarinet in a jazz orchestra, although the clarinet eventually went of vogue even within the big bands scene.

Examples of famous jazz clarinet players include Benny Goodman (1909-1986), Artie Shaw (1910-2004), and Eric Dolphy (1928-1964).


benny maupin

Flute is a relatively common instrument used in jazz. Although it is more common in jazz orchestras, flute can also appear in smaller jazz ensembles.

Some examples of famous jazz flute players include Herbie Mann (1930-2003), Eric Dolphy (1928-1964), Hubert Laws, and Benny Maupin.


herbie hancock

Electronic keyboards or synthesisers are technological innovations that were first introduced into jazz music in the late 60s and early 70s. There are several different types of keyboard that came to be used alongside or instead of a traditional piano. 

Some of the first electric pianos used in jazz include the Rhodes piano and the clavinet. However, a wide range of synthesisers are now used to produce all sorts of different sounds.

Electronic keywords were notably popular in jazz fusion music. Herbie Hancock is often associated with the instrument, and especially his 1973 album Head Hunters. Hancock also played electric piano on Miles Davis’ 1970 fusion album Bitches Brew.


cal tjader

The vibraphone is a tuned percussion instrument with a very distinctive sound. It is not a common instrument generally speaking, but it has been used widely in jazz music. The vibraphone has a distinctive tremolo or vibrato sound, from which it derives its name.

A notable example of the vibraphone in jazz music is on Eric Dolphy’s 1964 legendary avant-garde jazz album Out To Lunch!, which features Bobby Hutcherson on the instrument.

Other famous vibes players include Buddy Montgomery (1930-2009), Milt Jackson (1923-1999), Lionel Hampton (1908-2002), Cal Tjader (1925-1982), Terry Gibbs, and Roy Ayers.


ray nance

The violin, and less frequently the viola and cello, are occasionally used in jazz music. Violins may appear in jazz orchestras, and occasionally in smaller ensembles.

Some famous jazz violinists include Joe Venuti (1903-1978), Stuff Smith (1909-1967), Ray Nance (1913-1976), Stéphane Grappelli (1908-1997), and Regina Carter.


Although much jazz music is instrumental, voice is actually one of the most common instruments used in jazz music. Jazz singing is a distinct art form in its own right.

One vocal technique that is peculiar to jazz singing is ‘scatting’ – vocal utterances that may imitate another instrument, but do not use normal or recognisable vocabulary. While scat singing is distinctive to jazz, is it not especially common. Many jazz singers will only scat occasionally during a performance or recording, if at all.

Some of the greatest jazz singers of all time include Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), Billie Holiday (1915-1959), Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990), Nina Simone (1933-2003), Chet Baker (1929-1988), Nat King Cole (1919-1965), and Frank Sinatra (1915-1998).


Aside from the drum kit and tuned percussion instruments like the vibraphone, some jazz ensembles include additional percussion. Percussion is especially important in Latin jazz music, where the drum kit may even be replaced by a number of other percussion instruments.

Some percussion instruments that may be used in jazz include congas, bongos, guiros, shakers, woodblocks, and bells of different types. Typically, a percussionist or drummer will be confident playing either drum kit or any other form of percussion instrument.

Which instruments are used in jazz sub-genres?

Jazz music has gone through stages of evolution, and various sub-genres have formed. Within these sub-genres, some instruments tend to be used more or less frequently. Let’s take a look at some notable jazz sub-genres and the instruments they use.

Bebop instruments

Bebop developed in the mid-40s, and is characterised by a fast tempo, and complex chord structures. A typical bebop band would feature alto or tenor sax, trumpet, piano, guitar, double bass, and drums.

Big band jazz and swing instruments

big band jazz orchestras

Big band jazz and swing emerged in the 1910s, and rose to the height of its popularity in the 40s. Big bands – also known as jazz orchestras – could often exceed twenty musicians, and sometimes included as many as fifty.

Many different combinations of instruments have been used in big bands, but they all contain large brass sections. This section could often comprise up to five trumpets, five trombones, and five saxophones.

Additionally, a big band would include a double bass, a drummer, a piano, and usually a vocalist. Big bands have also included clarinets, flutes, and string sections.

Jazz fusion instruments

Emerging in the 70s, jazz fusion was heavily influenced by rock music. As such, jazz fusion often prominently features electric guitar, unlike most other forms of jazz.

Synthesisers or electric pianos are also common in jazz fusion. Along with electric guitar and synthesisers, jazz fusion bands will often feature electric bass, drums, trumpet, saxophone, and sometimes voice.

Latin jazz instruments

Latin jazz music generally refers to Afro-Cuban jazz, or forms of Afro-Brazilian jazz such as samba and bossa nova. Influenced by both jazz and Latin American forms of music, Latin jazz features distinctive instrumentation.

Afro-Cuban jazz is notable for a very distinctive percussion set up, which, instead of a drum kit, may feature several percussionists playing bongos, congas, claves, shakers, and bells. As well as these percussion instruments, Afro-Cuban ensembles will typically feature double bass, piano, trumpet, trombone, and occasionally saxophone or clarinet.

Bossa Nova Instruments

Bossa nova almost always features acoustic guitar, which would be unusual in other forms of jazz. Bossa nova bands also often use string sections, as well as double bass, piano, drums, and voice.

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Michael Sandford

Michael is the founding editor of Pink Wafer. He is a life-long musician and a former promoter.

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