The 7 Most Popular Instruments In Jazz

Whilst any instrument can, in theory, play this style, there are a key collection of ‘jazz instruments’ which have established themselves as the go-to ones in this genre…

As with any music genre certain instruments ‘speak’ to that idiom more clearly and emphatically than any others.

Western classical music makes use of brass, woodwind and large string sections that composers over the centuries have found give the orchestra a wide tonal palette and a sense of grandeur to their works.

Popular music, and especially rock and roll, and later rock have adopted the guitar as the defining instrument.

Jazz has also found that certain instruments have the timbre and flexibility for improvisation, and indeed lend themselves to their practitioners finding their own individual voices on the instrument.

Below are some of the most popular instruments in jazz, along with some of their greatest exponents.

The list is by no means meant to be exhaustive but gives a starting point with some of the major innovators on each instrument.


The sound of the trumpet has become synonymous with jazz, and was particularly prevalent in early New Orleans and Dixieland jazz.

The trumpet, or cornet that was also widely used, was to become so essential to the music because it could be heard so clearly.

Un the days when recordings were cut directly on the master disc with the musicians gathered around what looked like a big horn the sound of the brass instrument with its strident tone would register most cleanly.

It also didn’t harm the trumpet’s position in the music that jazz’s first great soloist, Louis Armstrong played the cornet later switching to trumpet.

Other notable players would follow, such as King Oliver, James ‘Bubber’ Miley and Mugsy , then in the thirties, Harry James, Cootie Williams and Harry “Sweets” Edison.

With the advent of bebop a new breed of musicians came to prominence including Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Miles Davis.

As modern jazz continued its evolution through bop, hard bop and beyond the sound of the trumpet would continue to ring out with virtuoso soloists Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan.

The versatility of the trumpet, despite the inherent difficulties in playing it well, have seen the instrument featured prominently in all the innovations of jazz from the 1920’s through the free jazz experiments of the sixties with Don Cherry, Lester Bowie and Wadada Leo Smith among others.

Once again, Miles Davis made the instrument a powerful voice in jazz-rock, and its success has continued with Wynton Marsalis taking jazz through all its previous styles without sounding retro in the process.

Check out our pick of the most famous modern jazz trumpet players here…


The clarinet was without doubt one of the most popular jazz instruments in its infancy, Johnny Dodds, Omer Simeon and Barney Bigard were early masters of the instrument.

Also, Sidney Bechet who was also paradoxically partly responsible for its fall from grace in favor of the saxophone as we will discover a little later.

In the thirties bandleaders Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman played excellent but very different clarinet styles.

Another band leader who made great use of the clarinet was Duke Ellington and his star performers on the instrument were Russell Procope and Jimmy Hamilton.

Duke also made use of the clarinets larger cousin the bass clarinet on which baritone saxophonist Harry Carney would frequently double.

Not ideally suited to bebop, the clarinet would primarily be used in the big band reed sections, although Tony Scott made a decent fist of it in the forties and fifties.

Latterly champions of the instrument have been Bill Smith who recorded Dave Brubeck intermittently from 1940 to 2000, and Ken Peplowski who would play in a swing style, and Don Byron.

Still not widely used in developments in modern jazz since the forties, the bass clarinet has taken its place with Eric Dolphy, Bennie Maupin, John Surman and Louis Sclavis turning an ungainly looking instrument into a rich and sonorous voice for contemporary jazz.


Invented in 1840 by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax, the saxophone found its home as one of the principal solo voices in every stage in the development of the idiom.

Its flexibility is ideally suited to jazz, and musicians have been able to escape a core sound for the saxophone and able to impose their own will on the instrument.

No other instrument has revealed players with an instantly identifiable sound as the various members of the family of instruments created by Adolphe Sax.

The saxophone is a transposing instrument alternating home keys of E♭ and B♭.

This means that the fingering on all the saxophone family is the same, and if you can play one you can play the others.

The most popular members of the saxophone family in jazz are the baritone, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, although occasionally use of been mane of the diminutive sopranino sax and the mighty bass and contra-bass instruments.

Baritone (E♭)

Initally when looking at inventing the saxophone, Sax was looking for a strong low register instrument with a good strong bass sound.

The result was the baritone saxophone, Sax then discovered that he was able to create a whole family of instruments by scaling them down.

Starting with Sax’s first saxophone, some of the most important baritone saxophonists in jazz have been Harry Carney in Ellington’s band from 1928 until his death in 1974.

Gerry Mulligan developed a light and swinging sound on the large horn, famously paired in a front line partnership with trumpeter Chet baker in their pianoless quartet.

From Bebop onwards, notable baritone saxophonists include Leo Parker, Pepper Adams and Serge Chaloff.

One of the most important of contemporary exponents is the British baritone maestro, John Surman who made the instrument popular with his emergence in the 1960’s.

Surman extended the natural range the instrument, and by doing so helped place the instrument at the forefront of contemporary developments.

Tenor (B♭)

Early tenor saxophone players made the instrument sound rather ungainly using a technique known as slap-tonguing.

In this technique, the tongue is banged against the reed to create a vacuum resulting in a popping sound as the note is articulated.

Coleman Hawkins was the first tenor player to find a smoother and more lyrical way of phrasing on the instrument and this then paved the way for others to follow.

Hawkins played with a full round sound, and this was deemed the way to play the instrument. That is, until Lester Young came to prominence in the thirties.

Young played with a lighter sound, and thereafter tenor saxophonists either fell into the Hawkins or Young style of playing. Other notable players of the thirties and forties were Ben Webster, Don Byas, and Illinois Jacquet.

The advent of bop created a new technical challenge for tenor saxophonists with its fast articulation and phrasing with the first bebop tenorists with a sound of their own were Dexter Gorden and Wardell Gray.

With the advent of the fifities and hard bop, the pre-eminent tenor players were John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins who were both very different in styles, but both were true originals.

Rollins would go on to develop a style of playing that was essentially very melodic with a vast harmonic knowledge that enabled him to take the most banal of popular songs and make compelling jazz out of them.

Coltrane would join the Miles Davis band staying for five years. At this point, leaving the trumpeter in 1960, Coltrane was ready to lead his own band and produce some of the most powerful and impassioned music ever performed on the tenor.

The other important voice to reach his first maturity in the sixties was Wayne Shorter who would also be a crucial member of Miles’ quintet of the time, albeit with a very different playing style to his predecessor.

Following Coltrane’s death in 1967 there have been a whole host of saxophonists that have been influenced to some degree by Trane. Many have gone on to develop their own voices and these include Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Chris Potter and Jan Garbarek.

Alto (E♭)

Lee Konitz went on record as saying that he played the instrument that most closely resembled the human voice.

Many musicians will contend this point, but the alto saxophone has a range and sound that seems to lend itself to fleet lyrical lines.

This was perhaps exemplified by altoist Johnny Hodges who played with Duke Ellington. Ellington was so enamoured by Hodges’ impeccable sound and distinctive tone that he would write many compositions for his star soloist.

Along with Benny Carter, Hodges would dominate the twenties and thirties and it was not until the arrival of Charlie Parker advent of bebop that there would be any threat to his crown.

If Parker’s style was all pervasive influencing players such as Sonny Stitt and Lou Donalson, then there was another school of alto players that were unwilling to conform and these included Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz and Art Pepper.

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley would bring his own bebop influenced style to create an impressive body of work and set in motion the soul jazz movement.

Ornette Coleman burst noisily onto the scene in 1959 with helping to start the free jazz movement, along with Eric Dolphy, and a few years later Anthony Braxton recorded his solo saxophone album For Alto.

Moving into the 1970’s and beyond, the alto has continued to bring forth a multitude of excellent musicians including David Sanborn, Eric Marienthal, and Kenny Garrett.

Soprano (B♭)

The soprano saxophone has had a chequered role in jazz.

Due to its pitch it is difficult to master and keep in tune, and often at best is used as “double” for saxophone players that play alto or tenor as their primary instrument.

The first musician to play innovative jazz on the soprano was Sidney Bechet. Bechet had discovered the instrument whilst in London, and quickly mastered it difficulties and made it his main instrument with the clarinet relegated to second place.

While many others took up the instrument, there would be no other innovators o the instrument until the 1950’s when Steve Lacy came onto the scene.

Originally playing Dixieland jazz, Lacy then made the unprecedented jump straight in to free jazz with pianist Cecil Taylor.

From there on, Lacy would inhabit the music of Thelonious Monk, and became the interpreter of Monk’s music par excellence, and more experimental forms that would incorporate free jazz, standards and solo saxophone recitals.

The popularity of the soprano hit and all time high when John Coltrane adopted the instrument. His thirteen minute version of ‘My Favourite Things’ generated huge interest in the soprano with Coltrane citing Bechet as his influence for taking up the instrument.

Other notable soprano saxophonists have been Wayne Shorter who played the instrument on Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew albums, and also with the band Weather Report that he co-led with Josef Zawinul.

Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek developed into a major force on the soprano saxophone after having discovered a curved soprano in a shop window, and deciding that he should try it.

He had previously eschewed the instrument as he did not like the straight soprano.

The soprano has retained its position as a one most popular members of the saxophone family due to its ability to both blend with, and cut through modern ensemble that will often feature electric guitars and keyboards.

Among soprano specialists who have made the instrument not just their primary instrument, but sometimes their only instrument are Jane Ira Bloom, Jane Bunnett, Sam Newsome, Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill.


The sheer versatility of the piano has almost made it a prerequisite in the music.

From the earliest days, in a venue where music live music has been performed there has been a piano, and with the advent of electric pianos and keyboards its absence has been covered by an acceptable alternative.

Early jazz was dominated by the stride and boogie woogie painists. Art tatum, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith to name a few were able to ply their trade to great acclaim.

With the advent of the jazz bands providing backing for dancers in the clubs, ushered in the swing era and the big bands with Count Basie and Duke Ellington leading from the piano stool.

Its role as accompanist or solo performed ensured that the piano appeared an indispensable instrument, and this would continue with the innovations of bebop in the 1940s.

Using fast moving chord changes and an advanced harmonic framework, the role of the piano was increasingly important in guiding, providing prompts and supporting the soloist.

This role would also require the accompanist to suddenly switch to soloist, a duel role that required no little skill.

The most important players of the new idiom were Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Duke Jordan and Al Haig who all made important contributions to bands led by Charlie Parker.

Moving into the fifties and hard bop pianists Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Horace Silver would bring a renewed look at the blues with the new harmonic language and in the case of Silver introducing a soulful and funky side to their playing, while Bill Evans’ explored Western harmony with modal jazz.

The young pianist McCoy Tyner made an invaluable contribution to Coltrane’s music from 1960 to 1965, while pianist Cecil Taylor would use his virtuosic technique to continue his exploration of free jazz and influences from contemporary classical music.

The introduction of electric pianos and keyboards brought another dimension to the music, with early masters of the new technology being Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Josef Zawinul whose mastery of the synthesizer was utilized with impeccable taste.

Turning his back on electric instruments and remaining true to the acoustic piano, Keith Jarrett produced some of the most complex and all embracing music on the piano of the last half century.


In the beginning there was the banjo which provided the chords and rhythm as a jazz instrument.

It was used as the second rhythm instrument in conjunction with the piano, or replacing the piano in providing accompaniment to the soloists.

The switch from banjo to guitar was exemplified by the example of Freddie Green with the Count Basie Orchestra from the thirties onwards.

Never wishing to take solos, but content to play rhythm guitar, Green was the epitome of good taste, and with Basie’s economical comping they made the perfect half of a four man rhythm machine when bass and drums were added.

Often credited as the first to play electric guitar, Eddie Durham was not the musician to make the jump to bringing the instrument to prominence.

This role fell to Charlie Christian, and his playing with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra was of such an original nature that Goodman formed a small group in which to feature his guitarist.

The electric guitar also seemed well equipped to deal with the intricacies of bebop, with a new generation of young musicians already possessed of the technique to carry forward the evolution of this comparatively new instrument.

Charlie Christian was frequently to be found at Minton’s Playhouse sitting in with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, et al.

Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery were also becoming highly conversant with the new music and their role in it, and this would witness of the new trios with guitar, bass and drums.

The role of the guitar in modern jazz would evolve further with the popularity of rock’n’roll and most importantly rock music.

The innovations in technology of the instruments allowed for new sounds and with jazz rock the new wave of musicians would take centre stage, again bringing the popularity of the instrument to the fore.

Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin were at the helm of these new advances, and paving the way for Al DiMeola, George Benson, Lee Ritenour.

The music has become so diverse and the musicians equally so that just being a proficient guitarist is no longer enough.

Many of the contemporary jazz guitarists nowadays are also highly competent and skilled about the electronic hardware that has become available using pedals and effects to enhance their tonal palette, and the use of the guitar synthesizer as used to stunning effect by Pat Metheny.


How the role of the bass has evolved in jazz is quite spectacular.

From the use of brass instruments such as tuba to provide a bass line in early jazz to the use of the double bass (or string bass as it was first named on early recordings) to the evolution of the electric bass guitar.

As jazz through swing and bebop became more harmonically complex, the role of the rhythm section and that of the bassist would naturally evolve too.

Early masters of the instrument included Milt Hinton and Oscar Pettiford, but the first major innovations came from Jimmy Blanton. Blanton so impressed Duke Ellington, that Duke immediately invited him to join his Orchestra.

The band that Ellington led with Blanton on bass between 1939 to 1941 is legendary producing many classic recordings such as ‘Jack The Bear’ and ‘Ko Ko’.

Blanton’s inventiveness on the bass was not confined to a purely rhythmic role and his virtuoso and melodic approach to the instrument prompted Ellington to record a series of duets with his young bassist.

Blanton was also one of the select group of players at Minton’s Playhouse where the new music bebop was being developed.

How Blanton’s influence would have furthered the role of the bass will never be known as he died in 1942, aged just 23, after contracting tuberculosis.

From this point on, perhaps after having been shown the way, followed a whole host of bassists looking to expand the rhythmic and melodic content of the instrument.

No longer to play straight four in the bar walking bass, the new breed of bassist wanted to provide melodic contrapuntal lines that would complement and lift the rhythm section.

These early innovations were taken up and expanded on by Ray Brown, Paul Chambers and Charles Mingus.

Mingus was an exemplary bass player as well as bandleader and composer, producing some of the most wildly exhilarating small group jazz of the fifties with his Jazz Workshop.

As the possibilities for the bass in jazz were being unlocked, more players were looking to bring their own personality and influence on the music.

Scott LaFaro was the young bassist with the Bill Evans Trio, and would play a crucial role in the pianist’s music and on the piano trio in general.

The trio with Evans, LaFaro and drummer, Paul Motian took the level of playing to incredible heights with a level of interplay that was staggeringly complex, yet paradoxically intuitive.

The association would tragically short lived as after cutting two classic live albums recorded at the Village Vanguard, LaFaro was killed in a car accident just 10 days later.

Other key bassists of the time were Jimmy Garrison whose work with the John Coltrane Quartet was heard at its peak of invention on A Love Supreme, and Gary Peacock.

Peacock had would work with both Bill Evans and later Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, as well as pioneering the use of the bass in free music with Albert Ayler on his Spiritual Unity album.

With the beginning of fusion and jazz rock in the seventies anew role was required of the bass, providing a heavy rhythmic groove that would cut through electric guitars and keyboards.

Early masters of the genre are Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius. Clarke was equally adept on double bass but brought to the bass guitar a fluid and lyrical edge to his playing.

The use of his piccolo bass would also extend the range of his bass into the guitar register giving his solo lines an addition timbre and lightness of touch.

Pastorius would employ a similar technique using the fretless electric bass guitar.

More difficult than its fretted counterpart, the fretless bass requires an accuracy and delicacy of touch that in the right hands can make the instrument sing.

This Pastorius did, but was also able to bring out the harmonics of the notes that would hang miraculously in the air.

Other notable bass players include Christian McBride, Dave Holland, Eddie Gomez, and electric bassists Steve Swallow and Eberhard Weber.


An integral part of jazz is the rhythmic nature of the music, and this indefinable element known as swing.

Ellington once said that if you ask what it is then “you ain’t got it”, and it really is a phenomenon that has to be felt as opposed to talked about.

Perhaps the history of jazz drumming should start with Warren “Baby” Dodds who was perhaps the most important early jazz drummers.

His work with Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings between 1925 and 1930, and with Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers set the standard.

He was the first drummer to improvise on a recording, and famously right up until his death in 1959 played without a hi-hat saying “I didn’t like them and I still don’t. Some drummers can’t play without them. I can’t play with them.”

The swing bands of the thirties required a different rhythmic impetus, and this would be supplied by Jo Jones with Count Basie’s Orchestra, Chick Webb and Gene Krupa.

Krupa is often credited as being the founding father of modern jazz drumming, and was instrumental in changing the basics of the drum kit with tom toms and cymbals.

No discussion of jazz drumming of any era would be complete without mentioning Buddy Rich, a technically adept drummer, perhaps the best ever, he had a unstoppable swing coupled with sense of melodic development on the kit that was staggeringly inventive.

The forties saw a major shift in how drummers would function within both a big band end especially small group jazz.

The role of the bass drum changed from keeping time, this now switched to the high hat or ride cymbal, the bass drum would drop accents or “bombs” at strategic moments in the music, while the ride cymbal would be used to color the beat.

Innovators of this new style of playing would include Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Roy Haynes and ArtBlakey, all of whom would go onto further refine and develop their style as music moved into hard bop and beyond.

Further developments came with the young 17 year old drummer with Miles Davis’ quintet, Tony Williams, whose drive and rhythmic displacement created an exciting edge to the music.

Elvin Jones brought an elaborate polyrhythmic approach to his laying that harked directly back to African drumming, and a powerful presence that took no prisoners.

Demands on drummers changed again with the rise of fusion with tight in the pocket grooves and often a back beat more familiar to rock music.

The best of the fusion drummers would accomplish this with great finesse and include Alphonse Mouzon, Eric Gravett, and Lenny White.

Keeping the music current and moving forward are drummers Terri Lyne Carrington, Dave Weckl, Manu Katché, Brian Blade and Peter Erskine.

Thanks for reading!

Hopefully this has given you some god ideas for future listening discoveries.

If you’re looking to learn more about which instruments came to prominence in which eras, check out our guide to the main styles of jazz throughout history.

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