The Most Popular Jazz Instruments (Complete Guide)
by Matt Fripp
If you’re looking to find out more about the different instruments used in jazz music, you’ve come to the right place.
We’ve picked the most common jazz instruments – from frontline soloists to rhythm section – and put together articles to offer both insight into the music and tips on the best gear and learning materials for each.
Which instruments are used in jazz music?
Whilst, technically, any instrument can be used to play jazz, there are a handful that are found most commonly:
You’ll find links to our most popular articles on all of these jazz instruments below, but first let’s check out a few highlights…
The Rhythm Section
The rhythm section is used to describe the instruments which traditionally provide the rhythmic & harmonic structure of a jazz band.
Primarily, we’re talking about the drums, double bass, piano and guitar.
If you take a listen to the most famous jazz albums in history, you’ll almost always hear a bassist and drummer, along with a pianist and/or guitar.
Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule (perhaps most frequently in free jazz), but it’s a good place to start!
This is not to say, though, that these instruments remain in the background.
Many of the most famous jazz musicians of all time are pianists or guitarists, covering everything from early gypsy swing through to modern contemporary jazz.
And, whilst less famous as bandleaders, we’ve written at length about the greatest jazz drummers and bassists of all time, and their contribution to the evolution of jazz.
As with all these jazz instruments, you can also find in-depth playing guides via the articles below, which were put together with the help of specialists on each instrument.
One of the most iconic jazz instruments of all time, the saxophone has been a consistent in jazz through its history, adapting to the different styles that have emerged in it’s history.
From famous jazz saxophone greats such as Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young – via later trendsetters such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane – to the modern saxophone players such as Chris Potter, Mark Turner & Joshua Redman, it’s sound has become synonymous with the music.
The saxophone is arguably the most-played instrument in jazz and is known as a good beginner instrument, partly because of its affordability and partly because of its relatively simple and logical layout.
If you’re learning to play sax, there are of course a huge wealth of resources out there. We’ve worked with some professional musicians from around the world to put together our own guides to help you get started, choose your instrument and make progress.
The trumpet was one of the first jazz instruments, made famous by the original jazz superstar Louis Armstrong.
Going further back than that, though, the trumpet was present at the very beginnings of jazz, through players like Buddy Bolden and King Oliver.
Whilst it may have been overtaken by the saxophone in terms of widespread ‘fame’ as a jazz instrument, it’s still present on many of the greatest albums of all time, old and new.
Whilst it is, mechanically, a much simpler instrument than the saxophone, it brings its own challenges which we’ve covered in various how-to guides, with the help of some pro jazz trumpeters.
The trumpet is probably the hardest instrument to play in jazz, but the rewards of mastering it (and the relative affordability of buying a beginner horn) make it well worth a try!
You can learn more about this – and some closely-related instruments – in our round up of the 12 most popular types of wind instruments in jazz.
Less common jazz instruments
As we mentioned, any instrument in the world can be used in jazz.
To highlight this, we’ve picked some examples of more unusual instruments in jazz, along with some great examples you can search out for extra listening…
Popularised by Stéphane Grappelli in the gypsy jazz style, the violin has also been up in free jazz (Ornette Coleman famously dabbled in violin…) as well as modern European jazz.
Check out our selection of the most famous jazz violinists in history.
The big brother of the regular clarinet, the bass clarinet’s woody sound provides an interesting ‘colour’ in various classical-influenced styles of jazz, as well as avant-garde situations.
Check out our selection of the most famous bass clarinet players in jazz.
Often seen as a ‘third’ instrument for saxophone players (after clarinet) there have nonetheless been some highly influential proponents of the flute in jazz.
The highly distinctive sound of the vibraphone has cropped up in various styles of jazz.
If you check videos of the greats, you’ll see how it can be used as both a solo instrument (playing ‘lines’) or harmonic, using up to 4 mallets. Often they mix the two.
For some great examples, check out Gary Burton, Lionel Hampton and Steve Nelson in our list of the best jazz vibraphonists.
If you’re looking to get even more ‘niche’ we also rounded up the differences between vibraphone vs marimba vs xylophone vs glockenspiel with jazz examples.
The cello may be more associated with classical music, but a select group of jazz cellists over the years have proven that the instrument is much more than a niche or novelty in the world of jazz.
With a history running almost a century, we rounded up a selection of the most famous jazz cellists, old and new.
When it comes to different types of trumpets, there is no shortage of unusual options.
Our pick for this segment, though, is the slide trumpet, for its mix of novelty appearance and unique usage.
As you can guess from the name, it pairs the range and approximate size of the standard Bb trumpet, with the slide of a trombone, meaning you get to hear those classic trumpet lines with over-the-top bends and slurs.
It’s certainly not common, but there are some great jazz performances to dig out, including this one from Stephen Bernstein