Alongside percussion and strings, wind instruments are one of the most common groups of musical instruments – and arguably the main stars of the jazz world.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the most recognisable types of wind instruments, including examples from the woodwind, brass and reed families.
Wind instruments use a mouthpiece to create a vibrating flow of air which is amplified through the instrument with the earliest examples thought to have originated from animal horns which were employed as warning bells in past civilisations.
Now, there are hundreds of varieties, with the most common being woodwinds and brass winds.
The difference between woodwind and brass instruments is relatively self-explanatory:
- Woodwind instruments (or ‘reed instruments’) tend to be made of wood or feature a reed mouthpiece
- Brass instruments are made of metal and feature a metal mouthpiece
If you’re considering picking up one of these instruments, we recommend you first get a basic understanding of the different types of wind instruments available.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at 12 different options, from the clarinet to the bagpipes – and recommend some great jazz recordings to check them out on!
The recorder is a simple-looking woodwind instrument that has origins in Europe and rose to prominence in early classical music, especially during the Baroque period. It first appeared in the 14th century before periodically vanishing in the mid-eighteenth century.
In recent times, the instrument is mostly associated with early education, with many children picking up a plastic version of the instrument in primary school music class.
Due to its incorporation into music education, it is one of the most widely used types of wind instruments however few musicians take the instrument further than primary school.
That said, check out New York-based Israeli musician Tali Rubinstein for some killer jazz recorder playing!
This German woodwind instrument was created in the 1700s and remains one of the most well-known types of wind instruments.
The mouthpiece features a single reed and has a cylindrical tube shape. It’s similar in many ways to an oboe, though somewhat easier to play making it a great choice for beginners.
Since its origins in the late 1700s, the clarinet has experienced numerous alterations until the 1800s. From then on, its structure has remained relatively constant.
Aside from the standard B-flat instrument, there are several other variations like the E-flat clarinet, which is almost half the scale of a regular clarinet and the bass clarinet which plays in the lower registers.
Clarinets are frequently used in orchestras and concert bands, as well as jazz ensembles.
Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw are just a few famous jazz musicians to have played the instrument in its early 20th Century heyday.
The saxophone was invented and developed in Belgium in the 1840s by instrument maker Adolphe Sax, giving it a much shorter history than other musical instruments in this list.
Although the bodies of saxophones are usually made of metal, they are technically classed as woodwind instruments due to the reed used in the mouthpiece and their familial link with instruments like the clarinet.
The saxophone features a single-reed mouthpiece and around 22 keys (depending on the model) which are opened and closed to alter the pitch.
It’s a popular instrument amongst beginners due to its versatility and the fact that an intermediate level can be reached relatively quickly, compared to other choices.
Although it was originally used in classical music, since the 1920s it has been utilised in all kinds of modern genres, perhaps most notably jazz where it’s been a feature of almost every of the music from swing and bebop through to contemporary jazz.
You can discover this beautiful reed instrument in action in our round up of the best saxophonists of all time.
The flute is one of the first instruments to have ever been created and has been fashioned out of a variety of materials over the centuries.
It has a long history of being built from wood and bone, but the modern flute is fashioned out of silver and other metals.
Most flutes are side-blown (hence it’s official description as a ‘transverse flute’), though some lesser-known variations of the instrument are end-blown instead, giving the instrument a similar appearance to a recorder or tin whistle.
Unlike some of the previous instruments on this list, the flute lacks a reed and relies on air movement across an opening to make a sound.
An orchestra may have up to fifteen flutes depending on the setup and it appears in many more modern styles of jazz.
In fact, if you listen to many of the great large ensemble recordings in jazz, you’ll hear the subtle but important colour the flute adds to the music.
Due to its similarity in fingering, many jazz saxophone players will also play the flute, using it as a secondary instrument.
Although it has a similar appearance, the Piccolo is about half the size of traditional flutes.
In fact, the instrument’s name translates precisely to “half-size” in Italian – as those of you who’ve ever ordered a piccolo coffee will know!
Sometimes known as the Flauto piccolo, the Piccolo has the highest register in the pitched woodwind family. If you can already play the flute, you should have no trouble mastering this instrument.
In jazz, it is far less common, though musicians like Hubert Laws, Sun Ra’s Marshall Allena and Lloyd McNeill have used the instrument on their recordings.
Bassoons were first seen in orchestras in the early 17th century and became increasingly common during the 18th century.
The design of the bassoon is a little unusual, originating from the Curtal, an early musical instrument.
It’s made up of a nine-foot-long extended pipe that gradually increases in diameter and is folded in half so it can be held with two hands.
The pipe is composed of wood and relies on the opening and closing of holes on the instrument to change the pitch of notes – similar to a clarinet and saxophone.
To play the bassoon, you blow through a double reed which is connected to a curved metal mouthpiece.
The bassoon has a relatively low pitch, though not as low as its big brother, the contrabassoon which is significantly larger.
Whilst such a distinctive sound has not made its way into the mainstream of jazz, there are a handful of musicians in this genre playing Bassoon.
For an introduction, check out the great Michael Rabinowitz.
The trumpet is perhaps the most popular brass instrument, with many beginner musicians starting out on it.
Like the saxophone, it is incredibly versatile.
Its lively and brilliant sound can be heard across a variety of genres, from classical to pop and jazz.
Unlike the saxophone, though, it’s seriously old, with primitive versions of the trumpet are thought to have been used as signalling devices in Ancient cultures.
Whilst the trumpet is an essential part of the classical orchestra, it took on a new life in the 20th Century as one of the most popular jazz instruments played by the likes of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong.
Miles Davis’s iconic album Kind of Blue is a great introduction to the trumpet’s sound in jazz.
The Tuba is the brass family’s largest instrument; the “grandfather” of the family if you like. As such, it’s also the lowest brass instrument in terms of pitch.
The tuba is mostly heard in orchestras and brass bands, but due to its bass register, it is sometimes used in jazz as a substitute for the double bass.
New Orleans style brass band, which often perform outside, will use a Tuba or sousaphone – a type of tube which is shaped to surround the player) for basslines due to its powerful sound and portability.
Whilst early examples of this date back to the early 20th Century, the tuba has seen somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, with players like Theon Cross popularising the use of the instrument in more forward-thinking styles of contemporary jazz.
You can read more about some of the most famous jazz tuba players of all time here.
A descendant of the trumpet, the trombone has a similar mouthpiece and flared bell, but features a slide instead of valves for changing the pitch of notes.
It’s name actually comes from the Italian word for “large trumpet” and the trombone’s roots can be traced back to Europe when it was initially called a ‘sackbut’.
The slide gives the instrument a fun and playful sound which lends itself well to jazz, but it’s also a powerful and important part of the classical orchestral and brass bands.
The instrument’s musical register is relatively low but high enough to straddle the different musical clefs. Music is composed in the bass clef for wind bands, orchestras and big bands, while brass band trombonists will need to read music in treble clef.
Variations of the traditional trombone include the alto, piccolo and bass trombone as well as the valved trombone which was famously used by jazz legend Bob Brookmeyer.
The euphonium is a brass instrument that looks similar to a tuba, only smaller.
Along with seven other brass instruments (including the baritone horn and flugelhorn) are part of the ‘saxhorns’ family which, interestingly, was developed by Adolphe Sax – the inventor of the saxophone.
The euphonium itself was invented by Sommer of Weimar in 1843, combining the valved bugle (flügelhorn) and the cornet. It has a tuba-like wide conical bore and is held vertically with the bell facing upwards, though in the US, the bell often faces forwards.
It has a powerful yet mellow tone and is a common feature in military marches and brass bands due to its ability to blend with other brass instruments.
The euphonium is definitely less versatile than other brass instruments such as the trumpet, trombone and tuba, but its sound is unique and beautifully soft.
Whilst it’s use in jazz is limited, there are some great examples out there, including this compilation.
Generally associated with Scotland, the bagpipes are an unusual instrument that dates back to 100 BCE.
Variations of the instrument can be found across Europe North Africa and the Persian Gulf and parts of Asia.
The instrument consists of multiple pipes and a bag made from animal hide or fabric. The pipes produce a sound by the vibration of either a single reed or a double reed.
With most bagpipes, the bag – an airtight reservoir – is filled with air via a blowpipe and is directed through the pipes by applying pressure from the arms.
Most variations of the instrument include at least one drone pipe which plays a constant note and at least one ‘chanter’ pipe which supplies the melody.
Bagpipes are quite complicated to play and rarely offered by schools and music services, so getting started with the instrument isn’t particularly easy.
But, if you can source an instrument and find a good tutor (and patient neighbours), it’s sure to be an interesting hobby!
The Harmonica on the other hand is one of the most accessible types of wind instruments to pick up and play.
Often used in blues and folk music, the harmonica is a simple wind instrument often used to accompany singing. Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Sonny Boy Williamson are just a few big names to have mastered the instrument.
Also known as a mouth organ, the harmonica contains reeds that produce different notes depending on their length. They’re lightweight and usually inexpensive, but if you have the skill, it would more than hold up in a jam session.
One of the great examples of jazz harmonica players is legendary European musician Toots Thielemans.
Thanks for reading this snapshot of the many and varied types of wind instruments out there.
If you’re looking to learn a new instrument, but not sure where to start, the alto saxophone or the trumpet are great jazz instruments for beginners.
Both are easy to come by, relatively inexpensive (if you choose a beginner option) and there are plenty of tutors out there who can show you the ropes.