The Rhythm Section

The meters rhythm section
The Meters – photo by Annette Jones

Arranging for Rhythm Section

Piano and guitar parts are often very basic in jazz, pop & big band writing and are just to supply a rhythmic backing (comping). It often works to give the player some freedom, but there are times when it’s important or useful to communicate more precisely what you want them to play.

This is one area of arranging that is often neglected, partly because of those cases where the rhythm section can be left to work out for themselves what to do by ear or by a basic chord chart. This can work very well as many players function best when given some freedom. Add to that the fact that many of the greatest rhythm section players aren’t the best of readers.

But for those times when you really need to give more than brief guidance, it’s important to know how to write for rhythm section. Ideally you know the players and can taylor the strictness or freedom that you give the players when writing parts for them.


As mentioned, you can often leave  much of the interpretation is left up to the performer. In this case the parts may just consist of chord symbols which the player will interpret to fit the style.

Ex1: Basic chord symbol part for guitar or piano
Ex1: Basic chord symbol part for guitar or piano

Symbols can be written above or below the staff, as long it is obvious which staff they belong to.

If specific melody lines are required on a piano or guitar part, they can be combined with the chord symbol part. Any parts that are unison with other instruments should have the same accent markings.

Ex 2: Combination of chord symbol and melody part.
Ex 2: Combination of chord symbol and melody part.

With big band arranging it would be more common to give piano or guitar a melody part if they were featured in a small combo section of the arrangement, rather than playing a unison with a brass section.

It is not usually required to write out exact chord voicings for piano or guitar, but in some cases it may be worth writing the top note of a chord, especially if specific guide tones are useful to the part. In this case it is a good idea to use a different note head style:

Ex 3: Diamond note heads show the top note of the chord.
Ex 3: Diamond note heads show the top note of the chord.

If a specific rhythm is required, slash type note heads can be used

Ex 4: Slash type note heads show rhythm of chords.
Ex 4: Slash type note heads show rhythm of chords.

If an arrangement includes a written bass line, the piano part should include this, not so that the pianist can play the line in unison but so that they can see what the bass player will be playing so that they can voice their chords accordingly. Likewise any other instrument or section part can be given as a cue, so that the pianist can construct an accompanying part.

Ex 5: Bass part and sax cues.
Ex 5: Bass part and sax cues.

Walking Bass Lines

The walking bass line is usually made up of arpeggios and scale passages. The main object is to state every beat, so the line is predominantly crotchets, but can include quavers and triplets.

This table shows some basic rules of the walking bass. (Chord tones = Root, 3rd, 5th, 6th or 7th)


One chord per bar

Two chords per bar

1 Usually a root (but can be another chord tone if chord is a repetition of the previous bar) Root
2 Chord tone or passing note Chord tone or passing note
3 Chord tone or passing note Root
4 1. Chord tone (especially a leading note)
2. Passing note
3. Semitone up or down into chord tone of next chord
Chord tone or passing note

Passing notes can be used between chord tones either on the same chord or between chord changes, often as leading notes or approach tones (these are notes that approach a chord tone chromatically from above)

Walking Bass
Walking Bass

Repeated notes are sometimes used (see below), but are not recommended across a chord change or from a strong to a weak beat.

Repeated Notes
Repeated Notes

Chords are nearly always in root position, although inversions are required in certain sequences, eg I Got Rhythm. Where chords are changing every beat use roots.

  • Quaver and triplet notes can be used at times for variety.
  • Large interval leaps are useful occasionally and are usually followed by a scale passage moving in the opposite direction.

Drumkit Notation: Parts for Drummers

With jazz arrangements, drummers are nearly always given a very basic “guide” part. Ideally you want to give the drummer the most information without becoming cluttered or awkward to read. This is not because drummers are not good readers, but so that they can concentrate on listening and improvising a creative and sensitive performance. Fills are usually left up to the performer. Most parts can be written with just bass drum, cymbal (hi hat or ride), snare and in some cases tom toms, though the latter should be used for specific rhythms rather than written solos.

Ex 1: Basic drum notation. Note that many drum kits will only have two tom toms.
Ex 1: Basic drum notation. Note that many drum kits will only have two tom toms.

If a basic swing ride rhythm is required, it is common to write just bass drum and cymbal pattern for one bar followed by repeat bars. The bass drum part should follow the bass part, eg if the bass player has a walking bass, you should write four bass drum beats and if the bass player is playing two beats to a bar you should write two bass drum beats for the drummer. (The drummer does not necessarily play the bass drum – this is just so the drummer knows what the bass player is doing). The cymbal part should specify which cymbal (hi hat or ride) is to be played and whether any type of sticks other than normal should be used (eg brushes or mallets).

Ex 2: Simple drum part
Ex 2: Simple drum part

The above is sometimes written like this:

Ex: 3
Ex: 3

I prefer Ex 2 as it is easier to follow and easier for use in a sequencer as you will be able to hear the drum part (The repeats signs hide the actual MIDI notes).

Once a basic rhythm has been established it is allowable to use slashes. This is especially useful after a departure from the basic rhythm.

Ex 4: Slashes used to denote return to basic rhythm
Ex 4: Slashes used to denote return to basic rhythm

Phrasing & Accents

When a drummer is required to accentuate rhythmic passages or accents in the brass or saxophones, they can either be given these as an exact part to play (see above ex. 4) or as cues. If a drummer is given cues, they have more freedom to interpret the part.

Ex5: Drum part with cues
Ex5: Drum part with cues

In this case a drummer would choose which drums to play and probably precede the phrase with a short fill.

Different Styles


The backbeat (ie beats 2 and 4 in 4/4) can be accented with:

  • Snare drum – typically rock and roll, loud climaxes in jazz and dance jazz styles such as swing, jump and r&b.
  • Hi hat foot pedal and/or sidestick on snare – subtler and quieter jazz styles

Bass drum

The bass drum is often written purely as a guide to indicate what the bass player is doing. If a bass player has a walking line it is usual to write for bass drum beats in a bar of 4/4. (a drummer will rarely actually play this except in certain styles such as old time swing or jump blues. If the bass player is playing 2 beats to the bar, it is usual to write two beats for the bass drum.

The Rhythm Section And Keyboards

Rhythm section writing can be problematic, as you often want to give the player freedom to ad lib, but within certain parameters or boundaries. In addition some drum or bass patterns that are often improvised are very complex to notate and are often unreadable at sight to all but the very best reading players, who are not always the best or most versatile feel players. This is especially true in the case of drum fills.


Piano and electric piano

The piano is a non transposing instrument written on two staves, treble and bass clef. Usually the treble clef is played by the right hand and the bass clef by the left hand, but there are of course many instances where you may deviate form this. You may wish to write out an exact part or supply a guide part, which will allow the pianist more freedom.

With many pop and commercial styles it is acceptable to give the pianist chord symbols and an indication of the rhythm, either by writing the name of the rhythm (eg bossa nova, jazz ballad etc) at the top of the part or by writing a rhythmic figure in the first bar (or two bars if it is a two bar pattern) and the indication similar…

If you wish the player to use the rhythm as guide and to make their own contribution to the feel you could indicate this with similar ad lib.

It is conventional when giving a piano player chord symbols to also give them the bass part in the bass clef. This does not necessarily mean that they should play the part in unison with their left hand but so that they know what the bass player will be playing and be able to voice their chords appropriately and avoid clashes. It can often be useful to give the pianist vocal cues (essential with colla voce parts where the pianist is accompanying a singer and there is no steady tempo), or any other cues that might be useful (brass stabs, instrumental lead lines, drum fills etc).

The piano can be useful to double up in unison with other instruments to give colour, especially useful with woodwinds.

Some conventional styles of accompaniment:

  1. Bass notes and block chords. This is a very simple form of accompaniment, liable to sound rather corny.
  2. Arpeggios. These will usually be rising or alternately rising and descending. The lowest note is often the root but not necessarily if their is a separate bass part.
  3. A tremolo between two important notes of a chord (e.g. 3rds, 7ths)
  4. Repeated block chords. This can be very powerful.
  5. Sustained chords (pad). Sustains on piano can be enhanced by tremolos or rolls.
  6. Stride style. (Left hand bass in two, right hand chords on back beat). Often works best for solo piano as bass player would need to play in unison with the left hand. Good for 30s style.
  7. Boogie. As above but left hand bass in four and right hand chords on off-beat quavers)

Electric Organ

Much of the above can apply to organ, obviously sustains are very useful but the sound can become wearing. With the use of a Leslie (rotating loudspeaker) more variety and intensity can be applied, there are usually two speeds: fast and slow.


A very useful instrument but due to its enormous versatility and variety is beyond the scope of these notes. Its use in arranging must depend on your own knowledge of its capabilities. If you intend to use synthesizers it is best to learn to program them or hire a competent programmer.


A tinkly sound which can be used well in unison with woodwind or strings for a pretty effect.


Associated with folk styles in many countries, can be used to impart the clichéd Parisian or Italian street song flavour. Melodically it works very well in unison with flutes or clarinets.


The harp is tuned diatonically, chromatic tones being made available by a series of pedals. Writing for the harp is very much a specialist area, as many parts written as for keyboard are unplayable. I would recommend getting friendly with a harpist to be given a practical demonstration in the possibilities and impossibilities of harp playing.

Many harpists these days read chord symbols and simple parts can often be written with a lead line and chord symbols, but it’s best to know in advance that the harpist is happy with this.

A very useful cliche is the glissando. This can be written in full (*) or the first and last notes can be connected by a line and the implied notes indicated by a chord symbol(*).


The guitar is written in the treble clef and sounds an octave lower than written. It can function either as an accompanying instrument (rhythm guitar) or as a solo voice (lead guitar).

It is very rare for an arranger to write guitar chords in full notation, as many chord voicings possible on a keyboard are unplayable on a guitar. Chord parts usually consist of chord symbols with a rhythmic guide as with piano.

Obviously the acoustic guitar (either nylon or steel strung) is limited dynamically unless it is close miked, but the electric guitar is very versatile, especially with the use of effects such as wah wah, distortion (amp or fuzz box), phaser, flanger, tremolo, compression etc. Apart from wah wah which can be used on rhythm guitar, most of the effects are used for solos and lead playing and are used at the players (or producer’s) discretion, so the arranger is not required to have a thorough knowledge but it is worthwhile to investigate what is available. The sound of an electric guitar is often very personal to the player and will vary depending on the make of guitar and the amp settings or effects used. These days the guitar is even more versatile if the player has a midi guitar or interface which will allow the instrument to trigger an unlimited range of synthesized sounds.

The electric guitar can blend with any other instrument, depending on the player’s chosen sound so some tactful direction may be necessary at rehearsal or on a session.

Many playing effects are available. Notes can be bent upwards by pushing the string or strings across the frets with the left hand or in either direction with the use of a whammy bar.

Harmonics are achieved as with all string instruments by lightly touching the string on a node with the left hand. The note has a pure bell-like quality.

The standard tuning is (upward from the sixth string) E, A, D, G, B, E though the strings can be tuned in many different ways.

Some specialised styles:

Slide or bottleneck guitar is a style originally used by early blues players. The instrument is often tuned to an open chord and played with a glass tube held across the strings with the left hand to create a sliding (glissando) effect. Slide playing may require harder strings or a higher action (the distance between the strings and the fretboard) than normal. many slide players use specialised instruments such as the Dobro or National Steel.

Hawaiian guitar is a style that also involves sliding and is usually played on a lap steel guitar which as the name implies is played on the lap with the fretboard facing upwards.

Pedal steel is usually used in country music. The instrument has ten strings and a system of pedals changes the tension of the strings, creating a glissando effect.

Other stringed instruments:


Typical in dixieland (4 string banjo) or country (esp. bluegrass) where the 5 string banjo is used. In dixieland playing the banjo is usually a rhythm instrument, even when taking solos the players usually play chords rather than single lines. The banjo can be used as a melodic instrument in many styles to add an unexpected and sometimes even slightly oriental flavour. Tremolos work well. The 5 string banjo with its associated fingerpicking style is very much a specialist instrument. When writing bluegrass parts it is best to give chord symbols and allow the player to improvise.


Used in folk music of many cultures. (Notably Italian). Tremolos are very effective and are often the trademark of the mandolin.

Guitar accompaniments can be developed in the same way as piano (see above), though tremolos in accompaniments are unusual.


The double bass as used in jazz, pop, folk or country is usually played pizzicato as a rhythm instrument, though arco is sometimes used by jazz soloists. It is rarely used in modern pop music where bass parts are played on electric bass guitar or synth.

The bass guitar is tuned in the same way as the double bass, though some modern instruments have a lower (5th) string tuned to B. Many bass players also play fretless bass which is capable of smooth glissandi and a very expressive pronounced vibrato.

Bass parts can consist purely of chord symbols and a rhythmic guide, but unless you know the player well it is much better to write a notated part as well, even if you allow them freedom to ad lib. As with piano parts you could notate the first bar and then give chord symbols with the indication similar.

There are conventions regarding the writing of bass lines:

Walking bass.

This is a style most associated with jazz, but is sometimes used in rock & roll, blues and country. It consists of quarter notes played in a mixture of scales and arpeggios. A good rule of thumb is to have the root (or bass note implied by the inversion required) on the first note of the chord. You can include triplet

or 8th note ornaments but I find these are best left to the player’s no doubt infinite good taste and discretion.

2 in a bar.

Usually half notes in 4/4 time, but the same conventions apply to 1 in a bar in 3/4 or any time signature. Often alternating roots and fifths but a the last note of a chord should be a root. Exceptions are when the root is moving down a 5th (or up a 4th) the 3rd can be used as a leading note (*), or a 5th of a I chord can go to a 5th of V (*).


The conventional drumkit consists of:

  • A stool on which the drummer sits,
  • A bass drum played by a foot pedal,
  • A pair of hi hat cymbals played by another foot pedal,
  • A snare drum
  • A floor tom tom (abbreviated to floor tom) one or more smaller toms
  • A ride cymbal (a single large cymbal usually played rhythmically)
  • Various other cymbals used for accents and effects (crash, splash etc)
  • Cowbell, woodblock and triangle (optional)

Sticks are the normal way of playing drums and will be used unless indicated otherwise. Mallets have a softer ringing effect. Brushes have a less defined swishing effect.

The bass drum part often emulates or has some relation to the bass part.

The snare drum has a set of snares which are stretched across the lower head to give the drum a crisp, rattling sound. The snares can be turned off to produce a dryer more tom like sound. The snare is hit with a stick, often though by no means necessarily, to supply a rhythmic backbeat (beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 time). The backbeat is a characteristic of rock and roll and many forms of funk drumming. A loud accent can be played by hitting the drum head with the tip of the stick and the rim with the side of the stick simultaneously. This is called a rimshot and is very effective either with or without a crash cymbal. A clicking effect can be achieved by placing the end of the stick on the head and tapping the rim with the side of the stick. This is called a sidestick and is often used in the bossa nova rhythm to emulate the claves (see Latin percussion). It can also be used effectively to supply a soft backbeat in jazz or rock in quiet passages.

The high hat or ride cymbal usually play a steady rhythm (8th or 16th notes).The high hat can be opened by the footpedal (indicated o or closed +). Open notes are used singly, closed notes can be repeated (*). The high hat and ride are not usually played simultaneously, though sometimes the foot pedal only of the high hat is played during a ride rhythm to supply a subtle backbeat.

Crash cymbals will often mark accents or the beginning of a section (verse, chorus etc), and are usually played along with a bass drum accent.

Toms are played either rhythmically or used effectively in fills.

The drums are written in the bass clef or percussion clef. Conventionally the drums appear on the stave as in ex (*), but variations are possible as long as you indicate which drum is to be played.

Drum parts cause more problems than other rhythm section parts as one always has to choose whether to keep simple and allow the drummer freedom or to risk a part that may be too complex with the result that the drummer is so busy deciphering it that their feel suffers. Most Latin American rhythms can be indicated by their name and a very simple first bar followed by repeat bars. Good drummers have very good ears and will quickly embellish a simple part to fit an arrangement, but it is often useful to give cues such as brass stabs or phrases. This is especially important in jazz big band arrangements, where drums phrasing with the lead section is typical.

Sometimes you can write a rhythmic pattern without specifying the particular drum and allow the drummer freedom to choose or experiment.

It is useful to indicate the tempo in BPM (beats per minute) and whether the 8th notes or 16th notes are played straight or “swung” (aka “bounced”)as in swing or shuffle styles.

If you are copying drum parts I find it is very helpful to write 4 or 8 bars to a line (where the music is in 4 or 8 bar phrases of course) so that the drummer can glance at the music rather than keep their head glued to the part and count bars at the expense of their creativity. However many bars in a phrase it is logical to start a new section at the beginning of the line and indicate at the end of a line how many bars in the line.

In jazz arrangements it can be effective to alter a drum pattern slightly when going to a middle 8 or a solo section. For instance changing from high hat to ride, or changing from 2 beats in a bar to 4.

When a repeated pattern is played without variation it is possible to write “Play 16 bars similar”


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