What Instruments Are Used for Jazz?

Vincent Barletta

May 12, 2023


While any instrument can play jazz, specific instruments ‘speak’ to the idiom more than others. The trumpet, made famous by Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, and the Saxophone (in all its shapes and sizes) are core jazz ensemble members.

The clarinet, popularised by Sidney Bechet, also plays a crucial role in jazz. The flute is less common, but several great jazz players, including Herbie Mann and Eric Dolphy, have used the instrument.


The Saxophone has been a critical instrument in jazz since it was first introduced around the turn of the century. With a wide range and beautiful sound, the Saxophone can be smooth, sultry, or raucous and soulful. It seamlessly blends into a jazz ensemble or can stand out front as a soloist.

Invented by Frenchman Adolphe Sax in the early 1900s, the Saxophone combines the projection of a brass instrument with the agility of woodwind instruments. It is played with a single reed and has an embouchure similar to a clarinet. It is available in the orchestral family in C and F and the military band family in E and B.

Modern saxophones are typically brass, with between 20 and 23 tone holes of varying size that vibrate when you blow into the mouthpiece with a cane reed. The holes are closed and opened by keys activated with the fingers and held in place with soft leather pads.


The piano is a standard jazz instrument and has been a staple for many of the greatest artists. It can play chords and melodies, making it ideal for a jazz band or ensemble.

The drums are another standard instrument in jazz and a vital part of the rhythm section. Using a standard drum kit (snare, kick, hi-hat, and ride cymbals), drummers can control the groove and pace of a song.

String instruments, such as violin and cello, have also played an important role in jazz. Virtuosic jazz musicians such as Ola Kvernberg have pushed the boundaries of what it is possible to achieve with these musical instruments.

Some jazz musicians use other less-common instruments like the oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. These instruments can create unique sounds and are often heard in free jazz music. Free jazz is an experimental style of jazz that explores the possibilities of improvisation and changing pitch.

Double Bass

The double bass, or contrabass, is the lowest member of a classical string section, alongside violins, violas, and cellos, and is also used in a range of other genres, including jazz, rock music, blues, country music, and tango. It is the only modern bowed string instrument tuned in fourths rather than fifths, and its strings are usually tuned E1-A1-D2 (though four-string instruments are typical).

The guitar is often heard in jazz combos and ensembles and was also a significant part of jazz fusion, which fused jazz with other genres such as rock and funk. Famous jazz guitarists include Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and Pat Metheny.

Drums are a staple of most jazz bands, often accompanied by snare drums, bass, hi-hat, and ride cymbals. Drummers can use various techniques to create different styles of rhythm, which are essential in providing the backbone of any jazz composition. Other instruments occasionally used in jazz include harmonicas and the human voice.


The drums provide a rich rhythmic drive for jazz bands and add fun tonal color splashes. Drummers like Max Roach and Buddy Rich helped break genre barriers by using various techniques to keep time and make songs more interesting.

The snare and bass drum are critical to any good jazz drummer. Jazz drummers use a lighter touch than rock drummers and focus on keeping time rather than playing loudly. Jazz drummers prefer smaller maple or birch shells to create more responsive drum sounds and better pitch control.

The clarinet is a woodwind instrument that completes jazz ensembles. It is often played alongside the Saxophone, though it can also be found in other jazz styles. The trumpet is a brass instrument that has been used throughout jazz history. Its unique tone and power have made it an integral part of jazz from early styles to contemporary styles.