Jazz Rhythm Section setup – amplified instruments

Jazz rhythm section setup can make or break a band. Get it wrong and your band could be set up for trouble. It is especially important to set up amplified instruments in a way that will help the band play better together and sound better.

Electric guitars, bass, and keyboards need amplifiers to work in a jazz band setting. In this post, I’ll give some top tips for setting them up properly so you can get the most out of your rhythm section. I will also include some bonus advice on the best ways to help rhythm section players blend with the rest of the ensemble. This matters, because good setup and effective blend are very important for good performance.

1. Physical setup in rehearsals and performance

  • Hearing and seeing each other is important. Jazz is like a team sport, it is interactive and players must be able to respond to each other in real-time. Set up so all members of the rhythm section are close together and can see each other.
  • A classic setup is drum set to one side, piano on the other side so the pianist and drummer can see each other, and the bassist in between them on the ride cymbal side. If you have guitar instead of piano, put it where the piano would go.
  • Diagram 1: shows a good setup for a jazz combo rhythm section (click for a free downloadable PDF showing jazz combo setup):
Jazz rhythm section setup - combo
  • Diagram 2: shows a good setup for a standard big band plus percussion (free downloadable PDF showing rhythm section setup in a big band here). Note, the horns are angled slightly off-centre. This can help with excessive echo in the kinds of halls school bands often play in. It is also good for line-of-sight between lead players and rhythm section:
Jazz rhythm section setup - big band
  • In rehearsal, it is good to keep the rhythm section in the same setup. The horns might form a circle to face them when you practice, but keep the rhythm section basically the same. In any case, they should be close  enough together that they can see and hear each other clearly.
  • Guitar could go next to the piano or in front of the drums. Percussion can go next to the drums or behind the kit.
  • Orchestra or concert band-style setup, rhythm section in a line along the back of the band behind the horns, is not good and should be avoided.
  • Rock band-style presentation with drums at the centre and chordal instruments widely-spcaed on either side is also not really good for jazz bands. Avoid it too. Be aware that “Sound guys” will often insist on this setup.

2. Amps, tone, and electric instruments

  • Amplifiers should be set up behind the player maybe offset slightly to one side. Don’t sit behind the amp.
  • It is usually good to raise amps off the floor, about chair height, so they don’t project into the players ankles. An alternative is to lean them back slightly, so they point upwards a bit.
  • Keep volume under control. Sometimes electric instruments need to be quite loud, but usually softer is better. Here’s a detailed article from pianist Hal Galper at the Jazz Education Network with a lot more about volume and rhythm section setup.
  • Bass should be loud enough to be heard by everyone in the band as they play but not much more than that.
  • When players check their levels, be aware that in a quiet room and in isolation they will sound very loud but may be inaudible when they play with all the other instruments. Check levels while all the other people are warming up or making noise until experience teaches roughly how to set levels. Fine tune levels during performance.
  • Guitar and keyboard should be softer than the bass except when they are soloing. Volume up for solos, volume down for comping.

Electric guitar in the jazz band

  • Guitar playing 4-to-a-bar style should be very soft
  • When players check their levels, be aware that in a quiet room and in isolation they will sound very loud but may be inaudible when they play with all the other instruments. Check levels while all the other people are warming up or making noise until experience teaches roughly how to set levels. Fine tune levels during performance.
  • If a guitarist is going to use overdrive or distortion for any solos, set the levels carefully in advance. In isolation it will seem very loud, even more so than normal. Set it loud enough to be heard over a busy rhythm section.
  • Usually, less drive or distortion will be easier to hear. Excessive distortion, especially modern metal-style rhythm guitar tone, will be very hard to hear and will sound bad in the mix. Less is better.
  • Too much drive or distortion tends to compress the sound making dynamic or expressive playing very difficult. It can even kill accents. Again, less is better
  • Using modulation effects (chorus, flanger, phaser) can cause intonation difficulties for horn players because these effects alter pitch. Take care.
  • Many effects pedals can alter the volume when they are engaged. Take care.
  • Wah wah is rarely as funky as teenage guitarists imagine. Take care.
  • A guitar with humbucker or P90 pickups will more easily get a conventional jazz tone than single coils. Adjust EQ so that it is not unpleasantly bright (reduce treble) or muddy (reduce bass) or honky (reduce mid). Scooped mids are rarely good for jazz.
  • Set tone to blend with the ensemble. A tone that is beautiful heard in isolation is rarely good in a mix. Make the tone sound good in a mix of instruments.

Electric bass

  • There is nothing wrong with electric bass in a jazz band. It doesn’t sound the same as double bass. It has its own character and is its own thing. Appreciate it as use it well.
  • Set bass volume so that there is a bit of room to turn up a little if there is a solo. Otherwise just loud enough to be heard by everyone in the band. In rock or fusion styles the bass can be a bit louder but take care.
  • Set tone so that it is not high treble and low bass. Similarly too much bass will be boomy and unpleasant. Start with ‘flat’ EQ (no boost, no cut), and then adjust to the room and the ensemble.
  • If the player is strong enough, a double bass can sound beautiful without an amp.
  • Set the tone to blend well in the ensemble and suit the style. Don’t set the tone in isolation from other instruments.

Keyboard

  • If using an electric keyboard, find a piano sound that blends well with the ensemble not just one that sounds most beautiful by itself.
  • Often the electric piano (Rhodes, Wurlizer) tones on a keyboard will be better than the piano sounds. They are not at all the same as piano but tend to be closer to the real thing an therefore may be less offensive. They often blend well in an ensemble.
  • Lower volume for comping, louder for solos. Adjust the volume while playing, if necessary. Or just play louder/softer if there is good touch-sensitivity.
  • Especially on electric keyboards, be very careful of low bass notes. They can sound too close to the bass and make the ensemble sound bad. Why are you playing down there anyway?

Conclusion – jazz rhythm section setup matters!

One of the keys to effective jazz combo and big band performance is setting up the rhythm section and using amplified instruments correctly. Jazz rhythm section setup needs to make it easy for the musicians to see and hear each other. That’s because the players must interact and respond to each other in real time. Jazz rhythm sections spend a lot or most of their time collectively creating the performance as they play. Read about jazz combo ensemble skills here. Good setup makes this easier. 

Amplified instruments can be wonderful, or terrible! Keep volume appropriate, set tones to mix well not just sound nice alone, and set up the amps so the players can hear themselves in relation to the band and the room. Follow the advice here and the amplified instruments in your jazz rhythm section stand a good chance of helping the ensemble sound great.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.