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Working with horn players, from a guitarists perspective
Iím a guitar player but I love wind instruments. Iíve been a big Miles Davis fan for years and my favorite horn of them all is the soprano saxophone, thanks to John Coltrane. Thereís nothing quite like the sheer energy of a hot big-band blasting away a hip arrangement to a hot Latin number. Also itís hard to duplicate the beauty and emotion of a tight horn section playing a ballad with lush harmonies. Do you realize though that many musicians have never worked with a horn player before? Guitarists in particular are notorious for being ignorant about the subtleties of working with a horn player much less an entire horn-section. Horns add so much to a band itís a wonder more groups do not use them. It took me several years to develop my skills as a musician enough to have a comfortable fit in bands with horns. Working with horns will make you a better musician just by association.
Once I decided to step out of the role of sideman and try out the role of being a leader, I started booking myself in small jazz combos. I quickly realized that working with horn players was a necessity. Being a chord player, I found myself in quartets with a single trumpet or sax player or in a quintet, my favorite size group, with a trumpet and a sax. Fortunately I know many excellent horn players and it was relatively easy for me to pick their brains about what makes a good gig from their perspective.

First of all you know that all horn players can read music, some better than others. So I decided to teach myself to read music too. After all, I didnít want to book sidemen on my gigs and ask them to do something I was incapable of doing myself. Getting past the music reading obstacle opened several doors for me. I learned to transpose songs into different keys for particular horns, Bb for trumpet and tenor sax, Eb for alto sax, Bass Clef for trombones. Learning to transpose on the fly made me a much better reader.

I also had to get over playing songs in standard guitar keys like E, A, D and G with lots of sharps. Horn players like flat keys like F, Bb, Eb and Ab. Iím very comfortable playing in those horn friendly keys now. As a leader I always try to have charts for my horn players in their keys. I make charts using Band-In-A-Box. There are several programs that make lead sheets. The charts are legible and horn players really appreciate leaders who have their act together enough to speak their language. I have Concert Books, Bb and Eb books and a Bass Clef book with all the songs I normally play. It took a long time to produce and organize them but now that I have them they are highly coveted.

Working with horns also gives you insight into music from different angles than your own instrument will alone. Horns are all melody instruments. The way you play chords with horns is by using several of them, each horn playing a different note of the chord. Plus playing a horn is attached to breathing so a horn players phrasing is naturally more lyrical. If youíre a good leader youíll learn the ranges of the different horns, where they sound best, and how to write out arrangements for them and voice your harmony parts to maximize each hornís special qualities.

Working in a guitar, bass, drum rhythm section with a single melody instrument like trumpet or sax gives you solid comping skills and improvisational ideas. You grasp basic song structures, intros, codas, learn how and when to trade fours, when to comp, when to lay out, how to play rhythm, how to come in with seamless melodies, and many little things that you never really consider when playing in bands without horns.

I guess what Iím saying is not to overlook opportunities to work with horn players. It may not get you a record deal or land you a spot on Letterman, but it will make you a better musician. It will teach you many valuable things about signaling your intent with your eyes, playing as a whole band and not just as a single instrument always waiting your turn to solo. Thereís a whole lot more to music than just cranking up your amp and playing pentatonic blues riffs in the overdrive channel. Donít rob yourself of a great musical experience by being small minded and declaring that youíll never work with horn players.

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