O Christmas Tree: Voiced for 3 Horns

One of the most common types of combo settings is 3 horns and rhythm. This group consists (usually) of trumpet, tenor sax, and trombone + rhythm section. Most commonly known as a jazz “combo” or “small group”.

Writing for only 3 horns can be challenging, but with a few guidelines to follow, and with some practice, arranging tunes for this size group will eventually become easy for you.

In this lesson, I take a previously done 4 horn arrangement and cut it down to just 3 players. I am often amazed at how much better a 4 horn chart can sound as opposed to only 3 voices. But in reality, you’ll probably get more gigs with less people, so get used to writing for this type of group.

Below the video is the finished chart with the 3 horn parts and the piano part (4 voices). Sit at the piano and play through some of these to get an idea of how the voicings sound. Then try your hand at some small combo arrangements. They can be fun, and unlike a big band chart, can be a little less intimidating.

Key Points:

  • Strive for the fullest sound you can
  • Limit repeated notes whenever possible
  • Strive for good (and idiomatic) lines for each player
  • Effective registers for each instrument
  • Use moving lines to outline harmony where necessary

17 Replies to “O Christmas Tree: Voiced for 3 Horns”

  1. Howard Wrightson

    Jim, In general, should you always strive to add the 6th, Major 7th or 9th(2nd) to the 1 or 4 chord, even in 3 horn voicing, to give modern sound? I realize that the 2mi7th replaces the 4 chord almost all the time now, it seems.

    Great lesson,

  2. Jim Martin

    Vaughan: I think in general, yes. It does depend on other factors too however, (like melody note, range, etc.) but I do try to spice up really any voicing to make it sound as good as possible with added notes like 6ths (13ths), 9ths, and major 7ths. I’m not sure if “modern” is the correct word but I understand what you mean.

    There are so many factors that you need to consider when dealing with just 3 voices. Try to do too much and get too fancy could result in things getting too weird. Oftentimes one well written moving line in a voice can function as many notes of a chord. One thing I don’t really cover in this lesson is the simple use of unison. This tune works well as a study in straight voicings though.

  3. ralph hopper

    Is there any specific way you would approach this if the 3 horns were – bari sax, tpt & ‘bone? Two lower range horns would seem to provide some specific challenges but this is a grouping that I have.


  4. Jim Martin

    Ralph: Yes, make the bari the lowest voice and trombone 2nd voice. You just have to make sure the bone player doesn’t get too high, ( and bari too) but this tune’s key makes it very doable for that setup. That’s one reason why choosing a key is so important from the outset, and another reason why playing “one size fits all” charts don’t always work so well for different instrumentations. As an arranger, its always best to know exactly what instrument will be playing the part when you write it.

  5. Laurent Rinaldi

    great stuff as usual Jim
    i really enjoy the idea of taking one tune and showing the many arranging possibilities
    thanks again

  6. Laurent Rinaldi

    Jim, just a quick question, bar #20, there is a Eb in your Db7(#9) chord, is that correct, or could it be a E?

  7. Jim Martin

    Laurent: Good eyes! Sorry about that, it should be an E natural because that’s the sharp 9. I’ll fix it and reupload.

  8. Jim Martin

    RM G: Yes, that should be written C9sus. Many times rhythm players will add upper extensions like 9ths and 13ths to those types of chords, but its best to give them all the information by writing it into the chord symbol itself. Excellent observation, I should have made that symbol C9sus.

  9. Jesper Naenfeldt


    The link doesn’t work. Is it still available?

    Thank you for a great site, just joined in.


  10. Jim Martin

    Jesper, the link works for me. It should open as a PDF file. Try right-clicking and doing “save page as”. Its there though for sure, I just clicked on it.

  11. Hernan Biancardi

    Hello Jim, I have a question on this one,
    When you deal with the Gmi9 (where there are several repeated notes that you avoid later) you choosed to mantain the D to the tenor sax.
    Wouldn’t it be better to give him the F that plays the alto sax, so there is the 7th in the voicing instead the 5th?
    Thank you very much !

  12. Jim Martin

    Hernan, are you referring to m. 5? If so, I made a mistake in the piano part. I didn’t reflect the horn notes in the piano part. The horn notes do move, but the piano part repeats. Is that what you are referring to?

  13. Hernan Biancardi

    Jim, thanks for your reply. Yes, I’m referring to the voicing of the Gmi9 in measure 5
    But my question is: why did you choose this voicing “A-D-Bb” instead of “A-F-Bb” ?
    The 4 horns version had the F in the alto sax, and I think that it would be better to include the 7th, instead the 5th in the tenor sax, am I right?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.