Voicing Chords for Big Band – Example #1

One thing that always fascinates me about arranging for big band in general is the infinite number of ways that a band can sound. When you think about it, the way a big band sounds generally comes down to the harmony used, and the manner in which that harmony is “voiced” for the ensemble.

A Glenn Miller chart sounds completely different than a Jim McNeely or Thad Jones (or any other modern writer) chart because of a variety of things – but a good chunk of the difference comes down to the harmony and the way in which that harmony is “voiced” for the band.

There other factors of course, such as the way rhythm, counterpoint, etc is used, but harmonic choices are prominent in the sound of a chart.

When I first started arranging for big band, I didn’t have a clue on how to “voice” each section of the band. In high school, I remember transcribing some Les Brown arrangements, and then using some of my music theory knowledge to try to come as close to the record as possible. I read a book that said “just transcribe the lead lines, then fill in the notes of the harmony from there…”

I remember in HS doing “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Take the A Train” transcriptions/arrangements, then taking them into a local community big band to read through. They actually sounded pretty good, and closer to the recording than I had anticipated.

What was really cool though, (and still is) was to actually “hear” a bunch of dots I had written on paper. It was like I had just put together a big jig saw puzzle and the result was not seeing, but hearing it.

This video goes over a simple voicing for the entire big band (horns), making sure that each section is voiced so that the chords are properly represented with the tones that need to be there. This would be an example of how someone like Sammy Nestico would voice a rhythmic passage. You can view the entire voicing at the PDF link below the video. Let me know if you have any questions or comments too.

View the entire big band voicing example here

22 Replies to “Voicing Chords for Big Band – Example #1”

  1. Alan


    Thanks – this is so helpful. More please!

    Some problems I find when arranging for big band which I hope you might be able to cover some time in the future (in no particular order!)

    How generally to accommodate the bari (can’t double the bass all the time!)

    How to chart “simpler” chords ie Cadd9/E where you don’t want to double the E higher up (ie the chord is essentially only 3 notes) –
    When its appropriate for sax to double trumpet, ‘bone to double sax etc

    When it’s appropriate to have the piano doubling the melody line etc

    How to manage the parts so that players get a “breather”(!)

    Keep up the brilliant work



  2. Gerry Snyder

    Jim, I have been working on an arrangement and I have run across a problem I know you can help me with. The problem is this. I have a melody line in the key of C concert where the trumpet has an F concert sustained for a full measure within a C Seventh chord which has no F. How do I voice this with another trumpet, Alto, Trombone, Tenor sax. Bari. sax and bass?

  3. Laurent


    that is some very good stuff indeed
    thanks a lot for all the effort you put in your lessons
    i want more!

  4. Bola


    Thanks for the highly educative instruction. I hope you will do more of this and I will appreciate if you can also teach how to turn a given rock/pop band song into swing with all its charcteristic features. Many thanks for the good Job!!


  5. Jim Martin

    Gerry: with an F in the melody, you’ll simply have to change the chord to C7sus of some kind. With an F in the melody, you don’t have much choice, other than to try to force it into a C7 chord. The melody note is supreme, and it will more often than not dictate the kind of chord you can use.

    As I mentioned in another video on sus chords, if you try to put a 3rd into a sus chord voicing, you create a minor 9th in the voicing, and that is a pretty rough sound. I would have to see the example to comment any more than that. If you email it to me, I could maybe do an example of how to solve that voicing issue.

  6. Jim Martin

    Alan: All of those are great questions and topics for the future. I sometimes struggle with that bari player too! But I’ll cover other alternatives in future videos.

    The other topics you mentioned get into the nitty gritty of arranging, and a concept I didn’t learn until doing my Master’s at DePaul University in Chicago. It has to do with the span/weight/density issue of what is going on in the music at any one time. That concept was like an arranging light bulb for me, making me look at the ensemble in a totally different way. I will get into that concept as we go along and get into score analysis too.

    I will also do a video soon on what kind of doublings sound good as well. Thanks for the great suggestions!

  7. Eric Schultz

    Thanks again Jim for your lessons. I can already see my teaching improving as a result of your clarity.

    Also I love the sound of the F# maj7#4 with the 4TBNs in that specific register with that specific spacing to represent the D7 #5#9 chord. What a mix between the 3 sections and a super strong sound !
    It’s great to have a forum for discussing arranging questions – for years I’ve felt like I’ve been off on my own out alone in the Jazz arranging wilderness…

    Questions on the way about the logic of a 3 TBN section versus 4 TBNs…


  8. Jim Martin

    Eric: thanks for the nice compliment, and I’m glad these impromptu “lessons” are doing some good for class members.

    You said however: “Also I love the sound of the F# maj7#4 with the 4TBNs in that specific register with that specific spacing to represent the D7 #5#9 chord.”

    Personally, I would avoid refering to part of a voicing (in this case the bones) within a chord as a separate chord altogether. That can get very confusing. Just think of the bones as playing the 3rd, 7th, #5 and #9 of the harmony at that point in time.

    It could just as easily be an Ab13 chord and the bones would be voiced exactly the same, but now you’d have 3rd, 7th, 9th and 13th of that chord.

    Or it could be a Cmi7(b5) chord, so the bones would be playing the b5, the root, the 3rd and the 11th.

    Or (one more) it would be a bone voicing for an Eb mi6/9 chord, in which case they would be covering the 3rd, the 5th, the 6th, and the 9th.

    So I always relate the notes and voicing in relation to the chord that is being voiced at that particular time. Hopefully that made sense! Thanks again for the support on this site.

  9. Harvey Tuckman

    Please explain the writing of the chord for the saxes down into the bass cleff. I always enter the chord in the treble cleff. Maybe you could use your example in big band voicings and show the assignment of each note to which sax.

  10. Jim Martin

    Harvey: the sax voicing is downward in this order: Alto 1, Alto 2, Tenor 1, Tenor 2 and Bari Sax. I generally don’t do anything different for saxes in this situation unless there is a cross voicing (for example, where for sake a better musical line and to avoid repeated notes, I cross the tenor 2 above the tenor 1 player).

  11. Eric Schultz


    It’s clear that most standard Big Band charts nowadays have 4 TBNs and with most charts there is a moment when the 4th TBN gets below the staff in bass clef, requiring a BASS TBN. But as none of the places where I direct bands have BTBNs, and also because it’s difficult enough to recruit 3 TBNs – not to mention a 4th one, I have taken the habit of only writing for 3 TBNs.

    (or if we’re playing a purchased chart, I often re-write the TBNs from 4 to 3 – although sometimes it can sound O.K. without the missing TBN4 part…)

    I’d like to ask you a few TBN questions, as you seem to be uniquely placed to answer them as you’re a professional arranger as well as a Trombonist:

    1)How do you feel about 3 TBNs versus 4 TBNs in a Big Band – pros and cons?
    (Of course there once was a guy named Duke Ellington that only had 3 TBNs in his band for 40 years or so)

    2)Doesn’t the presence of TBN 4 lead to some voicings with the root doubled by TBN4 and BSX? Especially when TPT1 is down towards the middle of the treble clef staff(between Bb and Eb) ?

    (Of course the obvious response is to give TBN4 a rest, but after awhile he could start to wonder why he was called for the gig…)

    3)In the Arranging text “Inside the Score” by Ray Wright, all of the Thad and Brookmeyer charts have the BTBN on Eb or lower(in fact all the way to ‘Ab’ below the staff(!!) in ‘Hello Goodbye’), requiring the use of a BTBN for TBN4.

    Yet, TBN 4 in the 2 Nestico charts never goes lower than ‘F’, making it possible for a tenor TBN to play the TBN4 part(although I would think that it would be easier for a BTBN to make that note sound).

    Do you always assume in your writing that TBN4 is a BTBN, or do you sometimes think of terms of TBN4 as a Tenor TBN?
    (especially if all of your ensemble voicings in a piece are constructed like the D7#5#9 > Gmi9 example up above)

    Should a competant TBN 4 be assumed to have both axes available ?

    Thanks for your time…

  12. Jim Martin

    Eric: Those are all great questions regarding the trombone section. I think it might be easiest for me to answer them with a video to illustrate some ranges and some more voicings for bones regarding the questions you had. I have some definite opinions on the subject. I’ll be traveling this week, but I’m going to see if I can make some videos while on the road. Look for them soon.

  13. Vaughan

    Hi Jim, In the above example, I would have used the 7th C instead of the root D in the Trumpets. I always assumed the trumpets to carry all the upper extensions. Does this example only go for Dominate 7th chords?

    Great site, thanks,

  14. Jim Martin

    Vaughan: this technique is right out of the Sammy Nestico playbook. In this case, the trumpets play a straight triad down, and they do cover the upper extensions of the chord as I show in the D+7(#9) chord. Generally, you can cover the root in the upper register, you just want to avoid it in the middle register, like in the bones for example. Since the trumpets are really covering the #9 and +5 of the chord, the ear really doesn’t hear the root in there so much. And it is far removed from the actual root being played by bari sax. I suppose you could use the 7th, but I don’t think i would in this type of voicing. Remember: each section should sound complete by themselves. check out Sammy’s book for more on this type of voicing for full big band.

  15. moses la rosa

    As you can see I’m new in your interesting page.
    I’m a selftaught theory lover and although my experience is not so great I could notice that both voicings, D7+(#9) and Gmin9 have something in common, Upper Structure Triads, I think that’s what Nestico needed to give a “kick effect”.
    I suppose he tried three different triad invertions for each voicing, didn’t he? I consider that knowing this detail is very important for anyone who tries to learn arranging for big band and other ensembles having four or more horns.

  16. Jim Martin

    Moses: You can think of a D+7(#9) chord as a D7 with a Bb triad above, what is usually called upper structure triads. However, the Gmi9 chord is not really considered to have an “upper structure”. I know what you are referring to though, the voicing itself uses a full triad in the trpts, depending on what the top note is. So, you could use a D minor triad above and that would include the 5th, the 7th, and the 9th of the Gmi9 chord. Or you could use an F major triad inverted (9th on top) and that would include the 7th, 11th, and 9th of the Gmi9 triad.

    The term “upper structures” however is usually meant for dominant 7th altered chords like the D+7(#9) chord. In the Gmi9 example, it is really just a voicing decision. Sammy tended to use that alot because it sounded full and was simple at the same time. Does that makes sense?

  17. Ron

    When voicing a maj7 with the root in the melody, I know to substitute the maj6 in place of the maj7, but is it ok to use the maj7 if you use a drop 2 voicing? I write mostly for 4 horns (tpt, asx, tsx, tbn) and I’m never sure whether it’s ok to give the bone the maj7 since it’s an octave lower.

  18. Jim Martin

    Ron: I would avoid using the Major 7th in a voicing when the root is in the melody. If you put in the trombone an octave lower, it creates a minor 9th interval which does not sound very pleasing. You could write a line that skirts over the Maj 7th in passing, so you get a little flavor of that note without sitting on it. I would probably voice the instruments down in 4ths to make a quartel sound in that instance. So a C Maj7 with Trumpet playing C, would be (downwards) C,G,D,A. In that voicing you get the 9th and the 6th and those kind of voicings sound full too.

  19. Colin Campbell.

    I refer to your big band voicings and in particular your example showing the resolution of the chord D+7(#9) /Gmi9
    and as I try to write linear, I would sometimes put an Ab in the baritone or bass, which then makes the D+7(#9) a better resolution now named as an Ab 13 (#11) . I sometimes suggest that the way to get another chord in place of the dominant 7th is to substitute it to the chord based on the flattened 5th of the chord you wish to replace. e.g. on a D7 chord—the 5th note being an A—then flattened this (Ab) and this becomes the new root of Ab 7 The correct name of the chord depends on what the melody note is. i have no formalised training in arranging, other than to see scores and by putting one’s own equations etc, you come up with the same answers. The big problem for me is I am not quick enough to view in transposed score so I have to put the parts I wish to know about ibto Sibelius or Finale and then change into Concert. Believ me this is the way to go and you can learn so much by making the effort for knowledge. I am 80 years young, but never too old to learn. One has to be careful not to overdo the chamging to a substitute chord as –used sparingly, it can be very effective and can be added to your tools of your experience.
    At present I am learning to arrange for Concert Bands and I am lucky that I get my efforts played by The Royal Marines Association Concert Band in UK of which I am a musician. It doesnt get any better than to hear one’s arrangement played by the brilliance of these ex-Royal Marine Musicians.
    Hope this helps, come back to me on any questions you may care help, I usually give an answer in the parlance of a common language which is easy to understand.
    Love your input Jim Martin.
    Kind regards

  20. Jim Martin

    Hey Colin, thanks for the input and congratulations for continuing your arranging efforts and education at the young age of 80!

    You are right about the substitute chord Ab13 for D+7(#9). Its the classic “tritone substitution” and depending on what the melody note is, can work better than coming from a 5th above.

    You referred to it as Ab13(#11), but actually unless you have the note “D” in the voicing, it would technically only be an Ab13 chord. Your chord, Ab13(#11) leads to the Gmi chord nicely though, the #11 just adds a nice spice to the chord so I would recommend using a D in voicing somewhere if you are going to do that.

    Lastly, there is nothing like getting a chart played by good players. The incident I refer to above the video is when I was in high school. I transcribed those charts, mainly the lead lines, then voiced them out with what I thought would work and then brought them into the local community band to play. My manuscript sucked, but they could read it and it came across OK. It was the first time I had written notes for separate players, and heard back the notes I put on all of those parts. It was very cool and go me hooked on arranging for a lifetime.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.