7 Blues Musical Instruments You Should Know

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When you think of the blues, you probably imagine crooning vocals, a slow bass line, and guitar licks that pull at your heart. This genre of music has evolved over the years, but its origins originated in the southern United States just after the end of the Civil War.

The blues was created by African American musicians who pulled inspiration from the songs and traditions of their past. In the 1920s, blues music started to become mainstream, and from there the genre began to encompass different styles, but the instruments in the blues band always tended to stay the same. Here are the main instruments that make up a blues band and their roles.

But, what are the standard musical instruments found in a blues band? Well, in this post, we’ll take a look at 7 of them.

1. Guitar

Some of the greatest blues musicians were guitarists. It was these individuals that took their instrument and told a story using nothing but their hands.

The guitar is traditionally a six-stringed instrument played using a pick, or by plucking the strings with the fingers.

Early in blues history, steel-string acoustic guitars were the only type available, but as electric guitars were invented they became the go-to for many blues guitarists.

The electric guitar allowed the musicians to distort the sound, giving us the crunchy tone we associate with more recent blues guitarists like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Buddy Guy.

The role of the guitar in a blues band varies depending on the group and the song being played. It can be used to provide the melody line, background chord progressions, licks between the melody, and solos. 

2. Upright Bass and Bass Guitar

The instrument that drives the blues and keeps the rhythm section going is the bass.

In blues music, there are two different basses that can be used. The first is the upright bass, which can be up to six feet tall.

The other type of bass is the bass guitar or electric bass. As the name suggests, the bass guitar looks like a larger version of a normal guitar.

Both the upright and electric bass have four strings and are played by plucking them with the fingers.

Upright basses are traditionally played using a bow like a cello or a violin, but in blues music, the bass is almost always plucked. This is also called pizzicato.

This allows the bass to hit the important beats along with the drums and gives the song its bluesy feel.

The bass player will also take solos from time to time, but their main responsibility in the band is to drive the rhythm section.

The upright bass dates all the way back to the 1400s, while the bass guitar is much more modern as it was invented around the 1930s.

3. Drums

Every drummer arranges their set in different ways, and blues musicians are no different.

Traditionally, blues drummers use a Dixieland drum kit, which consists of a snare, bass, hi-hat, and one or two tom drums. Depending on the player, multiple toms and cymbals may be added to the kit.

Drummers in blues bands were some of the first musicians to use a drumkit.

The drummer has one main role in the band and that is to keep the beat and tempo. That being said, this is one of the most important jobs of any band member.

There are no traditional notes on the drums and the drummer is free to improvise with little fills during transitions.

The drummer and bassist stick together in what’s called the pocket, meaning they are the glue that keeps the rest of the band together. 

The drummer does not always get to solo in blues bands, but they can always show their chops by doing intricate fills and keeping the tempo steady.

4. Brass Section

Oftentimes, a blues band will include brass instruments to fill out the sound known as the horn section. The most common of these instruments in a blues band are the trumpet and trombone.

Brass instruments are played by pursing the lips and “buzzing” them while blowing into the mouthpiece.

The different notes of the trumpet are created by pushing in valves to change the pitch whereas the trombone has a slide that is extended to change the pitch.

Brass instruments will sometimes play with a mute that’s held over the bell to change the tone of the sound and reduce the volume.

The main role of the brass section in the blues is to provide fills between the melody and to accompany the rest of the band. Brass players often take solos during blues songs as well. 

5. Saxophone

Although the Saxophone looks like a brass instrument, it is technically not. In fact, the saxophone is a woodwind instrument despite not being made out of wood.

It is played by squeezing the lips against the mouthpiece and reed and blowing into it.

The sax is normally played along with the brass section in a blues band. However, since it is a woodwind, the saxophone tends to have a sound and tone that cuts through the other instruments.

It also has the ability to reach a wider range of notes than its brass cousins. This is one of the reasons why the saxophone player often takes a solo in blues songs.

The saxophone was invented later than the brass instruments and dates back to around 1840.

The idea behind the saxophone was to marry the best qualities of a woodwind instrument with a brass instrument. So, technically, it can be seen as a hybrid between the two.

6. Piano

The Piano is a versatile instrument found in blues music. Although it’s not always the piano but sometimes a keyboard or organ.

These keyboard instruments are played by pushing down the different keys. When the musician player presses down on a piano key, it causes a hammer to strike different sized strings. This produces the desired note.

Interestingly, the piano is considered both a percussion and a string instrument because of the way it creates sound.

The piano can play both chords and single notes simultaneously, meaning it can accompany the band and solo at the same time. 

The main role of the piano is to provide accompaniment when needed, but also to play or spotlight the melody of the song. Pianists in blues bands often solo or interject licks when needed.

7. Vocals

Although often not considered a traditional instrument, a singer does play a vital role in a blues band. Just like any instrument, the vocalist needs to take care of their voice by warming it up and maintaining the vocal cords.

The singer’s role in the band is to carry the melody and deliver the lyrical message to the listener.

In many blues bands, the vocalist also plays an instrument. This is most often the guitar, piano, or bass. It is rare that the singer will play the drums, but this does occur from time to time.

Since the blues originally started out as a form of a cappella (a piece of music where there are no instruments and it’s only sung), it can be said that the first blues instrument was actually the voice.

Summary of Blues Instruments

Blues bands can be made up of all the instruments discussed in this article, or a combination of them.

Most often, the guitar, bass, and drums are absolutely necessary for a blues band, but it all depends on the musicians.

The genre itself has changed over the years, but the greatest blues songs ever written tend to follow the traditional formula that started it all over a hundred years ago. 

And let’s not forget that the blues musicians’ style and instruments eventually gave rise to rock and roll as well as several other mainstream forms of music we listen to today.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.