Big Band Set Up

Ever wonder why musicians in a big band are positioned the way they are on the bandstand?

“How a big band sets up has a lot to do with how it sounds and how easy it is for the performers to do their jobs. Some set ups make it more difficult, and some make it easier,” says MENC member and jazz educator Harry Miedema.


There are several configurations used by big bands, but they all have some things in common. It’s customary to position the horn section lead players one in front of the other: lead alto directly in front of lead trombone, who is directly in front of lead trumpet. This way the lead players can all clearly hear and follow the lead trumpeter’s style, articulation, phrasing, etc. The lead trumpeter is both the leader of the trumpet section and leader of the horn section when they are playing tutti.

Lead Players

The lead players should also be in the middle of their sections. Lead trumpet should have 2nd trumpet on one side, and 3rd and 4th on the other. If there are five trumpet parts, then 2nd and 3rd trumpet should be on one side of the lead trumpet, and 4th and 5th trumpet on the other. The same holds true for the trombone and saxophone sections. The saxophone section should have lead alto in the middle with 2nd alto, 1st tenor on one side, and 2nd tenor and baritone on the other.

Lower Register Instruments

Which side of the bandstand should the lowest instrument of each section be placed? There are two schools of thought about this. The first is that the bass trombone and baritone should be on the rhythm section side of the band. This is best when those instruments act as a section, as in much of Gil Evans’ writing. The second, which is used much more extensively, is to put the lower horns away from the rhythm section so that the other players can hear the fundamental pitch more easily. This set up has the advantage of putting the musicians most likely to play solos (1st tenor, 2nd trumpet, etc.) closest to the rhythm-section.

The Rhythm Section

The rhythm section is usually on the stage right side of the band, so that the piano opens up to the band while the pianist can maintain eye contact with the other members of the rhythm section. This means that the pianist’s back will be partially toward the audience. The bass player is in the crook of the piano, with the amp far enough back for the drummer to hear. The drummer should be roughly in line with the trumpets. If there is a guitarist, he should be in front of the bass player. In large rhythm sections, the remaining players can be behind the drums, if they are percussion, or in front of the piano and guitar, if they are keyboard instruments (mallets). The focus of the rhythm section set up is for the bass and drums to be able to hear each other, and for the keyboard player to maintain eye contact with the bass and drums.

Curious to see what all of this looks like? Click on the following link: big band set up

Adapted from “Big Band Set Up and Performance Practice” by Harry Miedema, originally published in September 2003 Indiana Musicator

Harry Miedema is Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Indianapolis, author of the book Jazz Styles and Analysis: Alto Saxophoneleader of his own jazz group, The Bossa Rio Sextet, and first-call saxophonist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

—Nick Webb, February 18, 2009, © National Association for Music Education