Write smart horn charts


Have you ever been in a situation in which you had to arrange horn parts for a song that already worked just fine without horns

I've played in a horn band for years, so I've done this to songs by Bon Jovi, Little Big Town, Journey, Sara Bareilles, and Rascal Flatts, to name a few.  And, last year I wrote horn parts for the recording project of Blues musician John "JT" Thompson.  

In this post you can check out the before track (rhythm section & scratch vocals) and the after track (final mix with horn section, back-up vocals, etc).  I'll also tell you a little bit about my process.

Gig specs

So, as mentioned above, I got an assignment to write horn charts for the studio album of Blues musician John "JT" Thompson.  In so many words, my job was to write some kick-butt horn parts that sounded like they were written by JT himself as part of the original tune.  

Here's the "Before" track:
("rhythm roughs" with a "scratch" vocal:  piano/bass/drums, unmixed... and a utilitarian lead vocal track that serves as a placeholder for the sidemen.


Here's the "After" track:
(the same rhythm tracks, final lead vocal track, back-up vocals, and the four-piece horn section.)


Here's a bit of my horn section score:



The not-yet-patented Hirschian-Get-er-Done protocol

I'm not a very systematic guy.  But, like good ol' Hamlet, there's a method to my madness.  For an arranging gig like this, it usually resembles dis' here:

1. I played along (on piano/singing) with the rough recording JT sent me.  This is how I began to internalize the song and get a feel for its vibe.

2. I scratched out a rough lead sheet with an outline of the tune.  On this sheet I also notated any rhythm section/piano figures that sounded important.

3. On the lyric sheet (just an MS Word doc) I made some notes as to where I wanted some fill-in riffs, where some pads would be nice, etc.

4. I took out my tenor and played along with the recording.  I wrote down the first couple of riffs that popped out.  They seemed decent, so I kept them and moved on.  I had a deadline and wanted to get paid, after all. 

5.  I looked at the notes on my lyric sheet and figured out where to use these riffs.

6.  I laid out the score in Finale.  You'll see that I used a vocal staff, too.  This keeps me tuned into the flow and pitches of the melody to make sure the horn parts match up well.  (Note that I used no repeats or DSes, even though there were several repeated sections.)  

7.  Then I started plugging and chugging, futzing with voicings as needed.

8.  Laid out the parts, and Voila!

9.  Done and done.  Onto the next three charts!

Some important nuts-and-bolts considerations

This was not a blank-piece-of-manuscript-paper type of commission.  I couldn't just write whatever the heck I felt like writing at the time and be all artsy-fartsy about it.  This was a no-nonsense Blues band, so I had to make it right.  Here are some of the things that I viewed as important to bear in mind:

1. This tune was something JT has performed hundreds of times with his 4-piece (read: no horn section) blues band.  This means that the tune goes off just fine with no horns, so I was not going to write some brilliant horn score that would transform a dud of tune into something totally rocking.  It already was rocking.  I just had to add a little sugar and spice to the mix.

2. When a working band performs a tune regularly, the arrangement tends to evolve during gigs, eventually becoming fixed into "how we play this tune."  

3. Per #1 &# 2 above, the form and flow of the arrangement were pre-determined.  Thus, the rhythm tracks JT sent me were final, and were not going to be rerecorded or changed.  Even if the horn arranger had some super-hip idea that would require the drummer-bassist-pianist to do something different.  

4. I didn't know if JT would want to leave some verses "empty" while others used background figures.  So, I wrote figures in every verse, knowing that he could throw out anything he didn't want.  (A benefit of multi-track recording).  

5.  I wanted to make roadmaps as clear as possible for the horn players to minimize room for error in the studio.  I think I used very few repeats (if any) and no DSes.

Musical considerations

Oops -- I haven't even gotten there, yet!  I guess that will leave me something to write about in the next posts...


By the way, you can check out the whole enchilada right here:  


FWIW, I wrote the horn charts for tracks 4, 7, 9, and 12.

Posted on August 21, 2012 and filed under Arranging & Composing.