So you want to hire a horn section

"The Shrines' horn section" by Jon Southcoasting is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

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So, you want to hire a “horn” section for an upcoming gig or recording. Great! Horns can add a special touch to your rock, pop, blues, etc. performance.

If you haven’t hired horns before, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • A small thing: the word “horn” as it’s used in this kind of music usually means trumpet, trombone, and/or saxophone. In classical music it means one specific instrument, probably not the one you want for this situation. Just something to remember if you ask someone to recommend some “horn” players.
  • If you’re planning to play some covers and there are horns on the original, depending on the mix it can be hard to tell exactly which horns. A horn section might range in size from two to a half dozen players or more, with some combination of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones in various sizes. There’s no single, standard setup.
  • Good working horn players can learn their cover-song parts by ear from a recording, just like your guitar/bass/keys/drum set players probably do. But it can be tricky to get the chord voicings right, just like if you’re trying to get a group of backup singers to imitate the harmonies from a favorite recording. It takes some coordination to make sure all the notes are covered, nobody is playing/singing somebody else’s part, and it sounds like a cohesive unit.
  • One thing that makes a great horn section great is precision in executing the details. This includes things like the coordinating the exact moment that notes begin and end, their shapes (do the notes swell? taper? etc.), and the gentleness or aggressiveness of the notes’ beginnings. Plus, horns don’t automatically play exactly in tune or in balance, so each chord may require the players to adjust to each other. That kind of precision doesn’t come quickly or easily (or cheaply).

Here are some tips to make it all work:

  • Most working horn players read music well. (They often have some kind of formal training.) If you can get some professionally-prepared horn “charts” (sheet music) for the combination of horns you intend to use, and hire top-notch players, they will likely be able to nail the parts on stage with little or no rehearsal. Well-written charts don’t just tell each horn player which notes to play, but also have detailed markings that help a good section play together with precision and style. Good charts cost money, but once you’ve got them you can reuse them with another horn section next time, or even hire local horn players at each tour stop.
  • To put together a really polished, professional horn section without charts requires some rehearsal time to get all the notes sorted out and establish a unified style. This also costs money, because good horn players usually won’t rehearse for free.
  • Depending on the market you are working in, it may be possible to hire a pre-existing horn section. There can be advantages to this, like that they have already put in many hours learning to play together as a coordinated section. Some horn-sections-for-hire might have a set instrumentation, or they might revolve around a single player who provides services like contracting the rest of the section from a roster of top-notch players, and maybe composing or transcribing horn section charts.
  • One budget-friendly option to consider is a single horn player. It’s not the same as a tight, well-coordinated section, but it’s flexible and easy. (I think a single saxophone works especially well for this, but I may be biased.) If you hire the right person you can go without charts or rehearsal time. A good player will learn the most important horn lines from a recording, or even make up something convincing on the spot. I do a fair amount of playing that way—a band hires me to join them on a gig, and either I already know most of the cover songs well enough, or I can play something off-the-cuff that works. If the gig pays well enough, I can afford to do some extra homework in advance and learn the cover parts cold.
  • Horns are loud, but not loud enough to compete with amplified instruments. They will need mics and monitors. Basic vocal/general-purpose mics like SM57s or SM58s are a solid starting point, or your sound engineer may have some other options available. Include the horn section in your sound check so they can get monitor levels. (Generally they will need to hear fair amount of themselves in the monitor, like singers.) If you are providing charts they will also need music stands and maybe stand lights, but can probably bring their own if given advance notice.
  • Horn-playing freelancers are often accustomed to jazz gigs and maybe performances in a local symphony, so they should be ready on a moment’s notice to wear coat and tie (or equivalent female attire), “gig black” (all black, somewhat dressy), or “concert black” (tuxedo or similar dressiness). Decide whether you have any dress code expectations and communicate them.

A horn section brings some extra class and professionalism to your performance. Knowing what to expect helps things go smoothly. Enjoy!

One thought on “So you want to hire a horn section

  1. As a “horn for hire” I do most of the leg work in figuring out the songs. I have a bunch of charts I’ve done for various “cover bands” I’ve played in.

    Equipment….like having your own horns (not like the college’s or your schools horn), you need to have your own mic. Shure 57 or 58 will do. My mic of choice right now is a Sennheiser 421. It was used a lot in the 90s with the Saturday Night Live band (you can see Lenny Pickett playing one in the intros). Some sort of mic where you are familiar with how it “works”. Like it’s pickup pattern, feedback, etc etc.

    A “horn for hire” really ought to have an iPad with their charts, or at the vary least, something with at least the chords to the song. These are readily available via https://ultimate-guitar.com or similar places. You can even get an app for it, or make your own PDFs. iPad is great cause you can annotate on it using your finger or a precision tool like the apple pencil.

    If you get a little more “advanced” you can explore adding a harmonizer to your setup. This would allow you to sound more like a “horn section”. The only “downside” is that you have to find the right harmonizer that works with your mic setup. I started with a ElectroHarmonix MiniPOG, but that pedal seems to feed back a lot. Most vocal harmonizers seem to work well with sax.

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