How to arrange a HORN section (think Blondie's "The Tide is High")

I need to book some horns to play on one of my songs. I don’t know nothing 'bout arranging no horns, so I need help.

I know the typical Rock n’ Roll horn section is Trombone, Sax, and Trumpet but that sound is not the sound I’ve been playing in my head to go along with this particular song. This song has more of a reggae feel to it.

So I’ve been trying to think of examples of the sound that I want, but I don’t actually listen to much reggae. Then Blondie’s The Tide is High came on the radio as I was driving to work last night.

That’s it! That’s how the horns sound as I play them in my head.

Now, I’m not sure if they actually used real horns on that recording or if it was synth* but assume you want to put together a real live horn section and you’re going for that same sound.

How do you arrange it? What horns do you book?

*recently I watched Better Off Dead with some musician friends. At the point in the montage when Lane plays the sax solo for Monique my friends burst out laughing because it was “so obvious” that the part wasn’t even coming from a real sax but from a synth. I’ve been watching that movie for almost 20 years. I never knew it wasn’t a real sax (although I suspected John Cusack wasn’t really playing!).

“The Tide Is High” almost definitely used a synth for the trumpets, just as Blondie used a synth for the sax in “Rapture.” But the “Tide Is High” sound you like is a chorus of trumpets that always sounded almost mariachi-like to me.

Now I played sax for several years in a variety of bands, but I spent the most time in a ska band. It was definitely ska-punk, which peaked in popularity in the late '90s, but we had my sax, trumpet, and trombone to go along with the guitar, bass, and drums. Ska and reggae are very similar musically, particularly their origins as Jamaican dance music, so I’d recommend you go with the more traditional sax/trumpet/trombone line-up for recreating a reggae sound. Almost every ska or reggae band I’ve ever heard or seen live has some combination or permuation of that horn section… a handful may have two saxes plus trombone, or just sax and trumpet, and so on. Again, I’m not challenging your musical pedigree, but “The Tide Is High” is not a great or authentic example of reggae music.

I don’t know what kind of music you usually play, where you live, or how old you are, but my first instinct would be to put up some flyers around your local college’s school of music, where you’re likely to find horn players who take band classes. That way you can get some guys who know a good bit about music already, and may already know each other and be comfortable playing with each other. We never read music in my ska-punk band, even though the horns could all read music from more formal school band experience. Most of the time someone would improvise a line over the guitar/bass/drums playing the song as a stripped-down punk song, and the other horns were musically astute enough to jump in and either harmonize or just play the same line in unison. Occasionally the guitarist or bassist had something in mind for us to do, and it was easy enough to just pick up on what they wanted.

Let me know if you have any other questions or concerns. I’ll be happy to help you as best I can, since I have a feeling I’ve been there before.

Actually, the album has someone credited for horn arrangements, so it’s not certain that the horns are synthesized (I doubt it, they sound pretty real to me). And Tom Scott for certain played sax on “Rapture.”

That’s what I get for downloading Blondie’s Greatest Hits rather than reading liner notes. Hope I haven’t blown the rest of my horn section credibility, though.

Great post, Lou, extremely helpful. I appreciate it. Now it’s not so much that I’m trying to mimic or create an “authentic” reggae sound, it’s just that the song, as is, has “reggae kinda thing” going on.

I think I might first try the chorus of trumpets approach, because the “The Tide is High” sound really matches what I have in my head almost perfectly, even if it’s not classic reggae.

As a matter of fact, it’s cool that you mentioned mariachi music because while I was trying to come up with ways of expressing what I had in my head “mariachi” seemed just right for what I wanted the horns to sound like. The rest of the song sounds reggae, but the horns mariachi. However, I’m even more unfamiliar with mariachi music than with reggae, so I emphasized reggae in my description since I wouldn’t be able to offer and mariachi examples.

But, hey, it’s the studio. If I listen and think it needs something on the low end maybe I’ll stick something else in, or tear it apart and start over.

Thanks so much for your help!!! You rock!

If you want to hear the all-time perfect example of how mariachi trumpets can add to a “popular” (non-mariachi) song, check out “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. I have a feeling that might be inspirational for you. Download it if you have to!

When you say “download it if you have to”, you’re not suggesting someone steal it, are you?

Oingo Boingo had three main guys in the horn section (there was some turnaround over the years). Sam “Sluggo” Phipps played tenor saz and soprano sax, Leop Schneiderman played baritone sax and alto sax, and Dale Turner played trumpet and trombone.

Tower of Power has three saxes (including one baritone) and two trumpets. (They’ve had serious turnover through the years).

The horns on The Tide Is High are definitely not a synth. You’d be fortunate to get that close a sound today, and certainly not in 1980 when it was released.

A quick google turned this up.

"The horn and string sections were handled by veteran arranger Jimmy Haskell. Bent says she recorded each of these parts as sections, using more of the 414s, rather than miking individual instruments. “The horn section was like the A team of L.A., the guys from the Johnny Carson band,” says Bent. “If I remember right, there were six of them and we doubled it.”
Good luck recreating that! :slight_smile:

Lighten up, man. I was suggesting that if he doesn’t want to run out and buy a Johnny Cash “Greatest Hits” album, that he get the track online. Reputable, legal sites like iTunes are much more prevalent than the old pirate P2P file sharing systems, and you can get most songs for around 99 cents. Come on, now.

Alto Sax plays in a similar range you would have a trumpet play and Tenor sax plays similar to the trombone register and bari sax plays the lowest.

Oh and

Trumpets, soprano and tenor saxs are B-flat, and alto and bari sax are E-flat. Trombones, you just write in the bass cleft.

You have to transpose the parts.
It’s too late in the evening and too many years from college for me to try and 'splain that to you.