Orchestrating a New Musical: The Rhythm Section

This post is the second part of a series that I maintain on this blog called Orchestrating a New Musical.  Today’s entry will be a discussion of the Rhythm Section of the orchestra, and what to do with this versatile group of musicians.

What Is The Rhythm Section?

Let’s begin by quickly defining what a rhythm section is.  The rhythm section of a musical theater orchestra is defined as the Keyboards, Guitars, Drum Kit, and Bass.  This section is so named due to its obligation of keeping the rhythm and groove throughout numbers.  The drums and the bass should lock in during upbeat numbers, keeping the energy up and the excitement present.  The keys and guitars provide the interest in the groove and necessary color, cueing the listener in to what style we’re listening to.

The Bass

Let’s examine each of the instruments individually, beginning with the bass.  The bass is the rock of the orchestra.  It can be tempting to let the keyboard operate as the bass of the orchestra, but fight this tendency!  The bass is necessary for so many styles of music integral to the theater, and ties the whole orchestra together.  

There are two main categories of basses: acoustic basses, which you’ve probably seen in symphonies and with a jazz big band, and electric basses, far more common in rock bands and contemporary styles of music.  Within these categories, there are the typical four-string basses, which can reach down to a low E below the bass staff, and five-string basses, which reach down to a low C below the bass staff.  Some basses have extensions on that fifth string to go down to a low B, and a select few even have more strings, but it’s safe to expect that a low C is the reasonable limit.  If you can, I do recommend attempting to keep the part above the low E, which would enable a far greater breadth of playersto play the part than just those who own five-string basses.

The two types of basses (acoustic and electric) are right for different styles, and wrong for others.  For example, I would never write for an acoustic bass in a rock song.  For this reason, I often ask my players to double on both acoustic and electric in order to accurately perform different styles.

The Drum Kit

Next, let’s take a look at the drum kit.  A versatile and sprawling instrument, the drum kit is comprised of several individual instruments.  Most drummers will customize their kits, but the following instruments are safe to expect any drummer to have:

  • Bass (Kick) Drum
  • Snare Drum
  • Floor Tom
  • Hi-Hat
  • Crash Cymbal
  • Ride Cymbal

These pieces represent the core of the kit, but other peripherals are often available, and you should feel comfortable calling for them:

  • High and Low Toms
  • China Cymbal
  • Triangle
  • Wood Blocks
  • Shaker

These peripheral instruments are also commonly found in the percussionists array of instruments, so depending on your instrumentation and setup, it may not be necessary for the drum kit player to handle these pieces.

The drum kit, along with the bass, provides the foundation of the groove.  Drum kit writing is incredibly unique and a challenge for non-drummers to write out, but creating a specific groove is super important to evoking style.  The drummer also provides the tempo and keeps everyone locked in, so I always spend extra time on crafting the drum part.


Let’s talk about the guitars next.  There are two main categories of guitar, just like the bass: acoustic and electric.  The acoustic guitar is often found in, well, acoustic styles: country, folk, early jazz, sing-songwriter.  The electric guitar is often found in more contemporary styles: rock, pop, R&B, gospel, soul, funk, bebop.  There’s also a third category, the semi-hollow bodied guitar, that is usually found in medium swing jazz bands and big bands.

I often expect my guitarists to pack multiple guitars to the pit in order to get the sound I want for each number.  Oftentimes I want the ballads to be peppered with the simplicity and beauty of an acoustic guitar, while the big showstoppers contain the driving energy of the electric.

The electric guitar also has several peripherals that could take up an entire article one day, but I’ll quickly cover them here: pedals.  Guitar pedals are some of the most fascinating devices I’ve ever seen.  They (along with the amp) alter the tone of the guitar and create special effects that are so essential to so many styles.  The “wah” pedal is used to create the characteristic “wah” sound in funk, the chorus pedal is used to create the brighter sound typical in pop, and the overdrive and distortion pedals are used to create the crunch and grit of rock and metal.  Needless to say, learning the intricacies of guitar pedals is a surefire way to get your guitarist on your side, and a great way to really evoke certain musical flavors for the listener.


On to the final member of the rhythm section: the keys.  Keys encompasses two main instruments: keyboard and pianos.  Keyboards are the predominant instrument by a long shot due to their versatility, while pianos of course provide the classic sound of a piano.

Pianos, when they are used, are nearly always upright due to space, but nonetheless when an authentic and classic sound is desired, you cannot beat a real piano.  Keyboards, on the other hand, are electronic and can provide a range of sounds that are unprocurable in any other way.  Connected to a computer, keyboards can be fed data and change patches at a moments notice, enabling a keyboardist to play a harmonica sound in one beat and a string sound in the next.  This sort of versatility and agility is obviously incredibly powerful, and has lead to the mass migration of piano parts over to keyboards.

While keyboards are tempting for so many reasons, I always take a moment to ask myself why I’m not just writing a piano part instead.  A piano will always sound better than a fake piano when the two are playing a piano part, so unless there’s a real reason for the sounds enabled by including a keyboard, I default to a piano.  That said, a keyboard is often the way to go, especially in smaller pits.  With only five instrumentalists, having that keyboard can be crucial to filling in the sounds of an otherwise large band, adding string strength, brass, and sounds only possible from a synthesizer.

Constructing A Groove

Let’s take a look at an actual groove I’ve created when orchestrating.  Below is “A Different Road” from Mirror, Mirror.  

"A Different Road" from Mirror, Mirror, Music and Orchestration by Travis Frank, Lyrics by Travis Frank and Megan Ruppel

This is the chorus of the song, so this is the groove that locks in the feel of the song.  For reference, this piece is at about 106 beats per minute, and we’re going for a solid pop groove.  Let’s begin with the bass, since so often this sets the feel for everyone else.  We can see that I chose to make the first two beats staccato, followed by a held note and then a riff.  This is a very busy bass part, and it works because the melody is a sustained whole note.  When the melody gets out of the way like this, the rhythm can be busier and more complex.  This contrast really allows the different parts of the song (melody, harmony, and rhythm) to shine at their own moments.  The drums are mostly in line with the bass, omitting a fill in favor of a simple snare backbeat on beat four.

The piano and the guitar follow the bass’s pattern nearly identically, with the guitar receiving an extra sixteenth note upbeat on beat three, something a little more characteristic of the instrument.  Combined together, the four instruments have the first three hits together, with the second half of the bar diverging just a little to allow for more appropriate maneuvering for each instrument.  This creates a cohesive and solid groove for the rhythm section to lock in on.

This is only one way to approach creating a groove for the rhythm section, and it’s not always correct to have everyone be playing the same hits.  Sometimes you just want the piano pounding out those hits while the guitar, bass, and drums provide rock-solid quarter notes and pickups.  Style should always dictate what approach you take, as well as the melody.

Other Uses For The Rhythm Section

Amidst all this discussion of groove and rhythm, it’s easy to forget that the instruments in the rhythm section can play melodic and non-rhythmic parts just as well as any other instruments, and bringing them in in this capacity can provide some much needed color.  Below is “Be Brave Reprise” from Mirror, Mirror.

"Be Brave Reprise" from Mirror, Mirror, Music and Orchestrations by Travis Frank, Lyrics by Travis Frank and Megan Ruppel

As you can see in this example, I chose to give the keyboard, electric guitar, and drum kit (on glock) some welcome melody and solos.  Especially with the Ebow on the electric guitar (another peripheral), there are some wonderful new sounds that the listener is not used to hearing.  Try to find places in the score where the rhythm section gets a chance to rest and play some melodic lines.  They’ll thank you later.

Whew, that was a long one!  Next month we’ll be continuing this series with a look at the Wind Sections and their role in the pit orchestra.  Until then, I hope you create the greatest grooves!

Travis Frank