I'm preparing a Bossa arrangement which will feature: GTR, Drums, Bass, Vocals , Trumpet and piano. I think it's obvious what the role of each instrument will be when playing Bossa Nova. But I am struggling a bit with the piano part. What will I, the pianist do when i have the GTR playing the main rhythm and chords and the drums and bass doing their thing and vocals and trumpet providing the melody. I would love to hear suggestions for the arrangement and maybe some examples i can listen to. Thank You

4 Answers 4


The instrumentation of Brazilian bossa nova is varied and quite detailed. This is often lost in "bossa" fascsimiles/muzak that has often been produced in the anglosphere, where "bossa" is taken to mean "a Spanish guitar and some brushes on the kit playing something vaguely latin, quietly" haha (a little facetious, but not an exaggeration by much!). This sometimes results in the depth of the original bossa nova music from 50s & 60s Brazil being reduced to a bit of a cliché. When you actually listen to those 50s and 60s records from João Gilberto, Narah Leão, Tom Jobim, Vinicius De Morães, you hear that the instrumentation is a lot more varied, nuanced, and detailed than what you might expect.* It's not simply a guitar plodding along with a "bossa" rhythm, and singer/horn line**.

You are right though, it is often a challenge to play piano in bossa nova in a way that blends with compliments the other instruments in the ensemble. For music that can sound so relaxed and unpretentious, it sure is difficult to play well! A general rule, though, is that less is more. The piano having such a strong and dominating sound, if large, full chords are played, simply playing a direct "bossa rhythm", it can be quite cacophonous, or at least heavy-handed and muzak-like (take this "elevator music" video for an example of how not to do it ).

As a guitarist when I first tried to play bossa on the piano it sounded terrible for that very reason; I just followed my instincts from the guitar, but unlike the guitar, if you play the clave on the piano directly it just sounds brutish. But if played tenderly and sparingly, the piano adds a really wonderful texture to bossa nova!

When a piano is featured in bossa nova, the easiest way to describe it is that it often fullfills a similar role to that which the orchestra plays; it fills out the harmonic content, plays countermelodies, fills in space, provides texture, provides rhythmic accentuation, or all or none of these.

And while it's not necessarily thought of in the anglosphere as a prototypical bossa nova instrument, a lot of the most well known bossa standards were written, and often performed, on a piano. Tom Jobim, the most prolific and probably the most applauded of all the bossa nova composers, was pianist!

In live performances, when in a smaller ensemble his piano often took the role that on records might be filled by a string and/or horn section. Most bossa nova tunes include not just chords and a main vocal melody, but written countermelodies and instrumental flourishes that compliment the main vocal melody, or precede or follow it (things like the intro to chega de saudade, the melodic echo on the girl from ipanema etc.). In recordings, these might be played by a flute, a trombone, a string section, or indeed sometimes by a piano. These details are a written part of the music, but often missing from lead sheets etc. unfortunately.


The best way for you to get an idea of how to include piano in bossa is simply to listen to bossa nova that includes a piano, and play close attention to how it's used!

Jobim's '67 album "wave" is all instrumental bossa nova, as is '63's "The Composer of Desafinado plays...", and both feature the piano prominently, (although often as a lead instrument which is less helpful to you, but not exclusively, so it's worth listening to for inspiration.) The version of garota de ipanema from that album has a lot of quite interesting piano work in my opinion, and it could be useful to hear how a piano can compliment both a guitar and other melodic instruments. On this cut he plays a mix of countermelodies, the main melody, and chordal accentuation. [That whole '63 album][https://open.spotify.com/album/3tW43cUkPyYkzzntfPwm4A?si=a7XLDt-QSXa92nlsBG7urg] is practically a bossa nova love letter to the piano itself, definitely worth listening to.

The best record I can think of though for a "tutorial" of sorts of bossa nova instrumentation would the 1960 João Giblerto recording of "Corcovado" (this is, in a sense, the "original recording", & Jobim was intimately involved in the arrangement & recording)


Hear how the piano, strings, and flute all play a subdued and tasteful role. Sometimes playing melodically, sometimes filling out chords for texture, sometimes providing accentuation. It's a study in perfect orchestration, (in my view.)

highlights from that recording:

0:05: the countermelody ending in a chord (and, generally, all the melodies passed between the strings, flute, and piano)

0:20: the subtle long notes played by the cello section here could easily be covered by soft legato chords on a piano in a live setting for example

0:34 little flourishes like this piano marking the harmonic movement at the end of the phrase here are, in my view, what makes an OK performance a great one. A little touch like this really adds a lot to the whole performance. Less is more!

0:50 the way the piano echos and ornaments the main melody here is subtle but just lovely

1:14 another charming little run from jobim here

As you see, on this record the piano really does provide a light touch, but it adds a lot just by being there in my view. One carefully choice, beautifully voiced extended chord, or tiny melodic line, adds so much to an arrangement.

Another recording of corcovado with the same singer an pianist takes a slightly different approach, but follows the same general principle. The piano is there simply to tastefully adorn the rest of the recording. The guitar, bass, and drums have the rhythm. The singer and the horn have the melodies. The piano? The piano, naturally, is there to add the magic!

It's more stripped back and less produced, and quite similar to your ensemble too. In fact, listening to the whole Getz/Gilberto album would be a good source for ideas probably, it is an absolute classic (although some of the "translations" of the lyrics are unfortunately pretty lame haha).



*and this is true of all the "bossa adjacent" mpb/smaba artists who often get called "bossa" in the anglosphere, people like Jorge Ben, Chico Buarque, Baden Powel etc.

**there's a lot of variation as to what exactly the guitar provides too. It's a bit off topic from what your question is about so I'm including it in a footnote, but the bossa rhythm is covered by the bass, guitar, and percussion, but how exactly the overall rhythmic picture is constructed changes a lot from record to record, and what the guitar is doing specifically varies a lot more than what you might thing. Sometimes it's very rhythmic, sometimes very sparse, often changing to complement the instrumentation, because of the song, or due to the specific idiosyncrasies of the player.

edit: for one last example of a completely different aprroach: it is possible to have the piano be the main "comping" instrument without it sounding plodding and mechanical... But it's very hard. On the guitar you can keep the same constant rhythm going and it sounds lovely, on the piano, here's an example, here how often he varies the rhythmic accentuation and texture of the piano so that it doesn't get dull

On the guitar you can keep the same constant rhythm going and it sounds lovely and blends into the overall texture, on the piano, not so much, it's too domineering. I personally would stay well away from this; if you're planning to write out the piano part this would be really hard to do well. And, as a very mediocre pianist, I'll freely admit that I can't pull this off well at all.


In Bossa Nova, as well as jazz generally, guitar and piano generally take turns comping (i.e., playing chords) — one sits out while the other plays. However, it's also common for one to play chords/rhythm while the other provides fills and other decoration or counterpoint around the lead instruments.

These ideas are more fully explored in What's the best way for guitar and piano to play together in a jazz quartet?. Everything there will apply to Bossa Nova.

Also, a Google search for jazz combo piano guitar will turn up a variety of videos and websites discussing approaches to using piano and guitar together.


Possibly - nothing. Contribute a bit of extra percussion. Or fill in the melodic gaps behind the singer. Or take a turn at the melody - trumpet and vocals won't be continuous for the whole piece I hope! Or play rhythm while the guitar takes the melody.


Are the guitar and bass electric? Is it for a gig or for a studio recording? When you say, "...vocals and trumpet providing the melody," are you thinking of the trumpet doubling what s/he is singing? That's a bit annoying for a singer, but if you really need to do it, a flugelhorn or muted trumpet might be less intrusive.

Suggestions for the arrangement.

Strong changes of texture are good. At the start of, say, the verse, suddenly switch from warm to cool; or reduce from full to spacey.

It's always good to come up with at least one intriguing little counter-melody or maybe decorative figure: something for the audience to recognize when it comes back - as it should - several times in the song. It it needn't be in-yer-face, but it could be something quite intricate.

As Aaron said, the guitar and piano can take it in turns to comp. But it's OK if they both do at times. That's what's happening during the ending of the Astrud Gilberta song below: both instruments are comping but the guitar is playing the chord five times per bar: the piano only once or twice.

While the guitar is comping, the piano might move a little higher and play less dense chords, perhaps with as few as three notes in them. (Like - in ascending order - the 7th, 5th and 13th of a 13 chord.) And you might swap this, so the guitar goes high and you come down. Or, while one of them is comping, the other might play melodic figures in the gaps between the singer's lines.

The trumpet might play in the gaps too, as if in conversation with the singer. Remember what a difference mutes make to the overall sound: a straight mute, cup, Harmon (tube in, out or removed), plunger or hat. With the plunger or hat use + and o to show "closed" and "open". Remember trumpets can growl. Growling in response to a particular line of lyrics can work well. It's always good to give the impression the band are listening to the lyrics.

For the kit, cross-sticking works well if it's a gentle bossa. A Gaffa-taped cowbell is often useful whether it's gentle or not. You could even get the trumpeter to play claves or agogos at times, as long as the he/she won't charge you 'doubling' money! Latin percussion instruments are at home in Bossa Novas, obviously!

Stuff to listen to.

Here are a couple of contrasting Marty Paich arrangements.

A bossa nova by Antônio Carlos Jobim: O Morro (Não tem Vez) with Astrud Gilberto. The line-up is vaguely like yours.

Mel Tormé singing Donald Fagen's The Goodbye Look. Latin, though not a bossa-nova. Lots of useful piano ideas here. Wonderful arrangement of an utterly brilliant song. (There's a French horn in there with the other brass, btw!)

  • 1
    @Arsan Ezzat: Sorry this is so late. I've only just seen it. Commented Jan 1, 2022 at 22:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.