Horn Rock: How Brass Persists in Today's Bands

Horn Rock: How Brass Persists in Today’s Bands

When bands use brass instruments, it may seem like an odd inclusion to their overall sound. Trumpets, trombones, or other horns are much more prominent in jazz and swing over rock or metal. Horn rock may seem to be more popular back in the 50s or 60s, but they persist today, even in heavier music. But how does horn rock still exist today?

Horn rock exists today through genres like Ska, which are popular due to bands like Reel Big Fish and Streetlight Manifesto. You can also occasionally find horn parts in mainstream music. 

Bands have used this to significant effect from time to time, creating memorable songs that have stood the test of time. By why have horns persisted through the ages. In this article, we plan on exploring how that applies to modern songs.

How Horn Rock Has Persisted – The Ska-Punk Boom

Many people associate rock and metal incorrectly as angry or depressing music, which is far from the truth. The mainstream angst related to the success of grunge in the 1990s somewhat strengthened those stereotypes. However, emerging out of the rock renaissance was a surprising and much more joyful side of rock – the rise of ska-punk.

What made ska-punk so different was that the heavy tones and sounds of grunge and punk were gone and replaced by bouncy brass sections. Light riffs replaced heavy power chords with big choruses echoed back by trumpets and trombones.

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, radio stations were awash with hits that conquered charts worldwide. These hits came with energetic live shows allowing all to have a good time. This party atmosphere and a large number of emerging bands like Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones made Warped Tour such a rousing success.

Reel Big Fish – “Sell Out”

Arguably the best-selling ska-punk hit came from California’s Reel Big Fish, with their 1996 single “Sell Out.” Immediately starting with a brass-led melody, the song makes you want to dance from the onset.

You can find the opening section repeatedly throughout the music, and the more basic bouncy guitar riffs always feel like a song destined for summer. Backed by a chorus with the band shouting “Sell Out” every few words, it’s a song that stands the test of time.

Despite being made in 1996, it has been featured prominently in media. It repeatedly has been included in the FIFA soundtrack and throughout the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Finding Horn Rock from Worldwide Influences

Not just populated to one specific part of the world, you can find brass sections anywhere in worldwide music. For example, the “Carnival” feeling found across the many Caribbean and Latin nations is a very distinctive sound that bands aim to replicate. It’s a universal sound that is easy to play but can also be part of many different songs.

Upon hearing a carnival-based brass melody behind guitar chords, it can generate a much more appealing song to mainstream audiences. Sneaking these into a single due for airplay shows a band that is keen to develop its sound and ready to expand its listener base.

With these sounds appealing to a universal ear, it gives bands a chance to crack into the mainstream with something slightly different from the norm. It may alienate hardcore fans for a while but exposing a new audience to your potential can be the difference for bands from an underground to mainstream act.

Red Hot Chilli Peppers – “Hump Da Bump”

Red Hot Chilli Peppers have never been afraid of experimenting with new sounds, and their 2006 single “Hump Da Bump” is another fine example of this. The centerpiece of this hit is a regular trumpet part in the chorus played by Flea – a fully accomplished trumpet player.

What makes the trumpet part so unique is that the sound feels like something more akin to the streets of Rio De Janeiro rather than the beaches of Santa Monica. Mixed in with the usual funk-rock rhythms makes this a great party song and adds yet another nuance to an already vast RHCP back catalog.

Another Side of Horn Music – Memories of War

Not yet with brass sections are all fun and games, as the sound of a bugle means something completely different than a trumpet. There is nothing joyous about war, and the single drones of a bugle signify terrifying memories of yesteryear.

An iconic tune, “The Last Post,” played to commemorate those who died in WW1 – a clear sign of the toll war has waged on nations worldwide. It’s a sound that has evolved into one of the iconic sounds of battle and any ceremony that marks a milestone remembering the fallen.

It’s no wonder then that bands turn to use this when writing songs about war. There will often be a bugle part fitted in somewhere amongst the music to emphasize the feeling of dread and loss within the piece.

Used effectively, adding this into a song is a significant effect that adds to the gravity of the tune and makes listeners pay attention to the message a song is trying to deliver. You may find that pieces mat are there as a sample rather than a live recording, and this too can be effective – particularly if it is trying to define a particular moment in time.

Lee Kernaghan – “Spirit of the Anzacs”

As part of efforts to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the Gallipoli front in World War 1, Australian country-rock artist Lee Kernaghan faithfully recreated The Last Post as part of his 2015 album.

The song itself is touching, and the music video for the album’s prominent single, “Spirit of the Anzacs,” is most dramatic. The video pulls no punches about reminding Australians about how many of their forces died on the Turkish peninsula right from the beginning.

It fades from a memorial speech into a calm and soothing ballad featuring Kernaghan and several prominent Australian singers such as Jessica Mauboy and pop-rock band Sheppard. It proved to be a touching tribute, with the album topping the ARIA Album Chart displacing Kendrick Lamar from the top spot.

Final Thoughts

In the end, it’s not that difficult to see why bands use brass instruments in their music, even if they may not seem like a natural fit. The ska-punk boom of the 1990s showed a mainstream audience for this unusual blend and that success was possible with this unique formula.

Furthermore, their use in foreign cultures has influenced bands to adapt them to diversify their sound. Of course, they also can be used as a timely reminder about more serious issues such as the losses incurred in war. No matter what, there are plenty of reasons why bands use brass instruments in their music.

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