Categorizing a Trombone

Categorizing a Trombone

Anatomy of a Trombone

Hand Slide


The longer the pathway the air must take through the instrument, the lower the pitch. So the trombonist pushes the slide out to lower the note and pulls it in to raise the note.

Valve


The valve has a trigger that will send the air down different sections of tubing, altering the pitch.

Tuning Slide


The tuning slide sticks out of the back of the trombone. By pulling it in and out, the trombonist can make fine adjustments to the trombone’s pitch. Pushing it in makes the pitch go sharper (higher) while pulling it out makes the pitch go flatter (lower).

F-Attachment Slide


A second tuning slide on the back of the trombone, used for fine tuning the F attachment side of the trombone. (See F-Attachment section below.)

Bell


The bell projects the sound of the trombone across the room.

Leadpipe


The leadpipe is where the mouthpiece is inserted into the trombone; the leadpipe sits inside the right side of the trombone’s handslide. Leadpipes can make the trombone more or less ‘resistant’ – that is, harder or easier to blow air through the trombone. By switching out your leadpipe, you can make small adjustments to the response, tone, and articulation of your trombone.

Types of Trombone

Tenor Trombone

Most beginners start on a tenor trombone, and that’s what most people mean when they use the word ‘trombone’. With approximately the same range as the human voice, a trombone’s sound is full, rich, and warm.

The tenor trombone is a non-transposing instrument pitched in Bb and is in concert pitch. Which is a complicated way to say that if you play your sheet music as it’s written, you will be playing the same notes as the other instruments in the band or orchestra. If you had a transposing instrument which was not in concert pitch, you would have to mentally convert your sheet music up or down one or more notes so that you were playing in the same key as everyone else.

Other brass instruments such as French horn or Bb trumpet are transposing instruments, and this poses a significant challenge to beginning players. They’re just learning how to read what a C looks like on the page and how to make that sound on their instrument, and you’re telling them they have to read a C but convert that in their head to an Bb on the fly?! So oftentimes band directors will go ahead and print out sheet music written in each instrument’s fundamental key for the beginning students, just so everyone can play together without the extra mental gymnastics.

If you’re learning the tenor trombone, congratulations! You don’t have to bother with any of that.

Most beginners start out on a straight tenor. To be overly simple, you blow into the mouthpiece while touching your lips together which creates a buzz. This buzz goes straight through the instrument to the bell which creates tone. You change the notes that come out of the bell by moving the hand slide in and out, changing the length of the tubing inside the instrument. The longer the path the air must travel, the lower the note. You also change the notes on the trombone by changing your buzz to higher and lower pitches.

The F-Attachment

Once you get the hang of the straight tenor, you may want to move to an F-attachment or “trigger” tenor trombone. The F-attachment is an extra 3-ish feet of tubing. When the player holds down a trigger, the rotor diverts the air through the extra tubing and the pitch of the instrument is lowered from Bb to F. This allows the player to hit lower notes and also makes playing notes that would ordinarily be in 6th position now in 1st position.

If you’re just starting out, don’t turn down an F-attachment trombone you really like just because you don’t know how to use the F-attachment yet – as long as you don’t press the trigger, the trombone will act like a normal straight trombone.

If you know you’re going to be sticking with the trombone for a long time, it might not hurt to invest in an F-attachment trombone early, so you don’t have to pay to upgrade to one later and so you can more easily reach notes that would ordinarily be in 6th or 7th position. Consider your budget and talk it through with your teacher before any instrument upgrade.

Bass Trombone

Today’s bass trombones have the same length of internal tubing as tenor trombones, but a larger bell and a larger bore (the width of the hollow space inside the tubes). In addition to the F-rotor they have a second Gb-rotor which also increases the length of the tubing. These valves can be played separately or combined and thus allows the player to reach even lower notes. Bass trombones require a specific large shank mouthpiece designed to get the desired big bass trombone sound.

In an orchestra, there are usually 3 trombones: two tenor trombones and one bass trombone. Bass trombones are also common in jazz bands as they contribute a deep, mellow sound.

Solo passages for the bass trombone are rare in symphonic works. They are primarily used to hit the lower notes the tenor trombones can’t reach, or add more punch and emphasis to the tenor trombone or tuba sound.

The bass trombone is a larger, heavier instrument than the tenor trombone. Because the inside of the bass trombone is so wide and open, it requires more air support. The sheer volume of air required may be challenging for younger and less experienced players. But if you like the bigger, lower sound and have a big set of lungs on you, there’s no reason why you couldn’t learn to play the bass trombone first. (It might not hurt to take up running or swimming to increase your lung capacity!)

Contrabass Trombone

Sometimes composers will include a fourth trombone in their symphonic works, by which they generally mean a contrabass trombone. These are larger, heavier, and deeper than bass trombones. Many orchestras require bass trombone players to double on the contrabass.

Alto Trombone

The alto trombone was most fashionable from the 17th to 19th centuries, but has since waned in popularity except for in certain orchestral works. Many pieces from this era require the 1st trombone player to play alto trombone such as the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann.

It’s signficantly smaller than a tenor trombone in terms of bell size and bore size and takes a small-bore mouthpiece. Most alto trombones are straight trombones, without the rotors and extra tubing you see on tenors and basses.

Jazz vs Symphonic

jazz trombone will have a smaller bell, narrower tubing, and a narrower slide than a symphonic trombone. Jazz musicians value a smaller, quicker instrument that is capable of getting more “edge” or “bite” to the sound. Symphonic trombones on the other hand emphasize a big, full sound so they can fill a symphony hall without being drowned out by the 80 other members of the orchestra.

The trombones we sell are generally symphonic unless they are specifically labeled a “jazz trombone”. 


The main difference between these instruments is the length of the tubing, the bell size, the bore size, and the valve configurations on the back of the trombone. It’s hard to see in this image but the contrabass is MUCH larger than the alto.

Other Trombones

Soprano Trombone

The soprano trombone is basically a slide trumpet. It has roughly the same register as a trumpet and takes a trumpet mouthpiece. So if a piece calls for soprano trombone, it is almost always played by a trumpet player.

Sopranino and Piccolo Trombones

The sopranino and piccolo trombones are teeny, tiny trombones rarely seen in the wild. They are also usually played by trumpet players.

Cimbasso

The cimbasso is like a bass trombone bent at 90 degree angle plus valves instead of a slide. It is used in some operas and has the same range as a tuba or contrabass trombone.

Sackbut

The sackbut is an early form of the trombone. It is most commonly used for Renaissance- or Baroque-period music and has a smaller bell than today’s trombones.

Buccin

The buccin is another type of historical trombone from 19th-century France. They have fascinating bells shaped like serpents or dragons.

“Superbone” Slide/Valve Trombone

The Superbone has a unique combination of valves (buttons you push down, like on a trumpet) and slide (tubing you pull in and out like on a typical trombone). The idea is that players can use the valves when they need to play fast licks, then switch to the slide when they want a smoother legato or a glissando (gliding) effect.


Composition of a Trombone

Material

Most student trombones are yellow brass. It’s middle-of-the-range in terms of the hardness of the metal alloy, so it’s mellow at softer dynamics but brassy at higher dynamics.

Rose brass is a soft, reddish metal with the most mellow sound. Gold brass also has the mellow sound of a soft, high-copper alloy. Nickel silver and sterling silver are the hardest, brightest-sounding metals. They have the best dent resistance. Most professional instruments contain at least some components made of rose brass, gold brass, nickel silver and/or sterling silver.

Some manufacturers such as S.E. Shires or Thein produce modular instruments, so you can mix and match components to build the feel and sound you want. For example, you could use a lightweight nickel silver slide for quicker response and a rose brass bell for a warmer, rounder tone.

Valves

Rotary

rotary valve has a cylindrical rotor that spins around to redirect air down different sections of the tubing at 90-degree angles to change the pitch. Because the air makes such sharp turns inside the instrument, the resistance of the horn increases, but articulations are usually more immediate.

Axial-Flow

An axial-flow valve is a newer valve design, invented by Orla Thayer in 1976. This conical valve redirects air flow at only 25-degree angles. The axial-flow valve is more open, with a larger, broader sound than a rotor. Axial-flow valves based on Thayer’s original design may also be called Thayer valves.

Gooseneck

If you want to remove the valves and convert your trombone back to a straight trombone, you can buy a gooseneck extension, which is just a straight piece of tubing, with no valve(s).

Others

Manufacturers may offer their own proprietary valve configurations. See, for example, S.E. Shires’ valve options.

Wrap

If the F-attachment is a single U-shaped loop of tubing, this is called an open wrap. The F-attachment tubing will travel straight out the back of the trombone then U-turn to head back in to the slide. The open wrap plays more, well, open, meaning there’s less resistance. But it does stick out of the back of the trombone, making it more slightly more likely to get banged into things or dented if you’re not careful.

If the F-attachment is a series of smaller loops just behind the player’s shoulder, this is called a closed wrap.

Bell

Most trombones come with fixed bells, where the bell is of one piece with the rest of the instrument.

Intermediate and professional-level trombones may come with the option of a detachable bell that can be unscrewed from the rest of the trombone and stored in a separate compartment in the case. This means you can use a shorter case, which is convenient for traveling and fitting the case in the overhead compartment of an airplane. The downside is, a cut bell is more expensive and some players feel the weight of the screwring makes the bell less resonant. There’s also the inconvenience of having to screw on and off the bell flare every time you have to take the horn somewhere.

Some professionals like to experiment with mixing and matching bells to create specific sounds. For example, adding a gold brass bell to a yellow brass trombone will make the sound noticably mellower.

Lacquer

Most trombones are coated in lacquer. Be careful not to scratch the lacquer, as it costs $$$ to have the lacquer stripped and re-applied. The upside of lacquer is it’s low-maintenance and can mostly be left alone, although if it gets wet it needs to be wiped down with a microfiber polishing cloth.

Level

Student

A student trombone runs around $400 – 1000. (Don’t buy the cheaper off-brand ones on Amazon; you’ll regret not saving up for a model from a reputable brand.) They are generally machine-made of yellow brass.

Intermediate

An intermediate trombone costs in the $1000 – $2000 range. They are crafted with higher-quality materials. You may start to see the introduction of features such as F-attachments or rose brass.

Professional

Professional trombones start at about $3000, and from there you are limited only by your budget. They can be custom-made by master craftsmen, who will allow you to mix and match components to tailor your instrument to your desired sound by changing up the materials, valves, bells, etc.

Pre-Owned

It never hurts to search around for a great deal on a pre-owned instrument. But make sure the seller lives up to their promises. Check out our article How to Shop for Pre-Owned Brass Instruments.


Mouthpieces

First, you need to know if you have a trombone with a large shank mouthpiece receiver or small shank mouthpiece receiver. Most large bore trombones take a large shank mouthpiece and most small bore mouthpieces take small shank mouthpieces, but not all the time.

Most standard symphonic tenor trombones are large bore. Jazz tenor trombones, on the other hand, are probably small bore. When in doubt, check the manufacturer’s website. (Or just stick a large bore mouthpiece in there and see if it fits; if it doesn’t fit you need a small shank mouthpiece.)

Bass trombone mouthpieces will be in their own separate section, an even larger bore than a tenor trombone’s.

Confusingly, generally the wider the mouthpiece, the smaller the model number. So a small bore (small shank) mouthpiece will be somewhere around a 7-11, a large bore (large shank) mouthpiece will be 3-6, and a bass mouthpiece (also large shank) will be 0-2. See our Brass Instrument Mouthpiece Bore Chart.

Once you are in the rough range of which shank size you need, deciding on a mouthpiece comes down to personal preference. How wide or full are your lips? Where do you like to place the mouthpiece on your embouchure? How much resistance and immediacy of articulation do you want? Try out different brands, sizes, and materials until you find the right one for you. (Houghton Horns offers free shipping and free returns to 48 U.S. states on trombone mouthpieces!)


What’s Next?

Ready to dive in and buy yourself a trombone?

1. Ask for advice. Consult your teacher. If your friends play the trombone, ask if you can play their instrument to get a feel for your options.

2. Set your budget. Know roughly what you want to spend.

3. Schedule an appointment either in person or over Zoom to try trombones out.

4. Don’t forget a mouthpiece, case, and maintenance supplies. These will impact your budget and should be factored into purchasing decisions. Most new student trombones come with a mouthpiece and case, but trombonists generally feel it’s better to ignore that factory mouthpiece and shop around for one that fits your particular playing style.


If you want to read more, Yamaha has some cool articles about trombones on their website here.

 

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