Trombones of today

The trombone is unique in that it was the only brass instrument capable of playing chromatically, that is, by half-steps in a scale, until valves were invented in the 1830's.

First of all, one needs to recognize the many varieties of the modern trombone.
Only 21 inches in length, the Soprano Trombone--or slide trumpet--is not used regularly for orchestral or band music.  Though having the appearance of a trombone, this instrument is usually played by a trumpet player as the mouthpiece and playing range is the same as a trumpet, pitched in Bb, an octave above the tenor trombone.

There are trombones pitched even higher than the soprano--the sopranino, and the highest, the piccolo--but these are rarely seen and are only used in large trombone choirs.

Below are descriptions of modern trombones.  There will be slight variations among different manufacturers and some will not offer as many bore (tubing diameter) size options, but most will follow these basic designs:

Alto Trombone
Pitched a perfect fourth higher, in Eb, and smaller than the tenor trombone, it has a small bore and is used often in church brass music and in brass ensembles to provide the top voice.

Tenor Trombone (small bore)
This is the most common type of trombone used today.  It is, as the remaining trombones are, pitched in Bb.  The bore size is anywhere from  .468" - .490".  Small bore horns have the brightest sound and are often preferred in jazz groups to cut through when soloing.

Medium bore Tenor Trombone
The bore size is typically .500" - .509".   As bore size increases, the timbre of the horn becomes "rounder or darker", less brilliant.  This is a sound sought after in orchestral work.

Medium-large bore Tenor Trombone (with "traditional wrap" F attachment)
Bore size typically .525"
The F attachment adds a wrap of tubing activated by a trigger and rotor valve which lowers the fundamental pitch from Bb to F.  This allows the player to reach lower notes than would otherwise be possible.  Horns of this size and larger are available in "traditional" or "open" wraps or without the F attachment.

Large Bore Tenor (with "open wrap" F attachment)
Bore size typically .547"
The "open wrap" eliminates the tight turns of the traditional wrap, improving airflow through the F tubing, and is preferred by many professionals.

Bass Trombone
The largest bore measuring at typically .562" and also the largest bell (10-10.5")
Although there are single-rotor bass trombones, many now include a second valve with can work independently of the first--or may be "dependent" and used in combination with the first.  The extra valve allows more pitch changing and flexibility to the professional player.

Valve Trombone
This model is typical of most valve trombones you will find today.  They usually have a small to medium bore.  The valve fingering is the same as a trumpet.  Many are sold with a conventional slide section as well for the player who wants both options.  Not used in orchestras or most bands, this style is popular in some jazz ensembles and for trumpet and euphonium players who want to "double" on trombone.


History of the Trombone

The name "trombone" comes from the Italian word tromba for trumpet.  Change the suffix "a" to the Italian suffix "one", meaning "big", and you get trombone meaning "big trumpet".  The early English word for this horn was sackbut, probably derived from French (saquebute) or Spanish (sacabuche) words meaning literally "pull-push".

The trombone is related to the trumpet due to the similar cylindrical bore of its tubing.  The method of sound production in all horns is the same: the player blows air through their vibrating lips into a cupped mouthpiece setting a column of air vibrating throughout the length of a tube with a flared open end.

Simple trumpets made from animal horns, shells, and hollow bones date back to ancient times.  Written documentation of trumpets dates back before 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia.  Trumpets were found in the Tutankamen's tomb.  The Greeks and Romans also had trumpets.

By the early 15th century, innovators found that they could take a straight trumpet and by cutting it in two and fashioning a telescoping horn, they could shorten or lengthen the horn and thus change its fundamental pitch.  The early slide trumpet was born.  This simply allowed the instrument to play a few notes lower or higher than it otherwise would and was not capable of playing scales as we know them.  In essence, it produced a horn that could play in a couple of different keys.

Further innovation in the mid-15th century resulted in the now-familiar curved parallel-tube slide which, because it was doubled back, was capable of filling in notes that were not playable on the straight slide trumpet. 

In the 15th century, we also find the first music texts with precise instrumental descriptions (other than for the organ).  Among them, a brilliant and stirring 'tuba gallicalis', a fanfare on a broken chord of C Major for three sackbuts.

The earliest known illustration of a trombone appears in the late 15th century painting "The Assumption of Virgin" by Filippino Lippi in the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.  A monochrome partial detail appears at left. 

Towards the end of the 15th century, the trombone was fully developed and by the 16th century it already consisted of an entire family made up of descant, alto, tenor and bass trombones. 

The descant trombones were eventually replaced by cornetts and later trumpets.  In the end, it has been the tenor trombone which has become most prevalent. 

 During the nineteenth century, brass instrument design and fabrication was of such widespread interest that the annual trade expositions in most countries featured an instrument competition.

Prizes and ratings by judges were so cherished by the manufacturers that they imprinted the list of awards to a given model on the bell along with the name, address, and company hallmark


Timeline of the Trombone


Ca. 1450.  The trombone developed from the slide trumpet.  Both the exact date and the identity of the originator of the moveable slide are unknown.  The connected double tubes of the slide represented a significant advance over the awkward slide trumpet and reduced the distances between notes, greatly improving technique.  The smaller slide movements also rendered tenor-range instruments practicable.  These were known as the saque-boute or trompone.

Ca. 1540.  The earliest surviving instruments date from the mid-16th century.  Three types were used in this period: an "ordinary" sackbut in Bb (gemeine-posaune), and Eb alto (mittel-posaune), and a bass (grosse-posaune) also known as quart- or quint-posaune, indicating the intervallic distance from the Bb gemeine-posaune.  Trombones in other keys were sometimes made as well.

17th Century

Ca. 1600.  The same pattern continued with the addition of a contrabass instrument (octav-posaune), although it is unclear to what extent it was actually used.  Sackbuts were regularly used in all types of ensemble, from large court bands to small mixed consorts where it could blend with the softest instruments.  A "vocal" style was cultivated that was free of any influence from the trumpet.  The capacity to blend with voices caused the sackbut to be widely used in church music.  It was also common in municipal bands along with cornett and shawms, or in a consort of 2 cornetts and 3 sackbuts.  Venetian composers Giovanni Gabrieli and Massaino wrote for the instrument regularly, occasionally calling for exceptionally large forces.

Ca. 1685.  A small trombone pitched an octave above the tenor made its appearance in central Europe and was used mostly for playing chorale melodies in trombone ensembles.

18th Century

Composers increase their use of the trombone in a soloistic role:

Ca. 1755.  Concerto by Georg Wagenseil (alto trombone)

Ca. 1762.  Concerto by Leopold Mozart (alto trombone)

1763.  Larghetto by Michael Hayden (alto trombone)

1764.  Divertimento in D by Michael Hayden (alto trombone)

1769.  Concerto by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (alto trombone)

Ca. 1780.  The trombone began to be used in opera to lend dramatic effect to certain scenes, as in Mozart's Don Giovanni and Magic Flute.

19th Century

Ca. 1800-1850.  During the early 19th century, composers increasingly called for three trombones in the orchestra.  Parts were included in Beethoven's 5th and 9th symphonies.  The normal trio of Eb alto, Bb tenor, and F bass began to give way as alto parts were often played on the tenor.  A large-bore trombone in Bb was occasionally substituted for the bass in F.  The also trombone was retained (as it is today in central Europe) for parts requiring a high tessitura and light balances.

Ca. 1828.  The new valve trombone was introduced, and, while it received acceptance in bands, it was little used in orchestras.

1839.  C.F.Sattler of Leipzig introduced the first Bb-F trombone.  The change to the F attachment was (as it is today) made by a rotary valve.

Ca. 1850.  From the mid-19th century, German trombones became larger in bore and bell and took on their traditional wide-bow construction.  French trombones of the Courtois type retained a smaller bore and bell taper.  Large bass trombones in F or Bb/F became the rule in German sections.  A smaller bass trombone in G was used in brass bands and orchestras in England for almost a century.

1876.  A contrabass trombone in BBb with a double-tubed slide was constructed for Wagner's Ring.

Ca. 1890-1920.  During these years, small-bore Courtois-type trombones were popular in France, England, and in bands in the U.S.  Players in American symphony orchestras preferred large-bore German instruments and these influenced the development of the modern American symphonic trombone (which combines the best features of French and German instruments).

20th Century

Ca. 1939.  The trombone gained widespread popularity through the influence of bandleaders such as Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller and its used in jazz.  Tommy Dorsey, in particular, left his mark on all trombonists for his remarkable control and smooth legato.

Ca. 1950.  American-type orchestral trombones became standardized throughout the world, in some cases (as in England) displacing traditional small-bore instruments, in Germany and Austria, but German trombones continued their independent line of development.

Ca. 1952.  Several American bass trombonists were frustrated by the limitations of the Bb-F instrument in producing good notes immediately above the pedal range.  They experimented with an additional length of tubing connected to the F attachment by a second valve that lowered the pitch to E.  This was later altered to Eb or D, and the dependent double-trigger bass trombone soon became standardized.

Ca. 1965  Hans Kunitz invented the in-line independent double-valve large bass-contrabass trombone, tuned F/C-D-Bb.

Ca. 1970.  Dr. B.P. Leonard independently invented the in-line design.  From Leonard's patented design, tuned Bb/G-E-D.  Other versions, tuned Bb/F-G-Eb or Bb/F-Gb-D, were developed and produced commercially as bass trombones.

Present.  Large-bore tenors with and without F attachment and in-line double-rotor bass trombones are used in orchestras and bands today.  While small-bore trombones are rare, medium and medium-large bores are widely used by students and in the jazz and recording fields.  Alto trombones are used for certain repertoire (particularly in Germany).  Modern versions of traditional German trombones are preferred in Central Europe.  The valve trombone is now only found in jazz, where it is an important solo instrument.  Parts for the contrabass trombone are usually played on the bass trombone, due to the increased capability of the in-line double-valve instrument but there is increased use of the modern forms of the contrabass instrument.

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