All About Trombones

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All About The Trombone

Well ok, the words "all about" might be a bit misleading - I'm principally interested in tenor trombones (and to some degree in bass trombones), and that will be reflected in the content of this site. If you are an enthusiast of the sackbut, alto trombone, soprano trombone or contrabass trombone, this is not the site for you (at least for the time-being). My apologies.

Anyway, the information on this page is a synthesis of bits and pieces picked up over nearly a decade-and-a-half of browsing through textbooks, catalogues, brochures and websites. It is intended for those who don't know very much about the trombone beyond that it consists of an outer slide, inner slide, tuning slide and bell section but are interested in learning more. Also included on this page are a few tips I've picked up on purchasing instruments. I hope you find the information useful, or at the very least, somewhat interesting.

Topics covered on this page:

1) Bore Sizes

2) Bells

3) Leadpipes

4) Slides

5) F Attachments

6) Purchasing a Trombone

A separate page containing miscellaneous Trombone FAQs and Not-So-FAQs can be accessed via the button at the bottom of this page.

To view a basic anatomy of the trombone, click here.

1) Bore Sizes

Going by bore size, tenor trombones can be classified into three "types" – small (.480" to around .510"), medium (around 0.525") and large (.547"). Bass trombones have a bore size of around .562". The bore size refers to the inner diameter of the inner slide tubing. The larger the bore size of the instrument, the faster the rate of taper (or rate of bell flare). Smaller bores with slow rates of taper tend to yield the brighter sounds whereas larger bores with fast flare rates result in darker sounds. Brighter sounds are desirable in jazz, whereas darker sounds are preferred in the symphonic setting. Hence small bore tenors of around .480" are often used by professionals to play lead parts (which require a very bright sound and often contain lots of very high notes) in jazz bands. Student model tenor trombones (sometimes referred to as “entry-level” or “standard” models) are also small bore, and typically have a bore size of around .500". Medium bore instruments are mainly the province of advanced students and professionals who want a flexible all-round instrument capable of being played in a wide array of settings. You could think of it as a compromise between small and large bores. Large bore horns are not at all recommended for beginners. Also, such instruments are intended principally for the symphonic setting. They may sound too “big” and “dark” for jazz-type music, and also require rather more effort than small bore instruments.



2) Bells

Many manufacturers now offer one-piece bells with their top-end instruments. These manufacturers claim that such bells are better in that they allow unrestricted vibration and uniform resonance throughout the length of the bell. Most instruments at the lower-quality end of the spectrum are of two-piece construction. There are also top-end instruments which have received much praise, e.g. Shires and Rath, that use two-piece bells, so it is debatable whether one-piece construction offers any perceptible advantages. The two pieces consist of bell flair and bell stem (or "tail"). To produce the stem, a sheet of metal is rolled into a cone. The overlapping ends are welded together, hence resulting in a visible length-wise seam where the material is thicker than on the rest of the bell. The stem and bell flair are then connected in a similar manner. In better quality two-piece bells, the seams are thinner and less obvious; poorer bells have more pronounced seams. Via a technique called pluzuma welding, Yamaha claims to be able to produce "virtually seamless" bells. The technique uses a high energy laser to fuse the brass, eliminating the need for any overlap.

Other bell-associated factors affecting an instrument’s sound include the material used, bell thickness and whether the rim has been soldered. Brass bells are made from copper and zinc, and the proportion of the two metals influences the colour and sound of the bell. Essentially, bells are described as being red or yellow. Red brass has a higher copper content (about 90%) than yellow brass (about 70%), but the exact copper content varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. For many people, “rose brass” or “gold brass” are synonyms for red brass, but some manufacturers do make a distinction between rose/gold brass and red brass, using the former label for red bells with a slightly lower copper content (about 85%). Red brass bells are softer and said to produce a richer, darker and warmer sound particularly in softer volumes, with brilliance increasing with volume. Yellow brass bells on the other hand tend to yield a brighter sound, sharper articulation and a more consistent timbre at all dynamic ranges. Brass bells with thinner walls (“larger gauge” or “lighter”) are more responsive and flexible whereas thicker (“smaller gauge” or “heavier”) brass bells are capable of a larger volume of sound without distortion. Sterling silver bells (made of 90%+ silver, rather than merely having a silver plating) produce a more focused, clearer sound capable of great projection. Soldering the rim of a bell tends to focus the sound whereas an unsoldered bell produces a broader sound with more feedback and better articulation.



3) Leadpipes

Leadpipe (or mouthpipe) material, venturi (throat) and taper rate can also influence an instrument’s response, feel and sound. Brass leadpipes produce a warmer broader sound whereas sterling leadpipes help to focus the sound. For example, thick or heavy bells can result in a an overly "woofy" or "dead" sound, and in such cases, sterling leadpipes can be useful in brightening the sound.

Larger (“more open”) venturi and quicker tapers make trombones more free-blowing the trombone and also result in a broader, fuller sound. Smaller venturi and slower tapers on the other hand provide a clearer and more focused sound. Most trombones have a fixed leadpipe, but some custom and professional trombones offer the option of interchangeable leadpipes.



4) Slides

Nickel-silver outer slides are light in weight and hence can provide a quick response. They are also highly durable, being more resistant to corrosion than brass slides. Thus, nickel-silver slides can be found both on student and some professional models. Outer slides made of brass are the most common variety, however. Some manufacturers offer light-weight brass slides (e.g. Courtois), whereas others offer heavyweight wide brass slides (e.g. Besson) to aid in the production of a darker sound. Slides with “square” crook designs (e.g. that on the Bach 42) enable a very open low register and bigger sound, but are found by many to require more effort to play. “Rounded” crooks (e.g. on the Conn 88H) offer a quicker response and more flexibility, but the low register is less easy than with “square” crooks.



5) F Attachments

An F valve section would be particularly useful to have if you mainly play second, third or bass parts. Even lead players may find an F section useful, depending on the sort of music they play. An F attachment would also be useful for those with short arms – C above 2nd partial Bb can be played in first position, and B natural in second position. If an F section is required only rarely, the added weight may well overshadow its usefulness. In such a case, one might consider purchasing an instrument with a detachable F section, but such instruments invariably cost more. When blowing through an F attachment, there will invariably be increased resistance caused by bends in the tubing. Such resistance can be reduced by purchasing an instrument with open-wrap tubing (open-wrapped tubing has fewer bends than close-wrapped tubing), but these are more bulky (making them less convenient in tight opera pits, for example) and less robust than closed-wrap tubing. Another solution is to have use oversized tubing in the F section – the .562" F section tubing of the Conn 88H is an example. Finally, Thayer valves and a range of improved rotary valve designs such as Hagmann and Greenhoe valves are now available. Aside from improvements in the valve itself, these models incorporating open-wrap tubing connected differently from that found with traditional rotor sections. The result is reduced resistance to air-flow. Invariably, models mounting these new valves cost rather more than equivalent models with traditional rotary valves.

If you wish to specialise in playing bass trombone, an F attachment is practically mandatory. A second rotor would also be very handy, especially for playing the B natural and C immediately above the first partial (on a single valve instrument, playing the B would necessitate pulling out the F section tuning slide so that it becomes tuned to E). Two sorts of double valve systems are available: dependent (or stacked) and independent (or in-line). Dependent instruments have the F valve on the neckpipe, and the second valve on the F section tubing. The second valve cannot be used unless the F valve is in operation, hence the term “dependent”. In contrast, both valves are located on the neckpipe in in-line systems, enabling independent operation of the valves. However, the presence of two valves on the neckpipe results in increased resistance when playing through the “open” (i.e. when valve(s) are not being activated) horn compared with just the one on dependent systems.



6) Purchasing a Trombone

When looking to purchase a new trombone, any professional or experienced trombonist will tell you that it is best to take the time to try as many instruments as possible before making a choice. Don’t take the manufacturer’s blurb as gospel. Also, simply purchasing an instrument endorsed by a famous personality will not guarantee that you will get the right instrument for you. If you don’t try out a range of instruments before settling on one, you may find yourself regretting your purchase later when you come across an instrument more to your liking.

Do shop around for the best price – never pay the RRP (Recommended Retail Price, also known as list price) if this is the price you are quoted. Most dealers can and will offer a discount of between 10 to 30%. For many trombonists, affordability is a – or even THE - major factor influencing choice of trombone make and model. However, a lack of funds need not preclude the purchase of a quality instrument if one is willing to consider used instruments. A well cared-for used high quality instrument may be able to provide more satisfaction than a new lesser instrument. Furthermore, if you purchase a used top quality instrument and later decide to sell it on, you will find that it will have retained its value (assuming it's in good condition and well-cared for) far better than a lesser quality instrument.

The key aspect to consider in purchasing a used instrument is the condition of its slide – even slight dents in the outer slide that are invisible to the naked eye can significantly impact on playability. Similarly, other problems wuch as warped inner slides can adversely affect slide action. Repairing damaged slides can be a costly business. The safest way to purchase a used instrument is to buy one from or via someone you know you can trust. Alternatively, have either a professional or someone knowledgeable about trombones evaluate the instrument for you. The next best thing is to have the instrument examined by a professional repair technician with no ties to the seller (to ensure an honest appraisal).

If for whatever reason you decide to rely on yourself to check out the condition of the slide (e.g. because you haven’t managed to find any trombone-savvy person to help you, and you are keen on purchasing a particular used instrument from a music shop who insist that the instrument is in good condition), you can do the following simple tests:

First, examine the inner and outer slides for obvious dents. Dents in the slides are obviously not desirable, but as long as not severe, can be fixed at a reasonable price - but do get a quote for the repair cost before you buy. My personal inclination would be to avoid purchasing an instrument with an obvious dent in inner slide stockings, or in the outer slide anywhere other than the crook section (even then, it shouldn’t be a major dent). Next, at a moderate pace, extend the slide to just slightly past seventh position and then bring it back again to first. Note whether the slide sticks at any point (there may be more than one point!) – sticking indicates the presence of oxidation on the inside of outer slide tubing or slight dents not obvious to the naked eye. These problems are fixable. To discover whether the problem is in the upper or lower portion of the outer slides, separate the inner and outer slides. In the vertical position, insert one inner tube into the corresponding outer tube and observe for sticking. Repeat with the other set of tubes. If you discover no problems with the individual pairs, it is possible that the actual problem is misalignment of tubes or warping of one or more tubes. Make sure that both tubes of the inner slide are exactly parallel and straight, and that the same is the case of the outer slide tubes. Check that the inner slide stockings align properly with the outer slide.

If you are satisfied that the slide action is smooth, the next step is to check for wear. Inspect the slide stockings. Inner slides are usually chrome- or nickel-plated, whereas outer slides may be of brass or nickel-silver. Because brass is less durable than chrome or nickel-silver, spots of wear on the inner slide suggest that the brass outer slide is likely to be significantly more worn. Such an instrument would best be avoided. If the inner slide looks reasonable, check to see how airtight the slide is, because the smoothness might be a result of wear. Hold the slide vertically in your left hand, covering both tube ends. Allow the outer slide section to drop – if the slide is in reasonable condition, the slide will drop slowly. As a precaution, do make sure to position your right hand to catch the slide in before it hits the floor in case the slide is not in good condition after all. You don't want to give the shop any excuses to accuse you of ruining the slide!

Trombone FAQs and Not-So-FAQs

Click on the button below to view commonly (and less-commonly) asked questions and answers about trombones.

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