The trombone is quite a versatile instrument. And at first glance, it looks like one of the simplest instruments available. But don’t let its minimalist design fool you. The trombone is a complex instrument that takes time and dedication to learn.
I’ve been playing the trombone for well over a decade. And I’ve experienced the instrument from the viewpoint of a current music education major as well as from playing in various ensembles.
Here I’ll be answering some common questions that new and prospective trombonists often raise about the instrument.
Background and history of the trombone
Who invented the trombone?
Who invented the trombone is unclear. But the earliest type of trombone was believed to be the sackbut, which can be traced back to as early mid-15th century. Developed from early slide trumpets, the sackbut has a U-shaped slide with two parallel sliding tubes.
The modern trombone has a similar design to its early predecessor. But several design changes, such as reshaping the bore and bell, have altered the trombone’s sound and expanded its use over the years.
What family does the trombone belong to?
The trombone belongs to the brass family, which includes brass wind instruments such as the trumpet, saxophone and tuba.
The brass family of instruments is defined by its specific brass alloys used in construction. Brass instruments also function similarly by producing sound from the musician’s lips vibrating into the mouthpiece.
The trombone is part of the low brass family, a subset of brass instruments that play in a relatively low tone. Along with tubas and euphoniums, trombones constitute the bottom of the brass section. These support the rest of the group, which can include concert bands, orchestras and brass bands.
How does a trombone work?
The trombone produces its sound by amplifying the “buzz” created by the trombonist’s vibrating lips as they blow into the mouthpiece.
The trombonist adjusts the pitch and switches notes by using the hand slide. Extending the hand slide outward lowers the pitch, and retracting it inward raises the pitch. The modern trombone has seven different slide positions. Extending the slide from one position to the next lowers the pitch by one semitone, or one-half step.
As with other brass instruments, the trombone works through the overtone, or harmonic, series. The trombonist can play multiple notes in a single slide position by tightening their lips and increasing the pressure of their airflow.
The slide gives trombone an advantage over some valved instruments because musicians can play a fuller range of notes.
What is the trombone made from?
Trombones are typically made of brass with slight variations in materials.
Some trombones have parts, especially the bell sections, with different colors to them, such as yellow, gold and sometimes red brass bells. These contain varying levels of copper and zinc, which affect the sounds of the instrument as well as the bell color.
The slide is usually made of similar materials, sometimes yellow brass, gold brass or even a nickel silver. There can be a lot of variation among these materials. Spending some time trying out different trombones can help you find which one sounds best for you.
What is the range of a trombone?
The range of different types of trombones and even different trombonists can vary greatly. The most common among the varieties of the instrument are the tenor trombone and bass trombone.
A standard tenor trombone is pitched in B♭ and ranges from E2 to F5. Adding an extra section of tubing, called the F attachment, extends the lower range down to B♭1.
Bass trombones are also pitched in B♭. Bass trombonists will usually be expected to play in a range of F1 to C5. But some bass trombones can play as low as B♭1. And some music requires playing notes lower than this normal range.
Does a trombone transpose?
A transposing instrument is one that sounds a different note than what is written.
The clarinet and trumpet are examples of transposing instruments. Notes written transpose a half step lower when played. A written C for a B♭ clarinet actually sounds a concert B♭.
The trombone is a non-transposing instrument. When a trombone player sees a C4, they will play a C4. In this case, their written pitch is the same as their sounding pitch.
What key is the trombone in?
Different trombones are pitched in different keys. Some have special valves that tune them into different keys, including:
- Tenor trombone, which is typically in the key of B♭. Adding an accessory called the F attachment and activating a valve changes it to the key of F.
- Bass trombone, which is also in the key of B♭. One or more valves allow playing in an extended lower range. Bass trombones will usually have an F attachment along with another valve in a different tuning, usually in G♭.
- Contrabass trombone, which is usually pitched in the key of F and has two valves in different tunings.
- Alto trombone, which is pitched in the key of E♭ and may sometimes have a valve that switches it to the key of B♭.
Is trombone easy to play?
Despite its simple design, the trombone can be one of the hardest instruments to learn to play! Here are the main features that distinguish this instrument from others in terms of difficulty:
Facial muscle control
Strengthening and learning to properly control the mouth muscles is one of the biggest challenges for anyone learning a wind instrument. And you’re likely to get tired faster playing a brass instrument like trombone than playing a woodwind like clarinet.
Hand slide technique
The trombone’s hand slide can inhibit technique, especially when compared to valved instruments. Moving the slide in and out is much harder than depressing a valve. And developing the muscle memory to do so quickly often takes years of practice.
While the trombonist can adjust their tuning with the slightest movement of the wrist, this action can be very unforgiving. A note will sound out of tune if the slide is only slightly out of position. And there are no set stops for the slide. So, trombonists must train their ears to be able to play well in tune.
One aspect of the trombone that makes it a little easier to play is learning chromatics. The chromatics are intuitive and learning them doesn’t require much memorization because the notes of a trombone are next to each other in sequence.
Whereas other brass instruments like the trumpet have somewhat random fingering positions for notes.
What genres of music are most popular for trombone?
The trombone is quite a versatile instrument, and it finds itself at home in a variety of ensembles. These include wind bands, jazz bands, orchestras, brass bands and more.
Dixieland jazz and big band jazz are perhaps the genres that most popularly feature the trombone. But the trombone is also prominent in Jamaican jazz, ska, reggae and New Orleans brass music.
Who are some famous trombone players?
Many musicians have made their mark as trombonists. Arthur Pryor (1869-1942), virtuoso trombonist, bandleader and composer, who revolutionized trombone playing is most known for his technically difficult trombone solos.
An American trombonist, bandleader, composer and arranger, Glenn Miller (1904-1944) is best known for his role in the big band era. He also founded the Airmen of Note, one of the most well-known jazz bands today.
Joseph Alessi (1959-), principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, soloist and teacher is most known for his outstanding trombone playing and teaching. Alessi has been a teacher at the prestigious Juilliard School since 1986.
Buying a trombone
How much does a trombone cost?
Trombones can range widely in price depending on level, type, brand and materials used. Higher-end or professional trombones are made with better materials and craftsmanship and may include a more expensive mouthpiece and after-sale services, such as repair.
You’ll likely see new models selling in the following ranges:
- $400-$1,200 for beginner level
- $1,500-$2,500 for intermediate level
- $2,500+ for professional level
Some “boutique” modular or signature trombone models can cost upwards of $4,000-$5,000 new. And professional contrabass models can cost tens of thousands of dollars!
A good beginner tenor trombone can often be bought secondhand for under $300. Consider renting or buying a used trombone if you’re just starting out, especially if you’re not yet fully committed to learning.
Which trombone is best for beginners?
Some good trombone models for beginners include:
- Yamaha YSL-354
- Getzen 351
- King 606
- Olds Ambassador
- Bach TB301
If you’re new to trombone, ask a trusted musician for their recommendation before purchasing an instrument. A well-intentioned purchase at a bargain price can greatly inhibit your ability to grow and develop if the instrument isn’t constructed well with good materials.
Owning and playing trombone
How often should you clean your trombone?
Cleaning your trombone regularly is an important habit to build. Neglecting to clean it can lead to mold and rust buildup—not to mention health risks with holding your mouth to a dirty mouthpiece.
I’d recommend personally cleaning your trombone at least once a month and cleaning your mouthpiece, specifically, once a week or more.
You don’t need any fancy tools or cleaners. Just use soap and water and a mouthpiece brush on the mouthpiece if you have one. Though some people recommend spraying the mouthpiece with a mouthpiece disinfectant spray every day before playing on it.
Take your trombone to be professionally cleaned at least once a year.
How to hold a trombone?
As with any instrument, holding a trombone should feel as natural as possible. Bad holding habits can cause unnecessary pain and tension when playing for longer periods.
The right way to hold a trombone doesn’t change depending on whether you’re left- or right-handed.
Grip the trombone with your left hand at the point where the bell and slide meet. Wrap your thumb around the brace that extends across to the bell. Reach your index finger up and rest it on the lead pipe near the mouthpiece.
Wrap your middle, ring and pinky fingers firmly around the top slide brace. Move your pinky finger to the slide whenever the slide lock is not engaged.
Adjust the spacing of your fingers until you find a position that feels most natural.
Holding the slide brace and operating the slide are the main responsibility of your right hand on the trombone.
Hoist the trombone up and rest it on your left shoulder.
Hold the slide brace with your thumb and two first fingers. The ring and pinky finger should support it from the other side. This hand should feel relaxed and flexible.
How to fix your trombone embouchure?
Embouchures are personalized to each player. There are different types of embouchures, due to different mouth shapes and sizes. That said, the basics of achieving a good embouchure on trombone are consistent.
Make sure the corners of your mouth are firm against your teeth. But the middle of your lips need to remain looser to allow for the vibration needed to create a “buzz” in your mouthpiece.
You also need to maintain a flat, pointed chin. If your chin is rounded and puffed outward, you won’t get the right sound from your instrument. A few other common mistakes to avoid with your embouchure that may require practice to overcome are:
- Puffed cheeks
- Placement of the mouthpiece too far to either side
- “Smiling”, or raising the corners of your mouth
- Having “air pockets” in the embouchure, or puffing the front part of the lips
The best way to fix an embouchure that needs work is by practicing long tones in front of a mirror and making sure everything is set in place.
How long does it take to learn trombone?
Steady and consistent practice is a must if you want to improve on trombone or any other instrument. But your own progress will depend on several factors, including:
- Goals – if by “learn” you mean become a world-class trombonist, you’ll need more time than a casual musician.
- Any prior music experience – for example, understanding music theory, being able to read sheet music and having learned to play a similar brass instrument are all advantages.
- Age – younger players tend to learn faster in general.
- Instruction – working closely with a trained instructor with firsthand expertise in trombone typically helps students practice far more effectively than self-teaching or other methods.
The 10,000-hour rule suggests 10,000 hours of practice are needed to reach professional competence. This, of course, assumes 10,000 hours of correct practice, which takes many years.
As a beginner trombonist, an hour a day of correct practice will go a long way in setting up strong fundamentals for the growing student. Some trombonists suggest that an adult can learn the basics of trombone in 2-3 months.
Many trombonists practice more, often 2-3 hours a day, once they reach an intermediate level with the instrument.
Playing fundamentally correct and with no bad habits will help you improve faster and easier than simply trying to rush. Always strive for a great sound accompanied by excellent fundamentals.
Can a trombone go out of tune?
Yes, a trombone can go out of tune. Temperature affects the tuning of brass instruments and most others.
A trombonist playing in a warmer room will typically compensate by extending their tuning slide a little more than usual. Likewise, they’ll retract the slide more than usual when playing in a cooler room.
Using a mute on trombone is another factor that will generally make the instrument play sharp.
Are there any helpful books available for beginner trombone players?
A couple books I’d recommend for beginner trombone players are:
- Rubank Elementary Method – Trombone or Baritone by Newell H. Long
- Essential Elements for Band (Trombone) by Hal Leonard Corp.
Guided teaching is of utmost importance to set up the beginner player correctly and prevent any mistakes from becoming bad habits. These two books both move progressively and provide the lessons a beginning trombonist might need.