Regularly cleaning and maintaining your trumpet can lengthen its lifespan and ensure optimal sound quality. And it’s as easy as bathing your horn and brushing its teeth, except instead of teeth there are valves and a few u-bend slides.
In forgoing this process, you may find some unwelcome surprises during your next solo that you could’ve easily avoided.
I have 10 years’ experience of concert and marching band performance. And in that time, I’ve learned that spending 20 minutes a week cleaning my trumpet can easily help me avoid situations like faltering the entry of the brass section in “Maria” from West Side Story.
Follow these simple steps to prevent sticky valves, or a corroded tuning slide from showing up in your next performance.
Supplies you’ll need for cleaning your trumpet
Before we get to the specific steps involved, you’ll want to have some supplies on hand for cleaning your trumpet. You’ll find a basic set of tools will accomplish the job just fine. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to keep your horn in tip-top shape.
There are plenty of pre-packaged cleaning kits available designed for this task. I’ve always used the Yamaha standard trumpet/cornet cleaning kit. It costs between $15 and $20 and is likely available in your local instrument or music store, as well as online through Amazon.
The tools included in a typical cleaning kit are:
- A polishing cloth to shine your trumpet
- A mouthpiece brush to remove gunk or corrosion from your mouthpiece
- A valve casing brush to remove any debris from the airways
- A cleaning “snake” for your slides
- Valve oil for lubricating your slides and valves
You’ll also need a mild soap (e.g. dish soap), valve oil and slide grease, which may be included in your kit or may be purchased separately. Avoid soaps with any harsh chemicals like bleach which can harm the finish of your instrument.
Some people also prefer to use Vaseline or other petroleum-based lubricants for their slides. These are typically trumpet-safe alternatives to slide grease, provided they don’t contain any harsh chemicals.
There are other cleaning tools, such as “Spitballs”, which you can blow through your trumpet to remove gunk. I found they’re excellent at eliminating spittle but not much else. You’ll find products like this unnecessary if you regularly clean your trumpet, which should fix this problem on its own.
Clean your trumpet in 15 steps
We’ve broken down this process for new trumpet players. Once you have some experience disassembling and cleaning and oiling your horn, the process becomes much quicker and easier (related: Parts of a Trumpet Explained).
1. Disassemble your trumpet
First layout a towel to keep your trumpet’s components from picking up excess dirt. I used to mix up my valves all the time when I first started playing! I eventually learned to lay them on a towel in order to more easily keep track.
Disassemble your horn by removing the valves, slides and mouthpiece and laying them on the towel. Note that each valve casing has a corresponding slide. But the fourth and largest slide is the most prone to corrosion and saliva residue.
Don’t forget to unscrew your valve caps to check and clean them properly. Although your caps don’t contact saliva or lubricants like the rest of your horn, they still require maintenance.
2. Fill a basin, bucket or bathtub with soap and warm water
You’re creating a bath place for your horn. It should be large enough to completely submerge your trumpet.
Warm water is best. And it’s better to have water that’s too cool than too hot, as extreme heat can damage the finish and luster of your horn.
3. Clean the mouthpiece
Now it’s time to clean the mouthpiece. You may soak it entirely in the soapy mixture you’ve just made.
Taking the mouthpiece brush from your kit, scrub down the mouthpiece inside and out to make sure everything is clean. Gently scrub the inside of your horn where the mouthpiece fits.
Be gentle. You’re just trying to remove any gunk from this area. You won’t likely notice any harm after just one or two cleanings. But you can easily damage the interior or your horn and its parts from using too much muscle.
4. Clean the first valve slide
You may put soap directly down the slide or submerge it in the water. Use your cleaning snake to scrub the inside of the slide.
Be sure to use the snake from both sides of the slide rather than just jamming it all the way through. Starting at both sides of your slide will ensure a more thorough cleaning of your slides and prevent damage that can happen from trying to force the snake through the u-bend.
After you’ve cleaned the insides, let the slide airdry. Using a paper towel or linen to dry parts of your instrument will only result in pieces of paper and lint all over your precious trumpet!
5. Clean the second valve slide
This slide is the easiest to clean. But it’s often neglected because of its smaller size, which can cause issues for airflow.
Take your time to deal with this little guy properly. Though the slide is small, it’s part of a working whole. And its performance could affect your other slides if it becomes clogged. Lightly scrub all residues from the slide and wash it through with warm, soapy water.
6. Clean the third valve slide
The third valve slide can be a little more challenging to clean because of its length.
Use the cleaning snake to reach down each side of the slide and slowly scrub out any debris and oil. Remember to use your snake from each side instead of just forcing it through the bend. Clean 360 degrees around the interior of the slide.
Take extra care to ensure this piece dries properly. It will likely need more time to dry than the other slides due to its length.
7. Clean the tuning slide
This slide captures your saliva during play and is at greater risk of corrosion than your other slides. The tuning slide is also integral to your tuning. So take your time and show this slide the attention it deserves.
Use the snake from each side and wash the inside thoroughly with warm, soapy water. Take a moment to ensure your spit valve is working correctly. Most trumpet players are familiar with the sound of a muddy spit valve that isn’t working or has accumulated too much saliva during a performance.
8. Clean the horn/bell
Lay the horn in your basin and lightly scrub the bell and the areas where your slides connect.
This is also the time to clean your valve casings with your valve casing brush. Be thorough but not forceful with this step–it’s all too easy to accidentally chip, scrape or scratch the coating on a lacquered trumpet. Make sure you get all the areas that experience friction, such as slides or where your mouthpiece fits into the trumpet.
9. Give your trumpet time to dry
It’s tempting to rub the instrument down with a hand towel. But doing so could undo all the cleaning you’ve just done by sticking little fibers to everything.
Leave for a minute and do something else to occupy your time if you’re tempted to rush through this step.
10. Grease the slides
It’s time to grease your slides before inserting them back into your horn. Use the grease or lubricant sparingly because too much can gunk up your airways.
If you have trouble getting a valve back into place, don’t force it! Take it to a repair shop and let them solve the problem. Forcing your valve back into place never ends well. Trumpets are relatively delicate and paying a professional a few dollars to solve the problem will be much cheaper than paying to replace a damaged part of your horn later.
Now that your slides are back in place, check them to ensure there’s no excess lubricant on the outside of the horn. If you applied too much slide grease, for example, it would gunk up around the edges. Wipe away any excess lubricant with a dry paper towel.
11. Clean the valves/valve caps
I prefer to clean the valves as one of the last steps of the process. They are the most complex part of your horn and require special attention. Make sure you keep them in order and don’t mix them up, or your horn won’t play when you reassemble it.
Rub soap and water on the sides of your valves with your cleaning snake. Scrub gently and avoid the top of your valve where the felt pads are. Wet felt pads can cause several problems, from mildew to misalignment.
Check your valve caps for any issues. They may require a light brushing. But keep water off your felt valve pads! Screw the caps back on once they’re clean and dry.
12. Oil the valves
Apply valve oil to each valve. Because valve oil is less viscous than slide grease, it can be easy to add too much. Just take your time and lightly coat the exterior surface of the valves.
13. Reassemble your trumpet
Complete your reassembly by gentle replacing the valves in your horn. You’ve likely mismatched the valve order if one of them doesn’t fit right or can’t be pushed down. Gently screw them into place and test each by pushing down on them like you would when you play.
14. Polish your trumpet
Give your horn a complete wipe down with your polishing towel.
There are additional polish creams you can add to this process to make your horn shinier. But merely wiping it with the correct polishing towel will make it look neat and clean. Your horn should look good as new!
15. Test your trumpet
Take a moment and test everything, including your tuning slide to make sure your horn sounds normal.
You need to give your horn a blow after cleaning. It would be embarrassing to find out the next time you went to perform that something went wrong during cleaning, like a valve getting stuck.
As I advanced my playing, I became more knowledgeable about the different parts of my trumpet and was able to limit cleaning time to a short 20 minutes or so once a week.
By regularly maintaining my trumpet, I found my horn sounds as polished as it looks. I also experience fewer spit-valve issues and less valve trouble than I did when I washed my horn only monthly.
Taking that bit of extra time each week is one of the critical factors that put me in the realm of professional players because that higher level of commitment is what separates the casual players from the virtuosos.