It’s funny how many times when we think of brass instrument we usually think of the trumpet first…
And rarely of the trombone. It’s true, the trombone is kind of an underdog.
And in fact, if you ask a trombone player why they chose this funny looking instrument, they’ll usually reply either of these answers:
- It was the only instrument left in high school band
- It’s what my father/mother played
Now, there are reasons the trombone is not as popular as other instruments, mainly:
- it’s hard to play – because of the way it’s built, the trombone is a difficult instrument to master, and there are indeed few trombone “virtuoso”
- children can’t really play it – because of its size, it is usually not recommended for children, although there are some workarounds
But come to think about it, all these reasons are also PRECISELY WHY you should play the trombone!
Trombone players are usually highly sought after exactly because they’re so scarce. And the instrument itself is completely unique and plays like no other.
So whether you’re looking to be the next Trombone Shorty, play in a symphonic orchestra or become one of the rare jazz trombonists…
You’ve come to the right place as I have compiled for this all the information you need to know to either:
- Buy your first trombone
- Upgrade your current trombone
- Buy a new trombone
Sounds good? Then let’s start.
Before we start digging into the matter, I’d like to clarify that, although there is around a dozen different types of trombones, we’ll be talking about the tenor trombone in this article…
Which is what 99% of trombone players play, and what people think of when they hear the word trombone.
Now, this post will be divided in 2 big “umbrella” parts:
- The Construction of the Trombone
- Basic Playing techniques and Resources
So if you’re more interested in one of these section than the other, feel free to jump right to it.
Got it? Then let’s start.
A Little Bit of History
The trombone is actually the VERY first brass instrument to have been enabled to play “real” music.
And by “real” I mean harmonic, meaning that, up to its “invention” sometime during the 15th century…
Brass instruments were used as signaling devices rather than true musical instruments.
The invention of the slide literally revolutionized the brass instruments family since it enabled the then called “sackbut” to play the chromatic scale – and actually more since the slide allows to play more than only half-tones.
In other words, the trombone is the foundation to all modern brass instruments.
So now that you know you’ve chosen one of the most important wind instruments ever, let’s actually look at what makes a good trombone, shall we?
And so, first off…
Anatomy of the Trombone
As a beginner, looking at a trombone can be overwhelming, especially when seeing the amount of available part options.
And so in order to sort through all these features and ultimately decide which ones you need or not, we must first look at how a trombone is made.
On the image on the right you’ll see all the part of the trombone and their name.
However, for the sake of this article, and because they aren’t all equally as important, we will only focus on a few of them, which are arguably the most important ones when t comes to tone shaping.
We’ll be looking at the following parts and features, that each have varying degrees of impact on the outcoming sound:
- The Mouthpiece – probably the most important part of the trombone. Choosing the right one is essential
- The Slide – which is used to change the pitch of what you’re playing
- The F Attachment – which refers to a sort of switch you can use to play some notes more easily
- The Bell – which varies in size, thickness, shape (rate/taper) and material
- The Tuning Slide – which is used to tune the trombone
- The Lead Pipe – which can be interchangeable on some models
So let’s dig in a bit more into each of these parts/features, starting with…
1. The Mouthpiece
The mouthpiece is the direct link between you and the instrument, so needless to say playing on a good, comfortable mouthpiece is essential.
The thing is, the mouthpiece is a pretty complex part. Actually, it is a VERY complex element with many settings and characteristics that need factoring in…
And honestly mouthpiece manufacturing is a science on its own. There are virtually endless possibilities, as well as hundreds of models to choose from.
But if I had to give ONE big rule of thumb it would probably be: the bigger the spaces inside the mouthpiece, the less resistance is created, and the more effort it requires.
- If you’re a beginner – choose a mouthpiece with a small cup and large rim
- If you’re an advanced trombone player – go ahead and pick a large cup, narrow rim mouthpiece. They’re harder to play but offer much more harmonic freedom.
And so, you don’t have to know each and every detail of the manufacturing of a trombone mouthpiece…
But rather only the most important factors to consider, which are:
- The Shank – do not get the shank wrong, as your mouthpiece won’t fit your trombone if you do
- The Rim – which is the edge of the cup
- The Cup – which varies in depth and diameter
- The Throat– which can be big or small
- The Backbore – which is the part behing the throat
So let’s see each of these in more details, shall we?
A. The Shank
The shank is basically the diameter of the mouthpiece’s “stem”, the part that fits into the trombone’s mouthpiece receiver.
In order to choose the right mouthpiece shank you need to know your trombone’s bore size, which we’ll cover further down.
Large shank mouthpieces don’t fit small bore trombones and small shank mouthpieces don’t fit large bore trombones, so you can’t choose the wrong shank.
Some brands specify the shank size by putting an “L” or “S” after the model number.
B. The Rim
The rim of the mouthpiece is the parts your lips touch and where the most stress is applied.
In other words, choose its specs wisely: if you’re a beginner, go for comfort and endurance.
If you’re experienced on the trombone, you might want to go for a rim that favors range, flexibility and precision.
And here is how the rim affects playability:
- Wide rims – are easier to play and increase endurance
- Narrow rims – are more difficult to play but increase the playing range
- Round rims – are more comfortable
- Sharp rims – are less comfortable than round rims but produce a brighter tone and a sharp attack
C. The Cup
The cup has 2 main varying factors:
- The Depth – deep cups create dark tones in the low register, shallow cups create a brighter tone and produce a quicker response.
- The Width – large cups increase volume and offer more control at the expense of endurance. Small cups help are easier to play and don’t tire the player as much, at the expense of control and volume.
D. The Throat
The throat of a mouthpiece also varies in shape and size and its characteristics are essentially the same as the cup.
But the throat’s role is to funnel the vibrations created by the lips all the way to the backbore.
And the narrower the throat, the more resistance it will apply on the airflow, thus:
- Narrow, long throats – produce more resistance, increase playability in the high register, produce a faster response and a brighter tone.
- Larger and shorter throats – produce a darker tone, offer more control in the lower register but require more air to produce a consistent tone, leading to potential fatigue from the player.
And to conclude the mouthpiece part…
E. The Backbore
The backbore is the part where the throat starts to widen again. Some manufacturers may give it more or less complicated shapes, but the rule of thumb is the same as for most mouthpiece parts:
- Narrow backbores – create a brighter tone
- Wide backbores – help improve the tones in the lower register
So that’s what you need to know about the mouthpiece.
2. The Slide
The slide is the trombone’s “signature” mechanism, which is built to change its pitch.
The reason the trombone is a unique instrument is precisely because of the slide:
It turns the trombone into the ONLY brass instrument able to play glissandi, and to go from one note to the other gradually, as opposed to abruptly for others, such as the trumpet.
To learn more about what is arguably the main element of the trombone, we’ll cover these topics:
- The Bore
- Anatomy of the slide
- How the slide works/the positions
A. The Bore Size
Probably the most important factor of all, the bore size refers to the diameter of the slide of the trombone.
In fact, the bore size is so important it actually give its name to the trombone type:
- Large bore trombones (.547″) – which are mostly used in symphonic orchestras
- Small bore trombones (.480″ to .508″) – which are mostly used by jazz/band musicians
And although beginners generally simply don’t know that there are various bore sizes available, the fact is that it is a crucial factor to consider when choosing a trombone.
Generally, trombone are ordered in 4 types of bore sizes with the 2 main ones being:
- Large bore (.547″) – which are mostly used in symphonic orchestras
- Small bore(.480″ to .508″) – which are mostly used by jazz/band musicians
In fact, many trombone players actually refer to small bore trombone as jazz trombones and to large bore trombones as symphonic trombone, precisely because of the context they’re used in.
To get an idea of how different both these sound, have a look at this guy playing both types back to back:
Now, in addition to large bore and small bore trombones there 2 more options that are less common but still relevant.
- Double bore – which are a special type of trombone that uses 2 different bore sizes, smaller on the mouthpiece tube and larger on the other tube.
- Medium bore (.525″)- which are popular with first chairs in orchestras and shows (musicals/pit orchestras…) and many other players who appreciate their versatility
And in fact, medium bore is the the least common bore size with only a bunch of models available.
However, 1 medium bore model is particularly popular since it offers a sound many “pit” musicians – that is trombone players playing in medium groups of 8 to 15 musicians – find to be just perfect:
- They don’t get the overwhelming sound of a large bore…
- Nor the overly bright sound of a small bore.
This model is the Bach 36. With a bore of .525 it is indeed a medium bore trombone and its users seem to enjoy its high versatility. Check it out:
- Bach 36B Stradivarius Series: (Amazon)
B. Anatomy of the Slide
The slide is comprised of 2 elements:
- The inner slide/tubes – which are 2 static metal tubes.
- The outer slide – which is the part you move in order to change the pitch.
In order for this mechanism to run smoothly the construction needs to be flawless, in particular the size of the gap between the inner and outer slides.
This space between both tubes needs to be .1mm. Make it 0.2mm and you’ll have an unplayable horn.
However, the inner slides have small portions that actually touch the outer slide. These parts are called the stockings.
It is the only section where both inner and outer slides touch each others.
C. How the Slide Works/Positions
The slide’s role is to change the length of the tubing in the trombone.
- The further away the slide, the longer the tubing length and therefore the lower the pitch
- The closer the slide, the shorter the tubing and therefore the higher the pitch.
Now, contrary to ANY other wind instrument, the trombone doesn’t show any cue as to where exactly you should pull or push the slide…
Which is another reason the trombone is a difficult instrument to learn.
And just like you need to know the exact position of your fingers on a violin for example, you need to know exactly how much to move the slide on the trombone.
Luckily there are some visual ways to remember where these positions are on the trombone.
There are 7 positions on the slide, the 7th being the most “remote” one.
Here’s a quick video showing these positions so you can judge their “distances” by yourself:
Which brings us to our next part…
The F Attachment
Without a doubt one of the major upgrade you can have on a trombone…
The F attachment essentially makes it generally easier to play your horn, no less. So what is it exactly?
The F attachment, sometimes referred to as quart valve or trigger (as in trigger trombone) is a key that, when pressed, opens up extra tubing so as to lower the fundamental pitch from Bb to F.
But the main reason most modern trombones are built with an F attachment is because it allows the player to reach normally difficult 7th position notes easily, in closer positins…
Which eventually translates in greater ease of play and increased playing speed, since it makes you save a lot of slide movements.
Check out this video to get a better idea of the differences in playing the same notes with, and without the F attachment trigger:
Specifically, here is a list of note you can expect to play with more ease with an F attachment trombone:
- E natural
Thank you for reaching out. With a dual bore trombone, the lower slide is slightly larger than the upper slide. This simply means that the slide is smaller on one side, and graduates to a larger diameter on the other. This provides more advanced players with a broader sound.
Open wrap/Closed wrap
Now, within the F attachment trombone “family” there are 2 different types of construction:
- Closed wrap (traditional) – which means the extra tubing is built to fit the “profile” of a normal, non trigger trombone. This involves more bends in the tubing.
- Open wrap – which means the tubes aren’t bent as much, allowing for less stress on the airflow but the trombone is bigger.
As for the facts, open wrap trombones are considered the “pro” trombones as most advanced players say the decrease in resistance on the airflow greatly improves the playability.
BUT other players also say they don’t think it’s as important or noticeable as some say, and unless you’re a professional player looking for the very best trombone…
You shouldn’t worry too much about this part.
Although most people — and especially beginners — don’t worry too much about the bell when shopping for a trombone…
The truth is that it basically is the amplifier of the trombone… Which is a pretty big deal.
But the reason most people don’t over think the bell is because they actually can’t do much about it.
What I mean is, compared to a guitar for example, in which you can decide from one day to the other you don’t like its strings and want to try out a new set…
You obviously can’t do that with a trombone bell.
However, some advanced and professional players might reach a point where they realize they like everyting about their horn but the bell…
Or maybe they want some change but are not willing to just replace the whole instrument.
Well some manufacturers actually sell trombone bells and usually offer to install them on your existing horn, since it almost always implies some hardware modification.
And so even though you probably won’t need to know much about the bell for now, it’s always good to learn what you can so that if you ever want to try something else out, at least you’ll know what to look for.
Here are the varying factors of a trombone bell:
- Diameter – Jazz trombones (small bore) have smaller bells than large ones (symphony) trombones
- Thickness – thicker bell “walls” create a warmer, rounder sound and are generally found on large bore trombones
- Material – although brass is consistent across all bells, some have different amounts of other metals mixed into it
- Soldered/unsoldered (or one piece/two piece bell) – the bell can be made of one entire piece, or two different ones (bell+spout) soldered together
- Tapering rate – which refers to the shape of the bell and the rate of flare.
- The bead wire – which is a wire that is built into the ede of the bell, where it “rolls over”. It can be soldered to the bead, or not.
So let’s dig in these characteristics a bit more shall we?
The diameter is probably the most noticeable characteristics when glancing at a trombone bell.
On the image on the right you can see a jazz trombone on the left and a symphony trombone on the right.
See how the jazz trombone’s bell is smaller than the symphony one’s?
Most manufacturers offer trombones with bell diameter between 6 1/2″ and 10 1/2″.
- Larger diameters – offer a wider, rounder sound and are used for large-bore trombones that play in orchestras.
- Smaller diameters – produce a brighter sound and are used with jazz trombone’s bell.
The thickness of the bell’s “walls” also affects the outcoming sound of the trombone. And although there is no real consensus on the subject, most sources agree that:
- Thicker walls – create heavier bells and a warmer sound, suited for large bore trombones
- Thinner walls – create lighter bells and a more direct, brigther sound and are suited for jazz trombones.
There are 4 main types of materials used for bell making, most of them are a mix of brass and zinc in different amounts.
- Red Brass (90% brass/10% zinc)
- Gold Brass (85% brass/15% zinc)
- Yellow Brass (70% brass/30% zinc)
- Sterling Silver – some rare models offer silver sterling bells.
As a general rule, it is said that the bigger the copper (brass) concentration, the warmer the sound at lower dynamics, and the brighter at high dynamics.
The bell can be made out of 1, or 2 parts.
1 piece bells (unsoldered) are made of one single leaf of metal. 2 piece bells are made of, well, 2 pieces:
- The bell flare
- The stem (or spout)
As for the sound, it’s very hard to find a consensus and most players will tell you that can’t hear a difference.
However, since unsoldered bells end up with a sort of “spine” running along their length due to where the sheet is welded (but not soldered), they tend to produce kind of a “reverberating” sound, due to the lengthwise vibrations.
This is pretty technical but essentially it comes down to this:
- Soldered bells – are said to be easier to play (although it’s not clear how exactly)
- Unsoldered bells – are said to produce a more resonating sound
So although there is not much resources out there about these 2 construction methods, just know they exist.
5. Tapering Rate
Another pretty technical characteristic, the tapering rate is directly related to the shape of the bell.
Generally, bell shapes are ordered in 2 categories:
- Slow tapers (dotted line on the image on the right) – which provide brighter sounds
- Fast tapers (solid line)– which provide warmer sounds
6. Wire Bead
Funnily enough, most trombone players and shoppers never even heard about the wire bead. So let’s quickly explain what it is.
The wire bead is a little wire placed inside the “rolled over” part on the edge of the bell.
It can be soldered, or unsoldered (just like the whole bell).
Some people find that unsoldered wires produce a crisper tone. However they might fall off and start vibrating if the trombone has fallen and suffered bumps, in which case you need to put it back in place…
Which can be very difficult.
Anyway, with beginner and intermediate/student horns you generally won’t even find this information in the description.
So that concludes the bell part.
And to finish the anatomy part of the trombone, let’s check out…
The leadpipe is the short part that comes right after the mouthpiece.
Usually it is fixed but in some trombones it is detachable.
It varies in:
- Bore size – you need to make sure you match the leadpipe bore size with your mouthpiece’s shank
- Materials – gold brass, sterling silver, yellow brass or nickel silver can be used::
- Gold Brass – offers a warm sound
- Nickel Silver – offer a clear and crisp sound
- Sterling Silver – offer strong attack and fundamentals
- Yellow Brass – offers the most balanced sound and is the most popular choice
- Venturi – which refers to the diameter of the tightest point in the leadpipe tapering
- Length – which refers to the overall length of the leadpipe. There are 3 lengths:
- Short – which is said to offer a more “open” sound
- Long – which is said to offer a more “centered” sound
Got it? Next up, let’s finally check out my…
For this list I’ll order my picks in 2 categories:
- Student Trombones under $600
- Professional Trombones above $600
Best Trombones Under $1000
- Mendini by Cecilio Tenor Trombone – (Amazon)
- Jean-Paul USA Student Trombone – (Amazon)
- Selmer Prelude – (Amazon)
- Michael Rath John Packer Trombone – (Amazon)
- Jupiter Standard Series – (Amazon)
- Roy Benson RBTT242F – (Amazon)
Best Trombones Above $1000
- Bach 42BO Stradivarius Series – (Amazon/Thomann)
- S.E. Shires Q Series – (Amazon)
- Bach 42AF Stradivarius Series – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Conn 88HO Symphony Series – (Amazon/Thomann)
Understanding Partials and Positions
There are 7 positions on the slide trombone. The trombonist can play 7 notes in each of these positions.
These notes are called “partials” and are part of the “overtone series”, or “harmonic series” naturally produced by soundwaves.
In order to create a note, the player tightens his lips with more or less strength. Depending on the strength, they hit a given harmonic series.
Higher partials (6 or 7) require more air and a tighter embouchure.
For example, when the slide is closed (1st position) the harmonic series is Bb, Bb, F, Bb, D, F, Ab, Bb.
You can take a look at the chart on the right to have a better idea of the notes available for each position.
The amount of partials one player can play depends on his skills and the most skilled trombone players might be able to play 3, 4 or sometimes even 5 octaves.
Now, where things get a bit more complicated is in the fact that these partials do not actually fall in tune, but rather slightly sharp or flat…
Meaning you need to adjust your intonation, resulting in more positions since you’ll need to slightly move your slide to get the desired partial right.
How to Tune your Trombone
Like all other instruments, trombones fall out of tune. And that’s when you’ll want to use the…
Tuning slide. That’s right, the trombone has a dedicated slide used for fine-tuning it.
To make the trombone sharper, push the slide in. To make it flatter, pull it out.
Here’s a video demonstrating this:
I couldn’t write about the trombone without talking about the The pBone.
The pBone is a plastic trombone manufactured by British company of the same name, which also happens to make plastic trumpets.
Now, you can imagine the look of surprise on musician’s faces when they first saw a plastic trombone.
But as a matter of fact, the company became so successful that they are now involved in educational programs all around the world, wit a strong focus on children
Since they offer highly affordable instruments while still providing good quality and sound, they are probably the safest bet you can make if you are looking for a trombone for a child, or a very affordable one for yourself.
If you’re curious to hear the sound comparison with a regular trombone, check out this video:
They offer 2 different models:
- The Jiggs pBone – which is a standard trombone
- The pBone Mini – which is a smaller trombone designed for children as young as 4 or 5 years old
Another advantage of the pBone is that it’s much simpler to take care of compared to a regular brass trombone.
Check them out:
The Valve Trombone
Yes, you read it right. Some trombones have valves — just like a trumpet — instead of a slide.
These are called valve trombones. But “why valve trombones?” you ask.
Well, as a matter of fact the trombone is a pretty cumbersome instrument and scenes like these:
…Are actually not as rare as you’d imagine. This particular incident was due to the lack of space the trombone players had for their slide…
Causing this domino-style fall.
And so to address this “space” issue, some people like to use a valve trombone. It is a regular trombone but instead of a slide, it uses valves to change pitch.
So essentially you could say it’s a regular Bb trumpet, pitched one full octave below, since it uses the exact same fingerings.
In other words if you already play the trumpet you won’t have any issue playing the trombone. The only thing you’ll need to get used to is reading the bass clef.
On the other hand if you’ve never played the trumpet before, you will need to learn the fingerings. Got it?
Check out the models I recommend:
- Mendini Valve Trombone – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Jupiter C Valve Trombone – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Yamaha YSL-354V Series – (Amazon/Thomann)
How to Take Care of your Trombone
The trombone — as most other woodwinds — requires daily maintenance and care as long as you play it.
The main focus goes on the slide which you’ll need to clean before and after playing. And so…
Apply some slide oil or cream to the stockings (thicker part of the slide).
- If you used oil – just blow on it to dry it
- If you used cream – spray some water on the slide to moisten it
Finally, insert the inner slide into the outer slide and move it back and forth to spread the cream/oil.
- Open the water key to remove condensation
- Clean the slide with a cloth on a rod.
Here are some cleaning kits that include all the products you need in order to fully take care and clean your horn:
- Monster Trombone Care and Cleaning Kit – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Ravel Cleaning Kit – (Amazon)
- Yamaha Trombone Cleaning Kit (Amazon/Thomann)
Additionally, you can refer to this video which explains how to clean and disassemble your trombone:
And now, to conclude this post, let’s check out some…
Although beginners rarely think about them, there a few accessories that are actually useful for the trombone.
Among these, 3 are particularly useful:
- Support systems
So let’s take a quick look at these, starting with…
1. Support Systems
Support systems are small accessories meant to help you ease the strain your holding hand suffers from when holding the trombone.
You might think this is a gimmick, but play a few hours and you’ll understand the need for such an item.
In fact, trombone players use literally their 2 weakest fingers (the ring and pinky fingers) to hold the entirety of their horn…
Which is far from being convenient.
And so here are a few support systems I recommend:
- Neotech Trombone Grip – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Neotech Straight Brace – (Amazon)
- Yamaha Hand Strap – (Amazon)
Just like the trumpet, the trombone can be played with a mute. Now, there are many different types of mutes, so I won’t be covering them all.
Instead, I’ll show you the 3 most popular, and useful ones. These are:
- Soulo Bucket Mute
- Harmon Mute
- Practice Mute
So let’s take a quick look at these, starting with:
Soulo Bucket Mute
Undoubtedly THE most versatile mute available, the strength of this mute is that it can actually be used together with any other type of mute.
The height it sits on top of the bell can also be adjusted. Take a look at this video to hear it live:
Dennis Wick Straight Mute
It’s pretty simple: Dennis Wick’s straight mute is the single most sold trombone mute currently available.
Why? Well, mainly because:
- It’s affordable
- It’s durable
- It sounds good
Now, Dennis Wick is famous for all its mutes, not only the straight one.
And the truth is, you really can’t go wrong choosing any of them. So if you’re looking for another type of mute, just know Dennis Wick offer pretty much all the types there are.
Check them out:
Here’s a very important mute, since it’s probably what most beginners and apartment trombonists are interested in:
Lowering their playing volume.
Which is exactly what practice mutes do. Now, in this category there are basically 2 main “contestants”:
- The Yamaha Silent Brass System and…
- The others
That’s right, the Yamaha Silent Brass System is in a completely different league since it offers much more control over your tones but most of all it allows the player to hear themself play as if they didn’t have any mute on.
Pretty cool, right? For more details check out my review on my trumpet post.
Check it out:
If you’re looking for a regular practice mute, here are the models I recommend:
So that’s it for the mutes.
Well yes, it’s pretty hard to travel with your trombone if you don’t have a case, right?
Which is why I wanted to show a few different ones. With trombones you have 3 main choices when it comes to cases:
- Hard Cases – which offer the highest level of protection
- Soft Cases – which offer less protection but are generally cheaper, lighter and have more storage options
- Gig bags – which are the cheapest option and offer minimal protection as their primary use is to allow the trombone player to carry their horn from one point to the other.
Now, you’ll see some models on my list are pretty pricey…
That is because the best cases usually offer superior protection with a polyfoam covered shock-absorbing wood frame, for example.
Check out my recommended models:
- Andoer Gig Bag – (Amazon)
- Gator Polyfoam Case – (Amazon)
- Protec MX306CT molded-interior case – (Amazon)
- Protec IP306CT wood frame case – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Protec Platinum Series Case – (Amazon/Thomann)
And That’s It
So there you have it guys, The Ultimate Guide to the Trombone for Beginners and Advanded Musicians.
Hopefully you’ve found everything you were looking for.
‘Til next time!