While the tenor and bass trombones are the most popular varieties in use today, there are many other types to cover additional registers. Trombones have a rich history and their unique slide structure can help you distinguish them from other instruments in any ensemble
Definition of Trombone
Trombones are instruments in the brass family distinguished by how they alter pitch. While other brass instruments, such as trumpets or euphoniums, use valves that you press to achieve different notes, trombones use a slide to change their length.
New models may use valves in conjunction with the slide, but the trombone’s slide allows it to alter pitch as needed and make adjustments to fit in with the tone of the band.
The word trombone comes from the Italian word tromba (trumpet) and the Italian suffix -one (large). The instruments that you see today are derived from earlier brass instruments like the slide trumpet.
Trombones are considered non-transposing instruments, and their parts are usually written in concert pitch on bass or tenor clefs.
Types of Trombones
While trombones are generally used to cover the tenor voice in a piece, there are enough varieties to cover each of the voices in a piece. Lower register trombones (like the cimbasso) more closely resemble tubas, and upper register trombones may be played by trumpeters, but they all sit in the trombone family.
The cimbasso covers the same musical range as a tuba or a contrabass trombone, but it has a distinct construction. Modern varieties are pitched in F, but they also come in E♭, C, and B♭.
Cimbassos use six valves, piston or rotary, to adjust the size of the wind column and play different pitches.
Earlier cimbassos were usually made of wood with a brass bell, and they sat upright with a narrower bore. Modern models still sit upright, but they are usually made entirely of brass.
They might be preferred for an easier blend with other voices, and you find them featured in pieces such as:
- Giuseppe Verdi’s Oberta
- Giacomo Puccini’s Le Villi
- Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma
The cimbasso is known to have a warm voice that can also appear menacing, and their valves allow for more agility than the slide of the contrabass trombone.
The contrabass trombone is usually pitched in F at a perfect fourth lower than modern tenor or bass trombones. They have undergone several changes in their life, starting with the Octav-Pasaune during the Renaissance.
This bass brass was usually pitched in F, E♭, or D and built with a long slide and extension handle that allowed the player to reach lower positions. This did not seem to help much, and most players considered it to be more trouble than it was worth.
The double-slide version of the contrabass was first proposed in 1816 and produced in 1830. This had shorter slide positions and the slide wound back on itself. The two slides were half the usual length and would move together.
The modern version of the contrabass trombone is based on te=he 1921 model by Ernst Dehmel. This had two independent rotary valves to replace the handle and fill in any missing notes between the first partial and closed position.
Modern contrabasses come in traditional varieties (pitched to E♭ and B♭) and American varieties (pitched to D and D♭). Their valves make it easier to navigate technical passages, and the contrabass will easily add a fourth player to any trombone section.
Bass trombones are pitched to B♭ and have 9 feet of tubing. Their lower register is facilitated by a:
- Wider bore
- Larger bell
- Larger mouthpiece
Modern bass trombones use valves (sometimes one but usually two) to lower pitch when engaged. The first is pitched to F, while the second is usually at G♭ or G.
These valves can operate independently or dependently. Independent systems allow for an additional set of slide positions, and dependents require the first valve to be engaged to work.
Bass trombones have a fully chromatic range, and there is usually one in any standard orchestra performing works from the Romantic era onward.
These trombone varieties have made space in:
- Brass bands
- Jazz bands
- Wind ensembles
They are usually played by a third trombonist. If an ensemble is likely to play any piece with a contrabass trombone, they might request the bass trombonist to learn the instrument.
Tenor trombones are the most common variety, and they function with a fundamental note of B♭. There were versions pitched to C, but they were most popular in the mid-1800s in Britain and France.
The tenor trombone is often seen as the simplest version of the instrument, and many tenor trombones do not have crooks, valves, or keys. They use seven slide positions to adjust the length of the air column and adjust pitch.
Moving from one position out to the next lowers by one semitone, and the slide can be adjusted to address any tuning issues or differing harmonics. There are also alternate positions for certain notes, such as B♭3 played in first or fifth position.
The tenor trombone is a popular choice for beginner trombonists because of its slighter size and simplicity.
F Attachment or Trigger Trombone
Many modern tenor trombones or higher quality versions will include an extra 3 feet of tubing that can lower the pitch from B♭ to F. They come in open and traditional wraps, referring to tubing that extends past the main tuning slide or that curves inside of it.
The F attachment on the trombone is engaged using a trigger to open a valve and access the additional tubing.
These versions have a larger bore size, and they create opportunities for louder, fuller sounds. The additional tubing creates alternate positions for notes when the trigger is engaged, but the effective positions of the slide are reduced to 6.
Alto trombones are typically pitched to E♭ or F (a perfect fourth or fifth higher than the tenor), and they were commonly used as the highest voice of the brass choir in the 16th to 18th centuries.
The alto trombone became less popular in the 19th century. Trumpets gained their valves, and the tenor trombone took up the tenor range. Some first trombonists now use the alto, but they are still not very popular.
Alto trombones have shorter slides that operate in different positions than a trombonist would learn on the tenor. Their smaller bore allows for a more brilliant tone.
Soprano trombones are typically pitched in B♭ at an octave above the tenor, and they do not have much use historically. The earliest example dates back to 1677, and some believe that the unnamed first trombone part in Bach’s cantatas 2, 21, and 38 were for the soprano.
These trombones are used in German-speaking countries to play the treble part in chorales, but they are not a logical choice for many pieces.
Most composers and directors choose the cornet or even woodwind instruments because the soprano trombone:
- Is difficult to play in tune
- Has a short slide
- Leans toward a pinched sound
When the soprano trombone is played the part usually goes to a trumpeter who will be used to a tighter embouchure.
Sopranino and Piccolo Trombones
The sopranino and piccolo trombones are even smaller and less common than the soprano variety. They have fundamentals of E♭ and B♭, pitched one octave above the alto and soprano trombones.
Both of these trombones have their use in some trombone choirs, such as the Moravian trombone choirs in the United States, but their small bores make them more favorable for trumpeters.
Each size of trombone from alto to contrabass has a valve version, but you will see them most often in tenor voices.
The most common rendition of the valve trombone has three valves and plays an octave lower than a trumpet. The valves make it much easier to handle faster pieces or situations where moving a slide is difficult or dangerous (such as on a marching field or in an orchestra pit).
While these can be easier to play, they tend to have a stuffier tone, and most pieces prefer the use of slide trombones.
Superbones are even less popular, and they feature both slides and valves. The three valves are placed before the slide, and the player grips this section with their left hand to support the weight of the instrument. The slide is then operated by the right arm.
Superbones can be played with the valves or slide or a combination of the two.
While most trombones appear the same, there are many more varieties than what you hear in most ensembles today. From the deeper register of contrabass to the playful melodies of the piccolo trombone, these slide instruments add a unique texture to many pieces and genres of music.