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Variations on the Trombone

   "In my opinion, the trombone is the true head of the family of wind instruments, which I have named the 'epic' one.  It possesses nobility and grandeur to the highest degree; it has all the serious and powerful tones of sublime musical poetry, from religious, calm and imposing accents to savage, orgiastic outburst.  Directed by the will of the master, the trombones can chant like a choir of priests, threaten, utter gloomy sighs, a mournful lament, or a bright hymn of glory; they can break forth into awe-inspiring cries and awaken the dead or doom the living with their fearful voices." -- Hector Berlioz

"Never look at the trombones; it only encourages them." -- Richard Strauss


If you've already read my musical background, then you already know why I chose to play the trombone.  After leaving college and not playing for many years, I missed playing so I joined some community bands.  While shopping on eBay for a new, large-bore tenor trombone, I began to notice the many variations of trombone available.  Some were slide trombones; others, valve trombones.  Still others...well, you'll have to just keep reading.  In any event, this research became the impetus for creating this site.

History of the Trombone

The name "trombone" comes from the Italian word tromba for trumpet.  Change the suffix "a" to the Italian suffix "one", meaning "big", and you get trombone meaning "big trumpet".  The early English word for this horn was sackbut, probably derived from French (saquebute) or Spanish (sacabuche) words meaning literally "pull-push".

The trombone is related to the trumpet due to the similar cylindrical bore of its tubing.  The method of sound production in all horns is the same: the player blows air through their vibrating lips into a cupped mouthpiece setting a column of air vibrating throughout the length of a tube with a flared open end.

Simple trumpets made from animal horns, shells, and hollow bones date back to ancient times.  Written documentation of trumpets dates back before 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia.  Trumpets were found in the Tutankamen's tomb.  The Greeks and Romans also had trumpets.

By the early 15th century, innovators found that they could take a straight trumpet and by cutting it in two and fashioning a telescoping horn, they could shorten or lengthen the horn and thus change its fundamental pitch.  The early slide trumpet was born.  This simply allowed the instrument to play a few notes lower or higher than it otherwise would and was not capable of playing scales as we know them.  In essence, it produced a horn that could play in a couple of different keys.

Further innovation in the mid-15th century resulted in the now-familiar curved parallel-tube slide which, because it was doubled back, was capable of filling in notes that were not playable on the straight slide trumpet. 

In the 15th century, we also find the first music texts with precise instrumental descriptions (other than for the organ).  Among them, a brilliant and stirring 'tuba gallicalis', a fanfare on a broken chord of C Major for three sackbuts.

The earliest known illustration of a trombone appears in the late 15th century painting "The Assumption of Virgin" by Filippino Lippi in the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.  A monochrome partial detail appears at left. 


Towards the end of the 15th century, the trombone was fully developed and by the 16th century it already consisted of an entire family made up of descant, alto, tenor and bass trombones. 

Shown at right is a plate from Michael Praetorius's Syntagma Musicum (Treatise of Music) of 1618, showing: numbered 1&2. bass trombones in F (note the handle to facilitate the long slide reach); 3. tenor trombone in Bb; and 4. alto trombone in Eb

Instruments number 5-7 are curved cornetts*; numbers 8&9 are straight cornetts; numbers 10-12 are trumpets and 13 are crooks used to change key.

The descant trombones were eventually replaced by cornetts and later trumpets.  In the end, it has been the tenor trombone which has become most prevalent. 

 * The Renaissance-age Cornett was a long, slender instrument made of wood and having finger holes (like a recorder), but with a cupped mouthpiece.  Shown below (left to right) are a cornett (zink), tenor cornett (lizard), and bass cornett (serpent).

The trombone is unique in that it was the only brass instrument capable of playing chromatically, that is, by half-steps in a scale, until valves were invented in the 1830's.

During the nineteenth century, brass instrument design and fabrication was of such widespread interest that the annual trade expositions in most countries featured an instrument competition.

Prizes and ratings by judges were so cherished by the manufacturers that they imprinted the list of awards to a given model on the bell along with the name, address, and company hallmark.

Variations on the Trombone

For the simple trombone, things became anything but simple as innovative shapes and the use of valves became the rage in the 19th century.  Following are examples of some of the many variations of the trombone of the 19th and early 20th century.

An explanation of the the valve system and how it affects pitch change appears on the Baritone-Euphonium page.

Examples of six-valved trombones.

Adolphe Sax (the man who invented the saxophone!) developed a valve trombone with independent valves rather than valves used in combination with each other.  Each of these valves corresponds to the six additional positions of a trombone slide.  Open (no valves pressed) represented the trombone's first position.  Pressing the first valve on the horn would coincide with second position; the second valve would be third position, and so on.  This independent valve system required learning a much different fingering system than that which we know today.

The next three pictures are of similar six-valved trombones.

Another Sax trombone
stamped on bell: Seul Grand Prix, Paris 1867, no. 39, Noveau Trombone Sax, Adolphe Sax, 
50 rue St. Georges, a Paris. 

Belgian trombone ca.1860's
with Vienna valves (one valve design of many at the time which eventually gave way to the piston valve we see today)

Detail of Vienna valves
Pushing the valve button moves a pair of valves--one for incoming air and the other for outgoing air 

Another Vienna valve trombone of unknown origin

This Vienna valve uses keys and levers similar to the rotor valve system below. 
The closeup on the right is the same type valve system, but from a different horn.

Rotary valve trombone made by Christian Reisser, Ulm (Germany); ca.1870-1880

Rotary valves were popular in the 19th century, especially in Germany, Austria, and Bohemia.  Instead of a button that pushes a long valve up and down, the finger key turns a small, gate-like valve ninety degrees redirecting the air through an extra length of tubing.  The finger key is linked to the valve either with an S-shaped arm or with a lever and string.

Rotary valves are used today on French Horns and in trombones with an F attachment (see next page)

Below are closeups of two other valve systems that are not used anymore.

Berlin valve or Berliner pumpen

Note the short, but wide, valve casings and that all inlets and outlets to the valves lie along the same line.

Technically, the Berlin valve acted in a way like a rotor valve.  In the up position, it allowed the air to flow straight through; when the valve was depressed, it diverted the air ninety degrees through the extra loop of tubing.  The fat valves are necessary since they had to be at least twice the bore size.

The Stoezel (Stölzel) valve is perhaps the earliest successful valve system, designed in the early 1800's.  It is characterized by the long, slender valve casings and (most importantly) that the tubing comes out the bottom of the valve.  It was not commonly used on larger-bore instruments.

Piston valve trombone with extra tuning slide (Joseph Higham, England, ca.1870)
Rotary valve trombone with unusual shape
(Agostino Rampone, Milan, Italy c. 1880)
Clavicor in Eb (Jean, France, c 1840) with Db crook
Armeeposaune (army trombone, for marching) with rotary valves in Bb (K. Schamal, Prague, c 1880)

Tenor/bass trombone in C + G; 4-valve 
(Adolphe Sax, Paris, c 1868)
A very common style of valve trombone of the late 1890's. 
This horn made by Henri Gautier, Austria
Soprano trombone (or slide trumpet) 
ca. 1860's, England
Eb alto valve trombone - 1896
Imported by Lyon & Healy, Chicago

Contrabass valve trombone in 18 ft Bb 
(Stowasser, Graslitz, mid 20th century)

(see also the Cimbasso shown in the contemporary section on page 2)

Double-slide contrabass trombone
(Schmittschneider, Paris, 1823)

Two versions of similarly styled contrabass trombone made by Boosey, late 19th century
A "Helicon-styled" contrabass trombone

Perhaps one of the most famous contrabass trombone is this BBb instrument, built in Stockholm 1639 by Georg Nicolaus Oller.

Without benefit of a double slide, the player uses a handle to stretch out the long slide. 

Pictured with the instrument is 5'10½" tall Nicholas Eastop, bass trombonist with The Chamber Orchestra of Europe and instrument Curator at Musikmuseet, The Stockholm Music Museum.

Link to an MP3 file of a "loud and low BBb"

Trombone buccin
Buccine Trombone
Ludwig Embach - 1810

...and one of the wilder variants:

Trombone multipavillons
(Multi-bell Trombone)
Antoine Joseph (Adolphe) Sax - 1860

Not all the odd variations on the trombone are found in museums and in the history books.  On the next page, we will take a look at trombones of today which include some unusual contemporary versions of the trombone.

Continued on
Variations on the Trombone - page 2

Variations on the Baritone Horn and Euphonium p.1 and p.2

All material ©2000-2010 Bob Beecher
Certain names are the trade property of their respective makers


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