Trombone: History, Parts & Facts

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

In this lesson you'll meet the trombone, a brass instrument with a slide mechanism. You'll get to know the various parts of the instrument and learn about where the modern trombone came from.

An Instrument and a Character

Even if you've never been to an orchestra or band concert, chances are you've heard a trombone before. This long, low instrument has developed a reputation outside of the concert hall, lending its voice to Charlie Brown's teacher, featuring in Donald Duck cartoons, and charming the internet with its signature 'Sad Trombone' sound. The trombone isn't just an instrument - it's a character all its own. So how does it work, and where did this oddly-shaped instrument come from?

A modern tenor trombone
A modern tenor trombone

The Basics

The trombone's body is a long, cylindrical tube of about 9 feet in length, doubled over and fitted with braces to hold it together. Like the trumpet and French horn, the trombone is a member of the brass family of instruments; like other brass instruments, it sounds via the performer buzzing their lips into a cup-shaped metal mouthpiece attached to a long, metal tube (called the bore) which flares into an opening called the bell. Most modern trombones are made of yellow brass, which is a combination of 70% copper and 30% zinc. On the trombone, as with most modern brass instruments, the mouthpiece is detachable from the body.

What makes the trombone unique from other brasses is its method of changing pitch. Most brass instruments, including the trumpet, French horn, and tuba, change their pitch when the performer depresses a key or valve. But the trombone has no keys or valves; instead, trombones change pitch through use of a slide, a long, movable portion of the metal tube. When the performer extends the slide, the pitch goes down. Bring it back in, the pitch goes up. It's that simple - at least at first!

Because the slide on a trombone is adjustable, the performer can slowly move between two different notes, hitting all the pitches in between. This effect is called a glissando, and its unusual 'sliding' sound is one of the trombone's most recognizable techniques. Also, by covering the bell with an object such as a hat or plunger, the trombonist can muffle the instrument's sound, and then move the object to create a 'wah' effect. These two effects in combination can be heard when the trombone acts as the teacher's voice in 'Peanuts' cartoons.

Ancient Origins

A drawing of a sackbut
A drawing of a French-made sackbut from the 18th century

The trombone's ancestor was a medieval instrument called the sackbut. Developed in the 15th century, the sackbut looked quite like the trombone; however, its bore was narrower and its bell not quite as wide. This instrument was so beloved by composers and conductors that it was used unchanged well into the 17th century and revitalized just a century later. When its resurgence began, the sackbut became known by a new name: trombone, derived from the Italian name for the sackbut (in Italian, 'trombone' literally means 'big trumpet'). Over time, instrument makers began building the instrument with a larger bore and a wider bell, allowing performers to achieve a louder and richer sound than earlier sackbuts. Some makers began building models which changed pitch using valves like a trumpet's (instruments called valve trombones) and models with bigger bores and longer slides, which would come to be referred to as bass trombones.

Modern Construction

The trombone as we know it today was developed in the United States, adapting from a German model that had become popular worldwide by the late 19th century. Most trombones you see in orchestras or bands are tenor trombones, with a bore and bell that are designed to make the higher notes on the instrument clear and strong. Bass trombones are still in common use; the bass trombone uses a tube of similar length to the tenor trombone, but with a wider bore and bell that helps the clarity of the instrument's lower range.

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