Most people when they’re asked to think of a trombone, will probably picture a brass instrument with a slide. But, what people often don’t know is that there are actually a family of trombones with lots of different kinds! Like most instrument families, there are lots of different ones at different ranges to help cover a wide range of pitches.
In this article we will explore the different types of the trombone, what they tend to be used for and where you might find them.
The Trombone Family
The trombone family contains seven different sizes.
However only three of these sizes are regularly seen, and only two tend to be studied as a primary instrument.
The sizes are listed below, from large to small:
- Contrabass Trombone
- Bass Trombone
- Tenor Trombone
- Alto Trombone
- Soprano Trombone
- Sopranino Trombone
- Piccolo Trombone
The bass trombone and the tenor trombone are the main two sizes, and nearly all trombonists will specialise on one of these instruments.
Of the two, the tenor trombone is the most popular with most people referring to this one when talking about the ‘trombone’.
Bass trombonists will sometimes ‘double’ (play as an auxiliary instrument) on the contrabass trombone.
Similarly, tenor trombonists may double on the alto trombone.
The soprano trombone will occasionally be played by trombonists, but it is more common for this instrument to be played by a trumpet player.
This is also true for the sopranino and piccolo trombones.
Trumpet players play these instruments because they are more familiar with the mouthpiece size.
Below we will look at each of the trombone sizes in turn.
The ‘comfortable’ register of each instrument will be described (these are the notes that can be played easily), although this register ultimately depends on the skill of the performer.
The lowest note available has been included in brackets, because this note is possible but often difficult to play.
We have not described a highest playable note, because this is theoretically undetermined.
The Tenor Trombone
The Tenor Trombone is the most common type of trombone, pitched in Bb.
It comes in two main variations, with and without an F attachment.
This attachment allows the instrument to play lower and use fewer long positions.
The tenor trombone also comes in different bore sizes.
The tenor trombone is used in many different ensembles, including orchestras, big bands, pop groups, and jazz combos.
The tenor trombone is also used as a solo instrument, especially within the context of jazz music.
Have a listen to two different styles of tenor trombone playing below:
The Bass Trombone
The bass trombone is the second largest, and second most common type of trombone.
The name is misleading, because the instrument is actually pitched in Bb, just like the tenor trombone.
The Bass Trombone is like the tenor trombone, but with two rotary valves.
These valves allow the instrument to play lower than the tenor trombone.
The bass trombone also has a bigger bell, a bigger mouthpiece, and a larger bore size.
These modifications make the sound darker and richer in the low register, but less precise and clear in the higher register.
The first valve transposes the instrument into F and is identical to the F attachment on the tenor trombone (see below).
The second valve can either transpose to Gb (the most common configuration) or G.
If you engage both valves at the same time this transposes the instrument to Db and D respectively.
The second valve can either be dependant or independent.
In the dependant configuration, the second valve can only be used in combination with the F attachment (as they are connected in series).
If the system is independent, the second valve can be used without the F attachment.
Bass trombones are found in many ensembles (groups) such as orchestras, big bands and brass bands.
You can hear a jazz bass trombone solo in this recording:
The Contrabass Trombone
The lowest sounding member of the trombone family is the the Contrabass Trombone which is also the largest member.
It has been produced in different keys throughout history, although the common contemporary instrument is pitched in F, a perfect fourth lower than the tenor trombone.
As the contrabass trombone is low in pitch, it has a very long length of tubing.
The lengthened slide is limited to five or six positions, so two rotary valves are used to access the missing notes.
These rotary valves transpose the instrument by increasing the length of the tubing.
Occasionally, you might come across an even lower contrabass trombone with a doubled slide.
This instrument is usually pitched in Bb (an octave below the tenor/bass trombone), and the slide is effectively twice as long allowing for twice as many shorter positions:
The contrabass trombone is occasionally used in the orchestra, requiring a fourth player to join the trombone section.
Here it is primarily used harmonically rather than melodically, adding depth to the brass sound.
The contrabass trombone was first used orchestrally in Wagner’s Ring Cycle; have a listen to this video below where the contrabass trombone is compared with its smaller counterpart, the bass trombone:
The Alto Trombone
The Alto Trombone is a fourth higher than the tenor trombone, in the key of Eb.
It has a smaller bell and bore size, proportional to the reduced tube length.
The pedal notes are often hard to play on the alto trombone, and although the instrument is smaller, the high notes are not significantly easier to play than on the tenor trombone.
The alto trombone is therefore not primarily used to simply play high notes, and is rather used for its brighter, nimbler tone.
Some alto trombones have a rotary valve that transposes the instrument down into Bb (like the tenor trombone).
This allows the instrument to play lower and avoids the long positions.
Alto trombones are sometimes used in the orchestra, playing the first trombone part in the trombone section.
This was a common practice in the classical era, so we often use the alto trombone for composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.
Some later composers use the alto trombone because they prefer the tone of the instrument, for example there is an additional alto trombone in Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra.
The alto trombone can also be used as a solo instrument, have a listen to this album of alto trombone concerti:
The Soprano Trombone
The Soprano Trombone is in the key of Bb, but an octave higher than the tenor trombone.
It is at the same pitch as the trumpet, hence why it is normally played by trumpet players.
Often the soprano is used as a humorous novelty, or by trumpeters who want to employ glissando (sliding between pitches).
Very occasionally, the instrument will be used as the top voice in a trombone choir (a group of trombones playing together).
It is debatable whether this instrument was ever used historically.
The soprano trombone is notoriously difficult to play in tune, as the slide positions are so small.
Skip to 2:50 in this video to see Wycliffe Gordon (a jazz trombonist) play the soprano trombone to great effect:
The Sopranino and Piccolo Trombones
These trombones are even smaller than the soprano trombone, pitched at Eb and Bb respectively (like the alto and soprano trombones up an octave).
The Sopranino Trombone is very rarely used, featuring only occasionally in trombone choirs.
The Piccolo Trombone is essentially a gimmick, and very limited as an instrument.
It is very shrill (the bell is uncomfortably close to your ears), and the slide is so small that playing in tune is virtually impossible. Due to the ratio of the slide, many notes are simply impossible to play.
Historical Predecessors of the Trombone
The history of the trombone will be explored in its own article, but for now it is important to note that some historical variants of the trombone are still used today in performance.
Romantic and Classical Trombones
Historical instruments are often called period instruments, and there are trombones dating from both the Romantic and Classical periods.
These instruments are often described as Romantic trombones and Classical trombones, and they are subtly different to modern instruments in their construction.
These instruments are rarely played and used by ensembles with an interest in historical authenticity.
Another, earlier musical period called the Renaissance was particularly active for the trombone.
When dealing with trombone music from this period, we call the instrument used a sackbut.
The historical sackbut is significantly different to the modern trombone and is commonly used in contemporary performances of Renaissance repertoire.
Here performers will typically use replicas of historical sackbuts.
The sackbut is best described as having a more vocal sound than the modern trombone due to its smaller bore size which therefore makes a brighter sound.
The bell is less flared than the modern trombone, making it quieter.
Sometimes the bell section is not fixed by a brace and does not have a tuning slide, allowing the bell to resonate more freely.
The metal is often not lacquered which also may aid resonance.
The mouthpiece usually has a flat rim, which can make playing a little bit uncomfortable at first.
Modern sackbut replicas often include user-friendly features that were not historically available, such as water keys, bumpers, and braces.
Sackbuts can have crooks which can be swapped out to change the length of the tubing, and therefore the pitch of the instrument.
This feature is useful to contemporary Renaissance performers, who often must play in different pitches (for example A = 415Hz is often used as opposed to the standard A = 440Hz).
Sackbuts are available in different sizes – bass, tenor and alto sackbuts are all common and frequently used.
The slide trumpet was the predecessor of the sackbut, however, this name can also refer to the modern soprano trombone (see above).
Rare Variants and ‘Doubling Instruments’
We will now consider some instruments that are either variants of the trombone, or similar enough to the trombone that trombonists may be expected to play or ‘double’ on them.
The Cimbasso is like the contrabass trombone, but it has valves instead of a slide.
It is similar to a tuba, although it has a cylindrical, rather than conical bore shape.
The cimbasso was used primarily by the Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, who wanted an alternative to the tuba (some say that Verdi disliked the tuba because it reminded him of his rival Richard Wagner).
The cimbasso sounds similar to a trombone and is therefore more integrated into the trombone section.
The Valve Trombone
As its name would suggest, the Valve Trombone is a trombone with piston or rotary valves (like a trumpet) rather than a slide.
Like the slide trombone, valve trombones come in various different sizes.
This instrument can play faster passages than the slide trombone due to the efficiency of the valve system.
Verdi had the valve trombone in mind for some of his operas, and some trumpet virtuosos (especially Jazz players) use the instrument.
The Superbone is a hybrid instrument, having both valves and a slide.
This instrument was famously used by the jazz musician Maynard Ferguson.
The Euphonium is not a type of trombone.
However, it has been included in this list because it is sometimes played by trombonists in the orchestra.
Euphoniums have piston valves and a conical bore and are best described as a member of the tuba family and are used extensively in brass band music.
In the orchestra, the euphonium is often referred to as a Tenor Tuba, and it has the same pitch as the tenor trombone.
The euphonium has a warmer and less direct sound than the trombone.
Examples of orchestral pieces that use the euphonium include Gustav Holst’s The Planets.
Summary of Trombone Types
In this article we gave an overview of the different sizes of the trombone, its historical ancestors, and some other instruments that trombonists should be aware of.
Hopefully this has been of use to those curious about the different types of trombones out there!
Lots of different variants of the trombone have existed throughout history and knowing a little about these can help inform your performance.
Some of the less common trombone sizes are also becoming increasingly relevant; many modern film scores call for the contrabass trombone and the alto trombone is becoming increasingly popular within the orchestra.
Approach these different sizes with caution, each size requires learning a whole new set of slide positions for the muscle memory.
This takes time and you can expect to play very out of tune at first!