Beefing up on the trombone

The trombone, in one form or another, already gets a good look over in the book, not out of favouritism (I’m a bass trombonist) but because the instrument is unique in its construction and is often misunderstood, even by experienced arrangers. The charts of slide positions in the section of the book dealing with orchestration are invaluable.

It is mainly English style brass bands that treat tenor trombones as transposing instruments in treble clef. This blog will use concert pitch references only.

Arrangements often call for impossible slide smears. (Trombonists often call them ‘glisses’.) The charts in the book show the possibilities. Smears are only feasible moving ‘horizontally’ up or down through the slide positions. Smears requiring the player to lip up or down the harmonic series, moving the slide at the same time, can only be faked, although they can sometimes be faked fairly convincingly.

There are opportunities for using alternative positions using the valve with Bb and F trombones, or valves with double rotor bass trombones (see below), to provide added possibilities. For example, the low Bb in first position can also be found in a lengthened third position with the F trigger. The position chart in the book can be used to work out other cases.


Jazz scores will sometimes indicate a ‘shake’ in the brass parts from top to bottom of the section. Most trumpeters and trombonists play a lip ‘trill’ using the note itself and the note immediately above in the harmonic series (the ‘bugle’ notes) without using the valve or slide. This will give major or minor thirds in the middle register. Seconds occur in the higher register, where notes in the harmonic series are closer together.

Shakes are a ‘noise’ effect, hence the usual practice of not modifying the upper note to fit the tonality and of accepting the differing width of the resulting intervals in the various levels of orchestration.

(Strictly speaking, the term ‘trill’ implies an interval of a major second or less. In string writing an interval of a minor third and greater is called a ‘fingered tremolo’.)

A buddy of mine who studied trombone at a centre for orchestral studies in London showed me what can really be done using rapid shakes in the lower register (I’m still amazed when I think of it) but there’s a sensible limit. Shakes on trombone can only be guaranteed in the middle register and upwards because the intervals of the harmonic series become wider apart the lower you go. The interval between a fundamental (pedal note) and its first harmonic is an octave and the next adjacent upper note is still a perfect fifth away.

Shakes are absolute lip wreckers, by the way, and a great way of building lip muscles.

One solution, and not a bad idea anyway, is to have the trumpets only play the shake, especially if the trombone section is written in open harmony. Another possibility is for the trombones to play a wide, slow, slide vibrato. You can barely tell the difference in a loud ensemble.


The book mentions the addition of a second valve, pointing out that the limitations of the single valve bass trombone are eliminated (but see below). The first double valve bass trombone was probably built by Reynolds in the early 60’s, so it’s worth a moments admiration for the bass trombonists of old. Re-listen to those older Kenton and Sinatra recordings and gasp.

On single valve tenor and bass trombones (which are essentially the same except for bore and bell size) the low B a semitone above pedal Bb is missing. The C is already right at the end of the slide. It’s possible to obtain this note on the single valve instrument by extending the valve tuning slide out to the grooved mark provided (effectively tuning the F valve down to E) but you lose the really useful low C and bottom F in first position, cancelling out one of the advantages of the valve. Nevertheless, if there’s time to do this it’s worthwhile since nipping up to the B an octave above will wreck the arrangement, especially in slow moving ballads*. It’s possible to play the whole arrangement with the valve slide extended but the main slide positions all change. Pulling the valve tuning slide to E also lowers each slide position very slightly because, since the total length of the instrument has increased, the slide has to be moved a little more each time to maintain the pitch ratios. I just wanted you all to know how clever we bass trombonists are. Pulling to E gives a full chromatic run down to an octave below the B we’re talking about. In the real world you’ll never go there.

*With hard practise, the note can be played in the same position as low Eb with the F trigger. It’s a ‘false’ note (harmonic, actually).

Jumping down suddenly to the bottom C (two ledger lines below the bass clef), found right at the end of the main slide on the single valve instrument, is difficult. I spent weeks practising little else and progress was slow. Increased difficulty is always associated with increased effort and tension but, at the same time, the embouchure has to be very suddenly relaxed to drop down to low notes and it’s difficult to get the two requirements going together, especially if you’re English, because of the stiff upper lip (joke). Human beings also tend to clench their teeth when in discomfort but, here again, the instinct has to be resisted and the jaw kept open.

The two valves of most double valve instruments jointly provide first position low D with the result that the elusive bottom C is also obtainable with the slide extended to approximately opposite the bell, which is a little shorter than fourth position on the standard trombone. It’s called ‘third’ position with the two plugs depressed. There are six slide positions when the F valve is used and five when both valves are used and they become wider apart each time.

The second plug can be used alone on independent systems but there’s a school of thought that prefers the dependent system, where the F valve alone or both valves together are the only options. The argument goes that the resistance through the valves is less. It is, but the effect is more likely to be felt by the player than the listener. Most independent system bass trombones give a Gb in first position when the second valve only is used. I find the independent system useful sometimes, especially when blending with euphonium valved legato in brass band ensembles.

Some instruments have the second valve tuned to G and others provide a removable crook, giving the player a choice.

Most bass trombonists choose the double valve instrument nowadays, but ignorance of the points raised in this blog is something most arrangers would not wish to live with, added to which there are thousands of tenor trombones in use which use the single valve, and a number of top bass trombonists never changed to the double valve instrument because of its extra weight, which can quickly tire the left hand and arm. In short, it isn’t correct to say that the single valve instrument is obsolete.

One of the most difficult aspects of learning to play the bass trombone is the development of a controlled, round sound, especially at low volume. Any fool can get that parade ground rasp.

Breath control is another important part of the daily practise routine. The amount of air that disappears down that big throated mouthpiece is awesome. In a routine medical it emerged that my chest expansion is double the average. This is probably true of all low brass players. (I mean players of low brass instruments!) The ability to snatch a breath imperceptibly is important. Also, notes can be cut short due to the tendency of the note to ‘carry over’ the bar line in our perception. This requires agreement with the other guys. If a passage contains repeated or similar phrases and the whole passage can’t be played in one breath, it’s better to cut short the end of all the phrases, for reasons of consistency. Again, get together as a section on this. Circular breathing in the extreme low register requires superhuman control.

Alert MD’s will oversee the points raised in this blog.

Trombonists playing in orchestras may occasionally meet intonation problems when the lower strings play double stops. For a full explanation of this, ask an acoustics expert. Double stops are effective in solos but orchestral parts should generally be written divisi (divided).

Many other tuning methods were chosen during the development of the bass trombone. For more information on this visit

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