The modern trombone originated from natural trumpets. The slide trumpet came first. Musicians looking for slower tones elongated the slides to produced the sackbut. The sackbut developed into the modern trombone.
It’s unclear exactly when the name changed from sackbut to trombone. Some sources claim that the instrument was called the “trombone” or “trompone” from the beginning. Others claim that “sackbut” (and all its forms) were the original name.
For our purposes, we are going to divide sackbut and trombone at the point where the bell of the instrument was widened. I’ve picked this point in the instrument’s evolution because the widening of the bell changed the sound of the instrument.
Types of Trombones: Natural Trumpets
Natural trumpets were one of the renaissance era’s natural horns. Developed in the early 15th century, they were used to announce royalty and for religious purposes. They represented the majesty of heaven. Like all natural horns, these trumpets had no valves.
Musicians used their lip, tongue, and mouth positions to change pitch. This severely limited the range of the horn compared to modern instruments. Most natural trumpets were in the key of D.
The slide trumpet was developed sometime in the 1400s. The trumpet slide allowed trumpet players greater flexibility in notes because they could use the slide as well in addition to embouchure to change the pitch of the note.
Details of the size and key of these early slide trumpets are unknown. While written records of the early slide trumpet do exist, and actual Renaissance Era slide trumpet has never been found. Historians agree that slide trumpets were used in music of the era and know that the sackbut was developed from the slide trumpet.
The Sackbut was referred to by several names. Sacbut (French), Sackbut (French) saqueboute (Old French), Posaune (German), trompone (Italian), and shagbolt (England) were all used for the same instrument depending on location and time.
The first known depiction of the sackbut is in a painting by Filippino Lippi from Rome, Italy. The painting called The Assumption of the Virgin dates from 1488 to 1493 and shows angels rising through the sky. One of the angels is playing the sackbut.
The sackbut was developed by lengthening the overall size of the trumpet slide and adding using a U-shaped slide with parallel slide tubes. This was done to give the instrument a lower range than the slide trumpet. In general, tenor sackbuts had a bore size of about 10 millimeters (0.39 inches). The bell was usually less than 10.5 centimeters (4.1 inches). Some had intricate engravings on the bell, post, and throughout the slide.
Iowa State University, Department of Music and Theater has some wonderful images of the carvings, as well as several recordings of the sackbut being played alone and in common dances and hymns of the era.
Sackbuts had a more mellow and blended sound than the modern trombone. Sackbuts have been known to be especially good instruments to blend with the human voice, crumhorns, shawms, and zincks. They were considered ideal for use with church choirs.
By 1495 the sackbut was a fairly popular instrument. It’s said that King Henry VII included 4 sackbuts (called sakbusshes in the documentation) as part of his royal ensemble. Composer Michael Praetorius called the sackbut “the wind instrument par excellence in concerted music of any kind.”
Sackbuts were used widely in churches and royal courts throughout all of Europe. By the 17th century, the sackbut was used in chamber music; however, it was very much considered a sacred and religious instrument. In 1807 Joachim Nicolas Eggert used the first sackbut in an orchestra. One year later, Ludwig van Beethoven used the instrument in his Symphony No. 5 in C minor.
Beethoven went on to use the sackbut in two other prominent pieces: Symphony No. 6 in F major and Symphony No. 9 The double slide was conceptualized and developed in 1816 by Gottfried Weber. However, it wasn’t until 1830 that the first double slide trombone was produced by Halary of Paris.
This new slide trombone was pitched in the key of F and featured a very short slide. The tubing of the slide was coiled four times. The double slide was used on some models of contrabass sackbut. After Beethoven’s success, including the instrument in his symphonies, other composers began to follow suit. By 1840 the sackbut made a regular appearance in orchestras throughout the world.
The design of the sackbut didn’t change much between the 15th and 19th centuries. There were 4 types of sackbuts in common use.
The alto sackbut was pitched in the key of For Eb. It played a perfect fourth or a perfect fifth higher than the tenor sackbut. From the 1500s to the 1700s, the alto sackbut was a common instrument in orchestras, bands, and ensembles. At the time, it was the highest-pitched instrument used in brass choirs.
This instrument was pitched in Bb and is the sackbut that developed into the modern tenor trombone.
Pitched to the keys of Eb, G, or F, this was the second-lowest sackbut. Bass sackbuts had long slides that required a handle to assist the musician in reaching the farthest positions. Bass sackbuts were also called Terzposaune, Quartpasaune, and Qunitpasaune, combining the prefixed for third, fourth, and fifth with the German word for sackbut.
These were used in orchestras, church groups, and horn choirs throughout Europe during the Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
Double Bass (Also Called Great Bass, Contrabass, and Octave-posaune)
These horns had an exceptionally long slide and included a handle to extend the reach of the musician. They played one octave below the tenor, and in the key of Bb
Famous Sackbut Players
As the sackbut was included in orchestras and symphonies, exceptional soloist musicians became popular. These musicians are known for their incredible solo work on the sackbut.
- CT Queisser
- FA Belche
- AG Dieppo (1808 – 1878) Antoine Dieppo was born in Amersfoort, Netherlands. He was the soloist trombone for the Orchester de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire. Berlioz wrote sackbut parts in his compositions specifically for Dieppo.
Buccin with Serpent Trombone Tete
No one knows exactly when the first buccin was made but, between 1810 and 1845 in France, it was popular for French military bands to use the buccin a tete de serpent. The identifying feature of this trombone is the bell. Instead of the typical trombone bell, this version is shaped like the head of either a dragon or a serpent.
Sometimes the serpent head bell included a tongue that flapped when the horn was played. Often the dragon head bell was painted green, gold, and red. Because the bell was crafted from hammered tin, the buccin a serpent tete sounded more like a cross between French horn and trombone. When played softly, it had a delicate and warm sound. There are approximately 60 buccins on display in museums across the United States and throughout Europe.
The differences between the sackbut of the Middle Ages and today’s modern trombone are few. Larger bore In the 19th century, Christian Friedrich Sattler created the widened bore. The modern tenor trombone has a bore side of 13.9 mm.
Thicker sides Modern trombones have thicker sides than the sackbut. They also include stockings on the inner slide. Bigger, more flared bell The flared bell of today’s trombones was also developed by Christian Sattler. Modern tenor trombones have bells that range from about 17.8 mm – 21.6 mm (7 inches to 8.5 inches) in diameter.
This allows the musician to empty condensation from the trombone. The water key was added in the 19th century.
Slide locks are a feature that gives the player the ability to keep the slide from falling out during transport or storage.
Modern trombones have a tuning slide so the musician can bring the instrument into tune.
The trigger is a feature on select trombone models. It gives the musician the ability to change the horn from the key of Bb to the key of F.
Trombones slides today are made from nickel silver with chrome plating. This gives a much smoother and quieter slide action than was available with the all brass sackbut.
Types of Modern Trombones
Some of these modern trombones seem to be based on the saxhorn by Adolphe Sax. However, each of the instruments below are considered part of the trombone family.
This is the biggest and lowest of the trombone family. It’s pitched in the keys of Bb, C, Eb, and F. Most modern cylinders are pitched in the key of F. The original cylinder was developed by opera composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). He preferred the timbre of a low trombone over that of the tubas. He wanted to develop the cimbasso to fill bass parts in his scores.
The cimbasso is most commonly used in opera scores by Verde, Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924), and Vincenzo Bullini (1801 – 1835). It was also used in orchestral works by modern composer Brian Ferneyhough (born 1943).
Works that include the cimbasso
- Oberto, Conte di San Bonfifaco was written by Giuseppe Verdi. First performance was on November 17, 1839.
- Aida A four act opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Debuted on December 24, 1871.
- Le Villi Published 1883 by Giacomo Puccini.
- Norma Opera in two acts . This was written by Vincenzo Bellini, and first performed in Milan on December 26, 1831.
- Turandot was Giacomo Puccini’s last opera. It was published in 1924 and used the cimbasso.
- Plotzlichkei t This is a modern orchestral piece composed by Brian Ferneyhough and published in 2006.
- Donna Lee By Michael Philip Mossman. Here is a link to this tune played by the WDR Big Band with Mattis Cederberg playing Cimbasso .
Contrabass trombones are pitched in the key of F. They play at a fourth lower than the tenor trombone. Most modern contrabass trombones have about 12 feet of tubing. The typical range is from first octave E up to E in the fourth octave. Some models come with the Bb/F trigger, which gives the musician the ability to easily change the key of the instrument from Bb to F.
The “American style” of this horn is pitched in C/Db. It includes a trigger to move between the two keys. Specialty instrument makers have made custom tuning slides to allow the horn to be easily changed between the standard and “American” types.
Professional trombone ensembles, orchestras, and operas use trombone contrabass. You’ll also find a contrabass trombone in the occasional wind band.
Some pieces and composers who use contrabass trombone are listed below.
- Der Ring des Neibelungen was composed by Wilhelm Wagner in 1876.
- Composer Paul Marie Theodore Vincent D’Indy used contrabass trombone in many of his pieces. Most notable are Symphony No. 2 in Bb , Op.57 composed between 1902 and 1903, Jour D’ete’ a la Montagne Op. 61 (1905), and Poem des rivages Op. 77 (1919-1921)
- Richard Strauss composed Elektra in 1908 with contrabass trombone.
- The giant piece cantata Gurre-Lieder written by Arnold Schonenberg in 1913, featured a movement that used called seven trombones and included both contrabass and alto trombones.
- Pli Selon Pli , also known as “ Fold by Fold, ” is one of the modern works that use the contrabass trombone. It was composed by Pierre Boulez.
Today’s bass trombone is pitched in the key of Bb. Like a tenor trombone, the bass trombone has 9 feet of tubing. The differences are in the sizes of the bore, bell, and mouthpiece. The bass trombone’s bore is .562 inches (14.3 mm), bell diameter is between 9 and 10.5 inches (23-27 cm), and the mouthpiece is larger, with a smaller cup than the tenor trombone.
Bass trombones feature 2 trigger valves to lower the pitch of the horn. The first trigger drops the pitch to F. The second trigger is included on most bass trombone models, but not all. To make matters more confusing, the second trigger varies in the pitch it produces. Add second triggers, drop the key to Gb or take the trombone to the key of G.
When the second trigger valve is included on the bass trombone, the two triggers may be used independently, or the second trigger may be used only in conjunction with the first. The use of the second trigger depends on the model of the bass trombone. On the independent models, the first and second triggers can be used alone.
They can also be used together. In the dependent system, the first valve can be used alone, but the second valve must be used together with the first. Bass trombone is used in symphonies, military bands, brass and jazz bands, wind ensembles, and brass ensembles.
The tenor trombone is the most commonly used type of trombone. It’s used in orchestras, wind bands, brass bands, marching bands, and military bands all over the world. It’s also a popular trombone for soloists. Pitched in the key of Bb, the tenor trombone has the same amount of tubing as the bass trombone but features a smaller bore, bell, and mouthpiece.
Many tenor trombones come with an F attachment or “F trigger,” which lowers the pitch of the instrument from Bb to F.
The alto trombone plays a perfect fourth above the tenor trombone and is usually pitched in the key of Eb or F. The instrument’s range is from A2 to Bb5. Add loud trombones that come with a rotary valve attachment so you can convert the horn to the key of D or Bb.
Alto trombones are shorter than the more common tenor trombone. Most are about 6.5 to 7 inches (17 to 18 cm) long. The bore typically measures between 11. 4 to 12.7 mm (.45 – .5 inches). The mouthpiece is also much smaller than that of the tenor trombone.
While tenor and bass trombones share slide positions, making it easy to switch back and forth, the alto trombone uses different slide positions. A good trombonist can use a tenor trombone to cover most parts written for the alto. Because of this, the alto trombone fell out of use in the early 19th century.
However, it’s beginning to make a comeback. Modern trombonists and orchestra leaders appreciate the instrument for its more brilliant tone. Today, most professional orchestras require the first chair to play alto trombone.
Alto trombone is most commonly used in choral, orchestral, and opera music. Here are some pieces that include loud trombone.
- Concerto for Trombone composed by Georg Christoph Wagenseil. This piece was performed and recorded in 1960 and is the first known concerto written for the trombone.
- Leopold Mozart was the father of the much more famous Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. However, the elder Mozart was a musician, teacher, and composer as well. Leopold Mozart wrote a Seranade specifically for trombonist Gschladt. At the time, Gschladt was known as one of the most accomplished trombonists.
- Wolfgang Mozart also included the alto trombone in several of his pieces. The most well-known are Requiem (1791), Don Giovanni (1797), and The Magic Flute (1791).
- Beethoven used alto trombone in Symphony No. 5 (1804-1808), Symphony No. 6 (1804-1808), and Symphony No. 9 (1871-1824).
- Published in 1880, Academic Festival Overture by Johannes Brahms included the alto trombone.
- More recently, Alben Berg used alto trombone in his orchestra piece Three Pieces for Orchestra, written between 1913 and 1915, and his 1922 opera entitled Wozzeck.
- In 1958 Igor Stravinsky included the alto trombone in his voice orchestral piece Threni .
The soprano trombone is a lot like the trumpet in terms of pitch and range. Like the trumpet, it’s pitched in the key of Bb. The soprano trombone even uses a trumpet mouthpiece. Because of its similarity to the modern trumpet, the soprano trombone isn’t used very often.
The sopranino and piccolo trombone are two different instruments. They are both very rare horns. Both play one full octave above the soprano trombone, and they both use a trumpet mouthpiece. The sopranino and piccolo trombones have a bell size of about 4 inches (10 cm). Because of this, it’s more common for a trumpet player to learn these instruments than it is for a trombonist.
The sopranino is pitched in the key of Eb. Its range is from A3 to Eb6. The bore size of this tiny trombone is about 0.43 inches (10.9 mm). This tiny trombone is used in Moravian trombone choirs. The piccolo trombone is pitched in the key of Bb and has a range of E4 to F7.
The superbone is a unique instrument. It uses both valves and a slide to control pitch. The most well-known superbone was popularized by the Maynard Ferguson band. The model used by Ferguson’s group was limited to using either the valves or the slide at one time.
James Morrison, along with instrument manufacturing company Schagarl, changed the design of the superbone so that the valves and the slide could be used at the same time. The new model is more versatile and has much cleaner articulation than previous models of superbone. You can see a demonstration of superbone by creator James Morrison here .
The modern valve trombone is just like a slide trombone, except it uses valves instead of a slide to control the notes played. Valve trombones have three valves and are played exactly like the modern trumpet. The Bb valve trombone and the Bb trumpet use the same fingerings, making it easy for trumpet players to double on this instrument. This is especially common among jazz musicians.
Maynard Ferguson, Juan Tizol of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Rob McConnell, Bob Brookmeyer, Bob Enevoldsen, and Clifford Thornton are just a handful of valve trombone/trumpet crossover jazz artists. The tone of a valve trombone is restricted and stuffy compared to that of the slide trombone. Because of this, its use in orchestral pieces is limited. However, the valves make it ideal for very fast or very difficult pieces.
The valve trombone is the preferred trombone model in India, Austria, South America, Italy, Portugal, Bohemia, Slovakia, Spain, and Moravia. Valve trombones are available in sizes from alto to contrabass. However, just like the slide model, tenor trombones are the most popular.
The tromboon was created by Peter Schickel for a comedy skit. He took the bassoon mouthpiece and inserted it into the trombone lead pipe. The tromboon uses a bassoon reed to produce sound.
Mr. Schnickel created a fictional character named PDQ Bach, who is the only “composer” to ever use the tromboon in a piece. Schickel describes the tromboon as “a cross between a trombone and a bassoon, having all the disadvantages of each.”
You can hear the tromboon in this recording of the 1712 Overture & Other Musical Assaults by PDQ Bach. Peter Schickel won four consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album with his work as PDQ Bach.
Famous Trombone Players
Since the invention of the sackbut, there have been quite a few exceptional sackbut/trombone players. The earliest were sackbut specialists who played religious choral groups and performed as traveling musicians.
Denis Wick was born in 1931 in Braintree, Essex. He taught himself trombone as a young boy. He first played on the Chelmsford Salvation Army Band. Mr. Wick served as the principal trombonist for the London Symphony Orchestra from 1957 until 1988.
He was the main trombonist when the LSO recorded the music for the opening of Star Wars for the movies. He’s received several awards from the International Trombone Association. Through his company Denis Wick Products Ltd, Mr. Wick produces a line of brass mouthpieces and mutes.
Ian Bousfield is from York, England. He was born in 1964. Mr. Bousfield has served as Principal Trombone for the Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony, and Halle orchestras. He has taught trombone for the Royal Academy of Music and the Hochschule der Kunste in Switzerland.
Christian Lindberg was born in 1958 in Danderyd, Sweden. He began playing professionally with the Royal Swedish Opera when he was 18 years old. He left professional orchestral playing to pursue a career as a soloist.
Lindberg attended the Royal College of Music and studied with Ralph Sauer and Roger Bobo in the United States. He is an accomplished trombone soloist who has recorded well over sixty albums. In addition to recording albums, Mr. Lindberg is also a composer and conductor.
His composed works include Arabenne (1997), Mandrake in the Corner, Chick ‘a’ Bone Checkout, and Kundraan (2008). He was the principal conductor of the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2016 he became conductor and music director for the Isreal Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra.
- Frank Rosolino
- JJ Johnson
- Kid Ory
Locksley Wellington “Slide” Hampton is from Jeanette, Pennsylvania. He was born in 1932. He started out performing in a family band with his parents and 11 siblings. He is one of a very small number of left-handed trombone players. When he was 20 years old, he played Carnegie Hall with the Lionel Hampton band.
In 1957 he joined the Maynard Ferguson band. Mr. Hampton arranged The Fugue, Three Little Foxes, and Slides Derangement for the Ferguson band. In 1998 Hampton won a Grammy award in the category of Best Jazz Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for his arrangement of Cotton Tail as performed by Dee Dee Bridgewater.
He won a second Grammy in 2005 for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for his album entitled The Way: Music of Slide Hampton by The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (Planet Arts). In 2006 he was nominated for another Grammy for his arrangement of Stardust for the Dizzy Gillespie Band.
Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956) Mr. Dorsey is best known for his smooth tone and incredible technical skill. His was the younger brother Jimmy Dorsey the bandleader. Tommy Dorsey wrote and recorded many tunes that hit the Billboard chart between 1930 and 1940, including over 200 listed in the top 20.
- The Music Goes ‘Round and Around 1935
- The Big Apple 1937
- The Morning After 1937
- In the Middle of a Dream 1937
- Music Conductor Please 1938
- Indian Summer 1939
- Night in Sudan 1939
- Trombonology 1947
Types of Trombones: FAQs
Answer: Historians aren’t entirely sure who invented the first trombone. However, credit is usually given to a group of Flemish instrument makers. They believe the trombone was invented sometime in the 15th century in a part of modern-day France that was called Burgundy.
Answer: The first trombones were used in Burgundy. They were used in religious choirs.
Answer: No one knows for certain. In general, the trombone originated in Western Europe, but the country is unknown.
Answer: The most popular type of trombone worldwide is the tenor trombone.
Answer: The piccolo trombones and sopranino are the smallest trombones.