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Different types and sizes of trombone

The tenor trombone

THE TROMBONE that features the most in modern Western classical orchestras, and which students learn to play first, is the tenor trombone. In its earliest days in Germany it was called gemeine or ‘ordinary’. The fundamental (the lowest note) of this instrument is B flat. One of the great advantages of the trombone in music before about 1800 was that it could fine-tune notes which just sounded out of tune on other brass instruments.

The bass trombone

The trombone was so versatile that it was inevitable that different sizes would appear. Right at the bottom with the lowest notes was the contrabass trombone which could make a thunderous noise but which could only really be used for special effects as the slide had to be so long it was rather unmanageable. It died out in the 19th century. Allied to it was the bass trombone: the F trombone, or in Britain the G bass trombone. But this instrument didn’t survive long into the 20th century.

Much more commonly the instrument that plays below the tenor trombone is the tenor-bass trombone, which has a small additional piece of coil to give those extra low notes. It was introduced in both France (by the celebrated instrument maker Adolphe Sax) and Germany in the 1830s. The addition of the extra piece of coil means that the bass note of the trombone moves down a fourth (a distance of four notes) from B flat to F. It’s important to note that the tenor-bass trombone was an optional modification of the tenor trombone rather than being fixed in the lower register as the earlier bass trombone was.

The alto trombone

Above the tenor trombone is the alto trombone, and even the soprano trombone. The alto has a long history and in the 19th century was quite often used by players for the higher registers. From the 20th century onwards, however, alto trombones have been rarely used except in specific cases such as Benjamin Britten’s Burning Fiery Furnace.

Simon Gunton talks about the alto trombone and shows the F extension on his trombone.

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