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What Is a Bass Trombone?

Laura Metz
Laura Metz

The bass trombone is a brass instrument played by vibrating one’s lips against the mouthpiece and moving the slide to various positions. A modern bass trombone plays in the key of B-flat, but has two attachments that change its key, making it the B-flat/F/E trombone. It is a very versatile instrument, featured in classical orchestras, marching bands, jazz combos, and salsa music.

All brass instruments are made of brass, silver, or another type of metal. Each is played by vibrating the lips on the mouthpiece. Within the brass section, the bass trombone is a member of the trombone family, where the pitch is usually changed both by the position of a slide and adjustments in air pressure.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

A bass trombone is pitched lower than the much more common tenor trombone but higher than the contrabass trombone. It has a larger bore than the regular tenor trombone does, but is otherwise very similar. Because of the similarities, the bass trombone is occasionally called the tenor-bass trombone or the B-flat/F/E trombone.

The three pieces that make up the instrument are the mouthpiece, the body, and the slide. It is composed of approximately nine feet (2.74 m) of brass tubing wound around itself. The body contains two attachments that can extend it to over twelve feet (3.66 m) when the valve is engaged. When the slide is extended it also makes the tubing longer, lowering the pitch.

The modern bass trombone is a non-transposing instrument, meaning when it plays a written C, the sound heard is a C. With the E valve engaged, it can reach a low note of B-flat0, just over three octaves below middle C. Most bass trombones can reach a high note of C5, an octave above middle C, although an expert player could play higher pitches on a high quality instrument.

In the early 1400s, a slide was added to the trumpet, creating the first trombone, known then as a sackbut. Soon, trombones were made of all sizes and in all keys, from the largest contrabass trombones to tiny, high pitched piccolo trombones. Trombone trios of alto, tenor, and bass became a regular part of the orchestra. By the 1700s, the popular instrument became known as the trombone, after the Italian phrase for “large trumpet.”

An instrument manufacturer in Leipzig, Germany named C. F. Satire produced a low trombone in B-flat with an F attachment in 1839. This instrument is basically the same as the bass trombone used today, although it is missing the second attachment in E. Eventually, the B-flat instrument with two attachments became standard.

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