Congratulations! You’ve begun the search for a new trombone, and that’s an exciting endeavor. I might as well get it out of the way and tell you that this post isn’t going to tell you which trombone to buy – I want to help you become more informed so that you will generally know what you’re looking for, which will cut down the time it takes to test out instruments significantly and could keep you from accidentally buying something you’ll regret later!
Before you read on, I have a quick disclaimer:
The sound that comes out of your bell is a combination of several variables. These include your “hard equipment” (slides, bells, mouthpieces, etc.) and your “soft equipment” (embouchure, air, etc.). No single piece of equipment will magically fix your playing deficiencies, and individual players may have entirely different reactions to the same horn. I suggest that you try several similar options with an open mind and the guidance of somebody you trust (e.g. your teacher, a respected professional musician, an experienced salesman) before purchasing any equipment.
Buying a Trombone
Every trombone has several aspects that make that particular model unique. Some of these include the bore size, if it has a valve attachment, the materials used, and more. When you look at all of these options at once, frankly, it can be overwhelming. Our primary concern when buying a new instrument should always be functionality – simply put, we want to buy a trombone that is most suited for what we’re going to play! Let’s compare this to buying a new car:
If you make your living (or pretend to) on the race track, you want the lightest, fastest car on the road. Alternatively, if you haul around a lot of equipment or people, you may need a large truck or a minivan. Some people may want something in the middle that does both a variety of things well, but might not be the best in any one situation. You wouldn’t buy a Prius to haul around equipment for your landscaping business and you wouldn’t buy an F-350 truck just to commute around the city, right?
Keep this concept in mind as we talk about a few specifics that will narrow down the search for your next trombone…
Bore size is usually the first factor you want to consider. For tenor trombones, this typically falls in the range of .481-.547″. We commonly refer to the various sizes with the following categories:
- Small bore, .508″ and smaller.
- Small bore horns are the go-to instrument for most jazz and commercial players due to the fact that they can achieve a more appropriate sound for those genres (sometimes brighter, punchier, etc.) with less effort. They can also occasionally be found in other settings where a lighter/smaller sound is ideal but a tenor trombone is still preferred over an alto trombone (principal parts of a brass band, limited orchestral repertoire, some solo repertoire, etc.)
- Most beginners use a small bore horn. Manufacturers make most of their student model instruments in a small bore size because of how much easier they are to play with an undeveloped embouchure. This has led to the common misconception that small bore instruments are only for beginners – This is absolutely false!
- Small bore horns use small shank mouthpieces.
- Medium bore, .525″.
- Medium bore horns are very versatile instruments. They generally produce a bigger, warmer sound than a small bore horn, while maintaining some of the agility and brilliance that is more natural on those instruments. .525″ instruments are often found in pit orchestras for musicals, lower tenor parts in a big band, and some large ensemble settings.
- Medium bore horns can sometimes use either large or small shank mouthpieces, depending on the model. Be sure to find out this information in advance if you’re buying the instrument without testing first (not recommended).
- Large bore, .547″.
- Large bore instruments are the most common trombone found in large ensembles (bands, orchestras, etc.) due to the tone-quality and dynamic range they are capable of. They’re also often used in chamber music and solo performances.
- .547″ trombones use large shank mouthpieces
Often, a student will tell me they want something that can do everything from bass trombone parts in an orchestra to lead trombone parts in a big band. If we go back to the car analogy, that’s like saying you want a 12-passenger van that gets 60 miles per gallon and can fit in compact car parking spots… It’s just not an option. In this situation, it’s important to either pick one instrument that fits the majority of your playing and admit that it won’t meet the other needs quite as well, or to buy two instruments! For this reason, I own both a large and small bore instrument and play them both regularly.
One of the most sought after features when students buy a new instrument is the addition of a valve, or what’s called an F-attachment. When the F-attachment is engaged, the pitch of the instrument drops by a 4th (Bb becomes low F, or all of the notes in 6th position are now in 1st position). This allows you to play lower notes that are not possible on a trombone without an F-attachment (B1-Eb2) and creates a lot of alternate positions, which can help with more efficient slide technique, especially for those with shorter arms.
Some models of trombones have the option of being sold with or without a valve (like a Bach 42B vs. a Bach 42) while others only come one way or the other. The addition of a valve does affect the way an instrument plays and adds to the overall weight of the instrument so, once again, consider your expected use of the horn before jumping to a conclusion as to whether or not you should have this feature.
Some manufacturers offer several types of valves for each model of instrument (rotary, axial flow, etc.). Each model may have pros and cons including, but not limited to, the weight of the valve, maintenance requirements, the length of the throw (how far your thumb travels), and even how the air’s resistance is affected when the valve isn’t engaged. If you come across these options, I encourage you to compare each of them, as players’ opinions vary greatly on which valve type is preferred.
Some trombone models will have several variations in which certain components are changed. For example, you may find a trombone that has a lightweight nickel slide instead of the standard yellow brass slide or one that has a gold-brass bell. These differences can often make a large impact and are worth exploring, but I would shy away from anything out of the ordinary unless you truly notice a positive change in your playing with that component.
There has been a trend lately for instrument makers (Edwards, Rath, Shires, and more) to take the aforementioned idea of various components to the extreme and offer completely modular instruments in which you can select an individual bells, slides, leadpipes, tuning slides, valve sections, and more to customize your instrument. This is what I use, but I typically advise against going this route unless you’re going to travel to one of their factories so that one of their salespeople can help you swim through the options… For example, if you were to try every one of Shires’ options on their .547″ horns, you could make more than a million combinations!
New vs. New to You (Used)
One important decision to make ahead of time is whether it’s crucial for you to buy a brand new horn or if you’re open to buying a used instrument. For somebody who is on a set budget (especially if it’s fairly low), I highly recommend checking out used instruments as an option, as many people sell professional horns for a fraction of their cost. In fact, I bought my small bore Shires trombone second-hand and got a fantastic deal on a horn in amazing shape!
If you do purchase a used instrument, make sure you know exactly what you’re buying before handing over your money. Even as a professional with experience buying and selling several used instruments, I still avoid buying things sight-unseen. I would steer clear of eBay or Craigslist and check out a reputable brass instrument shop that carries used instruments (like Dillon Music, The Horn Guys, The Brass Exchange or the Brass Ark).
There are several great instrument makers these days, but some favorites include Bach, Conn, Courtois, Eastman, Edwards, Getzen, King, Rath, Shires, Yamaha, and more. Every one of these makers creates quality trombones of all types, so I encourage you to check out as many as you can!
Trying Out Instruments
Now that you have a general idea of what type of trombone you’re actually looking for, you can start testing out a few different models. Here are a few tips to help keep your search efficient:
- DO NOT try out anything that you won’t consider buying! This keeps you from getting off-track and wasting time or setting yourself up for disappointment when everything fails to compare to the trombone that’s over twice your budget.
- Minimize the variables you’re comparing at a given time. For example, don’t compare a .500″ bore horn without a valve against a .547″ horn with a valve.
- Play a few exercises/excerpts/etudes that cover all aspects of playing. You want to get a feel for how that instrument handles various dynamics, articulations, registers, etc. When you move on to the next instrument, play all the same stuff!
- Keep it simple… Now isn’t the time to show off and play something you aren’t comfortable with. On a similar note, you probably don’t need to blast pedal notes, squeak out notes you’ve never played before, or use extended techniques (flutter tongue, multiphonics, etc.) unless somebody pays you to do those things on a fairly regular basis.
- Try your best to play normally and let the horn respond the way that it does – don’t try to impose the way you think the instrument should sound/feel. This is, in my opinion, the hardest and most important concept to grasp while trying out equipment.
While you’re investing in a new instrument, it’s also a great time to consider a few accessories. Below are some items that can greatly affect your usage of the instrument.
Protection: One of the most important accessories to consider is a case that will adequately protect your instrument. Start your search by looking for the most functional case for your situation (fits your instrument correctly, has enough storage for your daily needs, comfortable straps, fits in your locker, etc.) and then consider things like appearance, color, and extra features. Be prepared to spend a few hundred dollars – I promise that it’s worth the investment. This is a lesson that you do not want to learn the hard way. If you are purchasing a particularly expensive trombone or make your living with it, you may also want to consider instrument insurance.
Maintenance: It’s easy to keep your horn playing like new with a little attention in the area of preventative maintenance. This means using proper lubricants for your slides/valves and cleaning your horn on a regular basis. I highly recommend checking with the manufacturer of your instrument to determine what brands of lubricants they recommend rather than just picking up whatever the shop has on hand. I’ve really enjoyed using Yamaha’s Slide Lubricant on my slide and Hetman products for my valve and tuning slides, but your mileage may vary. You can find more info about this on my post about slide maintenance, but the standard lubricants and cleaning materials you should have on hand are:
- Slide lubricant
- Tuning slide lubricant
- Valve oil (if applicable)
- A cleaning rod
- A cleaning snake (long, flexible brush)
Mouthpieces: I usually advise against changing mouthpieces while buying a new trombone because, if you start trying out random mouthpieces while experimenting with new instruments, you can lose track of how the different variables are affecting your playing. There are, however, a few exceptions – A mouthpiece that has a slightly different cup or backbore (like a Bach 6.5AL vs. Bach 6.5A) might be a welcome change to offset a different resistance that the new trombone might create, but a rim size shouldn’t change unless it’s a necessary change that your teacher recommends. If your new instrument uses a different mouthpiece shank size than your old one, a new mouthpiece will be necessary.
Extras: A new horn is often a great motivator to practice more. If it’s in your budget, why not use this time to pick up the metronome you’ve been putting off buying, the solo or etudes you’ve been wanting to learn, a trombone stand, or other goodies to really get the most out of this time?
Where To Buy
Not all music stores are created equal, so it’s important to be sure you go to one that has a large selection of quality instruments and a staff that knows the intricacies of each model. If you don’t have a teacher or other professional trombone player in the area to recommend a shop like this, the next best step is to check out the websites of a particular brand and see if they recommend dealers in your area. If you still can’t find a great local music store, it’s worth noting that there other options out there… Universities often hold (or know of) events where dealers will demo various instruments and there are several conferences that have many vendors in attendance (the American Trombone Workshop and the International Trombone Festival are two great examples).
Finally, consider investing the time and money to make the trip to the best possible place to buy your instrument… especially if you’re considering modular horns. Your local music shop may have just a few options, but some stores have huge selections, and nobody knows instruments better than the people that make them!
If you have specific questions about buying a new trombone, comment below, contact me, or talk to your mentor. Happy shopping!