How to Test a Trombone

How to Test a Trombone

You have finally decided that you’re going to become a trombone player. Good for you. Now what?

It can be very difficult to choose a new (or “New to You”) trombone. Whether you are a student (or an adult) new to playing the trombone, a student who wants to move on from a school horn, or just a person who wants a new trombone, I am going to arm you with the knowledge on how to test and pick out a trombone. Let’s get started.

Where To Start

King Model 2102 Straight Tenor Trombone
King Model 2102 Straight Tenor Trombone

If you are a beginner to the trombone, here would be a good place to start. Typically, students start with a straight tenor trombone and later graduate to a horn with the F-rotor (trigger), but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. If you don’t use the trigger, the F-rotor horn plays exactly the same as a straight trombone. Consider how long you plan to keep the instrument when considering this decision.

The bore of a trombone is the inner diameter of the inner slide, and is expressed in thousandths of an inch. The range is about .500″ for students trombones. Bore size also affects a horn’s resistance, or back pressure. A smaller bore creates more resistance, a larger bore less. More resistance is usually better for student players because it makes it easier to produce good tone.

Examples of straight tenor trombones with a smaller bore are:

What About a “Trigger” Trombone

Yamaha YSL-448G Intermediate Trombone
Yamaha YSL-448G Intermediate Trombone

Most trombone players begin with a straight tenor trombone and eventually progress or step up to a tenor trombone with an F wrap to increase their range. This is one of those heavily debatable topics. Since I play in mostly adult bands and have been playing trombone for a number of years, they mostly have the trombone with the F (“Trigger”) attachment. My research shows that unless you are going with a larger bore trombone and/or orchestral playing, you can still play most types of music with a straight trombone.

So How Do You Test a Trombone

Tenor trombone in case

My good friend James Forney, over at Horns2U, has let me share the following article on How to Test a Trombone.  Good information if you have a new trombone player in the family. It can be very difficult to choose a new (or “New to You”) trombone. So you are at the Music Store looking at various models of new trombones or you have a used one in front of you for your purchase consideration What to do next?

When comparing several samples, try to play on each of them for awhile before you begin more serious testing and comparing. This will give you a feel for the horns and get them working acceptably. Then do the serious comparisons in pairs only. Try two horns thoroughly and choose the best one. Set aside the one you don’t like and start on another pair. As you begin to try each pair, start by playing the “new” one and warm it up a little before you resume comparing. Continue this process of elimination until you have gone through all the choices. When you have selected the best of the lot, be sure to try your old horn on the same tests to make sure you are really getting something better.

Mechanics

Bach trombone parts

Pay some attention to the way a horn works mechanically, but don’t get too distracted by it during your initial selection process. First narrow the field down to a couple of winners. If one of them has some mechanical trouble, attend to it and see if it can be remedied. A horn that has otherwise good playing characteristics is worth exploring a little further. If the trombone has a trigger, check its operation as well. Do not be too concerned if the action seems sluggish. Many triggers need to be broken in a bit before they will operate smoothly and quickly. And it may take some experimentation to get the right combination of type and amount of lubricant for the slide action. If you are not used to a trigger, it probably won’t feel comfortable at first. You need to get used to holding most of the horn’s weight with your left hand and still keep your hand free enough to operate the trigger’s paddle. With or without a trigger, make sure your left hand can hold the horn comfortably. There can be considerable difference in the distance from the 3rd tube to the other side of the large branch — your “grip” reach. If you have large hands this may not be an issue, but if you have smaller hands this can be an important factor in avoiding muscle/tendon strain.

Attack

Close up of trombone player

As mentioned before, the attack is a very important criterion to test. Much research has been done on the acoustic properties of instruments. In one test from decades ago, instrumentalists played long tones, which were recorded on audio tape. The tape was later played back for musicians to identify. The panelists were able to identify each instrument with little trouble. Then the technicians used a razor blade to cut off the attack of each note (this was obviously before digital recording technology). When this cut version was played, the panel had great difficulty differentiating between any two instruments playing the same exact pitch. A trumpet could not be distinguished easily from a clarinet without being able to hear the attack.

Intonation

Trombone player on smokey background

This is a difficult area to assess in any reasonable amount of time. No horn has perfect intonation. You have to find one that has made acceptable design compromises for your needs and playing abilities. However, your impression of the new horn’s intonation will be dramatically affected by the intonation of the horn you are used to playing.
USE A TUNER. This is your only hope of judging a new instrument accurately. Be very sure you get each horn warmed up thoroughly before judging the intonation (five minutes will not do it). Then tune it carefully to a concert Bb in the middle register.

Notice three things with any pitch discrepancy: 

  • Is it in a range that will be noticeable or problematic? 
  • How far is it from true pitch? 
  • How easy is it to adjust?

Work with intonation long enough that you begin to feel familiar with each horn. If you are judging a particular note, approach it from above and below melodically to see how that affects it. Remember, you may be used to moving a certain note up or down because of the horn you have been playing (when you are really used to one instrument, you may not even be aware you are doing it). You may perceive problems in the new horn that aren’t there. In order to work around this, you need to find out where the horn wants to play the note. Stay on the note in question; play it loud and soft to get a feel for it. Bend the pitch grossly up and down. This will help you disassociate your previous notion of where to put the pitch. As you bend the note, listen to where it is most resonant — this is where the horn wants to place it. As you are doing all this in front of your tuner, start with your eyes closed. When you feel like you have found the horn’s true pitch on a given note, open your eyes and see what the tuner reports.

There is one more characteristic to observe. Some horns make is easy to adjust the pitch; others make it quite difficult. If the horn is too easy to “bend” on pitches, that may be because it doesn’t have a good, solid center. You want a horn that has well-centered notes. However, some horns are so well centered that it can be very difficult to bend a note up or down. That is the point of #3 above — you have to be able to adjust the pitch as much as necessary to play in tune with a section.

Slurs

Trombone player silhouette art

An instrument with superior response can make all slurs easier and cleaner (slurs can be one way to judge response). You will be able to play slurred arpeggios with more facility. For this area of testing, you will probably judge as much by feel as by sound. As with many of these factors, test slurs in various ranges. I suggest testing with melodic slurs, slurs over small intervals (such as arpeggios), and slurs over wide intervals. Be sure to test glissandos with trombones over similar ranges.

Physical Considerations

Trombone player seated silhouette

Notice if the horn is comfortable to hold. Try it while sitting and while standing. Notice the reach from the right hand-brace to the tops, and notice the reach for your left hand to wrap around the slides as you play. Also, make sure the angle of the mouthpipe is comfortable. Any of these factors can vary between samples within the same brand; try several if necessary. If you have small hands or strength issues, the weight can be an important factor, and it can vary a great deal from brand to brand and even model to model. Some brands have different metal thickness; thicker metal may give you a more substantial sound, but will also be harder to hold in playing position, especially while standing.

Finish: Three Common Choices

Trombones in different finishes

Brass instruments are commonly offered in two finishes – gold color and silver color. With modern materials and construction techniques, either color finish can hold up very well for years. Gold finish is almost always due to highly-polished brass coated with a clear (or lightly tinted) lacquer. If it were not coated, brass would begin to tarnish immediately and would soon look uneven and dull. Silver finishes are usually a plated coating on top of brass. Inexpensive horns may use a nickel plating. This is durable, but does not have the clarity of shine that silver offers. More expensive models use silver plating, usually with a bright, shiny finish. They are the most durable for typical players. Some models may use a “satin” or “scratch” effect on the silver finish. This has a duller finish (similar to a shiny silver object that has “fogged” up from humidity). Either type will require some effort to polish them periodically. Some instruments offer options of two or three of the finishes mentioned above. Lacquered brass is usually the standard choice. Nickel may cost slightly more. And silver usually has the highest cost premium.

Mouthpiece

Trombone mouthpiece

Of course it is best to use a mouthpiece you have been playing on for some time and are used to. If you are going to use the seller’s mouthpiece for any of the horns, use his for all of them — your comparisons will probably be more valid.

So if you are just starting out playing the trombone, what would be the best mouthpiece for you? I have always heard that a 6.5AL was the best mouthpiece for a beginner. Others have used the 12C as a beginner’s mouthpiece.

Norlan Bewley, low brass performer and clinician
Norlan Bewley


Not being a trombone player by trade, I reached out to Norlan Bewley, a renowned low brass performer and clinician and here is what he had to say about mouthpieces:

“What is A Good Trombone Mouthpiece Size for a Student?”

The Bach 6 ½ AL is one of the best trombone mouthpiece sizes for students. It is a good, medium-deep size mouthpiece that will continue to be the right size for many students as they get older. Some students will need to move to a larger mouthpiece by high school, such as a Bach 5G, but many will not.

The Bach 12C is a popular student mouthpiece size. It is on the small side, and many students will soon need to move to a larger size like the 6 ½ AL. A few students will do better on the 12C, but most will do as well or better starting on the 6 ½ AL. Larger is not always best, however, so if a student sounds great on a 12C, let them play it – especially if they stay on a small bore trombone. Not all students will need something bigger as they get older.

If you need a size in between, the Bach 7C is a good choice.

These are not “student” mouthpieces, they are good sizes for students. Many professional players use these same mouthpieces.

Remember: Whatever mouthpiece you choose, it is always the results, not the size, that matters most!

Here are some mouthpiece comparisons:

With a Little Help from My Trombone Friends

There is no way that I am an expert about all things Trombone. I do know some experts so I have called on them to help me out when it comes to testing a trombone.

Anders Larson at Digital Trombone

Digital Trombone, Anders Larson
Digital Trombone

Anders Larson over at Digital Trombone had this to say about how he goes about testing a trombone

Here are my 5 cents about trombone buying:

  1. Make sure the horn matches your eyes. The right instrument will bring out the best of your eye color. (Did I tell you that Anders has a sense of humor?!)
  2. Make sure the trombone is easy to play. I don’t think too much about the sound of the instrument. If it feels good, and I am able to express myself through it with ease, I am sure that my personal sound will appear after playing it for a short while.

Other than this, making sure the slide is working nice and check that it works fine in both lower and upper range. Dead notes? High Ab is often a problem. And bad intonation might be a problem as well.

Alan Coates at Trombone News

Trombone News, Alan Coates
Trombone News

Alan Coates from Trombone News took a different approach. He was all about the trombone slide. In fact, he says that if you are currently having issues with your trombone slide, you should head over to the Slide Doctors. Alan said, ” They have some helpful videos and they do excellent work rehabilitating trombone slides.  You can trust anything these folks have to say about trombone slides. “

He went further:

When evaluating (testing) a trombone, my personal focus is on the slide action.  A trombone with an awesome slide is going to get you 80% of the way to a great trombone.  The other 20% is how it sounds on every pitch between  low E to high B-flat.  If it fails either of these, look elsewhere.  I am over-simplifying, but slide and sound are where it’s at for me.  The prior sentences are with straight tenors in mind.  If the instrument is a bass trombone or a tenor that  has an F-attachment, that adds a whole other element to the evaluation.

He firmly believes that the slide is the heart and soul of any trombone.

Norlan Bewley

Norlan Bewley, low brass
Norlan Bewley

I am getting a new appreciation of you trombone guys. Some of you are really thinking outside of the box. One of these type of thinkers is Norlan Bewley, both an accomplished performer and clinician. What he has to offer is “The Bell Ring Test”

What Norlan says is:

One of the first things I check when testing a new trombone, or comparing two trombones to see which one I prefer, is what I call “The bell ring test”. I hold the trombone with my left hand (playing position grip) and strike the bell rim with the edge of my right thumb joint bone at about two o’clock on the rim, like you would strike a bell to make it produce a nice ring (diiiiing). It will not be that loud and the ring will decay rather quickly, typically in about 3 to 5 beats at mm 60. This also works well on trumpets. Euphoniums and tubas are braced too closely to the opening of the bell for this to work on them.

Girl playing trombone


Here is what I learn from doing this:


1) First, I listen for an even ring as it decays. The more even the ring, generally the more evenly and consistently the horn will be in regards to tone, response, intonation, range, and dynamics. Any wobble in the ring will diminish these qualities. The faster the wobble, the worse these qualities will be on the bone. A horn with a tiny to a little bit of wobble may still be a great playing bone for you. That is for you to determine.


2) Next, I listen for the pitch of the bell ring. If it’s a Bb on any Tenor or Bass trombone (Eb for Alto), it will have a clear, full tone, not too bright, not to dark. The higher the ring pitch, say B or C, the tone of the horn will tend to be brighter. The lower the ring pitch, say A or Ab, the darker the tone of the bone will tend to be.
For example, my Bach LT12 rings on a Bb. My Bach A47 Artisan BO rings on an A, as does my Bach 50 B30 bass. My Bach LT16 rings on a C and my 1948 Bach LT6vii rings on a B. So my LT12 is right down the middle, My A47 and 50 are on the darker side, and my 16M and 6vii are on the brighter side.


3) Why do I strike a ring at about 2:00 on the bell? Because I have found it to be the most consistent place to do so for the results I am testing. I also check around the entire bell to see what ring the strike produces. Sometimes it’s really even all around, sometimes it’s not. There’s often a little wobble around the entire bell, but not much. 2:00 remains the main test for me in the bones I’ve selected. If I get more wobble than I care for when testing, I go by how well I like the way the horn plays and make my choice. My bones tend to have a very even bell ring with hardly any wobble at all.


4) What if it has too much ring? Too much ring can make the response unfocused and even let the sound continue to ring well past when you stop, often on one particular note like Bb. I’ve only run in to this a time or two with a student’s bone. It is very annoying and nothing that would ever be acceptable in performance.
What if it has little to no ring? Some players prefer basically no excess vibration at all. I’ve never really encountered this in any of the low brass instruments I’ve selected, but that is again, up to you.


5) How did I learn about the bell ring test? I stumbled upon it when I accidentally stuck the bell of my bone at about 2:00 with my right thumb joint bone and noticed the ring it produced. I found it interesting and began to explore it further, eventually using it as I have explained.

The bell ring is a very early test that I use in selecting a trombone, but it is by no means the only one I use nor is it the most important one. Tone quality, response, intonation, slide action, and more are all major factors in determining the right trombone for you. The bell ring test can simply help you spot potential problems or preferences sooner than later in your decision making process.

Well There You Have It

Bass clef on music staff

Like I said, the task of testing a trombone is difficult. Hopefully you have gained insight and can now go and tackle this task, armed with knowledge.

I want to thank my contributors for their insights and perspectives. I do not for a minute think that I have covered everything on how to test a trombone. How do you go about it? Let me know what you think. I would love to hear from you. And as always, Play On!

2 thoughts on “How to Test a Trombone

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *