Trombones are part of a category of instruments called low brass and generally take care of the ‘body’ of the sound produced by symphony orchestras, big-bands, salsa acts and pop-band brass sections. When played using a plunger mute, the trombone can laugh, cry, whine, roar, talk and incite emotion, making it one of the most expressive instruments on the planet.

The Trombone: Types, Playing Techniques and More!

How Do Trombones Work?

If you’ve ever blown air through a tube, you might be familiar with the fact that, the longer they are, tubes produce a lower pitch and vice versa. All brass wind instruments are based on this principle, where trombones feature a simple slide mechanism that can be shifted to adjust the length of the tube to change the pitch, creating an effect known as glissando in music theory. Pay attention and you’ll notice glissandi are often used in cartoons and slap-stick films to humorous effect.

Another way of lengthening the tubing of the trombone is by adding valves. Pressing a valve forces the air to take a bit of a detour, which is why some slide trombones come equipped with a quarter valve which greatly expands the low-end range. As such, anyone who’s ever played a valve-fitted wind instrument like a trumpet before will have an easier time adjusting to the trombone. If you’re okay with missing out on those glissandi, there’s really no need to learn slide techniques yet when you’re just starting out.

Bends and Joints

While the slide mechanism isn’t ultra-sophisticated, that doesn’t necessarily mean playing a slide trombone is easy. Not only do you have the slide to operate, you also need to take lip tension and tongue position (embouchure) into account. By creating vibrations using the lips, standing waves form inside the tube which can be altered by changing your embouchure. Notes that can only be shaped based on embouchure are called natural notes or harmonics – shifting from one natural note to the next using your embouchure is called overblowing.


So, with the slide ‘closed’, you can use your lips to go from one natural note to another. By gradually extending the slide, the natural notes get dropped in pitch, increasing the number of natural notes that can be played ‘on the way down’. The image below shows all of the notes that can be played in the corresponding slide positions. Here, it’s important to bear in mind that not everyone will be able to play the highest notes right away. What goes for the trombone goes for all brass wind instruments: higher notes require trained technique in terms of embouchure and breathing.
The Trombone: Types, Playing Techniques and More!
The seven positions of the trombone with related notes


The image above shows that certain notes can be played in multiple positions. It’s clear that accurate slide action is essential for hitting clean notes, but proper sliding also includes choosing the best positions for getting through a certain set of notes. Admittedly, pulling off fast-paced performances on a slide trombone is a tad harder than it is playing a saxophone or other valve-based wind instruments.

Family Members

The most popular kind of trombone is the tenor trombone. Standard big-bands usually include three tenor trombonists, plus a bass trombonist to cover the lowest notes since bass trombones have a slightly wider bore (tube diameter) and a larger bell for a bigger, rounder sound. Part of a trombone family which otherwise consists of various rarely-played instruments like the high-pitched sopranissimo trombone and the ultra-low double bass trombone, bass trombones are also outfitted with valves so they can span an extended low-end register. Funnily enough and even though they’re miniature versions of the good ol’ trombone, slide trumpets aren’t related.

A taste of the tenor trombone:

A taste of the bass trombone:

A taste of the double bass trombone:

A taste of the slide trumpet:

A taste of the piccolo trombone:

Trombone Size

The tube length is the same for all tenor trombones but it’s up to you to decide between a smaller and a bigger model. Larger trombones naturally have a larger bell and shape a fuller, more rounded sound while smaller trombones pack a more humble yet sharper sound and offer easier access to higher notes.


The mouthpiece plays an important role in shaping the timbre of the instrument and many parameters come into play here, including:

  • Cup depth
  • Cup width
  • Cup shape
  • Throat size (the opening air gets blown into)
  • Rim width
  • The bite (rounding of the edges)
  • The back bore (the tapered section of the shank fitted before the throat)
  • The shank-leadpipe joint

Ok, so there are a lot of things to factor in when it comes to mouthpieces. Fortunately, there are a few rules of thumb. First off, shallower cups make hitting high notes easier but require more precise embouchure and a trained blowing technique. Deeper cups, on the other hand, offer a smoother airflow. In addition, shallow cups are infamous for sharpening the sound, but it’s worth mentioning that proper technique can go a long way towards maintaining a beautifully dark, round sound. Also, a flatter ‘bite’ generally feels more comfortable but comes at the cost of flexibility since there’s more surface area for your lips to cover. The quest for the perfect mouthpiece is a costly, arduous undertaking for some, especially since it takes a few days to get used to a new model. As such, it’s recommended that you ask a certified teacher for a little beginner-friendly advice. Either way, more ‘extreme’ sizes should definitely be avoided when you’re just starting out. All we can say is: get a popular, average-sized mouthpiece and consider taking some lessons if you want to steer clear of problems!


When compared to the more complex construction of saxophones, trombones seem relatively straightforward in terms of design. A new, basic student trombone would set you back around £300 while a professional model costs about £1,500. Models equipped with a quarter valve usually cost a few hundred extra, and custom-made or special-alloy trombones can easily cost upwards of £3,000. Also, bear in mind that bigger trombones (e.g. bass trombones) are always more expensive than smaller models like the standard tenor trombone due to the complexity of the build and the required amount of materials.

Trombone Legends

Albert Mangelsdorff was the first trombonist who managed to play three-voice chords by singing while at the same time blowing his trombone – a concept called multiphonics which the German virtuoso helped make famous.

Denis Wick (1931) is not only a renowned English trombonist, but has put his name to an extensive range of mouthpieces, while Puerto Rican-born New Yorker, Jimmy Bosch (1959) tours the globe with his mesmerising salsa orchestra.

Here are three trombone-wielding Americans who are inextricably linked to jazz: J.J. Johnson (1924 – 2001), Frank Rosolino (1926 – 1978) and Locksley WellingtonSlide” Hampton (1932 – 2021).

Al Grey (1925 – 2000) is the plunger-mute-specialist in our list:

Tommy Dorsey (1905 – 1956) and Jack Teagarden (1905 – 1964) were not only mere trombonists but became real band-leaders.

Part of Carla Bley’s orchestra, Gary Valente (1953) has a reputation for slinging devastating power-solos.

Meanwhile, Joseph Bowie (1953) and his band, Defunkt have been ripping it up for over a quarter of a century.

And Ray Anderson (1952) has been making a name in the modern jazz scene for years, and even uses multiphonics.

Interview with Trombonist Bart van Lier

Bart van Lier is the undisputed trombone king of the Low Countries and an excellent teacher who’s helped numerous outstanding trombonists to graduate from his class. Van Lier is also a world-class player and soloist, while his brother Erik enjoys international recognition as a bass trombone specialist. Ever-passionate about everything to do with trombones, Bart turns out to be a walking encyclopedia.

Trombone Traditions

In the idiomatics of jazz and bebop, J.J. Johnson is at the top of Bart’s list. “Dick Nash is an important representative of the beautiful Henri Mancini-style melodies used as part of the Hollywood tradition. But in the classical world, French styles specifically, it’s Michel Bequet who’s the superstar. He’s someone with a very vocal approach to the trombone who argues you should be able to sing any music you intend to play.” Van Lier agrees that trombones are great at imitating the human voice, which is partly because of the stepless slide mechanism. “Before the time of Mozart, trombones were used to double choirs, so the link with the vocal side of things is already centuries old. When he was a part of Duke Ellington’s band, Bubber Miley developed the plunger technique.” Plungers are held in front of the bell to smother the sound if you will, creating a kind of wah-wah effect that, if done correctly, can be used to simulate entire conversations – also to humorous effect (see animated series such as Snoopy). “If you know how to growl, you can also add growling, jungle-like sounds. There are even trombonists who are able to produce three-voiced sounds by singing along to the sound of their trombone. Bill Watrous is one of the pioneers in this field which is called multiphonics,” Bart says as he ‘buzzes’ a note with his lips, singing a decime on top while a perfect fifth chimes in cheerfully.


Bart wants to share a few tips for beginners and advanced trombonists: “You need a kind of baseline endurance, which is something you normally develop with the help of classic techniques. I put in 45 minutes of warm-up every day before I head out to the orchestra. Part of that routine includes warming up my breathing pump muscles and lips, while I spend the second half practising parts or chord progressions. “If you’re a trombonist, try standing with your back against the wall, making contact with your heels, behind, shoulders and the back of your head. You’ll immediately notice your chest opening up, less tightness in your throat and an improved, upright posture that also ‘corrects’ your breathing. While you’re at it, try pretending to yawn on your next inhale, creating loads of space inside your mouth. The exhale here compares to laughing: ‘ha-ha-ha’ is the quickest way to force the air out.” Van Lier has bundled these and countless other useful tips up in his his book “Coordination Training Program for Trombone Playing”, which doesn’t just cover musical exercises but goes into detail about airflow coordination and articulation, and includes breathing and yoga-like exercises as well as vowel-based vocal exercises to improve the flexibility of the tongue and soft patate.

See also…

» Trombones
» Wind Instrument Stands
» Wind Instrument Mouthpieces
» Wind Instrument Cases and Gig Bags
» Brass Wind Instrument Maintenance Gear
» Wind Instrument Microphones (Dynamic)
» Wind Instrument Microphones (Condenser)
» Wind Instrument Accessories and Parts

» The Harmonica: Its Many Forms, History & Technique
» The Trumpet: The History, Models & Techniques
» Meet the Kazoo!
» Brass Wind Instruments From High to Low
» Tips To Keep Your Brass Instrument In Pristine Condition

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