The predecessor to the trombone emerged not long after it occurred to Medieval Europeans that their signaling devices, which we know today as trumpets, could be used to make music. Trumpets had grown to 6 feet in length, and were first folded into a loop in the Middle Ages, when players of these “natural trumpets” had to adjust their mouths to change the notes.

Then, someone came up with the idea of adding a telescoping slide to the mouthpipe of an S-fold trumpet, so that the pitch could be adjusted to play more notes. This slide trumpet was known as a “trompa da tirarsi” (“pull horn” in Italian). The first evidence of such an instrument has been found in the Burgundy region of France and dates to the 1400s, when it was called “trompette des ménestrels” (“minstrel trumpet”).

In 15th century, the slide trumpet was altered into the S-shaped “shakbusse” or “sackbut,” (probably derived from the Old French words for “push-pull”) with a double-slide mechanism on the tubing, making it the Renaissance-era father to the trombone. These instruments, which Italians have always called “trompones” (or “large trumpets”), were more delicate than the modern-day trombone, with a narrower bore and a slim, conical bell. The brass flat-rimmed mouthpiece featured a shallow cup.

Sackbuts produced a dynamically versatile vocal sound with a two-octave range, making them popular for Renaissance and Baroque chamber music. The earliest sackbut was in the tenor range, but could reach some alto and bass notes. By the 1500s, there were four common kinds of sackbuts: A tenor, alto, bass, and contrabass. With a variety of crooks, the pitch of these instruments could be lowered even further.

The slide trumpet and, later, the sackbut, were part of the alta bands of the Medieval and Renaissance eras. These early wind bands, usually featuring only two to five musicians, would play for dances, religious and secular street theater, a ruler’s grand entrances, and other civic events. They often performed basse danses, chansons, madrigals, and motets.

Alta bands went out of fashion in the early 1600s, thanks, in part, the increasing popularity of the violin. Then, trombones were usually reserved for solemn music, such as vocal support in sacred church music. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the trombone entered orchestral music, but even then it was used to convey religious meaning, like in Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s “Oratorio,” which was based on Bible stories. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote trombone parts in just 15 of his extant cantatas, as support for the singers. Christoph Willibald Gluck, François-Joseph Gossec, George Friederic Handel, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart employed the trombone to express spiritual or otherworldly moments in their masses, requiems, and operas. Joseph Krottendorfter wrote the earliest symphony to include trombones in 1768.

During the 1800s, composers wanted a louder, less muted sound from the trombone, so the bell got larger. That allowed Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner to employ the trombone sec...

While strings dominated the orchestras of the era, string instruments were difficult to keep in tune outdoors and couldn’t produce enough noise for civic events, such as Bastille Day ceremonies celebrated in France after the Revolution. The French government decided that wind bands, including three trombones, would have to do. The French cavalry band evolved to include 16 trumpets, six French horns, and three trombones. In the 1800s, Wilhelm Wieprecht in Prussia standardized the trombone for military bands, and trombones also became a key part of English brass bands.

In the United States, Patrick Gilmore formed a successful touring brass and woodwind band featuring virtuoso trombone soloist Frederick Neil Innes. John Philip Sousa’s successful band spotlighted trombonist Arthur Pryor. Both Pryor and Innes went on to form their own bands, and nearly every American town had its own amateur community band.

By the end of the century, the trombone was also adopted for New Orleans jazz and ragtime music. Pop orchestras, which performed at dance halls, often featured trombones playing the melody, too. Dixieland jazz of the 1910s relied heavily on improvised trombone melodies, and by the 1930s, a four-trombone section was standard in big bands. Jack Teagarden, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller are some of the most heralded trombonists of the jazz era.

Today, the main types of trombones are Soprano in B-flat, alto in E-flat or F, tenor in B-flat, bass in B-flat or F, and contrabass in BB-flat. Specialty trombones include the piccolo or the sopranino, but these are only used in all-trombone bands.

Major American instrument companies Buescher, J.W. York, Henri Selmer, C.G. Conn, Martin, and F.A. Reynolds all produced trombones in the 20th century. H.N. White even got its start in 1893 when Henderson White produced a trombone for a Cleveland, Ohio, musician named Thomas King. This first “King” instrument was quickly adopted by famous trombonist Al Pinard.

Frank E. Holton served as principal trombone for the Sousa Band in the late 1800s, and he established his own instrument company in Chicago in 1898, where he offered used instruments and his secret formula for trombone slide oil. Holton hired a gifted horn maker in 1907, and in 1918, moved the company to Elkhorn, Wisconsin.

Frank Ellsworth (F.E.) Olds also started off as a trombonist who got obsessed with improving his beloved instrument, believing he could upgrade the bell and make the slide more responsive and flexible. Tinkering in his private workshop, he produced the finest trombone ever made in 1908, which received worldwide accolades, and led to the founding of his esteemed trombone company. His son R.B. Olds encouraged him to employ his talents on other valve instruments, which bore the F.E. Olds’ signature. For the trombone, Olds was the first to design special slide tubing (made of nickel silver), the first to use a strong two-piece brace, and the first to employ a fluted slide to reduce friction. His inventions were imitated throughout the United States and Europe.

The Vincent Bach company, known for its Stradivarius line, began producing tenor and bass trombones in 1928, when Bach opened a factory in the Bronx. The bells of Bach horns are usually marked with “Model” followed by numbers indicating the bell mandrel and bore size. T.J. Getzen, formerly a plant superintendent at Holton, launched his own instrument repair company in Elkhorn in 1939. In 1946, Getzen produced his first line of trombones, numbering around 1,000. By the 1950s, Getzen company had established itself as one of the country’s top producers of high school band instruments.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

National Music Museum

National Music Museum

The National Music Museum, which is located at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, features 15,000 instru… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Bach Stradivarius Model 42 F-attachment Trombone Lacquer Yellow Brass Bell Conn 32h Professional Jazz Trombone - 1953 Vintage1970 Conn Elkhart 79h Professional Tenor Trombone- Med Bore-great Crossover HornConn 88h Symphony Series Professional Tenor Trombone--rose Brass BellKing 2103 3b Trombone Case & Schilke 47 Mouth Piece & Yamaha Silent BrassVintage 1920's Conn 2h Trombone Elkhart - No Reserve!Greigo Goldplated 5m Deco Trombone Mouthpiece -mouthpieces Make A Huge DifferencVintage King 2-b Liberty Trombone With Original CaseGetzen Eterna Ii 747 TromboneConn Trombone W/ Schilke 53 & Horn 61al Mouthpieces And Case Getzen Trombone (serial# Kt 4565) W/ Getzen Ml Mouthpiece In Hard Case Vincent Bach Stradivarius 36c Convertible Professional Trombone F/bb Or TenorYamaha Trombone Serial Number Ysl-352 W/ Bach 6 1/2am Mouthpiece & CaseGetzen Eterna 1047fr Trombone Besson 700 737f Boosley Hawkes Tenor Trombone Slide & Hard Case No MouthpieceYamaha Trombone In Hard Case Model Ysl-352 No ReserveB Cazzani Rotary Valve Trombone Vintage. 1900'sConn 36h Alto Trombone With Bb TriggerKing 3b Professional Tenor Trombone - With Mute, Gig Bag, StandHolton Tb602 TromboneNew York Bach Trombone 6 Vii S BellGreigo 6 1/5 Nouveau Professional Trombone Mouthpiece- Gorgeous ConditionBerkeley Valve TromboneConn. 18h U.s.a. Trombone In CaseYamaha Ysl 354 Trombone M1 Slide 45c2-12c Mouthpiece Super CleanYamaha Ysl-354 Trombone With Hard Case And Mouthpiece1980 Conn 18h Trombone With 1950's Conn 6h CaseRoy Benson Rbtt236f Toner Trombone Musical Instrument 561209 Q24Cavalier Trombone With York Al-tru 10m Mouthpiece & Hard Case Bach Stradivarius 42g Bo Professional Large Bore Tenor Trombone F AttachmentBundy Selmar Trombone And Hard Plastic CaseYamaha Custom Xeno F-attachment(damaged, Need Part) Trombone(yellow Gold)Besson Sovereign Be 944 Bb/f Tenor Trombone - Good Cosmetic & Playing ConditionYamaha Advantage Sl1 Trombone - W/ Hard Case Great Shape !!Benge Intermediate Large-bore Tenor Trombone 165f Vincent Bach 5g Mouth PieceKing TromboneMarcinkiewicz Bass Trombone Mouthpiece Model 1Vintage 1960's Buescher Aristocrat Trombone-in Case-bach Mouthpiece-no ReserveYamaha Ysl 684g Professional Trombone With F AttachmentYamaha Ysl-354 Trombone + Hard Case, Yahama 47 MouthpieceAntigua Winds Trombone In Case1970's Conn 16h Trombone With Case And Mpc Good ConditionJupiter Jvl-528 Valve Trombone W/hardcaseBach Usa Trombone W/ Case & 12c MouthpieceVintage Besson Westminster Trombone Yamaha Trombone Ysl - 354 Student Instrument UsedTrombone Director Bass With CaseUsed Cleveland Trombone With Case And Mouthpiece The H.n. White Cleveland,ohioVintage Yamaha Ysl-354 Trombone With Hard Case And Vincent Bach MouthpieceC 1940's-50's Standard Blessing Elkhart Trombone Instrument With CaseKing 2103pl 3b Plus Trombone SlideRepairman's Special "the Martin" Imperial TromboneBuescher Aristocrat Trombone Lp404 310200Student TromboneMartin Committee Model Professional Model Trombone #175xxxYamaha Bass Trombone .563 Bore 9 1/2" BellSchiller Bass Trombone Gold In Case Bach Professional Trombone With CaseVintage Holton Collegiate Trombone W/ Case And Frank Holton MouthpieceBach 12c Trombone Mouthpiece - Good Condition- Small Shank - A Standard