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.