G Bass Trombone

As alluded to in my post on the trombone family, Bass Trombones used to be very different instruments than they are today.  At one time, three different Bass Trombones existed, the G Bass, the F Bass, and the E-flat Bass.  The F Bass was the standard instrument throughout most of Europe up until the late 1800s or early 1900s.  The E-flat Bass was used primarily in German and Austrian military bands.  Schoenberg used the E-flat in his massive Gurrelieder where it has a famous glissandi passage in octaves with the E-flat Alto an octave higher that cannot be done accurately on any other trombone.  However, the British Empire used a very different instrument, the G Bass.  No one is quite sure why the Brits preferred their instrument in G, but it was the long-standing tradition until the 1960s and 1970s.  The use of an instrument in G meant that some of the lowest Bass Trombone passages, like the low C in the famous chorale in Brahms 1, could not be played on the British instrument.  However, sometime in the 1920s or so, instruments featuring a valve, pitched in D, were produced, which gave the G Bass Trombone the needed notes and an extended lower range.

G Bass Trombone Range

The G and F Bass Trombone have always been curious to me.  With the revitalization of authentic performances, it would make sense that players would take these instruments up once again, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.  There are plenty of good G Basses lying around, including some excellent instruments made in the 70s.

Were this instrument to be used, I would avoid notes that require the low D extension (notes below C#2).  Technique is necessarily slower than either the Tenor or the Bass because the slide requires a handle to reach 6th and 7th positions.

Look at what Holst does in his Planets to see exactly how he treats the G Bass.  The part lies perfectly on this instrument ranging down to its lowest note (in fact, it is the first note the part requires).  Remember, Holst was a trombonist who knew the instrument well.

A demonstration of the G Bass Trombone

While doing some research on this instrument today, something I had never thought of struck me – the G Bass Trombone is really a Baritone Trombone, not quite a Tenor and not quite a Bass.  Since this statement has been somewhat controversial, let me clarify what I mean.

The sound of brass instruments rely on two differing factors.

  1. The length of the tube
  2. The diameter and flare of the tube.

The length of the tube of the G Bass is clearly in the Bass range.  However, the bore is much closer to that of the Tenor Trombone (looking strictly at modern instruments).  This means that the sound of the instrument is bigger than the Tenor Trombone (modern) but smaller than the Bass Trombone (modern).  This is the reason that I would call the instrument a “Baritone” Trombone.  In an ensemble setting with modern instruments it would necessarily sit between the Tenor and the Bass.

And this leads me to all sorts of interesting ideas.

A group of four trombones:

  1. Tenor Trombone
  2. Tenor Trombone
  3. “Baritone” Trombone
  4. Bass Trombone

Or what about 6?

  1. Alto Trombone
  2. Tenor Trombone
  3. Tenor Trombone
  4. “Baritone” Trombone
  5. Bass Trombone
  6. Contrabass Trombone

Or what about a low quartet?

  1. “Baritone” Trombone
  2. Bass Trombone
  3. Bass Trombone
  4. Contrabass Trombone

Yes, the view is somewhat unorthodox, but why should we dismiss a tone color out of hand just because it isn’t common?

18 thoughts on “G Bass Trombone

  1. There’s a pretty good reason the G trombone isn’t being taken up again. It has none of the technical facility of a modern bass trombone, and above around mp it has the tonal qualities of a woodchipper!

    1. If you’ve got a playing example, video or audio, I’d love to hear it. I think if you treat the instrument for what it is and not what it isn’t you’ll get better results.

  2. Hey, nice post. I disagree about the designation of the G Bass as a ‘Baritone’ trombone. It most certainly should be considered a bass trombone, as that’s the role it performed when it was a mainstream instrument. If you were to classify the trombones into classes, I’d call the current bass trombone a baritone trombone (as both bass and tenor trombones are in the same key, but the bass has a stronger low register), and I’d call the F or BBb contrabass trombones the bass members of the family.

    1. The only reason I call it such is that in bore size is usually smaller than the modern B-flat Bass therefore in sound it would be lighter than the modern Bass but heavier than the modern Tenor. If there were a G Bass with the same bore size, then absolutely it would be a “modern bass.” I’m still torn as to what to do with the two species of Contrabass out there as they really are two separate instruments.

      1. Trent Hamilton

        The G Bass trombone shouldn’t be classified with modern instruments. It is an obsolete instrument, but when it was common, it was very much a ‘bass’ trombone. It’s probably better not to include it in a modern day chart of pitches.

        Since the modern bass is in the same fundamental as the tenor instrument, it should be called a ‘baritone’ trombone. The F contrabass should be called a ‘bass’ trombone, and the BBb contrabass should stay as the contrabass, in my opinion.

      2. I agree with you that it is, for all intents and purposes, obsolete, but so are many of the other instruments I’ve covered (sarrusophone, ophicleide, etc.). My whole idea with this blog is to examine every wind instrument for their uses, limitations, and possibilities.

        Yes, I’ve tentatively put a G Bass Trombone in the symphony I’m writing, but that whole thing is a pipe dream anyway 🙂

  3. There is very little point in trying to be logical about voice names given to instruments. A bass trumpet plays in the same range as the tenor trombone, and there are plenty of other examples of daftness. (Not just pitch – calling .500 “medium bore” for a tenor trombone is silly in a modern context).

    The G bass trombones with a D valve (the “Betty model”) had a bigger bore size – about .520 rather than .480, which made sense for a bass while orchestral tenors were around .500, rather than .547.

    For players used to modern bass trombones, the G bass is about 99% limitations (tone quality, slide handle, new positions to learn) and 1% possibilities – mainly the ability to play glissandos written with the instrument in mind. Writing a symphony that insisted on a G bass would be a good way of making sure that it wasn’t played very often.

  4. I’ve done a rewrite of the article, as it has proven to be my most controversial. I still stand by the idea that it could be a potentially valuable instrument alongside modern instruments.

  5. Fred

    It might sound a bit odd, but i play on my G/Db Bass Trombone quite much, even so i have a modern Bass trombone also, something about the old feeling i guess. Some times older Basstrombone parts fits the positions better of the G Bass. But im just gets a bit nostalgic some times also

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  8. Dennis L. Clason

    Historical point: I was told that the reason the British bass trombone was in G was because the Brits used French trombones in the late 18th/ early 19th C. The tenors were in C and the bass was a fourth lower, yes, in G. Later they adopted the Bb tenor used in most of the world, but left their bass as a G instrument.

    They also drive on the wrong side of the road (the left side). Quirky folks, the English.

    Also, in my opinion British G basses (even the Betty model G/D instruments) don’t blend especially well with modern orchestral tenors. Your opinion may vary, of course.

    1. I think the G needs more study among players and composers before I’m comfortable making a final verdict. There’s simply very little in the way of good media on the instrument.

  9. To me it makes sense to not include the G Bass in any comparison to modern instruments.
    Likewise, I agree that the modern Bass trombone is an aberration when looked at in the context of how most instruments distinguish Bass from Tenor.

    Leaving the G Bass aside for a second, I have to agree with Trent when it comes to a nomenclature for Modern Trombones. The modern Bass is really more “Baritone” dues to being in the same key as the Tenor… just where is the line in the sand? When your talking bore sizes that only differ by as little as 4 thousandth …. Conn 88h Tenor @ .547 vs Yamaha YSL-842 Bass @ .551 , both being single trigger horns. Bell size difference of less than a 1/4 inch. I’ve played an 88h with a big enough mouthpiece to get a respectable Bass sound. So where is the line? If i put two valves on a .547 horn ,would it become a Bass?

    As Trent points out, perhaps viewing the Modern Bass as a Baritone, the Modern F(Eb) Contra as the true Bass and the BBb Contra as the Contra makes more sense.

    Now, back to the G Bass. The Peashooter bore of the older horns is ridiculous in a Modern context, although writing specifically for a trombone section with G Bass where the Tenors called for are say .480 ( King 2b) sized, does have a certain logic.

    More interesting to me, however, is the “Minick G Great Bass” made for Jeff Reynolds. This is a customized horn with Modern Bass Bone bore and bell size and double triggers , but pitched in G. Fishing through this clip will show it https://youtu.be/MVjQAw-4Zb8 .

    Sorry, if I’ve added another dimension to the argument 🙂 . but that a horn I’d love to try.

  10. Peter Shearer

    I joined a British Brass band in around 1974 (playing Euphonium) and the Bass Trombonist had a “Bog Handled” G Bass Trombone as we called them. The 1st and 2nd Trombones played “pea shooters” so the section blended well.

    I attended many Brass Band contests around that time and the G Bass instrument was the standard. I have a book called “Scoring for Brass Band” which “defines” the Bass Trombone as a G instrument.

    Funnily enough its also the only instrument in the Brass Band who’s part is written in Concert pitch (Bass Clef) all other instruments are written as Treble Clef Transposing. However, you do see some early (late 19th, early 20th Century) Tenor Trombone parts written in Tenor Clef Concert (which would tie in with the earlier post regarding the use of “French” C trombones) but as the notes in C Tenor Clef and Bb Treble Clef are written on the same lines and spaces I was told to “Knock off two flats and read it as treble” when I played 2nd Trombone for a while.

    As an aside – I later played Eb Bass in Brass bands and (the same) Tuba in Orchestras where you “knock off 3 flats and read (Bass Clef) as treble”

  11. Joe

    I believe that the bore size of the instrument should match those the composer wrote for. So for Holst’s suites or the New World Sym. we should be using today’s small bores. But if the next piece in the line-up is John Williams then switch to large bore tenors which have the tonal characteristics of a baritone. I believe like most that the true sound of a trombone is the one I played most when learning the instrument. Another twenty years and small bores will only be used for jazz. Long live Urbie!!!!

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