The Bass Trombone is unusual among all wind instruments in that the modern instrument bears no relation to its predecessor. The modern Bass Trombone is, in reality, a modified Tenor Trombone. The Tenor Trombone is pitched in B-flat – and so is the Bass. Confused yet? The original Bass Trombone was a large, ungainly instrument pitched in either G, F, or E-flat a third, fourth, or fifth below the standard Tenor Trombone. The instrument was so large that the slide had to have a handle attached to it in order for the player to reach all the way out to sixth and seventh positions. Players found this instrument tiring, and by the end of the Nineteenth Century, it had almost completely disappeared. In its place was a Tenor Trombone with a single valve attached to it. This valve lowered the fundamental pitch of the instrument, B-flat a fourth to F. In conjunction with the valve, the bore of the instrument was enlarged to be of the same proportion as that of the old Bass Trombone. The effect was a small instrument with a large bore that made the same sound as the older, larger instrument. However, there was a problem with this arrangement. The single valve didn’t work perfectly. Due to required longer slide positions needed when the valve was used, only six slide positions were available, which means that the low B that was available on the F Bass Trombone (the most common instrument) was no longer available. This caused huge problems when Bartok wrote that note in an important solo in his Concerto for Orchestra. The solution to the low B problem started to come around in the 1950s when a second valve was added. The two valves now were able to produce the low B (as well as notes lower). This is now what we call the modern “Bass” Trombone; a large-bore, two-valve B-flat Tenor. (By the way, the passage in Bartok is still not playable on this instrument!) With all this said, I must bring up an important point about all brass instruments. As we see with the Bass Trombone, it is not the length of the instrument that determines tone color, but rather the shape and diameter of the bore. The sound of a true Bass Trombone has been exactly recreated (and possibly improved on) by a smaller length instrument that possesses the same bore as the old instrument. This is quite in contrast to woodwinds where both the length and the bore play important factors in determining the sound quality.
The technique of the Bass Trombone is exactly the same as on the Tenor Trombone with the sole exception of the second valve. However, its increased weight and bore size means that its technique will be somewhat slower than the lighter Tenor (though not considerably). As the modern Bass Trombone is only a modified Tenor, it should be able to reach the top standard note on the Tenor (high B-flat). In sound, the Bass Trombone is majestic and solemn when played at medium to soft dynamics. When pushed to forte (which is very common for younger players) the sound becomes bright and overbearing. Long slow, solemn melodies are perfect for the Bass Trombone. These melodies will have a sense of weight and gravitas when played on the instrument. The traditional role of the Bass Trombone in the orchestra is two-fold. One is as the bottom of the trombone choir. The other is as a double of the tuba either at the unison or at an octave higher. In this last role, the band has a far better solution, the Euphonium, an instrument purposely designed to double to tuba at the octave. This frees up the Bass Trombone away from the tubas and gives it a voice of its own. Another curious use would be as the bass of a Horn choir when played at forte. Brahms used it to double the Contrabassoon in the famous chorale in the Finale of his First Symphony. Of the woodwinds, saxophones will blend the best. As a solo instrument, the Bass Trombone is sadly neglected. I can think of no major solos for the instrument in either the band or orchestral literature. There is no reason for this disparity.
To my ears, the Bass Trombone, with its larger and warmer sound, is more suited for solos than is the Tenor Trombone. Nearly every band at and above the high school level will have a Bass Trombone, and for the most part composers acknowledge this.
Often the part is just written as “3rd (or 4th) Trombone” with the intention of it being played on the Bass. To be sure you do get a true Bass, always label the part as “Bass Trombone.” While other trombone parts may have multiple players on them, the Bass Trombone part will usually only have a single performer (though the very largest festival bands may have two). The Bass Trombonist should have in their arsenal all standard mutes (straight, cup, and possibly harmon).
Solo from Mahler’s 7th Symphony.
Excerpts from Johan de Meij’s Canticles for Bass Trombone and wind band.
Variations on the Carnival of Venice. Mr. Pollard is the Bass Trombonist with the Met Opera.
Doug Yeo talking about Yamaha trombones. I only include this video because it shows a rare F Bass Trombone (no valves!).
A short talk about the famous glissando from Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra where the player actually has a true F Bass Trombone with no valves.
A demonstration of an E-flat Bass Trombone (no valves). This video incorrectly calls it an E-flat “Contrabass.”