Contrabass Trombone

Contrabass Trombone

F Contrabass Trombone Range B-flat Contrabass Trombone Range

Oh mightiest of brass instruments, thy sonorous depths are a thing of awe.  It was once said of the Bassoon that it was as if the sea god Poseidon was speaking, but with the Contrabass Trombone, we have the voice of Yahweh himself.  The ancient God of the Hebrews speaks though this rare and powerful instrument.  I have not been religious in many a year, but I will gladly bow down in reverence before anyone who can wield this bull of heaven. Have I gone over the top?  Probably.  But to the point, there is no other sound in the entire band, orchestra, or any other ensemble, save the ancient Tibetan Dung-Chen, that can parallel the sheer power and might of the Contrabass Trombone.  It’s utter size and length renders it ungainly for most.  For years, it was said to be nigh unplayable, but my experience has shown otherwise.   Continue reading “Contrabass Trombone”

Bass Trombone

Bass Trombone Bass Trombone Range

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.  Continue reading “Bass Trombone”

Tenor Trombone

Tenor Trombone Tenor Trombone Range

If we are to say just the word “trombone,” we automatically think of the ubiquitous Tenor Trombone.  In many ways, the Tenor Trombone is the simplest of all wind instruments.  A standard Tenor has only a slide to change the pitch.  It is unchanged except for bore size since the days of the Renaissance.  Like other common instruments, there is little about the Tenor that I can expound upon.            

The standard Tenor Trombone is pitched in B-flat, but it is not a transposing instrument.  The fundamental pitch of the slide when it is in its closed position is a 9 foot B-flat harmonic series.  Continue reading “Tenor Trombone”

Alto Trombone

Alto Trombone Alto Trombone Range

The Alto Trombone is a small trombone pitched traditionally a fourth higher than the Tenor Trombone.  From the earliest days of the trombone entering the orchestra, the Alto Trombone was a key member to the standard trio of trombones (one Alto, Tenor, and Bass), but by the later parts of the Nineteenth Century, the Alto was slowly losing ground and it completely disappeared from the orchestra by the turn of the century.  Only rarely afterward does it make an appearance in the orchestra as a special instrument. All this said, the Alto Trombone still exists and is becoming more widely used again by principal trombone players.  Parts originally written for the Alto in mind are today being played on that instrument.  Continue reading “Alto Trombone”

Soprano Trombone

Soprano Trombone Soprano Trombone Range

The Soprano Trombone is a curious little instrument.  It is pitched at the exact same range as a standard B-flat Trumpet and one octave above the Tenor Trombone, and therefore is often called a “Slide Trumpet.”  In fact, it is trumpet players, rather than trombonists, who will be playing this instrument.  It uses a standard trumpet mouthpiece, and aside from the technique of the slide over valves, the sound is almost indistinguishable from that of the trumpet.  As such, unless glissandi are needed, it might be better to use a trumpet in its place as it is far more common and intonation will be more secure.  Continue reading “Soprano Trombone”

Are the two types of Contrabass Trombone fundamentally different instruments?

Today, I ask an interesting question:

Are the two types of existing Contrabass Trombone, namely the instruments in F and B-flat, fundamentally different species on trombone?

We universally accept the modern Bass Trombone, pitched in tenor B-flat, as a bass.  No one, except a historical purist will argue this point.  For all intents and purposes, the true F Bass Trombone is extinct.  Because of this, today’s instrument in F, with one or two valves, is universally known as a Contrabass Trombone and not as a Bass.  This leaves the B-flat Contrabass Trombone as the outlier.

F Contrabass Trombone Range

B-flat Contrabass Trombone Range

Is the B-flat Contrabass Trombone, today, a Sub-Contrabass Trombone?

Historically, the B-flat Contrabass Trombone was not made with valves.  This means that the lowest available note was E1.  However, all modern B-flat Contrabass Trombones will have at least one valve, which will make the instrument capable of a low C1.  Both of these limits exclude the pedal range, which again, will extend the range even lower.

Converse to this, the modern F Contrabass instrument is capable of descending to a low F1 without using the pedal range.  Between the two instruments, we have a difference of a 4th in range.  In any other instrument family, we would classify two instruments a fourth apart as separate species.

Trombone players, in general, don’t like the large B-flat instrument.  Common quotes I’ve seen from players are along the lines of, “It’s too big,” It handles like a tank,” “It’s slow and sluggish.”  Oddly, professional tuba players will say the same thing about the B-flat Contrabass Tuba, which is why the C Contrabass Tuba is far more prevalent in professional groups.  The slightly shorter tube evidently makes a world of difference.  To this extent, Miraphone has recently constructed a C Contrabass Trombone with two additional valves.  Players who have played it say that it is a huge improvement from the B-flat instrument.

Players view the two instruments as tools to accomplish the same job.  It is expected that they, as would anyone, use the tool that is more efficient and takes less effort.

But, what if we composers and orchestrators treated the instruments differently?

What if we utilized the instruments as both a Contrabass Trombone (F) and a Sub-Contrabass Trombone (B-flat/C)?

For the standard composer/orchestrator, this would be overkill, but for a Hollywood session composer this could be a welcome addition.  Think of the raspy power of multiple Contra Trombone parts.

Maybe something like this…

I think, that in reality, we really do have two separate instruments that need to be handled differently and separately from one another.  For a creative orchestrator, there is, I’m sure, great possibilities here.

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?