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?

Trombones Part 2 – Trombones in the Band

Trombone in the Band

The traditional trombone section is comprised of three parts.  Usually, this is two Tenors and one Bass.  Occasionally, a fourth part is used.  If a fourth part is included, it is another Tenor part.  This is the standard section in an orchestra as well.  In a band, there can be more than one player on a part, whereas in an orchestra it is strictly one on a part.  Like I’ve said in other places, let’s use these extra players to our advantage.

The only works that I know that use Alto in a wind band setting are works from the 19th Century like Mendelssohn’s Trauermarsch.  I know of no reason the Alto shouldn’t be part of a wind band setting.

1 Alto Trombone

2 Tenor Trombones

1 Bass Trombone

This would be a very easy section to form assuming you have a player that is competent on the Alto.  Add to this a Contrabass, and we have a large section of five players with a huge range.

The sheer power of the trombone hit me full force when I started to study the score to the film Inception.  The composer Hans Zimmer uses a trombone section of 6 Tenors and 6 Basses/Contrabass.  Wow!  The sound is immense, powerful, and frightening!  I can imagine this sound in a band, and I like it.

We can think of a think of a large band section like this:

1 Alto Trombone

4 Tenor Trombones

2 Bass Trombones

1 Contrabass Trombone

This will give us a full section of 8 players.  Doublings are not needed here, but one might be made for the Contrabass player and have them take up a Bass or Tenor to save them from tiring from this exhausting instrument.  Very rarely does a Contrabass player play the Contrabass instrument for the entirety of a concert or work.  The Alto player might also take up the Tenor if needed.

I leave out the Soprano Trombone from the section, as I find it rather useless in the context of a trombone ensemble.  Its small sound won’t make an impact against a mass of Tenors and Basses.  Even the Alto has a small sound that might not cut through the mass.

The eight member ensemble can be both powerful and solemn at the same time.  Go listen to some trombone choir music, and you can hear the possibilities available from this majestic instrument.  In harmony, we get the majestic solemnity, in unison, we get the tremendous power.

A Bruckner chorale for 8 trombones (Tenor, Bass, and Contrabass).

Excerpts from Strauss’ Alpensymphonie for 10 trombones (Tenor, Bass, and Contrabass).

Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for Trombones (Tenor and Bass)